THE RESURRECTION ACCOUNTS: “Incompatible Contradictions” or Coherent History?

THE RESURRECTION ACCOUNTS: “Incompatible Contradictions” or Coherent History?

© 2018, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

Introduction

And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)

One of the most common tropes among liberal scholars and other skeptics is that the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection in the four Gospel books are hopelessly contradictory and irreconcilable, and therefore cannot be accepted as genuine historical records.  In light of the fact that Christianity stands or falls on the historical truth of Jesus’ physical bodily resurrection from the dead, this is of crucial importance.

Can the accounts in the Gospel books of Jesus’ resurrection actually be reconciled?  Liberal skeptics say “no.”  According to Dr. Bart Ehrman,

The Gospels are so problematic for historians who want to know what really happened.  This is especially true for the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection … they are filled with discrepancies, some of which cannot be reconciled.  In fact, the Gospels disagree on nearly every detail in their resurrection narratives.[1]

Meanwhile, Matthew McCormick claims that

The sources we have differ on every important detail about the resurrection.  The order of events, the events themselves, the people present, and the supernatural events diverge in every account.[2]

According to Paul Tobin,

Contradictions exist in almost every detail between the four gospels accounts of the events surrounding the discovery of the empty tomb … All the other details contradict each other so blatantly that we have no reason whatsoever to believe any of them to be historically true … The very variant nature of the reports of Jesus’ [post-resurrection] appearances in the gospels speaks against their historicity … the gospels and other New Testament sources can’t even present us with a harmonious witness to the events surrounding the appearances of the risen Jesus.  It goes without saying that no weight can be given to accounts which contradict each other in every major detail.”[3]

Earl Doherty, for his part, avers that

There is not a single example of a common resurrection appearance between any two, let alone three, of Matthew, Luke, or John’s accounts.  There is a common factor in the women … but even here the details are different and incompatible.  There is also a certain commonality in that the appearances are to followers of Jesus … but beyond that, all the details of the appearances are widely divergent and in many respects thoroughly irreconcilable … It doesn’t take an abundance of logical thought to conclude that the overwhelmingly compelling deduction to be made, taken with the fact that Mark contains no resurrection appearances whatsoever, is that all the descriptions of such appearances in the canonical Gospels are the invention of the later evangelists.[4]

Discrepancies, divergences, contradictions, blatant contradictions, contradictions in every detail that are “incompatible” and “irreconcilable”?  If these claims are true, it would be devastating for Christianity.  But are they true?  Let us see whether the accounts can be reasonably reconciled.

Prolegomena

A few points must be made in order to assess fairly whether the resurrection accounts contain contradictions and are irreconcilable.  First, it is necessary to understand what a contradiction is.  According to the Law of Non-Contradiction, one of the fundamental axioms of logic, something cannot be A and non-A at the same time and in the same way.  In other words, a contradiction occurs when two propositions are asserted that cannot both be simultaneously true.  However, discrepancies (propositions that prima facie seem contradictory) are not contradictions if they can be reconciled i.e. if it can be shown that they could in fact both be true.

Consider the following two statements:

The apostle Peter died in Rome.

The apostle Peter died in Jerusalem.

These are contradictory, as they cannot both be true.  Peter died only once, and he could not have done it in two places separated by more than 2,300 km.

Now consider the following two statements:

Barnabas went to Cyprus on his missionary journey with his co-worker Paul.

Barnabas went to Cyprus on his missionary journey with his co-worker Mark.

Prima facie, these seem contradictory, as a different name for Barnabas’ co-worker is given in the two statements.  But in fact Barnabas did go to Cyprus on his missionary journey with his co-worker Paul (Acts 13:2-4), and then went again on a second journey to Cyprus, this time with Mark (Acts 15:36-41).  In point of fact, even today multiple accounts of the same event may have many discrepancies among them, without these being contradictions.[5]

Second, it is important to note that no single account of an historical event necessarily includes everything that could be written about it.  Each writer chooses what to include and what to omit.[6]  A viable reconciliation must, of course, include everything in all of the accounts: Matthew 28:1-20; Mark 16:1-20[7]; Luke 24:1-51; and John 20:1-21:25.

Third, given the amount of time covered by the four events and the consequent number of things that could have happened in that time, it is exceedingly unlikely that even all four accounts combined include every detail that could have been recorded.[8]  Therefore, it is permissible to posit certain unrecorded events, as long as they do not themselves create contradictions and are reasonably to be expected from people in such circumstances.[9]  It is preferable, of course, to keep these to a minimum.

Fourth, the chronological indicators must be respected.  Where the accounts specify when an incident took place relative to other events, a plausible reconstruction must have them in that order.  There is more flexibility with incidents that are stated without such chronological indicators.

Finally, the reconciliation must also accord with any relevant details given elsewhere in the Bible.  With these facts in mind, let us go on to our reconciliation.

The Resurrection Accounts Reconciled

Early in the morning after the Sabbath, certain women buy more spices (Mark 16:1)[10] and go to the tomb of Jesus.  These women comprise “the women who had come with Him from Galilee” (Luke 23:55, which is the antecedent to the “they” in Luke 24:1) “and certain other women with them” (Luke 24:1).  These include (but need not be limited to) Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, Mary the mother of James (who may be “the other Mary”), Salome, and Joanna. (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1-20; Luke 24:10; John 20:1[11]).

The day is just beginning and it is still dark when they leave, but the sun has risen by the time they reach the tomb. (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1-2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1)

The women wonder who will move the stone away from the tomb opening for them (Mark 16:3), but when they get there they discover the stone already moved. (Mark 16:4; Luke 24:2; John 20:1)  It had been rolled away by an angel. (Matthew 28:2-4)[12]

The women cannot see the body of Jesus in the tomb.[13]  The other women stay outside the tomb[14] as Mary runs to tell the disciples the news.  She tells Peter and John.[15]  (John 20:2)

Peter and John run to the tomb.  John reaches it first; he does not enter but sees the empty linen clothes lying there.[16]  Peter enters the tomb and looks over the linen cloths, and then John enters the tomb also.  Then they return home. (John 20:3-10)

Mary has returned with Peter and John and rejoined the other women, who were still there.[17]  The women, perhaps emboldened by Peter and John’s foray into the tomb, now enter the tomb.  They encounter two angels, one of them in the form of a “young man.”[18] (Mark 16:5; Luke 24:3-4)  The women are told that Jesus is not in the tomb but has risen and are told to tell His disciples that He rose and will go before them into Galilee where they will see Him.  They are reminded that Jesus foretold His resurrection. (Matthew 28:5-7; Mark 16:6-7; Luke 24:5-8)

The women flee from the tomb, trembling and amazed, and say nothing to anyone, for fear.[19] (Mark 16:8)

Mary is at the tomb (John 20:11), either having fled just outside or returning after getting over her initial shock at the encounter with the angels.  The two angels are still there and ask her why she is still weeping (John 20:12-13a), a very reasonable question in light of the fact they had told her Jesus had risen, which should cause joy and not weeping.  Mary answers that she is weeping because Jesus’ body has been removed and she does not know where it has been laid (John 20:13b).  Clearly, then, she did not believe the angels’ message nor was she convinced of a resurrection by an empty tomb.

Jesus appears to Mary and she initially thinks He’s the gardener but recognizes Him when He calls her by name.[20] (John 20:14-16)  Jesus tells her “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’”[21] (John 20:17)  This is His first post-resurrection appearance. (Mark 16:9)

Mary rejoins the other women, who are still in the vicinity of the tomb,[22] and tells them about her encounter with Jesus.  They now head away from the tomb[23] to tell the disciples what had happened.  As they are on their way, Jesus meets them and they worship Him.  He reiterates the command for His disciples to go to Galilee, where they will see Him. (Matthew 28:8-10)

As the women are on their way, the tomb guards report “all the things that had happened” to the chief priests.  The chief priests in consultation with the elders bribe the tomb guards to say that they had fallen asleep and Jesus’ disciples had meanwhile stolen His body.[24] (Matthew 28:11-15)

The women report the news to the disciples, but they do not believe them (Mark 16:10-11; Luke 24:9-11; John 20:18 cf. Luke 24:22-24).  Peter runs back to the tomb and sees the linen clothes again “and he departed, marveling to himself at what had happened.” (Luke 24:12)

Jesus appears to Peter, though it is not specified exactly when this happened. (Luke 24:34 cf. 1 Corinthians 15:5)  It may have been when he was on his way back from this second trip to the tomb, but we cannot know with any certainty.

Jesus appears to two people as they went into the country. (Mark 16:12-13)  Jesus appears to Cleopas and another disciple as they are on the road to Emmaus. (Luke 24:13-35)  These may be two accounts of the same incident, or two separate post-resurrection appearances.[25]  Jesus spends some time with Cleopas and his companion, opening the Scriptures to them and breaking bread with them.

Jesus appears to the remaining apostles that evening in Jerusalem and proves Himself to be physically risen by the wounds in His body and by eating.  (Mark 16:14; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-20)  The meeting was in Jerusalem, not Galilee, because the unbelieving disciples had ignored the command to go to Galilee, and so Jesus rebukes them for their unbelief.

Jesus was seen by the disciples during forty days, during which He “presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs” and taught them (Acts 1:3).  During this time:

  • He taught them, opened the Scripture to them, prepared them for their ministry, and promised them power (Luke 24:44-49; John 20:21-23)
  • He showed Himself alive to Thomas, who had not been present during His first post-resurrection appearance to the gathered apostles (John 20:24-30)
  • He made His third post-resurrection appearance to the gathered disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, during which He brought about another miraculous catch of fish.[26]  He asked Peter about his love for Him and foretold the manner of Peter’s death. (John 21:1-22)
  • He appeared to His apostles on a mountain in Galilee after they finally went there in belated obedience to His command. (Matthew 28:16-17)[27]
  • He gave them the Great Commission to evangelize the world. (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-18)
  • They returned to Jerusalem and He gave them further instructions for their coming ministry (Acts 1:4-8)

At the end of the forty days, Jesus led His disciples out to Bethany (Luke 24:50) and then He ascended into heaven (Mark 16:19; Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9).[28]

And there you have it: the four accounts of the resurrection from the four Gospel books, all fully reconciled, and fully in accord with both Acts 1 and 1 Corinthians 15:5-7.[29]

Conclusion

The oft-repeated claim of liberal scholars and skeptics that the accounts of the resurrection are hopelessly contradictory and irreconcilable have been shown to be false, as we have reconciled them.  It may be possible that they can be reconciled in other ways, too, but one is all that is needed to demolish liberal pretensions in this matter.

Even the supposedly most intractable problems are shown not to be problems at all:

Do the women tell the disciples what they saw and heard (Mt 28:8), or do they not tell anyone (Mk 16:8)?[30]

After the first visit to the tomb, the women flee and tell no one.  But after Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Jesus and then she and the other women encounter Jesus on the road, they do tell the disciples.

One point in particular seems to be irreconcilable.  In Matthew’s account the women are instructed to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to meet Jesus, and they immediately do so.  He appears to them there and gives them their final instruction … But in Luke the disciples are not told to go to Galilee.  They are told that Jesus had foretold his resurrection while he was in Galilee … and they never leave Jerusalem … On the day of resurrection Jesus appears to two disciples on the ‘road to Emmaus’ (24:13-35); later that day these disciples tell the others what they have seen, and Jesus appears to all of them (24:36-49); and then Jesus takes them to Bethany on the outskirts of Jerusalem and give them their instructions and ascends to heaven … the disciples are in fact explicitly told by Jesus after his resurrection not to leave Jerusalem … And so the discrepancy: If Matthew is right, that the disciples immediately go to Galilee and see Jesus ascend from there, how can Luke be right that the disciples stay in Jerusalem the whole time, see Jesus ascend from there, and stay on until the day of Pentecost?[31]

It is difficult to see how Ehrman can consider this irreconcilable; we have already shown how easily it can be reconciled.  Let us look at his claim again, with our responses interspersed:

One point in particular seems to be irreconcilable.  In Matthew’s account the women are instructed to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to meet Jesus, and they immediately do so.

No, they do notimmediately” do so; Ehrman needs to read the text more carefully.  (Matthew uses the words for “immediately” (εὐθέως, εὐθύς) eighteen times in his Gospel book, so he certainly could have used it here had he intended to say that the disciples went to Galilee immediately – and he does not do so.)  They go to Galilee some time after they are told to go there.

He appears to them there and gives them their final instruction … But in Luke the disciples are not told to go to Galilee.  They are told that Jesus had foretold his resurrection while he was in Galilee … and they never leave Jerusalem.

Luke does not record the instruction for the disciples to go to Galilee, but that certainly does not rule out the possibility that they were told to go there.  And Luke does not record that they left Jerusalem, but he definitely does not say they did not do so, so there is no contradiction.  And, again, the fact that the disciples did not believe the message from the angels explains why they did not go to Galilee, so Jesus had to meet them initially in Jerusalem.

On the day of resurrection Jesus appears to two disciples on the ‘road to Emmaus’ (24:13-35); later that day these disciples tell the others what they have seen, and Jesus appears to all of them (24:36-49); and then Jesus takes them to Bethany on the outskirts of Jerusalem and give them their instructions and ascends to heaven.

The operative word here is “then,” which is actually not “then” in the Greek but “and,” which indicates that this happened some time after the events of 24:36-49, but in no way suggests that it happened immediately after.  There is nothing to mitigate against a trip to Galilee before Jesus led His disciples to Bethany.

The disciples are in fact explicitly told by Jesus after his resurrection not to leave Jerusalem.

Yes, they are told this after they had been to Galilee and returned.

And so the discrepancy: If Matthew is right, that the disciples immediately go to Galilee and see Jesus ascend from there, how can Luke be right that the disciples stay in Jerusalem the whole time, see Jesus ascend from there, and stay on until the day of Pentecost?

Matthew and Luke are both right; Ehrman is wrong.  Contra Ehrman, Matthew did not say that the disciples “immediately go to Galilee,” and Luke, while he did not record any excursions from Jerusalem, certainly did not say that the disciples stayed in Jerusalem “the whole time.”  Again, Ehrman needs to read more carefully so that he will not assume things that are not in the text.

Frankly, some of the efforts by liberal scholars to convince us that the Gospel accounts of the resurrection are irreconcilable are downright embarrassing.  Ehrman writes,

Some of these differences can scarcely be reconciled unless you do a lot of interpretive gymnastics when reading the texts.  For example, what does one do with the fact that the women apparently meet different people at the tomb?  In Mark, they meet one man; in Luke, two men; and in Matthew, one angel.  The way this discrepancy is sometimes reconciled, by readers who can’t accept that there could be a genuine discrepancy in the text, is by saying that the women actually met two angels at the tomb … this solution is saying, in effect, that what really happened is not narrated by any of these Gospels: for none of them mentions two angels!  This way of interpreting the texts does so by imagining a new text that is unlike any of the others, so as to reconcile the four to one another.[32]

Ehrman claims none of the Gospel books mentions two angels – yet John 20:12 says,

And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.

How did Ehrman overlook this?  Or is he resorting to special pleading by expecting us to ignore John’s account?  It should also be noted that there are indeed “discrepancies” in the text, but, as we have seen, discrepancies are not contradictions.  And we are not “imagining a new text that is unlike any of the others” but understanding that in reality no one text covers the entirety of the actual historical events.  Ehrman is being intellectually very careless here.

But Roman Catholic priest and scholar Dr. Raymond Brown exceeds even Ehrman in chutzpah, averring that

we must reject the thesis that the Gospels can be harmonized through a rearrangement whereby Jesus appears several times to the Twelve, first in Jerusalem, then in Galilee … The different Gospel accounts are narrativing, so far as substance is concerned, the same basic appearance to the Twelve, whether they locate it in Jerusalem or in Galilee.[33]

But why should we reject this “thesis”?  Brown does not tell us.  In fact, given that we understand that in real life multiple accounts of an event must be harmonized, since no one writer includes everything and each includes what he chooses, why exactly should we not harmonize the Gospel accounts?  Why should we treat them in a wholly artificial manner, creating contradictions that do not exist if they are handled properly?

Furthermore, to “answer a fool according to his folly” (Proverbs 26:5), those who believe, as Ehrman does, that the last twelve verses of Mark are a later addition must believe that people who had access to the Gospel According to Matthew and the Gospel According to Luke nevertheless contrived and accepted an account that actually contradicts these other books.  Did liberal scholars not think of this?

It is difficult to describe these claims of contradictions as anything other than ridiculous, and it is equally ridiculous to claim that the accounts of the resurrection in the Gospel books cannot be reconciled.  We have, in fact, reconciled them.  It took me less than an hour to do so, so it is hard to imagine that the liberal scholars could not have done so had they tried.  It is hard not to conclude that they didn’t even try.  Once again, we note that it is passing strange that any thinking person can take liberal Bible scholars seriously even for a moment.


Endnotes

[1] Ehrman, Bart D. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne, 2014, p. 133

[2] McCormick, Matthew S. Atheism and the Case Against Christ. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2012, p. 47

[3] Tobin, Paul. The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible and the Historical Jesus. Bedfordshirt, England: Authors OnLine, 2009, pp. 542, 554

[4] Doherty, Earl. Challenging the Verdict: A Cross-Examination of Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ”. Ottawa: Age of Reason Publications, 2001, p. 186

[5] See Tors, John. “Contradictions in the Gospel Books? Lessons from the World Junior Hockey Championships” for a good illustration of this at https://truthinmydays.com/contradictions-in-the-gospel-books-lessons-from-the-world-junior-hockey-championships/.

[6] ibid.

[7] The idea that the Gospel According to Mark actually ends with 16:8 and that the rest of the chapters is a later addition is a nonstarter.  See our brief discussion in Tors, John. “Creation Ministries International and the Three-Headed Monster: Why the Monster Wins” at https://truthinmydays.com/creation-ministries-international-and-the-three-headed-monster-why-the-monster-wins/.  For more details, see Lunn, Nicholas P. The Original Ending of Mark: A New Case for the Authenticity of Mark 16:9-20. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014.

[8] “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30); “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.” (John 21:24)

[9] Suggesting that the women did not immediately enter the tomb is reasonable, as unexpectedly seeing the tomb opened would reasonably be expected to cause trepidation and therefore hesitation.  Suggesting the intervention of space aliens is not reasonable.

[10] They had already prepared spices before the Sabbath (Luke 23:56), but apparently they wanted more.  Given the earliness of the hour, they may have bought them from friends.

[11] John mentions only Mary Magdalene, but given that she reports that, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him” (John 20:2), it is obvious that there must have been more than one woman at the tomb.

[12] Matthew’s account of this is introduced with “And behold” (καὶ ἰδού), an expression he uses sixty-two times in his book, usually with chronological indicators.  When he uses no such indicators, he is simply telling an event without necessarily situating it in chronological context (e.g. Matthew 9:2).  Since there is no chronological indicator in Matthew 28:2, there is no reason to suppose that the stone removal could not have happened before the women reached the tomb and was fait accompli by the time they got there.

[13] This is not explicitly stated but seems obvious from Mary’s words to Peter and John in John 20:2.

[14] This is not explicitly stated but seems reasonable.

[15] It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss this, but it is clear that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is the apostle John.

[16] The fact that John can see the body missing without actually entering the tomb indicates that the women could also have done so.

[17] This is not explicitly stated but seems obvious.

[18] For the use of man as a reference to an angel, see Revelation 21:17.

[19] It seems they do not believe the message of the angels.

[20] Mary’s initial failure to recognize Jesus is not unreasonable given that her eyes were full of tears.  In addition, He may have been standing in shadows.

[21] This seems not to be referring to His final ascension after spending forty days with His disciples.  It may be that Jesus ascended at this point to be given “all authority in heaven and on Earth” (Matthew 28:18), an event shown in Daniel 7:13-14.

[22] This is not explicitly stated but seems reasonable.

[23] ἐξελθοῦσαι ταχὺ ἀπὸ τοῦ μνημείου in Matthew 28:8 indicates that they are moving away from the area of the tomb (BDAG, p. 347), not moving out of the tomb.

[24] It was a rather stupid lie, for, if they were sleeping, how could they know what had happened?

[25] There are obvious similarities, but also some differences.  In the account recorded in Mark, Jesus appeared “in another form (μορφή)” (μορφή does not necessarily refer to physical form; see, e.g., Philippians 2:7), whereas in the account in Luke, the men did not initially recognize Jesus because “their eyes were restrained.”  When the men in Mark’s account reported to the disciples they were not believed, whereas when Cleopas and the other reported to the disciples, they were told before they spoke that Jesus had risen and had appeared to Simon.  Now, these are not necessarily mutually exclusive; the disciples may have had some mistaken reason for not believing Cleopas and his companion even though they had heard that Jesus had risen (Indeed, as we see later, they may still have been unsure about Peter’s claim), so they may refer to the same incident.  We cannot know with certainty.

[26] See Luke 5:1-11.

[27] Matthew 28:17 tells us the people worshippers were hesitant before Jesus spoke to them.  By the end of the forty days, however, it is clear that they were no longer hesitant.

[28] There is no contradiction between the ascension taking place at Bethany and Jesus’ command: “He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4b).  Bethany is on the slope of the Mount of Olives, about 2.4 km east of Jerusalem.  Jesus “led them out,” from Jerusalem to Bethany for the ascension, after which they were to return to Jerusalem and not depart until the Promise of the Father had been fulfilled.

[29] 1 Corinthians 15:5-7 describes five post-resurrection appearances of Jesus (the one to Paul is in 15:8).  While the details do not allow us to identify each of them one with described in the Gospel accounts, where there are details they do align viz. that He appeared to Peter before He appeared to the assemble apostles, and that there were multiple post-resurrection appearances, to different people at different groupings at different times.  And nothing in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7 contradicts anything in the Gospel books.

[30] Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them). New York: HarperOne, 2009, p. 48

[31] ibid., p. 49

[32] Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, pp. 134-135.  (Bolding and underlining added.)

[33] Brown, Raymond. The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave. New York: Doubleday, 1994, p. 106.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there is no such verb as “narrative.”

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