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Contradictions in the Resurrection Account

A Swiss Army knife with dozens of crazy "blades"Since Easter was yesterday, I’d like to rerun a post about the resurrection story.

How many days did Jesus teach after his resurrection? Most Christians know that “He appeared to them over a period of forty days” (Acts 1:3). But the supposed author of that book wrote elsewhere that he ascended into heaven the same day as the resurrection (Luke 24:51).

When Jesus died, did an earthquake open the graves of many people, who walked around Jerusalem and were seen by many? Only Matthew reports this remarkable event. It’s hard to imagine any reliable version of the story omitting this zombie apocalypse.

The different accounts of the resurrection are full of contradictions like this. They can’t even agree on whether Jesus was crucified on the day before Passover (John) or the day after (the other three).

  • What were the last words of Jesus? Three gospels give three different versions.
  • Who buried Jesus? Matthew says that it was Joseph of Arimathea. No, apparently it was the Jews and their rulers, all strangers to Jesus (Acts).
  • How many women came to the tomb Easter morning? Was it one, as told in John? Two (Matthew)? Three (Mark)? Or more (Luke)?
  • Did an angel cause a great earthquake that rolled back the stone in front of the tomb? Yes, according to Matthew. The other gospels are silent on this extraordinary detail.
  • Who did the women see at the tomb? One person (Matthew and Mark) or two (Luke and John)?
  • Was the tomb already open when they got there? Matthew says no; the other three say yes.
  • Did the women tell the disciples? Matthew and Luke make clear that they did so immediately. But Mark says, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” And that’s where the book ends, which makes it a mystery how Mark thinks that the resurrection story ever got out.
  • Did Mary Magdalene cry at the tomb? That makes sense—the tomb was empty and Jesus’s body was gone. At least, that’s the story according to John. But wait a minute—in Matthew’s account, the women were “filled with joy.”
  • Did Mary Magdalene recognize Jesus? Of course! She’d known him for years. At least, Matthew says that she did. But John and Luke make clear that she didn’t.
  • Could Jesus’s followers touch him? John says no; the other gospels say yes.
  • Where did Jesus tell the disciples to meet him? In Galilee (Matthew and Mark) or Jerusalem (Luke and Acts)?
  • Who saw Jesus resurrected? Paul says that a group of over 500 people saw him (1 Cor. 15:6). Sounds like crucial evidence, but why don’t any of the gospels record it?
  • Should the gospel be preached to everyone? In Matthew 28:19, Jesus says to “teach all nations.” But hold on—in the same book he says, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans” (Matt. 10:5). Which is it?

Many Christians cite the resurrection as the most important historical claim that the Bible makes. If the resurrection is true, they argue, the gospel message must be taken seriously. I’ll agree with that. But how reliable is an account riddled with these contradictions?

I’ve seen Christians respond in three ways.

(1) They’ll nitpick the definition of “contradiction.” Contradictions, they’ll say, are two sentences of the form “A” and “not-A.” For example: “Jesus was born in Bethlehem” and “Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.” Being precise helps make sure we communicate clearly, but this can also be a caltrop argument, a way of dodging the issue. These sure sound like contradictions to me, but if you’d prefer to imagine that we’re talking about “incongruities” or “inconsistencies,” feel free.

(2) They’ll respond to these “inconsistencies” by harmonizing the gospels. That is, instead of following the facts where they lead and considering that the gospels might be legend instead of history, they insist on their Christian presupposition, reject any alternatives, and bludgeon all the gospels together like a misshapen Swiss Army knife.

  • How many women were at the tomb? Obviously, five or more, our apologist will say. When John only says that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, he’s not saying that others didn’t come, right? Checkmate, atheists!
  • Why didn’t all the gospels note that a group of 500 people saw Jesus (instead of only Paul)? Why didn’t they all record the earthquakes and the zombie apocalypse (instead of only Matthew)? Our apologist will argue that each author is entitled to make editorial adjustments as he sees fit.
  • Was the tomb already open or not? Did Mary Magdalene recognize Jesus or not? Did Jesus remain for 40 days or not? Should the gospel be preached to everyone or not? Did the women tell the disciples or not? Was Jesus crucified the day after Passover or not? Who knows what he’ll come up with, but our apologist will have some sort of harmonization for these, too.

Yep, the ol’ kindergarten try.

(3) They’ll try to turn this weakness into a strength by arguing that four independent stories (the gospels aren’t, but never mind) shouldn’t agree on every detail. If they did, one would imagine collusion rather than accurate biography. Yes, biography and collusion are two possibilities, but another is that this could be legend.

Let’s drop any preconceptions and find the best explanation.

Photo credit: ThinkGeek

Acknowledgement: This list was inspired by one composed by Richard Russell.

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About Bob Seidensticker
  • Retro

    How many women were at the tomb? Obviously, five or more, our apologist will say. When John only says that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, he’s not saying that others didn’t come, right? Checkmate, atheists!

    The same thing happens when you look at how many people were crucified with Jesus. Traditionally, we see Jesus in the middle with one thief on either side, for a total of three crosses.

    Actually reading the Bible creates problems. Here is how one apologist deals with the problem:

    It is commonly believed that our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified along with two other men, and that his cross was between theirs. This belief has been portrayed in many different ways, including pictures, television, movies, bumper stickers, crosses along the roadside, and crosses in church yards. If we look more deeply into the Word of God, however, we learn that there were not two other men crucified with Jesus, but four other men, two on each side of Jesus. Although this may seem like a minor point, there is value in truth, and much value in being able to read and understand the whole Bible and see that it does not contain contradictions. If there were only two men crucified with Jesus, then there are verses in the Four Gospels that would contradict each other. Realizing that there were four men crucified next to Jesus gets rid of the apparent contradictions and difficulties, and very importantly, gives us a true picture of what the crucifixion scene was like.

    There were FIVE crosses, Checkmate Atheists!

  • Retro

    Who buried Jesus? Matthew says that it was Joseph of Arimathea. No, apparently it was the Jews and their rulers, all strangers to Jesus (Acts).

    Wow, I never really noticed the verses about the burial in Acts before.

    Acts 13 states that the same people who crucified Jesus also buried Jesus. To get out of this difficulty, Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus are described as being a “secret followers”.

    Does this secret follower explanation actually work? Acts 13:27 clearly states that the same people who executed Jesus also buried the body, and these people “did not recognize Jesus”. Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus could not be followers of Jesus unless they also recognized that Jesus was the Christ. This is a solid contradiction, they cannot be followers and non-followers at the same time.

    Maybe the secret follower explanation works for many Christians, but to me it’s evidence of the step-by-step development of the Jesus legend. Notice that Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus disappear and are never seen or heard from again in the Bible. Two people who witnessed the dead body of Jesus and would be excellent witnesses to identify the resurrected body of Jesus, and just simply drop out of sight? They were supposed to be followers of Jesus, so why don’t we hear of them as preaching and spreading the Gospel?

  • Bob Calvan

    All these simple answers to your alleged contradictions are in Archer’s book of Bible difficulties.
    The problem is you two will not except the harmony of the Gospels. Or the explanations of the verses. As you do not accept any explanations Christians give you, as you are blinded by your presuppositions and traditions. Also your lack of ability as children with a nature of wrath (Cor) to understand spiritual truths.. As i have said you both know God and reject Him in your unrighteousness . ( Rom)

    • Bob Seidensticker

      The goal for any seeker of the truth (you tell me if this is what you are) is to find the best explanation for the facts.

      Could the gospels be harmonized the way you hope? Let’s assume that that’s possible. The problem is, we seekers of the truth don’t care what’s possible; we care only for the best explanation of the facts. And a natural explanation (the gospels are a record of the result of decades of faulty oral history; the gospels were written by fallible people who probably didn’t much care whether they harmonized or not; and so on) explains everything quite well without the assumption of the supernatural.

      If you don’t have a bias toward the supernatural, the natural explanation is the superior one.

    • Retro

      All these simple answers to your alleged contradictions are in Archer’s book of Bible difficulties.

      Thanks for the book suggestion Bob C.

      I decided to get this book, and here is how Gleason Archer resolves the difficulties in the narratives of the women visiting the tomb:

      The Women’s First Visit to the Tomb

      On Saturday evening three of the women decided to go back to the tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, where they had seen Christ’s body laid away on Friday at sundown. They wanted to rewrap His corpse with additional spices, beyond those which Nicodemus and Joseph had already used on Friday. There were three women involved (Mark 16:1): Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife (or mother) of James, and Salome (Luke does not give their names; Matthew refers only to the two Marys); and they had bought the additional spices with their own means (Mark 16:1). They apparently started their journey from the house in Jerusalem while it was still dark (skotias eti ouses), even though it was already early morning (proi) (John 20:1). But by the time they arrived, dawn was glimmering in the east (te epiphoskouse) that Sunday morning (eis mian sabbaton) (Matt. 28:1). (Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1 all use the dative: te mia ton sabbaton.) Mark 16:2 adds that the tip of the sun had actually appeared above the horizon (anateilantos tou heliou–aorist participle; the Beza codex uses the present participle, anatellontos, implying “while the sun was rising”).

      It may have been while they were on their way to the tomb outside the city wall that the earthquake took place, by means of which the angel of the Lord rolled away the great circular stone that had sealed the entrance of the tomb. So blinding was his glorious appearance that the guards specially assigned to the tomb were completely terrified and swooned away, losing all consciousness (Matt. 28:2-4). The earthquake could hardly have been very extensive; the women seemed to be unaware of its occurrence, whether it happened before they left Jerusalem or while they were walking toward their destination. There is no evidence that it damaged anything it the city itself. But it was sufficient to break the seal placed over the circular stone at the time of interment and roll the stone itself away from its settled position in the downward slanting groove along which it rolled.

      The three women were delightfully surprised to find their problem of access to the tomb solved; the stone had already been rolled away (Mark 16:3-4)! They then entered the tomb, side-stepping the unconscious soldiers. In the tomb they made out the form of the leading angel, appearing as a young man with blazing white garments (Mark 16:5), who, however, may not have shown himself to them until they first discovered that the corpse was gone (Luke 24:2-3). But then it became apparent that this angel had a companion, for there were two of them in the tomb. The leading angel spoke to them with words of encouragement, “Don’t be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified” (Matt. 28:5). Nevertheless they were quite terrified at the splendor of these heavenly visitors and by the amazing disappearance of the body they had expected to find in the tomb.

      It goes on for another page, but you get the idea.

      • Retro

        Even though Gleason Archer is confident that the Bible difficulties can be harmonized by adding all the stories together, he doesn’t do a very thorough job. From my previous post, we see that he only mentions three women in his compilation.

        Here’s the relevant Bible verses:

        Matthew 28:1: After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

        So Matthew has two Marys: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.

        Mark 16:1: When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.

        Mark has the two Marys, plus a third person, Salome.

        Luke 24:10: When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles.

        Mark has the two Marys, Joanna, and “the others.”

        John 20:1: Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.

        John mentions only Mary Magdalene.

        Instead of having only three women in his compilation, Gleason Archer should have listed Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, Joanna, and “the others”.

        Needless to say, I’m not impressed with Gleason Archer or his book.

        • Retro

          I’d like to hear an explanation for this difficulty:

          In Matthew’s account, (Matthew 28), an angel tells the women in verse 7 to tell the Disciples, “He has risen from the dead”. And in verse 9, Jesus actually appears to the women.

          According to the Gospel of John, (John 20) Mary Magdalene returns from the tomb and tells the Disciples, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

          How could Mary Magdalene forget that she had just met the resurrected Jesus?

          If there’s any possible way to harmonize these two accounts, I’d love to hear it.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          It’s a relief to see that you’re doing the research here. I think our Christian readers were getting frustrated with having to use their own Bibles.

        • Clay

          The number of women mentioned does not matter. John mentions Mary only, the Holy Spirit within him did not see it fit to include the others, though we know others were with her. The Holy Spirit has revealed to us Jesus was raised in the flesh, that is a man. Though His Spirit was that of Gods, this is the revelation all who believe are able to receive, thus making it possible for us to come into the knowledge that we have God within us, being made in His image, that is the thought our Mighty Creator first had in His(though having no gender) mind, being Jesus. The contradictions you see are only there because you are still attached to your physical body, and are unaware of who you truly are, that is a sinless perfect spirit whom God created. He has given you life, the soul, whom you as a free spirit can purify or darken through the evil which arises in your mind, the truth is all us(mankind) will darken our soul because of the evil we all do, even though we know was is good we still choose evil, if you are honest at heart and seek truth, God will awaken you to the knowledge of your spirit and by following Jesus(God Himself with us) you will continue to grow spiritually in the knowledge of our Mighty Creator whom fills all the heavens and earth. If you seek truth truly, not just knowledge or facts or wisdom but the truth. Start here… God is within you, God died on the Cross for you and rose again to life so you are able to know you will stand before Him justified, God is always with you those who know Him hear him. Please don’t watch church on tv they preach a false Jesus.
          May the Grace of our Father in Heaven and the knowledge of our Savior Jesus be with you.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Clay:

          the Holy Spirit within him did not see it fit to include the others

          But you would only say that if you’re trying to rationalize your preconceived notion. You don’t say this if you’re actually following the facts.

          The contradictions you see …

          … are compelling evidence that the gospels are simply the written form of a decades-long oral history.

          Like a modern urban legend.

          He has given you life, the soul, whom you as a free spirit can purify or darken

          Isn’t the best course of action for me to use my God-given brain to follow the facts where I lead? Shouldn’t I accept only the best-attested worldview?


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