Contradictions in the Resurrection Account

A Swiss Army knife with dozens of crazy "blades"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 gospels).

  • 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?

And there are lots more.

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 a third is that this could be legend.

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

Wandering in a vast forest at night,
I have only a faint light to guide me.
A stranger appears and says to me:
“My friend, you should blow out your candle
in order to find your way more clearly.”
This stranger is a theologian.
—Denis Diderot

(This is a modified version of a post originally published 4/9/12.)

Photo credit: ThinkGeek

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

"Calling something a "human life" is not the same thing as saying we can grant ..."

“I Do Abortions Because I Am ..."
"If you do that then women will just get "dependent on the state." There is ..."

“I Do Abortions Because I Am ..."
"And I cannot watch a flu shot needle pierce my skin. To each their own, ..."

“I Do Abortions Because I Am ..."
"You seem to be forgetting the woman involved. The pregnant woman? If you consider that ..."

“I Do Abortions Because I Am ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Gerry

    Erick, those accounts do not claim to be the perfect infallible word of god. The bible makes this claim. Even if 1 gospel omits information, another gospel including it would be ok, providing the 2 bits of information were not conflicting. But they are here. In addition, an earthquake producing a zombiepallooza, a dude resurrecting from the dead, and all other “miracles” proclaimed in the gospels should have corroboration from sources outside the bible to be considered relevant. Surely these remarkable events would have wide coverage from numerous authors, and surely a perfect, all knowing god who wants his glory known so that all could be saved would ensure good press coverage. But there is no corroborating evidence…..just the error ridden, atrocity laden, man made bible….you know, the one you believe to be the perfect, infallible word of god.

  • Gerry

    Wow Eric! By the same logic, Santa must be real. After all, 3 major networks all put out animated/claymated/puppet stories about Santa in the 1960s. There were inconsistencies on many details in the accounts, but all agree that on Xmas eve Santa pilots a sleigh powered by 8 reindeer through the skies to bring gifts to every child on earth. Praise Santa!

  • Guest

    How many of the supposed quotes of Jesus should just be chalked up as the literary style of the authors of the Gospel?

  • Jacob’s Trouble

    Resurrection forensic: the sequence of events to harmonize the gospel accounts.

    Mary Magdelaine, Joanna, another Mary and Salome heads for the tomb on Sunday at dawn. They find the tomb empty. Mary Magalene heads back to inform John and Peter.

    Meanwhile the other women are greeted by angels. They are told that Jesus is risen and that they should convey this to the disciples. On their way (different way than the one they came) to inform the disciples, they meet Jesus.

    On hearing from Mary Magdalene about the empty tomb, John outruns Peter to the tomb and Mary Magdalene trails. After establishing that the tomb is empty John and Peter returns leaving Mary crying at the tomb. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene.

    • Greg G.

      But in Luke, the whole group of women leave and tell the eleven and Peter runs out to the tomb again?

      • Pofarmer

        Which then goes right back to, if early Christians knew where the tomb was, why wasn’t there tomb veneration early on?

        • Greg G.

          Possible Excuses:
          1. They did but the Romans undid it.
          2. They did but it was economically impossible to maintain because of the lack of Christian tourism.
          3. It was so highly sucessful that it spawned copycats, each claiming to be the REAL Resurrection site with a guy who claimed to be the REAL Peter. Early Christians wouldn’t know a real resurrection site from a hole in the ground.

    • neil allen

      The 4 gospels can’t even agree on how many angels were there. ANGELS. Like you see so many angels you wouldn’t think to mention all of them. ANGELS. Ridiculous.

      And NOBODY recognizes Jesus, but nobody says this guy looks unusual. Just a regular guy, but when he says he’s Jesus, boom, they recognize him. How do you know it wasn’t someone else pretending to be Jesus?

      It’s almost like it was just made up by 4 different people. Weird.

      • Jacob’s Trouble

        …and if the people’s accounts were in complete harmony; you would say “they conspired”. Even today the eye-witness accounts don’t agree to the t and when they do, the defence would object saying the witnesses were “coached” by the procecution team.

        • neil allen

          Ha! ANGELS.

          They couldn’t agree on ANGELS, which they had never seen in their lives, and no one knew what Jesus looked like initially.

          It’s ok, if you fall for that, you’ll fall for the Catholic church, America’s largest child rape syndicate, being “God’s church”.

  • Glenn Harpold

    Were the Bin Laden accounts advertised as inspired of god?

    • Gary Whittenberger

      Also, were they inconsistent on minor details or on major ones?

      Also, which of the reporters were present in the same room that Bin Laden was shot and which were not?

      Were any of the reporters talking about a supernatural event?

    • Jacob’s Trouble

      The central idea, not the human writings or the translations thereof were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
      1 Peter 1:10-12 teaches that the OT prophets did not understand the meaning of their own prophecies.

  • Gary Whittenberger

    But these are not minor details and they are mentioned in only one Gospel:

    Dead persons coming out of their graves and walking around Jerusalem.
    A Roman soldier piercing Jesus’ side with a spear.
    The posting of guards at the tomb.
    The beloved disciple.
    An angel rolling back the stone.
    The women touching the feet of Jesus.

    There should be consistency on MAJOR DETAILS, especially if all the authors were guided by the Holy Spirit, and there isn’t.

    • Jacob’s Trouble

      The sequence of events to harmonize the gospel accounts.
      Mary Magdalene, Joanna, another Mary and Salome heads for the tomb on Sunday at dawn. They were not aware that on Friday evening the high priest had the Romans seal the tomb with soldiers posted outside to guard it. They find the tomb empty. Mary Magdalene heads back to inform John and Peter.
      Meanwhile the other women are greeted by angels. They are told that Jesus is risen and that they should convey this to the disciples. On their way (different way than the one they came) to inform the disciples, they meet Jesus.
      On hearing from Mary Magdalene about the empty tomb, John outruns Peter to the tomb and Mary Magdalene trails. After establishing that the tomb is empty John and Peter returns leaving Mary crying outside the tomb. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene.

      • Gary Whittenberger

        JT1: The sequence of events to harmonize the gospel accounts.
        Mary Magdalene, Joanna, another Mary and Salome heads for the tomb on Sunday at dawn. They were not aware that on Friday evening the high priest had the Romans seal the tomb with soldiers posted outside to guard it. They find the tomb empty. Mary Magdalene heads back to inform John and Peter.

        GW1: The number and identity of the women varies among the Gospels. In two Gospels the women find the tomb already open, but in one they see the tomb opened. Soldiers guarding the tomb are mentioned in only one Gospel, not in the others.

        JT1: Meanwhile the other women are greeted by angels. They are told that Jesus is risen and that they should convey this to the disciples. On their way (different way than the one they came) to inform the disciples, they meet Jesus.

        GW1: The Gospels mention only one trip on Sunday AM by women. Mary Magdalene is the common figure.

        JT1: On hearing from Mary Magdalene about the empty tomb, John outruns Peter to the tomb and Mary Magdalene trails. After establishing that the tomb is empty John and Peter returns leaving Mary crying outside the tomb. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene.

        GW1: John and Peter do not go to the tomb in all the Gospels.

        GW1: Your effort to harmonize has not worked. First, there are actually contradictions between the Gospel accounts. Second, there are major details (I listed some) that are presented in one Gospel that are not presented in most or all of them. These are details which, if they had really occurred, would be noticed, remembered, and reported consistently. Different reporters might differ on minor details, but not major details, e.g. guards being posted at the tomb, dead people getting out of their graves and walking around. The crucifixion-resurrection story is at least partly (probably mostly) fabrication, and the story certainly was not edited by a god.

        • RC Monkeyboy

          Sherlock Holmes stories are fiction, right? But this widely known fact has not stopped some Holmes scholars from addressing the discrepancies and errors in the stories to demonstrate why this particular story took place on April 3, 1887, etc etc. This is what Christian apologists do, try to weave a series of suppositions and maybes to address real discrepancies in the gospels.

  • Gary Whittenberger

    Not only is it unlikely that the Gospel writers were eyewitnesses, it is unlikely that they interviewed eyewitnesses. For example, we don’t read things like “I interviewed Peter at the home of John on the outskirts of Jerusalem during the ninth hour of the day during the tenth year of Pilate. He said…”

    • You might think that people of the time hadn’t thought to document historical claims in ways that we think are natural, but there are other documents from this time that do pretty much what you’re asking for–give sources, critique their reliability, and so on. I believe I read this from Richard Carrier.

  • Gary Whittenberger

    I believe that it is possible that Jesus came back to life, but I believe this is extremely improbable. It is unreasonable to believe that he did.

  • Jesus Christ

    You are a liar and you are here for only
    one reasonTo lie to these people
    You give no chapter and no verse you are just blubber
    One of your lies (and there are many) is apostle Mark finished the book or in your words ended I that Mary fled and said nothing to others
    You lie whoever you are
    You are a big liar
    Y’all people here this person is from Satan and he is here for only one reason
    Read the Bible yourself don’t follow the blind
    Gospel of Mark 168:20

    8And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.
    9Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.
    10And she went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept.
    11And they, when they had heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, believed not.
    12After that he appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country.
    13And they went and told it unto the residue: neither believed they them.
    14Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen.
    15And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
    16He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
    17And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
    18They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
    19So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.
    20And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.

  • neil allen

    The 4 gospels can’t even agree on how many angels were there. ANGELS. Like you see so many angels you wouldn’t think to mention all of them. ANGELS.

    And NOBODY recognizes Jesus, but nobody says this guy looks unusual. Just a regular guy, but when he says he’s Jesus, boom, they recognize him. How do you know it wasn’t someone else pretending to be Jesus.

  • neil allen

    Nobody claims Bin Laden was God, and the death of Bin Laden was a top secret military operation.

    Nobody’s telling Americans to follow BinLadenianity. The writings of a military operation have never been called the word of God.

    The 4 gospels can’t even agree on how many angels were there. ANGELS. Like you see so many angels you wouldn’t think to mention all of them. ANGELS. Ridiculous.

    And NOBODY recognizes Jesus, but nobody says this guy looks unusual. Just a regular guy, but when he says he’s Jesus, boom, they recognize him. They were walking with him, then at dinner, they recognize him. How do you know it wasn’t someone else pretending to be Jesus?

    It’s almost like it was just made up by 4 different people. Weird.

    • Jacob’s Trouble

      Your question just got expanded to the deity of Jesus. Erick did address your original question regarding minor mismatches between resurrection accounts recorded in the gospels.

      • neil allen

        It’s just a complete lie to say “minor” differences.

        ANGELS. They saw “angels” and didn’t write the same number.

        And NONE of them recognized Jesus initially, which means it could have been anyone who looked like, well, anything.

  • neil allen

    God should be a better writer.

  • neil allen

    But angels. ANGELS. ANGELS??

    They can’t agree on ANGELS? When they’ve never seen one before?

    And NOBODY recognizes Jesus, but nobody says this guy looks unusual. Just a regular guy, but when he says he’s Jesus, boom, they recognize him. How do you know it wasn’t someone else pretending to be Jesus?

    It’s almost like it was just made up by 4 different people. Weird.

  • neil allen

    Especially when both cars have Ascended and no longer exist.

    One car was a Dodge Spirit.

    *** Cut to commercial for Ascension Auto Sales, 11672 Florida Blvd, Baton Rouge, LA 70815

  • neil allen

    You don’t think God could write a book more clearly than a children’s book.

    At the very least, God is a horrible writer.

    More likely, it’s made up story by 4 people who were writing about people who couldn’t count angels, and didn’t recognize Jesus.

    One thing is for sure – no God would consider someone stupid for thinking this is the sketchiest big story ever.