Contradictions in the Resurrection Account

Contradictions ResurrectionHow 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 makes 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 (thanks, Richard Russell).

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?

Christian responses

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. The issues listed above 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 written using eyewitness testimony. 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 10/17/11.)

Photo credit: ThinkGeek

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  • katiehippie

    “Our apologist will argue that each author is entitled to make editorial adjustments as he sees fit.”

    So how do they reconcile this with “the bible is the inspired word of God” thing?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Good question. Maybe that you need to be in the right godly frame of mind to get it.

      I would think that the many incompatible interpretations would give Christians pause, but apparently not.

      • katiehippie

        If the bible the inspired word of God, meaning that God basically wrote it, then how come there are 4 versions of the same story? Or on the other hand, why aren’t there 4 versions of the Noah story or Isaac story? God can get it all right the first time in the old testament but has a problem with the new testament? Seeing that everything happened to Jesus, who is God, you’d think he could get it right.
        I’m glad I’m not in the right godly frame of mind.

        • Greg G.

          Where are the other two creation stories and the other two flood stories? We’re not getting our money’s worth.

        • wtfwjtd

          Not the first time we’ve been gypped by Christianity.

        • katiehippie

          I think it’s high time some finishes the other 3 complete copies of the bible. Can’t god tell them what to say?

        • http://www.awaypoint.wordpress.com Valerie Tarico

          Genesis 1 and 2 are two different and contradictory creation stories. If you read the Noah story carefully you will see that they get into the Ark . . . and then later get into the Ark — a glitch in synthesizing 2 accounts.

        • Greg G.

          But we have four gospel stories. Irenaeus says that there are four gospel stories because that is the right number as there are four corners of the earth and four winds. By his reasoning, there should be four creation accounts, four flood accounts, etc….

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          There are indeed 2 versions of the Noah story. And the Creation story. And the Goliath story. And the Ten Commandments story.

          Confusing. Unless you simply see this as ancient mythology, with no more transcendental grounding than Gilgamesh. Then, no problem.

      • avalon

        Oh ye of little faith. The answer seems clear:
        Dissociative identity disorder is a mental disorder on the dissociative spectrum characterized by at least two distinct and relatively enduring identities or dissociated personality states that alternately control a person’s behavior, and is accompanied by memory impairment for important information not explained by ordinary forgetfulness.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dissociative_identity_disorder

    • MNb

      Hey, you’re not going to rob our poor apologist from his/her beloved ad hoc approach, are you?
      I guess they always can make up stuff like “the authors didn’t totally understand god” or “between divine inspiration and actually writing things down a few things will go wrong”. It’s convenient that things like these aren’t testable, so evade the scientific method.

  • MNb

    “Our apologist will argue that each author is entitled to make editorial adjustments as he sees fit.”
    The apologist is right exactly because those authors did not intend to provide accurate factual accounts. Hence we are perfectly justified to conclude that such adjustments are legends (from an oral tradition), ornaments or metaphors to stress the points the authors wanted to make.

  • arkenaten

    The only things that seems to concern believers are: the tomb was empty and this was witnessed. By who, by how many and in what order they deem completely irrelevant.

    • MNb

      That’s spot on. A Dutch philosopher of religion (phd on mathematics, so not exactly unintelligent) followed this strategy: first prove with philosophical means that there must be a god and then choose christianity “because scholars agree on the empty tomb”.

      • Pofarmer

        That’s got to be some pretty low probabilities.

      • wtfwjtd

        What empty tomb, and where?

        • MNb

          Ask him himself:

          http://gjerutten.blogspot.com/

          http://www.gjerutten.nl/onrussellswhyiamnotachristian_erutten.pdf

          Page 6.

          http://www.refdag.nl/kerkplein/kerknieuws/dr_emanuel_rutten_steeds_betere_argumenten_tegen_atheisme_1_723043

          “De meeste historici zijn het erover eens dat Jezus heeft geleefd, gekruisigd is, dat Zijn graf leeg was, en dat de discipelen meenden Hem te hebben ontmoet na zijn dood. Er is geen enkele seculiere verklaring die deze gebeurtenissen coherenter verklaart dan de Bijbel dat doet.”

          “Most historians agree that Jesus lived, has been crucified, that his tomb was empty and that the disciples thought they had met him after his death. There is no single secular explanation which explains these events better than the Bible does.”

        • wtfwjtd

          Hmm, there seems to be some crazy mental gymnastics going on there! Math shows god, Historians say Jesus lived, therefore Christianity. Hooray!

        • MNb

          Well, it’s not exactly “math shows god” as Rutten explains himself that god can’t be proven in a mathematical way (sorry, I don’t feel like looking up the quote now). What boggles my mind though is that a mathematician with a Phd, ie someone trained in logic, can maintain errors a far less intelligent person like me notices quite easily.
          I have followed Rutten’s blog for a while, because I expected him to scrutinize his own thinking. After a year or so I had to conclude that he is so obsessed with building his religious-philosophical system that he shields himself from anything that puts it in danger.
          It’s what Bertrand Russell remarks regarding Thomas of Aquino: that’s not philosophy, that’s arguing for a pre-determined conclusion. It’s easier for me to fogive Thomas such an attitude than a 21st Century mathematician.
          You probably won’t be surprised that Rutten is charmed by Fine-Tuning as well.

          http://gjerutten.blogspot.com/2012/03/fine-tuning-and-theistic-multiverse.html

      • arkenaten

        Seems to tie in with ‘Minimal Facts’ argument, does it not?

        Make an assumption based on spurious text then add a dash of chocolate sprinkles and there you go… *Bob’s your uncle…’Truth!’

        * With apologies to our host, Mister S. ;)

    • MGreen

      As Bart Ehrman points out, the guy shouldnt have a tomb. Traditionally he’d be left to rot up there. But the story required a tomb.

  • Ozark

    To answer the question of why 4 gospels :

    I assume it represents an effort to draw together different proto-Christian factions and also to harmonize the differing and often incompatible theologies of these groups.

    John is for Gnostics, Matthew is for Christians who keep Jewish law, etc.

    You take their writings, edit out the clearly heterodox bits, but still some tell tale signs left behind – i.e. John’s gnostic Jesus not being able to be touched after the resurrection, Matthew’s Zombie apocalypse getting the Jewish prophets in the picture, etc.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Irenaeus argued that four gospels is the right number by pointing to lots of fours: 4 directions, 4 winds, 4-faced cherubim, and so on. More

  • Kevin

    the gospels give a unique perspective on the same general story. Matthew is written as representing Jesus to a Jewish audience, Mark and Luke to a more Roman/Gentile audience and John writes to highlight that the purpose of Jesus life was “signs, belief and life”…a more generic audience but a more specific purpose.
    One can represent American history as brave patriotism against a tyrant, rebellion of a colony against the crown or the misuse and mistreatment of indigenous peoples to steal their land. If two perspectives don’t agree it Doesn’t make the whole story false.

    The narratives include and omit details. No one writes about the thousands of unfired weapons at Vicksburg except Dave Grossman…what there were unfired weapons????? It couldn’t have been a battle. Please.

    The time line has to be understood. Jewish, Galiliean or Roman perspective. In one group the day began at evening, the other at 6 AM. Our day begins in the middle of the night. So what was Thursday for one group was Friday for another…just consider the perspective.

    I’m not buying or selling anything here. You will believe what you choose and so will I. I just wanted to add to thread in case some one wanted to read a different take a few of these comments.

    • MNb

      “You will believe what you choose and so will I.”
      Yes, some believe the Earth is flat and others believe the Earth is round. Though I must admit I sometimes assume the Earth is flat too.

    • http://www.awaypoint.wordpress.com Valerie Tarico

      Exactly the kind of comment that the author predicted. I wonder if he was counting on someone to illustrate his point.
      Social scientists are learning more and more about how “motivated reasoning” works. When the conclusion is foregone, provided by religion or another ideology, then the rabbit trails of confirmatory thinking and plausible deniability are endless.

    • Greg G.

      Hi Kevin,

      The narratives include and omit details.

      You haven’t grasped the problem. The problem isn’t omitted details. The problem is that some gospels include details that contradict the details in other gospels.

      Please give us an account that includes all the details given in each of the four gospels in a sequence that does not contradict. If you haven’t posted it by May 1, 2014, we’ll assume you couldn’t do it either.

  • Roger Quill

    A book known as “Easter Enigma” probably presents the traditional attempt at harmonization, although “longer” (that is, with events further separated out) can be found with a quick search engine check. The main issue, it seems, that divides the “short-form” and “long-form” harmonization is whether to reckon the wording in Matthew and Mark about the two Marys visiting the tomb are supposed to representing the whole of the women who they were previously identified as part of (which is somewhat stronger in Mark as Salome is additionally specifically mentioned alongside the two Marys as among the women that had followed Christ and then, soon afterwards, is named alongside the other Marys as visiting the tomb) or not. This is important because reading the narrative as following two or three specific women in Matthew or Mark rather than as well-known women being mentioned who had been earlier mentioned so the reader would understand the whole group was intended (say, mentioning something done by a famous person, his brother, and some groupies but only mentioning the famous person and his brother by name when the whole of them went) because the former reading would place Mary Magdalene at the appearance of the angel that ordered the women to go to Galilee.

    The “other women with Mary” reading is supported in John by Mary Magdalen stating “‘we’ do not know where they have taken him”.


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