Michael J. Alter is the author of the copiously researched, 913-page volume, The Resurrection: a Critical Inquiry (2015). I initially offered 59 “brief” replies to as many alleged New Testament contradictions (March 2021). We later engaged in amiable correspondence and decided to enter into a major ongoing dialogue about his book. He graciously sent me a PDF file of it, free of charge, for my review, and has committed himself to counter-response as well: a very rare trait these days. All of this is, I think, mightily impressive.
Mike describes himself as “of the Jewish faith” but is quick to point out that labels are often “misleading” and “divisive” (I agree to a large extent). He continues to be influenced by, for example, “Reformed, Conservative, Orthodox, and Chabad” variants of Judaism and learns “from those of other faiths, the secular, the non-theists, etc.” Fair enough. I have a great many influences, too, am very ecumenical, and am a great admirer of Judaism, as I told Michael in a combox comment on my blog.
He says his book “can be described as Jewish apologetics” and one that provides reasons for “why members of the Jewish community should not convert to Christianity.” I will be writing many critiques of the book and we’ll be engaging in ongoing discussion for likely a long time. I’m quite excited about it and eagerly enjoy the dialogue and debate. This is a rare opportunity these days and I am most grateful for Mike’s willingness to interact, minus any personal hostility.
I use RSV for all Bible verses that I cite. His words will be in blue.
CONTRADICTION #57 Matthew’s Chronological Contradiction
Reimarus posits that Matthew 28:2 is self-contradictory: “And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.” Specifically, Reimarus (1971, 183) makes the claim that if Matthew’s report is true that “the stone had been rolled away by an angel in the presence of the women, then it must be untrue that the women became aware from a distance that the stone had been rolled away and that it was gone.” The NIV translation (1978, 1151) of Mark 16:2-3 supports Reimarus’s interpretation that from a distance (i.e., “they were on their way to the tomb”) the women observed that the tomb’s entrance was not blocked.
Mk 16:2 Very early on the first day of the week, they were on their way to the tomb. It was just after sunrise. They asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb?”
Mk 16:3 Then they looked up and saw that the stone had been rolled away. The stone was very large.
To recapitulate, Mark has the women viewing from a distance as the stone was being rolled away just prior to their physical arrival at the tomb. Therefore, Reimarus maintains that the chronological order of the text in Matthew is switched since he narrates (1) the women came to the sepulchre, (2) the angel descended from heaven, (3) there was an earthquake, and then (4) the stone was rolled away. (pp. 331-332)
It is readily observed also that the women saw the stone already rolled away when they arrived, as reported in Luke 24:2 and John 20:1. So how does the believer in biblical inspiration explain away what seems at first glance to be a glaring contradiction in Matthew’s account? Well, as is often the case and necessity, one has to examine the Greek word(s) involved and also the tense. Christian apologist Erik Manning presented these texts and then explained:
[L]et’s reconsider what Matthew says. We’re introduced to the passage about the angel by the Greek participle γὰρ (gar). Strong’s Greek Concordance defines it as: “For. A primary participle; properly, assigning a reason.” In other words, it exists to explain the earthquake and set of circumstances as the women found them.
As philosopher Tim McGrew points out, “Matthew uses an aorist participle, which could be (and in some versions is) translated with the English past perfect: “… for an angel of the Lord had descended …”
With this knowledge, let’s look to see how several Bible translations make this meaning of “happened in the past” more clear in Matthew 28:2:
Weymouth: . . . there had been a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord had descended from Heaven, and had come and rolled back the stone, . . .
Young’s Literal Translation: . . . for a messenger of the Lord, having come down out of heaven, having come, did roll away the stone . . .
New American Standard Bible: And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred . . .
Amplified Bible: And a great earthquake had occurred, . . .
Williams: Now there had been a great earthquake . . .
Wuest: . . . an angel of the Lord having descended out of heaven and having come . . .
It’s true that this is a minority of translations, but this is significant, and shows that such a rendering is quite possible and permissible, according to the informed and educated judgment of these language scholars / translators. Moreover, the translations of Young, Wuest, and the Amplified Bible were specifically designed to bring out the precise and exact meaning of the Greek, including the sense of tense. This was their guiding principle in translation. It’s also notable that in the notes of the translators of the famous King James Version, it’s acknowledged that a valid alternate reading was “had been.”
Many commentaries also agree with this “past tense” understanding: thus showing that it is neither “fringe” nor simply apologetic special pleading; it is present in the text, according to them, and the translators noted above:
Barnes’ Notes on the Bible: There was a great earthquake – Rather there “had been.” It does not mean that this was while they were there, or while they were going, but that there “had been” so violent a commotion as to remove the stone.*Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary: And, behold, there was—that is, there had been, before the arrival of the women. . . . And this was the state of things when the women drew near. Some judicious critics think all this was transacted while the women were approaching; but the view we have given, which is the prevalent one, seems the more natural.*Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible: And behold there was a great earthquake,…. Or “there had been one” . . .*Clarke’s Commentary: All this had taken place before the women reached the sepulchre.*Ellicott’s Commentary: The words imply, not that they witnessed the earthquake, but that they inferred it from what they saw.*Expositor’s Bible Commentary: [W]hen they came, the sun just rising as they reached the spot, they found the stone already rolled away, and an angel of the Lord at the tomb . . .*King James Translators’ Notes: was: or, had been
This information removes Alter’s ever-present (and ever-fallacious) charge of contradiction with regard to Matthew 28:2. Nice try but no cigar . . .
Photo credit: Selva Rasalingam as Jesus in the The Gospel of Luke (2016, Netflix USA) [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication]
Summary: Michael Alter says Matthew contradicts the other three Gospels re: “when was the stone rolled away?” But I show how Matthew’s Greek also allows a harmonious “past” interpretation.
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