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 #21 The Differing Accounts of the Women at the Cross during the Crucifixion
The synoptic narratives reported differing details of those present at Jesus’s crucifixion and the actions they took. (p. 167)
That’s to be expected. Differences are not necessarily contradictions, as I have explained to atheists and biblical skeptics till I am blue in the face (to no avail).
Mark 14:50 reports that the only people present at the death of Jesus were several women. (p. 167)
Wrong. Mark 14:50 says nothing about the crucifixion. It says that the disciples “forsook him, and fled” at the time of the arrest of Jesus. This is very shoddy, reckless argumentation” not even worthy of the name.
One chapter later, Mark 15:40 tersely reports a singular action: “There were also women looking on afar off.” Mark adds that “among whom where Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome.” Consequently, there were also other women present in the vicinity when Jesus died. (p. 167)
All correct. What the text does not say is that — of Jesus’ followers and disciples — only women were present at the crucifixion (however “far off” they were).
Contrary to the synoptic Gospels, John alone has Jesus’s mother present during Jesus’s crucifixion. This is the first appearance of Jesus’s mother in John. Out of nowhere she suddenly appears. (p. 167)
This is untrue. Mary had appeared in the story of the wedding of Cana, which detailed the first public miracle of Jesus” turning the water into wine (Jn 2:1-11). She was referred to as “the mother of Jesus” twice (2:1, 3) and “His mother” (2:5).
Alter then goes on to provide a list of the “few references to her physical presence in any of the gospels” (p. 167): presumably a complete list, which he presents “chronologically” (eight passages in all). But it’s not complete. He manages to somehow overlook Matthew 2:11, which is about Jesus’ Nativity, Matthew 2:14, 20-21, about the flight of Mary and Joseph to Egypt, Matthew 12:46: “his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him”, Mark 3:31: “And his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside they sent to him and called him” (in 3:32 the crowd reiterates this), and Luke 8:19: “Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him for the crowd” (reiterated by the crowd in 8:20).
He found eight passages that reference the “physical presence” of Mary, and missed five (or 38% of all of them). The cause was obviously his overlooking a necessary search of “his mother” and “mother”. This brought about his erroneous statement about Mary first appearing in the Gospel of John in the 19th chapter and a list that missed five mentions of her being present.
Consequently, there is no description of the physical presence of Jesus’s mother for almost eighteen years, from the age of twelve to the age of thirty. (p. 168)
That’s right. So what?
Not only is this physical appearance highly remarkable but John also reports a terse communication Jesus had with his mother while on the cross: . . .
Jn 19:26 When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman,
behold thy son! (p. 168)
“Terse” is defined by Dictionary.com (2nd definition, which seems to be what Alter is implying) as “abruptly concise; curt; brusque.” Following the same source’s definition for “curt” we find: “rudely brief in speech or abrupt in manner.” And “brusque” is “abrupt in manner; blunt; rough.” Basically, then, Alter is arguing that Jesus was being “rude, short, rough, or improperly blunt” with His own mother, while He was dying: something far less than deferential or respectful. This is outrageous, even considering that Alter, of course, dies not believe in the Christian view of Jesus as God incarnate. It’s simply not what was happening in this instance.
Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin — as he always does — provides an excellent explanation of this:
The title “Woman” is not a sign of disrespect, it is the opposite — a title of dignity. It is a formal mode of speech equivalent to the English titles, “Lady” or “Madam.”
The Protestant commentator William Barclay writes:
“The word Woman (gynai) is also misleading. It sounds to us very rough and abrupt. But . . . In Homer it is the title by which Odysseus addresses Penelope, his well-loved wife [Iliad 3, 204; Odyssey 19, 221]. It is the title by which Augustus, the Roman Emperor, addressed Cleopatra, the famous Egyptian queen. So far from being a rough and discourteous way of address, it was a title of respect. We have no way of speaking in English which exactly renders it; but it is better to translate it Lady which gives at least the courtesy in it” (The Gospel of John, revised edition, vol. 1, p. 98).
Similarly, the Protestant Expositor’s Bible Commentary, published by Zondervan, states:
Jesus’ reply to Mary was not so abrupt as it seems. ‘Woman’ (gynai) was a polite form of address. . . . (vol. 9, p. 42).
Even the Fundamentalist Wycliff Bible Commentary put out by Moody Press acknowledges in its comment on this verse, “In his reply, the use of ‘Woman’ does not involve disrespect (cf. 19:26)” (p. 1076).
So there is nothing to this. It doesn’t even make any sense. Alter believes John simply makes up what Jesus said; it has little relation to either accuracy or history. So why would he make up a scene in which a dying Jesus, worried about the protection of His mother after He is dead, entrusts her to one of His best friends, but does so in a “terse” and rude manner? What sense does that make? It makes no sense, whether one regards the words as historical or pure fiction. It’s not plausible. Jesus (from all we know of Him) simply wouldn’t act like that, and if it is mere myth, John would have no possible reason (that I can imagine, anyway) to present Him as rude to His mother at such an agonizing moment, near His own death. It’s purely absurd to think so.
Yet not one of the synoptic Gospels reports the dying words of Jesus to his mother or even her presence at his death. In particular, it is extraordinary, if not incredible, that Luke did not report these events having examined “all things from the very first” (Lk 1:3) and to have deliberately omitted them. (p. 168)
So what? In God’s providence, He saw that one of the evangelists did mention it, and that is sufficient to preserve it for posterity. John reported her close presence and the words spoken because he was an eyewitness; he was there! Alter doesn’t assert it here, but the title of this sub-section implies that this omission is one of his alleged “contradictions” (using his arbitrary, modified, unscholarly definition of the word in order to suit his own agenda of NT-bashing). But, again, I reiterate: arguments from silence do not establish contradiction.
Alter further charges:
Finally, John 19:25 contradicted the synoptic Gospels by reporting that the women were positioned close to the cross when Jesus died: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.” Yet the synoptic narrative reports that the women were positioned far away.
Mk 15:40-41 There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome; (Who also, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered unto him;) and many other women which came up with him unto Jerusalem.
Mt 27:55-56 And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him: Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children.
Lk 23:49, 55 And all his acquaintance, and the women that followed him from Galilee, stood afar off, beholding these things . . . And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. (p. 169)
We agree that the Synoptics report onlookers being “afar off” (KJV) or at a “distance” (RSV). If tradition is correct, we know the spot where they stood, and I stood on it in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in October 2014. My rough estimate is that it was about half of a football field away (150 feet). This is consistent with the biblical “afar” or at a “distance.”
Alter himself notes (see above) that only the Gospel of John reports Jesus’ mother having been at the crucifixion. And it’s the only Gospel that alludes to one of the disciples — John Himself — being there. What Alter neglects to consider is that this could very well have been a report of a different occurrence from what the Synoptics detail. We have no time frame given. We know that Jesus’ agony and death on the cross took about six hours.
In fact, we have some possible clues about the time of each described observance. In terms of the order of things mentioned in the text, Mark refers to the female onlookers three verses (15:40) after He notes Jesus’ death (15:37). It’s not proof, but it’s a hint or indication that they were there at the time of His death. Matthew utilizes the same order of report: Jesus’ death (27:50) / description of the women (27:55-56). It’s the same again in Luke: Jesus’ death (23:46) and noting the women and other “acquaintances” present (23:49).
John, on the other hand, seems to place his scene shortly after Jesus was nailed to the cross, since he talks about the soldiers dividing up Jesus’ garments: “When the soldiers had crucified Jesus they took his garments and made four parts” (19:23) and right after mentioning that, he describes “his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Mag’dalene” who were “standing by the cross” (19:25), along with John himself (19:26). Again, it’s not ironclad proof but it’s interesting and something to consider in the overall mix.
Where there is overlap of mentioned women (present near the cross and at a “distance”), it’s still not undeniably contradictory, since that would require variant assertions of a person being in two different places at a given particular time or the entire time. For example, Mary Magdalene was mentioned as being close to the cross with Mary the mother of Jesus, and further off (in Matthew and Mark). She would simply have moved (possibly being forced to move by the Roman soldiers) from one place to the other: perhaps earlier by the cross and later (up to the time of Jesus’ death) at a distance.
None of this is a big deal or a stretch at all. In my own life, I recall that I attended a Detroit Pistons game with my daughter (against the Golden State Warriors: then the world champions). It could rightly be said that “Dave and Angelina watched the two teams from the fifth row” and also that we “observed the Pistons and the Warriors from distant seats up near the rafters.” Both things are true! But more information needs to be added to explain it fully. When we were in the fifth row it was temporarily watching the teams warm up. Then we moved to our actual seats that we had tickets for. So we did both things, and it’s not contradictory at all. They were at different times. But if someone said “Dave and his daughter watched the game the entire time from row 5 and someone else said we did that — the entire time — from one of the last rows, then that would be contradictory, and either both reports would be wrong or one wrong and the other right: to be determined upon further investigation.
Likewise, what would be an actual logical contradiction regarding our topic would be if some verses describing the crucifixion stated that all of the female onlookers (whether Mary, the mother of Jesus is mentioned by name or not) were without exception, always standing at a distance, the entire time of the crucifixion, while John 19:25 taught that Mary, Jesus’ mother stood near the cross. That’s an actual contradiction. There are a number of scenarios that can be imagined that would be undeniably contradictory (according to the laws of logic: not the unbridled, irrational whims and fancies of Bible critics). But of course the Gospels don’t assert anything even remotely contradictory.
My explanation is not in the least inconsistent with all the relevant texts considered together. Nothing in those texts would preclude such a theory, which is not implausible at all. Two different things were being recorded: observance from afar, and observance much closer to the cross. And even overlap of the women mentioned is not a contradiction unless the claims contradict and are incoherent and confused with regard to the specific times and locations involved.
Summary: Michael Alter argues that the New Testament presents conflicting and “contradictory” accounts as regards the women at the crucifixion. I show how these charges have no basis in either the relevant texts or logic.
Tags: alleged Bible contradictions, alleged Resurrection contradictions, Bible “contradictions”, Bible “difficulties”, Bible Only, biblical inspiration, biblical prooftexts, biblical skeptics, biblical theology, exegesis, hermeneutics, Holy Bible, inerrancy, infallibility, Jewish anti-Christian polemics, Jewish apologetics, Jewish critique of Christianity, Jewish-Christian discussion, Michael J. Alter, New Testament, New Testament critics, New Testament skepticism, Resurrection “Contradictions”, Resurrection of Jesus, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, women at the crucifixion, bystanders at the crucifixion, onlookers at the crucifixion