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 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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15 thoughts on “Contradictions in the Resurrection Account

  1. The attempt to harmonize the Bible contradictions, such as those you point out and the many, many more, creates yet another version – the harmonized version – that is not “gospel” in any way and leads the believer / harmonizer into the trap of creating his/her own version of those stories. Since the acceptance of one of these resurrection myths, let’s say the version in Luke, means NOT accepting the other versions, the believer is lead down the path of cherry picking. Is it any wonder Christianity has over 33,000 separate denominations? If they can’t agree on the ‘truth’ and meaning of their holy book, how can they expect us non-believers to accept it as inspired and THE word of any god?

        • I wasn’t clear. This is what I should have said, “Not all scientists agree how life began. So since scientists contradict one another life doesn’t exist.” The point is that because people don’t agree doesn’t mean something does or does not exist as was Gene’s point with his 33,000 denomination point.

        • I’m not sure that your response directly rebuts Gene’s point.

          There is simply no scientific consensus about how life began. No (reputable) scientist will say, “Yep, we’ve got abiogenesis all figured out. Case closed.”

          On the other hand, people in each of those 33,000 denominations/sects will indeed say that they’ve got it figured out. In general, they’re not seekers; they’ve found their spiritual framework.

  2. Hey Bob,

    I am planning on responding more thoroughly to this post but that takes time and time is something I do not have much of these days. However, I would like to point out that simply because one writer details an event and others do not that does not mean it is a “contradiction”. Those are really not fair criticisms since in order to have a contradiction one story must be compared to another.

  3. Hey Bob,

    I have been pretty busy as of late but I would hold to the harmonization of the text of Scripture. In any historical research harmonization is needed. But I am not going to get into that because that isn’t the point I want to address at this point. You said:

    “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?”

    This is just one instance that shows how fallacious and weak this list is. Allow me to explain on this point. Here we need to notice context. The gospels are recording the life of Jesus and his interactions with his disciples. However, these two stories are separated by two is years. Jesus gave his disciples a specific boundary in Matt. 10 but that does not mean that the gospel isn’t supposed to go out to all. All it means is that at that time the disciples are only to minister to the Jews. Romans 1:16 says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

    I would suggest that you are arguing points that really have zero foundation. This is just one of them.

    • You’ve done a decent job showing that you can harmonize these separate verses. You’ve done nothing to examine all possible interpretations and show that not only is your interpretation the best, but it’s by far the best.

      You say you can harmonize these two verses, and I believe you! That doesn’t resolve the issue. “Zero foundation”? You’ve not shown this.

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  7. There are two different accounts by survivors of the Titanic. Some insisted that it broke in half before it sank, some insisted it did not (we now know it broke in two after it sank). What can account for these ACTUAL EYEWITNESSES stating two opposing things. The SAME thing happens many times with witnesses of the Holocaust (no, I am not questioning the Holocaust). Some people would insist some soap was used that was made from dead jews, had a specific color, name, etc. Survivors from the same exact camp said they never heard of such a thing.
    Contradiction could mean one account is wrong, the other account is true. Doesn’t mean that the most important actuality did not occur! Further, we have no ending for Mark. It’s not that he didn’t write one, it’s that the surviving text we have appears to have been torn of. Thus a dubious ending was later written. Also, if something is mentioned in one Gospel, but not mentioned in another, that does not qualify as a contradiction by any stretch of the imagination. You may wish to consider that perhaps some Christians are correct when they discuss their ideas of accuracy. You are guilty of inaccuracy, just like the Gospels may contradict each other. It is more believable that they contradict, rather than one “revisionist” account. People would say it was just made up. The church fathers had no qualms about using all four versions. Lastly, if you took 4-20 people out of my life, they would give different accounts and describe me differently. Jesus sounds angry a lot in Mark. Mark probably wanted to emphasize Jesus’ disagreements with the Pharisees and Saducees. In other Gospel accounts he is described differently. Well, we do have “Range of emotions” so the nit-picky contradictions don’t really mean much to me and I have studied theology and Christian history for over 30 years.

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