Contradictions in the Resurrection Account

A Swiss Army knife with dozens of crazy "blades"Since Easter was yesterday, I’d like to rerun a post about the resurrection story.

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.

Related posts:

Related links:

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.

Related links:

God Doesn’t Exist: Christianity Looks Invented

Let me propose this axiom: a human-invented religion will look radically different from the worship of a real god.  That is, human longing for the divine (or human imagination) will cobble together a very poor imitation of the real thing.

Let’s first look at an example in the domain of languages.  Imagine that you’re a linguist and you’re creating a tree of world languages.  Each language should be nearer languages that are related and similar, and it should be farther from those that are dissimilar.  Spanish and Portuguese are next to each other on the tree; add French, Italian, and others and call that the Romance Languages; add other language groups like Germanic, Celtic, and Indic and you get the Indo-European family; and so on.

Here’s your challenge: you have two more languages to fit in.  First, find the spot for English.  It’s pretty easy to see, based on geography, vocabulary, and language structure, that it fits into the Germanic group.  Next, an alien language like a real Klingon or Na’vi.  This one wouldn’t fit in at all and would be unlike every human language.

Now imagine a tree of world religions.  Your challenge is to find the place for Yahweh worship of 1000 BCE.  Is it radically different from all the manmade religions, as unlike manmade religions as the alien language was to human languages?  Or does it fit into the tree comfortably next to the other religions of the Ancient Near East, like English fits nicely into the Germanic group?

You’d expect the worship of the actual creator of the universe to look dramatically different from religions invented by Iron Age tribesmen in Canaan, but religious historians tell us that Yahweh looks similar to other Canaanite deities like Asherah, Baal, Moloch, Astarte, Yam, or Mot.  What could he be but yet another invented god?

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Related posts:

God Doesn’t Exist: Historians Reject the Bible Story

You’re probably aware that the person making a claim has the burden of proof.  In the courtroom, for example, the prosecution has the burden of proof.  There are no ties—when neither side makes a convincing case, the side that failed to carry its burden of proof loses.

The same is true for people who claim “God exists”—they have the burden of proof.  That makes it easier for atheists.  But now I want to make a positive claim: that atheism explains reality better than Christianity.

I plan a series of posts making arguments in support of the claim “God doesn’t exist.”  Here’s the first argument: historians reject the Bible story.

You never find the details of the Jesus story in a history book, like you would for Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great.  Why is that?  Why is the Bible not cataloged in the library in the History section?

Christians correctly point out that the historical grounding for the Jesus story has some compelling points.  For example, there are not one but four gospel accounts.  The time gap from original manuscripts to our oldest complete copies is relatively small.  And the number of Bible manuscripts is far greater than those referring to anyone else of that time.

The enormous difficulty, however, is that historians reject miracles—not just in the Bible but consistently in any book that claims to be history.

Remember the story of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon?  The historian Suetonius reported that Julius saw a divine messenger who urged him to cross.  This is the same Suetonius that Christians often point to when citing extra-biblical evidence for the historicity of the Jesus story.

Remember Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor who reportedly ordered the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem?  He was himself divinely conceived, and he ascended into heaven when he died1—or so the stories went.

Everyone knows about  Alexander the Great, but legends about his life grew up in his own time.  Did you hear the one about how the sea bowed in submission during his conquest of the Persian Empire?

Strip away the miracle claims from Julius Caesar or Caesar Augustus or Alexander the Great and you’re left with precisely the story of those leaders that we have in history.  But strip away the miracle claims from the Jesus story, and you have just the story of an ordinary man—a charismatic rabbi, perhaps, but hardly divine.

Christians argue that we should treat the Gospel story like any other biography of the time, and I agree—but I doubt they will like where that takes them.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

1Charles H. Talbert, What is a Gospel? (Mercer University Press, 1985), p. 32.

Other posts in the God Doesn’t Exist series: