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.

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10 Reasons the Crucifixion Story Makes No Sense

Does God exist?  You wouldn't think so given the bizarre crucifixion story.It’s Good Friday, and I’d like to rerun one of my most popular posts, about the crucifixion. 

I’m afraid that the crucifixion story doesn’t strike me as that big a deal.

The Christian will say that death by crucifixion was a horrible, humiliating way to die.  That the death of Jesus was a tremendous sacrifice, more noble and selfless than a person sacrificing himself for the benefit of a butterfly.  And isn’t it worth praising something that gets us into heaven?

Here are ten reasons why I’m unimpressed.

1. Sure, death sucks, but why single out this one?  Lots of people die.  In fact, lots died from crucifixion.  The death of one man doesn’t make all the others insignificant.  Was Jesus not a man but actually a god?  If so, that fact has yet to be shown.

It’s not like this death is dramatically worse than death today.  Crucifixion may no longer be a worry, but cancer is.  Six hours of agony on the cross is pretty bad, but so is six months of agony from cancer.

2. What about that whole hell thing?  An eternity of torment for even a single person makes Jesus’s agony insignificant by comparison, and it counts for nothing when you consider the billions that are apparently going to hell.

3. Jesus didn’t even die.  The absurdity of the story, of course, is the resurrection.  If Jesus died, there’s no miraculous resurrection, and if there’s a resurrection, there’s no sacrifice through death.  Miracle or sacrifice—you can’t have it both ways.  The gospels don’t say that he died for our sins but that he had a rough couple of days for our sins.

4. Taking on the sin vs. removal of sin aren’t symmetric.  We didn’t do anything to get original sin.  We just inherited it from Adam.  So why do we have to do anything to get the redemption?  If God demands a sacrifice, he got it.  That’s enough.  Why the requirement to believe to access the solution?

5. The reason behind the sacrifice—mankind’s original sin—makes no sense.  Why blame Adam for a moral lapse that he couldn’t even understand?  Remember that he hadn’t yet eaten the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, so who could blame him when he made a moral mistake?

And how can we inherit original sin from Adam?  Why blame us for something we didn’t do?  That’s not justice, and the Bible agrees:

Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin (Deut. 24:16)

6. Jesus made a sacrifice—big deal.  Jesus is perfect, so his doing something noble is like water flowing downhill.  It’s unremarkable since he’s only acting out his nature.  What else would you expect from a perfect being?

But imagine if I sacrificed myself for someone.  In the right circumstance, I’d risk my life for a stranger—or at least I hope I would.  That kind of sacrifice is very different.  A selfish, imperfect man acting against his nature to make the ultimate unselfish sacrifice is far more remarkable than a perfect being acting according to his nature, and yet people make sacrifices for others all the time.  So why single out the actions of Jesus?  Aren’t everyday noble actions by ordinary people more remarkable and laudable?

7. What is left for God to forgive?  The Jesus story says that we’ve sinned against God (a debt).  Let’s look at two resolutions to this debt.

(1) God could forgive the debt of sin.  You and I are asked to forgive wrongs done against us, so why can’t God?  Some Christians say that to forgive would violate God’s sense of justice, but when one person forgives another’s debt, there’s no violation of justice.  For unspecified reasons, God doesn’t like this route.

And that leaves (2) where Jesus pays for our sin.  But we need to pick 1 or 2, not both.  If Jesus paid the debt, there’s no need for God’s forgiveness.  There’s no longer anything for God to forgive, since there’s no outstanding debt.

Here’s an everyday example: when I pay off my mortgage, the bank doesn’t in addition forgive my debt.  There’s no longer a debt to forgive!  Why imagine that God must forgive us after he’s already gotten his payment?

8. The Jesus story isn’t even remarkable within mythology.  Jesus’s sacrifice was small compared to the Greek god Prometheus, who stole fire from Olympus and gave it to humanity.  Zeus discovered the crime and punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock so that a vulture could eat his liver.  Each night, his liver grew back and the next day the vulture would return, day after agonizing day.  The gospel story, where Jesus is crucified once and then pops back into existence several days later, is unimpressive by comparison.

9. The Bible itself rejects God’s savage “justice.”  This is the 21st century.  Must Iron Age customs persist so that we need a human sacrifice?  If God loves us deeply and he wants to forgive us, couldn’t he just … forgive us?  That’s how we do it, and that’s the lesson we get from the parable of the Prodigal Son where the father forgives the son even after being wronged by him.  If that’s the standard of mercy, why can’t God follow it?  Since God is so much greater a being than a human, wouldn’t he be that much more understanding and willing to forgive?

If we were to twist the Prodigal Son parable to match the crucifixion story, the father might demand that the innocent son be flogged to pay for the crime of the prodigal son.  Where’s the logic in that?

10. The entire story is incoherent.  Let’s try to stumble through the drunken logic behind the Jesus story.

God made mankind imperfect and inherently vulnerable to sin.  Living a sinless life is impossible, so hell becomes unavoidable.  That is, God creates people knowing for certain that they’re going to deserve eternity in hell when they die.  Why create people that he knew would be destined for eternal torment?

But don’t worry—God sacrificed Jesus, one of the persons of God, so mankind could go to heaven instead.

So God sacrificed himself to himself so we could bypass a rule that God made himself and that God deliberately designed us to never be able to meet?  I can’t even understand that; I certainly feel no need to praise God for something so nonsensical.  It’s like an abused wife thanking her abuser.  We can just as logically curse God for consigning us to hell from birth.

Perhaps I can be forgiven for being unimpressed by the crucifixion story.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Shroud of Turin: An Easter Miracle?

Christian apologetics and atheismThe Shroud of Turin is a 14-foot-long linen cloth with the faint image of a man.  Imagine the cloth going from feet to head along a man’s back, then folding over the head to continue back to the feet.

Many Christians think that it is the burial shroud of Jesus and that the supernatural energy of resurrecting his dead body burned an image into the cloth.  It first appears in history in 1390 in France and was moved to Turin, Italy in 1578.  Fire and water damage from 1532 are visible on the shroud.

Proponents argue that marks from Jesus’s last hours are on the figure—the nail wounds, the scourgings, and the cuts from the crown of throns—but is this the real burial shroud of Jesus?

The first problem is scriptural.  This doesn’t match the story of the empty tomb from the Bible.

[Simon Peter] saw the strips of linen lying there [in the tomb], as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head.  (John 20:6–7)

Strips of linen (presumably for the body) and a separate head cloth is not a single shroud.  And there is no evidence besides the shroud itself to imagine that first-century Jews buried their dead that way.

They took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.  (John 19:40)

This wasn’t just a pinch of spice—it was 75 pounds worth (John 19:39).  And yet we see no evidence of all this spice applied to the body in the shroud image.

Next, an artistic problem.  If a linen cloth were laid over a prone person, it would drape over the face.  That is, it would wrap around to some extent.

A typical man’s face is roughly six inches wide.  But it’s more like eleven inches from one ear, across the face, to the other ear.  Granted, the shroud wouldn’t be vacuum-sealed to hug the face completely.  But we would expect to see some wraparound distortion to the image when the shroud was later laid flat.  The image is actually thinner than an ordinary person, not wider, as it ought to be.

Could this have been a hoax or some other fake?  Traffic in holy Christian relics was common during the medieval period—it’s been said that there were enough pieces of the cross to build a ship and enough nails from the crucifixion to hold it together.  And this wasn’t the only shroud—history records forty of them.  Obviously, at least 39 of these must be false.

In fact, our first well-documented discussion of the shroud in 1390 states that it is a forgery and that the artist was known.

(An aside: I’ve written before about the apologists’ Naysayer Argument, that the gospel story must be true because, if it weren’t, we’d have rebuttals from contemporaries.  The Shroud debate nicely defeats this argument.  Our oldest reliable source is a rebuttal of the supernatural claim of the shroud, and yet this obviously didn’t eliminate Christian belief.)

Many problems argue against the shroud being the real thing.  Carbon dating says that the linen is from the 1300s, there is evidence of tempera paint creating the image, 2000-year-old blood should be black and not red, pollen on the shroud seems to be only from Europe and not also Israel, the weave of the fabric doesn’t appear to be authentic, and so on.  Christian apologists have a different way to rationalize away each of these problems, but the most economical explanation, the one that neatly explains the evidence, is that it’s a fake.

There’s a surprisingly large amount of information on this topic.  It is clearly important for a lot of people.  The best that can be said of the shroud is that we can’t prove that it wasn’t the burial cloth of Jesus.  But that’s no reason to believe that it was, at least for anyone who cares about evidence.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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500 Eyewitnesses to the Risen Christ? Not likely.

How does Christianity stand up to atheist critique?Christians often point to 1 Corinthians 15 as important evidence for the resurrection.  This book, Paul’s first epistle to the church in Corinth, was written roughly a decade before the earliest gospel of Mark (written in 65–70CE).  This makes it the earliest claim for the resurrection of Jesus.

Here’s the interesting section:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to [Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have [died]. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor. 15:3–8)

Claims about this important passage are all over the map.  Some argue that it actually precedes Paul’s writing.  They say that it appears to be in a different style, as if it were a creedal statement (like the modern Apostle’s Creed) that would have been recited by believers.  That is, though Paul wrote this passage 25 years after the crucifixion, it had been an oral creed since as early as a few years after Jesus’ death.  They cite this as evidence that belief in the resurrection was even earlier than Paul’s writing.

Others propose a very different interpretation: that the different style suggests that it was added to copies decades after Paul’s writing.

To understand this interpretation, consider how we know what the epistle says.  Our earliest copy is from papyrus P46, part of the Chester Beatty collection.  This manuscript was written in roughly 200 CE, which means that our best copy of 1 Corinthians is 150 years older than the original letter.  150 years gives a lot of opportunity for hanky-panky as scribes copy and recopy the letter, especially during the early turbulent years of the new religion of Christianity.

But I give this simply as background.  We can’t resolve this scholarly debate about the authenticity of this passage.  What I find more interesting is one verse:

[Jesus] appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have [died].  (1 Cor. 15:6).

This is a popular passage among apologists, and they see it as powerful evidence in favor of the resurrection story.  Granting for now that Paul actually wrote this in the mid-50s CE, that’s a lot of eyewitnesses, and Paul in effect dares his readers to go check out his claim if they want.  Who would make a claim like this, making himself vulnerable to readers catching him in a lie (or at least an error), if he didn’t know it were true?

But this bold and confident defense of the resurrection wilts under scrutiny.  Let’s imagine that we’re in that church in Corinth and we have just received Paul’s letter.

1. Who are these 500 people?  Names and addresses, please?  To find out, someone would need to send a letter back to Paul (200 miles across the Aegean Sea in Ephesus) to ask.  Paul’s challenge is vague, not inviting.

2. How many will still be around?  Paul is writing in about 55CE about a supposed event that occurred over 20 years earlier.  Of the 500 eyewitnesses, how many are still alive and still in Jerusalem, ready to be questioned?

3. Who would make this trip?  Jerusalem is 800 miles away, and getting there would involve a long, dangerous, and expensive trip.

4. How many candidates for this trip?  If the church in Corinth had thousands of members, the risk of someone with the means and motivation to make the big trip to Jerusalem might be high.  But Paul had only started the church a couple of years earlier.  How many members would there have been … maybe 100?

5. Who would challenge Paul?  If the founder of the church says something, who’s likely to question it?  There might well have been people who were unimpressed by Paul’s message, but these would never have joined the church.  Others within the church might have become disappointed and left.  Even if these people might have wanted to topple Paul, they wouldn’t have been in the church community to learn of the claim.

6. What did the eyewitnesses actually see?  Let’s imagine that we have the money and daring to make the trip, we’ve found at least a handful of names that we can search for to find many of the eyewitnesses, and we’re rebellious enough to spit in the face of our church’s founder and see if he’s a liar.

After many adventures, we reach Jerusalem.  What will the eyewitnesses say?  At best they’ll say that, over 20 years ago, they saw a man.  Big deal.  Did they see him dead before?  Were they close enough to the movement to be certain that they recognized Jesus?  Human memory is notoriously inaccurate.  There’s a big difference between the certainty one has in a memory and its accuracy—these don’t always go together.

7. So what?  Suppose all these unlikely things happen—we make the long trip and we track down eyewitnesses—and we conclude that Paul’s story is nonsense.  If we successfully make the long trip back, what difference will this make?  Even if we had the guts to tell everyone that Paul’s story was wrong, so what?  Who would believe us over the church’s founder?  We’d be labeled as bad apples, we’d be expelled from the church, and the church would proceed as before.  And Paul’s letter would still be copied through the centuries for us to read today!

As with the Naysayer Hypothesis, apologists imagine that this argument is far stronger than it is.  And if Paul’s claim is such compelling evidence, why didn’t the gospels include it?  None do, and they were all written after 1 Corinthians.

Who would imagine that a supernatural claim written two thousand years ago would be compelling when we wouldn’t find it compelling if written two minutes ago?

Let’s consider two possible conclusions about this verse.

  1. The resurrection happened as the gospels describe it.  (Let’s grant for now that the gospels all tell the same story.)
  2. Tales circulated orally in the years after the crucifixion among Jesus’s followers, with the number of eyewitnesses to the risen Christ growing with time.

Why imagine a supernatural story when a natural story explains the facts?  Even supposing that Paul invented the story to boost his credibility or strengthen his church, this is a plausible natural explanation that trumps the supernatural one.

Photo credit: University of Michigan

Articles in support of the Christian position:

  • “1 Corinthians 15:3–8,” Agent Intellect blog, 2/24/09.
  • Keith Krell, “The Facts of Faith (1 Corinthians 15:1-11),” bible.org.

10 Reasons the Crucifixion Story Makes No Sense

Does God exist?  You wouldn't think so given the bizarre crucifixion story.I’m afraid that the crucifixion story doesn’t strike me as that big a deal.

The Christian will say that death by crucifixion was a horrible, humiliating way to die.  That the death of Jesus was a tremendous sacrifice, more noble and selfless than a person sacrificing himself for the benefit of a butterfly.  And isn’t it worth praising something that gets us into heaven?

Here are ten reasons why I’m unimpressed.

1. Sure, death sucks, but why single out this one?  Lots of people die.  In fact, lots died from crucifixion.  The death of one man doesn’t make all the others insignificant.  Was Jesus not a man but actually a god?  If so, that fact has yet to be shown.

It’s not like this death is dramatically worse than death today.  Crucifixion may no longer be a worry, but cancer is.  Six hours of agony on the cross is pretty bad, but so is six months of agony from cancer.

2. What about that whole hell thing?  An eternity of torment for even a single person makes Jesus’s agony insignificant by comparison, and it counts for nothing when you consider the billions that are apparently going to hell.

3. Jesus didn’t even die.  The absurdity of the story, of course, is the resurrection.  If Jesus died, there’s no miraculous resurrection, and if there’s a resurrection, there’s no sacrifice through death.  Miracle or sacrifice—you can’t have it both ways.  The gospels don’t say that he died for our sins but that he had a rough couple of days for our sins.

4. Taking on the sin vs. removal of sin aren’t symmetric.  We didn’t do anything to get original sin.  We just inherited it from Adam.  So why do we have to do anything to get the redemption?  If God demands a sacrifice, he got it.  That’s enough.  Why the requirement to believe to access the solution?

5. The reason behind the sacrifice—mankind’s original sin—makes no sense.  Why blame Adam for a moral lapse that he couldn’t even understand?  Remember that he hadn’t yet eaten the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, so who could blame him when he made a moral mistake?

And how can we inherit original sin from Adam?  Why blame us for something we didn’t do?  That’s not justice, and the Bible agrees:

Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin (Deut. 24:16)

6. Jesus made a sacrifice—big deal.  Jesus is perfect, so his doing something noble is like water flowing downhill.  It’s unremarkable since he’s only acting out his nature.  What else would you expect from a perfect being?

But imagine if I sacrificed myself for someone.  In the right circumstance, I’d risk my life for a stranger—or at least I hope I would.  That kind of sacrifice is very different.  A selfish, imperfect man acting against his nature to make the ultimate unselfish sacrifice is far more remarkable than a perfect being acting according to his nature, and yet people make sacrifices for others all the time.  So why single out the actions of Jesus?  Aren’t everyday noble actions by ordinary people more remarkable and laudable?

7. What is left for God to forgive?  The Jesus story says that we’ve sinned against God (a debt).  Let’s look at two resolutions to this debt.

(1) God could forgive the debt of sin.  You and I are asked to forgive wrongs done against us, so why can’t God?  Some Christians say that to forgive would violate God’s sense of justice, but when one person forgives another’s debt, there’s no violation of justice.  For unspecified reasons, God doesn’t like this route.

And that leaves (2) where Jesus pays for our sin.  But we need to pick 1 or 2, not both.  If Jesus paid the debt, there’s no need for God’s forgiveness.  There’s no longer anything for God to forgive, since there’s no outstanding debt.

Here’s an everyday example: when I pay off my mortgage, the bank doesn’t in addition forgive my debt.  There’s no longer a debt to forgive!  Why imagine that God must forgive us after he’s already gotten his payment?

8. The Jesus story isn’t even remarkable within mythology.  Jesus’s sacrifice was small compared to the Greek god Prometheus, who stole fire from Olympus and gave it to humanity.  Zeus discovered the crime and punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock so that a vulture could eat his liver.  Each night, his liver grew back and the next day the vulture would return, day after agonizing day.  The gospel story, where Jesus is crucified once and then pops back into existence several days later, is unimpressive by comparison.

9. The Bible itself rejects God’s savage “justice.”  This is the 21st century.  Must Iron Age customs persist so that we need a human sacrifice?  If God loves us deeply and he wants to forgive us, couldn’t he just … forgive us?  That’s how we do it, and that’s the lesson we get from the parable of the Prodigal Son where the father forgives the son even after being wronged by him.  If that’s the standard of mercy, why can’t God follow it?  Since God is so much greater a being than a human, wouldn’t he be that much more understanding and willing to forgive?

If we were to twist the Prodigal Son parable to match the crucifixion story, the father might demand that the innocent son be flogged to pay for the crime of the prodigal son.  Where’s the logic in that?

10. The entire story is incoherent.  Let’s try to stumble through the drunken logic behind the Jesus story.

God made mankind imperfect and inherently vulnerable to sin.  Living a sinless life is impossible, so hell becomes unavoidable.  That is, God creates people knowing for certain that they’re going to deserve eternity in hell when they die.  Why create people that he knew would be destined for eternal torment?

But don’t worry—God sacrificed Jesus, one of the persons of God, so mankind could go to heaven instead.

So God sacrificed himself to himself so we could bypass a rule that God made himself and that God deliberately designed us to never be able to meet?  I can’t even understand that; I certainly feel no need to praise God for something so nonsensical.  It’s like an abused wife thanking her abuser.  We can just as logically curse God for consigning us to hell from birth.

Perhaps I can be forgiven for being unimpressed by the crucifixion story.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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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