Do The Resurrection Accounts Contain Contradictions?
Easter’s coming up soon, so I thought I’d discuss a topic that comes up frequently when discussing the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Skeptics frequently charge the gospels with containing contradictory accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection narratives. Not only does this pose problems for biblical inerrancy, but even if you didn’t presuppose inerrancy, it would seem to cast doubt on the gospel narratives even when treated as nothing more than ordinary documents. After all, how can we know what happened to Jesus if the disciples couldn’t get their stories straight?
*Why Contradictions Are Not A Point Against The Resurrection
What are these alleged contradictions the skeptics of Christianity often bring up? Before I go into that, let me make something very clear. Even if these really were contradictions, even if biblical inerrancy were false, that would not disprove the hypothesis that Jesus Christ rose from the dead after being crucified. For one thing, when I argue for Jesus’ empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and the sincerity of the disciple’s belief, I don’t presuppose biblical inerrancy or even divine inspiration. I apply various tests of authenticity that historians apply to many other historical works (e.g the principle of embarrassment, the principle of multiple attestation, the principle of dissimilarity, the principle of early testimony, etc.) and if certain places of the gospels pass one or more of these tests, than that makes it far more likely that the said instance is historical. We have more certainty in believing it happened than we would have in the absence of one of these tests.
The way I see it, the core of the resurrection narratives is the same in all 4 gospels.
I think a big problem that arises from focusing so much attention on these alleged discrepancies is that we tend to lose the forest for the trees. The main thing to keep in mind that the gospels are incredibly harmonious in the core of the passion and resurrection story. All of the alleged discrepancies are in the secondary, peripheral details. All four Gospels agree:
Jesus of Nazareth was crucified in Jerusalem under Roman authority throughout the Passover Feast, having been put under arrest and convicted on charges of blasphemy by the Jewish Sanhedrin and then having been accused of treason in front of Pontius Pilate. He died within several hours and was buried on Friday afternoon by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb, which was covered up by a large rock. Certain women followers of Jesus, including Mary Magdalene, having seen him be buried, visited His tomb early on Sunday morning, only to find that Jesus’ body was gone. After that, Jesus appeared alive from the dead to the disciples, including Peter, who then became proclaimers of the message of His resurrection.
All four Gospels attest to these facts.
The only places that seem to be discrepancies are in the peripheral details, which don’t really make an impact on the story. For example, who went to the tomb? One woman, or several? How many angels were at the tomb? One angel or two? Was it already morning when the women (or woman) got there or was the sun beginning to rise? These are all secondary details that don’t really matter as far as deciding whether Jesus’ tomb was empty that morning and whether people subsequently saw Him alive.
As Detective and Apologist J. Warner Wallace writes in an article on The Poached Egg; “In all the cases I’ve ever worked, from simple theft and assault cases, to robberies and homicides, I’ve yet to have a case where the witnesses of the event agreed on every single detail. It’s never happened………… Skeptics often cite the variations between accounts as evidence of their unreliability. As a detective who has worked multiple eyewitness cases, I find their variations to be with an expected and acceptable range. And, like other cases involving more than one eyewitness, I find that some gospel accounts raise as many questions as they seem to answer. Interestingly, I also see the expected “unintentional eyewitness support” from one gospel account to another (I’ve written about this in my book); this support is precisely what I’ve seen in cold-case homicides that I’ve worked. Finally, let me say something about inerrancy and reliability. While I believe that the original gospel narratives are inerrant, I don’t need this standard to trust what the gospel accounts have to say about Jesus. Remember, reliable accounts are sometimes incorrect in some particular detail. This does not necessarily disqualify them, especially if the detail is not essential, can be understood on the basis of some additional testimony or evidence, and if the error on the part of the witness can be explained. Inerrancy is not required of witnesses in a court of law, reliability is. With a standard far lower than the gospels possess, the documents can still be considered reliable.”
In other words, we can still know whether Jesus died and lived as long as the eyewitnesses are reliable. They don’t have to be inerrant, just generally reliable.
What Are The Alleged Contradictions And Are They Really Contradictions?
I will not address these alleged contradictions. I can’t address ALL of the alleged contradictions skeptics often bring up in this one blog post, but I will address 10 of them that frequently get brought up.
1: Did Jesus Carry His Own Cross Or Not?
In Mark 15:21, Matthew 27:32, and in Luke 23:26, Jesus gets help from Simon of Cyrene to carry His own cross when He's so weak, He stumbles and cannot carry it anymore. In John 19:17, Jesus carries his own cross the entire way.
This one is actually pretty easy to answer. I think it’s clear that Matthew, Mark, and Luke record the instance of Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry His own cross, while John simply omits it. John just simply skips over the part about Simon helping Jesus. Why John did that? I don’t know. Almost everyone agrees that John’s gospel was the last one to be written. It’s very likely that John knew that the other gospels already existed and that’s why he chose to omit not just the instance of Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross, but a lot more things that the synopics choose to include. J. Warner Wallace, in his book “Cold Case Christianity” gives an example of this happening in one of his interviews with witnesses to a burglary. He says that they all gave their version of what happened to him, but then he realized that there was one more witness that he didn’t know about! She came up to him and simply chose to omit everything the other witnesses already said. She figured that since the other witnesses already told him these things, there was no need for her to rehash those details. She chose simply to add more information to the details the other witnesses already gave. J. Warner Wallace then argues that he thinks the apostle John was doing exactly the same thing. He chose to mention things the synoptic gospels did not, for example, Jesus’ conversation with Nichodemus.
2: When crucified, Jesus’ cross had an inscription — but there are several different things that the sign says. Just what exactly did this sign above Jesus’ head say? Which one is correct?
Mark 15:26 - The inscription: “The King of the Jews.”
Matthew 27:37 - The inscription: “This is Jesus the King of the Jews.”
Luke 23:38 - The inscription: “This is the King of the Jews.”
John 19:19 - The inscription: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”
There are actually two different ways that all of these different descriptions could be true. For one thing, we know that the sign above Jesus’ head had the description in multiple different languages. Perhaps the statement that Jesus is King of the Jews is worded differently in each of the different languages, and the gospel writers simply translate the wording of only one of those languages. Another explanation is that the description actually said “This is Jesus of Nazareth, The King Of The Jews”, but each of the descriptions in the gospels is an impartial description. I’ll illustrate what I mean below. The bold letters below are the words that the gospel author decided to include in his account.
Mark 15:26 - “This is Jesus of Nazareth, The King Of The Jews”,
Matthew 27:37 - “This is Jesus of Nazareth, The King Of The Jews”,
Luke 23:38 - “This is Jesus of Nazareth, The King Of The Jews”,
John 19:19 - “This is Jesus of Nazareth, The King Of The Jews”,
So what we probably have here are simply impartial reports rather than contradictory reports.
3: Some gospels say Jesus was crucified with two thieves. Some say both thieves cursed Him, one repented and asked Jesus to remember him as He went into His kingdom.
Mark - The two thieves are mentioned, but there is no conversation
Matthew 27:44 - The two thieves taunt Jesus
Luke 23:39-42 - One thief taunts Jesus and the other believes in Jesus. Jesus promises the 2nd thief that they would be in Paradise that day.
This one is more difficult to resolve. But it might be that both thieves cursed Jesus and then one of them, after seeing Jesus’ love and compassion on the people, realized that Jesus was who He said He was. Maybe he thought “This must the son of God! After all, who else but God’s son can be so loving and forgiving towards people who doing something so extremely evil to him!” Maybe he thought that only the son of God could have such a super human ability to have that level of compassion on his enemies. Afterwards, he stopped cursing Jesus and asked Jesus to remember him when He went into His kingdom.
The reason why Mark doesn’t include any conversation at all is simply because he chose to omit it. This is another example of an impartial account rather than a contradictory account.
4: The crucifixion of Jesus is the central event of the Passion narrative, but the narratives don’t agree on when the crucifixion occurred.
Mark 15:25 - Jesus was crucified on the “third hour.”
John 19:14-15 - Jesus was crucified on the “sixth hour.”
Matthew, Luke - It’s not stated when the crucifixion starts, but the “sixth hour” occurs during the curcifixion
Out of all the alleged contradictions, this one may be the trickiest one to find a plausible answer to. There are some answers that some Christian Apologists have given, and they do sound somewhat plausible.
I read an article about biblical inerrancy and the historical case for Jesus Christ’s resurrection on ReasonableFaith.org, William Lane Craig’s website. It was the in the Q and A section of his website and he was writing a response to someone. Philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig writes “All the sources agree that Jesus was crucified on Friday. What is in dispute is whether Passover was on Thursday or Friday. The Synoptics seem to suggest that Jesus’ Last Supper with the disciples on Thursday night was a Passover meal. John agrees that Jesus did share a Last Supper with his disciples on Thursday night in the upper room prior to his betrayal and arrest. But John says that the Jewish leaders wanted to eliminate Jesus before the Passover meal began Friday night. So was Passover on Thursday or Friday? That’s the whole dispute! (I hope this puts the issue in perspective for you.)”
Dr. William Lane Craig went on to say
“One possibility is that John has moved the Passover to Friday to make Jesus’ death coincide with the slaughter of the Passover lambs in the Temple. But maybe not: since there were competing calendars in use in first century Palestine, the sacrifices may have been made on more than one day. The Pharisees and people from Galilee reckoned days as beginning at sunrise and ending at the following sunrise. But Sadducees and people from Judea reckoned days as beginning at sunset and ending with the next sunset. In our modern age, we adopt what I think is the rather weird convention that the day begins in the middle of the night at midnight and goes until the next midnight. Well, this difference in reckoning days completely throws off the dating of certain events.”
Dr. William Lane Craig went on to say “Passover lambs were offered on the 14th of the month of Nisan. According to the Galilean reckoning, the 14th of Nisan begins about 6:00 a.m. on the day we call Thursday. But for the Judean, 14 Nisan doesn’t begin until 12 hours later, about 6:00 p.m. on our Thursday. So when the Galilean, following Jewish regulations, slays the Passover lamb on the afternoon of 14 Nisan, what day does he do it on? Thursday. But when the Judean offers his lamb in sacrifice on the afternoon of the 14th of Nisan, what day is that? Friday! When night falls, he then feasts on the lamb, by his reckoning, on 15 Nisan. Thus, in order to meet the demands of both Galilean-Pharisaical sensibilities and of Judean-Sadducean sensibilities, the Temple priesthood would have to have made Passover sacrifices on both Thursday and Friday. Jesus, as a Galilean and knowing of his impending arrest, chose to celebrate the Passover Thursday night, whereas the chief priests and scribes responsible for Jesus’ arrest went by the Judean calendar, as John says. Although we have no evidence that Passover sacrifices were made on both days, such a solution is very plausible. The population of Jerusalem swelled to around 125,000 people during the Passover festival. It would be logistically impossible for the Temple priesthood to sacrifice enough lambs for that many people between 3:00 o’clock and 6:00 o’clock on one afternoon. They must have sacrificed on more than one day, which makes it entirely possible for Jesus and his disciples to celebrate the Passover Thursday night prior to his arrest.”
5: Jesus’ last words before dying are important, but no one seems to have written then down.
Mark 15:34-37, Matthew 27:46-50 - Jesus says: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (but they use different Greek words for “God” — Matthew uses “Eli” and Mark uses “Eloi”)
Luke 23:46 - Jesus says: “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.”
John 19:30 - Jesus says: “It is finished.”
This complaint, to me, seems rather petty. Just like with the sign above Jesus’ head, why can’t all of the wordings be correct. Jesus said “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” AND THEN He said “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” AND THEN “It is finished.” It appears to me that we don’t have contradictory accounts here; rather, we just have impartial reports.
And as for the different words used for “God”, this is simply a paraphrase. The propositional content of the statement is the same. Moreover, most scholars don’t think the gospel writers quoted Jesus verbatim. They think the gospel authors were more concerned with having the propositional content of Jesus’ sayings correct rather than the wording. The sermon on the mount in Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts are worded differently but they express exactly the same propositional content.
6: Who Visited Jesus' Tomb?
Mark 16:1 - Three women visit Jesus' tomb: Mary Magdalene, a second Mary, and Salome
Matthew 28:1 - Two women go over to Jesus' tomb: Mary Magdalene and another Mary
Luke 24:10 - At least five women visit Jesus' tomb: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and other women.
John 20:1 - One woman visits Jesus' tomb: Mary Magdalene. She later fetches Peter and another disciple
I think what we have here is a group of women going to the tomb. 5 of them, including Mary Magdalene (who is always named), Joanna, Salome, and Jesus’ mother. John focuses on Mary likely for dramatic effect, but he knows of other women, as is evident in Mary’s words, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2; cf. John 20:13). John simply chooses to zero in on Mary and not mention the other women.
7: What Time Was It When The Women Got To The Tomb?
Mark 16:2 - They arrive after sunrise
Matthew 28:1 - They arrive at about dawn
Luke 24:1 - It is early dawn when they arrive
John 20:1 - It is dark when they arrive
To me, this seems like the optimist and the pessimist arguing over whether the glass is half full. This was clearly very early in the morning. Like 5:00-6:00 am. At that time, it was probably mostly dark and the sun was just beginning to rise. It’s like the morning equivalent of twilight. Therefore, I think all of the descriptions are accurate. They just describe it differently, like the optimist and the pessimist describing the amount of water in the glass.
8: Were There Guards Or Not?
Matthew 27:62-66 - A guard is stationed outside the tomb the day after Jesus burial
Mark, Luke, John - No guard is mentioned. In Mark and Luke, the women who approach the tomb do not appear to expect to see any guards
But just because the guards aren’t mentioned in Mark’s, Luke’s, or John’s account does not mean that there weren’t any. Again, I think we merely have impartial accounts here rather than contradictory accounts. Moreover, think about this; if Mary and the other women did not expect there to be guards, then who did they think was going to move that massive stone for them when they arrived at Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body? They weren’t strong enough to move that stone by themselves. It’s very likely that there were indeed guards at the tomb and that the women thought that they would help them move the stone so that they could go in and anoint the body.
9: Did The Women Tell Anyone That Jesus Rose From The Dead or Not?
Mark 16:8 - The women keep quiet, despite being told to spread the word
Matthew 28:8 - The women go tell the disciples
Luke 24:9 - The women tell the eleven and to all the rest.
John 20:10-11 - Mary stays to cry while the two disciples just go home
Did the women tell anyone? Of course, they did! When Mark says that they said nothing to anyone, he obviously means as they fled back to the disciples. Mark foreshadows the appearances of Jesus in Galilee, so I think it’s clear that Mark did not mean that the women stayed silent about it forever. This inconsistency is merely make-believe.
10: “Were the disciples supposed to stay in Jerusalem and see Jesus there or were they to go to Galilee and see Jesus there? Depends on which gospel you read.” – Bart Erhman
Did the disciples leave Jerusalem for Galilee? Of course! Luke just chooses not to narrate any Galilean appearances because he wants to show how the Gospel became established in the holiest city of the Jews; Jerusalem.
Let me point out one criticism that’s often given to these sorts of answers biblical inerrantists like myself often give. Answers like these have been called “Ad-hoc” explanations. An Ad-Hoc explanation is an explanation that’s just sort of conjured up out of thin air in order to explain the evidence or data in a desperate attempt to keep a certain belief or hypothesis afloat. Examples of this would be like the Atheist’s multi-verse hypothesis to explain the fine tuning of the laws of physics to avoid the conclusion of creationism, and the young earth creationists’ “Apparent Age” argument to explain away the evidence for a 14 billion year old universe and a 5 billion year old Earth.
However, I don’t think the charge of ad-hoc explanation works in this circumstance. You see, the skeptic is claiming that these two different scriptural statements are contradictory. A contradiction, by definition is something that cannot possibly happen. If statement 1 and statement 2 are contradictory. It is logically impossible for both statement 1 and statement 2 to both be true. In short, the statement that the skeptic is making is “It is logically impossible for statement 1 and statement 2 to both be true” You see? The skeptic is saying “It is logically impossible for statement 1 and statement 2 to both be true” Now, what have I done in this blog post? I’ve shown you that “It is logically possible for statement 1 and statement 2 to both be true.” In other words, they both can be true. Maybe the two statement aren’t both true. Maybe one statement is true and the other one is false despite it being logically possible for both statements to be true.
For example, “I’m eating pizza” and “I’m wearing a white shirt” are two statements that both could be true. It is logically possible for both of those statements to be true. Nevertheless, one of those statements could be false despite it being possible that both are true. So we’re not arguing here that these explanations are true. Rather, we’re saying that it’s possible that these explanations could be the case. Therefore it refutes the one who says “They both cannot be the case”.
In order to show that a concept isn’t contradictory. You don’t have to show that it’s true. You just have to show that it’s possibly true. This is what I was trying to get Charles to understand in our recent debate “Are There Any Errors In The Bible?”
ON A FINAL NOTE!
Some have argued (e.g Lee Strobel, Frank Turek, J. Warner Wallace) that the fact that there are so many differences (note, I said “differences”, not “contradictions”) is one piece of evidence (among many) that these disciples really were eyewitnesses to the life and teachings of Jesus. After all, remember what J. Warner Wallace said in the quote near the beginning of this article, eyewitnesses hardly ever tell the same story in exactly the same way. If they were making up the resurrection story, they would have gotten together and harmonized their accounts to make sure they didn't differ in their tellings of it. This happens in courtrooms sometimes, and when it does, the judge immediately declares “Collusion!” They got together to make sure their lies lined up. True eyewitness testimonies have differences.