Do the resurrection accounts contradict each other?

If the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead is the most important and foundational truth of the Christian faith, how come the New Testament accounts of the resurrection and Jesus’ appearances are so contradictory? That is a relatively widespread response in atheist/apologetic circles, and I think amongst Muslim critics of the Christian faith. I think this one, in a blog raising objections to Christian faith, is a good example:

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 gospels)…[a list of other contradictions]

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?

It might be argued that, for Christians, the Easter Octave that we are in is a time for celebrating the truth of the resurrection, and not a time for nit-picking. But it seems that there are certainly questions out there, and there might be questions ‘in here’ too! In my experience, Bible-reading Christians have more questions than we often allow for! One of the last comments on the blog says:

The best way to lose faith in the Bible is to actually read the book, viewing all the absurdities, atrocities and contradictions. No wonder many Christians have not, or that non-believers show greater knowledge of it.

But actually reading the Bible simpliciter is not enough—at least, if we read it in the way we would read a car maintenance manual, or a modern novel, or a newspaper report—which is how many of the people in the blog discussion appear to be doing.  David Cavanagh, of the Salvation Army in Italy, comments online:

Some “conservative” or “traditional” Christians believe that Scripture is inspired and therefore must be historically (and, in some cases, scientifically) “accurate” or “true”.

Some “liberal” or “revisionist” Christians, recognising that there is much in Scripture which is difficult to square with “history” and “science”, argue that the Bible cannot be the definitive guide to Christian faith and life.

Both fail to recognise that they are imposing anachronistic and alien criteria of historiographical and scientific “accuracy” and “truth” onto ancient texts which function according to different dynamics

If our criterion of proof (from either side) is that we require the gospels to be modern historical accounts before we will trust them, then we have a basic problem—not just with the resurrection, but with any historical event that happened prior to the invention of the camera. We cannot separate our process of reading from our expectations of what we will find, and as we read we need to recognise three issues.

First, the gospel accounts of the resurrection, like all the events in the gospels, are highly compressed. Just think about what you have been doing in the last week, and how you might give a written account of what has happened; how many words would you need to offer even a basic outline? Many more than we have in the gospels!

Secondly, this means that the gospel writers have been highly selective in what they have described. The writer of the Fourth Gospel in fact confesses to this.

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book…Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (John 20.30, 21.25).

I cannot make my mind up whether this has been written with a sense of excitement at the publishing possibilities, or with a weary sigh at the effort of writing! But the point is that in any of the gospels, and even in them all put together, we do not have a full account of Jesus’ ministry, nor a mention of all the people that he engaged with. Hence it is perfectly possible for Luke to record Paul recalling words of Jesus that we do not have in the gospels (Acts 20.35), and that the naming of individuals relates to their importance in the early Christian community (according to the argument of Richard Bauckham). Notice, for example, that John 20.1 only mentions Mary Magdalene, but that her report to the disciples in the next verse says ‘We do not know where they have taken him’, making it clear that, whilst she alone is mentioned, she is not alone.

Thirdly, we need to recognise that the gospel writers are less concerned with chronology than we are, and are content to rearrange elements of their stories in order to make a theological point or tell us what they think the significance is of an action or teaching of Jesus. The most glaring example is Matthew’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’, which wasn’t a sermon and didn’t happen on a mountain, but it is something that we find everywhere. Surely Luke’s ‘Journey to Jerusalem’ motif from Luke 9.51 onwards is not there to tell us exactly when Jesus taught what, but to show (especially to his Gentile readers) the central importance of Jerusalem to Jesus’ ministry.


Bearing these things in mind, is it still possible to believe that the different accounts (not just in the gospels, but also in Acts, and Paul’s account in 1 Cor 15) are derived from a consistent series of actual events, rather than being ‘legendary’? If there are irreconcilable differences, then I think we need to take the challenge above seriously—but as I have demonstrated in relation to the ‘most difficult contradiction in the New Testament’, the two accounts of Judas’ death in Matt 27.3–8 and Acts 1.18, supposed contradictions are often (under careful scrutiny) not what they appear to be.

There is a good attempt to set out the underlying events (a better term than ‘harmonise’) on this Bible questions website, based on the work of Gary Habermas and Michael Licona:

  • Jesus is buried, as several women watch (Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42).
  • The tomb is sealed and a guard is set (Matthew 27:62-66).
  • At least 3 women, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, prepare spices to go to the tomb (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1).
  • An angel descends from heaven, rolls the stone away, and sits on it. There is an earthquake, and the guards faint (Matthew 28:2-4).
  • The women arrive at the tomb and find it empty. Mary Magdalene leaves the other women there and runs to tell the disciples (John 20:1-2).
  • The women still at the tomb see two angels who tell them that Jesus is risen and who instruct them to tell the disciples to go to Galilee (Matthew 28:5-7; Mark 16:2-8; Luke 24:1-8).
  • The women leave to bring the news to the disciples (Matthew 28:8).
  • The guards, having roused themselves, report the empty tomb to the authorities, who bribe the guards to say the body was stolen (Matthew 28:11-15).
  • Mary the mother of James and the other women, on their way to find the disciples, see Jesus (Matthew 28:9-10).
  • The women relate what they have seen and heard to the disciples (Luke 24:9-11).
  • Peter and John run to the tomb, see that it is empty, and find the grave clothes (Luke 24:12; John 20:2-10).
  • Mary Magdalene returns to the tomb. She sees the angels, and then she sees Jesus (John 20:11-18).
  • Later the same day, Jesus appears to Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5).
  • Still on the same day, Jesus appears to Cleopas and another disciple on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32).
  • That evening, the two disciples report the event to the Eleven in Jerusalem (Luke 24:32-35).
  • Jesus appears to ten disciples—Thomas is missing (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-25).
  • Jesus appears to all eleven disciples—Thomas included (John 20:26-31).
  • Jesus appears to seven disciples by the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-25).
  • Jesus appears to about 500 disciples in Galilee (1 Corinthians 15:6).
  • Jesus appears to his half-brother James (1 Corinthians 15:7).
  • Jesus commissions his disciples (Matthew 28:16-20).
  • Jesus teaches his disciples the Scriptures and promises to send the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:44-49; Acts 1:4-5).
  • Jesus ascends into heaven (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:6-12).

This matches the similar outline given by the late Michael Green in The Empty Cross of Jesus (first ed, p 122); a similar one on the fundamentalist website Answers in Genesis has a nice animated graphic map of Jerusalem, though unfortunately it uses the modern (rather than ancient) outline of the city, and assumes ‘Gordon’s Calvary’ and the Garden Tomb as the historic site, rather than the more probable site now marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But points made about distances and journey times still stand. (See other variations here and, less convincingly, here.)


Out of this, there are some important and interesting things to note. The first (ironically) is the very marked diversity between the accounts. In most of the earlier episodes of the gospel narratives, we are able to distinguish between the ‘Synoptics’ (Matthew, Mark and Luke) who take a broadly similar approach (most often based on the narrative framework of Mark, which Matthew and Luke never agree against) and the quite different view of John. Within that, we note the ‘double tradition’ of Matthew and Luke, which has led to the belief in a lost written source ‘Q’ that they both drew on (though its existence is disputed). But in the resurrection narratives, all these groupings and relationships seem to disappear. This is the point in the story where, despite agreement on the central facts (which we will return to), each gospel writer appears to have both a distinct concern in communication and a distinct set of sources. For example, Matthew locates Jesus’ Great Commission to take the good news to the Gentiles in Galilee—what an apt setting—to signify the change from the earlier instruction in Matt 15.24 only to go to the ‘lost sheep of the House of Israel’. But Luke continues his focus on Jerusalem, and doesn’t make reference to Galilee appearances, whilst John includes both, though with a characteristically Jerusalem angle, which would fit the author of the gospel being the Jerusalemite ‘beloved disciple.’

The second thing to note is the inclusion, especially in Luke and John, of important personal details. Both the account of the appearance on the Emmaus Road in Luke 24 and the scene at the garden tomb in John 20 include numerous ‘personal realism’ details, which is what makes the stories so engaging and compelling to most readers. Alongside this, I have been struck with how little symbolism there is in the account of John 20; for example, why does the writer record that the ‘other disciple’ can run faster than Peter, and reaches the tomb first, only for Peter to then barge past him—unless that is how it happened? The account appears to make nothing significant or symbolic of this detail. If the gospel writers are indeed relying on different eye-witness testimony, then that fits well with the nature of the stories as we have them, and accounts well for the diversity of the accounts.

Thirdly, readers familiar with these stories might not have realised how well the stories fit with historical reality of the first century. Only the family tombs of the relatively wealthy would have disk-like round stones closing the entrance which need to be rolled away (and there are more and more examples of these being excavated year by year); the entrances are often quite low, so you would indeed need to stoop down to see the inside (John 20.5) and the space (unlike a modern ‘tomb’) can indeed be ‘entered’ (Mark 16.5). But you cannot see everything from the outside, so if there were heavenly beings at the head and the foot of the space where the body was laid (John 20.12), then you would not see both from the outside. And the dead were indeed wrapped with two different cloths, one wound round the body, and a separate one (the soudarion, John 20.7) around the head, which would be left in two, neat, folded piles were the body to be miraculously removed. (I am surprised to find that very many modern readers still do not understand that significance of this detail, and why it led the ‘other disciple’ to ‘believe’ that something extraordinary had happened.) These historical details connect with other correlations, including those related to the trial, death and burial of Jesus, which indicate actual historical events as the common source.


But all these diverse perspectives appear to circle around a series of core facts, on which all the accounts seem to agree:

  • That women first went to the tomb early on the Sunday morning;
  • That the stone had been rolled away, and that the tomb was empty;
  • That there were angelic beings present;
  • That some male disciples came to the tomb in response to the report of the women, and found the same;
  • That the consistent response of all the disciples (both men and women) was a mixture of wonder, confusion, and fear;
  • That Jesus himself appear to a wide range of people on different occasions;
  • That the people he met consistently failed to recognise him at first, quite possibly as a result of their lack of expectation;
  • That he was both bodily, in the sense that he could be touched, and he ate, and yet he was also transformed, in that he could appear and disappear at will;
  • That after a period of time, he was taken up to heaven.

If there were contradictions in these central events—or if the portrayal of the disciples was less unflattering, or the first witnesses being women was less embarrassing—then I think we would have grounds to consider the accounts ‘legendary’. As it is, I think the criticisms that we started with are based on false expectations, and fail to note the remarkable agreements of the very diverse accounts. (Previously published last year but, by all accounts, worth repeating again!)


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11 thoughts on “Do the resurrection accounts contradict each other?”

  1. Thanks for this Ian

    “Both fail to recognise that they are imposing anachronistic and alien criteria of historiographical and scientific “accuracy” and “truth” onto ancient texts which function according to different dynamics”

    Absolutely so. The Salvation Army ‘nails’ it – in both senses of the word!

    Reply
  2. “Some “conservative” or “traditional” Christians believe that Scripture is inspired and therefore must be historically (and, in some cases, scientifically) “accurate” or “true”.
    Some “liberal” or “revisionist” Christians, recognising that there is much in Scripture which is difficult to square with “history” and “science”, argue that the Bible cannot be the definitive guide to Christian faith and life. Both fail to recognise that they are imposing anachronistic and alien criteria of historiographical and scientific “accuracy” and “truth” onto ancient texts which function according to different dynamics.”
    – Come again? What exactly are these “different dynamics”? And why so many “double speech marks”? Is that a lazy way of saying “I’m using these words but can’t be bothered to say what I mean?” When Suetonius reports that just before Caesar died, the sacred horses dedicated to the river Rubico refused to eat and began to week copiously, is that a legend or the “different dynamics” of ancient history-writing? The Tomb was either empty or not. The women either reported appearances or not. The disciples either went to the Tomb or not. There is no “different dynamic” here, and there is nothing “alien” or “anachronistic” about this. First century Jews and educated Gentiles like Theophilus and Festus know the difference between facts and legends, but they probably didn’t know much about Bultmannian or Barthian existentialism. Either these things happened or they didn’t. I don’t know about the modern Salvation Army but I know what William Booth believed.

    Reply
    • “weep copiously” – I wish it was possible to edit typos on this site. Certain ancient histories not infrequently mix the sober and the fantastical in their narratives about genuine historical figures.

      Reply
  3. Certain things are exactly the same then as now (was Bill at location B or not? which calendar date did X take place?).

    The vast majority of statements ever made, even by trained historians, are inaccurate to at least *some* degree.

    The vast majority of statements-of-record are (necessarily) also very incomplete as an account of the full picture.

    Ancient historians (who have no access to many of the types of hard/electronic evidence that we have) often simply report the stories that are told – what better were they able to do? (As for stories, they will sometimes grow in the telling; they will leave out boring bits and highlight the memorable or comic; they will pick up extra anecdotes originally told about quite different individuals.) In addition they consciously give only the gist of what ‘must’ have been said in speeches. The accurate Thucydides is quite up front about this. Cf. Josephus etc..

    Eyewitness testimony is, then as now, quality evidence on another level. It too is always incomplete.

    Historians then as now often prefer a thematic approach to a chronological one. Just going by books I have dipped into recently – Cary/Scullard History of Rome, Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium, Edward Carpenter’s Geoffrey Fisher. This makes a lot of sense.

    The Resurrection is the classic example of the maxim that the question ‘Did it happen?’ or (a better question) ‘What happened?’ is normally the same thing as the question ‘What would a video camera have shown?’.

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  4. As David Runcorn has so compellingly shown in his excellent book Rumours of Life, the most persuasive detail in the resurrection narratives is that a woman or women were the first to announce the news. Because of the low status of women in first century Jewish society, no-one, but no-one would have included this had it not actually happened.

    Reply
    • I think that as a matter of the law, women were neither competent nor compellable as witnesses: their eyewitness testimony would not stand.
      It is highly unlikely that the Gospel writers would not have known this, so why would it be included unless it happened, knowing that to include it would be to give weight to anyone seeking to discredit the whole account.
      There is a rebuttable presumption that the truth, enshrined in the law, was important to the writers and lack of sequential precision, or incomplete testimony does not invalidate it’s truth.
      There seems to be little understanding of evidential matters and eyewitness testimony in courtrooms in some scholars. But, we’ve been here before.

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  5. I used to look at that blog from time to time but got tired of it as the author, like many authors of similar atheist blogs, simply refuses to listen.

    He uses the word ‘contradiction’ a lot but doesnt seem to understand its meaning. The other Gospel authors not reporting what Matthew reported is not a contradiction. Silence is never a contradiction. Neither is choosing to report certain details while ignoring others (we should always remember writing space was very limited given the material used). And if he was honest with himself, if the Gospels read exactly the same he and others would be the first to shout “collusion!”, claiming it was just a bunch of deluded individuals who made sure they all got their story straight.

    As for Luke, whilst it could be read it happened the same day, more modern translations use ‘When’ rather than ‘then’, and the former would seem to be a better translation. In other words there is a break in time between his appearance to them and when he finally leads them towards Bethany. Luke is not the best at being clear about time periods as evidenced in Acts – he uses the phrase ‘many days’ when he actually means a number of years!

    Although Licona has cast doubt on the historicity of Matthew’s account of the ‘saints’ rising, I see no reason to disbelieve this. Given the ‘Jewishness’ of his Gospel, perhaps he wanted to make sure that was included as the holy people seems to refer to dead Jewish people. We dont know what he means by ‘many’, 10?20? more? Logically they would have gone back to their own immediate families, who may have or subsequently become believers in the Messiah. Having said that we should keep in mind that ancient writings are not the same as a modern history textbook (eg Jesus’ words are not always word for word but are basically summaries), but there is also no reason to believe that Matthew is not simply retelling what some eyewitnesses have said. If the resurrection of Jesus is an historical fact, one could argue it would be odd if other odd events did not happen around the same time!

    ‘(I am surprised to find that very many modern readers still do not understand that significance of this detail, and why it led the ‘other disciple’ to ‘believe’ that something extraordinary had happened.)’ – I thought everyone understood this?! And it’s another reason why the shroud of Turin is not what some believe it to be.

    Peter

    PS Michael Green’s little book ‘The Day Death Died’ was one that I read that led to my conversion.

    Reply
  6. I do find it odd that John and Matthew insist on a trip to Galilee, which the others don’t mention, Matthew even implying (not directly saying) that Jesus didn’t appear to the male disciples at all in Jerusalem. The Ascension appears to take place from two different locations. As to the Easter morning appearances, Dorothy L Sayers surely synthesises them well in “A Man Born to be King.”

    Reply
    • Thanks for the pointed to Sayers.

      Yes, taken on their own or as a contrast, the differences look odd. However, we need to recognise how highly selective the accounts are. After all, the dramatic events spanning these forty days only get about a chapter of coverage. It is all very compressed.

      And when you look at how each account fits within its own overall narrative, then it makes a huge amount of sense. For example, Luke is clearly and repeatedly focussed on the importance of Jerusalem all through his gospel, and that is the part of the resurrection story that interests him.

      Reply

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