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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Objections to the Resurrection of Jesus

Don Stewart :: Are the Reports about Jesus' Resurrection Hopelessly Contradictory?

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Are the Reports about Jesus’ Resurrection Hopelessly Contradictory?

Objections to the Resurrection of Jesus – Question 18

Often it is charged that the accounts of the resurrection, as contained in the four gospels, are so contradictory that they cannot be reconciled. These alleged contradictions are such that it is impossible for any thinking person to believe the resurrection account actually happened.

Alleged Contradictions in the Resurrection Account

The alleged contradictions in the various accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ can be listed as follows.

1. Which Women Went to Jesus’ Tomb?

There is the question as to who went to Jesus’ tomb first. In Matthew, we are told that it was Mary Magdalene and the other Mary which came to the tomb. In Mark, it was Mary Magdalene, Salome, and another Mary. Luke tells us that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women that went to the tomb. In John, it was Mary alone. All four gospels have different women coming to the tomb.

2. How Many Angels Were at the Tomb?

Each gospel has a different description of the person, or persons, who were at the tomb when the women arrived. In Matthew, one angel is at the tomb. However, Mark says a young man was there to address the women. Luke has two men appearing at the tomb while John says there were two angels! How can all of these writers be correct?

3. How Long Did the Appearances Last?

In Matthew and Luke, they last one day, while in John eight days. In the Book of Acts it is over forty days. However, in Mark’s gospel there are no appearances at all! Again, there is no agreement on how many times Christ appeared.

4. The Location of the Appearances Are Different

There is also the problem with the location of the appearances. Matthew and John 21 say Jesus appeared in Galilee while John 20 and Luke say they occurred in Jerusalem. Mark does not record any appearance but says Jesus will appear in Galilee.

5. The Number of Appearances Is Different

The gospels do not agree on the number of times Jesus appeared after His death. Matthew lists two appearances, Mark none, Luke five and John four.

Since the various accounts cannot be harmonized, it is argued that they cannot be historical. This is the contention of unbelievers.

Harmonization Is Possible

Yet, this is not the case. When the four gospels are looked at in detail, a proposed scenario can be constructed. Contrary to the accusations of some, it is possible to harmonize the resurrection accounts that are contained in the four gospels. The following observations can be made.

1. They All Tell the Same Basic Story

While the four gospels do indeed differ in details with respect to Jesus’ resurrection, they do tell the same basic story. For example, each gospel has Jesus being betrayed by one of His own disciples, Judas Iscariot, brought before the Jewish council, accused of blasphemy by these religious leaders, admitting under oath that He was the promised Messiah, and then determined that He should die. All four gospels agree that He was brought before Pilate who attempted to release Him after finding Him innocent of any crime.

We also find that when the unruly crowd would not quiet down, Pontius Pilate ordered Jesus to be crucified. Jesus died on the cross in the city of Jerusalem.

While all Jesus’ disciples, had abandoned Him, a rich man named Joseph of Arimathea came forward and asked for Jesus’ body. Jesus was buried in Joseph’s tomb before the end of the Sabbath. A stone was rolled in front of the tomb. It looked like the story of Jesus had come to an end.

However, on Sunday morning certain women went to the tomb to finish the anointing process. The stone was rolled away and there was an angel, inside the tomb, who told them Jesus Christ had risen from the dead.

At first, Jesus’ own disciples did not believe but they became convinced when they too saw the risen Christ. We also find that Jesus appeared a number of different times to individuals and groups of people. These are some of the things that the four gospels agree upon.

This being the case, then how do we account for the difference? How can we harmonize the various accounts? A number of observations need to be made.

There Are Reasons As to Why Harmonization Is Difficult

No gospel writer tells the complete story. However, when we put the different reports together, we can produce a reasonable scenario of what occurred since the main events are found in each gospel. It is not because of the contradictory nature of the evidence that harmonies are difficult, it is because of lack of data and lack of collusion among the witnesses.

Four authors, who are writing independently of each other, and who are only giving the basic facts of the story, are going to differ on details, going to leave out certain events, and are going to have their own emphasis. This is what we should expect and this is what we find.

There Was No Collusion among the Writers

The fact that we are not exactly certain of the exact order of events because of the various way in which the gospels describe them only goes to prove there was no collusion between the various authors. If the story would have been made up, the different writers would have made certain that there stories matched detail for detail before they wrote them and circulated them among the public.

Even if there were contradictions among the writers in secondary details, which there are not, this would still not refute the idea of a resurrection. This is particularly so because each writer emphasizes the same basic truth; Jesus has risen.

Responding to the Individual Problems Found in the Accounts

As we have seen, there are a number of individual details in which the gospel writers seem to differ. However, these can be reasonably accounted for. We can respond to the various differences among the gospels as follows.

1. No Gospel Reports the Name of All of the Women

Each gospel emphasizes certain women, or in the case of John one woman, who went to the tomb. No report claims to record the name of every individual who went to the tomb. It is also likely there were two separate visits of women, not one.

2. Two Angels, Who Looked like Young Men, Were at the Tomb

Putting the four accounts together, we find that there were two angels at the tomb of Jesus who looked like young men. One of them was more prominent than the other, the spokesmen. Thus, Mark and Matthew do not mention his existence. Again, these are not details that are necessary to report.

3. Jesus’ Appeared over Forty Days to Different People at Different Places

The appearances lasted over forty days. What we have are the gospel writers merely giving us some of Jesus appearances. None of them attempts to record every time He appeared. The locations of the appearances were at different times, in different places, and to different people.

4. There Are Questions about the Ending of Mark

As far as the Gospel of Mark is concerned, there are differences of opinion among Bible believers as to whether the last twelve verses, that contain the resurrection account, are original with him. A couple of observations need to be made.

First, it is by no means certain that Mark was the first gospel written. In fact, the ancient evidence testifies that he wrote Peter’s account of what occurred after Matthew and Luke had both written their gospel.

If this is so, there may have been a reason why he did not include the resurrection appearances. His gospel certainly anticipates Jesus’ resurrection and Peter, the one behind Mark’s gospel, personally testified that Jesus had not only risen, that also He had appeared to him. Therefore, the possibility that Mark may have omitted the resurrection appearances is not that significant.

Therefore, when the story is looked at in its totality, not only does it harmonize, it harmonizes well though not exact.

Summary – Question 18
Are the Reports about Jesus’ Resurrection Hopelessly Contradictory?

One of the main arguments against the truthfulness of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is that the reports about it are completely contradictory. Indeed, it is claimed that there are at least five major contradictions between the various accounts which are contained in the four gospels. They are as follows.

First, the gospel writers differ on the identity of the women who first came to the tomb. Each gospel seems to have a different group who arrived first.

There is also the question as to whether there was one angel, two angels, one man, or two men who greeted the people coming to the tomb. Each gospel writer describes the greeter, or greeters, differently.

In addition, there is no clear explanation as to how long Jesus resurrection appearances lasted. Was it eight days or forty days?

The locations of the various appearances are also different. Sometimes Jesus appears in Jerusalem and at other times He is in Galilee.

Finally, the number of times in which Jesus appeared after His death is also different in each of the gospels.

These problems have caused some to doubt the account as given in the four gospels. Yet it should not. A number of points need to be mentioned.

First, each of the writers tells the same basic story of what occurred. The main details are consistent. Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot at the Garden of Gethsemane, He was tried by the Jewish and Roman authorities and then He was crucified.

After His death, He was placed in a tomb. However, three days later, on Easter Sunday morning, those who came to the tomb found it empty. On that same day the resurrected Christ appeared to a number of people. Each of the four gospels agree on these facts along with many others.

There are reasons as to why harmonization is difficult. The fact that four different writers and writing to four different audiences is one reason as to why we find different details recorded.

The fact that we do find differing details in the various accounts actually adds to their authenticity. Four writers, writing independently about the same event, will always differ in the details they list. If they do not, then there was some sort of collusion between them.

As far as the differing details are concerned there are reasonable ways of harmonizing them without assuming an outright contradiction. Unfortunately, too many people do not take the time to even consider how the accounts may be harmonized.

Did Jesus Only Appear to Believers Who Were Expecting a Resurrection? ← Prior Section
Can a Reasonable Scenario of the Events Surrounding Jesus' Resurrection Be Proposed? Next Section →
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