Harmonization, Contradictions, and the Reliability of the Gospel Resurrection Narratives
Each of the gospel writers present the life and ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Among these accounts we find much agreement, enough that many scholars believe the Gospels show a dependence from one to another, although which gospel depends upon which depends on the scholar asked. However, when it comes to the resurrection accounts, critics believe the gospel accounts contain many irreconcilable contradictions, perhaps as a result of each author telling their own version of the story. Therefore, they argue, we cannot know if any Gospel writer is telling the truth.1 Critical scholar Bart Ehrman writes, “The problem is in part that the Gospels are full of discrepancies and were written decades after Jesus’ ministry and death by authors who had not themselves witnessed any of the events of Jesus’ life.”2 Leaving aside the issue of authorship, the differences and alleged contradictions between the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus are no reason to deny the historicity of the resurrection. These alleged contradictions did not dissuade the early believers3; using careful examination and study of the historical context of the Gospels, we can see there is no reason to dissuade modern believers either.
On Harmonization and Inerrancy
How can such contradictions be resolved? Scholars Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd write, “One way of responding to this charge is to attempt to show that specific instances of alleged contradictions within and between the Gospels are in fact only apparent. This has been the customary approach of Christian apologists throughout history.”4 This is a relatively simple approach called harmonization; the Christian attempts to show that what seems to be a contradiction is not a contradiction at all.
Is Harmonization Necessary?
When a skeptic attacks the reliability of the Gospels by pointing to contradictions, they are claiming the authors’ lack of knowledge or biases caused them to write inaccurate information, and therefore the Gospels cannot be known to contain true information. But does the case for the resurrection of Jesus depend upon the absence of contradictions among the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection? On the contrary, the death of Jesus is one of the best attested facts in ancient history, attested both within and outside of the Gospels and Bible.5 At the supernatural, such as the resurrection, is where most skeptical scholars begin to protest. However, historical cases for the resurrection have been made without significant harmonization attempts, based upon a minimal facts or cumulative case approach.6 These cases do not require consideration of the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, but merely as historically reliable documents – as Craig says, “The Gospel writers have a proven track record of historical reliability.”7 In fact, the minimal facts approach can be made using only what a vast majority of scholars agree to be historically reliable, much of which does not require the resurrection testimonies of the gospel authors.8
So the question arises, does it matter that there exist possible contradictions among the gospel resurrection accounts if a case for resurrection can be made without considering them? We may consider that if the gospel testimonies regarding the resurrection of Jesus can be shown to be reliable, we have four additional testimonies not otherwise available. Furthermore, it is standard historical practice to harmonize dissonant testimonies, Boyd and Eddy write:
Harmonization, properly understood, is absolutely necessary for responsible, critical historiography. The reason is that rarely do we find multiple witness reports to the same event that do not contain at least some apparent contradictions. Hence, the standard historiographical assumption, one that should be applied to the study of the Synoptics, is that apparently conflicting historical data deserves to be read as sympathetically as possible—including responsible attempts to harmonize the data—before being dismissed as irresolvable and thus unhistorical.9
What Is Inerrancy
Another reason for harmonization is the theological position of inerrancy held by many Christians. What does it mean for the Gospel documents to be inerrant? Must Jesus’ words be exactly as he spoke them, the accounts equivalent in every detail? Not at all. Philosopher William Lane Craig writes:
Defenders of inerrancy claim that the Bible is authoritative and inerrant in all that it teaches or all that it means to affirm…What one might consider an error in a modern biography need not at all count as an error in an ancient biography… The stories in the Gospels should not be understood as evolutions of some prior primitive tradition but as different performances of the same oral story. Now if [James D.G.] Dunn is right, this has enormous implications for one’s doctrine of biblical inerrancy, for it means that the Evangelists had no intention that their stories should be taken like police reports, accurate in every detail. What we in a non-oral culture might regard as an error would not be taken by them to be erroneous at all.10
The holder of inerrancy does not take poetic imagery as literal because she understands the poetic genre is not often literal. Similarly, when we look for harmonization in the Gospels, we are not looking to make each Gospel say the same thing verbatim; such an outcome is obviously impossible, and perhaps undesirable.11 However, since some skeptics say these contradictions make the gospel accounts incompatible, we are looking to show all of the accounts plausibly represent a truthful and correct testimony. In short, that the statements all authors of the alleged contradiction have made are simultaneously truthful.12
Ancient Biography and Rhetorical Methods
Many historians believe the Gospels most closely fit to the genre of ancient biography.13 Theologian and historian Michael Licona notes that other ancient biographers varied in the liberties they took when writing about their central character.14 However, when we read Luke 1:1-4, we see an educated author committed to writing a correct account. I see no reason the other Gospels should be different. Furthermore, we have a good measure of historical corroboration outside of the Gospels.15 Nevertheless, the authors may not have necessarily thought to keep the same type of history we create today.
We should also keep in mind that the gospel authors did not write in a vacuum. Mark is generally agreed upon to be the first gospel, and Matthew and Luke likely used Mark in varying amounts. While John does not appear to have sourced much or any material from the synoptic Gospels, he was surely aware of their writings, as he most likely wrote last. However, when looking at the resurrection accounts we see much less interdependence.16 Therefore, changes made by an author were a conscious decision, and it seems unlikely they would have been predisposed to consciously writing contradictions.
When dealing with ancient biographies and oral tradition, a few commonly used techniques are important to keep in mind, and indeed, can resolve many apparent contradictions. The below techniques are partially based on apologist Jonathan Morrow’s work.17
Compression – also paraphrasing or abbreviations – are a common technique seen throughout the gospels. In short, compression removes some details of a passage or story and gets to the point the author is making. Matthew’s account of the resurrection appears to be the most summarized and compressed, for example, but as we will see below, that does not mean there are irreconcilable differences between his account and expanded accounts found in other Gospels. Focusing is a similar technique in which details are removed in order to focus on a specific character or characters or a specific event.
Omissions occur when only one Gospel author relates a story or event. These can be explained numerous ways. Although the synoptic accounts of Jesus’ life contain many similarities, the resurrection accounts seem to be at least partially independent. The authors could have their own sources and therefore have different parts of the story. In addition, an author may have intentionally left out detail he knew a previous author covered, or, may have left it out because it was not essential to the point he was making or story he was telling.
The authors would also have likely felt free to rearrange some aspects of their story, Craig Blomberg writes that, “The order of events described in a famous person’s life was often arranged thematically rather than strictly chronologically.”18 Boyd agrees, writing, “Scholars in the modern historiographical world are deeply concerned with reconstructing the chronological order of discrete historical facts. But we now know that such a concern is largely foreign to people in orally dominant cultures.”19
Can Variation Create Credibility?
Inerrancy and harmonization are important, but multiple attestation requires some level of variability in the accounts. As philosopher and apologist Douglas Groothuis writes, “Some minor differences in the telling of this story indicate authenticity, not substantial error. If each account perfectly mirrored the rest, this would likely be a sign of collusion, not accurate history told from differing (but equally truthful), perspectives.”20 When we consider multiple witnesses to a crime, we would not expect them to take the stand with the exact same story. We would expect them to each tell it from their own perspective, in their own way.
Dealing with the Differences
In this essay, there is only space to cover a few well-known alleged contradictions, there certainly are more.21
Who Went to the Tomb?
Who went to the tomb, and when, is a commonly alleged resurrection account contradiction. Professor of religion and philosophy Robert J. Miller gives several charts laying out differences among the accounts. He points out that the women who went to the tomb vary. In Matthew: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. In Mark: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. In Luke: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and other women. In John, just Mary Magdalene is present.22
There seems to be no contradiction here; all of the accounts can be true simultaneously. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says, “All four [gospels] agree key events took place…on the third day after Jesus’ execution. All four agree that Mary Magdalene was at the tomb; Matthew, Mark and Luke agree that another woman was there too, and Mark and Luke add others.”23 If we consider that the gospels are focusing their story on a few key actors, but more were present, there is difference, but not contradiction. For example, John only relates Mary Magdalene at the tomb, but when she tells the disciples about the encounter, she says, “…we do not know where they have laid him.”24 John only mentions Mary, but peripherally implies more women were present.
But what about the men who came to the tomb? Luke 24:11 relates the women telling the disciples about the missing body. In 24:12, Peter runs to the tomb, stoops in and finds the tomb empty. John 20:2-10 relates both Peter and the beloved disciple running to the tomb, Peter then enters first, followed by the other. This can be resolved by recognizing compression and focusing in the narrative, and we have evidence this is the case. In Luke 24:24 writes of disciples on the road to Emmaus relating to Jesus in disguise what had occurred. They tell Jesus, “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”25 These disciples appear to be telling Jesus that multiple disciples went to the tomb. Wright notes, “If Luke can say that there was one person, and then later that there was more than one, the numerical differences between the different accounts of the women and the angels cannot be regarded as serious historical problems.”26
One of the most famous differences among the gospels is the ending of Mark. It is generally conceded by historians both skeptical27 and Christian28 that Mark 16:9-20 are not from the original text. But the crux of the issue is how Mark 16:8 ends. After the women find the tomb empty and encounter a young man (likely an angel) who tells the women to tell the disciples what had occurred, Mark writes, “And [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Wright says this ending will remain an enigma29 and this is true. But is it contradictory to the other accounts?
New Testament scholar James Crossly believes so, saying, “Whatever we make of Mark 16:8, we are still left with a story that has key witnesses not telling people where the tomb is or any details of their experience, at least for some time.”30 Later, “Is not the best explanation that Matthew has deliberately changed Mark to iron out the difficulty of the women telling no one out of fear?”31 We can see the problem. Did the women tell no one at all, or did they immediately tell the disciples?
The crux of the contradiction issue is whether or not Mark really intended to say that the women told absolutely nobody out of fear or if it is possible they merely told nobody on the way to the disciples, out of fear. We can imagine a scenario in which the women are excited and proclaim in the streets, “Jesus is risen!” Mark is telling us the women did not do this. But it is plausible the women were silent until they told the disciples. Licona believes this is plausible, especially given Mark 1:4432, in which Jesus tells a healed leper, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest…” Further, Licona believes the usage of the word “fear” within Mark can mean a reverential awe33. He concludes,
It is by no means a stretch to understand Mark as saying the following:
And the women left fleeing the tomb. For as a result of seeing the angel and hearing the news of the risen Lord, the motivation to be on their best behavior and amazement had gripped them, and they said nothing to anyone on their way to tell the disciples the news. For they had a reverential fear as a result of the revelation that kept them laser focused on their assigned task.34
Therefore we have a plausible alternative to outright contradiction. Even if we do not know exactly whether there was ever a further ending to Mark, or why Mark ended his Gospel the way he did, it is plausible that how the Gospel of Mark does end is not in contradiction with the other Gospels.
Only in One Gospel
Many stories are related in only one account. A good example of this is the guard story, related by Matthew in Matt. 27:62-66, 28:11-15, while Matthew omits much of the rest of the story. The guard story serves as an important apologetic for the early church; if guards were posted at the tomb and were witness to its opening, it is highly unlikely the disciples stole the body. As a result of Matthew (and perhaps the Gospel of Peter) being the only attestation and the story’s importance as an apologetic, this story has been rejected by many as legendary.35
Yet, this does not make the guard story implausible, it could simply mean that Matthew knew about it and decided to include it, and there are good reasons to back the historicity of this story.36 The other authors either did not know about the guards, or chose to omit it because they did not feel it was relevant. We cannot claim this is a discrepancy among the Gospels if one gospel relates it and another does not. Furthermore, if we expect every gospel to relate every aspect of every story, we cannot receive the benefits of multiple attestation.37
Other omissions can be resolved in the same way, for example, each gospel relates the resurrected Jesus’ appearances to the disciples in a different way. Matthew gives very little information, while Mark gives none. Luke and John give much more information, including text on the Jerusalem appearances. But why couldn’t this simply been a matter of Luke and John adding additional information in their own accounts?38 Matthew and Mark may or may not have known about these appearances, but their lack of including these narratives does not mean Luke and John have written something false.
We have only covered some of the variety of challenges posed to the Christian alleging that there are contradictions among the resurrection accounts. If we expanded our search to the Passion narrative, we would find more, and the wider we expand, the more challenges come. Having a proper perspective on the historical genre of the gospels, the oral tradition culture they were created in, and the writers’ intentions in their writings can solve many of these problems without difficulty. Others may require more work and study to find plausible explanations.
There are many Christian scholars who have decided inerrancy must be discarded and only hold to historical reliability for the gospels. However, there are also many who continue to hold to inerrancy, and continue to defend it.39 It is important to reiterate that Jesus’ resurrection does not stand or fall on inerrancy. Scholars such as Craig hold inerrancy, but on the debate stage will merely defend the historical reliability of the resurrection. We hold to inerrancy because we believe in the resurrection, not the other way around. Remembering this is important in conversation with the skeptic; if they can believe the resurrection is plausible by historical methods, inerrancy can be shown theologically coherent and fully plausible at a later time.
Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) (HarperCollins, 2010), p. 59-60, Kindle Edition. ↩
Ehrman, 143. ↩
Douglas Groothuis points out these contradictions are not new, even if they are often brought up by skeptical scholars as though they were.
Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, USA, 2011), 456. ↩
Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 420, Logos. ↩
Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, USA, 2010), 303-318. ↩
For a recent work in favor of a historical resurrection, see: Licona, 2010, or Chapter 8 of William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008). Gary Habermas has also done much work in this area.
For recent work against, see: Gerd Lüdemann The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry (2004).
Licona gives a good overview of recent work in the introduction to his book (2010). ↩
William Lane Craig, “Rediscovering the Historical Jesus: The Evidence for Jesus,” Reasonable Faith, accessed May 5, 2016, “http://www.reasonablefaith.org/rediscovering-the-historical-jesus-the-evidence-for-jesus”. ↩
Licona (2010) mostly uses Paul’s writings, extra-biblical sources, and early church fathers. His book is essentially a minimal facts approach. ↩
Eddy and Boyd, 423. ↩
William Lane Craig, “What Price Biblical Errancy?,” Reasonable Faith, July 2, 2007, accessed April 30, 2016, “http://www.reasonablefaith.org/what-price-biblical-errancy. ↩
Eddy and Boyd, 423.
See below, “Can Variation Create Credibility?” ↩
Jonathan Morrow, Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), p. 108-109, Kindle Edition. ↩
See also: Craig L. Blomberg, “Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?,” in Jesus under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, ed. Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 36. ↩
Licona, 203-204. ↩
Blomberg, 39-43. ↩
N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 589-591. ↩
Morrow, 117-118. ↩
Blomberg, 35. ↩
Eddy and Boyd, 433. ↩
“The fact that various accounts do not fit together with perfect ease is to be expected of independent authentic testimony. Indeed, were the accounts perfectly harmonious on the surface, we would have to suspect collusion. But the fact that the many events and general order are clear is exactly what we should expect of a credible account” from Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 649, Logos Edition. ↩
For more examples of contradictions, and a skeptical view, see Ehrman, 2010. ↩
Robert J. Miller, “What Do Stories about Resurrection(s) Prove?” in Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?: A Debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan, mod. William F. Buckley Jr., ed. Paul Copan (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 83-85. ↩
Wright, 613. ↩
John 20:2, ESV, italics mine. ↩
All scriptures, unless otherwise stated, are from the ESV. ↩
Wright, 613. ↩
“In my discussion I accept the scholarly consensus that verses 16: 9–21 were a later addition to the Gospel.” (Ehrman, 48) ↩
“The apparently independent omission in the two fourth-century manuscripts, coupled with all the other scattered evidence, makes it highly likely that the longer ending is not original.” (Wright, 618)
For a full discussion of possible other endings to Mark, see 618-624. ↩
Wright, 624. ↩
James G. Crossley, “The Resurrection Probably Did Not Happen” in Debating Christian Theism, ed. J.P. Moreland, Chad Meister, and Khaldoun A. Sweis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 488. ↩
Ibid., 490, italics original. ↩
Licona, 346. ↩
Ibid., 347. ↩
William Lane Craig, “The Guard at the Tomb,” Reasonable Faith, accessed May 5, 2016, “http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-guard-at-the-tomb”. ↩
See above, “Can Variation Create Credibility?” ↩
Habermas, Gary, “Jesus Did Rise from the Dead” in Debating Christian Theism, ed. J.P. Moreland, Chad Meister, and Khaldoun A. Sweis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 477.
See also, Wright, 613-614. ↩
See Craig’s excellent article defending inerrancy in the resurrection accounts:
William Lane Craig, “Inerrancy and the Resurrection,” Reasonable Faith, July 30, 2007, accessed May 5, 2016, “http://www.reasonablefaith.org/inerrancy-and-the-resurrection”. ↩