The first post in this series can be found here.
A couple of years ago, I was teaching a high school Bible class on the life of Christ. Throughout the study, I had trouble reconciling the different versions of some of the stories in the gospels, but nothing was more difficult to piece together than the accounts of Jesus’s resurrection. In fact, I wasn’t able to do it. At the time, I just assumed that problem lay with me and didn’t even imagine that it could mean a problem with the accounts. But I now see that I couldn’t reconcile them because they are contradictory.
In this post, we’ll look at the differences among the gospels’ versions of the resurrection. I do think that some of the differences can be explained satisfactorily, and I’ll mention that when we cover them. But I do still want to list the differences, just so you can see how many there are. Other differences are so severe, that I believe they are flat-out contradictions, and I’ll be sure to point that out as well.
It would be tedious to link each verse that we’ll cover, so I’ll go ahead and link the entire chapters under consideration right now. The resurrection is found in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20. So without further ado, let’s get into it.
Who Visits the Tomb?
Matt: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary
Mark: Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome
Luke: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, and others
John: Mary Magdalene
Explanation: Just because some writers left out some of the women doesn’t mean they weren’t there; they just weren’t mentioned.
Plausible? Yes, it’s plausible. I do think it’s suspicious that men who were all supposedly inspired by the same Holy Spirit list these women so differently, but this explanation is technically possible, in my mind.
What Time of Day Did They Arrive?
Matt: At dawn.
Mark: Just after sunrise.
Luke: Very early in the morning.
John: Early, while it was still dark.
Explanation: It was still dark when the women began their journey, and just after sunrise when they arrived. There’s also the possibility that John talks of a single trip made by Mary before dawn, and a later trip that she takes with the other women.
Plausible? It seems to me that when each gospel talks about the women going to the tomb, that they are implying arrival time. That would make this a discrepancy. However, I will admit that this explanation is possible. In other words, if this were the only problem within the Bible, I’d still be a Christian.
What Happened to the Stone Blocking the Tomb?
Matt: Once the women arrive, an angel rolls the stone away and sits on it.
Mark: Stone is already rolled away when women arrive.
Luke: Stone is already rolled away when women arrive.
John: Stone is already rolled away when Mary arrives.
Explanation: Matthew doesn’t actually specify that the women were there when this event happened; the events were just told slightly out of order.
Plausible? Let’s see. Here’s the passage:
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women…
— Matt 28:1-5
To me, the implication is clear that the women witnessed this event. So I don’t find the explanation very plausible.
Were There Guards at the Tomb?
Explanation: Just because the other writers don’t mention them doesn’t mean they weren’t there.
Plausible? I suppose that’s plausible. But what I find interesting is the notion that the gospels are almost unanimous in saying that the disciples didn’t believe Jesus had actually risen from the dead when the women give them the message. In fact, they don’t even seem to realize it was a possibility. Yet according to Matthew, the chief priests and elders understand that completely. That just seems a little hard to believe…
Who Do They Meet There?
Matt: An angel sitting on the stone.
Mark: A man sitting inside the tomb.
Luke: Two men in clothes that gleam like lightning suddenly appear next to them while they’re looking around inside the tomb.
John: No one. Mary sees that the stone’s been rolled away and she runs off.
Explanation: Just like the first issue. Just because some accounts only list one being, doesn’t mean there weren’t two. And sometimes angels are said to look like men, so there’s no discrepancy there either. Each gospel portrays the angels in different places and positions, so they probably just moved around a lot.
Plausible? No, I don’t find those explanations very plausible. If it were simply a matter of some gospels saying “men” and others saying “angels,” that wouldn’t bother me. But we have different descriptions, different placement, and different arrival times for each one. In Matthew and Mark, the guy’s already there; however, in Matthew they see him right away outside the tomb. In Mark, they only see him once they’re inside. Luke says they appear once the women are already inside, and John says nothing about it at all. So no, I don’t find the “explanations” to be very plausible.
What do the men/angels say?
Matt: Jesus is risen; go into Galilee, and he’ll meet you there.
Mark: Jesus is risen; go into Galilee, and he’ll meet you there.
Luke: Jesus is risen; don’t you remember how he told you when he was in Galilee that he’d rise from the dead? **Notice that Luke’s messengers don’t say the disciples should go to Galilee. That will be significant later on.
John: John’s on a completely different path. We’ll check in with him later…
Explanation: The angels say pretty much the same thing. Syntax isn’t important here — just the message.
Plausible? I don’t know. It would be more plausible if Luke agreed with the others that Jesus wanted the disciples to go to Galilee. But we’ll see later that Luke did not want to express that at all. So that shakes my confidence in this explanation a bit…
What Do the Women Do?
Matt: The women are afraid but filled with joy and start to leave so they can tell the disciples. Jesus appears and repeats the message the angel gave. The women go tell the disciples.
Mark: The women are terrified. They leave and tell nothing to anyone because they’re afraid. Mark’s actual account ends here, at verse 8. The last 11 verses of Mark were added sometime later (we know this because those verses aren’t in our earliest copies of Mark). So Mark’s gospel apparently ends here, with the women saying nothing to anyone.
Luke: The women remembered that Jesus did say he would rise from the dead. So they leave the tomb and go tell the disciples.
John: We’ll just deal with John’s account later. It’s too different to compare it with the others in this manner.
Explanation: The women are terrified and happy. They start to leave, but Jesus appears to them first. When they finally reach the disciples, they are too afraid to say anything at first. But after a while, they tell them what happened.
Plausible? I don’t really think so. Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts can be put together easily. But the tone of Mark’s is very different, especially when you consider that our earliest manuscripts of Mark end there. And John’s account is also pretty different, but we’ll deal with it later.
How Do the Disciples React?
Matt: They go to Galilee. We don’t know what else might have happened in the meantime.
Luke: The disciples didn’t believe the women. Peter ran to the tomb and saw the burial clothes lying inside. Jesus later appears in their midst.
John: Peter and “the disciple Jesus loved” (possibly John?) ran to the tomb and saw the burial clothes inside. This caused the one commonly thought of as John to believe.
Explanation: Honestly, there’s not much to explain here. Nothing in the accounts is technically contradictory — Matthew just may not have recorded the events with Peter and the other disciple.
Plausible? Sure, it’s plausible. There are bigger fish to fry here.
The Problems with John
Okay, the issue with John’s gospel is this: he has Mary Magdalene go to the tomb, apparently by herself. She saw that the stone was rolled away (though Matthew seems to indicate that the women saw this happen), and she ran away. She told the disciples that Jesus’s body was missing and no one knew where it was. If this is the same event that the synoptic gospels recount, then she should have already spoken to the angels. So why say that she doesn’t know where Jesus is? Of course, that would actually fit somewhat with Mark’s account, when he says that the women told no one what happened.
Anyway, some people have suggested that Mary went to the tomb by herself first, saw the stone rolled away, ran back and told the disciples that she didn’t know where Jesus was, and then went back to the tomb that morning with the other women. But if this is so, it seems to contradict Matthew’s account, where the women appear to see the stone as it’s rolled away. It also creates a cumbersome difficulty in that Mary runs to and from the tomb twice, and so does Peter. After all, according to John, Peter and the “disciple Jesus loved” run to the tomb after Mary’s message that the body’s missing. According to Luke, Peter runs to the tomb after the women say that angels told them Jesus was risen. It just seems excessive to create all these extra trips.
According to John, Mary also seems to be alone when she encounters the angels, and when she encounters Jesus (thinking he’s a gardener). Yet Matthew and Luke say that she was with the other women when she encountered the angels and Jesus.
John’s gospel is different in so many areas, that it’s probably impossible to figure out how it fits with the others. I’ve just come to think that it doesn’t.
Do the Disciples Go to Galilee?
Matthew and Mark both state that the angels say the disciples should meet Jesus in Galilee. Matthew and John both say that this does happen. Luke is different. In his account, the messengers don’t tell the disciples to go to Galilee. Instead, they reference something Jesus said when he was with the disciples in Galilee sometime before his crucifixion. And as we follow Luke’s account of the resurrection and the subsequent events, we see that it’s still the day of his resurrection when he meets the disciples in Jerusalem. I’m not picky enough to say that causes a discrepancy. After all, they could still all travel to Galilee later. But notice what Jesus says to them beginning in verse 45:
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Most Christians would recognize that being “clothed with power from on high” references the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, when the apostles spoke in tongues and delivered the first gospel sermon. This event happened after Christ’s ascension. So if Jesus is telling them to stay in Jerusalem until the Day of Pentecost, and he’s telling them this on the day of his resurrection, how in the world could they have gone to Galilee?
Explanation: Easy. Jesus did tell them not to leave Jerusalem, but only after they had already been to Galilee. This message wasn’t given on the day of his resurrection.
Plausible? Not to me. Go check out the end of Luke 24 and see if you can find a break somewhere between verses 40 and 45 to insert days and days of time. To me it appears to be a continuous narrative. And this creates an obvious contradiction in the gospels.
Do these accounts really seem to be the work of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent deity? Even if some of these issues can be explained away, as I indicated, wouldn’t it have been simpler to avoid the appearance of contradictions altogether? It’s possible that I’ve overlooked some of the issues within the resurrection accounts, but I’ve provided the most significant ones to me. When I look at these issues, as well as the ones I’ve listed in previous posts, the conclusion seems obvious to me: there’s just no way any of this was inspired by God.