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Resurrection Riddles: solving alleged contradictions in the gospels

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Part 7 of 8 in a series of articles by Derek Caldwell on the resurrection. Published April 2, 2024

There is much that one could say about the alleged contradictions in the resurrection accounts. At the outset we must ask: What is a contradiction? A contradiction is when at least two things are stated as fact yet are incompatible with each other. So, for instance, if I said that the day my mother gave birth to me was a Tuesday in 1982, and then also said it was a Friday in 1924, and assuming I am referring to a very literal biological birth, this would be a contradiction. They can both be false, but they cannot both be true. When we come to the Gospels, often a “contradiction” is not a contradiction at all—because there is not a statement of two things that cannot both be true. Rather, what we see is the same event reported in different ways following literary conventions of the time. This should not come as any shock: Read any four news articles from reporters at, say, a political convention, and you may read four entirely accurate, and yet entirely different reports. Some emphasize one thing over another for their specific audience (that is merely an understanding that different audiences have different concerns they want to read about, so this isn’t necessarily a nefarious focus at all), the reporters may have interviewed different people who felt and experienced different things, and they may have interviewed some of the same people, but at different times, asking different questions. Some reporters may have wanted to report on the precise details of what happened, and others may have wanted to report instead on the ultimate meaning of what happened, or both. Some may have collected contacts from the event and called attendees later to get their thoughts after they could properly reflect on the evening. A reporter covering national news may have mentioned words spoken by senators from four different states. However, a reporter from a local Indiana newspaper may have only reported what the senator from Indiana presented. This does not mean that the other senators weren’t there or didn’t speak. The point is that many different true stories can be told, with greater or lesser detail, all about the same thing. So it is with the Gospels.

What we find in the Gospels is perhaps differences in secondary matters (which, again, are not necessarily contradictions—i.e., saying two angels were at the tomb does not contradict someone else saying one angel was at the tomb, unless one is saying “one and no more” and the other is saying “two and no less”). In primary matters, there is full agreement: Jesus was crucified, died, buried, and resurrected. If they agreed any more than that, the charge would be that there was collusion between the authors and that instead of four independent witnesses, we really have only one witness, just copied four times. The differences act to certify multiple attestation, which means the resurrection accounts are more reliable, not less. 

Interestingly, Mike Licona points out that you can have contradictory accounts of certain events by people who experienced them that are still nonetheless trustworthy in primary matters. For instance, the burning of Rome in AD 64 was reported by three sources that contradicted each of the others reports and even themselves. Likewise, survivors of the Titanic disaster disagreed on whether the ship broke in two before it sunk or after.1 We would never deduce, then, that the Titanic never sunk or never existed. So even if what was contained in the New Testament were true contradictions, that is still not great evidence against the overwhelming testimony in favor of the resurrection. 

Harmonization of passages concerning events from the crucifixion to the resurrection are indeed possible, but they may not always be necessary. To harmonize assumes that ancient authors were writing history like us, but they most likely were not, at least not all of them. This shouldn’t be a cause for alarm; rather, understanding this opens up the richness of the Gospel accounts for us. The Gospel writers were writing in a different age with different concerns for how they told historical truth. Licona explains:

During the age when the Gospels were written, the finest historians and biographers did not practice writing with the same commitment to precision as us moderns. They wanted to tell a story in a manner that entertained, provided moral guidance, emphasized points they regarded as important, and paint a portrait of important people. If they had to adapt some details on occasion, it was permissible. Such adapting was not intended to distort the truth but to communicate it more effectively. Modern itinerate speakers, teachers, preachers, and even professors often do this in their lectures and homilies for emphasis or to make a point more clearly. In fact, most of us have done it for similar reasons when telling a personal story.2

New Testament scholar and prolific author Craig Keener explains that ancient audiences would have expected these minor variations, and many could have anticipated where to find them. These variations were not a source of anxiety in the least. Differences to expect in ancient biographical sources included “chronological displacement and conflation of material, simplifying narratives by, for example, omitting inessential characters and filling in details by inference when necessary to make sense of the story or, in some writers, to recount it in a more appealing way.”3

Although the Gospel writers may have been writing in their ancient conventions—and differences between accounts were not uncommon then in trustworthy historical documents4—even here Licona and others see evidence that they did not go quite as far as their contemporaries; they were more concerned with what we might call “just the facts, ma’am” truth than other ancient authors. Scholar F. Gerald Downing writes,

It is not the divergencies among the synoptists (or even between them and John), in parallel contexts, that are remarkable: it is the extraordinary extent of verbal similarities. The question is, Why were they content to copy so much? rather than, Why did they bother to change this or that? The procedure is not however mechanical, and there are considerable divergences. But it has to be recognized that the relationship may betoken a much greater respect, one for the other, even than Josephus’ for Scripture.5

Moreover, Keener has demonstrated the desire for factual information in the Gospels because of their exact time frame as well, writing that “they were composed during the early empire, the period of greatest historiographic sensitivity among ancient biographers, [which] reinforces the likelihood that the Evangelists had significant interest in recounting genuine historical information about their biographee.”6 Indeed, they would have wanted Jesus’s teaching to be known and multiplied, and their editorial restraint is shown by Keener in comparison to other contemporaneous writings. This matches up with what is known about Mark, for example. Papias (a companion of Polycarp, who was a student of the Apostle John) testified that though Mark did not necessarily write in an orderly manner (meaning, perhaps, that his grammar was rudimentary and/or his chronology truncated, rearranged, etc.), “he was carefully attentive to one thing, not to pass by any thing that he heard [from Peter and others], or to state any thing falsely in these accounts.”7 

Another point that needs to be understood is that the Gospel writers may have been very aware of what the others had written. We know for a fact that Matthew and Luke were familiar with Mark. And we learn from Eusebius that John, in speaking about the other three gospels, gave “testimony to their truth.”8 So why would Matthew and Luke adapt anything said in Mark, which was widely understood to be the testimony of Peter, a major leader in the church? The Early Church had no problem with this—they could point to the Gospel of Matthew being an orderly account while also talking about Mark apparently not being all that concerned with the chronology of events but still maintaining “great accuracy,” as mentioned above.9 (As an aside, Mark’s frequent use of the Greek word for immediately has been noted by scholars. It is clear that he tells a lot of information in a much shorter amount of space than the other Gospel authors. His use of immediately gives it the feel of an action-packed Hellenistic play, and shows that Mark got to the point a bit quicker than the others, along with intending his Gospel to be read aloud.10) And why would John’s look so different to all three of them if he approved of their factual nature? 

There are several legitimate reasons they could purposely look different. And that is one thing to remember here: These differences are not accidental, but purposeful. That frees us from some of the worry associated with these differences. One basic reason why they could look different is because they each just had different interests, or their community had different needs. For example, one of the primary reasons given for John writing his Gospel is because he wanted to write more of Jesus’s ministry before the arrest of John the Baptist, which the other three did not focus as much on.11 But there is more to it than that. 

The Gospel of John is said to be the most theological of the Gospels—meaning that where others hint at the divinity of Christ, John bluntly states it and connects all the dots for us—but they are all doing this sort of thing; it is only our distance from their context that shrouds their message. They are using images that help us make sense of who Jesus was and is. When they write of Jesus (sometimes quoting his own words) being the lamb of God, the light of the world, the true vine, the logos, they are using figurative language that is also, in a sense, quite literal. They are working within the genre of ancient biography to give factual details, yes, but also to tell the truth in meaningful ways to the communities they were writing to, which led to differences between the Gospels. By “tell the truth,” I do not just mean to tell others what happened, but to tell others what the events meant. 

So, to review: Why are these accounts different if they were all aware of each other? Simply put, the authors were different. The communities they were writing to were different. They sought to make the most meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to the community they were writing to—a cultural community with its own concerns—as best they could, and they focused on things that they thought were the most necessary in order to make sense of the revealed mystery of Christ. These Gospels lift each other up, provide details that enlighten the others, and sometimes are more or less literal or figurative to describe a particular truth. There was nothing wrong with this method of truth-telling at the time. It was the most common convention, and some of us still use it today. It is, in a sense, finding and focusing on the forest rather than missing it for the trees. Furthermore, often missed in this discussion are the many commonalities between the canonical Gospels. Larry Hurtado mentions just a few of the literary commonalities, such as the unique authority of Jesus’s teachings and actions, how they all share the same Christological titles, and how they all inhabit the same “narrative world” where “biblical story and promise and eschatological expectation” could have been largely reduced to the merely mythic and ahistorical realm like the later noncanonical Gospel of Thomas, but instead they are “linked with the ‘real’ or finite historical setting of Roman-era Judea/Palestine.”12

All of that said, I would like to focus on one of the alleged contradictions just to give an example of the type of thing we can miss if we come to the text with the wrong expectations and, at the first sign of trouble, simply assume that one or all of the Gospel authors got it wrong. It is true that, in some instances, we will not be able to definitively solve the riddle between two or more scripture verses. Now, in that previous sentence, what some of us may have heard—assuming a modern way of relaying history and/or assuming that the Gospel authors made mistakes—is that there are errors in the Bible that cannot be solved. But that is a jump to a conclusion, because what I mean is that there are several options available to us, and that we cannot know which one if any are true. Nevertheless, the available options are proof that there is not a necessary contradiction. 

One of the most concerning and difficult of supposed contradictions concerning the Passion narrative has to do with the celebration of Passover with the Last Supper and the time of Jesus’s crucifixion. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is crucified on “the day of preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14), i.e., the day before Passover, which would mean Jesus was executed on a Thursday morning. And so, John seems to be telling us that Jesus is sent to be executed on the day that Passover lambs are slaughtered. However, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, depict Jesus celebrating the Passover with the disciples the day before His crucifixion and being at the tomb of Jesus the day after the day of preparation. This seems odd, unless we somehow have our days wrong. As it turns out, we might! 

The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so called due to their many similarities) also report that the disciples visited the tomb of Jesus the day after His crucifixion, which they call “the day after preparation day” (Matthew 27:62). Right here we see that there is agreement, for each would say that Jesus ate the Last Supper meal the day before the day of preparation, then He was crucified on the day of preparation, and then some of His followers visited his tomb on the day after his crucifixion, or the day after the day of preparation (Sabbath), and then the next day Jesus arose from the grave. The difference seems to be what we think the “day of preparation” references. John’s “day of preparation” has been understood as the day preceding Passover (so, Thursday) due to his wording, while the Synoptics’ “preparation” day is referred to as the day preceding Sabbath (so, Friday). Josephus also uses the word “preparation” as referring to the day preceding Sabbath, as well.13 As Andreas Köstenberger explains, “If this is accurate, then tou pascha means not ‘of the Passover,’ but ‘of the Passover week.’ Indeed, ‘Passover’ may refer to (the day of) the actual Passover meal or, as in the present case, the entire Passover week, including Passover day as well as the associated Feast of Unleavened bread.” And so, this day of preparation for the Passover week is best understood as Friday, the day of preparation for the Sabbath. According to scholar Gleason Archer, the word for “preparation” in Greek had already come to mean “Friday,” since Friday was always the day of preparation for Sabbath on Saturday. This word still means Friday today in modern Greek, as well.14

In this rendering then, all agree that the Last Supper was a Passover meal shared on Thursday evening (technically Friday morning according to Jewish reckoning of days). Indeed, Luke even writes of “The Festival of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover” (Luke 22:1), showing that there was a broader usage of the term “Passover” at the time, though at the same time one could differentiate between the Passover itself and the Festival of Unleavened Bread15 (which is not surprising, as this commemorates the Exodus account itself in which the Passover sacrifice saved people and allowed for a quick exit, which required making a quick unleavened bread for the exodus journey ahead). Passover can be described in its narrow sense and in this more expanded sense, and understanding the difference may clear up this and other potential discrepancies between accounts. Douglas Huffman rightly declares, “The New Testament narratives have no necessary contradictions with one another,”16 and therefore, citing Anglican biblical scholar John Wenham, “The charge of irreconcilability brought against the resurrection stories has not been proved. Rather it has been shown that these records exhibit the characteristics of accurate and independent reporting, for while superficially they show great disharmony, on close examination the details gradually fall into place.”17

With the other evidence presented here, it is my hope that in the case of these differences, we can begin to give the benefit of the doubt to the people who wrote these Gospels. Let’s allow them to speak on their own terms, set their own agendas, and hear them based on what they mean to be saying. And when there appears to be a difference, we may even give the benefit of the doubt further, knowing that they understood their world far better than we do. In the final summation, then, all of them mean to be saying this: Jesus has risen from the dead, and that is good news for the world.

Derek Caldwell

Derek Caldwell

Derek Caldwell is researcher and content creator for Embrace the Truth.

References

1 Michael Licona, “Fish Tales: Bart Ehrman’s Red Herrings and the Resurrection of Jesus,” in Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, Come Let Us Reason (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012), 144ff.

2 Michael R. Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 198. Emphasis added.

3 Craig S. Keener, Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019), 326.

4 Keener gives a helpful example: “Variations are common in parallel accounts. For example, in Xenophon’s encomium on Agesilaus, the state selects Agesilaus as a better king than his rival; in Nepos, Lysander makes him king; in Plutarch, Agesilaus and Lysander together make Agesilaus king, and the people are unhappy about the result.” Keener, 264.

5 Quoted in Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, 200. Source: F. Gerald Downing, “Redaction Criticism: Josephus’ Antiquities and the Synoptic Gospels (II),” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 3, no. 9 (September 1980): 29-48. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0142064X8000300902.

6 Keener, 120.

7 See the words of Papias preserved in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.16.

8 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.24.7-12.

9 Ibid.

10 Gary M. Burge, Lynn H. Cohick, Gene L. Green, The New Testament in Antiquity: A Survey of the New Testament Within Its Cultural Contexts (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 180. 

11 Eusebius writes, “The three gospels previously written, having been distributed among all, and also handed to [John the Apostle], they say that he admitted them, giving testimony to their truth; but that there was only wanting in the narrative account of the things done by Christ, among the first of his deeds, and at the commencement of the gospel. And this was the truth. For it is evident that the other three evangelists only wrote the deeds of our Lord for one year after the imprisonment of John the Baptist, and intimated this in the very beginning of their history. … [John] plainly also shows this in the words: ‘John [the Baptist] was not yet cast into prison [John 3:24].’” Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.24.7-12.

12 Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 267-69.  

13 Josephus, Antiquities, 16:163-164. Andreas Köstenberger, “John,” in The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible: The Gospels and Acts (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2013), 806-07.

14 Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), 375. 

15 Köstenberger, 836. In John 18:28, Köstenberger argue that “eat the Passover” should likewise be mean something more like “celebrate the feast,” as in 2 Chronicles 30:21.

16 Douglas S. Huffman, “Are there Contradictions in the Bible?” in Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder (eds.), In Defense of the Bible (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2013), 291.

17 Ibid. Source: John Wenham, Easter Enigma: Are the Resurrection Accounts in Conflict (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2005), 124.

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