Questions and Answers: Why are there contradictions in the Easter story?

So, as is appropriate for today, I’d like to answer the question of why the four NT accounts of the Resurrection contradict each other.

The answer to this is, of course simple if you treat the Gospels as histories:  they’re historical accounts formed by personal accounts sometimes gathered after years and from second-hand sources.  These things always have contradictions.

And yet, this answer never seems to satisfy those who raise the question, and I’m not sure why.  Or, rather, I guess I am sure why:  these people have, in fact, bought into the idea that the Bible is literally the Word of God — in all cases — and therefore cannot be treated like a history.  It, instead, has to be treated specially, and thus must be especially accurate or else it just doesn’t count as the Bible anymore.

The problem is that, as far as I know, few actually claim that about the Gospels.  The Gospels are supposed to be accounts of Jesus’ life, from various sources.  John’s is supposed to be an account from one of the apostles, and the others — if I recall correctly — are supposed to be the work of archivists and researchers.  I don’t think it would really change Christianity at all to say that these are accounts and so should be treated like historical texts; in fact, it seems to me that Christians should welcome that, since history is about finding out if people existed and events really happened, and that’s what the claim is about Jesus.

It seems to me that the only case for literalism is in things like Genesis, things that are historical but could only come from God, or in cases where God is outlining philosophy and particularly talking about things like morality.  The Gospels are not generally such cases nor are they intended to be, and the Easter Story is clearly not of that type.

Thus, we should treat it like we’d treat historical texts.  And that means two things:

1) The only contradictions that one can use to claim that the story is false must be particularly important ones, not ones that one might expect to get distorted over time or due to personal views.

2) We can reconcile these by applying methods to determine what in light of all accounts seems more likely.

To demonstrate how this works, I’m going to look at the four contradictions cited here:

“Who were the women?
Matthew: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (28:1)
Mark: Mary Magdalene, the mother of James, and Salome (16:1)
Luke: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women (24:10)
John: Mary Magdalene (20:1)

Who was at the tomb when they arrived?
Matthew: One angel (28:2-7)
Mark: One young man (16:5)
Luke: Two men (24:4)
John: Two angels (20:12)

After the women, to whom did Jesus first appear?
Matthew: Eleven disciples (28:16)
Mark: Two disciples in the country, later to eleven (16:12,14)
Luke: Two disciples in Emmaus, later to eleven (24:13,36)
John: Ten disciples (Judas and Thomas were absent) (20:19, 24)
Paul: First to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. (Twelve? Judas was dead). (I Corinthians 15:5)

Did Jesus stay on earth for a while?
Mark: No (16:19) Compare 16:14 with John 20:19 to show that this was all done on Sunday
Luke: No (24:50-52) It all happened on Sunday
John: Yes, at least eight days (20:26, 21:1-22)
Acts: Yes, at least forty days (1:3)”

Answering 1), only the last question might be considered substantive, if it impacts certain discussions.  So the other three are clearly unimportant.  But I’ll apply 2) to them anyway.

1)   One could try to argue from which is likely to be more accurate, but there’s an easier answer here if one considers that some of the accounts might simply not mention all of them or might have gotten the information from sources that missed some out.  Thus, I’d reasonably say that you should take the most inclusive one, and that’s a combination of Luke and Mark.  Note that Luke even says “other women” explicitly.  So this makes it consistent; any specifically named woman was there, and the other accounts simply didn’t mention others due to some sort of tunnel vision.  Thus, it is quite easy to make this contradiction consistent.

2)  Since angels appear, one presumes, as young men, that’s a contradiction that’s easy to resolve.  The number is a little harder, and you could make a case for either side; someone just heard the numbers wrong.  But I’d probably align with two for the same reasons as the above, but introducting the counting issue allows for either interpretation to work.  Thus, again, not contradictory as long as we conclude quite reasonably that two of the accounts got the numbers wrong for some reason.

3) Let’s drop Paul out for an instant, but note the “Twelve” complaint is a really bad one, easily accrued to a simple misstatement or a use of a terminology.  The Gospel accounts are all fairly close, except for the story of Doubting Thomas.  However, again noting that “the Eleven” need not be a number, but simply reflect a title for the group, that’s not an issue.  You may have, say, a Quorum of Twelve and you don’t stop calling it that if a couple don’t show up.  Matthew, then, simply missed one account.  Thus, still consistent.

4)  The interesting thing to note here is that Luke is supposedly the author of both Acts and his own Gospel, and those contradict.  I’m not going to challenge the authorship here — although this contradiction might be a way to do so — and assume that he is.  I’ll also assume, then, that he’d have noticed if there was a contradiction in his own works (not always safe, but it’s not unreasonable).  Thus, he would have known that Jesus supposedly “left” on the Sunday and then also appeared over the span of 40 days.  Which means that he couldn’t have meant there that Jesus actually left, and all that is described is Jesus rising into heaven.  Which doesn’t mean that Jesus could not have appeared to people after that point, but that his “resurrection” was completed by that action. As there’s nothing stopping him from reappearing, the contradiction here is only in assuming that after the rising into heaven that meant that Jesus would be gone forever and never appear again.  Since that assumption is unwarranted, there is no contradiction here.

And thus I have resolved the four contradictions here in what I think is the correct way.  I might, however, be wrong.  And that, in fact, is what’s fun about history … and philosophy.

One Response to “Questions and Answers: Why are there contradictions in the Easter story?”

  1. Here Comes the Easter Coyne! « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] I’m really not sure why he should. I’ve already addressed why those inconsistencies aren’t important and are easily resolva… These don’t seem to be critical to the story, and certainly could be things that were […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: