Do the Resurrection Stories Contradict Each Other?

Easter is the very center of the Christian understanding of the world: The importance of Easter simply cannot be overstated. Easter is the one fact from which all of Christianity hangs. If archaeologists proved that the Exodus never took place, I’d still be a Christian; if cosmologists proved that the earth is billions of years old, the Christian Church would endure; if biologists proved macro-evolution, your preacher would still get in the pulpit each Sunday; if historians proved that Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, we’d sell our church buildings and give the proceeds to charity. To paraphrase Paul: If Christ wasn’t raised from the dead, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”[1]

The Problem

The heartbeat of Easter is the gospels’ claim that Jesus of Nazareth was literally and physically dead, that he literally and physically got out of the grave, and that he then literally and physically appeared to numerous people. These stories are recounted near the end of each of the gospels—that is, the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—in your Bible. Now, if you go and read the resurrection stories alongside each other, you should see something: Each gospel’s resurrection narratives are different—sometimes quite different.

Though I can’t cover all of the differences, here are a few differences: Mark, true to form, is extremely sparse on details. In contrast, Luke 24.13-35 relates a detailed story about two unnamed men having a long conversation with the risen Christ which is not mentioned in any other gospel. Matthew, however, makes it sound like Jesus walked out of the grave, said hi to two women, gave the Great Commission, and then immediately ascended to heaven. John 21, however, says that Jesus took the time to cook breakfast for the disciples.

In broad strokes, here’s the issue the differences between the gospels’ accounts of the resurrection raise: If the resurrection stories contradict each other, we have reason to doubt their historicity. If we doubt the historicity of the resurrection, we’re doubting the very foundation of the Christian faith. Thus, if the resurrection stories contradict each other, we could have a serious problem with the faith to which we’ve dedicated our lives.

The question, then, is whether or not the gospels contradict each other. Aristotle’s Law of Noncontradiction says that two contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same time in the same sense. Thus, I cannot be both writing this sentence and not writing this sentence at the same time and in the same sense. Applied to the gospels, Jesus could not have both talked to the two men in Luke 24 and not talked to the two men in Luke 24: One statement is true, but they cannot both be true. Thus, if Mark—or any other gospel—says that Jesus didn’t talk to the two men, then either Luke or the other gospel is wrong. This idea also applies to John 21’s claim that Jesus cooked the disciples breakfast, for the number of women at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning, for the presence of angels at the tomb, and for whether the guards were at the tomb when the women arrived. If the gospels contradict each other on any of these details, Christianity could have a serious problem.

The Solution

Fortunately for Christians, differences don’t equal contradictions. The fact that Mark doesn’t mention Jesus’s conversation with the two men or that John doesn’t mention as many women being at the tomb as does Matthew are interesting Bible facts, but that’s about it: These are differences of details, not contradictions.

The threshold for establishing a contradiction is much higher than merely asserting that the gospels have different details. To establish a contradiction, we would need Mark to say something like, “Jesus did not talk to two men on the road to Emmaus;” since Mark says no such thing, there’s no contradiction. Therefore, both Mark and Luke could be correct at the same time with the difference being that Luke included more details than did Mark.

Similarly, John mentions that Mary Magdalene was at the tomb on Easter while Matthew says another woman—cryptically called “the other Mary”[2]—accompanied Mary Magdalene. For there to be a contradiction, we would need John to say that Mary Magdalene was alone at the tomb; since John says no such thing, we conclude that there is no contradiction. Perhaps John didn’t like “the other Mary,” and thus didn’t include her in the story; saying that Mary Magdalene was at the tomb simply doesn’t equal that “the other Mary” wasn’t there also. Like so many of the differences, these are differences of details, not contradictions.

Conclusion

The Easter stories from the gospels are absolutely essential to Christianity; however, the gospels differ in details about what happened on that first Easter morning. Nevertheless, the different details don’t mean that the gospels contradict each other. Therefore, Christians should not be overly concerned about the differences between the resurrection narratives.

Notes & Sources

[1] 1 Corinthians 15.32, NIV.

[2] Matthew 28.1

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ 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

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: