But what if this message is an unreliable one? It goes without saying that there have been false messages spread by persistent individuals. The best way to determine fact from fiction is to consider the evidence and keep in mind where the burden of proof lies. Many Christian apologists seem eager to offer the gospels themselves as evidence, triumphantly stating that unless you can disprove the resurrection, you have no reason to doubt it. We need not transport these people back in time to the tomb in order to expose their flawed reasoning. All we really need to do is examine the evidence they present, to see if it holds up. And as the title of this article has already given away, there are holes to be found in the gospel stories of the resurrection.
I. Four Very Different Accounts
The chart above illustrates just a few ways that the gospels differ from each other in their descriptions of the events surrounding Jesus’ empty tomb and resurrection. Are these all minor differences, as some Christians may assert? Not necessarily. Every gospel lists a unique headcount of those who arrived at the tomb, and while most of us might think that the first people to see the risen Jesus were the women who found the tomb (since three gospels state this), Luke’s gospel contradicts such a notion. Each gospel also has something different to say on who was found at the tomb; Mark has one young man, Luke has two men, Matthew has one angel, and John has two angels. All these variant accounts can’t all be correct, can they?
Actually, when discrepancies like these are found in the bible, Christians appear to have no trouble reconciling them by basically blending the variant readings together into ‘what probably happened’. For example, one apologetics website deals with the disparate accounts of the women at the empty tomb by explaining that, “no one account speaks of the ones listed as being the only ones who went to the tomb.”1 This may seem sensible to believers, but it still faces a problem. Most Christians who use this reasoning to explain away seeming contradictions believe the gospel authors wrote under the inspiration and influence of god. If this is the case, why couldn’t god have guided them all to list the same, correct number of individuals at the tomb?
As the New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has pointed out,
It is nothing but an article of faith to suppose that the gospel authors chose not to list all who were present at the tomb, because they intended their writings to be read along with the other gospels. The fact is that each gospel gives a very different account of who first saw the resurrected Jesus, who went to the empty tomb, who they found at the tomb, and what followed afterward. If four different individuals each told you of the same purported alien encounter, with varying details on who was with them at the time, how many aliens they saw, and what the reactions were, would you not be the least bit skeptical of their tall tale? Now imagine these four accounts were not delivered by eye witnesses, but were written down anonymously, as in the case of the gospels. Would you be willing to assume all four authors were factually relating the same event from different angles?
II. The Devil’s in the Details
The differences in the gospel resurrection accounts don’t end there, however. In Mark, Luke and John, the women arrive to find the stone already rolled away from the tomb entrance. Matthew’s gospel not only describes the women witnessing an angel descending from heaven to roll away the stone, but it associates the event with an earthquake that is not mentioned in the other gospels (Matt. 28:2). Matthew is also the only text to mention guards at the tomb, whereas the women in Mark, Luke and John seem to approach and enter the tomb with no concern or notice of any guards. A lot of these may seem like minor details, but after so many differences and discrepancies among the texts, one can’t help but question the accuracy of the authors.
What did the disciples do after Jesus’ resurrection? In Mark 16:6-8, the young man in the tomb instructs the women to tell the disciples that they are to go to Galilee, where they will see Jesus. However, frightened and confused, the women run away and “[say] nothing to anyone”. In Matthew, an angel and Jesus both tell the women to let the disciples know they are to go to Galilee, and in this case they obey (Matt. 28:5-10,16). Interestingly though, Luke’s gospel does not include any command to go to Galilee. Instead, they meet Jesus in Bethany, where he ascends into heaven, and after which they return to Jerusalem (Luke 24:50-52). Many scholars think the book of Acts was written by Luke’s author, which makes it intriguing to note that the disciples are actually forbidden to leave Jerusalem in Acts 1:4. Galilee, Bethany and Jerusalem are markedly not the same region. John’s gospel gives no instruction whatsoever about going or staying anywhere.
It should be noted, though, that the four gospels are not the earliest accounts of the resurrection. According to the overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars, Paul’s epistles predate the gospels, and unfortunately for biblical inerrantists, there are still more discrepancies from these additional accounts. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 gives a string of details that further disagree with the four gospels, such as Jesus appearing first to Peter (no mention of women at the tomb is made), and then to over 500 believers later on. That last bit about the 500 ‘witnesses’ is favored by a lot of apologists as evidence of the resurrection, but nothing of the sort is described in any gospel, and it’s only in 1 Corinthians that we find such a large number.
Paul’s epistles also reflect a belief in a more spiritual resurrection, as opposed to the physical resurrection taught in the later gospels. In 1 Corinthians 15:46, Paul says that the “spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual.” Four verses later, he goes on to say that, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” According to Paul, Jesus was “revealed in the flesh, [and] was vindicated in the Spirit” (1 Timothy 3:16 – NAS translation); he “became a life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45). 1 Peter 3:18 also says Christ was “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit”. Among all these early accounts of the resurrection, you will not find the depth of detail contained later in the gospels. There is no story of the empty tomb, only brief and casual mentions of postmortem appearances.
When we turn to the later gospels, however, we find a much more ‘fleshed out’ tale of the resurrection, including the development of a belief in a bodily resurrection. Luke 24:36-43 plainly states that the disciples were afraid when Jesus appeared to them, because they “thought that they were seeing a spirit.” Jesus then actually encourages them to dispell this notion, saying “touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” The resurrected Christ goes on to eat a piece of broiled fish before his followers, further demonstrating his physical, bodily resurrection. In John 20:27, Jesus instructs Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.”
Every resurrection account in the New Testament has areas of disagreement with the other accounts. While these disparities do not disprove the resurrection itself, they certainly cast suspicion on the reliability of the New Testament authors and the accuracy of their reports. For the sake of thoroughness though, it’s important to not only examine the textual conflicts in the Easter story, but also the historical conflicts. Apologists like Josh McDowell are fond of stating that the resurrection is historical fact,3 but are they correct?
III. History’s Silence
There is a peculiar silence in the historical record on the matter of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The crucifixion was allegedly marked by an earthquake that opened graves and resulted in zombies scattering through Jerusalem (Matthew 27:51-54), and the resurrection was also supposedly marked by an earthquake (Matthew 28:2) and witnessed by over 500 people (1 Corinthians 15:6). With this in mind, it is striking to notice that the earliest non-biblical reference to Jesus comes approximately 64 years after his alleged death and resurrection, in Josephus’ Antiquities. As if this weren’t questionable enough, the passage relevant to Jesus is one widely disputed by scholars, with many considering it an interpolation.4
But the more important point to recognize here is that even if the passage were authentic, it still raises doubts, because Josephus was not alive in time to have witnessed any of Christ’s life. This is the situation for all other non-biblical sources too, like Tacitus, Suetonius, Lucian, and so on. Without knowing where their information came from, it is not clear that they reported anything historical. It is far more likely, especially after closely reading these passages, that they simply report on the beliefs of the regional Christians, not the actual events that unfolded involving Jesus around 30 CE. I deal more with these extra-biblical accounts in my article, The Extrabiblical Sources on Jesus, so I will not pursue them any further here.
Why can’t the gospels be counted as historical evidence? Christians often seem quite confused when I treat the gospels as anything less than picture-perfect historical records, but there are good reasons for viewing them with a critical and skeptical eye. Aside from the very numerous discrepancies among them that I’ve already pointed out, the gospels (and indeed all books of the New Testament) express a clear theological message. They are littered with miracle stories, religious doctrines, claims of prophecy fulfillment, and descriptions of other resurrections in addition to that of Jesus. The purpose of the gospels is not to report history as objectively as possible, but to communicate certain concepts about god, humanity, morality, and other subjects. You may find some bits of historical information in them, yet that does not make them historical records anymore than a reference to Troy makes The Iliad a historical record.
The truth is that even if we had reliable historical records of the crucifixion and the empty tomb, that would still not be evidence that the resurrection really happened. Why? Because the resurrection is not a verifiable claim, and an empty tomb has many possible explanations aside from resurrection. In a response to William Lane Craig, Jeffery Jay Lowder proposes that a more likely alternative to resurrection is that Joseph of Arimathea, who was a pious member of the Jewish High Court, simply buried Jesus in his own grave temporarily, out of respect for the Sabbath.5 Once it passed, he returned the body to the authorities or to a mass grave, as was customary treatment for crucifixion victims. I strongly encourage my readers to check out Lowder’s article – it is far more thorough and convincing than the condensed format I have presented here, and it is certainly a more plausible explanation for an empty tomb than divine intervention.
Christ’s resurrection is a supernatural explanation to be taken on faith, not historical evidence. Resurrection is not the best or most common explanation for a missing body, or for postmortem appearances. The problem is even greater though, because we don’t have reliable reasons for thinking there was a body that went missing in the first place! As already stated, there are NO extra-biblical sources that reference Jesus prior to ~90 CE. All that we have to go on before that are theologically motivated texts, mostly written by anonymous authors. Faith is an essential component throughout every aspect of Christianity, not just to get one from bible to belief. There is no real evidence of Christ’s resurrection, in history or the bible.
IV. The Story Remains the Same
One of the most frequent objections given to the exposure of discrepancies in the gospel resurrection accounts, and the lack of historical corroboration, is that despite all these seemingly troublesome issues, the fundamental story of Jesus rising from the dead remains the same. This is somewhat of a comical response, in my opinion, because I’m not sure what its proponents would expect truly contradictory resurrection stories to look like. Perhaps in one gospel Jesus would rise from the dead and find himself walking out of the wrong grave? Maybe he’d appear to a disciple who mistakes him for a robber and sends him back to the dead with a knife in his chest? Or he returns only to terrify his followers so much that they run off and never tell anyone of his resurrection? Wait, that’s actually the original ending of Mark’s gospel.
Hopefully you get the point I’m trying to make. If there were not core elements of the story that stayed the same, they would not be considered the same story. Like I said, the gospels are theologically motivated texts, and part of the message they’re attempting to convey involves Jesus being the awaited Jewish messiah. A dead rabbi is no candidate for messiah though, so even if every gospel were full of blatant lies, we should expect certain aspects of the story to be identical, like the resurrection itself. There may also be another reason for these internal consistencies.
In the 19th century, New Testament scholars began to accept a view on the origins of the gospels known as the Two Source Hypothesis. According to this view, the authors of Matthew and Luke used the earliest gospel, Mark, as source material, in addition to another hypothetical document known as “Q” (considered a lost text of sayings, like the gospel of Thomas). This hypothesis is formed around noted similarities between the texts in grammar, language, diction, theology, omission, redaction, and many other criteria. Currently, the Two Source Hypothesis “commands the support of most biblical critics from all continents and denominations.”6 If the authors of Matthew and Luke were using Mark as their source, this easily explains why the basic story of the resurrection is fairly consistent in all three accounts. No miracles necessary.
I think it’s no exaggeration to say that, if presented with all this information, no jury of rational beings would find the Easter resurrection story convincing. There is no historical evidence, the New Testament accounts all clash on many details, there is very evident theological bias in the texts, and most of the common attempts at reconciling these problems amount to little more than empty justification for faith. To borrow and correct a title from Josh McDowell, the resurrection is a verdict that demands some evidence.
1. Contender Ministries. Who was at the empty tomb? Bible Contradictions Answered. Retrieved Apr. 3, 2010.
2. Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted (HarperCollins, 2009), p. 29.
3. Josh McDowell, “Although the resurrection of Jesus is much more than a historical fact, it is nothing less than one.” Evidence For The Resurrection (Regal 2009), p. 53.
4. Louis Feldman, Josephus, the Bible, and History (1989), p. 430.
5. Jeffrey Jay Lowder, Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story, The Secular Web (2001). Retrieved Apr. 3, 2010.
6. S.C. Carlson, The Two Source Hypothesis, Synoptic Problem Website (1999). Retrieved Apr. 3, 2010.