3D graphic stating, "The Skeptical Review Online"

   Print Edition: 1990-2002

The Resurrection Maze
by Farrell Till

1992 / March-April

When two or more statements contradict one another, they cannot all be right. If we apply this rule of evidence to the testimony of the "eyewitnesses" to the resurrection, we have to conclude that at least some of the testimony was erroneous. If some of it was erroneous, then the Bible inerrancy doctrine itself must be erroneous.

Inconsistencies in the four gospel accounts of the resurrection are too numerous to discuss in a single article, so I will limit discussion at this time to just a few. Matthew began his narrative of the events of that day by telling us that Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" went to the sepulcher "as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week" (28:1). The time factor that he identified contrasts sharply with the testimony of Mark, Luke, and John, who said, respectively, that the time was "very early on the first day of the week... when the sun was risen" (16:1) or "on the first day of the week, at early dawn" (24:1) or "on the first day of the week... while it was yet dark" (20:1). By stretching imagination, perhaps we could reconcile the testimony of Matthew and Luke. If it was "beginning to dawn toward the first day of the week," we could maybe grant that this could be called "early dawn," but how could the sun already be risen if it was only beginning to dawn? And if the sun had already risen, as Mark claimed, how could it have been "yet dark," as John said? For that matter, how could it have been "yet dark" if the morning had reached any stage that could be correctly described as "dawn"? I grew up on a farm, so I can remember getting up many times as it was "beginning to dawn" or while it was still "early dawn," but it certainly wasn't "yet dark." By looking outside, I could see clearly enough to recognize objects. Certainly by the time the sun had risen, it was never "yet dark" outside. So how could it possibly be that John was right in the time factor that he specified but the other three were also right in their time factors? This is a chronological discrepancy that bibliolaters have never satisfactorily explained.

As noted, Matthew said that Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" went to the tomb. Mark identified the women as "Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome" (16:1). Luke said that the women who went to the tomb were "Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them" (24:10), and John mentioned only Mary Magdalene (20:1). We have all heard the Gleason Archer-John Haley type of explanation for the "variances" in these names. Matthew chose to identify only two of the women, John chose to identify only one, but their failure to mention the presence of Salome or Joanna or "the other women" would not mean that they were not there. The same line of reasoning is usually applied to the variations in the number of angels reported at the scene. Matthew said that "an angel" (one) descended from heaven (28:2). Mark spoke of "a young man... arrayed in a white robe" (16:5), who was presumably an angel, but Luke (24:4) and John (20:12) wrote of two angels. If there were two, then there had to be one, inerrantists will say, but in a matter as vitally important as the testimony to a resurrection, inspired by an omniscient, omnipotent deity, this kind of "explanation" has dubious merit at best. However, it is the stock explanation of inerrancy defenders in matters like these, so I will simply mention it, leave it to the readers to judge its merit, and go on to other discrepancies that no stretch of imagination can satisfactorily resolve.

After the women arrived at the tomb, Matthew said that a "great earthquake" occurred and "an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it" (28:2). Mark, Luke, and John, however, disagreed. Mark said that the women found the stone already rolled away when they arrived at the tomb (16:2). Luke agreed with Mark and said that the stone was "rolled away from the tomb" when the women arrived (24:2), and John said that the stone had been "taken away from the tomb" when Mary Magdalene arrived (20:1). So who was right? Matthew or the other three? It simply could not have been that the stone was both in place and rolled away too when the women came to the tomb? Our rule of evidence demands one of two conclusions: Matthew was right and the other three were wrong, or the other three were right and Matthew was wrong. Both versions of the story cannot be right.

Matthew wrote that the angel who descended from heaven and sat upon the stone said to the women, "He (Jesus) is not here; for he is risen, even as he said. Come see the place where the Lord lay" (28:6). Luke's angels (plural) also reminded the women that Jesus had said that he would be raised:

Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, saying that the Son of man must be delivered up into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again (24:5-7).
As noted in an earlier article, Luke said that the women, upon hearing this, "remembered his words" (v:8). Although Matthew didn't specifically say that the women remembered the words of Jesus that the angel reminded them of, he certainly implied that they did, because he immediately said that the women "departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring his disciples word" (28:8). This is essentially what Luke said too. After saying that the women "remembered his (Jesus's) words," he said that the women "returned from the tomb, and told all these things to the eleven, and to all the rest" (24:9).

Now if the women "ran to bring his disciples word," as Matthew said, and if they "told all these things to the eleven," as Luke claimed, then surely they told the eleven about the angel (angels?) and what he (they?) had told them. In other words, Matthew's and Luke's versions of the resurrection story both present the women at the tomb as ones who had been informed about the resurrection and convinced that it had occurred before they ran to tell the disciples what they had seen.

One would never guess this, however, by just reading John's version. John was the one who chose to mention only the presence of Mary Magdalene at the tomb, and he said that Mary, upon seeing the stone taken away from the tomb, ran and told Simon Peter and "the other disciple" (20:2). She did this before seeing the angels, because it wasn't until after she had returned to the tomb that she saw the angels (vv:11-13). So when John's Mary ran to Peter and the other disciples, did she run with the "great joy" that Matthew mentioned? And did she tell the disciples "all these things" that Luke said the angels had told them? Apparently no, according to John's story! When John's Mary found the disciples, she said, "They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we know not where they have laid him" (20:2). Obviously, there was no "joy" in what she was saying here. She was quite distressed.

More perplexing than that, however, is the fact that John's Mary believed that the body of Jesus had been stolen from the tomb. Why would she have thought that IF she had seen angels at the tomb (as Matthew, Mark, and Luke claimed), who had reminded her of Jesus's promise to rise again on the third day, and especially IF she had "remembered his words" after the angels had jogged her memory? Obviously, John was not aware of any prior contact that Mary had had with angels or of any assurances she had received from angels that Jesus had been resurrected. His Mary was a distraught woman who, at the time of her report to Peter and "the other disciple," had no idea that Jesus had risen from the dead. Even after she returned to the tomb with Peter and the other disciple, she still thought that the body of Jesus had been stolen, because the angels that she encountered this time inside the tomb asked her why she was crying, and she said, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him" (Jn. 20:13). But why would she have thought that at this time IF prior to going to get Peter an angel or angels had told her, "He is risen" (Mt. 28:6; Mk. 16:6; Lk. 24:6)?

Gleason Archer, in his typically far-fetched style, has offered this answer to the question:

She apparently had not yet taken in the full import of what the angel meant when he told her that the Lord had risen again and that He was alive. In her confusion and amazement, all she could think of was that the body was not there; and she did not know what had become of it. Where could that body now be? It was for this reason that she wanted Peter and John to go back there and see what they could find out (Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, pp. 348-349).
That sounds pretty thin to me, but inerrantists are famous for this kind of circumlocution when they are confronted with obvious discrepancies in the Bible text. Luke flatly stated that the women at the tomb, who would have included Mary Magdalene, "remembered his (Jesus's) words" when the angels reminded them that Jesus had predicted his resurrection while they were "yet in Galilee" (24:7-8). Despite the clarity of this statement, Archer wants us to believe that the obvious discrepancy between it and John's depiction of Mary in his resurrection story was only "apparent," because she "had not yet taken in the full import of what the angel meant when he told her the Lord had risen again." As an explanation of the problem, it is too transparent to deserve serious comment. What "full import" was there to take in? The angels said, "He is risen," as he had promised while he was "yet in Galilee," and the women "remembered his words"!

While yet in her state of confusion about what had happened, John's Mary encountered Jesus by the tomb--and didn't even recognize him! She thought that he was the gardener (20:14-15). So we are supposed to believe that angels had some time prior to this told her that Jesus was not "here," that "he is risen," as he had said would happen while he was "yet in Galilee," and that she had "remembered his words," but when finally she came face to face with the risen Jesus at the empty tomb, she didn't even know who he was. If a missionary preaching a religion we had not grown up with should come into our country with a story as inconsistent as this, who would believe it?

But it gets even worse. Mary's encounter with Jesus at the tomb in John's version clearly happened after Mary had found the stone rolled away and had run to tell Peter and had returned to the tomb, but this runs completely contrary to Matthew's version of an encounter with Jesus near the burial site. Matthew said that the women, upon receiving instructions from the angel (just one) to go tell the disciples that Jesus would go before them into Galilee, "departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring his disciples word" (28:7-8). But look at what Matthew then said:

And behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then saith Jesus unto them, Fear not: go tell my brethren that they depart into Galilee, and there shall they see me (28:9).
Perhaps Jesus thought that the angel's message had not been clear enough, so he made an appearance himself to tell the women the same thing the angel had just said to them. Maybe he knew what he was doing too. A person as confused as Gleason Archer's Mary Magdalene would probably have to be given a message like this at least twice before she would understand it. At any rate, Matthew said that the women met the risen Jesus as they were running to tell the disciples that an angel had told them to meet Jesus in Galilee, and this flatly contradicts John's version. John said that Mary Magdalene saw Jesus after she had fetched the disciples and returned to the tomb. Before any inerrantist tries to tiptoe around this problem by claiming that John's failure to mention an encounter with Jesus while Mary was running to get Peter doesn't mean that such an encounter did not occur, let him explain why Mary didn't recognize him in the garden if she had already seen him before this and had even taken "hold of his feet and worshipped him" (Matt. 28:9). She had done all of this on the way into town but now back at the tomb again she wasn't even able to recognize Jesus! If I may resort to slang for just a moment, come on, give me a break!

The holding of Jesus's feet mentioned by Matthew poses yet another problem, for when John's Mary finally recognized Jesus at the tomb, he specifically forbade her to touch him: "Touch me not: for I am not yet ascended unto the Father" (20:17). What ascending to the Father would have to do with a restriction on touching Jesus is anybody's guess (I just read the scriptures; I didn't write them), but Jesus plainly stated this as a reason why Mary should not touch him. Yet, in Matthew's story, when the women, who would have included Mary, met Jesus on the way to "bring the disciples word," they "took hold of his feet and worshipped him." Now if they took hold of his feet, then they surely touched him. How else could they have taken hold of his feet? But at this encounter Jesus said nothing about not touching him, even though at this time he had most certainly "not yet ascended unto the Father." How could he have done so, since this encounter happened as the women were running into town to find the disciples, and the encounter with Mary, when Jesus told her he had not yet ascended, happened after she had found the disciples and had returned to the tomb?

The encounter with Jesus as the women were running into town raises yet another problem. Matthew plainly said that after the women "departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy" (28:8), they met Jesus and "took hold of his feet and worshipped him" (v:9). Now if the women met Jesus and worshipped him, they surely recognized him and realized that he had been resurrected. Why then did Mary say what she said when she found Peter and the other disciple? "They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we know not where they have laid him" (Jn. 20:2). I earlier noted that this statement made no sense at all in light of what Matthew, Mark, and Luke said that the angel(s) told the women at the tomb and what Luke specifically said the women "remembered," but now that we know that the women, on the way into town to find the disciples, encountered Jesus, touched him, and worshipped him, Mary's statement to Peter goes beyond making no sense. It becomes an insult to the intelligence of all rational people who are asked to believe in the resurrection despite glaring discrepancies like this.

Juxtaposed and considered as a single story, the four resurrection accounts form a veritable maze of contradictions. So once again I must remind readers of the rule of evidence that says falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus (false in one thing, false in everything). When alleged witnesses to an event contradict themselves as flagrantly as did the four gospel writers in their accounts of the resurrection, everything that they said must be viewed with suspicion. These writers claimed that a man who was physically dead returned to life. A claim that extraordinary requires extraordinary proof, but there is certainly nothing extraordinary in the resurrection testimony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It is so riddled with inconsistencies that no one but the hopelessly credulous could possibly believe it.

Last summer, as I was working in my front yard, two Jehovah's Witnesses came by and engaged me in conversation. As we stood talking, I explained my background and familiarity with the Bible. I referred to the resurrection stories to illustrate the fact of inconsistency in the Bible text. One of the JW's nodded at the cars going by and said that if an accident happened and the police asked us to write reports, they would have inconsistencies in them, but that wouldn't mean that the accident did not happen. "No, it wouldn't," I agreed, "but if we were all three inspired by an omniscient, omnipotent deity while we were writing our reports, there wouldn't be any inconsistencies." The only response to this was a sheepish smile.

So it is with the resurrection accounts in the four gospels. If Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--all four of them--had really been guided and directed by an omniscient, omnipotent deity while they were writing their gospels (as the inerrancy doctrine claims), there would be no maze of inconsistencies in the juxtaposition of their stories. There would be that perfect unity and harmony that fundamentalist preachers talk about so much--but which doesn't really exist. I'm very afraid that the faith of Christians who have put so much hope in the resurrection will prove to be vain and that they will, unfortunately, never know that "they are of all men most miserable."

Rollover button for Main Menu pageRollover button for Print Edition Main Menu pageRollover button for Search Engine pageRollover button for Contact Us page