The Easter challenge
In my last post I addressed the matter of apparent contradictions between the different Gospel accounts and how familiarity with ancient literary devices can resolve them. Today I’m going to apply that all-important factor in reconciling the various descriptions of the events following Jesus’s resurrection.
I mentioned Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Dan Barker as being one for whom the discrepancies posed such a problem that he abandoned his Christian faith. In his book Losing Faith in Faith, Barker issued “An Easter Challenge” to all Christians to account for all the various details surrounding the resurrection and following as recorded in the four Gospels as well as Acts and 1 Corinthians. Put everything in chronological order without omitting any recorded detail. He doesn’t think it can be done.
It’s clear from Barker’s complaints of irreconcilability that, at least at the time of writing his book, he is unfamiliar with the compositional devices I referenced in my post that have been observed in other ancient biographies. To repeat, in addition to the freedom to disregard strict chronology, those are:
compression – compacting a narrative to include only its necessary elements, thereby omitting details like time, day, and setting
transferral – attributing words or deeds to another
displacement – transferring an event into a different context for literary effect
So I have accepted Dan Barker’s Easter challenge. What follows is my reconciliation of the face-value “contradictions” found in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20-21, Acts 1, and 1 Corinthians 15. I’m not claiming it all had to happen this way, only that this is a plausible time-line that fits the facts.
Sometime before dawn on the Sunday following Jesus’s death and burial, he was raised, there was an earthquake, and an angel rolled away the stone and sat on it. Though Matthew reports the earthquake and angel after saying that “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” went to the tomb, it is more than reasonable to infer that the events in verses 2-5 happened before. Barker acknowledges that this explanation is offered but he doesn’t think it’s credible. I don’t think he’s made his case that it’s not.
While in the throes of an earthquake, the men assigned to guard the tomb are confronted with the dazzling sight of the angel, and when they are able to move again, flee in fear. They subsequently go into the city and tell the Jewish leaders what happened.
Around sunrise a group of women including “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” arrive at the tomb.1 The angel is gone. The fact that Matthew does not record additional women being there is not a contradiction with the Gospels that do. He simply chose to focus on the two. The varying ways the time of their arrival is described – “toward the dawn,” “very early,” “when the sun had risen,” “at early dawn,” “while it was still dark” – is not an issue. They didn’t have wristwatches or cell phones back then, so they estimated. The women see that the stone has been rolled away and assume someone has taken Jesus’s body. Perhaps they even went inside to make sure it was gone.
Mary Magdalene and the other women hurry off to tell the disciples. Mary finds Peter and John, and the three go back to the tomb. Peter and John go in, see the linen burial cloths but no body, and they return home but Mary stays. The other women have not yet returned to the tomb after locating the other disciples to tell them they found it empty.
Mary stands weeping outside the tomb then pokes her head in and sees two angels who ask her why she’s crying. After she answers them she turns around and has her encounter with the risen Jesus. She then goes off to tell the disciples that she has seen the Lord.
The other women return to the tomb and go in,2 perhaps needing additional visual confirmation that Jesus’s body was really gone. When they do, they are met by the angels, who in appearance were men in white. Again, the fact that two of the Gospels only record one angel/man is not a contradiction. If there were two, there was one. The writers do not say “only” one.
Matthew, Mark, and John record that the angels were sitting, while Luke says, “ While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel.” The Greek word translated “stood by” here is translated “came” or “came up(on)” elsewhere. It needn’t denote a bodily position.
What the angels said to the women varies by account, but this also is not a contradiction. Not only is it completely legitimate to paraphrase, but none of the Gospel writers says or implies that what he reports is the totality of the message.
Matthew and Luke report that the women go off and tell the disciples what they saw, but Mark says, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” This statement is likely the end of Mark’s Gospel, though most Bibles include an additional 12 verses, with an indication that they are not found in the earliest manuscripts. So I have not concerned myself with these additional verses in my reconciliation, although they mention Mary’s report to the disciples. If verse 8 is the end of the book (and why he ended it there is anyone’s guess), it’s reasonable to understand Mark to be saying that as newsworthy as this information was – stone rolled away, Jesus risen, angels appearing – the women did not announce it to anyone within earshot (as women might be expected to do) on their way to report to the disciples. But before they reach the disciples they have their own encounter with Jesus.
Tomorrow I’ll post what I believe is the sequence of Jesus’s other appearances.