In Part I, we considered several apparent contradictions in the four gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. To recap, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then the Scriptures have no meaning to us whatsoever, according to the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15. If the accounts of the resurrection are unreliable, then we have no reasonable basis to believe the resurrection occurred. So the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ are central to the Christian faith.
An apparent contradiction is not the same as an actual contradiction. To have an actual contradiction, you have to have an assertion that takes the following form:
- There is a tree growing in the pasture ten yards from the southwest corner of the fence.
- There is not a tree growing in the pasture ten yards from the southwest corner of the fence.
Either there is a tree at the specified location, or there isn’t. Both cannot be true. So these two statements are contradictory.
What makes a necessary contradiction? A necessary contradiction occurs when there are no possible alternatives except the contradiction. The example above is an example of a necessary contradiction because the details are so precisely defined.
Apparent contradictions come along when there are hosts of details that are not specifically enumerated. For example, Matthew’s account of the resurrection does not include every single, solitary detail of the events of that morning. Neither does Mark’s; or Luke’s; or John’s. The gospel writers include certain details, and leave others out. There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing that. You can report on an event truthfully without enumerating every single detail of the narrative.
For the gospel accounts to be necessarily contradictory, there must be no alternative except that a contradiction is present. But as we will see, there are no necessary contradictions. As long as there is a reasonable alternative to a contradiction, it is not reasonable to assume a necessary contradiction. In fact, it is more reasonable to posit the alternative than to posit the contradiction.
Let’s consider Matthew’s account of the angel rolling the stone away and sitting down on it. No other gospel accounts have this detail. And Matthew does not report on the women’s reaction to the angel moving away the stone and sitting on it.
We can infer that the women were not present when the angel moved away the stone. We can infer that they were en route to the tomb, but that they had not arrived yet when the earthquake occurred, the angel moved the stone, and stunned the guards. We can further infer, that by the time the women did arrive at the tomb, the angel departed from the mouth of the tomb, so that when the women arrived, they found the stone rolled away—which is exactly what Mark, Luke, and John affirm.
So how many angels were inside the tomb? Was it only one, as Mark says? Or were there two, as Luke says? Well, if there were two, there was certainly one. Luke saying there were two does not necessitate only one. Mark only mentions the one, presumably because there was only one angel speaking to the women, while the other affirmed what he said by his silence.
What did the angels say? Here we have striking agreement between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Here is what they said:
- Fear not (Matthew and Mark)
- I know you seek Jesus (Matthew and Mark)
- Why do you seek the living among the dead? (Luke)
- Jesus is not here (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)
- He is risen (Matthew and Mark)
- Just as he said (Matthew)
- Remember how he told you that he would be crucified and rise again (Luke)
- Come and see the place where they laid him (Matthew and Mark)
- Go, tell his disciples (Matthew and Mark)
- He is going before you into Galilee (Matthew and Mark)
- You will see him there (Matthew and Mark)
Now obviously, not all three include every single one of these affirmations. But when we look at the flow of these affirmations, they all follow one from another. There are no contradictions here in the statements of the angels to the women as they stood inside the empty tomb.
So, we have considered the questions about the angels—how many there were, what they were doing, and what they said to the women. Not every gospel writer includes every detail of the event. But the details they did include fit together nicely. Do we need to infer a few things that none of the gospel writers include in their narratives? Yes, but those inferences are not unreasonable. And if we can infer a reasonable explanation resolving an apparent contradiction, then we have shown that no necessary contradiction exists.
But we are not finished yet. The most troubling difficulties lie ahead.
Let’s consider Mary Magdalene’s role in the narrative, and most important, let’s consider what exactly Jesus was up to. Moving on to Part III. . .