This is the second question/answer post in our Tough Questions series. Question (from Loretta Hazel): "Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24 all tell us about the Resurrection, but they all have some key differences in the accounts. Differences that I personally struggle to piece together to form one story. How do we explain how all 3 accounts are accurate?"
Great question. It's one that people have written entire chapters and sections of books on. With that being said, I don’t think that a single blog post is gong to be the silver bullet that completely resolves this dilemma. Most answers that I’ve seen and heard are basically timelines that have been constructed (which are often pretty accurate and very well put together). The only problem that I have is that timelines don’t really help us to read the Bible with any more confidence. I don’t just need an answer, I need to understand the process of how someone came to that answer. I need to understand the principles behind the process.
Just to restate, your question is basically how can the resurrection accounts all be different, but all be true at the same time? Common sense tells us that there needs to be a certain amount of congruence or someone is lying. I remember when I was younger and I knew that me and my boys were about to get into trouble, we would all get into a room and make sure the details of our story lined up so that it would be “believable." If someone’s story doesn’t line up then it can mess it up for all of us. Before an interrogation, get your story together. Why didn’t the disciples have the foresight to do this? They were all friends. Surely they could have all gotten together and made sure everything lined up so that the truth wouldn’t be questioned. Maybe if they all had the same copy editor we wouldn’t be struggling with this.
As I said before, there’s a host of resources that help to line up how all of the events fit together (I’ll reference some of those resources at the bottom of this page). However, there are two quick principles that make this dilemma a little less intimidating. I’m grateful to Robin Schumacher for clarifying these two points and making them so plain.
A Partial Report isn’t necessarily a False Report.
One thing about history is that every account of history is a partial report. It’s impossible for a historian to record to every event that happens. No one writes a history book and recounts the temperature outside, the color and texture of the grass, the exact amount of people in a crowd, etc. Every historian edits. They remove what they deem to be unnecessary events in order to highlight the other events that lend themselves to what they’re trying to communicate.
The Bible is no different. Some authors record one trip to the tomb, others record multiple trips back and forth to the tomb. This isn’t a sign that’s meant to move us to to discount their records and disbelieve what they say. It’s simply a historian seeking to remove the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak. Much like a sculptor creates a statue by removing what he deems to be excess pieces of stone, a historian always tells a partial story.
A Differing Account isn’t necessarily a False Report.
This is really just an implication of the previous point. Just because two stories highlight different events doesn’t make one of the accounts any less true that the other. For example, the gospel of Matthew (28:1-10) mentions that one angel speaks to the women, but in the gospel of Luke (23:56-24:12) it states that two angels appear to the woman and speak to them. These accounts may seem different, but it doesn’t mean that someone is lying. It could just mean that Matthew only decided to make mention of the angel that spoke. It doesn’t negate the fact that there may have been other angels.
Differences can either be contradictions or complements.
Really it comes down to understanding that differences aren’t always contradictions… sometimes they are complements. Sometimes (as in the case of the resurrection accounts) they all come together to form a series of accounts that complement one another to give us a well rounded picture of all that took place.
Authors, like Luke, who were very familiar with the other gospels that had been written and decided to write another account weren’t trying to contradict the other writers… his intent in recounting the resurrection (as well as the life) of Jesus was to provide a complete picture of this amazing event.
The differing accounts of the resurrection are merely differing perspectives of the same accounts. It’s the same event seen from various vantage points and relational connections. Which at the end of the day, makes for a more believable account of the resurrection.
For instance, if every one had the exact same story, with the exact same words and the exact same vocabulary, the same people that already doubt the resurrection would still claim that this was a hoax (and their evidence would be that the story is “too tight”). Really, at the end of the day, there is no “ideal” way to say that someone who was murdered is now alive and isn’t a zombie.
Once we get past the secondary details, we can remember that everyone was consistent with this one fact… JESUS ROSE FROM THE DEAD. These people went to their deaths and many of them experienced death as a result of holding on to this truth. And if you ask me, the fact that their convictions about the resurrection were written in blood should carry more weight than the myriad of convictions that are merely written on blogs.
1. A Harmony of the Gospels (for $0.01 on Amazon)
2. Craig Blomberg – The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (You can preview much of the book on Google books. His section on the resurrection begins on page 136 and is also on Google books in its entirety.)
3. John Wenham – The Easter Enigma (an entire book dedicated to this very question)