Like seeing mirages in a desert, skeptics of the Bible often see contradictions in the text where no actual contradiction exists. Admittedly, there are many passages that, at first glance, seem to be at irreconcilable odds with other biblical accounts. But just like mirages, these apparent contradictions fade away upon closer examination.
A key to discovering how many of these verses fit together is to understand the nature of how history is written. In determining what to record historians must pick and choose which events to record since no writer could possibly document every detail. This naturally leads to skipping over some points and condensing other details in a practice known as telescoping.
Matthew and Luke
Comparing the Gospels of Matthew and Luke helps reveals that Luke frequently employs this practice. This makes sense, since he likely wrote his Gospel after Matthew and was aware of what Matthew had written. So even though these two Gospels mention many of the same events, there are times when it seems that Luke decided it was unnecessary to include particular details.
The nativity accounts in these two Gospels display clear examples of this practice, which has led to confusion about the timing of the magi’s visit. These same Gospels also telescope details in their Crucifixion records. For example, in Luke 23:24–26, we are told that Pilate sentenced Jesus and delivered him to the soldiers who led Him away to be crucified. Matthew includes the same information, but reveals that after Jesus was delivered to the soldiers and prior to being led to Calvary, He was beaten, mocked, and spat upon (Matthew 27:26–31).
Contrary to the claims of the skeptics, these facts do not contradict each other. In this particular case, Matthew simply included more details about these events than Luke did. Let’s see what role telescoping plays in the accounts of Christ’s appearances.
Luke’s Telescoping of Post-Resurrection Appearances
Each of the Gospels telescopes in their Resurrection accounts, but Luke’s record contains some of the most obvious examples. In telling about the women’s return from the tomb, he compresses several details together, which at first glance seem to state that all of the women traveled to a place where all the disciples, including Peter, were staying.
Failing to understand that Luke is telescoping the events here would lead one to see actual contradictions in the text. Mary Magdalene would have seen the angels on both of her visits to the tomb, yet she almost certainly had not seen them in her first visit—when reporting to Peter and John she seemed to have no knowledge that something supernatural had taken place (John 20:2, 13). Instead, it seems that upon seeing the stone rolled away, she assumed that someone had moved the body, and she left the other women and went to alert Peter and John.
A greater problem is that all of the women who went to the tomb that morning (at least five of them according to Luke 24:10) would have met with the entire group of disciples prior to seeing the risen Lord, yet Matthew plainly states that Jesus appeared to the women as they were on their way to tell the disciples what they had witnessed at the tomb (Matthew 28:8–9).
Luke proceeds by telling of the two disciples who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus before mentioning the appearance to the disciples in Jerusalem. Then, without informing his readers of any change in time, Luke fast forwards 40 days to the Great Commission and Ascension.
Was Luke Mistaken?
Was Luke uninformed or misinformed about these events? Not one bit. In the opening of his Gospel, he explained that he had carefully studied what others had written about the Lord’s work. He certainly knew that 40 days had passed between the first appearance of the resurrected Savior and the Ascension, since he opened Acts by writing about the Lord demonstrated His Resurrection by “many infallible proofs” over a 40-day period (Acts 1:3).
Since he was aware of what Matthew and Mark had written he was able to skip some of the details they mentioned to focus on other points not mentioned or just briefly covered by Matthew or Mark. Luke essentially summarized the Resurrection morning’s activities in Luke 24:1–12. Verses 13–43 detail the appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and then the Lord’s appearance to the group of disciples that night. Then without notifying the reader, he jumps ahead 40 days to the Ascension.
Understanding how history is written provides invaluable assistance in resolving many of the apparent inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts. Ancient writers should not be cast off just because their works do not have all the information we would like. Like the Savior they reveal to us, these “God-breathed” and inerrant writings about the death-conquering Son of God can be trusted in their entirety. We just need to occasionally dig deeper to solve some of the skeptical challenges.
[Added May 15, 2015: This article was originally written to go along with a piece I wrote for Answers Magazine, which is now available online. To see how the events of Resurrection Sunday can be reconciled, please see Christ’s Resurrection—Four Accounts, One Reality.]