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.]
I was directed to this article after reading your article in the Answers Magazine, and while to date I consider this explanation the most helpful of any I’ve read, it still leaves me with several questions. I’ll only mention one here for the moment.
I understand that sometimes when telling a story telescoping is used to make a point or help the story flow smoothly, but I can’t understand why Luke would decide to not mention that the women had seen Jesus before telling the news to the disciples. As it is, the reader is left with the distinct impression that the news the women brought them was that the tomb was empty and the words of the angels. Why would Luke not include that they met Jesus after leaving the tomb?
I understand it is hard to say for certain what was Luke’s intent but any thoughts you have would be appreciated. Thank you!
If I understand your question correctly, I believe the reason that Luke didn’t the appearance of Jesus to the women here is that Cleopas and his companion had encountered the women prior to Jesus appearing to the other women (not necessarily before He appeared to Mary Magdalene). I think Mary went to tell Peter and John about seeing the stone rolled away, and the other women, after leaving the tomb, told Cleopas and others in/near Jerusalem what they had seen, and then traveled back to Bethany to tell the rest of the disciples what they had seen (I think Bethany is where they were probably staying). In this scenario, Jesus would’ve appeared to the other women while they were on their way back to Bethany…after they had told Cleopas what they had seen. This would explain why Cleopas doesn’t mention anything about the women seeing Jesus — it hadn’t happened by the time Cleopas met them.
There may be other explanations of how these accounts fit together, but this is how I understand it.
I am no theologian. I am a daughter of the Most High who discovered the contradictions if the four gospels in their accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, this Easter. I know that I know that the Word us 100% true. I prayed for the Lords help and He led me to your magazine article through a google search. The footnote led me here ,to understand telescoping. I’d never heard of that before. So I copied the article for my personal study and I’ll print this off too. Simply for my own reference and understanding. I can’t thank you enough for making these resources available online and publically. I am over 60 years old and need to print off to understand and underline and go back and forth. So Thankyou very very much .
A couple of days ago I decided to read all of the resurrection morning accounts back to back and compare them for myself. I was aware there were differences that some label as contradictions, but I just assumed they were easy to reconcile. For example, the confusion regarding “how many angels were at the tomb” or “how many women went there” is easy to resolve, in my opinion, once one is presented with a clear way of thinking about it. However, when I compared the four accounts for myself, I couldn’t help but be surprised how different they were and how contradictory some of them seemed when compared to certain others. I searched around on the web and found a number of explanations that have been somewhat satisfactory, including your article on Answers in Genesis. I had already been exposed to J. Warner Wallace and his ideas about the different accounts being a good thing as they show that collusion didn’t take place and that these are actually based on a number of individual and unique eye witness testimonies. I really liked the detailed explanation you gave in your article and found it very helpful. I began to see how what, at first glance, might seem contradictory, after thinking about it more carefully, may not actually be so.
I am a very skeptical person by nature. The appeal of Christianity for me has been that, as Christians, we don’t need to blindly accept or believe what we hold to be true, but rather, we have very good reasons and evidence for what we put our faith in. Our faith or trust is based on things we can know to be true. Having said that, I was troubled by your statement:
“If these discrepancies are legitimate, they would be a strike against the preservation of Scripture, but errors would not prove anything against the truth of the Lord’s Resurrection or the infallible original records.”
While I agree with this comment in principle, I think that if this was the case, from a practical perspective, it would destroy any reason we have to accept what the Bible teaches in regards to the resurrection as true. It may be true, but we would have no reasons to believe it to be so. We couldn’t believe it’s true with any real sense of certainty. There would be no way of knowing. We would be stuck in the same boat as Mormons or Muslims when it comes to that specific issue.
Anyway, my main question is in regards to the account Luke gives as it relates to the narrative you laid out to help resolve the apparent differences in the four accounts. Your explanation resolved almost everything for me except when I reread Luke’s account. He says:
“And they remembered His words. Returning from the tomb, they reported all these things to the Eleven and to all the rest. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them were telling the apostles these things. But these words seemed like nonsense to them, and they did not believe the women. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. When he stooped to look in, he saw only the linen cloths. So he went home, amazed at what had happened.”
Luke 24:8-12 NASB
Based on this account, it appears that Peter was hearing all of this for the first time and at that moment, he got up and ran to the tomb to check things out for himself. But if your explanation is true, he would have already received the news from Mary Magdalene at an earlier point in time and ran to the tomb then. So is this account implying he ran to the tomb a second time assuming your explanation is true? I did think maybe this could be the first time he is hearing about it from Mary Magdalene and all the other women happen to be there too, but then that doesn’t make sense from John’s account as Mary Magdalene wouldn’t have had her own experience with the angels or Jesus yet. Plus, if she separated from the other women to go tell Peter and John, one would think she would have arrived at the place they were staying long before the other women would have. Sorry for the long message, but if you could help clear up this confusion for me, I would greatly appreciate it. Just wondering how you deal with Luke’s account in light of your understanding of things, specifically verse 12 of chapter 24. Thank you!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic and for taking the time to read through the biblical accounts carefully. Two things…
First, I think you’ve overstated the cause for concern if a discrepancy could be found. You said, “We would be stuck in the same boat as Mormons or Muslims when it comes to that specific issue.” I disagree. At most, it would mean that an error exists in what we currently have. But that wouldn’t leave us in the same boat of uncertainty as these other religions. For example, let’s say that our earliest copy of Luke is what causes the proposed discrepancy (to go along with your question). And let’s say that he messed up once while trying to outline the order of the post-Resurrection appearances. Would this cause us to doubt the resurrection? He would still be affirming the resurrection, based on his interviews with eyewitnesses. The central facts of what he is describing is still in perfect agreement with three other authors (two eyewitnesses) who wrote about the same thing. We would still have the many other historical evidences for the resurrection. All it would mean is that Luke made a minor mistake in describing the order of events. It wouldn’t mean those events didn’t happen. Let’s put this in a different context. Let’s assume that you have four witnesses to a car accident in court. They all describe the same central event in very much the same way. When you piece together all the testimonies they all agree wholeheartedly that the accident happened. They all name the same intersection, the same time of day, the same vehicles, and the same drivers. Three of them describe events that happened right afterward (one driver gets out of his car to check on the other one, who then gets out of his car, and yells at the other person for running the red light). The fourth witness describes the same thing except he says that both drivers got out of their cars and one starts yelling at the other driver, but then the other driver asked if the man was okay. Should we conclude that because a fourth witness was a bit mistaken on the order of events that the accident never happened? Of course not. We would recognize that the major details are all the same and they line up with all the evidence that was gathered at the scene. One witness just explained a smaller point in a slightly different order.
When it comes to Mormonism or Islam, they have no evidence to bolster their claims. The LDS has spent millions of dollars trying to locate evidence of the civilizations in the Americas that were described in the Book of Mormon, but they haven’t found anything, and they never will because those things didn’t happen. This is a far cry from the confidence we can have in what we are told in Scripture. Unfortunately, too many Christians have believed that the Bible is either inerrant or we can’t trust anything it says. But that isn’t logical. There is a whole spectrum of trustworthiness in between complete inerrancy and completely false. For the record, I don’t believe Luke (or any other book) has such an error. So let’s look at your question.
I believe Luke is merely summarizing the women’s reports and the disciples’ responses in this section. He doesn’t break it down into who went where. He just tells us that the women went to the tomb and then they went and told the disciples and others. So my scenario still fits this just fine. I have Mary Magdalene leave to inform Peter and John. Meanwhile, the other women set out for Bethany to tell the rest of the disciples and whoever else might be staying there. Peter and John run to the tomb in response to Mary’s announcement and the other disciples don’t believe the other women. This fits Luke’s words just fine, if we understand him to be summarizing a flurry of activity in a few sentences. For whatever reason, he doesn’t mention John running to the tomb with Peter, but failing to mention a detail doesn’t make an error. After all, Peter did run to the tomb that morning as John tells us.
I hope that helps.
Thank you for taking the time to respond Tim. I really appreciate it.
I agree with your comments as they relate to what follows if we find a small discrepancy in one of the gospel accounts about the resurrection and the immediate events that surrounded it. I think I misunderstood what your quote was referring to. I was originally under the impression that you meant it to apply to a much broader part of the historical narrative. I now see that I was incorrect. The comments I made were based on my misunderstanding. Sorry for that.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Luke’s account. I did consider what you said as one way to make sense of his account in light of the explanation you provided and it does make sense to me. It would be something very similar to what Matthew does in Matthew 28:1 where he talks about the women heading to the tomb and follows that by describing something that happened prior to their arrival. However, in light of this, it does prompt another question. Do you think the way Luke opens his book works against this way of interpreting what is happening in his account of the events that took place on resurrection day? What I mean is when he says:
“it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus;”
??Luke? ?1:3? ?NASB??
I am referring specifically to the words “in consecutive order“. If he states that he is concerned with laying everything in his book out in consecutive order doesn’t that imply that he ordered things as they happened in time, including in chapter 24? Or would you say he only intended this statement to apply to the broad collection of accounts listed within his book, but not necessarily to the arrangement of the more specific details and events that occurred within each individual account?
Thanks for your kind response.
I don’t think Luke’s preface stands against the interpretation I mentioned. Yes, he speaks of providing an orderly account, and I believe he has done that. However, whenever someone is writing or telling about events that occurred simultaneously or summarizing a series of events that all occurred within a close time frame, it is perfectly acceptable to lump certain things together that may not be entirely in order. In this case, I think Peter (and John) ran to the tomb before the other women reached the rest of the disciples who were probably in Bethany. But the way Luke is writing the account is that he is speaking of the women and what they did first. Then he shifts to talk about the reaction of the disciples. Those who heard the other women thought they were crazy. But Peter responded differently by taking off to check out the tomb.
So I would say that your second option is pretty close to the mark — that the statement applied to the broad collection of accounts in the book. However, I would qualify that a bit. I think we should anticipate that when he is providing a lot of detail within a given account, I would expect them to be in chronological order. But when he summarizes a bunch of things occurring simultaneously (or nearly so) in a sentence or two, then we shouldn’t go overboard in expecting every single detail to be in the right order.
Think of how you might tell someone about a trip you might have taken. You might give an overview that hits all the highlights and relay those in chronological order. But if you slow down to talk about one specific event in detail, it might be natural to talk about it in a way that isn’t strictly chronological. For example, if you went to a show, you might first tell all about the show and how the actors did such a great job and what the sets were like. Then you might share about your reaction to it—how you were moved, laughed, teared up, etc. But all of those reactions didn’t happen after the show. They occurred during the show in response to what was happening in the show at that point. I think everyone would understand that and wouldn’t accuse you of failing to tell about your vacation in an orderly fashion.
We need to remember that the Gospels weren’t written by people who were expecting to be taken in an overly literal way in every detail, and they weren’t written to people who would try to hold them to a standard of such a strict literalism. Instead, they were written in the common language to common people using common standards of such communication. So we should interpret them according to the plain sense of the words rather than imposing a strong literalism at every point.
Does that make sense? I hope I didn’t lose you in my rambling. 🙂
Thanks for the interesting discussion.
It does. Thank you for taking the time to respond to both of my posts. I have your book on the resurrection in my “books to buy” list on amazon so I am planning to purchase it at some point to support you and learn more about your ideas on this subject. Have a great day!
Also, if Luke was concerned about being chronological, I think it would show. For instance, it would probably read something like this (additions I make to the text will be in brackets [ ]: “And they (the women who visited the tomb) remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene [though she did not continue with the other women to tell the eleven, she went by herself and found Peter and John who were staying in another place in Jerusalem, and told them of these events; therefore it is clear that in saying they told it to the eleven, this does not mean they (the eleven) were all in one location] and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter [from the house where he was staying at the time, separate from the other apostles except for James, who is not my focus for this part of the account; therefore I am not including him here] rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.” (Luke 24:8-11). So if Luke was concerned about pleasing our 21st century Western culture in terms of being chronological, it would ramble on and turn into something that the skeptics would say was ridiculous. It seems to be an obvious case of telescoping, giving a summary, not focusing on ancillary details.
Tim, some quick matters.
1-_Your re-construction of what took place at the tomb in John’s Gospel is difficult to buy. So much of this gospel from chapter 19 until the end simply does not ring true. Won’t belabor many points here. One example. John and Peter who were separated from the others, after this great discovery went back to their homes in John 20:10. What an impact! And who knew they had homes? Additionally they split up. One of my favorite verses in these late chapters is 21:21 when Peter refers to the disciple whom Jesus loved as “this man.” Seems like an odd way for Peter to refer to John? Maybe this disciple is someone other than John. Another discussion.
2-When you discuss the earlier encounters that Paul had with the Corinthians prior to I Cor. you fail to recognize that the point is still true about all the “players” in the story being “unknown” to the Corinthians upon hearing the story for the first time. I find it fascinating that you consider the discovery of the empty tomb as a “less important point”. How is that? The empty tomb is the launching pad for the story. Puzzled again.
3-Since the story of Resurrection is hollow without appearances or claims to appearances, such claims should be expected. That such claims should occur early add nothing to the veracity of such claims. But as with the story of an appearance to some 500, most of what we have in the accounts are simply stories about appearances. They aren’t even claims to appearances. The real question to be asked is, “Who do we have making claims to appearances?” Additionally, “What, if anything, do we know for certain about these people claiming to have seen the risen Jesus?” Are they trustworthy?” I think these questions to be important.
From a skeptic’s perspective I think the story of Resurrection would be more compelling had Jesus been beheaded, like John the Baptist, and buried 6 feet underground for 3 days. Additionally it would be truly grabbing if people claimed appearances, they went to the grave that was not disturbed, and upon digging up the grave they discovered the body gone. Now you’ve got a story. The story of Jesus’ Resurrection seems suspicious for several reasons and backwards in the sequence of events.
Thanks as always. Sorry this medium is so limiting.
I know you claim to be a skeptic, but it’s becoming pretty obvious to me that you aren’t really interested in legitimate answers to your questions. You have stated a few times now that the story just doesn’t feel right to you, but you haven’t pointed out any real contradictions. I have shown you how these accounts fit together nicely, but you aren’t interested.
Regarding your comments on John and Peter, you should know that the Greek text doesn’t say that they went to their “homes.” It simply says that they went to their own. Their own what? “Homes” might be implied, but some translations say that they went to where they were staying (NIV) or back to their friends (YLT). I’m not sure what impact you are looking for at this point. When John tells us that he believed at this point, what is he talking about? Is he saying that he believed in the Resurrection? Not likely. If you simply read what is written, it seems like he is saying that he believed Mary’s words—that the body had been taken. So how would you expect John and Peter to react?
Your second point is completely irrelevant. 1 Corinthians was not his first dealing with that congregation. He spent 18 months with them, and he had already sent them a previous letter (1 Cor. 5:9). It is would not be any stretch at all to think that he had taught them about Peter and James during his time in Corinth. These were the two leading apostles. So if he had already talked about them during his time there, then he does not need to explain who they are when he writes to them. And I didn’t say that the empty tomb was less important. I said that the appearance to the women would have been less important for his purposes here since the women were not leading figures in the church, so he may not have ever mentioned them during his time in Corinth. Perhaps I should have used “less relevant” to make my point clearer.
The question about the apostles’ trustworthiness is easily answered. Every single one of them was willing to die a martyr’s death or exile for their belief that Jesus had risen. Yes, there are a lot of people who are willing to die for a lie (e.g., 9/11 hijackers), but these individuals were not in a position to know whether their beliefs were true. The apostles knew full well whether they actually saw Jesus rise from the dead. They believed it so strongly that they were willing to endure torture and death. Don’t you think someone would have come clean under threat of death if they had just made it up?
Finally, I don’t believe you that a “reheading” (is that what you would call it?) would be more convincing to you. As if flogging and crucifixion could be easily overcome. Furthermore, Roman soldiers guarding the tomb fully satisfies your desire to prevent tampering.
Nearly everything you have brought up throughout our conversations has already been covered in my book. If you are truly interested in finding answers to these questions, I’d be happy to give you a great discount on the book.
Tim, sorry that I appear as disinterested in “legitimate answers” as you appear to be disinterested in “legitimate observations.” Perhaps “legitimate” is the wrong word. Perhaps “unsatisfactory” is better. I think my frustration comes from believers whose essential position or methodology rests in “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” I
think that approach stifles real curiosity and critical thought. Always tricky to deal with matters of Belief where people are emotionally invested in something. And by the way I did mean “beheading”, not “re-heading”. And I meant bury him 6 feet underground, not put him in a cave that people could walk in and out of. And I did mean have people claim appearances prior to the discovery of a burial place that was not disturbed, not the discovery of a disturbed burial place after which you have appearance stories. The story as we have it just isn’t too compelling, and the particulars don’t help especially when legendary stories are trumpeted as “facts” where a fact is defined as indisputable, not merely something that was or is believed. Anyway, I have enjoyed the exchange in this less than satisfactory medium. I’ll send you my address for a free copy of your book. lol. Don’t forget looking in Mark for what makes the spear story unlikely. Thanks again for your time and expertise.
Tim, Forgot that you had quoted N. T. Wright in an earlier text, and I was going to make a short comment. The value of quoting other people during a discussion can be argued. However, the source quoted should be done with care. In his work “Christian Origins and the Resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of Jesus as a Historical Problem” he writes: “There has been no shortage of hypotheses designed to explain why the early Christians really did believe that Jesus really had been raised from the dead. These come in many shapes and sizes, but most of them feature 1 of 3 types of explanations, 1–Jesus did not really die; he somehow survived. . . This first can be disposed of swiftly. Roman soldiers knew how to kill people, especially rebel kings. First century Jews knew the difference between a survivor and someone newly alive.”
In some ways this statement requires no commentary but to do so allows for its import to be lost. Who knew that “newly alive” people was such a commonplace occurrence that Jews could immediately recognize the difference between a fake and the real McCoy? Seems to lessen the impact of Jesus’ newly alive state if anyone could tell the difference between a survivor and someone newly alive. Maybe they held classes on such occurrences so people would be adequately prepared for when they came upon it in their daily lives.
Without having the context of Wright’s book in front of me, I can only speculate as to what he may have meant based on the quote you’ve provided. It sounds to me that he is critiquing the swoon theory—that Jesus didn’t really die on the Cross, but revived in the tomb and appeared to the disciples. In such a case, it would certainly not require any special training to recognize the difference between a fake and the real McCoy. In fact, it was David Friedrich Strauss, himself a skeptic, who nailed the coffin shut on the swoon theory when he wrote the following:
I think Wright’s point is that it is easy to tell the difference between someone who is just a couple of days into recovering from multiple near-fatal wounds and someone who is alive and showing no symptoms of His previous suffering. There’s no lessening of “the impact of Jesus’ newly alive state” because the point is the contrast between His state at the Crucifixion and His perfectly healthy state just a few days later. They knew He had died and they saw Him alive again.
I know that you meant “beheading,” but it sounded to me like you were saying it would be more convincing if He came back to life after being beheaded. In such a case, would we call that a “reheading”? It was my attempt to add a bit of humor. I thought it was funny, but it must not have connected.
What I find highly compelling are the actions of the apostles soon after the events during that Passover season. They go from fleeing for their lives when Jesus was arrested to some of the boldest people who have ever lived. Everywhere they went, they proclaimed the Resurrection. Every sermon in the book of Acts delivered by one of the apostles focuses on the Resurrection. That’s what Peter focused on during his message on Pentecost, just seven weeks after the Crucifixion. He claims that all of the apostles were eyewitnesses of the resurrected Savior (Acts 2:32).
What I find frustrating from skeptics is the willingness to accept anything in the Bible as accurately written if it seems to introduce any doubt of any kind in the record, but anything that goes against what they want to believe is immediately dismissed as mythical, fanciful, legendary, make-believe, etc. It’s not an honest way to approach any text.
I understand your frustration with believers whose methodology rests in “The Bible says it, I believe, and that settles it.” While I would agree with the sentiment in my own life—if the Bible says it, then that does really settle it for me because I believe it is the inspired and inerrant Word of God—but I understand why that isn’t the case for unbelievers. So I don’t limit my argumentation to that methodology. If that is what frustrates you, then you should appreciate Habermas’ approach in collecting the five “minimal facts” that nearly every scholar agrees upon. Rather than depending on an inerrant text (which he does acknowledge as inerrant), Habermas proceeds methodologically from the foundation of what the vast majority of scholars accept. In his dissertation on the subject, Licona went even further than this. He decided to focus solely on the three most widely accepted facts about Jesus and then show how the Resurrection is the only explanation that fits the facts.
As for the detail(s) in Mark that you think make the spear story unlikely, I can only guess what you may have in mind. I’ve studied these accounts for years, and I don’t see anything that cannot be reasonably reconciled. My guess is that you are talking about the centurion’s reaction to the signs that accompanied Christ’s death and the actions of the spear-wielding soldier in John. In Mark, the centurion witnesses the signs and then announces that Jesus was surely the Son of God (or a son of a god). In John, no mention is made of the signs that accompanied His death or of the centurion’s pronouncement. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Him with a spear. Is this what you are referring to? If so, the solution is pretty simple, and it’s resolved by the issue of telescoping, which is what this entire article was about. None of the Gospel writers give us all of the details, but their accounts can be put together to show us what took place.
Tim, I appreciate the discussion as well as the time devoted to it and the expertise you bring. None of us can escape the tendenz or the position we seek to defend. I think perhaps that you are inclined to understate every matter to incline it in your direction towards what you seek to defend. I do the same no doubt. Even the idea of needing to reconcile resurrection appearances suggests something amiss. What about reconciling the transfiguration accounts. Well, of course, no need. They virtually all agree. But with the resurrection accounts and stories they appear to be quite different. In fact, if Mark’s account, of course the earliest, is the only one we had, what would we have been left with? You don’t think it possible they people were simply disappointed by and with it? And with regard to Luke’s account, the great history, the best he can do is one appearance before two disciples going to Emmaus and one appearance before the group. Forty days of appearances following the greatest event in human history and that’s it? It seems odd at the very least given the so-called great historical nature of Luke’s work. Maybe it’s just me. We will disagree about the Midrash style of the stories. Even Michael Licona seems to have gotten into some trouble over Math 27:52-53. I think your tendenz is especially evident with regard to John 19:35. No other account has it but, of course, you accept it without question as historical. Your methodology seems convenient. We could have an entire discussion about this passage alone and why if true and historical it immediately throws the Markan account into question. That you have probably never heard that before. Perhaps you can figure that one out. I’ll picture you in your Sherlock Holmes hat. lol. Thanks for letting me ramble and interlope. I think we could have some good discussions.
Tim. Looks like our brief conversation has ended. Hope my sarcasm was not inappropriate. Reconciling the resurrection accounts and so-called appearances is not an easy matter. More detailed and difficult than most admit. Even then we do so or try to do so from a bias or belief. Take I Cor 15:3-8 for example as a much used source for reasons well known. Of course it makes no mention of the so-called appearances to the women. The apologist attempts to reason this away from a perspective in keeping with belief. The skeptic suggests the possibility that they were later additions that most likely never were claimed by the women. That would seem to be in keeping in some way with Mark’s Gospel. Then when you read these so-called appearances to women in Matthew and John you see how strange they seem to be. In Matthew, for example, the angel tells the women to tell the disciples that he has risen and will appear to them in Galilee. They immediately leave the area to tell the disciples those things. Jesus now appears to them and tells them the exact thing which the women are already in the process of doing. His appearance accomplishes nothing. It doesn’t get them to change their minds. It doesn’t re-order their steps. To the skeptic it’s a bit of a head scratcher. Other oddities could be noted here as well as with John’s account. They simply serve to point out the possibility that Paul simply knew nothing about such appearance claims because they likely were added later to enhance the story. Anyone simply unwilling to accept this as a possibility misses the point I think. What actually happened? We cannot know. It does allow for reasonable doubt among reasonable people. Anyway, your post pricked my curiosity as I have spent hundreds of hours researching the claim to Resurrection. We could talk for hours. I have been able to make observations and connections that I feel make it very reasonable to conclude from a historical perspective that the proposition is unlikely based on certain data. Habermas first challenged me in this regard as I believe he challenges everyone. The spear thrust story and the problem it creates for the Markan account is most intriguing. Actually it is the Markan account that creates problems for the spear story. That is more correct given the early dating for Mark and the later dating for John. Anyway, be well and perhaps another post will grab me. Thanks.
No worries on the sarcasm. I thought the Sherlock Holmes comment was funny. I would agree that reconciling the appearances is more difficult than most admit, although I think it is often because they are often just unaware of the difficulties rather than intentionally ignoring them. I spent two chapters in my book dealing with this subject, and this article was written to provide some additional detail to an upcoming article I’ve written for Answers Magazine, which should be out shortly before Easter. The magazine article focuses on the women and how to reconcile the details about the appearance to Mary Magdalene and then the other women, and these details are also spelled out in my book,s o I won’t go into detail about that here. But I’ll be happy to post a link to the magazine article when it becomes available online.
I don’t find it strange at all that Paul doesn’t mention the women in his letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthian believers probably did not know these women at all, so there’s no reason for Paul to mention them. If he did, then he may have to take time to explain who they were. But they would have known, or at least heard about the others that he mentioned—with the exception of the 500+. But there would be no reason for Paul to explain who these people were.
I do find it curious that you have gone after the historicity of the appearances to the women. Admittedly, there are difficulties in reconciling the accounts, but the fact that the Gospels have Jesus appearing to women first smacks of authenticity. There is no reason for the early church to make these up, since a woman’s testimony was not really valued much in the culture of the day. In his exhaustive study on the subject, NT Wright wrote the following about the appearances to women:
Tim, As always I appreciate both your time and thought. One thing appears certain in discussions such as these: neither side is persuaded by the other’s argumentation. As a skeptic I only seek for reasonable explanations and/or observations that make or appear to make skepticism regarding the claim to Resurrection a viable and defendable option. Especially as the story of Resurrection grew over the years it seems reasonable to allow for embellishments and additional ingredients to have been added. After all, not often in fish stories does the fish become smaller. I’m inclined to dismiss your explanation regarding Paul’s exclusion of the appearances to the women in I Cor. 15. After all, all of those mentioned would have been “unknown” to the Corinthians upon hearing the story of Jesus for the first time. They all would have needed an explanation. Also, within the telling of the story the women would have been included as those discovering the tomb. Your logic and explanation are lost on me. Just a thought.
You may be inclined to dismiss my explanation, but you are overlooking some important facts about the Corinthian church and Paul’s relationship with them. Remember, this letter is not the first thing they have heard from Paul. He spent 18 months in the city (Acts 18:11) and would have taught them quite a few things. Also, he has already mentioned Peter (Cephas) three times in the letter prior to chapter 15 (1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:22; 9:5). Based on his words in the first reference (1:12), it seems like Peter had taught in Corinth for a spell—some of the members of the Corinthian church were claiming to be followers of Peter. So Paul did not need to explain to this group who Peter was. The same is true for the rest of the Apostles. He referred to them multiple times throughout the letter as well. It would make sense that Paul would have taught them about some of the other apostles. After all, they were the leaders of the fledgling church and their teachings were viewed as coming directly from the Lord. He would have likely taught them about James, who was one of the prominent leaders of the church in Jerusalem.
Would he have referred to the women at the tomb during his time in Corinth? Who knows? That would have been a much less important point for him to address, especially if his audience did not know who they were.
The problem with your claim about embellishments is that Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians is the earliest written record we have of the post-Resurrection appearances, and it is the only one that mentions the appearance to over 500 people at once. If these people were going to embellish their claims, then you would expect that Gospel writers to at least include this detail or even mention more than that.
I think we could have some good discussions too, but you’ll need to be patient with me. I have quite a lot going on right now, so my blog time is limited. I appreciate your civil tone, even though I don’t agree with your conclusions.
Of course we have biases. I admit up front that I believe the Bible to be the inspired and inerrant (in the original autographs) word of God. So I don’t think that any real contradiction could be found in the originals, and I think the vast majority of the alleged contradictions brought up by people today are not even contradictions at all. Your earlier claim about Paul’s conversion reports being contradictory are a good example of an alleged contradiction that is easily reconcilable.
There are also some good reasons for Luke including what he did in his account. Assuming that Matthew and Mark had already been written, a point on which I think we would agree, then given Luke’s opening statement in his Gospel, it is safe to assume that he was quite familiar with what they had written (and he probably knew which ending Mark really had). So he would have provided details that the others did not include. Actually Luke wrote about three of the appearances, and he also mentioned the appearance to Peter (Luke 24:34). This was my point about telescoping. At some point in the narrative (either v. 44 or v. 45, Luke shifts from the appearance to the disciples on the evening of the first Easter to His appearance just before His Ascension.
I’m quite familiar with Licona’s work and even wrote a brief review of it on my blog (http://midwestapologetics.org/blog/?p=1006). And while I don’t agree with his conclusions about those two verses, I think he makes some very interesting points about them.
Yes, I do accept John 19:35 without question. I believe John was an eyewitness to the events, so he would be in a much better position than people living two millennia later to tell us what happened at the Cross. I don’t have a Sherlock Holmes hat or pipe, but I don’t see any real contradiction between John and Mark there. I see some points that I think someone looking for a contradiction might bring up, but I don’t see anything between them that cannot be reconciled.
Tim, thanks for that last post. Don’t worry about the time element. I simply enjoy the exchange. Three quick items.
1–I think your attempt to reconcile Acts 9:7 with Acts 22:9 is a bit of a reach. After all “listening with the intent to understand” still suggests the hearing of something. Those with Paul either heard the voice or they didn’t. I think we are left puzzled.
2–The rather odd nature of John 19:35 suggests, I feel, a more in-depth investigation is needed with regard to the whole account. Why does the author feel so compelled to make such an odd statement? “He who saw it has borne witness, his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth, that you also may believe. “. Believe what exactly? Apologists have generally used this as an attempt to “prove” that Jesus was dead on the cross. Certainly that cannot have been it. I don’t think you can quickly discount this verse and account as not being connected in some way with I John 5:6-8. Just a thought. The verse John 19:35 is too strange to simply gloss over in a cursory fashion in my opinion.
3–One thing that John 20:11-15 does provide us with is the background if not some foundation for allowing for the possibility that someone might have easily just taken the body of Jesus. It’s the first thought that Mary Magdalene has. Apparently there is nothing going on at the tomb to discount this possibility. In fact, she supposedly jumps to this conclusion without investigating the tomb in John 20:1-2.
Thanks again. If you find time to respond that’ll be fine. No rush. Also, keep looking in Mark 15 for what makes the spear story hard to accept as historical. It took me years to find it.
Tim, one quick additional word on the appearances or so-called appearances to the women. Like Paul, Luke who apparently traveled with Paul, makes no mention of these. In fact, as you point out in Luke 24:34, Peter prior to any so-called appearance to the group was claiming an appearance to him alone. Of course we could discuss the problem this creates when considering the so-called words of Jesus about where and to whom he would appear. Not my concern here. The point would be that Luke 24:34 doesn’t say “The Lord has risen indeed and has appeared to the women” or “appeared to Simon and the women.” Peter appears to be the key perhaps to the resurrection story. One might suggest that the Empty Tomb launches the story and Peter becomes the rocket. Perhaps these followers needed a leader and Peter took up that roll. That appears to be the case. Peter claimed an appearance and the rest becomes history. At the very least we know that the claim to a resurrection needs an appearance(s) and apparently Peter was the first to be claiming such a thing. What do we actually know about what the others were claiming? Even Math 28:17 tells us that some doubted. What actually was going on and what were individual disciples actually claiming. What a story! And what a challenge to unravel it! Thanks, Thom.
To your first point…There is nothing wrong unreasonable with my explanation of Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9. That’s how language works. There are nuances that can be misunderstood if we are seeking to find problems with a given text, just as I’m sure I am quick to give the benefit of the doubt to a biblical writer. But even if my explanation is wrong, it would not be a strike against inerrancy. Acts 9:7 is part of Luke’s narrative of Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus. Acts 22:9 is Paul retelling his conversion account. Let’s assume that the Greek language would not allow for such a nuance for hearing/listening, I could propose that Luke’s narrative in 9:7 is spot on (those with Paul did not hear anything), and that Paul simply misspoke in 22:9 and Luke accurately recorded Paul’s words. I don’t think that is what happened, but if this is correct, it would not prove a contradiction or error in the text. It would be an accurate report of a man who made a mistake while speaking.
On your second point, I do think that John 19:35 is odd. I agree with how most apologists use the verse to demonstrate that Jesus was dead (or at least very close to death and beyond recovery). The pericardial and pleural effusions are perfectly consistent with the type of trauma He endured in the hours leading up to the Cross. However, I think there’s more to the story that most apologists have missed or simply ignored. Now it’s my turn to let you try to figure it out. 🙂 I’ll give you a hint. John 19:34–35 teaches an important truth that relates to another statement John makes in the same chapter. Let me know when you figure it out.
On your third point, it’s true that Mary Magdalene jumps to that conclusion, but there’s a good reason for that. She did not enter the tomb and encounter the angels with the other women. Apparently, as they neared the tomb and saw it open, Mary Magdalene left to get Peter and John. During that time, the other women see the angels and are told that Jesus rose. Mary Magdalene was understandably distraught and reached the wrong conclusion upon initially seeing the stone rolled away.
Finally, you’ve misunderstood Matthew 28:17. None of the disciples doubted that Jesus had risen. Here’s a link to a post I wrote to clear up that common misconception. http://midwestapologetics.org/blog/?p=1014
Tim, again we will find little common ground. Especially is this true regarding your explanation of Mary M.
running away from the other women. This simply runs against what has been my own experience regarding women and what I have read. Leaving the group under the “strange” circumstances is simply counter-intuitive. I always find myself returning to the Markan account as the most reliable and unadorned account of the Resurrection story. As Mark renders it, the story needs legs and a lot more. The story leaves us wanting more and more is on the way. How much of that “more” can we trust? That is the question. Not an easy one to answer for someone not driven by the engine of belief. Thanks. I will pursue your challenge regarding this passage in John, although admittedly I lack the necessary tools to investigate it at an exegetical level. No such skills required for my challenge regarding the Markan account and why it challenges the spear story. Mostly just a 101 class in logic. Until next time. I also have a word about N.T. Wright, but will save it for another time.
Leaving the group under strange circumstances makes perfect sense in this case. The eleven disciples were in at least two locations at this point. Peter and John were apparently in Jerusalem, and the others were very likely in Bethany (about two miles away). When the women see that the stone had rolled away, it makes perfect sense for them to think that they need to go and alert the disciples. So Mary Magdalene goes into Jerusalem to tell Peter and John. The others plan to go tell the others in Bethany but decide to check the tomb first. They see the angels and then head toward Bethany to tell the others. It seems that a couple of them left the group along the way to alert Clopas and an unnamed disciple—the two who would encounter Jesus that night on the road to Emmaus (one of the women was the wife of Clopas, so it makes sense that she would want to go tell her husband). At some point along the way to Bethany (after Mary Magdalene returns to the tomb and encounters the risen Savior and probably after the wife of Clopas and at least one more leave the group) Jesus appears to the women on their way to Bethany.
Assuming that Mark really ended at verse 16:8, I agree that the ending leaves the reader with wanting more. I think that was the point. It’s sort of a cliffhanger. And the other Gospels and 1 Corinthians gives us those details.
Tim. Have been pursuing your invitation to equate John 19:34-35 with something else he says in the chapter. It might have to do with “King of the Jews” being written in 3 languages and the author bearing witness to it, but that does not seem right. Verses 34-35 are so specific. That’s why I equate them with I John 5:6-8. They appear to have an anti-gnostic polemic to them. That appears to be the intended truth.
One more note on the spear story. I have always been fascinated by apologists’ attempts to stress the importance of Roman soldiers to carry out orders during this time. However, in this story we apparently have a bunch of renegade soldiers who take it upon themselves to ignore Pilate’s orders, which of course meant death. Doesn’t seem right. Additionally one of these soldiers compounds matters by doing his own thing with a spear. It’s quite an outfit that Pilate is running here. These soldiers don’t seem much concerned about following orders or the ramifications of not following them. Just an additional thought about this story and one more aspect of it that makes it ring not right. Thanks.
It’s not the sign that is tied to John 19:34–35. I don’t think these verses were written as an anti-gnostic polemic. To connect them so strongly to 1 John 5 seems like a stretch—John 3:5–6 might be a better link to the 1 John passage. I think the unexpected wording in v. 35 is John’s way of saying, “I know this sounds weird, but that’s what I saw.” But what happened there does have important implications for something else described in the same chapter.
I’m not sure why you think the spear would indicate that these soldiers were renegades. They broke the legs of the two thieves to speed their deaths so that they wouldn’t be on the crosses on the Sabbath. Sure, Pilate wasn’t a Jew, but there was no need for him to create more problems with them that could get him in trouble with Rome. So it is entirely believable that he would want the bodies off the crosses to avoid angering the Jews. If you know much about Pilate, this was a huge issue for him. But the soldiers didn’t need to break the legs of Jesus because they believed He was already dead. So one of them used the spear to make sure. How would these actions violate their orders in any way?
Well, blow me down with a feather. I’ve never seen that before – the angels didn’t say Jesus wouldn’t return to earth again bodily until His second coming, they only said that when He returns (presumably a reference to Him coming to judge the earth?) He’ll come back in the clouds. That’s a classic example of me reading something into the text which isn’t there. Thanks for pointing this out, Tim. It makes sense now. But I don’t yet understand how Jesus’ bodily appearance to Paul could have been at his Damascus conversion. Wouldn’t the other people have seen Jesus too? But maybe His appearance was with held from them?
I think that the Lord’s appearance to Paul was different than His post-Resurrection appearances prior to the Ascension. With Paul’s encounter, it seems that Jesus appeared in blinding light, displaying His radiant glory. In each of the accounts of this appearance (Acts 9, 22, 26), we are told that there was a blinding light. In Acts 9, the light was from heaven apparently caused him to fall to the ground. In Acts 22:11, Paul said that he could not see “for the glory of that light.” In Acts 26:13, Paul said it was brighter than the sun. The purpose of the Lord’s appearance here was to convert a great enemy of the early church, so Paul needed to be humbled significantly. He needed to know that the Jesus he persecuted was (and is) the true God. He was not just showing off His power for all to see—He came to appear to Paul, and not to his group on the way to Damascus. They saw the light and heard a voice, but they could not discern what they saw (probably too bright to continue looking), and they could not understand the sound they heard.
When Jesus appeared to His disciples and others during that forty day period, it was of a different nature. He did not show up in blinding light. He revealed Himself to His friends and walked and talked with them.
I hope this helps.
Thanks for that Tim, yes it makes sense now. But one more thing, is it likely that Jesus appeared bodily to Paul (i.e. Jesus came to earth physically) or was it likely to have been a vision of Jesus which Paul saw? Either way, I don’t suppose it matters, and if the text doesn’t make it clear, I suppose we can only speculate without being dogmatic.
I think that you misrepresent the gospels by stressing them as history. They are actually more appropriately represented as documents written in the Midrasic style of the Jewish storyteller where the emphasis is not on actual historical events but on meaning and understanding. So the real question becomes why is something included in the story, not just accepting it on face value as something that actually happened. An example of this is the spear thrust story in John’s Gospel. When the author states in John 19:35 that “he who saw it has borne witness, his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth, that you also may believe,” to what is he actually testifying and is it an actual historical event or a part of the story simply included to reveal a greater meaning? This is especially valid and true when read in the light of I john 5:6-7. This might be nothing more than an anti-gnostic inclusion rather than an actual event. Given the late date to this gospel it might also be included to fill in some Messianic gaps that the author wants to complete that he feels need to be filled. Resurrection appearances or so-called appearances might be understood in a similar fashion. It’s hard to claim a resurrection without appearances. Anyway, just getting started. Thanks.
Your explanation of the Gospels makes little sense of how they were written and how they have always been treated by Christians from the start. Luke opens his Gospel with an explicit statement that he is going to be setting forth a detailed account of the things that happened. The verse you quoted from John is also an explicit statement of the account’s historicity. John is telling us that he was right there when the Lord’s side was pierced with a spear, causing blood and water to flow.
The Gospels do not fit the Midrash style in any sense. The do fit quite well within the ancient Greek genre called bioi (biography). They aren’t like our modern biographies, but they fit the Hellenistic style in many respects.
Furthermore, Paul’s statement about the message he preached (1 Corinthians 15) is viewed by scholars (even critical scholars) as an early Christian creed that can be dated to within 3 to 5 years of the Resurrection. In this statement, Paul tells of the post-Resurrection appearances. These appearances are not late additions to the text, but were there from the very start of the Christian message. In fact, without them, Christianity would have never started.
I’ve always been baffled by Paul’s comment when he said the risen Lord appeared to him (1 Corin 15:8). Preachers tell us that Jesus appeared bodily to Paul, as He indeed appeared bodily to Peter and then 500 disciples. But I don’t understand how Jesus’ could have appeared bodily to Paul, unless Paul was saved before Jesus’ ascension, i.e. within 40 days of Jesus’ resurrection? I always thought Paul was saved long after Jesus’ ascension, but at the ascension we are told that Jesus won’t return to earth again until He comes back in the clouds. Therefore, if Paul became a Christian after Jesus’ ascension, Jesus could not have appeared bodily to Paul as He did to Peter. Any thoughts on this?
Marisa, your point and concern are well made. Part of Paul’s predicament if you will concerns his authority as an apostle and how to establish it. Since an apostle had to have seen Jesus, Paul must build a case for having seen him. This he does in part in I Cor. 9:1. But you are correct that it seems very likely that the encounter or so-called encounter on the road to Damascus was not a vision of or an appearance by the physically risen Jesus. The encounter is cloaked in mystery and contradiction. In Acts 9:7 we read that those traveling with Paul heard the voice, while in Acts 22:9 Paul himself says that those traveling with him could not hear the voice. What most likely happened on the road to Damascus? It appears to be a question that will remain forever unanswered. It does, however, seem to be connected to Paul’s authority as an apostle. And all of the other appearances or so-called appearances might in some way be related to Gnosticism or anti-Gnosticism, but not completely so. They simply complete the story of Resurrection as a necessary ingredient to such a claim. And the different stories concerning resurrection appearances simply developed over time as the story became bigger than life. They were, if you will, the logical extensions of such a claim and were used, among other things, to bolster people in their belief. Just some thoughts.
There is no contradiction between Paul’s reporting of His encounter with the risen Savior. The account is not cloaked in mystery, either; Luke tells us exactly what happened that day as Paul traveled to Damascus. Here is what I wrote in my book, In Defense of Easter, to show that no contradiction exists in Paul’s conversion accounts:
As I mentioned in my previous comment, the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus go all the way back to the start of Christianity, and the Christian faith could not and would not exist if He did not rise. The church was founded on the knowledge that Jesus had risen. These were not later inventions designed to counter Gnostic teachings.
I agree with you on this one, Tim. Jesus told us a number of times that people with hard hearts will see but not perceive, and hear but not understand.
Thanks for taking the time to read the blog post and leave a comment. There is no contradiction here at all. When Paul said that the Lord appeared to him, he is certainly talking about his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. Acts 9 tells us about this event, which probably took place a few years after the Resurrection. If you look back at the record of the Ascension, the text does not say that Jesus will not return again until He comes back in the clouds. The angels (men in white) simply tell the disciples that Jesus, “who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Jesus will physically return to earth someday, and His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives (Zechariah 14:4), but this truth would not prevent Him from appearing to Paul. Hope this helps!