12 Alleged Resurrection “Contradictions” That Aren’t Really Contradictions
Were there guards at the Tomb? Did the disciples enter the Tomb? And what did the risen Jesus say to the women?
It seems to be one of the favorite pastimes of extreme biblical skeptics to peruse the Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus and events surrounding it, in order to “identify” and challenge Christians with various alleged “contradictions.”
Recently I came across one such effort, which claimed many “contradictions.” I believe none at all were adequately substantiated, once the claims were properly scrutinized. Almost all of them failed even elementary tests of standard logic. If I may indulge your patience a bit, I’d like to briefly examine the weakness of these arguments in this article and my next one.
1. How many women visited the Tomb? An actual logical contradiction requires exclusionary clauses such as “only x, y, and z were there and no one else” or “only three people witnessed incident a.” None of the Gospel texts do that here; hence, no demonstrable contradiction exists (see Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:1-10; John 20:1). Some atheists will nonetheless go on to argue that it is still a “contradiction” in some sense because, after all, the texts don’t all say exactly the same thing. But that’s not how logic works, and it is absurd and unrealistic to demand that four separate accounts written by as many people must report what was seen in identical fashion.
2. Were there guards at the Tomb? It’s not a contradiction merely because Matthew mentions this and the other three Gospels don’t. Arguments from silence prove nothing. A true contradiction would require one or more of the other three to say something like “the tomb was unguarded.”
3. When did the women visit the Tomb? The descriptions in the RSV are “toward the dawn” (Matthew 28:1), “very early … when the sun had risen” (Mark 16:2), “at early dawn” (Luke 24:1) — clearly no contradiction so far. Then we have: “Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark” (John 20:1). John describes an earlier visit of Mary Magdalene only. She is mentioned in all four accounts as one of the visitors, but John informs us that she ran to tell the disciples the tomb was empty (20:2), then after “the disciples went back to their homes” (20:10), being outside the tomb again, weeping (20:11), seeing the risen Jesus (20:14-17), and then going to the disciples and telling them she saw Jesus risen (20:18). Conclusion: no contradiction.
4. Did the women enter the Tomb? Mark and Luke say they did. Matthew and John don’t. But to contradict the other two reports, they would have to outright deny that it happened, and they don’t do that, so no contradiction is present. Matthew strongly implies that they did, however, because the angel says to them, “Come, see the place where he lay” (28:6).
5) Did the disciples enter the Tomb? John says Peter and John did; the others say nothing (argument of silence and thus, no contradiction). To not mention something is not the same as a denial.
6. What did the risen Jesus say to the women? Mark and Luke are silent; Matthew and John say two different, but not contradictory things. To be contradictory, one or both would have to say, Jesus said only [whatever]. But they don’t. Logic is what it is.
7. Grabbing risen Jesus’ feet, but later no touch allowed? Mark and Luke are silent on this aspect. The women grab Jesus’ feet and worship him in Matthew, but Mary Magdalene later is told “not to touch” Jesus in John 20:17. Well, “touch” is the translation of older translations, and it’s quite arguable. I found no less than 20 prominent Bible translations in my collection that render the Greek here as “hold,” “hold[ing] on to,” or “cling[ing].” This clarification of meaning removes any supposed contradiction in John.
8. Where did the risen Jesus first appear to his disciples? Mark doesn’t say. The others don’t indicate that their account was the “first” appearance (logically speaking, one cannot arbitrarily assume this to be the case), so different harmonious chronologies are entirely possible to construct — and an airtight “contradiction” is impossible to construct.
9. Where was the risen Jesus’ second appearance to disciples? Matthew and Mark are silent, and so irrelevant (argument from silence). John doesn’t specify that there were no visits in-between the two he mentions, and “first and second” can only apply to his version itself (not to the other Gospels), even if we assume that the two mentioned are directly chronological. The same factors apply to Luke’s account. It’s impossible to prove a contradiction.
10. Where was the risen Jesus’ third appearance to disciples? Only John mentions a third in his own account, but this doesn’t prove that it is the third time, period.
11. When did the disciples receive the Holy Spirit? Matthew, Mark and Luke are silent. But Acts 2 places it 50 days later (and most Christians believe Luke wrote Acts). John 20:22 has Jesus visiting 10 disciples (minus Thomas and the fallen Judas) and bestowing on them (“receive”) the Holy Spirit. Acts 2 is a completely different public event, with tongues of fire and speaking in tongues. There is no contradiction present. It’s “apples and oranges” and an apple doesn’t “contradict” an orange. Here they (disciples and any others, too) are described as being “filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:4). Christians can receive a greater “measure” or manifestation of the indwelling Holy Spirit as time goes on, according to biblical theology.
12. Why were the women going to visit the Tomb? Matthew says two women “went to see the sepulcher” — that is, they wanted to see if it was left as it was when Jesus was laid there, in order to apply burial spices. What other reason would there be? Mark and Luke mention the intent to anoint Jesus’ body. Matthew doesn’t contradict that. It simply (arguably) describes it in different terms. John gives no reason, but again, the logical thing is to assume it is referring to anointing of the body.