Are the Written Accounts about the Resurrection of Jesus Faulty?
I find that many people who are skeptical these days about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead believe that the written accounts are either contradictory or are borrowed from pagan stories. And in either case they believe these are good reasons to distrust the writings. Since this weekend is Easter the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, I thought it appropriate to insert a post on this topic.
Recently, Dr. Michael R. Licona, the author of an outstanding new 700 page book analyzing the resurrection of Jesus from an historical perspective, has posted some short videos on ‘10 Myths about the Resurrection.’ It so happened that the first two were on these two topics of alleged contradictions and possible pagan sources, and so I have embedded these videos for your enjoyment and enlightenment after each section respectively.
The apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth that, “… if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
In the context he clearly thought that it was a fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead and if it was not a fact, then Christians were fools who should be pitied. In his view Christianity stood or fell on whether Jesus’ resurrection was for real. So, are the written accounts about Jesus’ resurrection a hopeless jumble of contradictions? Not at all!
There are differences between the accounts, but they are differences in peripheral details not the main historical core. And this is exactly what one would expect if one were reading accounts from different people, written at different times, with different purposes, to different readers. When all the testimony is the same almost word for word, that is when a good detective rightly gets suspicious. Then it is more likely that the witnesses got together and cooked up a fictitious story.
The gospels are not intended to be exhaustive accounts of Jesus’ life. They are summaries. When one understands better the purposes each of the writers had for writing, to whom they were writing, and the genre they were writing in, it is easier to see how the alleged contradictions in these peripheral details actually can be harmonized.
Moreover, differences in details do not necessarily discredit an entire account. No historian suggests that just because there are differences in the eyewitness accounts of John F. Kennedy’s shooting, that therefore, JFK wasn’t assassinated.
Myth #1: Contradictions in the Gospels from Credo House on Vimeo.
What about the claim that the early Christians just borrowed the story of a dying and rising god from earlier pagan myths? This was a common claim in the late 19th and early 20th century. I cannot emphasize too strongly that even though this claim has been ‘resurrected’ and has been all over the Internet in the past decade, no serious scholar in this area of study considers this position tenable anymore.
The alleged parallels are spurious. Any similarities are far outweighed by the differences. The pagan legends are not about historical personages, they are just symbols for the seasons. There is no text prior to the late second century of a mythical deity who rose from the dead.
Moreover, there is no causal link between the pagan myths and the Jews. There was very little influence from the pagan religions in first-century Palestine. Jewish and early Christian thought was exclusive. Unlike most of the other religions of the time, they were not open to incorporating the ideas of other religions into their own. Therefore, the lines of influence are more likely to have run the other way. That is, it is much more likely that the 2nd and 3rd century pagan religions borrowed from Christianity, than Christianity borrowed the resurrection from pagan religions.
Historian Michael Grant summarizes the scholarly opinion, “Judaism was a milieu to which doctrines of the deaths and rebirths, of mythical gods seemed so entirely foreign that the emergence of such a fabrication from its midst is very hard to credit.” (Michael Grant, Jesus : An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, p. 199.)
Myth #2: Pagan Parallels in the Mystery Religions from Credo House on Vimeo.
The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth on the Sunday following his torture and murder by Roman soldiers on the Friday, almost 2000 years ago is remarkably good. It is much better than most people think, especially in comparison to the evidence for other ancient events.
Have these two ‘Myths’ affected your view on the Resurrection of Jesus? What do you think of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth? Why do you believe or what would it take for you to believe?
- If you would like more information and you don’t want to start with Michael Licona’s 700 page book, you might enjoy my five page article “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?”
- You can also check out a new video series that Licona has available called The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus or if you are really serious about pursuing this topic you can purchase his scholarly book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.
You may also want to check out the following free resources by W.L.Craig on the Resurrection of Jesus.
- The Resurrection of Jesus
- Forum on the Resurrection with William Lane Craig: Discussion with students of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection
- More scholarly articles by W.L. Craig on the resurrection and other issues related to the historical Jesus
8 Responses to “Are the Written Accounts about the Resurrection of Jesus Faulty?”
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Hi Gary, I appreciate your concern for truth. It is good to investigate things and search out the truth of them. There are differences in the ways that the Gospels record the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and it is useful to look at those to figure out why there are differences.
First of all, as is pointed out in the video above, the differences in the accounts reflects the fact that different authors gave their perspectives of the events of Jesus. Any investigator will tell you that when you ask different people about a particular event you will get different accounts. Different people see and remember different aspects of a particular event. If all four Gospels had identical accounts of Jesus’ resurrection then the accusation would be that there was some collusion in order to deceive.
Secondly, the accounts of Jesus resurrection show the emotional turmoil that the followers of Jesus were in. All of the accounts show the confusion that these people were going through trying to synthesize the information that Jesus was alive. Jesus had been telling them that all this would happen but no one understood what He was saying and were absolutely perplexed at His death and His resurrection. So when Mary hears from the angels that He is risen you can understand how that would be confusing and she could still be thinking that someone had stolen away His body. Put yourself in her place, and in the place of all the disciples. How would you respond to the emotional roller coaster of those events? It is not at all surprising that they did not believe right away.
You also seem to suggest that the disciples did indeed steal away the body. While I could point out that by looking at the Matthew and Luke accounts the boy was laid in the tomb on the Day of Preparation (Matthew 27:62, Luke 23:53-54) I think the most significant evidence against that theory is the willingness of the disciples of Jesus to endure torture and death for their faith. I know many people suffer and die for what they believe in, but no one endures suffering and death for something they know is a lie. If the disciples had stolen the body why would they then endure all they did in defence of that lie. They did not receive any great fortune or fame for their faith. They had no power or political influence. They gave up everything and died in poverty because they knew that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.
There are many people who have tried to find alternate explanations for the claims of Christianity that Jesus is God and ultimately proved that by His resurrection. But none of those explanations stand up under close scrutiny and the only viable option that is left is that the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact. I encourage you to continue to study the evidence. In fact, let me invite you to take it a step further: if the resurrection of Jesus is true, then I think you would agree that Jesus would want people to know that truth and is actively helping people to experience for themselves, right?! Why don’t you ask Him to reveal the truth to you? You may be surprised by what you discover :)
Let me pray for you: Dear Jesus, thanks for giving Gary such an inquisitive mind; a mind that is not satisfied with easy answers but digs deep for truth. Help him to discover the truth about You. If there are things that are getting in the way of his seeing the truth, I ask that You would strip that away. Through his investigation would You plant faith deep in his heart and would he become an evangelist proclaiming the goodness of Your truth. Amen.
Gary, If you have other questions or things you would like to discuss please continue to post them here. Or if you would prefer a more private conversation you can connect with one of our mentors by email. Just fill out the Mentor Request Form at http://powertochange.com/students/mentoring/ and someone will be in touch with you soon.
Again, thanks for raising your concerns here. This is a place for anyone who has doubts, questions or concerns.
I am an evangelist. I am an evangelist for the Truth…the real truth.
We evangelists do not stop preaching just because someone doesn’t like the message.
Gary…there is really no need for your aggresively negative opinions about christ. you would do well to follow the example of another unbeliever that the new testament mentions in acts 5.38 to 39. there Gamaliel, a very important and historal jewish leader gave the counsel to leave the apostles alone for their preaching of christ saying if it was of men, it would come to nothing as had other movements during those times but if it were of God then to leave the apostles alone or else they would have been found guilty of fighting against God himself. why not follow that wise counsel. use your time more wisely in trying to help others instead of trying to hinder those who try to help. that would speak better of you if you would.
All your superstitious assumptions can easily be shown to be the least likely of explanations for the early Christian belief in a resurrection. So why do you continue to believe this 2,000 year old middle-eastern tale?
Gary….all your doubts and questions can be resolved the moment you honestly and sincerely call upon the name of jesus christ. he will come to you as the living savior he truly is!!
When did Mary Magdalene learn of a resurrection?
Many Christian apologists state that it is impossible for the empty tomb to have been the result of a stolen body, even though the author of Matthew states that the guards were not posted until the second day, giving a least a short period of time that the tomb was not guarded. However, If the Stolen Body Hypothesis is impossible, why did Mary Magdalene believe that Jesus body had been stolen?
Matthew is the only Gospel that mentions guards at the tomb. John’s Gospel says nothing about guards. If John was an eyewitness, as Christians claim, isn’t that a pretty important detail to leave out of your story? The missing Roman guards in the Book of John raises an important issue. Christians often contend that it would have been impossible for anyone to have surreptitiously removed Jesus’ corpse from the tomb because there were guards posted at the tomb who would have prevented such an occurrence. Therefore, they argue, without any possibility for the body to have been quietly whisked away, the only other logical conclusion is that Jesus must have truly arisen from the dead. A stolen body hypothesis is impossible.
This argument completely collapses in John’s account, however, because according to the fourth Gospel, this is precisely what Mary thought had occurred! Mary clearly didn’t feel as though the scenario of Jesus’ body being removed was unlikely. In fact, according to John, that was her only logical conclusion. Clearly, Matthew’s guards didn’t dissuade John’s Mary from concluding that someone had taken Jesus’ body because Roman guards do not exist in John’s story. To further compound the problem of the conflicting resurrection accounts, John’s Gospel continues to unfold with Mary returning to the tomb a second time, only to find two angels sitting inside the tomb. Mary is still unaware of any resurrection as she complains to the angels that someone had removed Jesus’ corpse. As far as John’s Mary is concerned, the only explanation for the missing body was that someone must have removed it, and she was determined to locate it.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying12 , one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20:11-13)
Although in Matthew’s account the angel emphatically tells Mary about the resurrection (Matthew 28:5-7), in John’s Gospel the angels do not mention that anyone rose from the dead. The angels only ask Mary, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary responds by inquiring whether the angels removed Jesus’ body. Then, Mary turns and sees Jesus standing before her, but mistakes him for the gardener. Mary is still completely unaware of any resurrection, and therefore asks the “gardener” if he was the one who carried away Jesus’ body. It is only then that Mary realizes that she was speaking to the resurrected Jesus.
When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” which means Teacher. (John 20:14-16)
It is at this final juncture of the narrative that the accounts of Matthew and John become hopelessly irreconcilable. The question every Christian must answer is the following: When Mary met Jesus for the first time after the resurrection, had the angel(s) already informed her that Jesus had arisen from the dead? According to Matthew, the angels did inform Mary of the resurrection, but in John’s account they did not. As we survey the divergent New Testament accounts of the resurrection, we see that we are not just looking at contradictory versions, we are reading two entirely different stories!
Thank you for sharing. There is a lot in your message that could be responded to, but for now, let’s look at one part of it.
You said that Christ’s message should be no less powerful if it came from an ordinary man or woman. You are partly right. You and I can (and should) proclaim the same truths as Christ did (ie. love your neighbour as yourself). So why all this Jesus talk? Why couldn’t you or I do what he did?
When we do what Jesus said to do, and love our neighbours as ourselves, we are doing good. The only problem is, our good deeds, even stacked up high, aren’t enough to climb to heaven. We can’t do it. It’s too far and we keep toppling over our piles. I’m making a silly analogy, but the truth is, God is so big and so perfect that even our good deeds look filthy in comparison to Him. So if that’s the case, we can’t be with Him. He’s too good! And yet He wants to be with us (He’s personal and relational). He always has been this way. Right from the beginning of time He has wanted to walk with us (garden of Eden) dwell in our midst (Ark of the Covenant) make His home with us (Solomon’s temple). All of those were incomplete and proved that something more needed to happen. So God sent His Son as Jesus and here’s what makes Jesus so different than you or I.
Being God, Jesus was God’s expression of love, saying, “I want to be with you.”
While he was here, Jesus paid for the debt that you and I owe God, so that if we accept His gift, our slate is clean in God’s eyes. That’s why, even though we ought to love our neighbour as ourself, even that action can’t earn salvation: we need God to pay our debt because only He is rich enough!
You might be thinking, “So, now what?” Jesus is gone isn’t he? Why the resurrection? Well, by rising, he beat death. Triumphed over it. Because if God could die, he wouldn’t be perfect, would he?
Before he left, he promised that he would send his Spirit to live in each of us. There we have it again: God with us. All throughout history and now made possible because of Jesus.
Jan, I’m interested to know, what do you think of that? I look forward to hearing your response.
Paul argued unmarried people must please God, just like married people must please their spouses. The letter is also notable for mentioning the role of women in churches, that for instance they must remain silent. (wikipedia)
Paul had “issues”, and lack of respect for women appears to be one of them.
And regarding marriage, Paul states that it is better for Christians to remain unmarried, but that if they lacked self-control, it is better to marry than “burn” Christians have traditionally thought meant to burn with sinful desires. (wikipedia)
Well, it’s a probably a good thing Christians did marry.
I’m just trying to point out that to take Paul literally, one must accept his less enlightened opinions.
But my question is really this.
Does the resurrection really matter? How does it change the message of Christ? The message should be no less powerful if it came from an ordinary man or woman.
If the only reason people try to follow any message is because of the status of the messenger, what some call faith others call fear.
It is only when the message is consciously accepted because one believes it is the right thing to do, and not because of the potential consequences of not following the message, i.e., out of fear.