Many skeptics contend that the resurrection story of Jesus, recorded in the four gospels, contains a myriad of contradictions. For example, were there 2 angels at the tomb of Jesus or just 1? Did both men crucified alongside Jesus mock him or did one defend and support Jesus? And what about how the resurrection accounts don’t match? For example, Jesus’ first appearance to the women is only recorded in Matthew; the account of the two men on the road to Emmaus is only recorded in Luke; the appearance of Mary Magdalene is omitted by both Matthew and Luke; and only in John do we read about the appearance of the Lord in the upper room, when Thomas was absent, and the appearance on the Sea of Galilee. Critics point to these differences and variations as proof that the gospels are false and unreliable. However, these alleged contradictions actually confirm the truthfulness of the gospel accounts, rather than refute them.
The truth is when it comes to analysing multiple eyewitness accounts, like the four gospels, minor differences and variations are exactly what we should expect. For example, imagine you are a detective. You’ve been called to a crime scene to interview four eyewitnesses. You interview the witnesses one at a time, and one by one they recount to you the exact same story and events, in the exact same order, focusing on the exact same details, and using the exact same words or phrases. Would you not become suspicious? Would you not think that the four eyewitnesses were colluding? Likewise, if the four gospels were identical, with no differences or variations, skeptics would surely object on the basis that the accounts are the product of collusion.
No four witnesses will write up their testimony in the exact same way, detail for detail. Witnesses have their own personal perspective of an event. Their testimony is limited and coloured by certain factors; like their physical location, their emotional and psychological state, and the time and duration they witnessed the event or incident. For example, imagine that the first witness you interview claims that he saw one offender fleeing the scene of the crime. However, the second witness, who was standing across the street and around the corner of a building, claims he saw a group of offenders fleeing the scene. Would you say there’s a contradiction between the two accounts? Or if one witness mentions certain details about the offender, like the type of clothing the offender was wearing or the sound of the offender’s voice, while another witness fails to mention these same details. Would you say the two accounts are incompatible and therefore unreliable?
A detective must take each witness’ testimony and piece all the accounts together to form one complete picture. The same can be done with the alleged contradictions in the resurrection accounts. Former atheist, and LAPD Detective, J. Warner Wallace has had decades of experience interviewing eyewitnesses and analysing testimonies. He recalls that when he first read the gospels as a skeptic, he was surprised to find that these accounts read and felt like true and reliable eyewitness testimonies. Wallace has stated that, “…those accounts (the gospels) are exactly what eyewitness accounts look like.” The minor variations regarding insignificant details didn’t bother him; they actually increased his confidence in the reliability of the gospels.
One alleged contradiction that has produced much debate involves the angels who were at the tomb of Jesus. Matthew and Mark record that one angel addressed the women; whereas Luke and John say there were two angels. These appear to be two incompatible versions of the same event. However, Matthew and Mark do not claim categorically that only one angel was present at the tomb, but rather that only one angel spoke to the women; thus, the angel who spoke was emphasised and the focus of Matthew and Mark’s account. This in no way contradicts Luke and John’s claim that two angels were present at the tomb. This is just one example. However, all the alleged contradictions in the gospel accounts can be reconciled in a similar fashion to this.
If the variations in the gospels concerned the major points of the story, then there would be reason for doubt, but when the significant details and events are agreed upon by each witness, minor differences add to rather than subtract from the gospels’ reliability.
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Further reading recommendations
‘Cold-Case Christianity' by J. Warner Wallace
'The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus' by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona
'The Case for Christ' by Lee Strobel
'The Historical Reliability of the New Testament' by Craig Blomberg
'Christobiography' by Craig Keener
'Can We Trust the Gospels' by Peter Williams