The Resurrection Narratives


Dismissing the miracles documented in the New Testament is a favorite pastime of many skeptics, and even some religious leaders. However, this “dismissal” game gets extremely complicated, because the miracles are so closely blended with historical facts that separating the two soon becomes like trying to separate two different colors of modeling clay. Take, for instance, the plight of Sir William Ramsay. His extensive education had engrained within him the keenest sense of scholarship. Along with that sense of scholarship came a built-in prejudice about the supposed inaccuracy of the Bible (especially the book of Acts). Ramsay noted: “… [A]bout 1880 to 1890 the book of the Acts was regarded as the weakest part of the New Testament. No one that had any regard for his reputation as a scholar cared to say a word in its defence. The most conservative of theological scholars, as a rule, thought the wisest plan of defence for the New Testament as a whole was to say as little as possible about the Acts” (1915, p. 38).

As might be expected of a person trained by such “scholars,” Ramsay held the same view—for a little while. He held the view for only a brief time, because he decided to do what few people of his time dared to do. He decided to explore the actual Bible lands with an open Bible—with the intention of proving the inaccuracy of Luke’s history in the book of Acts. However, much to his surprise, the book of Acts passed every test that any historical narrative could be asked to pass. After his investigation of the Bible lands, he was forced to conclude:


The more I have studied the narrative of the Acts, and the more I have learned year after year about Graeco-Roman society and thoughts and fashions, and organization in those provinces, the more I admire and the better I understand. I set out to look for truth on the borderland where Greece and Asia meet, and found it here [in the Book of Acts—KB]. You may press the words of Luke in a degree beyond any other historian’s, and they stand the keenest scrutiny and the hardest treatment, provided always that the critic knows the subject and does not go beyond the limits of science and of justice (1915, p. 89).


Renowned archaeologist Nelson Glueck put it like this: “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which conform in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible” (1959, p. 31).

Considering the fact that the land of Palestine in the days of the New Testament writers tossed and turned on a sea of political, economical, and social unrest, I would say that its historical accuracy is pretty amazing. But please remember, this argument is not being used in this discussion to claim that the New Testament is inspired (although some have used it in this way quite effectively). It is inserted at this point in the discussion to show that the books that discuss the Resurrection the most have proven to be true when confronted with any checkable fact. Travel to the Holy Lands and see for yourself if you doubt New Testament accuracy. Carry with you an honest, open mind and a New Testament, and I assure you that you will respect the New Testament writers as accurate historians.


So, maybe the New Testament documents are accurate when they discuss historical and geographical information. But what about all the alleged contradictions between the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection? Charles Templeton, in his book Farewell to God, devoted several pages to comparisons among the statements from the four Gospels, at the end of which he stated: “The entire resurrection story is not credible” (1996, p. 122). Another well-known preacher-turned-skeptic, Dan Barker, delights in attempting to find contradictions in the different accounts of the resurrection. In his book Loosing Faith in Faith, he filled seven pages with a list of “contradictions” that he found among the narratives. Eventually he stated: “Christians, either tell me exactly what happened on Easter Sunday, or let’s leave the Jesus myth buried…” (1992, p. 181) Interestingly, it should be noted that the fact that Barker asks for “exact” details about a day in ancient history that happened almost 2,000 years ago speaks loudly of the legitimacy of the resurrection story. Since no other day in ancient history could ever be examined with such scrutiny. Historians today cannot tell “exactly” what happened on July 4, 1776 or April 12, 1861, but Christians are asked to give the “exact” details of Christ’s resurrection? Furthermore, these requested details can be (and have been) supplied by the Gospel writers—without contradiction. Let’s examine the evidence.


Collusion: “A secret agreement between two or more parties for a fraudulent, illegal, or deceitful purpose” (page 363, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, 2000, p. 363). Even if we have not heard the word before, most of us understand the situation it describes. Suppose four bank robbers don their nylon-hose masks, rob the city bank, stash the cash away in a nearby cave, and each go back to his own house until the police search blows over. The first robber hears a knock on his door. He opens it to find a policeman who “just wants to ask him a few questions.” The officer asks, “Where were you and what where you doing on the night of June 1, 2001?” The thief promptly answers, “I was at Joe Smith’s house watching television with three other friends.” The policeman gets the three friends’ names and addresses and visits each one of their homes. Every robber tells the exact same story. Was it true? Absolutely not! But did the stories all sound exactly the same, with seemingly no contradictions? Yes.

Now, let’s fit this principle into our discussion of the resurrection narratives. If every single narrative describing the resurrection sounded exactly the same, what do you think would be said about the narratives? “They must have copied each other.” In fact, in other areas of Christ’s life besides the resurrection story, when the books of Matthew and Luke give the same information as the book of Mark, many people today claim that they must have copied Mark, because it is thought to be the earliest of the three books. Another raging question in today’s upper echelons of biblical scholarship is whether Peter copied Jude in 2 Peter 2:4-17, or whether Jude copied Peter, because the two segments of scripture sound so similar.

Amazingly, however, the Bible has not left the prospect of collusion open to the resurrection narratives. Indeed, legitimately it cannot be denied that the resurrection accounts come to us from various independent sources. Tad S. Clements, in his book Science Versus Religion , vigorously denied that there is enough evidence to believe in the resurrection. However, he acknowledged: “There isn’t merely one account of Christ’s resurrection but rather an embarrassing multitude of stories that disagree in significant respects” (1990, p. 193). And he makes it clear that the Gospels are separate accounts of the same story. Dan Barker admitted the same when he boldly stated: “Since Easter [the resurrection story—KB] is told by five different writers, it gives one of the best chances to confirm or disconfirm the account. Christians should welcome the opportunity” (1992, p. 179). One door, which everyone involved in the resurrection discussion admits has been locked forever by the resurrection accounts, is the dead-bolted door of collusion.


Of course it will not be possible, in these few paragraphs, to deal with every alleged discrepancy between the resurrection accounts. But some helpful principles will be set forth that can be used to show that no genuine contradiction between the resurrection narratives has been found.

Addition Does Not a Contradiction Make

Suppose a man is telling a story about the time he and his wife went shopping at the mall. The man mentions all the great places in the mall to buy hunting supplies and cinnamon rolls. But the wife tells about the same shopping trip, yet mentions only the places to buy clothes. Is there a contradiction just because the wife mentions clothing stores while the husband mentions only cinnamon rolls and hunting supplies? No. They are simply adding to (or supplementing) each other’s story to make it more complete. That happens in the resurrection accounts quite often.

For example, the Gospel of Matthew names “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” as women who visited the tomb early on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1). Mark cites Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome as the callers (Mark 16:1). Luke mentions Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and “the other women” (Luke 24:10). Yet John mentions Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb early on Sunday (John 20:1). (Dan Barker cites these different names as discrepancies and contradictions on page 182 of his book.) Do these different lists contradict one another? No, not in any way. They are supplementary, adding names to make the list more complete. But they are not contradictory. If John had said “only Mary Magdalene visited the tomb,” or if Matthew stated, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were the only women to visit the tomb,” then there would be a contradiction. As it stands, no contradiction occurs. To further illustrate this point, suppose that you have 10 one-dollar bills in your pocket. Someone comes up to you and asks, “Do you have a dollar bill in your pocket?” Naturally, you respond in the affirmative. Suppose another person asks, “Do you have five dollars in your pocket?,” and again you say yes. Finally, another person asks, “Do you have ten dollars in your pocket?” and you say yes for the third time. Did you tell the truth every time? Yes. Were any of your answers contradictory? No. Were all three statements about the contents of your pockets different? Yes—supplementation not contradiction.

Also fitting into this supplementation discussion are the angels, men, and young man described in the different resurrection accounts. Two “problems” arise with the entrance of the “holy heralds” at the empty tomb of Christ. First, how many were there? Second, were they angels or men? Since the former question deals with supplementation, we will discuss it first. The account in Matthew cites “an angel of the Lord who descended from heaven” and whose “appearance was as lightning, and his raiment white as snow” (28:2-5). Mark’s account presents a slightly different picture of “a young man sitting on the right side, arrayed in a white robe” (16:5). But Luke mentions that “two men stood by them [the women—KB] in dazzling apparel” (24:4). And, finally, John writes about “two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain” (20:12). Do any of these accounts contradict any of the others as to the number of men or angels at the tomb? Factoring in the supplementation rule, we must answer, “No.” Although the accounts are quite different, they are not contradictory as to the number of messengers. Mark does not mention “only a young man,” nor does Luke say there were “exactly two angels, no less or no more.” Was there one messenger at the tomb? Yes. Were two there as well, Yes. No contradiction here.

The second question concerning the messengers is their identity: Were they angels or were they men? Most people who are familiar with the Old Testament have no problem answering this question. Genesis chapters 18 and 19 mention three men who came to visit Abraham and Sarah. These men stay for a short time, and then two of them continued on to visit the city of Sodom. Yet the Bible tells us in the first verse of Genesis 19 that these “men” were actually angels. But when the men of Sodom came to do violence to these angels, the city dwellers asked: “Where are the men that came in to thee this night” (Genesis 19:5). Throughout the two chapters, the messengers are referred to as men and as angels with equal accuracy. They looked like, talked like, walked like, and sounded like men. Were they men? Yes. Were they angels? Yes.

To illustrate, suppose you saw a man sit down at a park bench and take off his right shoe. As you watched, he began to pull out an antenna from the toe of the shoe and a number pad from the heel. He proceeded to dial a number and began to talk to someone over his “shoe phone.” If you were going to write down what you saw, could you accurately say that the man dialed a number on his shoe? Yes. Could you say that he dialed a number on his phone? Indeed you could. The shoe had a heel, a sole, a toe, and everything else germane to a shoe, but it was much more than a shoe. In the same way, the messengers at the tomb would accurately be described as men—they had a head held in place by a neck, perched on two shoulders, a body complete with arms and legs, etc. Thus, they were men, but they were much more than men, so they were just as accurately described as angels, holy messengers sent from God to deliver an announcement to certain people. Taking into account the fact that the Old Testament often uses the term “men” to describe angels, it is fairly easy to show that no contradiction exists concerning the identity of the messengers.

Perspective Plays a Part

What we continue to see in the independent resurrection narratives is not contradiction, but merely a difference in perspective. For instance, suppose a man had a 4×6-inch index card that was solid red on one side and solid white on the other. Further suppose that he stood in front of a large crowd, asked all the men to close their eyes, showed the women in the audience the red side of the card, and then had them write down what they saw. Suppose, further, that he had all the women close their eyes, showed the men the white side of the card, and had them write down what they saw. One group saw a red card, and one group saw a white card. When their answers are compared, it looks at first like they are contradictory, yet they are not. The reason the descriptions look contradictory is because the two groups had a different perspective, each looking at a different side of the card. The perspective phenomenon plays a big part in everyday life. In the same way that no two witnesses ever see a car accident the exact same way, none of the witnesses of the resurrected Jesus saw the activities from the same angle as the others.

I have not dealt with every alleged discrepancy in the resurrection accounts in this section. However, I have discussed some of the major ones that can be shown to be supplementation or items viewed from a difference of perspective. An honest study of the remaining “problems” reveals that not a single legitimate contradiction exists among the narratives—they are different, but they are not contradictory. Furthermore, the differences prove that no collusion took place, and instead offer the diversity that would be expected from different individuals relating the same event.


Barker, Dan (1992), Loosing Faith in Faith (Madison, WI: Freedom from Religion Foundation).

Clements, Tad S. (1990), Science vs. Religion (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus).

Glueck, Nelson (1959), Rivers in the Desert: A History of the Negev (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Cudahy).

Ramsay, William (1915), The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975 reprint).

Templeton, Charles (1996), Farewell to God (Ontario, Canada: McClelland and Stewart).


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