Jesus of Nazareth rose physically from the dead on the third day after He died on a cross outside Jerusalem some 2000 years ago. This is the central doctrine of the Christian faith. But can we really believe it? Can we trust the biblical accounts?
As we read the four different Gospel accounts, we discover the details of the resurrection stories differ from one another, leading to many questions.
How many women went to the tomb? Which women? When did they go? Was it still dark or was it after sunrise? When was the earthquake? Was there an earthquake? What did the women see? Did they see angels or only men? How many angels? Who saw Jesus and where did they see Him? What did Jesus say to them? And did they tell the news or did they not? Where did Jesus appear and to whom?
The apparent contradictions in the details can be somewhat disconcerting to Christians, especially if someone demands that we explain. Our entire Faith depends, after all, upon the truth and reliability of these accounts.
But the apparent discrepancies we find in the Gospel narratives are exactly the kind one would expect to find in different accounts of the same event. If our small congregation witnessed a car accident after church on Sunday, and then each of us wrote an account of what we had seen, and we then read back our accounts, there would immediately be apparent discrepancies in the details. Each account would highlight something different and there would most certainly be questions raised.
Which direction were the cars driving? How fast? What color were they? How long did it take for the police to arrive? Could the squeal of tires be heard before or only after the collision? And so on.
Apparent contradictions, in this case, might have to be re-examined to determine which accounts were more accurate, but the differences would not be seen by anyone as a reason to say the car accident never happened. In fact, the differences in the accounts would be an indication of independent reporting from different angles and perspectives. If all the details in all our accounts were identical, it would be clear that we had all come together to collaborate our stories. (Which is what you might expect in the Gospels, if the intention of the writers was to fabricate a story.)
In saying all this, I am not suggesting that the apparent discrepancies in the Gospel stories cannot be explained, nor am I saying that the contradictions are such that we must conclude one or more of the accounts to be inaccurate in the details.
But it seems many people today assume (perhaps not having actually read the Gospels) that the New Testament stories of the Resurrection of Jesus are not credible because they were written by Christians, who would, of course, write stories that support their own biased beliefs. The general notion may even be the Gospels are documents written by early Christian theologians trying to develop a new world religion.
The fact is, the Gospels do not read that way at all. The Gospel accounts of the resurrection, in particular, communicate something of the chaos and confusion caused by an unexpected empty tomb three days after all hopes in Jesus as Messiah had been dashed.
The Gospels read very much as eye-witness accounts, some written directly by those remembering their own first-hand experiences on that first Easter morning. And in this regard, the narratives remain un-airbrushed. The details are given as they were remembered. The doubts and fears of the disciples are not conveniently removed. In an era in which women were not considered credible witnesses, the “embarrassing” fact that it was women who first reported the empty tomb is remarkably featured in all four Gospels.
Let us then not be worried that the four accounts of what happened that first day of the week after the crucifixion are not identical in every detail. Indeed, may we see the differences we find in the Gospels actually give them greater credibility. Ours is not the fabricated Faith of a theology book; it is a Faith based on the reliable testimony of many witnesses, who themselves had to be convinced of the very things they were seeing with their own eyes.