This post is part of a series entitled “Resurrection: Answering the Skeptics”, which includes a number of scientists and scholars responding to common questions about science, biblical faith, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The four Gospels contain somewhat different accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus.
There are differing details about how many women go to the tomb—just Mary Magdalene in John, Mary along with others in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There are different numbers of angels reported at the tomb—one in Matthew and Mark, two in Luke and John. The sequence of whom Jesus appeared to differs somewhat in the various Gospels. Then there’s the question of where Jesus appeared—in Galilee according to Matthew and Mark, or around Jerusalem according to Luke.
What should we do about these (and other) variations—or even discrepancies—between the Resurrection accounts?
We might try to harmonize them, coming up with an ordered and comprehensive list of events from Jesus’s rising from the dead through his various appearances to his ascension. Some have done with, with varying degrees of persuasiveness.1
On the other hand, we need to be aware that while the Gospels testify to historical events, they are filtered through the memories of those who were there and those who recorded these memories in writing, possibly at second hand. The variations of detail about Jesus’s Resurrection are precisely the sort that are typically found in eyewitness accounts of real events, and suggest that there was no collusion between witnesses.
This, of course, doesn’t “prove” that the Resurrection really happened; there is simply no way to demonstrate absolutely that a unique historical event occurred. There are just varying degrees of plausibility.
We should also be wary of trying to get behind the written record of the Resurrection to the “truth” of what really happened. After all, Christians confess that it is the Scriptures (and not the events behind them) that are inspired by God and meant to lead us to salvation.
One particularly troubling example of an attempt to get at the supposed events behind the Gospels is Harold Lindsell’s reconstruction of Peter’s denial of Jesus in The Battle for the Bible. Given the different Gospel accounts of this event, Lindsell proposed that Peter really denied Jesus six times (and not three times, as the Gospels claimed). And all this was in the name of harmonizing an “inerrant” text.
I am content with what the theologians of the early church called the Fourfold Gospel—four overlapping and coherent (though not quite harmonized) accounts of the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus (four chosen out of the multitudes of “gospels” that were available in the first centuries of Christianity).
Since no two people (not even believers in the Resurrection) ever see things in exactly the same way, I find that the very complexity and variation of the Gospels (including the Resurrection accounts) ring true to life.