Resurrection reflection – why don’t the accounts match up (and does it matter)?

I remember when, as a good evangelical about 17 years ago, I read all four resurrection accounts as a devotional exercise. Instead of being uplifted and inspired however, I was disturbed and confused because the four accounts seemed to be so different to each other.

Here are brief synopses of the four versions:

  • Matthew 28 – Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’ go to tomb; angel comes down (with earthquake) and rolls stone away, then gives Jesus’s message to the women; they leave ‘afraid but joyful’; Jesus meets and greets them all on way back.
  • Mark 16 – Mary M, Mary (James’s mother) and Salome find empty tomb; meet one angel; leave in fear without meeting Jesus. (Only in separate account starting at v9 does it say Mary M was the first person Jesus appeared to.)
  • Luke 24 – Mary M, Mary (J’s mother), Joanna and other women find empty tomb, meet two angels but not Jesus; go and tell apostles; Peter comes and enters tomb. Jesus’ first appearance seems to be on the Road to Emmaus.
  • John 20 – Mary M finds empty tomb, runs to tell Peter and John, who both enter tomb and leave; Mary stays, crying; meets two angels, then Jesus.

The four accounts differ in so many details – the characters involved, the order of events, the actual events themselves – that it just doesn’t seem possible to reconcile them into a single coherent narrative. Back then, I really struggled with this. If the four gospels were inspired, inerrant and authoritative as evangelical doctrine insisted, what could all these discrepancies mean? Surely if one account said one thing and one said something almost entirely different, they couldn’t both be inerrant? Who really found the empty tomb? Was there really an earthquake, and if so why does only Matthew mention it? Who did Jesus really appear to first and when, and what did he say to them? What actual message did the angel or angels give to the women? And what about that troubling NIV note that ‘The earliest manuscripts and most reliable witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20’ – if it’s inspired and inerrant, how can this be?

And of course, it’s not only the resurrection accounts that present these problems (if problems indeed they are). Pretty much anywhere you choose to look in the four gospels there are differences and discrepancies in the reporting of particular events, teachings or dialogue. The birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are particularly hard to reconcile (and of course neither Mark nor John even record this vital first chapter of Jesus’s life). The calling of the first disciples is entirely different in John and the three synoptic gospels, and even within the synoptics there are significant discrepancies in the accounts. And so it goes on.

Agreement on the essentials

However, in my desperate bid to make the four gospels match up exactly, what I’d missed was how strongly and clearly they do actually agree on the essential details. Even if they didn’t agree on who exactly found the empty tomb, how many angels there were and at what exact point the risen Jesus first appeared, they did all agree that there was an empty tomb, angels and a risen Jesus who appeared to his followers. And this is surely what matters, not the precise forensic detail of who was where and did what in which order.

Our obsession with precise factual accuracy as the definition or benchmark of truth is a peculiarly modern one, one which would have puzzled the gospel writers. Matthew’s earthquake may well have been a primarily symbolic element in the narrative; it’s been suggested that his Star of Bethlehem is a similar case and that both may be examples of the Hebrew homiletic approach known as Midrash.

This isn’t at all to say that the gospel or resurrection accounts aren’t broadly historically or factually true, or to suggest that they’re merely ‘myth’. C.S. Lewis, a long-time student of myth, wrote that the resurrection accounts had none of the character of mythical writing but instead had all the ring of authentic reporting. I would tentatively suggest that on almost all counts the resurrection of Christ is one of the best-attested events in pre-modern human history. I’d certainly argue that it has excellent (if not indisputable) eyewitness, documentary and supporting evidence.

It’s often been pointed out that where there are several genuine eyewitness accounts of the same event, they almost invariably will differ on details and perspective (who said or did what to whom and in which order), while generally agreeing on the main substance. As such, the gospel accounts bear all the hallmarks of being based on genuine but different eyewitness accounts, which rather strengthens their case for authenticity than weakens it. Inerrant they may not be (and they never claim to be); authentic they almost certainly are, recording real though extraordinary events as witnessed and experienced by real people whose lives were profoundly changed as a result.

Reality not inerrancy

These days, I’m happy with that, no longer needing a ‘perfect’ Bible that’s inerrant in some impossible way. I much prefer the rough edges, the warts-and-all messiness of the real Bible. Evangelicals sometimes forget that the Bible has never been what Muslims believe the Qu’ran to be, an eternally changeless, divinely-dictated document based on a pre-existing perfect original housed in highest heaven. Rather the Bible is a rough-hewn human testament to divine presence and providence, shot through in every part with the endlessly creative life and breath of God.

The Bible is also a testament to God’s delight in diversity, difference and dynamicity rather than uniformity and stasis. Why on earth would we have four gospels if this were not so? Did I really think that they should all be exactly the same, merely saying the same things about the same events – what would be the point of that? The four gospels are not divine Wikipedia entries designed to present a bald factual account of Christ’s life and work, as though that were what we needed (or wanted). Rather the four gospels present four different portraits of Jesus, bringing out different aspects of this God-man who is far too rich and full a person to be completely represented by any one individual view.

Some have also suggested that the four gospels broadly represent four basic human personality types, meaning that everyone can relate to at least one portrait of Jesus. According to this view we have Matthew the sanguine – extrovert, excited and eager to share the message of good news, while occasionally inaccurate on details (Matthew is notorious for his slightly dodgy quotations of OT sources). We have Mark the choleric, always in a hurry, wanting to cut to the chase, get to the goal and crop out any extraneous detail. We have Luke the phlegmatic, calm and measured, caring and compassionate. And we have John the melancholic mystic, laden with poetic symbolism and prophetic resonance. I do find this schema rather appealing, even if not totally convincing. Use it if you find it helpful; discard it if you don’t.

So nowadays when I read the four resurrection accounts I’m no longer worried by their differences. Rather I’m struck anew by their vitality, reality and authenticity. I’m not too fussed whether there was a literal earthquake, one angel or two, or which women went first to the tomb. The point is that the tomb was empty, and Jesus is alive. Christ is risen; He is risen indeed – Alleluia!

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Bible, Easter, Emerging, Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Resurrection reflection – why don’t the accounts match up (and does it matter)?

  1. Steve Greek says:

    Thanks once again for your insights. When in school, I had a book entitled, “a Harmony of the Gospels” in which all four gospels were written in parallel columns in an attempt to harmonize the events chronologically. Some facts, teachings, or events were missing in one account, others had seeming differences, while others appeared to be identical. The differences made me uncomfortable. They seemed discordant.

    When I complained about this lack of harmony to my son-in-law, he pointed out that harmonies in music are never the same, but rather complementary. Four parts, when sung together, create a beautiful song, enriched by the other parts. The melody is nice. The alto contributes to what the bass is doing, The parts, blended together, produce lovely chords. If, however, one were to hum just the tenor part of a familiar song, others may not even recognize the tune.

    It occurs to me that the differences in the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John provide a harmony that helps to complete the telling of the story in a much more effective way, from various perspectives, to a variety of listeners.

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    • Thanks Steve – interesting thoughts, and as a musician I really like the four-part harmony metaphor. I suppose my ‘problem’ with the gospels is that at times (such as with the resurrection) the four accounts don’t really seem to harmonise in a complementary way but rather to clash discordantly. But as I say, this doesn’t worry me now in the way that it used to (and I’m quite a fan of harmonically-challenging / dissonant music in any case!).

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  2. Terry says:

    The best book I know of is Richard Burridge’s Four Gospels, One Jesus?. So put down your Clive Staples stuff and go to it. Now!

    By the way, I liked your reference to divine presence and providence…

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    • I thought you might like that reference…

      Though I do cite Clive Staples as one of my heroes I don’t tend to read his stuff much now – except the Narnia Chronicles, which I think are by far his best work (The Great Divorce is good too). I’ve just finished Tom Wright’s Virtue Reborn (pretty good) and next on my list is Paula Gooder’s Heaven. I’m also wading my way through Tim Keller’s The Reason For God, not because it’s my cup of tea (it isn’t) but it was a present and I wanted to see what the fuss was about.

      I have read a bit of the Richard Burridge book in the past – that’s where I got the bit about the four portraits of Jesus from. I think you kindly (if illegally) photocopied a section for us in the good old days of SELTG. 🙂

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  3. Very well put together, thanks for writing such a good article

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  4. Eric says:

    Are you familiar with N.T. Wright’s comments about these passages? He says that one striking things about the resurrection accounts in the Synoptics, at least, is that they aren’t rearranged to make points in the manner that things like the Sermon on the Mount are and that they sometimes break the style of the author. He believes that this is because they are, more than the rest of the Gospels, transmitted as heard without editing.

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