Author: C J Wereleman
Although pre-Christian religions are replete with the stories of dying and rising gods, the Easter tradition is founded in the Bible’s New Testament. Unfortunately for devotees of the Christian faith, the New Testament is replete with irreconcilable discrepancies.
The question is, which contradicting biblical account of Jesus’ death and resurrection are you celebrating this Easter?
Of the nearly 600 irreconcilable discrepancies and contradictions found in the Bible, a majority are found in the New Testament. This is understandable given the books of the New Testament were written no less than 50-100 years after the purported death of Easter’s central character, Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul hadn’t even met Jesus, and they hadn’t met the people who had allegedly met Jesus. In other words, the New Testament contains not a single eyewitness testimony, much less even a secondhand account, nor is any account corroborated outside of the Bible.
Without going too far down the theological pathway, Mark, whoever he was, was the first to write a biography of Jesus, some 50 years after the crucifixion. Both Matthew and Luke, whoever they were, copied from Mark’s written account some 20 to 30 years later, each adding their own theological motives with the help of respective external sources, while John wrote his gospel nearly a full half-century after Mark.
“The New Testament is a work of crude carpentry, hammered together long after its purported events and full of attempts to make things come out right,” writes the late Christopher Hitchens.
Without a doubt, the Easter narrative of the New Testament highlights these contradictions better than any other plot line found in the Bible. A cartoon found at russellsteapot.com demonstrates the theological conundrum:
Priest: “Thanks everyone for participating in this year’s Easter Pageant. All right, kids, we need to rehearse the part where it’s Easter morning and the first visitors arrive at Jesus’ tomb. Now who’s in this scene?”
Child 1: “I am! Matthew 28:2-5 says an angel came down from heaven to greet them.”
Child 2: “No, it wasn’t an angel! It was a ‘Young man,’ Just look at Mark 16:5!”
Child 3: “Hello! Luke 24:4 says very clearly it was ‘Two men.’”
Child 4: “Well, according to John 20:1-2, nobody was there.”
Priest: “Children, the contradictions don’t matter! What matters is that we unquestioningly accept the magic of the resurrection even within the face of such glaring contradictions within the story.”
Child 4: “Father, that was the most wonderfully concise summary of Christianity I have ever heard.”
Priest:“Thank you, child. It is blind submission to authority that got me where I am today
The gospels are so at odds with each other they don’t even agree on one of the critical tenets of the Christian faith i.e. the meaning of Jesus’ death.
On the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, Mark presents Jesus as an utterly dejected figure, who having suffered so much, believes God has forsaken him in his darkest hour. In the events leading to his crucifixion, he is betrayed by his friend Judas; denied three times by one of his nearest and dearest, Peter; berated by the Jewish priests; and then condemned by Pilate. He is kicked, whipped and mocked by the Roman soldiers; taunted by criminals on the cross; and during this whole ordeal he utters not a single word. As the shadow of death descends upon him he cries, “Father why have you forsaken me?”
Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, makes the following observation of Mark’s gospel, “Jesus dies in agony unsure of the reason he must die.”
In Luke’s portrayal, however, the gulf of ideology between himself and Mark couldn’t be greater. Luke has Jesus being led away for crucifixion, but in his account Jesus is not mocked or beaten by the Roman guards. Instead, Jesus walks confidently toward the killing field, reassured by the purpose of his death, as demonstrated by the manner he speaks to the women he sees weeping for him:
“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” (Luke 23:28 NIV)
As he is nailed to the cross, instead of denouncing his god, like he had in Mark, Jesus says,
“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34 NIV)
As his inevitable death approaches, Jesus does not feel forsaken but welcomes the next step of the journey; “Into your arms I commit my spirit.” In Luke, Jesus even has a friendly dialogue with his fellow condemned, and reassures them that:
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43 NIV)
“In Luke, Jesus is completely calm and in control of the situation; he know what is about to occur, and he knows it will happen afterward: he will wake up in God’s paradise, and this criminal will be there with him,” writes Ehrman.
It gets worse. The respective gospels even contradict their own writings. Mark gives the following account of the Last Supper:
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31)
The big question here is why would Jesus think God had forsaken him if he knew he had to suffer in such a manner in order to fulfill the purpose he was sent to fulfill? Of all the events that account for the Easter narrative, the four Gospels agree on only two points:
That on the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, Jesus’ tomb is found empty.
Mary Magdalene is one of those who discover the empty tomb.
On just about every other component of the Easter narrative, the Gospels disagree as to what transpired, and often irreconcilably so. On Jesus’ ascension, not only do the gospels disagree who Jesus’ spirit spoke to first, but also the location.
Mark: Jesus ascends while he and his disciples are seated at a dinner table in Jerusalem. (14-19)
Matthew: Doesn’t mention the ascension at all.
Luke: Jesus ascends after dinner in Bethany, on the same day as the resurrection. (24:50-51)
John: Doesn’t mention the ascension.
These contradictions must trouble those with even the deepest sense of faith. Notwithstanding the fact that Matthew alone writes that zombies roamed the streets of Jerusalem at the moment of Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:51). Suddenly, the Easter Bunny seems a little more plausible. Happy Easter.
CJ Werleman is the author of “Crucifying America,” and “God Hates You. Hate Him Back.”