This past Sunday, we looked at the resurrection account in John 20. Like the rest of this book, the well of this chapter runs deep. At one level, the account reads like a simple eyewitness account, recording details so as to be accurate and report what happened. At another level, John is teaching us about the profound significance of the resurrection for all of history, all of creation, and all of our lives. As we saw, John is showing us that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has brought about a new creation, with a new humanity, who have a new mission to the world.
While we spent our time staying within John 20, it only takes a quick read of the other resurrection accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke to notice differences between the four. In light of this, the question came up in our discussion together about how these gospel accounts relate to one another. Why are some things mentioned in one account, yet not mentioned in another? How do we understand the differences between them? Are there genuine contradictions? Do they somehow fit together?
Importance of the Question
These are very important questions and it’s not surprising that they surface when we come to a resurrection narrative. The resurrection narratives are often the focus of discussions about possible contradictions.
One of the reasons why these are such important questions is because it relates to our understanding of the nature of Scripture and the nature of God himself. Is the Bible ultimately written by God, without error and truthful in everything that it affirms? When we read the Scriptures, including the resurrection accounts, do we truly hear the voice of God, as if Jesus Christ was standing in the room speaking to us? Or are there contradictions between the accounts? Are these simply the words of fallen, fallible men? Are we left without a true voice from God?
For those who affirm that God is a God who speaks, that he speaks to us in the Bible, and that he is truthful in all that he says, noticing differences in these resurrection narratives can be a bit unsettling at first. We may be tempted to avoid asking the hard questions altogether for fear of what we might find.
But there is no reason to recoil at the questions. Christians do not believe that the Bible was dictated by an audible voice from heaven to ready scribes. The Bible is fully breathed out by God as his very words, and yet it is also fully written by humans. God wisely wrote Scripture in such a way that gives a place for the different human authors’ writing styles.
My purpose in this post isn’t to give a detailed analysis of specific apparent contradictions between the different resurrection narratives. It certainly would be helpful to do that and there are others who have done a good job with these questions. For example, Craig Blomberg has given a lot of time to these questions about the gospels in general. You may be interested in checking out The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, and related specifically to the gospel of John, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel. Other good commentaries on each gospel will usually address the specific verses in contention where relevant. For recommended commentaries, ask a trusted pastor or friend and visit bestcommentaries.com.
Instead of looking at the details, I’ll just briefly comment about two questions we should be asking about the issue.
1. Why are there differences?
One way to answer the question is to simply note that the human authors were different people writing to different audiences. No two soldiers would write home about a battle the same way. Sam is different than Joe and both of them are writing home to different parents. Their unique perspectives and different expected readers shape what they say. In the same way, John wanted to emphasize different things to those whom he was writing than did Mark. John may have known about the resurrection accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (and likely did), but he wanted to say something else about the events. He wanted to draw attention to specific things that happened on that day that the other authors didn’t emphasize.
Once we recognize this, we may be able to see that some of the discrepancies are only on the surface. For example, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke record that there were several women who came to the empty tomb on this Easter morning (Mk 16:1-2; see also Mt 28:1; Lk 24:10), John only mentions one: Mary Magdalene. We should be open to the possibility that John is well aware that there were other women present (and may have even known that his readers were also aware), but he wanted to draw attention to Mary Magdalene. Furthermore, as we read John more carefully, we learn that John is aware at there are other(s) with her. He records that Mary said, “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (Jn 20:2).
2. Why should we be glad that the differences are here?
It is ok to be confused about the issue. But we shouldn’t over look the reasons to give thanks that these questions exist in the first place. There are reasons why we should be thankful that there is not just one, thorough resurrection narrative. And there are reasons why we should be thankful that each of the four narratives we have are not obviously complementary on the surface (even if we readily affirm that they are ultimately not contradictory). Here are a few reasons:
- The differences between the narratives give us a multi-faceted viewpoint on the resurrection. There is a reason why we do not have only one account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus: it takes four different accounts to express the vast significance of these events. Who Jesus is and what he came to do cannot be summarized in one narrative. The four accounts give us four different windows through which to look at the same person. With each telling, we see Jesus from new angles and learn about various aspects of the gospel. The gospel is like a diamond; each time we turn to the next account in the New Testament, we turn the diamond and new facets shine forth. Viewing the four gospels as four different ‘portraits’ is another helpful analogy that John Piper explains here.
- The differences between the narratives serves as evidence that they are written by eyewitnesses. Leon Morris writes, “The differences between the Gospels amount to no more than a demonstration that in them we have the spontaneous evidence of witnesses, not the stereotyped repetition of an official story” (Morris, John, 731). In other words, it is actually significant that the gospels give their different perspectives in a way that seems difficult to reconcile with each other. The fact that we read Matthew and John together and conclude, “now wait a minute, I’m not sure this all fits smoothly together,” can actually strengthen our confidence in the truthfulness of what they each say rather than undermine it. When two people are interviewed at a crash site, their stories are not identical. Although we may wonder at first how their accounts square with one another, one thing we know is true: they have not gotten together to deceive everyone. It is the nature of eyewitness reports to have differences. We might question four witness of a crime scene who parrot the same story without variation.
- The differences between the narratives serves to stimulate thought. I’m greatly helped by Matt Perman on this one. He writes. “If two things really contradict one another, they cannot both be true. But tension and the initial appearance of contradiction are something else altogether. They cause us to think harder about how the two truths fit together. They cause us to probe more deeply and come to an even greater understanding. Which is why crying out “contradiction” when we see tension in the Bible is lazy and superficial. It leaves us with uncreative level one thinking, rather than bringing us deeper into a fuller understanding of the truth…apparent contradictions as opportunities for learning rather than opportunities for sitting in judgment on the text.”
My hope is that this serves as a start as you head into further detailed study on these questions. Feel free to shoot specific questions my way – whether in the comments or email directly. I’d also love your help on all of this. Please send your thoughts and recommended resources.