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Discrepancies in the Resurrection Narratives

I’ve been having a great time with my undergraduate course this semester, “Introduction to the New Testament.” It has 240 students in it. I lecture twice a week, for 50 minutes at a shot; then for their third class period each student has to meet in a recitation group of 20 students, each one led in discussion by one of my graduate teachings assistants (four TA’s altogether; each one has three recitations). I meet with TA’s for an hour each week to talk about what we want to have happen in the recitations that Friday. The students taking the class, as I’ve pointed out before, have to do a two-page “position paper” each time in preparation for recitation.

So far I think *most* (not all!) students are enjoying the course. A lot of them are finding it challenging – not so much because of its inherent difficulty as because of the perspectives being put forth in the readings and the lectures. We have spent a *lot* of time on the differences among the Gospels, and at this stage, they all are pretty much getting the point.

The point is not simply that there are differences/discrepancies/contradictions in the New Testament (so that they can tell their roommate or parents: “Hey, the Bible is just *full* of contradictions!”). The point is that the discrepancies can show us what the Gospels really are and how they can be interpreted. More on that later. The first step to getting students to see the significance of the discrepancies is to get them to realize that there *are* discrepancies. I have found that I can tell them that there are, and point them out to them, until I’m blue in the face, and they may never buy it. So the best way to get them to see them is for them to discover the discrepancies for themselves.

A couple of our assignments are geared toward that end. A couple of weeks ago, for their position papers, they had to do a detailed comparison of Matthew, Mark, and Luke in their accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. We didn’t tell the students what, exactly, to look for. They were told simply to observe carefully what Matthew said, what Mark said, and what Luke said, and make lists of the similarities and differences.

 

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Similarities and Differences: The Synoptic Problem
Final Bit of The Introduction to After the New Testament

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    J.J.  February 10, 2014

    Since you brought it up, what’s your take on why Luke 24 says Jesus ascended on the day of the empty tomb and Acts 1 says 40 days later? Assuming the same author, why the apparent uncorrected discrepancy?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 11, 2014

      There’s a significant textual variant in Luke 24. It may well have not had the ascension originally.

  2. Avatar
    fishician  February 10, 2014

    Matthew and Luke seem to disagree on both the birth of Jesus and then the resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps you could elaborate on the reasons for this.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 12, 2014

      They disagree with a lot between the two as well. The reason is simple: they each had a different understanding of Jesus they wanted to convey.

  3. Avatar
    drdavid600  February 11, 2014

    The most challenging contradictions I faced reading the Bible weren’t from subversives such as yourself, but from what jumped out at me directly and naturally, such as the different genealogies in Matthew and Luke. I’d have to process the differences myself to answer, “Is this really contradictory?” Then I’d go to books on apologetics and be baffled that the author thought he was explaining the problem away. “Really? That’s the best they can do?” Yes, it is. That’s enough for a partisan, to have the best defense of the Bible known to man. Yet it’s rarely enough to solve the problem.

    I’m glad I went through enough of that to be sure that the Bible was written by ordinary men, not God. I wish I understood better how people insist on the opposite.

  4. Avatar
    ktn3654  February 11, 2014

    This may be a bit tangential, but I was wondering if you could comment on a textual and/or translation point pertaining to Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in Matthew. The NRSV has Matt 28:17 as “When they saw him [Jesus], they worshipped him; but some doubted.” The KJV has “And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted.” All the Greek versions I’ve seen have the verse just as “kai idontes auton prosekunesan, hoi de edistasan.” Your Greek is obviously a lot better than mine, but to me that verse reads just as “And on seeing him they worshipped, but they doubted.” I.e., the implication is that they ALL doubted, not just some of them.

    What’s up with that? Are there textual variants in this verse? Or can “hoi” really be translated as “some of them” in some contexts? If my reading is correct, the upshot seems to be remarkably skeptical–even the apostles themselves weren’t sure they were seeing Jesus.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 12, 2014

      Hmm. Great point! I never noticed that. I think your translation is probably right (since the OI DE is not accompanied with a OI MEN).

  5. Avatar
    Mikail78  February 11, 2014

    It’s a hell of a whole lot easier and fun to understand and study the Bible when one finally gives up the dogma of it being inerrant. Trying to maintain the inerrancy of the Bible by desperately explaining away all the historical and scientific errors along with the various contradictions is a huge burden that is impossible to bear. Only the seriously deluded take on such a burden. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but I’m firmly convinced that anyone who believes that there is not one error in the Bible is truly delusional.

    Bart, you have said that the dogma/doctrine of Biblical inerrancy is a fairly new doctrine. How and when did this view become popular? Care to tell us how this view developed?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 12, 2014

      Ah, long story. Unfortunately, I’m not an expert. The books by George Marsden on American evangelicalism explain it, but I’m just a hack on modern religion.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 11, 2014

    Good and clear post. Keep going.

  7. Avatar
    doug  February 11, 2014

    I imagine that teaching this class may be a challenge when a student believes that the New Testament is God’s perfect, inerrant word and, therefore, can have no contradictions. As a teenager, I believed that. And I really wanted to believe that, because I thought I had to believe it if I was to be a good person. I read the Bible cover to cover and just glossed over anything that seemed contradictory – I had faith in God that somehow those verses were not really contradictory. In college, after I no longer believed in Biblical inerrancy, I argued with believers who would twist scripture around so it might somehow not be contradictory. So I’m guessing it’s a little tricky when you have a student who thinks you’re trying to “corrupt” their sacred beliefs.

  8. Avatar
    DaveRamsey  February 11, 2014

    Isn’t the larger problem the fact that Paul, in his defense of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians, written some 30 years(AD 40’s) before Mark (AD 70), doesn’t refer to the empty tomb narrative AT ALL? Why wouldn’t Paul at least acknowledge the empty tomb story to strengthen his argument? Was he not aware of the story? How could this be? Did he not deem it relevant to his arguement? That would be like a prosecuting attorney not admitting into evidence the DNA match, the signed confession and the murder weapon. Or, and this is perhaps the crux of the dilemma, had the story not yet been invented?

    This New Testament dilemma wasn’t presented to me in my undergraduate studies of Relgion at Wake Forest (Charles Talbert); rather, it was at Duke Divinity School, in a Theology of the NT class taught by Dan Via (who leaned heavily on Rudolph Bultmann) where I was first exposed to this problem. At first it rattled my heretofore conservative theological cage. It would, years later, upon continued study and reflection, represent the beginning of the end of my Chrstian faith and my ministerial career.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 12, 2014

      Yup, it’s a very BIG problem! Good for Dan Via!

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  February 12, 2014

        Just playing Devil’s Advocate: Isn’t it possible Paul had heard the story, but didn’t mention it because – given the sources he’d heard it from – he wasn’t sure it was true? (That would require the assumption that when he was briefly with Peter, he didn’t think to ask him; and Peter didn’t mention it because he thought all the early Christians knew about it and believed it.)

    • Avatar
      Elisabeth Strout  February 12, 2014

      Oh my… good point… to play devil’s advocate, are there any ways that COULD be explained away? Is that convincing evidence that the empty tomb stories *must* have been made up after Paul, or would he have had some crazy reason for not referencing them? (Or, “why didn’t God inspire him to use them?” :P)

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  February 14, 2014

        I don’t think the empty tomb stories were necessarily made up after Paul. But he hadn’t heard them. (Just like I haven’t heard a lot of things that you’ve heard)

  9. Avatar
    Kabir Mahe  February 12, 2014

    What can really be the conviction to explaining away an apparent contradiction when it clearly shows itself?

  10. Avatar
    charleshuff  September 27, 2014

    New member here, thank you so much for your work Professor. I’ve been a reader of your works ever since “Misquoting Jesus”.

    I’m writing a book now and quote your work a couple of times, its a great source if one is writing about religion as I am. My book presents the idea that Jesus was a “spiritual progression” one that moved man forward in an understanding of god, but an unfinished work at that.

    One of the things I talk about is the resurrection. I recall a story when I was in college studying biology, and my buddy kept asking me to church, so I finally went on Easter; when the minister gave his speech, he kept saying “they saw the same things, they said the same things about the resurrection because they all were there”. He almost made me a believer.

    I went home and fact checked, they were different of course. Luke 1 admits he saw nothing and wasn’t even an apostle as you point out in your books.

    Anyways, thanks for helping me understand the 1st century Christian movement, you have made a huge impact on my life…good luck in the future Professor.

    PS. Your next book needs to be about the OT, when I was researching my book you answered an e-mail, i found out it hard to imagine that the oldest surviving NT was older than the Greek Septuagint. I’m still ignorant of the subject, but learn more everyday. Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2014

      Well, this past year I wrote textbook on the entire Bible, OT and NT; and my book on suffering, God’s Problem, dealt with a number of OT texts. But I don’t see myself writing much more about it. It’s not my main field of expertise!

  11. Avatar
    richard  November 9, 2014

    dr ehrman

    the angel in matthew says to the women do not be afraid. then he says “come, see the place…”

    when matthew uses the word “come” does he mean that the women were told to follow the angel into the tomb?

    notice the man in the tomb, in mark, does not tell the women to follow him, rather he says , “see the place….” indicating that the bodies location of rest was right before the women’s eyes so there was no need for them to follow / move from 1 place to to another.

    if my understanding is correct, then doesn’t this prove that the women saw the angel come down and role away the stone, according to matthew?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 10, 2014

      Yes, unlike Mark, in Matthew the stone rolls away and an angel descends after the women arrive at the tomb, and they are invited to come into the tomb to see that Jesus is not there.

  12. Avatar
    Gary  May 2, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I was a life long Christian until one year ago, and only this week did I learn this:

    The only author in the Bible who mentions anything about guards being at the tomb, Matthew, says that the guards were not posted until the next day after Jesus body had been placed in the tomb, and, even though Joseph of Arimethea had rolled a great stone in front of the tomb, he had not sealed it. So, the tomb of Jesus was left unguarded and unsealed the entire first night, in the darkness, and probably part of the next day. That would provide ample time and ample opportunity for someone to have moved or stolen the body.

    So even if the biblical account of the “guards at the tomb” story is correct, the fact that there is a time period when the tomb was left unguarded, blows a hole in the Christian claim that a resurrection is the best explanation for the empty tomb and the disciples’ belief that Jesus had been resurrected. For instance, if grave robbers had taken the body, the Jews would say that the disciples took the body and the disciples would say that Jesus had fulfilled his prophecy and had risen from the dead.

    Have you addressed this issue in any of your books?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 2, 2015

      It looks like in Matt. 27:62 it is saying that the guard was posted in the evening right after he was buried (he was buried before Sundown. Remember: in Jewish reckoning, it was at Sundown that the next day begins. When the sun goes down is the day after Preparation, and that’s when they make the request.).

      • Avatar
        Gary  May 2, 2015

        Here is the full text:

        “The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard[t] of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.”[u] 66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.”

        I agree that that next day started at sundown, but wouldn’t that next day be the Sabbath, and, the Passover? Do you believe that devout Jews would have gone into Pilate’s residence to request guards to guard a tomb on the Passover?

        And even if the guards did come to the tomb that evening, not the next day (in daylight), wouldn’t it still be true that the tomb was unguarded and unsealed for some period of time? Even if the Sanhedrin showed up to Pilate’s door one minute after sunset, it would still take the guards time to get to the tomb. Even if someone only had ten minutes, that is enough time for a couple of grave robbers (or disciples, or Jesus’ family) to move the stone, grab the corpse, and dispose of it…all under the cover of darkness. Yes, one could say that the Sanhedrin left their own guards at the tomb until the Roman guards arrived, but then, what was the point in asking for Roman guards?

        Bottom line: Accepting Matthew’s account as historical, the tomb was not guarded and secured by Roman guards from the moment Joseph of Arimethea rolled the stone in front of the door to the discovery of it empty on Sunday. There was an opportunity for the body to have been stolen, and this is the most probable explanation for an empty tomb than that an ancient Canaanite god had raised a man from the dead. William Lane Craig’s principle argument for the historicity of the Resurrection has a big hole in it.

        • Avatar
          Gary  May 2, 2015

          One more question on the timing of this event:

          I am not a NT scholar but it seems odd to me for Matthew to have been describing Joseph of Arimethea’s activities of placing Jesus’ body in the tomb and rolling the stone in front of the door in the late afternoon, and then, instead of saying, “that evening, the Sanhedrin went before Pilate…” he says “and the next day they went before Pilate…”.

          Is that a typical pattern in Matthew or the NT for describing a sequence of events?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 4, 2015

            If the day begins at dark, then the next day is … dark. It’s just weird if you think the next day means what we mean by th enext day.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 4, 2015

          Yes, it would have been Sabbath. But it was the day *of* Passover. And no, I don’t think the request is historical.

          • Avatar
            Gary  May 5, 2015

            Ok. Got it.

            But would you agree that, due to the wording, it is POSSIBLE, that even if Matthew’s detail of guards at the tomb is historical, it is possible that there was a period of time, even if brief, that the tomb was not guarded?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 6, 2015

            Yes.

          • TWood
            TWood  October 21, 2016

            I tend to agree… but one thing that sticks out as a problem in my mind is Matthew’s statement that the story of the guards being paid off is “widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.” That seems to address a real tradition of his time. If that’s a real tradition, then it seems like guards being at the tomb was an even early tradition, and if that’s true, then it seems that Jesus’ prediction of his own resurrection is an even earlier tradition. This is an argument I’d expect to hear from those who believe Jesus did predict his resurrection and that guards were placed at his tomb. How’d you refute this?

          • Bart
            Bart  October 23, 2016

            After Christians began saying Jesus was raised from the dead and that his body was nowhere to be found, Jewish opposnents replied that Jesus’ followers had stolen the body. Christians replied that the Romans posted a guard. All of those rumors were floating around before Matthew wrote his account, some fifty-five years later.

          • TWood
            TWood  October 24, 2016

            Makes sense… so you’re saying the Jews did really say Jesus’ disciples stole the body. Doesn’t this support the idea that Jesus’ body was buried somewhere known (e.g. Joe of Ara.)? If his burial was unknown, wouldn’t they have better said that his body was thrown into the valley with the rest of the common criminals?

          • Bart
            Bart  October 24, 2016

            No, I don’t think so. The opponents were taking the Christians’ word for it that the tomb was empty, and they were explaining it.

      • Avatar
        zaheerskh  May 21, 2019

        Dr. Ehrman,
        I noticed that everyone keeps saying “Guards at the tomb” and i went through the Matthews 27 and at 65 Pilate answers “Take a guard,”
        and following that “So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard ”
        Am I understanding it wrong
        Were they were given a guard as in single soldier?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 21, 2019

          Yes, “guard” means “a group of guards” (see what happens later when “they” go to Pilate). The word is like “fish.” Sure are a lot of fish down there!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      Don’t know! You’ll need to tell us what you’re wondering about!

      • Avatar
        Diesel350  May 3, 2020

        Is it possible that Jesus met with His disciples both in Jerusalem and in Galilee, but at different times? Thus there is no contradiction or discrepency?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 4, 2020

          Yes, that would be one way to reconcile it. The problem is that it doesn’t work because of what the Gospels themselves say about the timing of the various appearances — but also by the fact that Luke is emphatic that the disciples never *do* leave Jerusalem while Jesus is around appearing to them. They never do go to Galilee. But in Matthew that’s precisely what they do.

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