RISEN, Part 2: Inconsistent Evidence
Visit any atheist blog or YouTube channel this week, and you are sure to find some reference to the notorious inconsistencies in the gospel accounts of the resurrection. For example, in Mark’s account it says that Mary, Mary, and Salome went to the tomb, in Matthew it just mentions the two Mary’s, in Luke it’s Mary, Mary, and Joanna, and in John it seems to only be Mary Magdalene. In Mark the stone has just been rolled away, but in Matthew there is an angel sitting on top of it. In Mark there is only one angel in the tomb, but in Luke there are two.
So critics point to these contradictions as a way of discrediting the validity of the resurrection accounts. It should be said that Biblical scholars have gone to great lengths to show that these aren’t as contradictory as they may seem, but that aside, historically speaking we should not be troubled by inconsistencies, because they actually go a long way in proving that something extraordinary took place. Ironically, the very thing about the gospels that people assume discredits the resurrection turns out to be one of the most historically compelling arguments for the resurrection.
Minor inconsistencies are actually something historians are looking for in determining the reliability of multiple sources. If differing accounts describe an extraordinary event with exact same details, it tends to indicate a story that has been carefully fabricated or simply reproduced and copied. But if multiple witnesses are describing the same event, particularly an extraordinary event, then surface discrepancies are to be expected. In this way, small inconsistencies authenticate the nature of witness testimony.
N.T. Wright likes to use the example of a famous philosophy debate at Cambridge University between Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The debate has turned into quite the legend, because it was very heated, and Wittgenstein actually started wielding a fireplace poker and eventually stormed out after only ten minutes of debate. But what’s interesting about the story is that as it has been retold by the many eye-witnesses, the details have become just as contested as the debate itself. Some say that Wittgenstein was actually trying to hit Popper with the poker, some say he was just waving it around, some say he threw the poker down and then stormed out, and some say he stormed out with the poker. In fact, the retelling has become such a mystery that there was actually a documentary made exploring all these differing accounts of the debate. But despite multiple witnesses telling the story from their own perspective, there is no debate whatsoever that Popper and Wittgenstein were in a fierce argument, Wittgenstein was waving a poker in some way, and Wittgenstein eventually stormed out of the room.
And this is what you will always find when you talk to multiple witnesses about any significant event: the bulk of the story is the same, and the surface details tend to be experientially unique.
I was listening to a podcast recently where a detective was explaining that if he interviews multiple people about a crime and he is getting the exact same story down to the smallest details, then he immediately thinks the story has been made up and rehearsed. Instead, what he is looking for are accounts that line up in the most significant ways, but also include personal differences. And this is exactly what we see in the gospels.
If the disciples made the resurrection up in an attempt to fool the world, then what we should expect is the exact same story told in the exact same way. But the gospel accounts actually feel like authentic human experience and witness to an extraordinary event. Our doctrine of Biblical inspiration is not that the writers go into a trance and dictate what the Holy Spirit says. Instead, we believe God ordained the witnesses, experiences, personalities, circumstances, and all these things that converge together to give us authentic witness.
And nowhere does this come out more than in the resurrection accounts—they feel authentic because they are authentic.
The surface inconsistencies only verify the central constant, the remarkable fact that Jesus actually rose from the dead.