The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 2) Understanding Differences Between the Accounts

THE CHALLENGE OF FOUR GOSPEL ACCOUNTS

 

Women-at-tomb

READ PART 1: The Significance of the Women Witnesses.

THE PROBLEM OF 4 ACCOUNTS

To get the most out of this short blog series, I suggest taking some time to read the 4 Gospel accounts of the women and the empty tomb:

  • Matthew 28:1-10
  • Mark 16:1-8
  • Luke 24:1-12
  • John 20:1-18

When we read the accounts of the women finding the empty tomb and the events that immediately follow (including the resurrection appearances of Jesus) we run into some major challenges: All four Gospels, at first glance, seem to have major differences!

For instance, in Matthew, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” go to the tomb. In Mark, Mary Magdalene, Mary (James’ mother), and Salmone go to the tomb. In Luke, Mary Magdalene, Mary (James’ mother), Joanna, and “other women” go. And in John, only Mary Magdalene is mentioned.

Further, in Matthew, it appears that an earthquake happens, an angel in a dazzling white robe rolls back the stone in front of the tomb’s entrance and sits on it as the Roman guards pass out from fear. Then, it seems, the angel speaks to the women from atop the stone about Jesus’ resurrection. 

Yet, in Luke, the women find the stone already rolled away from the tomb’s entrance when they arrive, and once they go inside, two angels in dazzling clothes announce Jesus’ resurrection. The women go and tell Jesus’ disciples.

In Mark, the women seemingly find only one angel in the open tomb, and the angel tells them to go tell Jesus’ disciples. Yet, the women flee in fear and say “nothing to anyone”!

And in John, it seems Mary Magdalene alone finds the stone rolled away from the tomb’s entrance and Jesus’ body missing. She runs to tell Peter and John. After Peter and John race to the empty tomb, they leave, and then Mary encounters two angels and the risen Jesus. She, then, goes and tells Jesus’ disciples.

As you undoubtedly see, all four of these share similar key details but have considerable differences. What are we to make of this, and can the differences be rectified? Do we have to accept that the Gospel writers got the “big” details correct, but got the “smaller” details wrong?

 

UNDERSTANDING THE GOSPELS AS ANCIENT BIOGRAPHY

First, we need to understand some basic characteristics of ancient historical writing. The Gospels reflect the style of ancient biographies. In short, these ancient biographies sometimes used literary devices that may seem a bit odd to us today.

This has been thoroughly documented by Michael Licona in Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography as well as elsewhere. What follows is my own simplified explanation and own phraseology, some of which differs from Licona. For a more in depth look at this, along with many more examples from the Gospels, see my earlier GFTM blog 7-part series: The Joy and Angst of Four Gospels.

Once we understand these ancient literary conventions (which, in truth, most are used by modern writers as well), the chain-of-events surrounding the empty tomb will fall into place. Understanding this will not just help here in understanding the differences between these passages, but will help any time you read parallel passages across the Gospels and notice differences.

 

1. Selective Details

First, writers must leave out much more than they include in a retelling of true events. All good writers are selective in what details they include, and they select those details for a specific purpose.

Keep in mind, a difference and a contradiction aren’t the same thing. Writers may select certain details to emphasize something while totally ignoring other details another writer may include. That’s not a contradiction. Things that contradict can’t both be true. So, when we’re looking at parallel passages, we have to ask ourselves: Can the differences all be true without contradiction?

 

2. Paraphrasing

Differences in dialogue between Gospels can be understood with two simple concepts.

First of all, the authors are likely not giving us the full dialogue but only selective sections.

Second of all, the dialogue — or at least parts of it — might be a paraphrase. Though modern Bibles have quotation marks around dialogue, quotation marks didn’t exist in ancient Greek. Also, keep in mind, Jesus likely taught primarily in Aramaic, but the Gospels were written in Greek. Thus, we don’t know if what is written is supposed to be a word-for-word representation or a paraphrase or a summary. 

Even in modern times, when telling a true story, people rarely repeat the dialogue verbatim. Instead, they sum up the dialogue by paraphrasing.

 

3. Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)

Next, think of a telescope. A telescope can be extended to its full length or it can be compressed to a much smaller size. Ancient historians sometimes give a longer account with more details, but sometimes they compress the account, cut out details, and tell it in abbreviated form. To understand this better, share about a true event with your friend and take a good five minutes or more to tell it. Afterwards, tell the same story again but in 30 seconds.

To illustrate telescoping (as well as some other literary concepts covered here) let me tell you about Paterson, New Jersey and mixed martial arts fighter Jon Jones. 

Established in 1792, Paterson, NJ is the first planned industrial city in the United States, thanks to Alexander Hamilton and a 77-foot waterfall called the Great Falls on the Passaic River. The Great Falls produced a lot of energy for running mills, making Paterson a major player during the Industrial Revolution. Not only was the city known for its cotton, wool, and (later) silk mills, but the first locomotives and the first Colt revolvers where manufactured there. I taught high school English for 16 years in downtown Paterson, a short walk from the Great Falls. It’s an interesting sight: A huge waterfall in the middle of one of the most urban areas of the United States. In 2011, the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park was established thanks to President Obama.

In 2011, I had been involved in martial arts for about as long as I had been teaching in Paterson when I heard the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) was coming to Newark, NJ. On March 19, 2011, Jon “Bones” Jones would fight Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for the light heavyweight belt. I bought my tickets and was anxiously awaiting fight night when these two very different parts of my world collided.

On the day of the fight, Jon Jones had visited the Great Falls. But the really exciting news was that he had stopped a thief from stealing a woman’s purse while there. I was at work when I heard this, barely a block away from where this happened, so I got on the internet as soon as I could to find out more details. Evidently, Jon Jones had gone to the Great Falls to relax before his big fight and, instead, found himself using his martial arts skills to take down a bad guy not unlike a comic book hero.

So, here’s how all this about Paterson, Jon Jones, and the Gospels intersect: As I read various online articles about the incident — some very short, some longer — it was interesting to see how different articles gave different details. Longer articles would fill in details that the shorter articles left out. The shorter articles took shortcuts in retelling the story. It wasn’t until after reading several different articles that I felt like I had a full picture of what happened.

For example, one article only mentioned that Jones stopped a thief who stole a woman’s purse, so in my head I was picturing a purse-snatching or mugging. But another article explained that the purse was grabbed through the window of a parked car. One article only stated that Jones chased down and physically stopped the thief, where another gave the detail that a double-leg takedown (a standard wrestling move) was involved.

This is similar to the differences we find between the four Gospels. Ancient writers write differently than we’re used to and we can’t expect them to write like modern newspaper reporters, but there are shared similarities. In their articles, modern reporters select the details they will or will not share; sometimes they include direct quotes and sometimes they paraphrase or summarize what someone said; they “telescope” — sometimes they retell the events in a longer format or they compress it all into a shorter telling.

Finally, they also use “Selective Representation.”

 

4. Selective Representation

Selective Representation is when an ancient writer only focuses on one person instead of everyone involved. At other times, the writer may focus on several people to represent the larger group. This explains why Matthew and Mark mention only one angel in the empty tomb, but Luke mentions two. Matthew and Mark appear to be only focusing on one, likely the one who spoke. Let me point out this isn’t a contradiction. It would be a contradiction if one of the writers claimed that there was only one angel in the tomb, which none of the writers do. 

Likewise, this explains why Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention different women with Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb and John only mentions Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is the most known of the women, so John only focuses on her. This may seem odd to us today to not mention the other women with her at all, but even modern writers do this. When I read the articles about Jon Jones stopping the purse thief, several writers only mentioned Jon Jones being involved. It wasn’t until I read other articles that I learned that Jon Jones’ trainers were also involved in chasing and stopping the thief! Thus, some of the articles focused only on the person with the big name, the most famous person involved — Jon Jones. Likewise, John’s Gospel only focuses on the “big name” of the women, the most “famous” person involved — Mary Magdalene. Again, let me point out that this isn’t a contradiction. For it to be a contradiction, John would have had to written that only Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty.

 

5. Selective Chronology

Of these literary conventions used by ancient authors, this may be the one that is most odd to us today. Ancient writers, even when retelling true events, didn’t feel as compelled as us today to place things in chronological, linear fashion. Ancient writers used more flexibility in narrative sequence than modern writers. In other words, they were okay with moving things around to emphasize a point. Sometimes they organized things in topical or thematic groups. The overall structure of the story remains the same, but the smaller units within the bigger framework may be moved around. 

For example, in Matthew 13 we find several parables of Jesus with similar messages. Did Jesus say all of these parables one-after-another or did Matthew lump these parables with similar themes together? Either option is possible. 

Another example: When did Jesus drive the merchants out of the Temple? John has it happening at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but the other three Gospels has him doing it at the end. One possible explanation is that John is using Selective Chronology to emphasize Jesus’ zeal at the beginning of his Gospel. (Of course, another simple explanation is that Jesus drove out the merchants twice — once towards the beginning and once towards the ending of his ministry.) 

To sum up, when reading ancient biographies like the Gospels, we find:

  • Selective Details
  • Paraphrasing
  • Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)
  • Selective Representation
  • Selective Chronology

 

Next, armed with this understanding of ancient biographical writing conventions, we’ll place the events surrounding the women and the empty tomb in chronological order.

NEXT: The third (and final) article in this series: Harmonizing the empty tomb accounts.

READ PART 1: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses.

READ Part 1 of The Joy and Angst of Four Gospels.

The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE WOMEN WITNESSES 

Women-at-tomb

After Jesus’ arrest, Peter — one of Jesus closest disciples — denied association with Jesus three times and the rest of the remaining 12 “inner circle” disciples ran off, abandoning Jesus (Mark 14:50). Even if we were to take a skeptical stance when reading the Gospels, this doesn’t seem like an invented detail by the early church since it certainly doesn’t make the disciples look good; these same men would be leading the early church, especially Peter. It was the woman who stayed by Jesus to watch him die on the cross (along with John)(Matthew 27:55; Luke 23:49; John 19:25-27), and it was the women to first see him alive afterwards.

The New Testament Gospels report that at least five women, several who are named, including Mary Magdalene, were the first to find Jesus’ tomb empty, and Jesus’ first post-crucifixion appearances were to Mary Magdalene and (at least some of) these other women (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-18). Considering that in first-century Israel women’s testimony wasn’t taken seriously, even in a court of law, this is an interesting detail.

The Talmud, a written commentary on the Jewish oral law, gives us insight into attitudes towards women in first-century Israel when it puts the testimony of women as witnesses on the same level as gamblers (dice-players and pigeon-racers, to be exact) and slaves [1]. A well-known morning prayer for Jewish men thanks God that “You have not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” With this, first-century Jewish historian Josephus writes:

“But let not a single witness be credited; but three, or two at the least; and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” (Antiquities of the Jews 4.8.15)

In fact, when the women share that they witnessed Jesus alive, the disciples don’t take them seriously (Luke 24:10-11) — yet another detail not likely to be invented; it certainly makes the future leaders of the church look clueless. Even 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, an important early confession of the church, mentions numerous eyewitnesses of the resurrection by name but leaves out naming any women. (We can assume the women were numbered with the 500 unnamed witnesses it mentions.)

So, the big question is: Why would all four Gospel writers claim that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection when no one in their culture would take the testimony of women seriously? Even in the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus mocked Christianity as a religion based on the testimony of Mary Magdalene, a “half-frantic woman.” [2]

Therefore, it seems unlikely the Gospel writers would invent this detail if they were only looking to convince people of Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, this detail points towards the opposite: The Gospel writers were more concerned with reporting what they believed to be true than creating a story of mass appeal. 

The combination of the embarrassing details of Peter’s denial and the male disciples’ abandonment of Jesus; the absurdity of worshipping a crucified God-man to first-century Jews and Romans (which I wrote about before); and the first witnesses of the resurrection being women all are details very unlikely to be invented if the Gospels were mere fictions, especially if they were invented to win converts to a new religion. 

 

THE CHALLENGE OF FOUR GOSPEL ACCOUNTS

As I pointed out before, when we read the retelling of the same event in more than one Gospel, sometimes they’re told differently and this often causes confusion. (Let me point out, this is often the case when reading four independent accounts of any incident.) For instance, the two birth narratives in Matthew and Luke share key details but are also extremely different, almost seeming like two different stories. But when we read them carefully, we can figure out how they fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Much of Matthew’s account — including the visit of the magi and the flight to Egypt — occur later than many of the events recorded in Luke’s account, perhaps months or even a year or two after Jesus’ birth.

When we read the accounts of the women finding the empty tomb and the events that immediately follow (including the resurrection appearances of Jesus) we run into the same challenge but worse. All four Gospels, at first glance, seem to have major differences!

Take some time to read the 4 Gospel accounts of the women and the empty tomb:

  • Matthew 28:1-10
  • Mark 16:1-8
  • Luke 24:1-12
  • John 20:1-18

Next article, we’ll tackle how to understand these differences.

NEXT: Differences vs. Contradictions & the Gospels as Ancient Biographic Literature

[1] Rosh Hashannah 1.8

[2] Quoted by Origen in Against Celsus.

A Short Message for Resurrection Sunday: Blind Faith or Trust?

 Jesus_tomb

“Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last.” (Luke 23:46)

God the Son has existed for eternity in perfect fellowship with God the Father. When God the Son became Jesus, though he was both God and man, he voluntarily gave up his rights as God and submitted wholly to the will of the Father.

Philippians 2:6-8 tells us Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant… he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

When Jesus took on himself the sins of the world and willingly endured the utter terror of crucifixion, he demonstrated perfect faith in God the Father.

As a former self-professed atheist, I can tell you, skeptics don’t like the word faith. They portray faith as “blind faith” — as belief without evidence. But a more accurate understanding of Christian faith is found in the word “trust.” As your time with Christ grows, so will your trust of him. As you pray, grow more familiar with His Scripture and live according to it, and partake in His church, your trust will strengthen. Nonbelievers can’t understand Christian faith because they have never walked with Christ.

When the Holy Spirit woke me out of the murkiness of atheism years ago, I did take a leap of faith. Now, after nine years of walking with Christ, when I don’t know what the future holds, I can say with confidence, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”

Faith is not belief without evidence, but belief because of prior evidence.

All praise to the God who was crucified, who rose from the tomb three days later, defeating death and sin. All praise to the God who completed the work for our salvation, and just as He freely offered his life for our sins, now offers us His free gift of salvation – a free gift we can accept or reject, but a free gift nonetheless – free for us but not for him.

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