Monday, March 29, 2010

Confusion About Easter

Updated on April 5, 2015.
What happened on the day of Christ's resurrection? My challenge to every Christian is to study and determine for yourself exactly what happened on the day that Christianity's most important doctrine was born.
Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15:14-15, "And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not."
I challenge you to read the account of the Easter story in each of the four Gospels. Begin at Easter morning and read to the end of each book: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21. You may also want to read Acts 1:3-12 and I Corinthians 15:3-8. Then, carefully arrange every detail from these separate accounts into a roughly chronological order of the events between the resurrection and the ascension. Use any method that works for you to create a plausible account of all of the facts presented in the Bible and do your best to avoid omitting any single biblical detail. I have shared below a few of the challenges I found when trying to do this for myself.

Tomb stone replica visited by tourists in Jerusalem
Tomb stone in Jerusalem
All four gospels agree that on the third day, after Jesus' crucifixion and burial, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb where Jesus was buried and found it empty. But on virtually every other detail, the Gospels disagree. I encourage careful study of the Biblical accounts by all who are interested in this topic. The best way to compare the biblical accounts it to read the verses in chronological order and to compare them in parallel.

One simple comparison is offered by the JesusWalk Bible Study Series, but the best method is to read the accounts for yourself in each of the four Gospels. Make four columns on a sheet of notebook paper, and take notes as you read. You might be amazed how much the four accounts of the story vary and contradict. Below, I highlight some of the most confusing contradictions by asking a few simple questions and then providing answers from the four Gospels.

Who went to visit Jesus' tomb?

Mattew 28:1Mark 16:1Luke 23:5John 20:1
Mary and another MaryMary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and SalmoneThe women who had come with Jesus from GalileeMary alone

Had the stone already been rolled away from the tomb?

Matthew 28:2Mark 16:4LukeJohn
The stone was rolled away from the tomb by an angel while the women where there.The stone was already rolled away when they arrived.No stone mentioned.No stone mentioned.

Whom did the women see when hey arrived at the empty tomb?

Matthew 28:5Mark 16:5Luke 24:4John
An angel.A young man.Two men.No mention of anybody besides Mary.

What did the women say about what they saw?

Matthew 28:8Mark 16:8
They told the disciples what they saw and heard.They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

If the women tell their account of the visit to the tomb, who did they tell?

Matthew 28:8 Luke 24:8John 20:2
They told only the eleven disciples.They told the eleven disciples and other people.They told Simon Peter and another unnamed disciple.

What do Jesus' disciples do when the women tell them about Jesus' resurrection?

Matthew 20:9Luke 24:11John 20:3
They have no response because Jesus immediately appears to them.The disciples think the story is a lie.The disciples go to the tomb to look for themselves.

These are just a few examples of the contradictions and irreconcilable differences in the Bible. The death and resurrection of Jesus is a critical part of the Christian faith, and yet, the four Gospels don't agree on hardly any of the details of these events. The authors of the Bible can't all be right, because their accounts of Christ's life and death conflict. I am not trying to suggest that we should ignore the entire Bible because of a few inconsistencies in some of the stories. What I am trying to suggest is that the modern versions of the Bible are not infallible or inerrant. Perhaps the true meanings of the scriptures where lost as scribes copied the texts and made corrections, omissions or additions. We can be sure that what we have today is far from what was printed in the original manuscripts.

Tourists waiting to enter a cave in Jerusalem.
This should be a photo of a line of tourists waiting to enter a small cave
Please allow me to take a brief diversion to tell you about experiences I had in Israel. I have had the pleasure of taking two business trips to Israel and I took tours of Jerusalem during both trips. On my first visit I took a very short guided tour of the ancient City of Jerusalem. The guide on my first trip spoke as if everything he had to say was a matter of fact. I tend to get a bit skeptical when people portray an ancient story so confidently, and so at one point in the tour, I pulled the guide aside to ask him some questions privately away from the others in my tour. I asked my questions quietly and privately out of respect for those on my tour who where obviously very religious and probably wouldn't appreciate the subject matter of my questions.

They say Jesus was prepared here for burial.
A flat rock surface in Jerusalem with oil lamps hanging above it.
We where standing near a flat rectangular stone that was meant to resemble the stone where Christ's body was laid to be dressed with oil and prepared for burial. Our guide had explained that religious people come from all corners of the earth to kneel down, touch the stone, and touch the oil that once touched Christ's body. When I asked him how they perpetually replenish the supply of oil on the stone, he explained how oil lamps are hung over the stone and they slowly drip oil onto the surface of the stone. I also asked him several other questions about his stories, and on every topic, our guide acknowledged that he was only telling a modern version of a story and explaining things that may or may not have happened at the places we where visiting.

Prison cell in Jerusalem.
Rock surface a in a cave with two holes where feet could have been placed
This first tour included short visits to several highlights of Israel provided by a guide and a driver who took us from Haifa down through Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, through the West Bank to the Dead Sea, and then back to Haifa. I realized that this was far too much to see in one day and so I decided to spend an entire day touring the old city of Jerusalem on my next trip. On my second trip, I and several of my colleagues decided to hire one of the independent guides who wait near Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate waiting for tourists who enter there. Our independent guide showed us many different sites and explained many different versions of several stories. He seemed not to put any faith in any of the stories and he never showed any bias toward one story or another. He just presented the stories as best as he could and let us ask questions and influence where he would take us and what he told us about what we wanted to know.

I told the story of my two Israel tours as examples of two different approaches to the study of history and historical documents. These two approaches also apply to Biblical study. You can either treat the scriptures as inerrant and infallible historical records, or you can treat them each as one man's version of the story. As with my two guides in Jerusalem, each author of the Gospels was a fallible man writing down events from memory many years after the events occurred. Each author of the Gospels obviously had an agenda, and that agenda may have influenced their memory of events, or perhaps they even embellished the story a little to support the points they where trying to make.

The Gospels also include a few strange occurrences of misquotes and misunderstandings of Old Testament prophesy. A passage in Zechariah describes a scene that sounds like the New Testament story we now call Palm Sunday.

A Bible card from the early 1900s
This is a Bible card from the early 1900s that depicts Jesus on the colt
Zechariah 9:9
"Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey."
The Gospels have conflicting accounts of the events of Palm Sunday.
Matthew 21:7Mark 11:7 and Luke 19:35John 12:14
They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them.Jesus' disciples brought a colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, and He sat on it.Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it.
Matthew's account is clearly a misunderstanding of this Old Testament prophesy. So, I think it is pretty obvious that Matthew told the story of Palm Sunday by using the literal interpretation of Zechariah's prophesy and telling a story that Christ rode on both a donkey AND a colt. The other Gospels portray the story using the obvious interpretation that there was only one animal and that animal was a colt. This begs the question, did the Palm Sunday event ever actually occur? Why would Matthew make such an obvious mistake? Or of course the other obvious conclusion is that a well-meaning scribe changed the story because he felt that Matthew's story was not an exact fulfillment of of the Old Testament prophesy.

You also have to take into account that none of the authors of the Biblical texts intended for their works to be compiled into a giant volume and presented together as one Bible for modern Christians to study. If the authors had known, perhaps they would have consulted with each other and collaborated their stories more carefully with the other authors.

The errors and conflicts in the resurrection story are not just troubling because they indicate the fallibility of the authors and scribes of the Bible. The errors and conflicts are also very troubling because the miraculous story of the resurrection is portrayed by Christians as proof that Jesus is the Son of God and his life events fulfill Old Testament prophesy. Here are just a few passages from Scripture that further demonstrate this point.

Acts 2:22-24
"Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him."

This passage continues by quoting the prophesies of David in the old testament and then making the case that David predicted Christ's resurrection.
Acts 2:31-32
"Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact."

Jesus' death and resurrection is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy and is used repeatedly as proof that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. Paul was one of the early Christians who preached the story of Christ's life and death and encouraged gentiles to believe in God.
Rom. 1:1-6
"Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him and for his name's sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ."

As an open-minded student of the Bible, I cannot rule out the possibility that there may indeed be many passages that are the word of God written by men who where inspired directly by God to write His words into the scriptures. But I also have to conclude that these scriptures where passed down through the generations, written and re-written by scribes, and we can't know how much of the modern Bible is different from the events recorded therein. The present day versions of the scriptures in the modern Bible are full of contradictions and errors. The Bible makes better sense if you acknowledge its inconsistencies instead of blindly insisting that there aren't any, even when they are staring you in the face. You must carefully study the scriptures, consider them thoughtfully, question some of the assumptions and conclusions, and cautiously consider how the scriptures affect your faith and your life choices.

I think I have made the point I intended to make so I will conclude this portion of my post. For those who are interested in further reading on these topics, please consider reading the books by Bart Ehrman. I especially recommend his book called Jesus Interrupted.

You may also enjoy listening to Bart Ehrman's interview on an NPR program called Fresh Air

For those who are particularly interested in the topic of Apologetics, please continue reading. In modern times, apologists are authors, writers, editors or academic journals, and leaders known for defending the points in arguments, conflicts or positions that receive great popular scrutinies and/or are minority views. This portion of my blog post focuses specifically on Biblical Apologetics. Jesus himself was an apologist.

Jesus taught many things about the inspiration of the Old Testament:
(1) Its entirety; the whole of the Bible is inspired: In Matthew 4:4, Jesus responded to Satan’s temptation by affirming verbal plenary inspiration when He said, man is to live by every word (plenary) that proceeds out of the mouth of God (inspiration). In Matthew 5:17-18, Christ promised that the entire Old Testament, the Law and the Prophets, would be fulfilled, not abolished. In fact, He declared that not even the smallest Hebrew letter, the yodh, which looks like an apostrophe (‘), or stroke of a letter, a small distinguishing extension or protrusion of several Hebrews letters would pass away until all is fulfilled. Christ’s point is that it is all inspired and true and will be fulfilled.
(2) Its historical accuracy: Jesus spoke of the Old Testament in terms of actual history. Adam and Eve were two human beings, created by God in the beginning, who lived and acted in certain ways (Matt. 19:3-5; Mark 10:6-8). He spoke of Jonah and his experience in the belly of the great fish as an historical event (Matt. 12:40). He also verified the events of the flood in Noah’s day along with the ark (Matt. 24:38-39; Luke 17:26-27). He verified God’s destruction of Sodom and the story of Lot and his wife (Matt. 10:15; Luke 17:28-29). These are only a few illustrations; many others exist.
(3) Its reliability: Because it is God’s word, the Scripture must be fulfilled (Matt. 26:54).
(4) Its sufficiency: It is sufficient to witness to the truth of God and His salvation (Luke 16:31).
(5) Its indestructibility: Heaven and earth will not pass away until it is all fulfilled. Nothing can stop its fulfillment (Matt. 5:17-18).
(6) Its unity: The whole of the Bible speaks and witnesses to the person and work of Christ (Luke 24:27, 44).
(7) Its inerrancy: Men are often in error, but the Bible is not; it is truth (Matt. 22:29; John 17:17).
(8) Its infallibility: The Bible cannot be broken, it always stands the test (John 10:35).

E. J. Young, in "Thy Word Is Truth", his classic work on the inspiration of the Bible, gives a good definition of inerrancy: “By this word we mean that the Scriptures possess the quality of freedom from error. They are exempt from the liability to mistake, incapable of error. In all their teachings they are in perfect accord with the truth.

Stephen T. Davis, in his book titled "The Debate about the Bible" wrote, “The Bible is infallible, as I define that term, but not inerrant. That is, there are historical and scientific errors in the Bible, but I have found none on matters of faith and practice.”

A study of what Jesus said about the Old Testament of the Bible reveals not only His belief in its verbal, plenary inspiration, but that He also believed it was inerrant. In fact, the greatest testimony to the authenticity of the Bible as God’s inspired and inerrant Word is the Lord Jesus. Why is Jesus' testimony so important? Because God authenticated and proved Him to be His own divine Son by the resurrection.

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