For Christians, Easter is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are different accounts of this story in the Bible, and these accounts sometimes contradict each other. Gung-ho skeptics sometimes claim that anything smelling like a contradiction is a contradiction, and die-hard inerrantists insist that all the apparent contradictions can be explained away. This essay is an attempt to sift the genuine and inescapable contradictions from what may be no more than apparent contradictions. I have listed here what seem to be contradictions, and I have explained away those that I can. I have also drawn attention to genuine contradictions between the Easter accounts. The Bible really has contradictions in it, and this essay is intended to show that.
I originally wrote this in 1999 for my now defunct Freethought Crossroads website. It was originally inspired by Edward Brunelle’s essay Christian Bible Lies, and I added some apparent contradictions mentioned by Dan Barker in An Easter Challenge For Christians.
When was the resurrection discovered?
Matthew: "it was almost daybreak on Sunday" (28:1)
Mark: “Very early on Sunday morning, just as the sun was coming up” (16:2)
Luke: “Very early on Sunday morning” (24:1)
John: “Sunday morning while it was still dark” (20:1)
There might be a contradiction between Mark and John. But I won’t press this one.
Who went to the tomb on Sunday morning?
Matthew: "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary" (28:1)
Mark: “Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James” (16:1)
Luke: “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the Mother of James, and some other women” (24:9-10)
John: “Mary Magdalene” (20:1)
Biblical apologists may claim that Mary Magdalene, Salome, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, the other Mary, and other women may have all gone to the tomb Sunday morning and that none of the Gospels mentioned everyone who was there. So I won’t insist that there is a contradiction here.
Why did they/she go to the tomb?
Matthew: doesn’t say
Mark: doesn’t say
Luke: doesn’t say
John: doesn’t say
I mention this only because Dan Barker thinks that the Gospels contradict each other on this matter. According to Barker, Matthew says they went to see the tomb, as though they hadn’t already seen it, Mark and Luke say they had already seen the tomb and went to bring spices, and John says the body had already been spiced before they arrived. Barker is reading more into the accounts than they say. None of the accounts mention their purpose. Matthew just says they went to see the tomb. When you go to see something, it doesn’t mean you haven’t seen it before. In fact, we regularly use the expression without any implication that we have never before seen what we are on our way to see. So Mark and Luke do not contradict Matthew by saying that the women had already seen the tomb. Furthermore, John does not contradict Mark and Luke by saying that the body was already spiced. You can add spices to something that already has spices in it.
Who revealed to Mary Magdalene that Jesus had risen?
Matthew: "the Lord’s angel" (28:2-5)
Mark: “a young man in a white robe” (16:5-7)
Luke: “two men in shining white clothes” (24:4-7)
John: “two angels” (20:11-13)
Apologists may claim that the two men mentioned by Luke were angels, that the man mentioned by Mark was an angel, and that Matthew and Mark only mentioned the one who spoke.
Where was Mary Magdalene when she first saw the messenger(s) who revealed that Jesus had risen? Where were the messenger(s)?
Matthew: Both were outside the tomb. (28:2)
Mark: Both were inside the tomb. (16:5);
Luke: Both were inside the tomb. (24:2-4)
John: Mary was outside the tomb, but the messengers were inside. (20:11-12)
Here is a genuine contradiction. In Matthew, Mary saw the angel roll away the stone. So she could not have been inside the tomb when she first saw him. In Mark and Luke, the stone had already been rolled away, and she went inside the tomb before seeing anyone. Luke makes this especially clear. Although Mark leaves the possibility that Mary saw the man before entering the tomb, Luke says that two men suddenly stood beside the women after they had entered the tomb. So there is definitely a contradiction between Matthew and Luke on this point. Furthermore, John says that Mary was standing outside the tomb when she saw two men standing inside. This contradicts both Luke and Matthew.
When was the stone rolled away from the tomb’s entrance?
Matthew: Right after the women arrived at the tomb (28:1-3)
Mark: Before the women arrived (16:3-4)
Luke: Before the women arrived (24:2-4)
John: Before Mary arrived (20:1)
The account in Matthew contradicts the other three Gospels on this point. In Matthew, an angel rolls away the stone before Mary’s eyes. In the other three, Mary discovers to her surprise that the stone has already been rolled away.
Did Mary tell anyone what happened? If so, when?
Matthew: "The women … hurried from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples." (28:8)
Mark: “They were too afraid to tell anyone what had happened.” (16:8) Mary “left and told his friends, who were crying and mourning.” (16:10) or “The women quickly told Peter and his friends what had happened.” (16:9-10)
Luke: “When they returned [from the tomb], they told the eleven apostles and the others what had happened.” (24:9-10)
John: “She ran to Simon Peter and to Jesus’ favorite disciple and said, ‘They have taken the Lord from the tomb! We don’t know where they have put him.'” (20:2) “Mary Magdalene then went and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord. She also told them what he had said to her.” (20:18)
On the matter of whether Mary told anyone, there is no contradiction. Mark says she was too afraid to tell anyone what happened. There are two endings to Mark. In one, Jesus appears to her and she tells the disciples what happened. Presumably, his appearance allayed her fears, so that she was no longer too afraid to tell them what had happened. In the other ending to Mark, the women quickly tell the disciples what had happened. The other Gospels all agree that Mary told the disciples what happened.
On the matter of when she told them, there does seem to be a contradiction. Matthew states Mary’s intention to tell the disciples, but it doesn’t get to the part where she meets them. Matthew suggests that she told them the same day, but it doesn’t really say when. The two endings to Mark disagree with each other, but we may assume that only one is original. So a contradiction between these is not a genuine Biblical contradiction. In one ending, Mary doesn’t tell the disciples anything until Jesus appears to her. In the other, Mary quickly tells them what happened at the tomb, and this comes immediately after Mark says she was too afraid to tell anyone. So there seems to be a contradiction within Mark between this ending and the verse that immediately precedes it.
Luke agrees with the second ending of Mark that Mary told the disciples immediately after leaving the tomb. So it contradicts Mark 16:8. It also seems to contradict the first ending to Mark. But this ending is vague on the date. It could be Easter day or a week later when Mary told the disciples.
John contradicts the other Gospels by asserting that Mary told Peter and the favorite disciple (John?) before she told the other disciples. But an apologist may assert that the favorite disciple wrote this Gospel and so was privy to details the other Gospel writers didn’t know. So I won’t press this one.
When did Mary learn that Jesus had risen?
Matthew: Right after she arrived at the tomb (28:1-7)
Mark: Right after she arrived at the tomb (16:1-7)
Luke: Right after she arrived at the tomb (24:1-7)
John: After she ran from the tomb and came back a second time (20:2-13)
The account in John contradicts the other three Gospels on this point. In the other three, Mary goes to the tomb and immediately meets an angel, a man, or two men who tell her that Jesus has risen. But in John she runs away, tells Peter that the tomb is empty, and comes back with him. It is only after she is back a second time that she is told that Jesus has risen.
In what state of mind does Mary first leave the tomb?
Matthew: “frightened yet very happy” (28:8)
Mark: “confused and shaking all over” (16:8)
Luke: doesn’t say
John: doesn’t say
Matthew and Mark give different descriptions, but they don’t necessarily preclude one another. However, it does seem unlikely that she would be both happy and confused. Either she is happy because she believes that Jesus has risen, or she is confused because she doesn’t know what to make of the situation. In Matthew, she has grounds for certainty, because she witnesses an earthquake, followed by an angel who comes down from Heaven and rolls away the stone before her very eyes. But in Mark, she merely finds a man inside the tomb. So in Mark it makes sense that she is confused, and in Matthew it does not. So there is probably a contradiction here.
When and where does Mary meet the risen Jesus?
Matthew: On her way from the tomb to meet the disciples (28:8-9)
Mark: “Very early on the first day of the week” (16:9)
Luke: Luke doesn’t record this event
John: After she returned to the tomb with Peter (20:6-14)
Mark is ambiguous enough to be consistent with the accounts given by Matthew and John. However, there is a genuine contradiction between Matthew and John. In Matthew, Mary meets up with Jesus before she meets up with any of the disciples, which includes Peter. In John, she meets up with Peter before she meets the risen Jesus. So Matthew has her meet Jesus before Peter, and John has her meet Peter before Jesus.
What was the reaction of the disciples upon hearing from Mary that Jesus had risen?
Matthew: doesn’t say
Mark: disbelief (16:10-11)
Luke: disbelief (24:9-11)
John: doesn’t say
No contradiction here. But it is worth noting that none of the disciples expected Jesus to rise from the dead.
Where did the risen Jesus meet the disciples?
Matthew: "Jesus’ eleven disciples went to a mountain in Galilee, where Jesus had told them to meet him." (28:16)
Mark: Jesus first met two disciples as they were on their way out of the city [presumably Jerusalem]. (16:12) He later appeared to all eleven disciples as they were eating. (16:14) It is suggested, though not stated directly, that the two disciples were not of the eleven disciples.
Luke: Jesus first met with two disciples, Cleopas and another, who were on their way to Emmaus Easter day. He walked with them to Emmaus and ate with them there. They then returned to Jerusalem to tell the eleven disciples. They learned that Jesus had also appeared to Peter, though this event is not recorded in Luke. Jesus then appeared to the eleven as they were talking about the day’s events. (24:13-37)
John: On Easter day, “the disciples were afraid of the Jewish leaders” and “locked themselves in a room. Suddenly, Jesus appeared in the middle of the group.” (20:19) Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples at the time, and Jesus met him a week later. (20:24-29)
I will concede to the apologist that Matthew does not describe the first meeting between the risen Jesus and the twelve apostles. So I will not press for a contradiction between Matthew and the other Gospels. The others make it clear that they are describing the first meeting between the risen Jesus and his apostles. In Mark, he scolds them for not believing those who had told them he was raised to life. In Luke, they were frightened and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost. In John, they became very happy when they saw him, and he showed them his hands and his side.
To some degree, these accounts can be reconciled. The apostles locked themselves in a room in Jerusalam. Cleopas and the other disciple left Jerusalem for Emmaus and then returned to Jerusalem. The apostles let them in the locked room when they returned. They told the eleven what had happened. They all ate together and talked about what they were told. Jesus then appeared among them.
However, John’s account still contradicts the accounts in Luke and Mark. In Luke and Mark, Jesus appears before all eleven apostles at once. In John, he appears before all eleven apostles except Thomas.
What was the disciples’ reaction to the risen Jesus?
Matthew: "They saw and worshiped him, but some of them doubted" (28:17)
Mark: doesn’t say
Luke: fear and terror that he was a ghost (24:37)
John: happiness (20:20)
I won’t press for a contradiction here. Perhaps they were terrified at first and then became happy when they realized that Jesus had risen.
Could the risen Jesus be touched?
Matthew: "They [the women] went near him, held onto his feet, and worshiped him." (28:9)
Mark: doesn’t say
Luke: doesn’t say
John: “Jesus told her [Mary Magdalene], ‘Don’t hold onto me. I have not yet gone to the Father.'” (20:17) “He … said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and look at my hands. Put your hand into my side.'” (20:26-7)
There might seem to be a contradiction within John here, but there isn’t. Jesus did not want to be touched before he went to the Father. Presumably, he went to the Father, came back, and then allowed people to touch him. There may also seem to be a contradiction between Matthew and John here, but there isn’t. In a scenario that is consistent with both Gospels, Mary holds onto Jesus’ feet and is then told not to touch him.
How long did Jesus remain on Earth?
Matthew: Doesn’t mention his departure.
Mark: He seems to have left Easter day, but the language is vague.
Luke: He seems to have left Easter day, but the language is vague.
John: Jesus missed Thomas on Easter day and appeared to all the apostles again a week later. (20:24-26) Afterwards, he appeared to them while they were fishing, and they saw him again the next morning. (21:1-4) His departure is not recorded in John.
Acts: Jesus stayed 40 days. (1:1-9)
Mark and Luke mention Jesus’ departure immediately after the other events that happened Easter day, and they do not indicate that it happened on another day. So a reading of Mark or Luke suggests that he left Easter day. But there may simply be a break in the narration, such that the authors went from recording events on one day to recording events on another day. So Mark and Luke are consistent with the claims in John and Acts that Jesus stayed around longer. John implies that Jesus stayed around at least eight days, but it puts no limit on how long he stayed. So all the Gospels are consistent with the claim in Acts that Jesus stayed forty days.
Where did Jesus rise up to Heaven?
Matthew: This event is unrecorded in Matthew.
Mark: This event is recorded in only one ending to Mark, and it doesn’t say.
Luke: Bethany. (24:50-51)
John: This event is unrecorded in John.
Acts: The Mount of Olives. (1:9-12)
If the Mount of Olives is not in Bethany, there may be a contradiction between Luke and Acts. But an apologist may simply say that the Mount of Olives was in Bethany. In the event that it wasn’t, an apologist could say that there was a break in the narration of Acts. The Mount of Olives is not mentioned in Acts until after Jesus’ departure into Heaven.