Why are the Resurrection Accounts so Different?
by Edwin Crozier
If skeptics jump on anything about the gospel records of Jesus Christ, it is the differences between the four authors’ accounts of the resurrection events and appearances. For example, Matthew mentions an angel who met the women at the tomb sitting on the rolled-away stone (Matthew 28:2). Mark mentions the women meeting a young man dressed in white inside the tomb (Mark 16:5). Luke mentions two men meeting the women (Luke 24:4). John says Mary Magdalene came, saw an empty tomb, left, then came back later and saw two angels inside the tomb (John 20:11-13). Why the differences?
Upon first consideration, I am perplexed. Aren’t you? I even agree when skeptics claim, “Considering the resurrection is the central tenet to the Christian faith, you’d think these guys would work extra hard to make sure their records of it lined up.” You would, wouldn’t you? Why didn’t they?
One of two things is true. Either
- Jesus really did rise from the dead or
- He didn’t.
For sake of argument, let’s say it is option #2: He didn’t. If that is the case, from where did those accounts of His resurrection and appearances come? They were made up. But why? Not to benefit Jesus. In option #2, He’s dead. Nothing they wrote would benefit Him. They must have made up these stories to benefit themselves. We can imagine the kinds of benefits they sought: fame, following, popularity, money, pleasures, etc. However, what would it take to get those benefits? Wouldn’t it take people believing their story? Yet, at the central point of their made-up stories, they included differences that would spark objections. Objections that could have been avoided by simple collusion. That doesn’t make sense. If their goal was to benefit themselves, like conspirators in a crime, they had a vested interest in aligning their stories so no matter who asked, they would be saying the same thing. Yet, they didn’t do that. Why?
Is it possible the reason they didn’t do that is that they weren’t conspirators in a crime? Is it possible that option #1 is the truth: Jesus really did rise from the dead? But the differences? What about those? Very simply, these kinds of differences are what we expect when multiple people honestly recount their memories of the same event from different perspectives. Recall the last time you told someone a story about an event that occurred in your family. What did your spouse, kids, parents, and siblings do? Didn’t they start to correct you? Didn’t you all get into a bit of a debate about precisely what happened, what the exact order of events was, what the precise words said were, and what the important parts of the story really were? You were all involved in the event, it really did happen, but if you all wrote your record of it, it would contain differences. If you were colluding in a crime and covering up a lie, you would work carefully to align your accounts. However, when you are just remembering what happened, you don’t do that, and differences come in.
God didn’t give us a streamlined, collaborated, conspiratorial account. Instead, He provided eye-witness testimony and historical research. Further, He provided it in exactly the way you’d expect eye-witness testimony and historical research to record it. To be sure, others have written harmonies fitting the accounts together. We don’t have room for that here. I’m simply addressing the overarching principle.
The differences in the accounts are, in fact, more of a problem for those who want to dismiss the records as made-up stories to create a religion and gain a following. If that is what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were doing, they would have collaborated and colluded more to align their accounts. However, they weren’t making up a story, colluding in a crime, or covering up a lie. They were recounting personal testimony and historical research to drive home Jesus is the Christ, Savior, Lord. We must give our allegiance to Him. Have you?
[Note: This should not be construed as saying that the four accounts are inaccurate and can't be understood. See Witnesses to the Resurrection.