When you think of objections to Christ’s resurrection, you might think of atheists who reject the supernatural entirely. However, nearly all non-Christians who believe in God also deny that Jesus rose from the dead. They agree that Jesus could have risen from the dead, but they deny the evidence for this particular miracle.
One of these non-Christian religious apologists is Rabbi Tovia Singer, who has a long history of engaging (mostly Protestant) missionaries who evangelize Jewish people. However, when you examine some of Rabbi Singer’s arguments against the Resurrection, you see that he falls prey to the same arguments atheists use. In fact, by using these arguments, he inadvertently undermines the miraculous historical foundations of Judaism.
1. Mary Magdalene’s story doesn’t check out.
For example, Rabbi Singer takes aim at what he considers a contradiction involving Mary Magdalene. He says Matthew’s Gospel portrays Mary learning that Jesus rose from the dead from the angel at the tomb who rolled the stone away. When she goes with the other women to tell the disciples, she already knows that Jesus has risen. However, John’s Gospel portrays Mary going to the disciples not knowing what happened to Jesus. As Rabbi Singer puts it, “this isn’t a contradiction; it’s a completely different story.”
First, let’s say for the sake of argument that this is a contradiction. Accounts of ancient, historical events often have contradictions, but historians don’t totally dismiss the events themselves because of that. At most, all that would prove is that there is a contradiction between Matthew and John regarding Mary Magdalene. But the evidence for the Resurrection primarily comes from Jesus’ disciples sincerely believing he was alive again and there being no good natural explanation for their belief. They didn’t hallucinate, for example, because groups of people as well as converts like Paul (1 Cor. 15:3-8) seeing a post-mortem Jesus doesn’t conform to what we know about hallucinations. Moreover, the disciples could have checked Jesus’ tomb to confirm if they were hallucinating.
Rabbi Singer’s argument doesn’t even threaten the Bible’s inerrancy, because what Singer is describing is not an error or a contradiction. It’s the normal kind of discrepancy we can find in complementary accounts of the same event. Ancient authors often varied the secondary details of an event, would leave out details, would quickly summarize them through a device called “telescoping,” or would report events in a non-chronological order. (The second-century author Papias tells us Mark wrote his Gospel in this manner.)
But what if there is no contradiction here at all? There may well not be, because we can harmonize the accounts in this way:
Early in the morning, Mary Magdalene and other women go to Jesus’ tomb (Matt. 28:1, John 20:1), and the women find the tomb empty.
Mary Magdalene runs back to the disciples by herself. When she meets the other disciples, she says, “They have taken the Lord; we know not where they laid him.” Notice that this statement indicates that Mary Magdalene was with other people at Jesus’ tomb, even though they aren’t described in John’s Gospel. Matthew 28:2-4 says an angel, dazzling in appearance, rolled away the stone, but it does not say this happened after the women arrived. It is simply described after Matthew says, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulcher” (Matt. 28:1).
So Mary Magdalene runs, by herself, back to the disciples and says, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” This shows that John acknowledges that the other women were with her at the tomb, even though he does not explicitly mention them. And while Mary Magdalene is speaking with the disciples, the other women, who remained at the tomb, encounter the angel (Matt. 28:5-7). This group of women then runs back to the disciples and meets Jesus along the way (vv. 8-10).
At the same time, Peter and John run to the tomb (possibly taking a different route from the one the women took) and arrive to find the tomb empty (John 20:3-9), after which the men leave to their homes (v. 10). Mary Magdalene then returns to the tomb after Peter and John have left, and she encounters Jesus there (vv. 11-17).
Rabbi Singer may find all of this “too convenient,” but if he has this attitude, then he will have to reject other seemingly “convenient” explanations of similar and even more intractable contradictions in the Old Testament. Singer himself explains away many of these alleged contradictions, such as differences between how Samuel and Chronicles describe the Davidic kingdom, based on the author’s thematic intentions. But why couldn’t the Gospel authors serve their thematic intentions by focusing on certain people or by telling events apart from a strict chronological order?
2. Never mind—Mary Magdalene is an unreliable witness because she’s crazy.
Rabbi Singer also says we should doubt the Resurrection account because one of the prominent women involved, Mary Magdalene, had seven demons driven out of her. He says that in the ancient world, psychotic people often “heard voices” and that demonic possession is a uniquely New Testament phenomenon. This makes her testimony about Jesus unreliable to establish that he rose from the dead.
Rabbi Singer needs to be careful where this line of thought takes him. Did Moses really see a burning bush? Did God really tell Abraham to offer his only son Isaac on an altar to him? Atheists could just as easily use psychology to explain away Judaism’s foundational miracles.
Some people who claim to hear the voice of God are mistaken, but that doesn’t mean it never happens. Likewise, just because some claims of demonic possession are false, it doesn’t follow that there are no genuine demonic possessions. In the Old Testament, people have encounters with angels. Is that psychotic, or is it only encounters with demons that are psychotic? And contra Singer, the Hebrew Bible does describe “evil spirits” taking hold of people like King Saul (1 Sam. 16:14), and later Jewish commenters say Psalm 91, along with other passages like it, is an exorcism against the demonic.
3. Why bother anointing someone who’s already buried?
Rabbi Singer also claims that the story of the women going to the tomb anointing Jesus’ body is completely fabricated because the point of anointing a body was to keep it from smelling during the funeral procession. In other words, there’s no point in doing this after the body is buried. Of course, Jesus’ case is different from most other burials because he was not buried by friends and family. He was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a sympathetic member of the Sanhedrin who had convicted him.
Given these facts, consider the following scenario: a friend of yours died, and for some reason, you missed his funeral and interment. You rush to the gravesite, knowing that the funeral is over, and you hope to throw some flowers on top of his casket because maybe they haven’t fully buried him yet. Even if they have, at least you can leave some flowers there, but you are grief-stricken and not thinking of all these details.
The same can be said of the women who go to Jesus’ tomb, grief-stricken and still scattered in their thinking. You can see this in Mark 16:3, when the women say, “Who will roll away the stone for us?” They hope someone can help, and even though they could not take part in the formal anointing of spices before burial, they still want to show love to Jesus by adding spices on their own terms.
Finally, if you were going to invent the story of Jesus rising from the dead, why would you make your first witnesses not just women, who were already unreliable witnesses among Second Temple Jews, but have one of them be someone who had been possessed by demons? Why would the Gospel authors invent a reason for the women to visit the tomb that didn’t make sense among ancient Jews?
If the Gospels had to invent people coming to the tomb, they could have just had the women going to the tomb to wail or offer prayers for Jesus. And more importantly, if the account were created for apologetic purposes, you’d have the men escorting the women to act as reliable witnesses to the Resurrection. This is exactly what we see in later apocryphal gospels, like the second-century Gospel of Peter, that include clearly fictional elements at the tomb in order to convince people.
So it turns out that Rabbi Singer’s criticisms of the Gospels actually provide reasons to believe that the Gospels’ authors were recording the actual startling events surrounding the death of Jesus of Nazareth, including the discovery of his empty tomb by his followers. And all this further confirms their unprecedented claims that the one whom many had written off as a dangerous rabbi was actually Yahweh himself . . . who had risen from the dead.