Agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman says we can’t trust the Gospels’ reports about Jesus’ resurrection. His basic argument is that the Gospels are “hopelessly contradictory” (The Historical Jesus).
In his 2006 debate with William Lane Craig, Ehrman gives five discrepancies that he thinks support his claim. I will deal with each below.
How many women were at the tomb?
Discrepancy one states that John records only Mary Magdalene going to the tomb (John 20:1), yet Matthew (28:1-2), Mark (16:1-3), and Luke (24:10) report that she was with other women.
The objection falsely assumes that John was intending to say Mary Magdalene was the only woman. John merely showcases Mary Magdalene without any mention of the other women. And just because an account is incomplete, it doesn’t follow that it is in error. Even Luke doesn’t give a complete account of the women who went to the tomb (24:10).
Moreover, John’s account of Mary’s response to Peter and John indicates that he knew other women were with her: “she ran . . . and said to them . . . we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2, emphasis added). Luke employs a similar tactic when he first showcases Peter going to the tomb (Luke 24:12), but then later informs his reader that others had gone as well (Luke 24:24).
Did they see the stone rolled away?
Discrepancy two states that Matthew records the women seeing the angel roll away the stone (28:2); whereas Mark (16:3-4) and Luke (24:2) record the women finding the stone already rolled away.
Once again, the objection makes a false assumption—namely, that Matthew is intending to assert that the women witnessed the angel rolling away the stone. But a close examination of the text proves otherwise.
First, as A. Jones argues in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, the entire passage concerning the angel, the stone, and the guards who “trembled and became like dead men” (Matt. 28:2-4) seems to be a parenthetical statement. It’s unlikely that the women would have conversed with the angel while the guards laid there as if dead.
Furthermore, the details concerning the angel and the stone are introduced with the Greek conjunction gar: “And behold, there was a great earthquake; for [Greek, gar] an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it” (28:2, emphasis added).
Such an explanatory conjunction is used to introduce a clarification of a previous part of the sentence. For Matthew, the angel rolling away the stone is his explanation for the earthquake, not to assert that the women witnessed a stone-moving spectacle.
This answer could be further supported by Matthew’s use of an indicative mood in the aorist verb tense of ginomai: “And behold, there was [Greek, egeneto] a great earthquake” (28:2, emphasis added). The aorist verb tense in the indicative mood usually denotes the simple past. So a possible translation is “an earthquake had occurred,” implying the women didn’t witness it.
Even the angel’s descent can be described as having already occurred, since the aorist participle katabas (“descended”) can be translated with the English past perfect: “for an angel of the Lord had descended” (28:2; ISV, emphasis added).
But wait a minute. How did Matthew know about this stuff if the women didn’t see it happen? It’s possible that Matthew received the details from the same source he received information about the conspiracy theory that the guards and the Jewish rulers made up (Matt. 28:11-15). If the empty tomb was part of the guards’ story of “all that had taken place” (28:11), it’s possible the details in the parenthetical statement (2-4) were part of it as well.
Men, or angels? And how many?
Discrepancy three states that Mark (16:5-6) and Luke (24:4) record that two men were sitting at the tomb, and Matthew says it was an angel (28:5), which contradicts John’s account of two angels being present (20:11-13).
That some reports say men were present, and others say angels were present, in no way makes for a contradiction. Mark and Luke describe what the women saw (“men”), whereas Matthew and John give an interpretation (perhaps the women’s own interpretation) of what the women saw (“angels”). Recall that angels often appear as men (Gen. 18:1-2; Heb. 13:2).
With regard to how many were present, Matthew and Mark showcase the one who spoke to the women and simply omit the other. And as mentioned above, just because a report omits some details, it doesn’t follow the report denies those details.
Did they see Jesus in Jerusalem or later?
Discrepancy four states that Matthew (28:16) and John (21:1) report that the disciples went to Galilee as Jesus instructed (Matt. 28:7), but Mark and Luke don’t mention it: they report only that Jesus appeared to them in Jerusalem, after which he ascends into heaven.
For a contradiction to hold, Luke and Mark would have to have said something like, “Jesus did not appear, or only appeared, to the apostles in Galilee.” But neither Luke nor Mark says this. Each simply omits the detail from his narrative. Once again, to omit a detail and to deny a detail are not the same.
A skeptic may still object that the way Luke and Mark narrate the events implies that Jesus’ resurrection, the appearances, and the ascension all happened in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday. How can we resolve this?
One solution is that Luke and Mark used the ancient literary device of time compression—that is to say, what Matthew and John spread out over a period of locations and time, Luke and Mark compressed into one day. The time compression hypothesis makes sense for Luke, since his Gospel, like Matthew, is about the length of one full scroll. Perhaps Luke’s purpose of omission was economic, not having much space left on the scroll to finish his narrative in full detail. This hypothesis becomes even more plausible when one considers that Luke explicitly states Jesus appeared to the apostles on multiple occasions over a period of forty days, and then ascended (Acts 1:3).
Regarding Mark, the sheer length of his Gospel supports his use of time compression. Furthermore, Mark’s use of the word “immediately” (Greek, euthys) forty-seven times suggests that he desired to emphasize the excitement and urgency of Jesus’ ministry and that he was a man of action. This stands in stark contrast to the combined ten times euthys is used in Matthew, Luke, John, and Acts.
Did the women talk?
Discrepancy five states that Mark reports the women “said nothing to anyone” because they were afraid (16:8), and Luke says the women told the disciples what they had seen and heard (24:10-11).
A reasonable reading of Mark’s report is that the women ran straight to where the disciples were gathered without stopping to speak to anyone on the way. This is supported by Mark’s explanation that the women fled from the tomb “trembling,” and that “astonishment had come upon them” and “they were afraid” (16:8). Such fear would account for why they would not be inclined to talk to anyone as they were fleeing. Moreover, Mark tells us that Mary “went and told those who had been with him” (Mark 16:10).
Although the above responses do not give positive evidence that the Gospel writers are reliable in their reports about Jesus’ resurrection, they do show that one cannot reasonably reject their reports because they are “hopelessly contradictory.”