- Part 1: Series Introduction and Contradiction #1 – “How Many Women?”
- Part 2: Contradiction #2 – “Was the Stone Already Removed?” (forthcoming)
- Part 3: Contradiction #3 – “Angel or Angels?” (forthcoming)
- Part 4: Contradiction #4 – “The Ending of Mark” and Series Conclusion (forthcoming)
It is no understatement to declare that historic Christianity lives and dies by the resurrection of Jesus. The apostle Paul believed that Jesus’ resurrection meant the eschatological resurrection of everyone else was right around the corner: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (1 Corinthians 15:20).First-century Jews would have rejected the idea that there were multiple resurrections; instead, they believed that there would be one general resurrection of the dead once God defeats his enemies. Paul would have agreed with this as well. This meant that if Jesus had been raised then the eschatological resurrection was not far behind. It’s why in his earliest extant writing, an epistle to the Thessalonians, that Paul expresses his own belief that the return of Jesus will be soon, in his own lifetime:
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17).
Note the inclusive language: “we who are alive,” “we who are alive, who are left.” Paul has seen the time on the eschatological clock and knows what is about to happen, and it is Jesus’ own resurrection that has prompted his expectation.
When Paul writes his letter to Jesus followers in Corinth, he writes as if he’s received news that some in their midst rejected such a resurrection: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Corinthians 15:12) He then goes on to argue that if there is no eschatological resurrection of the dead, then not only is Jesus still buried but he and others who have proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection have been
misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ – whom he did not raise if is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (vv. 15-19)
So yeah, a lot rides on the resurrection of Jesus.
Erik Manning and Contradictions in the Gospel Narratives
Paul never explains for us what happened on Easter morning. All we know from him is that Jesus was crucified, buried, and raised, and that he made a number of appearances to his followers and to Paul (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). The way Paul writes, it seems that Peter (i.e. Cephas) was the first to whom Jesus appeared following his resurrection (v. 5). But Paul’s writings are not the only accounts we have of Jesus’ resurrection and appearances. All four Gospels, written after Paul’s death, contain them but there is widespread disagreement among them on a number of details. Skeptics have pointed to this fact and made the argument that such discrepancies undermine the reliability of these accounts.
But Christian apologists simply don’t agree. One of these apologists is Erik Manning, a former atheist turned evangelical Christian who runs the website isjesusalive.com. I’ve read a considerable amount of material by Manning in the last year or so and found his writing to be eminently readable. He is an excellent writer and knows how to put together a webpage in which to present an argument. However, readers of this blog know that I do not agree with him on a number of issues. For example, last year I wrote a lengthy reply to his claims about the Christology of the Gospel of Mark. Back in April, Manning wrote a piece entitled “Do the Resurrection Narratives Contradict?” in which he tackles four contradictions that come up frequently when skeptics rail against the empty tomb narratives. While I enjoyed reading the post, I had serious reservations about its content. And so, in a bid to provide a brief response to Manning’s contentions, I have written a four-part series addressing each contradiction in turn. Today’s post is part one and in what follows I will but briefly wrestle with the problem of the number of women who appeared at the tomb according to the various Gospels. In part two, I will address the unique scene in the Gospel of Matthew when an angel descends from heaven and rolls away the stone from the tomb’s entrance. In part three, I will discuss the different numbering of angels that appear in the canonical Gospels. Finally, in part four I will address the ending of the Gospel of Mark after which I will bring this series of posts to a conclusion.
The format for each post will be quite simple: first, I will introduce the relevant data; second, I will summarize Manning’s apologetic (hopefully correctly); third, I will offer a response to his apologetic; and finally, I will give a brief conclusion. In the final post of the series, I will also provide a longer conclusion reflecting the discussion from the previous posts. For those who have questions, comments, or snide remarks, please feel free to leave them on the blog or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HOW MANY WOMEN?
In the Markan Gospel, as Jesus hangs suspended between earth and heaven on a Roman cross outside the holy city of Jerusalem, there were in the distance female followers, women who had in all but name been his disciples since his days in Galilee. He names three specifically: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome (Mark 15:40-41). Later that evening, two of them – Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses – watch to see where Joseph of Arimathea places Jesus’ lifeless body (v. 47). On Sunday morning, the three women named in 15:40 purchase burial spices and make the trek to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body (16:1).
With Mark’s Gospel before him, the author of the first Gospel follows his predecessor but makes a few changes. Gone is Salome, replaced with the moniker “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Matthew 27:56). And while Matthew retains Mark’s story of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses (referred to by Matthew as “the other Mary”) observing where Joseph of Arimathea placed Jesus’ corpse (v. 56), on Easter morning it is only those two who visit the tomb and discover it empty (28:1).
Luke, depending in part on the Gospel of Mark and probably the Gospel of Matthew, makes his own changes to the story. The Galilean women of Mark’s Gospel, standing at a distance and observing all that transpires as Jesus dies a martyr’s death, are unnamed (Luke 23:49). Likewise, they are unnamed in the scene at the tomb when Joseph of Arimathea lays Jesus within it (v. 55) as well as in the beginning of the empty-tomb narrative (24:1). It isn’t until v. 10 that Luke finally tells his audience the names of some of the women: “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them.” Note that while Luke retains Mark’s reference to Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (and Joses), he refers not to Salome nor does he mention Matthew’s “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Matthew 27:56). Instead, a character foreign to the other Synoptics is included: Joanna (cf. Luke 8:3). It should also be noted that while Mark has but three women visiting the tomb and Matthew two, Luke has upwards of five.
The final Gospel in the New Testament is in many ways very different from its predecessors. It seems clear that the Johannine author had before him the Gospels of Mark and Luke, or at least had them in his memory. However, his opinion of them on particular matters is that they were wrong. For example, whereas all of the Synoptics agree that the women stood some ways from the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, John contends that the opposite is the case: “Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25). Additionally, contrary to the testimony of the Synoptics, the Fourth Evangelist nowhere indicates that anyone other than Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus went to the tomb when they buried Jesus (vv. 38-42). And while John places Mary Magdalene at the scene of the empty tomb, he suggests she was alone with no mention of the Markan Salome, the Matthean “other Mary,” or the Lukan Joanna (20:1).
It should be clear by now that the old adage rings true: things that are different are not the same. It isn’t merely that the number of women differ from account to account; rather, it is that who the women are differs as well. The only constant among all of them is Mary Magdalene, though the Synoptics share both Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joses. The common source for Matthew, Luke, and probably John is no doubt Mark. For all their agreement with him, it is their disagreements with Mark that are the most indicative of their interests and concerns.
Yet as problematic as these versions of the empty-tomb narratives seem to be, Christian apologists have no shortage of explanations wherewith to reconcile them. In Manning’s piece, the tactic seems to amount to little more than a shrugging of the shoulders and saying, “So what?”
Summary of Manning’s Apologetic
Manning opens by quoting Bob Seidensticker, an atheist who runs the blog Cross Examined: Clear Thinking about Christianity, though Manning does not provide a citation for this particular quote from him. Regardless, Seidensticker points out the canonical Gospels seem inconsistent with respect to how many women discovered Jesus’ tomb to be empty on Easter morning. Upon quoting from the relevant biblical texts, Manning writes,
Whoa there! On the face of it, you can see why skeptics would point to these passages to discredit the gospels. It seems like they can’t get their details straight. But are these accounts really so contradictory? Not really.
Manning begins with the Gospel of John, noting that while 20:1 suggests it was Mary Magdalene alone who came to the tomb, v. 2 seems to go the opposite direction, that Mary was part of an entourage. According to the apologist, “Mary Magdelene’s [sic] own words clearly show that there were other women. John reporting this implies that he’s well aware that there were other women at the tomb.”
Next, Manning states that the assumption that each account must give an exhaustive list of all who went to the tomb is unwarranted. He opines, “In no gospel did it say these were the women who came to the tomb and there was no one else” (author’s emphasis). By way of analogy, he states that if he told someone that he went to the store last night with his wife, this wouldn’t necessarily preclude the presence of his children. “I just left out a detail,” he says. “So what?”
Manning infers from the phrase “we do not know [ouk oidamen],” a first-person plural verb, that Mary Magdalene implies there were other women present with her when she discovered the empty tomb in v. 1. He’s not alone in this reading and it is a respectable position to take. However, it is not the only way to understand the use of the plural here. For example, in his classic commentary on the Gospel of John, Rudolf Bultmann asserts that oidamen “is not a genuine plural” and instead “corresponds to a frequent Oriental mode of speech” with “Greek analogies.” One particular example stands out. In John 3, Nicodemus comes to meet Jesus by night in Jerusalem and says to him, “Rabbi, we know [oidamen] that you are a teacher who has come from God” (v. 2). A few verses later, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you [soi], we speak of what we know [oidamen laloumen] and testify to what we have seen [heōrakamen martyroumen]; yet you do not receive our testimony [tēn martyrian hēmōn ou lambanete]” (v. 11). Notice that Jesus speaks to Nicodemus, using the singular pronoun soi (“you”), but then when he tells Nicodemus “you do not receive our testimony” he uses the plural construction ou lambanete. (“y’all do not receive”). The impression one gets from reading v. 1 of this scene is that Nicodemus has met with Jesus alone, as the author doesn’t claim that Nicodemus brought along anyone else or that Jesus was with his disciples. It simply states, “He [i.e. Nicodemus] came to Jesus by night,” and the conversation is between the two of them. And yet Nicodemus uses these first-person plural verbs. Why? Because it seems that Nicodemus is conceived of as belonging to a group, representing the Jewish community generally or the Pharisees particularly or both. But he is, here with Jesus, alone. Thus, the use of “we” need not mean anyone else is present; rather, it may indicate that the speaker is aware of the larger community of which they are a part. Applying this line of reasoning to Mary’s words in John 20:2, we get the sense that though Mary went alone to the tomb (v. 1; cf. 3:1-2), she nevertheless is conscious of the wider community which she represents, namely the followers of Jesus and their desire to pay homage to their fallen leader.
A similar understanding of Mary’s words can be found in Jo-Ann Brant’s commentary on the Gospel of John. She writes,
In a diachronic reading, the plural pronoun becomes an aporia that produces hypotheses, such as surmising that John has edited an account including several women. In a synchronic reading, one looks for logic and examines such things as the reaction to her words. The plural pronoun implicates the disciples in her anxiety….
Brant is suggesting that if we try to understand the “we” in isolation from what we know about the other Gospel accounts, we are forced to explain it on its own terms in the Johannine context. Therefore, her suggestion is that the “we” is Mary’s way of drawing in Peter and the other disciple into her own concern for what has happened to Jesus’ corpse. Later in the narrative, Mary is again at the tomb and when asked by two angels why she weeps she replies, “They have taken away my Lord [ton kyrion mou], and I do not know [ouk oida] where they have laid him” (v. 13). Here Mary expresses her lament in the singular, doing so because she is no longer with the two disciples who had gone to see the tomb but left (vv. 3-10), and therefore has no affinity with anyone present wherewith to draw them into her own worry.
Another related possible explanation is presented by Thomas Brodie who writes,
The fact that she uses the plural (“we do not know”) adds a further dimension to her negativity – as though she represented others. The discussion with Nicodemus, for instance, involved the use of ‘we know’ (3:2, 11), and it did so because it reflected a larger discussion with Judaism….
But Mary appears also to be a representative figure. Left behind at crucial moments in the building of the faith community (at the cross, 19:25-27; in running to the tomb and entering it, 20:1-10), she corresponds significantly to unbelieving Israel….
Whatever the details, it seems a reasonable conclusion that Mary represents one aspect of the unbelieving Jews and that her mission to the brothers [i.e. Peter and the other disciple] represents a mission to the Jews.
For Brodie, then, the use of “we” indicates that Mary is a representative of a larger body but not the group of women we know from the Synoptic tradition. Instead, her presence is symbolic as she represents unbelieving Israel in one instance and the Christian mission to the Jews in the other.
And so there are a variety of ways in which oidamen could be understood in John 20:2, leading us to concur with George Beasley-Murray who wrote in his commentary on John that “it is by no means certain that the Evangelist intended Mary’s ‘we know’ to indicate the presence of other women at the tomb with her, as in the synoptic tradition.” It is a possibility, but it is not a certainty. (And, of course, it could then be argued that here in John 20:2 there is only a possible contradiction, not a certain one.) Though I am unsure where Manning stands with regards to John’s knowledge of the Synoptics, it is clear that he perceives no contradiction among the various accounts, or at least none that cannot be reconciled. But this presupposition unfortunately blinds the apologist to the myriad ways in which the Johannine Gospel has already diverged from the Synoptic tradition(s). Whether it is the Fourth Evangelist’s placement of the cleansing of the temple (John 2:13-22 vs. Mark 11:15-19 and parallels) or the time and place of the calling of the first disciples (John 1:28, 35-42 vs. Mark 1:16-20 and parallels), or a number of other issues, John has a propensity to fundamentally disagree with his Synoptic brethren. And if he is willing to do so earlier in the Gospel, it stands to reason he would have no problem doing so at the end. So, I ask, why not just let John be John?
As Manning defends the Gospels against charges of contradiction, he employs an analogy in which he, his wife, and their children go to the store. “If I say I went to the store with my wife last night, I’m not automatically excluding the fact that I brought my four kids with me. I just left out a detail. So what?” Fair enough, but the analogy only works because we have knowledge that Manning went to the store with his wife and children. We wouldn’t know he left out a detail if we didn’t have all the details.
To demonstrate how this relates to the Gospel accounts, imagine for a moment that you live sometime around 70 CE and (if you’ll pardon the anachronism) hot off the press is the Gospel of Mark, the very first Gospel ever. As you read through it (assuming you’re one of the fortunate few who knows how to read), enamored with the story he tells about Jesus, you come to the dark scene in Jerusalem in which you find the hero crucified by the Romans. You note that the disciples all abandoned him and only some women remain behind, standing afar off from the site. You read that two of these women go to the tomb and see where Jesus has been buried. You finally reach ch. 16 and you read, “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices” and that they then go to the tomb. If your friend were to ask you, “Now, how many women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus?” what would your answer be? It would be, on the basis of Mark 16:1, three women. And suppose this friend asks the follow up question, “And what were their names?” Well, you would answer, “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome.” According to the papyrus you have in your hands, there were three women who went to the tomb Easter morning. Not one, not two, not five – three.
Now suppose you live into the 90s CE (congratulations!) and you stumble across a new Gospel, the one written by Luke. When you get to the empty tomb narrative, in the back of your mind you know that there were three women who went to the tomb. You also know their names: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. But as you read this new Gospel’s narrative, you are at first bewildered by what you read: “But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb….” They? Who is this author talking about? As you continue to read, you finally reach v. 10. “Now it was Mary Magdalene….” You breathe a sigh of relief. You recognize that name! “Joanna.” Your eyes widen. Who? you think to yourself. She doesn’t appear in the first Gospel that you read. “Mary the mother of James.” Another name you recognize. At least you have three women like Mark did. “And the other women with them.” Wait, women? We now have at least five women in this version and one of them is someone we had never heard of before we read this new account!
One could argue that Luke is simply providing additional details and that Mark simply left those details out. “So what?” But the problem here is that you would have only known that Mark left out those details if you knew about Luke’s version of the story. But there was a period in history when all there was was the Gospel of Mark and Luke’s Gospel didn’t even exist. Therefore, you would have believed that on Easter morning, it was three women – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome specifically – who went to the tomb and found that Jesus’ body wasn’t there. Manning benefits from living long after this period in which all four Gospels are bound in a single volume at a single moment. But there was a time when this wasn’t the case. If we are to consider Mark’s account scripture, inerrant and inspired, then we cannot simply shrug off this fact. By virtue of chronology, Mark’s account stands in contradiction to what we find in the other Synoptics.
The late evangelical exegete Robert Guelich once wrote that
the presence of four distinctive gospels demands that each be taken seriously with its own divinely inspired message. Harmonization that obliterates the distinctiveness of the four gospels in the interest of reconstructing the life and teaching of Jesus can actually distort the plain meaning of the text. To read the four gospels as an unscrambled Diatessaron misses the genius of having four distinct gospels.
What Manning and apologists like him do is precisely what Guelich warned against doing: obliterating the distinctiveness of each individual Gospel. I am sympathetic to the reason they do so. As committed as they are to the idea that the Gospels convey what actually happened 2,000 years ago and that the biblical texts are inspired, inerrant, and infallible, any disagreement among them could call into question the validity of their beliefs. They must therefore devise an apologetic that either diminishes the significance of those disagreements or, as is more often the case, dismiss their existence altogether. But the problems don’t simply go away because one’s a priori assumptions remain firm.
 Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of biblical texts are from the New Revised Standard Version.
 Martinus C. de Boer, Paul: Theologian of God’s Apocalypse (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020), 2.
 See “Musings on Mark: A Brief Response to Erik Manning on Markan Christology” (12.5.19), amateurexegete.com.
 Erik Manning, “Do the Resurrection Narratives Contradict?” (4.6.20), isjesusalive.com.
 I will frequently refer to these narratives as “empty tomb” narratives rather than “resurrection” narratives for the simple reason that nowhere is Jesus’ resurrection narrated. Rather, these scenes narrate the aftermath of that event. I am in agreement with R.T. France (The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007], 1098) who wrote that the Matthean narrative (and by extension its parallels in the other Gospels) “is not an account of the resurrection of Jesus (as some editors still unaccountably describe it in their section headings), but a demonstration that Jesus has risen.”
 Mark uses the verb akoloutheō to describe the women’s relationship to Jesus in Mark 15:41. This verb is used throughout the Gospel to describe those who undertake discipleship (e.g. Mark 1:18, 2:14, 8:34, etc.). On Jesus’ female followers, see the discussion in Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, In the Company of Jesus: Characters in Mark’s Gospel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 41-69.
 My assumption throughout these posts is that of Markan Priority. For a defense of this view, see Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze (London: Continuum, 2001), 56-83.
 Some commentators have speculated that the name of James’ and John’s (“the sons of Zebedee”) mother was Salome but that the Matthean audience would not have recognized who she was other than by her relationship to her more famous sons. See, for example, France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1087. However, even if she would not have been recognized by her name alone, it stands to reason that if Matthew was referring to the Markan Salome that he would do so by referring to her as “Salome the other of the sons of Zebedee.”
 On Luke’s dependence on Matthew, see Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem, 122-161.
 One of the various reasons for thinking that Jesus’ dies as a martyr is the way in which the author of the book of Acts models the death of Stephen in Acts 7 after Jesus’ death in the Gospel of Luke. See Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke-Acts in Its Mediterranean Milieu (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 102-103; Shelly Matthews, Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christianity Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 74.
 It seems to me that it is very likely the author of the Gospel of John knew the Synoptics or, at least, a couple of them. See my post “Did John Know the Synoptics? The Latest Episode of NT Review” (6.11.20), amateurexegete.com.
 And Nicodemus is a character unique to John’s Gospel, appearing nowhere in the Synoptics.
 Various scholars have taken this view of oidamen in v. 2: e.g., Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 832; Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 1178; Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel and Epistles of John: A Concise Commentary (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1988), 97.
 Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, G.R. Beasley Murray, R. W. N. Hoare, and J. K. Riches, translators (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971), 684n1.
 Please pardon my Southern vernacular. I’ve lived in the South for almost as long as I lived in the North.
 Bultmann (The Gospel of John, 134n3) contends that while “we” when spoken by an individual may indicate a “form of speech…determined by the individual’s consciousness of belonging to a community,” here in John 3:2 it is employed because Nicodemus is envisioned as “a representative of his own group.” However, I do not think the two are mutually exclusive and that Nicodemus is certainly conscious of the fact that, though he is in this moment with Jesus alone, he belongs to a wider community that includes Jews generally and the Pharisees particularly.
 Jo-Ann A. Brant, John, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 266.
 Thomas L. Brodie, The Gospel According to John: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 561, 567.
 George R. Beasley-Murray, John, second edition, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1999), 371.
 Robert A. Guelich, “The Gospels: Portraits of Jesus and His Ministry,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, vol. 24 no. 2 (June 1981), 121.
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