The greatest of all the Reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by it's lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dung hill.
-- Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Short, October 31, 1819.
So, if we don't know who wrote any of our canonical gospels or whose "testimony" they supposedly preserve, what do we know about them?
Well, for one, we can tell with some certainty the order in which the gospels were written thanks to the science of textual criticism. Literalist scholars and critical ones alike generally accept that the gospel we now call “Mark” was the first written. It is believed to have been written around 65 to 70 CE, though this dating rests upon a number of Literalist assumptions that even critical scholars have been loathe to abandon. As we shall see in Part III of this book, it's possible that all the gospels, even our earliest, were written much later. Regardless, for purposes of this chapter, we will assume the generally accepted dates for now.
Textual criticism suggests that "Matthew" was the second gospel produced, and that it was written in Antioch between 80 and 85 CE. By that time “Mark's” gospel (which wasn't likely called that then) had already been circulating within parts of the early church for as much as twenty years.
We know that the unknown author of Mathew knew of Mark’s gospel because he relied upon it heavily in constructing his own, often copying huge sections from Mark verbatim. More than 600 of Mark's 612 total versus are found in Mathew, almost always in the identical order. But, very importantly, Matthew didn't hesitate to change or “correct” Mark's account, sometimes very subtlety and sometimes drastically, when doing so suited his purposes. Matthew was especially intent on editing out of Mark passages or phrases that could arguably present Jesus in an unfavorable light. As just one example, Matthew strategically omitted the portion of Mark 3:21 where Jesus' kinsman were said to believe Jesus to be deranged.
Textual criticism suggests that the Gospel of Luke was the third written, though the order of Luke and Matthew is sometimes disputed because they were authored about the same time, around 80 to 85 CE. Luke, like Matthew, had access to Mark's account and made liberal use of it, again copying large portions verbatim. However, also like Matthew, Mark was inadequate to suit Luke’s purpose and so Luke never hesitated to make changes, or even contradict Mark, when doing so advanced his agenda.
Luke wrote his Gospel, and addressed it to the Roman official Theophilus, in hopes of convincing Rome to cease its persecution of Christians, a persecution that was reinstated under the Emperor Domitian around 81 CE. During the 20 years or so since Mark had been written, the Jews had revolted (again) against Rome and were mercilessly crushed, with the Temple being destroyed in 70 AD. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Jews were dispersed across the empire. By the time of Luke's writing the first generation of Christian leaders, all originally Jewish, had apparently died out or been killed.
While both Matthew and Luke made liberal use of Mark, they both also contain material, primarily sayings of Jesus, that are not found in Mark. For example, among other things, Mark does not include the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, the story of Jesus healing the centurion’s son, or the story of Jesus’ temptation by Satan. Because Matthew and Luke, each writing in different places at different times both describe these events similarly, they clearly had access to source material apparently unknown or at least unappreciated by Mark, source material that has since been lost.
Scholars have for some time called this unknown source material “Quelle”, a German word meaning “source”, which was then abbreviated to Q for short. Due to its contents, scholars hypothesize that Q must have been primarily a collection of Jesus' teachings and sayings rather than a chronological biography like our present gospels, though some believe that the Gospel of the Hebrews could have served as the source. The reader will recall that Papius described his version of Matthew as just such a sayings document. Also, the recently discovered Gospel of Thomas is such a sayings document. Scholarly estimates date Q's creation to around 55 CE, over a decade before Mark was written.
Given that Mark was written before Matthew and Luke and that the latter two depended upon the former (as well as an unknown source, Q) for significant portion of their accounts, what can we conclude?
First, we can conclude that neither Matthew nor Luke considered Mark to be infallible, for they consciously changed Mark's account, and even contradict it in several places. In the middle of lifting whole passages almost verbatim from Mark, they often make minor (and sometimes major tweaks) to Mark's story. As Bishop Shelby Spong has noted :
[The author of Matthew] did not regard Mark as either Holy Scripture or as literally inerrant, for Matthew altered Mark’s text frequently to suit his agenda, his writing task, his audience, and his theological perspective. Because Matthew wrote after Mark, the need to define Jesus had had more time to develop, had more challenges to meet and more false ideas to confront. The way Matthew changed the Marcan text made this clear. (Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, at 150).
Second, we can conclude that the synoptic gospels most definitely do not preserve three separate, independent, individual eyewitness accounts of the life and times of Jesus handed down by three different disciples, as has been traditionally assumed. They are not “memoirs of the apostles”, or at least not different apostles. It is evident that both the author of Matthew and of Luke plagiarized Mark extensively, and each likewise had access to an additional source, Q, that they often quote verbatim. If we remove from Matthew and Luke all Marcan and Q-based material, there is very little left of their respective works.
Thus, even if we assume without basis that Mark accurately preserves the direct testimony of some unnamed disciple, Matthew and Luke most definitely do not, at least to the extent that they simply rehash the contents of Mark and Q. As to their Marcan content, each can be seen as simply editing Mark's account for their own purposes. They likewise lifted the and edited the Q material from an ancient, unknown source. In short, Matthew and Luke most definitely do not preserve independent accounts of Jesus' life, but rather almost completely dependent ones. Their testimony doesn't corroborate Mark's but simply remakes it.
The same cannot be said of the fourth gospel, John, however. It is evident that whoever wrote the John either did not have access to Matthew, Mark, or Luke or, if he did, that he didn't deem them to be worth citing or emulating. John was written about 90 to 95 CE, never quotes from the synoptic gospels and, in fact, preserves a completely different tradition concerning Jesus, a tradition that contradicts the others in a variety of important ways.
Despite their many contradictions (a few of which we will catalog shortly), the first three gospels are called called “synoptic”, meaning “seeing with one eye”, because they at least agree on the big picture items such as the length of Jesus' ministry, the general order of the places he visited, the day he was crucified, etc. John’s Gospel, on the other hand, offers a different understanding of these events and includes some information not found at all in the other gospels, such as the Wedding at Cana and the Raising of Lazarus.
The above understanding of the history and origin of the gospels presents a number of problems for Literalists. As we shall see shortly, the various gospels offer differing accounts of Jesus life. Sometimes these differences are minor (e.g., as to whether the sun had risen or not when Mary went to the tomb on resurrection Sunday), but at other times the differences are much more important and troubling. How do Literalist handle the cognitive dissonance that arises from these discrepancies? By rationalizing it away.
As previously alluded, one traditional Literalist explanation for these differences is that the gospels preserve the testimony of four different, independent eyewitnesses writing from four different, independent perspectives. Not every eyewitness would have seen the same things, they argue, either because some were present at times when others weren't or because normal human limitations hindered their perception or their ability to communicate truth. In other words, any time we have authentic eyewitness testimony, it's normal to have “variations on a theme”, we are assured, with each account being “incomplete” and requiring supplementation by other eyewitness accounts to arrive at the true story.
While this rationalization might explain contradicting accounts in “normal” human affairs, it fails to explain their apparent presence in a “divinely inspired” and 'infallible” book like the Bible. After all, God the Inspirer must have been aware of the happenings at all times and places, and he was certainly capable of inspiring his scribes to overcome their normal, human insufficiencies in communicating his truth.
But more importantly, we have shown that the synoptic gospels most certainly weren't written by eyewitnesses and, even more importantly, they don't offer independent perspectives. Where Matthew or Luke correct or contradict Mark (as opposed to merely supplementing him with Q material), it's because they intended to do so. There is not other explanation as to why they would copy entire portions of Mark practically verbatim, only changing a few things here and there.
Note that this conclusion is true even if our supposed order of authorship is wrong. In other words, even if Matthew were written before Mark, for instance, the striking verbatim consistencies between the two indicate that one was based upon the other. Therefore, any changes in the plagiarized material, especially where those changes are meaningful, must have been purposeful. Thus, regardless of their order of authorship, Matthew, Mark and Luke are not independent accounts.
Knowledge that latter gospel writers intentionally altered the accounts of earlier ones helps us dispense with another common Literalist method of dealing with cognitive dissonance: The “both/and” argument. This theory holds that most apparent gospel inconsistencies can be reconciled by assuming that each account happened just as each author describes, only at different times. Where Matthew disagrees with Mark, we can reconcile the difference by accepting that both what Matthew said was true and what Mark said was true. In other words, one account doesn't replace or contradict the other, it just supplements it.
For instance, if Mark says that the stone covering Jesus' tomb had already been removed when the women who approached it on resurrection Sunday arrived, and Matthew insists that the stone was still in place and that the women witnessed an angel rolling it away, then what actually happened, we are assured by Literalists, is that the women must have approached the tomb twice—once where they witnessed the angel move the stone from the tomb's entrance, frightening them away, and then again a short time latter after regaining their nerve. Matthew simply preserves the first approach story and Mark the second. Voila! Problem solved.
But, this “solution” has many defects. First, are we to believe that God intends us to understand “what really happened” to Jesus only by piecing together the various differing gospel accounts on our own so as to, in effect, create a fifth gospel that represents the one “true/complete” story of Jesus' life, a gospel that no single eyewitness bothered to leave for us? This seems unlikely.
Second, while the “both/and” approach, contrived though it may be, can successfully resolve some very minor inconsistencies found in the gospels, it collapses under its own at other times, as we shall see. Said another way, applying the both/and approach diligently results more often than not in even more rather than fewer inconsistencies and stretches credulity to the extreme. The resulting "fifth gospel" borders on the absurd.
And third, since we know that Matthew relied on Mark for his account of Jesus' resurrection (or less likely, vice versa), then we must conclude that discrepancies between the two accounts are intentional. If Matthew wanted to supplement rather than contradict Mark', then Matthew could have easily done so by, for instance, explicitly describing the two separate approaches to the tomb. That he didn't indicates that his intention wasn't to simply supplement Mark, but to supplant him, either because doing so advanced his religious agenda, or because Matthew had access to a tradition that contradicted Mark's own.
Different in Most Every Important Detail
With these ideas in mind, let's take a look at how our gospels describe some of the more important aspects of Jesus' life.
To put it bluntly, the gospels disagree as to the details of most every major aspect of Jesus' life, and this despite nearly two thousand years of editing and harmonizing interpretations. For instance, just to name a few, the Gospels disagree about:
2)The nature of Jesus’ birth and childhood
3)The order of his travels and the length of his ministry
4)The identity of his disciples
5)The nature of Jesus’ divinity
6)The events surrounding his baptism
7)The events surrounding his anointment
8)The events surrounding his crucifixion
9)The events surrounding his resurrection
Although we wont' have time to explore the inconsistencies in all of these areas, we will now examine a few of the more interesting ones.
Only two of our gospels, Matthew and Luke, provide Jesus' genealogy. Whereas Matthew’s genealogy emphasizes Jesus’ Jewishness by tracing his ancestry back to Abraham, the original Jewish patriarch, Luke, who wrote his gospel in an attempt to placate the Roman official Theophilus, emphasizes that Jesus was a descendant of Adam, father of all nations.
Both trace Jesus' lineage back through King David (for the expected Messiah had to be David's descendant), but in doing so they provide a wholly inconsistent and irreconcilable record. Consider, for a moment the record back to King David as provided by each:
The problems presented by the genealogies for the Literalist are numerous. For example, how can Jesus have been born of a literal virgin when Matthew and Luke both trace his lineage, and therefore his legal claim as Messiah to the throne of David, back to David through Joseph? Also, if the Bible provides an infallible historical record, why don’t the genealogies from Matthew and Luke agree? They don't even agree on who Joseph's father was! Did Jesus descend from David through Solomon or through his other son Nathan? Why don't hardly any names on one list appear at least somewhere in the other? The questions just keep on coming.
Literalists have frankly fallen all over themselves trying to explain these genealogical discrepancies. Noting the difference in the lengths of the lists, some Literalists have tried to employ the “both/and” defense, asserting that the lists are not inconsistent at all--Luke simply gives a comprehensive version while Mathew offers an abbreviated one. But this argument is easily dispensed with as follows:
Was Joseph’s father Jacob or Heli? Likewise, from which son of David did Jesus descend, Solomon or Nathan? And if one list is a condensed version of the other, then why don't most names in the condensed one appear somewhere in the complete one? These are not idle questions. If we answer them honestly, then it is clear that one list is not simply an abbreviated version of the other, but rather the two are inconsistent and irreconcilable.
As additional evidence of this fact, note that Mathew says plainly at 1:17 that his list is comprehensive and not simply a summary when he emphasizes that there were only 28 generations between Jesus and David--fourteen from David to the exit in Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to Jesus. This plainly and directly contradicts the 43 generations provided by Luke starting at 3:23.
Another theory proffered by some Literalists is that, despite what they plainly appear to say, one genealogy traces Christ’s ancestry back through Joseph's line while the other goes through Mary's, thus explaining the differing names on each list. But this explanation fails for several reasons. For one, Mary's ancestors are never mentioned in either list. Also, why would one side of Jesus' family have 42 generations between Jesus and David while the other has merely 28? Are we to believe that one side of Jesus’ family was just incredibly short lived, or in the alternative that the other was incredibly long-lived?
Faced with the problem of explaining how Jesus could have descended from David if his true father wasn't Joseph but God, some Literalists have argued that perhaps Mary the Mother was a descendant of David. If so, they argue, Christ could have been both born of a virgin and still have descended from David. But this theory fails to explain why both Matthew and Luke go to great pains to trace Jesus line back to David through Joseph and not Mary. Some Literalist claim that females simply weren't mentioned in genealogies of the time, but this is patently untrue since Matthew's listing goes out of its way to mention by name some of Jesus' female ancestors, most of them women dubious sexual histories!
Finally, some Literalists argue that Jesus was “adopted” by Joseph and became equivalent to his blood heir as a result. In this manner, they argue that Christ could have been both born of a virgin, and (arguably) retained a legal claim to the throne of David. Unfortunately, this argument is inconsistent with the idea that the Messiah would be a blood heir of David. Furthermore, even if we could assume that the “adoption theory” at least arguably explains how Jesus could have been born of a virgin and still had a claim to David’s throne, it still fails to reconcile the obvious discrepancies in numbers and names between Matthew's and Luke's genealogies.
If we are honest, we must conclude that either Matthew or Luke simply got things wrong. Or, perhaps they both did.
Jesus’ Birth and Early Childhood
Although this fact is somewhat obscured by the order in which the gospels are placed in our Bibles, only two of them, Matthew and Luke, actually describe the events surrounding Jesus birth. Inexplicably, our original Gospel, Mark, makes no reference at all to Jesus’ supernatural origins or “virgin” birth, facts that Mark surely would not have failed to mention had they been known to him. John, while alluding to Jesus’ pre-existence “in the beginning”, doesn’t mention anything about virgins or Bethlehem or shepherds or wise men. In fact, like Mark, John apparently knows nothing of Jesus' earthly life prior to the start of his ministry as a grown man.
Matthew says that Jesus was born prior to Herod the Great's death (accepted as 4 BCE), while Luke says it happened during the first Census of the region, which was conducted while Quirinius was governor of Syria, which happened between 6 and 7 CE per the Jewish historian Josephus.
These dates are not reconcilable based on any known historical evidence. It is not possible that Herod died as late as 6 CE, and we know that Qurinius was not governor of Syria until 6 CE at the very earliest. From 3 to 5 BCE, Quirinius was in Turkey, and there is no evidence that he was military commander over Syria during this time, as some Literalists suggest. There is, in fact, no record of Quirinius conducting any census of the region prior to 6 or 7 CE, and in any event Luke goes to pains to tell us that Quirinius' was the first census in the region. Luke's indication that this was the first Roman census of the area is further supported by Josephus, who noted that the Jews revolted against Rome as a result of it. Apparently this census idea was both novel and unpopular.
There is simply no elegant way to reconcile to the historical record the varying dates that Luke and Matthew offer for Jesus' birth. But, that's not the only thing they disagree upon. No.t even close.
Of the gospels that describe Jesus’ birth, only Luke mentions shepherds keeping watch or a manger, while only Matthew mentions magi (“wise men”), wandering stars, or the Massacre of the Innocents. It is inconceivable that Luke, who says that he will provide Theophilus with a chronological (“orderly”) accounting of “all” events known to him “from the beginning” (1: 3), would have failed to report these latter three facts had he known of them. And, it's also inconceivable that, had the Massacre of the Innocents happened as Matthew describes, Luke's “careful investigation”, if indeed it was as careful as Luke would have us believe (see Luke 1: 3), would have failed to stumble upon stories of it. Such a devastating, horrible event in Jewish history would have been etched in the collective memory of the Jewish community for generations. And yet, despite the fact that devout Jews are well known for chronicling and memorializing their collective hardships over the centuries, and that much of the Jewish liturgical year is dedicating to remembering the tragedies of those hardships and their deliverance from them, Jewish extra-biblical sources from the time know absolutely nothing of Herod's wholesale slaughter Jewish children throughout a large part of the Jewish homeland. And tellingly, neither does Mark or Luke or John.
After Jesus’ birth, Matthew records that Jesus and family, having been forewarned of Herod's intentions, escaped the Massacre of the Innocents only by traveling immediately from Bethlehem to Egypt where they remained until after Herod’s death (Matthew 2:13-23), presumably for several months or even years. However, inexplicably, Luke makes absolutely no mention of Egypt or Herod’s pursuit of the family or, as previously noted, his Massacre of the Innocents. Instead, after being visited by shepherds (not wise men) in Bethlehem very shortly after his birth, Luke says the family went straight to Jerusalem (Luke 2:21-24), where Jesus was presented at the temple on the fortieth day after his birth. Then, according to Luke, the family simply went home to Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 2:39), which was part of Herod’s very jurisdiction (Luke 23:6, 7). There, in Nazareth, Luke says that Jesus lived peacefully and continued “to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom…” (Luke 2:40). And from there, Nazareth, the family made regular annual trips to Jerusalem (Luke 2:41).
For Luke, Nazareth was Jesus' home town, and Luke takes great pains to get the holy family out of Nazareth and to Bethlehem at the appropriate time via the device of Quirinius' census. But, Matthew has the holy family living in Bethlehem all along and doesn't place them in Nazareth until after their return from Egypt, and then only because they couldn't return to Bethlehem for fear of Herod's son who ruled there (see 2:22-23). For Matthew, it was an simply an accident of fate that caused Jesus to end up in Nazareth, and he says that this accident happened "so that scripture should be fulfilled" (2.23). Luke has no need for such accidents since, according to his understanding, Nazareth was always Jesus' place of origin.
Luke says explicitly that the family remained in Bethlehem for 40 days (until the time for purification was completed), and then they traveled to Jerusalem to be presented at the Temple where they remained for a few days before returning home to Nazareth. According to Luke, the boy grew and became strong in Nazareth, traveling to Jerusalem in the spring of every year for Passover. Otherwise, Luke's supposed comprehensive account of everything he'd been able to gather about Jesus' life mentions no other travels.
Matthew likewise has Jesus born in Bethlehem, and he's apparently still there, residing in a house, months or years later when he is visited by the Magi. The very strong implication is that the Magi visited Jesus in Bethlehem, for that's where they predicted he had been born (2.1), and that is where Herod sent them to look for the child (2.8). Also, that Judea is where the family sought to return after their flight to Egypt (2.22), only changing their mind upon learning that Herod's despised son controlled the area and God told them in a dream to go to Galilee.
Matthew mentions no travels from the time Jesus was born until his escape to Egypt prior to the age of two after being visited by the Magi. This is consistent with the idea that Matthew believed Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem all along and simply remained there after Jesus’ birth, never placing them in Nazareth as Luke does.
So, how can we reconcile these to accounts? Well, Literalists attempt to do so most often by taking a “both/and” approach. They insist that, by taking both Matthew's account and Luke's account and combining them, we can get a clear picture of what actually happened. That's fine if we don't consider things too closely, but what happens when we do? Well, there are a couple of possibilities, neither vary elegant:
1) Mary and Joseph originated in Nazareth (as Luke suggests), traveled to Bethlehem for the census (as Luke suggests), remained in Bethlehem for 40 days (per Luke) traveled from Bethlehem to Jerusalem 40 days later to present their newborn child at the temple (as Luke states), returned to Nazareth a few days thereafter (per Luke), traveled again to Bethlehem at some undisclosed time but exactly when the Magi were searching for Jesus there (per...well...nobody), were found in a house in Bethlehem by the Magi (per Matthew), fled to Egypt prior to Jesus' age two (per Matthew), sought to return to Bethlehem for unknown reasons upon Herod's death (per Matthew), changed their minds and returned back to Nazareth in Galilee only after learning in a dream that Herod's despised son ruled Judea (per Matthew), witnessed the child grow strong there (per Luke), all while failing to miss even a single Passover celebration in Jerusalem (per Luke).
2) Mary and Joseph originated in Nazareth (as Luke suggests), traveled to Bethlehem for the census (as Luke suggests), traveled to Jerusalem with a newborn child 40 days later to be presented at the temple (as Luke suggests), returned to Nazareth a few days thereafter (per Luke), were visited by the Magi in a house in Nazareth (per...well...Matthew, but only by implication and by assuming much), fled to Egypt prior to Jesus' age 2 (per Matthew), sought to return to Bethlehem for unexplained reasons upon Herod's death (per Matthew), changed their minds and returned back to Nazareth in Galilee only after being warned in a dream not to return to Judea (per Matthew), witnessed the child grow strong there (per Luke), all while failing to miss even a SINGLE Passover celebration in Jerusalem (per Luke).
As for the two alternatives, I suppose the second “both/and” hypothesis is the more reasonable, for it requires the peasant family to engaged in a little less travel during a time when travel was truly a hardship on even those with means, and it doesn't require the Magi to just happen to stumble upon Bethlehem at a time when the Holy Family was visiting there. But, even so, it still has some fatal problems:
First, as previously noted, there was no known Roman census prior to Herod's death. In short, there is no known way that the holy family could have traveled to Bethlehem for Quirinius' census and yet still have had to flee to Egypt to escape Herod. Per the historical record, Herod's death and Quirinius' census are almost a full decade apart!
Second, accepting either hypothesis above requires us to ignore Matthew's explanation as to how they “came to reside” in Nazareth as merely superfluous, supplementary information. Rather than saying that they were diverted to Nazareth to escape Herod's son so that scripture might be fulfilled, Matthew need only to have said that they returned from Egypt to Nazareth because...well...that was their hometown! Which is easier, to explain their locating to Nazareth because of Herod's son or because that's simply where they originated from anyway?
Third, it is simply inconceivable that the Holy Family could have done all of the above travel without missing a single Passover celebration in Jerusalem, as Luke assures us. Did they travel from Egypt to Jerusalem each year during their exile? If so, no one mentions it, and this seems unlikely.
Furthermore, Herod is believed to have died in March or April (around Passover time). So, even if they were in Egypt for less than a year, and even if Herod died before Passover, it is exceedingly unlikely that the family would have learned of Herod's death in time to travel the considerable distance to Jerusalem in time to attend the Passover immediately following. Plus, neither Matthew nor Luke, both of whom take pains to chronicle the family's travels, mention any such a visit on the way back from Egypt. In fact, Matthew's account would prevent it, since he specifically says that God warned Joseph in a dream not to return to Judea after their exile and instead to proceed directly to Galilee. And Luke's account would prevent it by implication, since he indicates that the family traveled from Nazareth to Jerusalem each year for Passover. Are we to believe that the Holy family traveled from Egypt to Nazareth and then back to Jerusalem, all in the limited time between Herod's spring death and the Passover?
Fourth, Joseph was warned by God in a dream to avoid Judea (Matthew 2.22) for fear of Archelaus. Matthew states that he observed the warning by going to Galilee where he "came to reside" in Nazareth (curious language if indeed he was from there originally as Luke states). Thus, Matthew makes no mention of the family's annual visits to Judea for Passover, which continued to be governed by Archelaus until 6 AD, for such travel would be inconsistent with God’s warning to avoid the area. Are we to believe that once a year Joseph chose not to heed God's warning to avoid Judea (per Matthew) and risked everything to attend the Passover there every spring (per Luke)? I suppose it's possible, but neither gospel tells us this and it seems unlikely.
In short, not even the most tortured reading can fairly reconcile Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the events in the years immediately after Jesus’ birth. The Holy family could not have been both in Jerusalem/Nazareth and also in Egypt. Historically speaking, either Matthew or Luke is just plain wrong. Or, more likely, both of are!
Events surrounding Jesus’ Crucifixion
Most disturbingly, things don't get any better when we move on from the descriptions of Jesus' birth to those of his death.
One of the most famous “historical” events in Christian history is the Last Supper, presumably Jesus’ last meal. It is the whole basis for the sacrament of the Eucharist, or Communion. And yet, the gospel accounts of it disagree.
The Synoptics proclaim the Last Supper was the Passover meal (see, e.g., Mark 14:12-24; Matthew 26:17-28; Luke 22:7-20). However, John clearly states that the meal took place before Passover (see John 13:1; and by implication 19:14-33). The Synoptics present Jesus as giving the familiar Last Supper teaching (i.e., “this is my body” and “this is my blood”) during the supper, but curiously John’s account never mentions Jesus’ body or his blood and instead presents Jesus as washing his disciples feet and then presenting a whole host of near-Gnostic teachings not found anywhere in the other Gospels.
On the night of the Last Supper, all of the Gospels suggest that Jesus and some disciples went out to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. There Mathew, Mark and Luke recount how Jesus prayed for God to spare him. Later versions of Luke include a scene where Jesus is so disturbed that he actually sweats blood, but this episode is absent from the earliest and most reliable versions of Luke, and it does not appear in any of the other three Gospels. As we have previously noted, it was a spuriously added a century or more latter to help the orthodox counter the docetic heresy.
After a series of subsequent events, all four Gospels agree that Jesus is ultimately turned over to Pilate that same night, yet their accounts of how this happened and what happened next vary. There are a large number of discrepancies in these accounts, but none as potentially telling as how each gospel account increasingly exculpates Pilate (Rome) and blames the Jews for Jesus' death:
It is an illuminating exercise to trace the treatment of Pilate [the Roman Governor] through our surviving Gospels. The more he is excused, the more the Jews are blamed. Our earliest account, Mark, shows Pilate and the Jewish people reaching a kind of agreement to have Jesus crucified. Pilate then orders it, and Jesus is taken off immediately to his death (Mark 15:1-15). In Matthew’s Gospel, written somewhat later, Pilate is warned by his wife, who has had a bad dream, not to be involved in the affair; Pilate then shows that he wants nothing to do with Jesus’ death by washing his hand of the business. “I am innocent of this man’s blood. See to it yourselves,” he declares. The Jewish crowd then responds, “His blood be on us and our children” (Matt 27:25), a response doomed to wreak havoc in the hands of Christian persecutors of Jews throughout the Middle Ages.
In Luke’s Gospel, written about the same time as Matthew, Pilate declares Jesus innocent three times, to no avail, and tries to arrange for King Herod, in town for the Passover Feast, to do the dirty work for him. But again it is to no avail. With little way out, Pilate yields to the demands of the Jewish leaders and orders Jesus crucified (Luke 23:1-15). In John’s Gospel, the final canonical account to be written, Pilate again declares Jesus innocent three times, and then finally, when his hand is forced, turns Jesus over—not, however to the Roman soldiers but to the Jewish people. Jesus is then crucified. (John 18:28—19:16). (Lost Christianities at 21)
This shifting of blame from Rome to the Jews over time is exactly what we’d expect to see after Rome had crushed the rebellion and destroyed the Temple in 70 AD, eventually assuming control over the compilation and editing of the Bible:
[The Jewish historian] Josephus notes that all historical works form this period suffer from two main defects, “flattery of the Romans and vilification of the Jews, adulation and abuse being substituted for the real historical record.” (Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus at xxii)
While the Synoptics present Jesus as dying on the morning following the Passover meal (see, e.g., Mark 14:12,22; 15:25), John insists that he died in the afternoon the day before that meal (John 19:14).
In Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ last words on the cross were “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These are curious words indeed for someone who, according to Literalists at least, understood completely the significance of his death as part of God’s grand plan to redeem humanity. Perhaps the later Gospel writers, Luke and John, recognized the strangeness of this pronouncement, for in their versions Jesus never speaks such uncomprehending words. Instead, Luke states that Jesus’ last words were a much more knowing, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”, while John records that he simply said “It is finished”, also suggesting that Jesus understood his mission and the significance of his death.
Mark indicates that Jesus’ death was marked by the veil of the Temple being torn in two. Matthew mentions the veil, but also states that the earth shook (Matthew has a penchant for earthquakes, being the only gospel writer to claim that one occurred both upon Jesus' death and resurrection), rocks split, tombs were opened, and many dead saints were raised (and appeared to many in and about Jerusalem). Matthew 27:51-53. Luke mentions the veil being torn, but like Mark and John, he knows nothing of earthquakes, splitting rocks, or risen corpses walking around Jerusalem. Surely these are events that Mark, Luke and John’s “eyewitnesses” would not have failed to mention if they had known about them. And surely they would have known about them if they had truly happened.
Again, not even the most tortured, contrived reading of scripture is able to reconcile all of these various anomalies in a manner that doesn't create additional complications or otherwise stretch credulity to the extreme.
Events Surrounding Jesus’ Resurrection
Literalist Christianity is built upon the foundation of Jesus’ physical, bodily resurrection from the dead. If that event didn’t happen, then Literalist Christianity and its assorted doctrines cannot stand. And yet, the Literalists’ own scriptures provide inconsistent and in some cases completely contradictory versions of this most important of events. Let’s consider their varying accounts in the order in which they were written, paying particular attention to the legendary accretions over time.
Mark's Original Ressurection Account
Mark’s account of Jesus’ resurrection is pretty basic and begins at Chapter 16. Mark explains how, after the Sabbath, three people (Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome) approached Jesus’ unguarded tomb on Sunday morning after sunrise for the purpose of anointing his dead body. As they approached, they noticed that the stone covering the entrance to the tomb had already been rolled away. They entered the tomb and saw a single young man wearing a white robe to their right. The man told them that Jesus was not there—that he had risen. The young man instructed them to go and tell the disciples that Jesus would meet them all in Galilee. The reader may recall that Jesus had previously told his disciples that he'd meet them in Galilee after he had “been raised” (Mark 14:28). The three astonished women then left the tomb and “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8). At this point the original version of Mark ends! Nothing further is said. In other words, our oldest Gospel does not chronicle any post-resurrection appearances by to his disciples! This fact is truly remarkable, but few Literalist Christians are even aware of it, and most modern Bibles disguise this fact by mentioning it only in a vague footnote that says something like "some of the earliest manuscripts do not contain verses 9-20". In fact, none of the earliest ones do!
Had he known of them, how could Mark have omitted something so important as Jesus' post-resurrection appearances and teachings? And, as nothing is more central to Literalist Christian than the fact that Jesus rose physically from the dead and walked among his followers, how could Mark not have known if the story was true and widely believed at the time?
Taking the original Gospel of Mark at face value, it is important to note here that nothing really miraculous necessarily happened. The person that the women met at the tomb is not described as an angel, but simply a “man” in a white robe. The stone covering the entrance to the tomb was removed prior to their arrival, not by some angel as Matthew would later insist. There are no eyewitnesses who see Jesus’ resurrected body, not even Mary Magdalene, and there is no account of Jesus’ latter ascension into heaven. In short, the first gospel ever written suggests that the empty tomb could be explained by natural causes. For instance, Jesus could have survived the cross and was resuscitated and rescued by certain of his followers, among them a man in a white robe. Or, in the alternative, Jesus’ dead body may have been placed in a temporary tomb near his crucifixion until after the Sabbath was over, and then after the Sabbath was completed (i.e., after sunset on Saturday night) and prior to Mary’s arrival (after sunrise the next morning), it was removed by Romans and placed somewhere more permanent and secret--secret so as to prevent Jesus' more zealous followers from venerating his grave and using it to inspire rebellion. As originally written, Mark would support either of these interpretations.
Mark's Revised Resurrection Account
First century Gnostic Christian and pagans noticed this fact as well, and leveled this very charge at the Literalists (Matthew tells us as much). For this reason, at some later date, Literalists, who unlike Gnostic Christians insisted on Christ’s literal bodily resurrection, altered Mark’s original text to support their position. As discussed previously, later manuscripts of Mark (and our modern Bibles) contain resurrection material that does not appear in any of the earliest known versions of the Gospel. Specifically, Chapter 16 verses 9-20 of Mark do not appear in the Codex Sinaiticus or the Codex Vaticanus. Likewise, they do not appear in the oldest known manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate or the Old Syriac.
These spurious verses added at the end of Mark purport to document how the resurrected Jesus physically appeared first to Mary Magdalene at an unspecified location. Mary then reported Jesus appearance to other followers who refused to believe her. Jesus then appeared “in a different form” to two of these followers while walking in the countryside. These two likewise shared the good news of Jesus' resurrection with “the others”, but they still refused to believe. Finally, Jesus appeared to the eleven around a dining table, reproached them for failing to believe, and commissioned them to spread the good news throughout the world. He then ascended into heaven to take his seat by God.
Not only is the inauthenticity of these verses betrayed by their absence in all our earliest texts, but the vocabulary used in this added section is peculiar and inconsistent with Mark’s writing style, though this fact is more evident in the original tongue. Also, many of the expressions contained in the expanded conclusion documenting Jesus’ post resurrection appearances are unique in the New Testament. For all these reasons, no one seriously considers the expanded conclusion of Mark to be genuine. It was clearly inserted by later Literalist scribes, probably in the later part of the 3rd Century CE, to counteract claims by some Christian groups, primarily Gnostic ones, that Jesus never resurrected physically (i.e., in the flesh) but only spiritually.
Matthew's Resurrection Account
Matthew’s fantastic account of Jesus’ resurrection begins at Chapter 27:57, and it contradicts Mark’s in many ways. Obviously sensitive to the criticism to which Mark’s original account had left Literalist Christians exposed, namely that Jesus hadn’t resurrected but rather that his disciples or Romans had simply stolen his body, Mathew emphasizes that the tomb was guarded to prevent just such interference. At dawn on Sunday, only two people (Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary”), rather than three (as Mark suggested), approached the tomb. As they did so a severe earthquake shook the earth, and an “angel” wearing white descended from heaven, rolled away the stone for the two Marys, and sat upon it. The posted guards fainted from fear, but the two Mary's were apparently tougher. The angel spoke to them and told them not to fear and that Jesus had risen. This angel then invited the women to view the empty tomb for themselves and instructed them to go tell the disciples that Jesus had “risen from the dead” and would meet them in Galilee. They immediately departed the tomb to tell the disciples the good news, contradicting Mark's original account in which they told now one what they had seen.
On their way to tell the disciples, they were met by Jesus himself, and they clung to his feet and worshipped him, somewhat to Jesus' chagrin. On Jesus’ instructions, they then continued on their way and delivered the good news to the other disciples.
The eleven disciples then proceeded to Galilee to meet Jesus, as instructed. There Jesus appeared to them for the first time, not around a dining table, but on a designated mountain. Even then though, some of them were doubtful. Jesus then commissioned them to spread the good news to all the world, and the story ends.
Because Mark's account of resurrection appearances were added long after original Mark was written, the first “documented eyewitness account” (and I use that term very, very loosely) of Jesus' physical resurrection appears in Matthew. But, Matthew was written some 50 years after the events in question, and more than a decade after Mark's original account. It's difficult to believe that there were very many true eyewitnesses still around at that time.
Matthew knowingly chose to contradict Mark’s account of the resurrection in important and telling ways, ways that protected Literalist from attacks by Gnostic Christian and pagan detractors. Contradicting even the revised and supplemental Marcan account, Matthew indicates that the tomb was guarded; that two women rather than three approached it; that it was closed rather than open when they arrived; that the stone was removed only when an angel, heralded by an earthquake, descended from Heaven to remove it for them; that the angel instructed them outside of the tomb (as opposed to Mark’s “man” instructing them inside); that Jesus appeared first to two Marys, not just Mary Magdalene; and that Jesus first appeared to the eleven not indoors at a dining table, but outdoors on a mountaintop. In short, these stories are wholly irreconcilable, and intentionally and knowingly so!
Matthew had no qualms contradicting Mark’s account, or supplementing it when doing so would help Christians defend themselves against the charges to which Mark’s original account had left them exposed. In doing this, Matthew clearly didn’t consider Mark’s account to be infallible scripture. Why should we?
Luke's Resurrection Account
Luke’s account of Jesus’ resurrection begins at Chapter 23:50. Luke recounts how unnamed and unnumbered “women” (apparently according to a later verse including Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Joanna among others) approached the tomb early Sunday morning and, like Mark’s women, found that the stone had already been removed. They entered the tomb of their own volition and found it empty. Suddenly, not one, but two men appeared next to them in the tomb wearing dazzling clothes. These men pronounced that Jesus had risen. The women then returned from the tomb to tell the eleven and the rest of Jesus’ followers what they had found, never running into Jesus along the way. Not surprisingly, the others refused to believe.
Contradicting Matthew’s account that he appeared first to the women as they were exiting the tomb, Luke’s Jesus appears first to two of his male followers (unnamed) as they traveled on the road to Emmaus. Despite conversing with him at length, they did not recognize Jesus at first, but eventually “their eyes were opened.” They then returned to Jerusalem to tell the others about the risen Jesus. While they were doing so, Jesus suddenly appeared to all of them, but many still didn’t believe. Jesus invited them to view his injuries and to touch and feel him, proving that he had resurrected “in the body.” He then ate with them and taught them. Finally, he led them to Bethany in Galilee where he ascended into heaven.
Remembering that Luke had Mark in front of him as he wrote, it’s apparent that Luke also did not consider Mark’s account infallible, for he sought to "correct" Mark’s record in several ways. Contradicting Mark, Luke indicates that more than three women approached the tomb (while Matthew insists that there were only two women). Luke agrees with Mark, and contradicts Matthew, that the tomb was unguarded and the stone was already removed upon the women’s arrival. Like Mark, but unlike Matthew, Luke knows nothing about earthquakes or an angel rolling away the stone. Yet, Luke supports Matthew’s contention that there were two men present at the tomb announcing Jesus’ resurrection, specifically contradicting Mark’s account that only one was there. In the original version of Mark, the women ran away and told no one what they had seen (i.e., the empty tomb), while Luke makes it clear that they went to the eleven and told all they knew. Matthew says that Jesus appeared first to the women as they fled the tomb, Luke says he appeared first to unnamed travelers on the road to Emmaus. Neither Matthew nor the original version of Mark know anything about Jesus’ ascension to heaven, but Luke does.
John's Resurrection Account
As if the evidence weren’t muddled enough at this point, we then have John’s account which begins at Chapter 20. John contradicts the combined testimony of the other three accounts in significant ways. He recounts how, before dawn on Sunday, Mary Magdalene approached Jesus’ tomb alone to find that the stone had already been removed. Rather than entering, as she explicitly did in the prior accounts, she ran to tell Simon Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” that someone had stolen Jesus’ body. Peter and the other disciple then ran to the tomb, with the other disciple arriving first but not entering. He peered into the tomb and saw the linen wrappings that had once covered Jesus’ body. Peter then arrived and entered the tomb and saw the same wrappings. They then left to return to their own homes, leaving Mary standing outside the tomb weeping. She then looked into the tomb and saw two angels wearing white sitting where the body of Jesus had lain. They spoke briefly to her and suddenly Jesus himself appeared to Mary, even spoke to her, but she did not recognize him at first. After he called her name, she did recognize him and cleaved to him. He instructed her not to touch him and to go tell his disciples the good news.
Later that same day, Jesus mysteriously appeared to the disciples in a closed room, showing them his hands and side. Jesus then breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Eight days later Jesus appeared to them again in the same room, and Thomas placed his finger through Jesus’ hands and his hand in Jesus’ side.
Sometime Later Jesus again appeared to his disciples on a beach at the Sea of Galilee. John specifies that this was only the third time that he had manifested himself to his followers, the other two being previously described. Jesus teaches them, and the story ends.
Comparing all Four Accounts
And so our four witness have left us very muddled accounts of this most important of Christian events, Jesus’ resurrection. By all accounts, Mary Magdalene approached Jesus tomb early on Sunday morning. Mark says that the sun had already risen while John insists that is was still dark and the other two witnesses state that it was about dawn. Mark says that two other women accompanied her, Mathew indicates that only one other woman accompanied her, Luke indicates that more than two other women accompanied her, and John indicates that she approached the tomb alone. Luke, Mark and John agree that the tomb was unguarded and that the stone had already been removed by the time that Mary arrived, but Matthew vehemently disagrees on both counts. Luke, Matthew and John agree that two men announced the good news to Mary at the tomb, while Mark says there was only one. In Marks account the women ran away and said nothing to anyone, and in the original version his story ends there. In Matthew’s account the women are the first to meet Jesus face to face and do so before delivering the good news to the disciples while in Luke’ they tell the disciples the good news but never meet Jesus face to face. John splits the difference by having Mary Magdalene describe the empty tomb first to Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” before she met Jesus. She then meets Jesus and only later that same day goes to tell the other disciples the good news. John stresses that the risen Jesus only appeared to the disciples on three occasions (not counting his appearance to Mary)—he appeared to them once in a closed room in Jerusalem on the same day that he appeared to Mary (i.e., the same day as his resurrection), he appeared to them again eight days later (also in a closed room, perhaps the same one, presumably in Jerusalem), and he made his final appearance at a beach in Galilee. By contrast, our oldest Gospel, Mark, in it’s unaltered form, knows of no post-resurrection appearances. In Matthew’s account Jesus appears once to the women on the day of his resurrection, and then makes one other appearance to the disciples on a mountain in Galilee, contradicting John’s insistence that he appeared only three times, twice in a room and once on a beach (i.e., never on a mountain). Ignoring his appearance to Mary, Luke agrees with John to a point—Jesus appeared first to his disciples in a closed room in Jerusalem. According to Luke, Jesus then led them all to Bethany where he ascended to heaven. In Luke’s account, Jesus never goes back to Galilee. By contrast, Mark, Matthew and John know nothing about Jesus’ ascension, a fact they surely would not have failed to report had it been known to them.
Once again, not even the most contrived reading can successfully reconcile these varying accounts. Furthermore, it is clear that where Matthew and Luke contradict Mark as opposed to merely supplementing him, it is because the deemed Mark's account to be wrong and not simply incomplete.
Despite centuries of editing and harmonizing interpretations, the canonical gospels can’t agree on even the basic details of the Jesus story. Who were his ancestors? Where did the holy family go after his birth? On which day did he die? When was the Last Supper held? Did he appear to his disciples after his resurrection and, if so, when, where, and how many times?
On these points, and on so many others, the gospel accounts contradict each other, and often time intentionally so. What are we to make of all these gospel discrepancies?
[O]nce we begin to suspect the historical accuracy of our Gospel sources, and find evidence that corroborates our suspicions, where does that lead us? With regard to our questions about the nature of orthodoxy and heresy in early Christianity, it leads us away from the classical notion that orthodoxy is rooted in the apostles’ teaching as accurately preserved in the New Testament gospels and to the realization that the doctrines of orthodox Christianity must have developed at a time later than the historical Jesus and his apostles, later even than our earliest Christian writings. (Cite to follow)
Said another way, neither the Bible itself nor any other evidence supports the Paradigm of Historicity. Given all the evidence summarized so far, we must conclude that the Bible is a fallible book written by humans, not an infallible book written by God. And, we must interpret it accordingly.
Does this mean that the Bible is useless? Of course not. Or, at least no more so than any other religious book. Like so much religious literature, the Bible attempts to impart certain timeless spiritual truths the usefulness of which is not dependent upon historical events. In fact, reading religious literature historically actually hinders one's spiritual understanding of the text.
Many of Jesus' earliest followers, especially the Gnostic Christians, did not have the same understanding of Jesus as we do today. Rather, their understanding was informed by cultural and religious traditions of the time, traditions that were actively suppressed once Christianity was imposed upon the Roman Empire by force. Before we can gain some understanding of how many of Christ's earliest followers understood him, we must gain a clearer understanding the cultural and religious traditions that preceded Christianity. Such is the subject of Part III of this book.