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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Why is Mary Crying? The Inaccuracy of the Easter Account

Today in the Christian tradition is celebrated as the anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus, and is called "Easter" in English-speaking countries after the spring goddess "Eostre." Embarrassingly close pagan origins aside, the Christian narrative which recounts the events of this day is recorded in all four Gospels- one of the only narrative elements which the Synoptics and John share in common.

Ex-Evangelical Christian and co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation Dan Barker has issued a perennial challenge to Christians, requesting that they "tell [him] what happened on Easter. [He's] am not asking for proof. [His] straightforward request is merely that Christians tell [him] exactly what happened on the day that their most important doctrine was born." The terms of this challenge are to harmonize the gospel accounts from Easter morning until the end of each gospel, without omitting a single detail.

I've decided to take up this challenge, simply to familiarize myself with the issues involved with this challenge, so that I may be better informed when discussing the gospel accounts with others. I intend to take as liberal a position as possible, including all non-redundant events under the assumption that differing details are omissions between the accounts. For convenience, when an event is recorded in two or more gospels, I will include the text from the older source (assuming that Mark is the oldest account, followed by Matthew, Luke and John).

I will not be including text from Mark 9-20, since it is not found in the original manuscripts, and most of its narrative content is a paraphrase of other gospels. I also will not be including Acts 1:3-12, since the account in Luke ends with an ascension, and I will not be including Paul's formula in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, since it does not contribute any narrative details in a context which promotes harmonization.

My source text translation is the New American Standard Version.

You can read the separate accounts over each Gospel here: Mark, Matthew, Luke, John.

You can read my harmonization here. The harmonization is color-coded to show from which Gospel account the text originated.

My full conclusions are found here. Briefly, though I tried to be as liberal as possible, there are two irreconcilable contradictions within the harmonization. The first is the emotional state of the women as they left the tomb- in Mark, they are afraid and speak to no one; in Matthew, they are joyful and report immediately to the disciples. The second is the emotional state of Mary after seeing the risen Jesus. Because the order of the narrative is different in the Synoptics and John, a harmonization of the four shows Mary crying and upset because she thinks the body of Jesus has been stolen- just hours after seeing him resurrected.

Clearly, the accurate historicity of this event is contradicted by the only documents which record it. If an historical Jesus existed, the Gospel writers are the least trustworthy sources of information.

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15 Comments:

At 4/16/2006 9:55 AM, Blogger The ArtDude declaimed...

Barker's challenge really is more for the fundamentalist type who believes the Bible "word for word." Being liberal with the challenge is really not the point of it. The point of the challenge is to show inerrantists they need to be liberal or else face incoherence. On the other hand, the challenge is not a big deal for liberal religious types who don't take it all literally anyway. For example, take the Unitarian-Universalist who believes its all myth and therefore metaphorical, but nonetheless thinks the story has validity at that level.

 
At 4/16/2006 1:17 PM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

True, but then the Universalists aren't really the problem, are they?

 
At 4/16/2006 1:20 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

Frankenscripture! My favorite kind! Nice job, but what happened to the seven devils that Jesus allegedly cast out of Mary Magdelene? Did they find two more and start a baseball team? What were they all doing in there in the first place? Did they mistake Mary for a condo? How big was this woman? If everything in the bile, I mean Bible, is literally true, how come her name isn't written and pronounced "Mar-yam?" Let the literalists answer these questions without deviating from scripture!

Happy Easter!

 
At 4/17/2006 8:28 PM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

Oh, cool. So long as this is coming up here (I recently saw this issue raised elsewhere, as is popular around this time of year of course) and I'm having a bit of interchange with this blog, I'd like to post a link to a harmonization I wrote in 2002. At the time it was a quick rough draft that I wrote as a personal challenge from an atheist who never responded back to me regarding it. I've never been convinced that it's really complete, as I'd love to add in Acts 1 and 1Cor15 as well, as well as look at some of the named locations on a map to see if they make full sense. However, I never really got back to it because I never got a good bit of constructive criticism. (Any Christian I give it to simply says, "Looks good!" and hands it back.)

I think my harmonization deals with the two issues addressed here but it may not be explained very well why. mainly, my interpretation of the resurrection accounts assumes that while Mary Magdalene had planned to meet the other women at the tomb (and some parts of the accounts group her in in a manner that may be misleading) she arrives and leaves the tomb first, before the other women get there at all, and meets them later only in passing, if at all.

Anyway, I see at least one possible flaw, and would like to hear what people think.

 
At 4/17/2006 11:27 PM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

Brucker-

Good effort- but you still have Mary crying after being told that Jesus had been resurrected. This doesn't make any sense in your harmonization, as it didn't in mine.

You also have a huge gap in John's account to be able to fit the angelic appearance in the Synoptics into the timeline. You also have the disciples not believing, even though Mary, Peter, and the other disciple had witnessed the angels. That doesn't make sense.

The basic problem is that the Synoptics have angels appearing BEFORE the women tell the disciples, whereas John has the angels appear AFTER this. This is a pretty fundamental problem, and I haven't yet seen a harmonization that can fix it.

 
At 4/18/2006 4:24 PM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

I think you're misunderstanding my harmonization. There may be some gap problems (in fact, I think there is at least one), but I don't think they're where you are claiming them to be.

"[Y]ou still have Mary crying after being told that Jesus had been resurrected."

Basically, if you look at my timeline, and the way the columns are arranged, the account in John's Gospel is essentially the story of Mary M. She's the first one to arrive at the tomb on Sunday morning, and once she sees that Jesus' body is not there, she takes off running to tell Peter and John, missing out on the first meeting with the angel(s). When she returns to the tomb, the women have left, and all that's there is her, John, Peter, and Jesus' grave clothes. Nobody is there to explain what's going on. (Note that in John 20:9, John and Peter don't understand the implications of the missing body yet.) So while Mary was the first to see Jesus, the other women had already received the news of the resurrection from the angel(s). Mary was crying not despite the news of the resurrection, but because she had no news at all.

"You also have a huge gap in John's account to be able to fit the angelic appearance in the Synoptics into the timeline."

It's not a "huge" gap. It's the amount of time it takes Mary to make a round trip to wherever John and Peter are. During this time, there is only a very brief conversation with the angel(s) that was about four sentences long.

"You also have the disciples not believing, even though Mary, Peter, and the other disciple had witnessed the angels. That doesn't make sense."

Well, aside from the fact that it makes sense insofar as one can always disbelieve personal testimony (as no doubt you do in the case of the four Gospels), you are mixing up the stories in a way that not only goes against the way I have arranged my harmonization, but against every harmonization I have ever read, including your own. Peter and John never saw the angels, and that's one thing I think is clear to anyone reading the accounts.

"The basic problem is that the Synoptics have angels appearing BEFORE the women tell the disciples, whereas John has the angels appear AFTER this. This is a pretty fundamental problem, and I haven't yet seen a harmonization that can fix it."

I don't see it as a fundamental problem in the slightest. Where is it written that the angels could have only appeared one time? The way I see it, the angel(s) appear three times. Once to the soldiers before sunrise, once to the women (sans Mary M.) shortly after sunrise, and once to Mary M. a few minutes later. I figure they had to be there at least twice.

Now upon reading this years later, the things that bother me, but don't seem outright contradictory, are the gaps in Matthew's account, which seems to be very poorly written in general. Even if you assume that verses 2-4 happened before the women got there, the transition from verse 4 to verse 5 seems awkward. Also, the transition from verse 8 to verse 9 is also a bit strange, and it's not clear to me why Jesus puts in this personal appearance to repeat instructions they were just given, but not one to the Apostles until much later. I also continue to wonder who the "Simon" referred to in Luke 24:34 might be.

 
At 4/18/2006 6:31 PM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

Brucker-

"Basically, if you look at my timeline, and the way the columns are arranged, the account in John's Gospel is essentially the story of Mary M. She's the first one to arrive at the tomb on Sunday morning, and once she sees that Jesus' body is not there, she takes off running to tell Peter and John, missing out on the first meeting with the angel(s).

I didn't understand this from your harmonization. But this is contradicted by verse 10 in Luke, which specifically names Mary Magdalene as one of the women who received the news from the angels and reported to the disciples. You have this occuring before verse 10 in John, which again leads me to ask, why is she crying?

"It's not a "huge" gap. It's the amount of time it takes Mary to make a round trip to wherever John and Peter are. During this time, there is only a very brief conversation with the angel(s) that was about four sentences long."

It also has to be big enough for all the other women to go tell the disciples. Remember, they're all named in Luke.

"Peter and John never saw the angels, and that's one thing I think is clear to anyone reading the accounts."

That's true- my mistake. What I meant was that they all had seen evidence of the resurrection and believed, and yet somehow the rest of the disciples don't believe Mary Magdalene at that point in your chronology. I think part of the reason for this is you've included all of Mark- surely you know that these final verses were added much later, and don't really contribute to the narrative. I left them out of my harmonization.

"I don't see it as a fundamental problem in the slightest. Where is it written that the angels could have only appeared one time? The way I see it, the angel(s) appear three times."

Now this is ridiculous. None of the Gospels individually indicate in the slightest that there are more than one appearance of the angels. The only way to read it into the narrative is by wedging John's account into the Synoptics. In my harmonization I overlaid all corresponding events- for example, I only list four women, not five- the "other Mary" in Matthew is a clear correspondence with "Mary the mother of James" in Mark and Luke.

"Now upon reading this years later, the things that bother me, but don't seem outright contradictory, are the gaps in Matthew's account, which seems to be very poorly written in general."

This would be an argument for Markan priority. Notice how much the other Gospels diverge once they venture past the Markan narrative which ends at verse 8.

"I also continue to wonder who the "Simon" referred to in Luke 24:34 might be."

What's more interesting, I think, is why don't they mention that he had appeared to the women?

 
At 4/18/2006 7:31 PM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

"But this is contradicted by verse 10 in Luke, which specifically names Mary Magdalene as one of the women who received the news from the angels and reported to the disciples. You have this occuring before verse 10 in John, which again leads me to ask, why is she crying?"

The biggest problem in reconciling the four accounts in my mind has always been the proper identification of which women were where, and at what time. All four Gospels mention Mary Magdalene specifically, but John gives us a great amount of information about her that the others omit for whatever reason. My position on the matter is that Matthew 28:1 and Mark 16:1 include Mary in the group as a whole because all of these women were planning to meet up at Jesus' tomb. In the synoptic Gospels' less detailed accounts, Mary M. simply gets grouped in with "the women".

As for Luke 24:10, I'm assuming a similar grouping, as I noted in the comments column. I'm saying that the women were not all in a single group (notably Mary M. being separate), and neither were the Apostles. The women as a whole reported what they saw to the Apostles, first Mary M. reporting the empty tomb, and after Peter, John and Mary head back to the tomb, the other women give the rest of the story as they know it.

"It also has to be big enough for all the other women to go tell the disciples. Remember, they're all named in Luke."

Ah, now I do think you've got a point there, although I think I can fix it. The way I have it set up now, Mary M. seems to be making two round trips to the tomb before the other women manage to make just one. I vaguely recall when I originally posted this elsewhere that I said something like, "I'm not sure, but it sounds like Mary must be running awfully fast to do all of this." I'm taking Luke 24:10 to be a telescoping of a series of several events on Luke's part, but it makes verse 11 seem to be in the wrong place; maybe it should even be after Matthew 28:10, I'm not sure.

Yeah, that's part of my problem with the gap between vv. 8-9 in Matthew, is that it's not real clear to me how long that gap of time is, nor what occurs within that time.

"What I meant was that they all had seen evidence of the resurrection and believed, and yet somehow the rest of the disciples don't believe Mary Magdalene at that point in your chronology. I think part of the reason for this is you've included all of Mark- surely you know that these final verses were added much later, and don't really contribute to the narrative."

Yeah, I know about Mark, but I didn't see it as a problem at all. I figure Thomas wasn't the only one who refused to believe until he had seen it himself. The real thing that bothers me about believing or not is John 20:8-9, which I note in my comments.

"None of the Gospels individually indicate in the slightest that there are more than one appearance of the angels."

That's because they're telling the story from different perspectives. They appear to the Roman soldiers, as only Matthew reports. Possibly without leaving, they appear to the *other* women, which the synoptic Gospels report. Later, they appear to Mary, which only John reports because for whatever reason, he's telling this whole story from Mary's perspective.

"This would be an argument for Markan priority. Notice how much the other Gospels diverge once they venture past the Markan narrative which ends at verse 8."

That is an interesting point. If I were to exclude Mark's Gospel after verse 8, then there is almost no overlap in the narratives after that point. In an odd way, that might be further evidence that the last bit of Mark was added much later, perhaps in an attempt to make the account match just a little better?

"What's more interesting, I think, is why don't they mention that he had appeared to the women?"

Well, the wayt my chronology is set up right now, the appearance occurs *after* the women talk to the Apostles. So perhaps Matthew had heard this story, but the other authors did not? (Although given the fact that even Bible believers accept that the Gospels were written at least a couple decades afterwards, why would this story not be widely known?) But then, that heightens the problem of the Matthew gap I keep mentioning which, gap or no gap, is notable in its absence: Why would Matthew have the women ordered to go to the disciples, but never record them actually doing so?

So many of these things are a matter of opinion I think, since neither of us think we have a solution to the puzzle, but we're bothered by different issues. Perhaps I'm ready for a revision anyway...

 
At 4/18/2006 10:58 PM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

Brucker-

"My position on the matter is that Matthew 28:1 and Mark 16:1 include Mary in the group as a whole because all of these women were planning to meet up at Jesus' tomb. In the synoptic Gospels' less detailed accounts, Mary M. simply gets grouped in with "the women"."

But you're inserting your own bias into the text here. It's one thing to say that since the text doesn't say the angels appeared twice, it could have happened, but it's another thing entirely to say that although the text groups Mary Magdelene with the other women specifically, it really means that she was on her own. The goal here is to harmonize, not to rewrite.

"The way I have it set up now, Mary M. seems to be making two round trips to the tomb before the other women manage to make just one."

But this is not supported by any of the Gospels independently. You're adding to the narrative.

"That's because they're telling the story from different perspectives."

But that's a pretty fundamental element to the narrative to not be reflected in any of the Gospels. What was the motivation for Mary to run back and forth so many times? Read each account separately and see if there's any clue at all to Mary running back and forth multiple times.

"If I were to exclude Mark's Gospel after verse 8, then there is almost no overlap in the narratives after that point. In an odd way, that might be further evidence that the last bit of Mark was added much later, perhaps in an attempt to make the account match just a little better?"

Bingo. It also helps to make sense why the narrative up to verse 8 is closely paralleled in the other Gospels, but afterwards the narratives diverge sharply. If it was a simple case of "different perspectives" we'd expect the close parallels to continue throughout all the narratives.

"Why would Matthew have the women ordered to go to the disciples, but never record them actually doing so?"

Because Mark didn't record them doing so. Remember, in Mark they were afraid and told noone. Matthew wanted to improve on Mark's narrative- he adds some showy details, like the earthquake, and the zombie army from the previous chapter. He also wants to add the post-resurrection appearance that he wishes Mark had written about, so he changes the women from being afraid to talk, to being joyful to talk. That way he can get the disciples to Galilee for the Great Comission.

 
At 4/19/2006 8:03 PM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

"But you're inserting your own bias into the text here. It's one thing to say that since the text doesn't say the angels appeared twice, it could have happened, but it's another thing entirely to say that although the text groups Mary Magdelene with the other women specifically, it really means that she was on her own. The goal here is to harmonize, not to rewrite."

I understand your point, and I admit once again (as I think I did before) that the erratic manner in which the women are identified in the four accounts clouds the matter quite a bit. All I am trying to say is that it's a possible interpretation, and not unreasonable.

For example, one could say that "The twelve Apostles followed Jesus throughout His earthly ministry," and most people wouldn't take issue with such a statement despite the fact that Matthew didn't join Jesus until much later than the others, Judas Iscariot left the group slightly before Jesus' ministry was completed, and in between, there were numerous times when they were apart. In this case, all of the women went to the tomb, and all of the women went to tell the disciples what they saw; the fact that Mary did so separately does not outright falsify Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1 and Luke 24:10.

"But this is not supported by any of the Gospels independently. You're adding to the narrative."

And I'm saying I agree with you on this point. While it's possible that Mary spent her entire morning running back and forth to the tomb, somehow it seems unlikely, at least at the speed at which she seems to be moving.

"What was the motivation for Mary to run back and forth so many times? Read each account separately and see if there's any clue at all to Mary running back and forth multiple times."

Her motivation is clear, and it's all laid out in John. She goes to the tomb (v. 1) for reasons more fully explained in the other Gospels. When she sees the body missing, she hurries to see Peter and John (v. 2), and apparently comes back to the tomb, as she's still there when they leave (v. 11), and after she sees Jesus, she goes back to the disciples again because she has more news (v. 18). I think her motives behind all of these actions are clear, I'm just not sure what the time scale involved is. John is really the only one who tells this part of the story.

"...but afterwards the narratives diverge sharply. If it was a simple case of "different perspectives" we'd expect the close parallels to continue throughout all the narratives."

Yes, I may be mistaken, but I think it's even widely accepted among Chistian scholars that the last chapter of Mark's Gospel has been edited, and that much of Matthew's material was borrowed from Mark. Personally, I think Matthew is very poorly written, and in this particular chapter has a few chronology issues.

"Matthew wanted to improve on Mark's narrative- he adds some showy details, like the earthquake, and the zombie army from the previous chapter. He also wants to add the post-resurrection appearance that he wishes Mark had written about, so he changes the women from being afraid to talk, to being joyful to talk."

I could see that as a reasonable supposition, although I personally am not going to accept it.

"That way he can get the disciples to Galilee for the Great Comission."

Hmm, I vaguely recall that that may have been one of the larger issues that I wasn't sure I could reconcile either. While Galilee is mentioned in all four Gospels (I think), I vaguely recall that in the latter part of one or more of the chapters (You may have noticed that my harmonization is not only not without flaws, but not complete) there was an issue of somebody travelling from Jerusalem to Galilee a bit too quickly considering the distance between them. I'll have to look into that one, too before this is anywhere near complete.

Thanks for your continued feedback, I really do appreciate it, believe it or not.

 
At 4/20/2006 8:29 AM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

Brucker-

"the erratic manner in which the women are identified in the four accounts clouds the matter quite a bit. All I am trying to say is that it's a possible interpretation, and not unreasonable."

I would disagree. The composition of the group changes between the narratives, but Mary Magdalene is always named as part of the group.

"While Galilee is mentioned in all four Gospels (I think), I vaguely recall that in the latter part of one or more of the chapters (You may have noticed that my harmonization is not only not without flaws, but not complete) there was an issue of somebody travelling from Jerusalem to Galilee a bit too quickly considering the distance between them."

Correct. The last scene in Mark, Matthew, and John takes place in Galilee. In Luke's narrative, however, the ascension takes place in Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem. Since this event has to be the final element in any harmonization, I placed it last, making it the case that the risen Jesus appeared and interacted with his disciples in Galilee, but for some reason decided to travel all the way to Bethany for his ascension.

 
At 4/20/2006 3:27 PM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

"The composition of the group changes between the narratives, but Mary Magdalene is always named as part of the group."

Probably because of her importance? I'd say that after Mary (Jesus' mom), the most important woman in the new testament is Mary (Magdalene).

One last comment for now that I forgot to mention yesterday. I realized something yesterday that alleviated my confusion about John 20:8-9. Verse 8 says they "believed", but the parenthetical statement of verse 9 says they didn't understand what was going on. It's one of these odd moments in the Bible that almost seems like a blatant contradiction, but the two "contradictory" statements are so close to one another that you know it must be a misunderstanding. So I finally realized that all these years I've been overanalyzing the text when the answer is very plain. What was "believed"? Why, Mary's claim that the body was gone, that's all.

 
At 4/20/2006 3:43 PM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

Brucker-

"Probably because of her importance? I'd say that after Mary (Jesus' mom), the most important woman in the new testament is Mary (Magdalene)."

Regardless of the reason, Mary Magdalene is named specifically as part of the group.

"Verse 8 says they "believed", but the parenthetical statement of verse 9 says they didn't understand what was going on."

That's what I would interpret also, although the Greek grammar might not support the English translation. Either way, I find it to be minor in comparison to Mary's tears.

This post over at Debunking Christianity may also interest you.

 
At 4/21/2006 3:38 PM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

Thanks for the link! He's got some excellent points, and elements of that story have always bothered me. It's clear if you look at it closely that the guard (if indeed it existed) was not a Roman one. Pilate has no interest in expending manpower to guard a dead body, the soldiers are involved in numerous events that would have called for the death penalty as punishment (although 28:14 proposes fodder on which some have made a half-harted attempt to explain this away) if they were indeed Roman. Although I could accept the idea perhaps that the women were hoping that the soldiers would roll back the stone for them out of pity and let them anoint the body, if there was a seal on the grave that could not be broken under pain of death (which they knew, since Mary was present at the burial), why would they expect that to be broken?

There's all sorts of little details that are interesting in the different ways these accounts are written. For instance, I just noticed that while the synoptics all mention the angel saying that Jesus is not there, only Luke and John have other characters examining the tomb for themselves and finding the empty graveclothes. A sceptic might wonder if perhaps the women came to the tomb and ran into two men who simply told them the news of the resurrection, and they took their word for it with no evidence whatsoever?

 
At 4/24/2006 1:44 PM, Blogger Spindrift declaimed...

Hi, I was surfing the internet and here I am at your blog. I'm quite impressed , with how you have put it all together.

I'll be coming back again.

Cheers,

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