Once more from “my author of the week” secular rationalist historical Jesus scholar Charles Guignebert (1933), this time addressing the logic of those who tolerate the contradictions among the Gospels in their empty tomb and resurrection accounts by claiming they are irrelevant to the question of historicity – – –
First, a recap of some of the contradictions:
- In Mark the women discover a young man sitting in the tomb;
- In Matthew as the women arrive at the tomb an earthquake hits and an angel descends, rolls away the stone then sits on it, and Jesus appears to them as they leave;
- In Luke the women find the tomb empty but while they are trying to make sense of this two angels appear to them;
- In John Mary arrives before sunrise, sees the open tomb, runs to Peter, Peter and John run to the tomb and see clothes lying there, Mary sees two angels in the tomb then sees Jesus behind her.
And Matthew’s bribing of the guard story (to have them spread the rumour that the disciples stole the body) is clearly added to address a later allegation that this is exactly what Jews were saying had happened.
And of the resurrection contradictions G writes:
There are many serious contradictions in the canonical accounts of the Resurrection. It is evident at once that the statement which they have in common: the tomb in which Jesus was placed the night of his death was found empty the next morning, has been amplified by various details intended to explain how it took place, and which, because they vary so greatly in the different accounts, are all suspect — at least of not corresponding to any memory and of arising from apologetic considerations. We might be tolerant of several contradictions which would be considered negligible in secular sources, but there are some which cannot be overlooked. (p. 496)
And of those that cannot be so overlooked G lists:
- Was the tomb guarded? Matthew says it was but Mark and Luke know nothing of this; in Mark the women are only wondering how they will move the stone as they approach; in John Mary comes at dark to find the tomb opened.
- How many women? One says John; two say Matthew and Mark; three along with others says Luke.
- Were the disciples commanded to go to Galilee? Yes say Matthew and Mark; No implies Luke.
- What is the outcome of the message delivered to the women? Nothing, says Mark, since the women said nothing about their experience; the disciples obeyed and went to Galilee says Matthew; in John Mary’s words brought two disciples running to the tomb; in Luke the disciples disbelieved the women.
Mere Details? Comparing works of secular historians.
These are only details, reply the apologists, it is the fact which counts. Livy and Polybius relate the crossing of the Alps by Hannibal in different ways, but they agree that he crossed them, and moreover as we see him at a certain moment in Gaul and a little later in Italy he really must have crossed them.
Such reasoning is fatal. The elimination of details would leave us confronted by a fundamental affirmation invalidated by facts. Doubtless it is no sounder if it rests merely on contradictory evidence and is surrounded by irreconcilable circumstances, but that is just the question. Neither is it legitimate to compare the discrepancies of Livy and Polybius in the passage about the crossing of the Alps with those of the Evangelists about the Resurrection, since the uncertainties and contradictions of the two secular historians are attributable to the fact that they are writing long after the event and that they are working on different written sources which they have no longer any means of comparing with the event. (p. 497, my emphasis)
That is the point. Mark, the first of the gospels, appears to say all that he believes is to be said, and the subsequent evangelists
followed him, not faithfully, nor with the idea of elucidating his account by a commentary which respected its integrity, but with that of arranging — or disarranging — it, in order to render it more convincing, of embellishing it or merely of altering it, in order to produce an appearance of independent information, for after all none of the discrepancies have any apparent meaning. All the departures from the account of Mark . . . proceed from the imagination or tendencious (sic) invention of the Gospel redactors.
That slippery slope
G supports this by showing how the even later non-canonical gospels continued the tendency we see in the canonicals by adapting them in order to improve the evidence or build in answers to sceptics.
Thus the Gospel of Hebrews has the resurrected Jesus give his shroud to the high priest’s servant and then going off to visit his brother James.
The Gospel of Peter have the worried priests send their own guards to double the strength of the Roman troop, now led by an officer whose name is known (Longinus), and even set seals upon the stone, all to no effect, of course. The guards and Jews even go to Pilate and tell him Jesus has been resurrected.
It is useless to linger over the additions invented by the other apocryphal Gospels, from which nothing is to be gained. It is important, however, to note that they do not invent their method, they merely carry out ad absurdum the process set in motion by the canonical sources. We are thus brought back to the fundamental question of the historical value of Mark’s narrative, or, if the Marcan additions be discounted, of the value of the tradition relative to the discovery of the empty tomb. (p. 498)
Not only the empty tomb & resurrection stories
We find the same sorts of variations among a number of narratives that precede the events of the empty tomb and resurrection. These variants are not the consequence of different eyewitness traditions but authorial manipulations of the original story for theological or narrative purposes. Matthew, for example, likes to remove the cryptic touches in Mark that point to an artificial or symbolic narrative replacing them with “more realistic” or “natural” details.
The most notable variation across the gospels is their treatment of John the Baptist and his baptism of Jesus. Matthew, Luke and John are each in their own way trying to explain away the embarrassment generated by Mark’s unabashed narrative. But that is not the only story with as much variation as the resurrections. Take the raising of Jairus’s daughter. The symbolic name of Jairus in Mark and the symbolic emphasis through the double use of “twelve years” — once for the hemorrhaging woman and again for the age of the daughter — are removed by Matthew. Similarly with Matthew’s and Luke’s changes to Mark’s account of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees over plucking corn on the sabbath: Matthew makes additions in order to introduce an ethic and christology closer to his heart as we see from other places in his gospel. Mark assigns a mysterious symbolic meaning to Jesus’ walking on water — he has Jesus say the act is understood by the two miraculous feedings of crowds of thousands — but Matthew removes this detail and re-writes the whole episode as a much more acceptable “natural adventure”.
The enigma of the variations
Of course I have only superficially addressed a handful of contradictory or inconsistent episodes across the gospels. So on this basis my “conclusion” can be nothing more than a suggestion. I suggest the variants testify to varying theological interests and narrative skills. There is nothing new about this.
The real enigma is why such stories are still believed today to have originated from from anything other than the theological and narrative imaginations of their authors.