Why Gospel Contradictions Really Do Matter

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

Guignebert responds:

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 has 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 anything other than the theological and narrative imaginations of their authors.

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Neil Godfrey

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37 thoughts on “Why Gospel Contradictions Really Do Matter”

  1. When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices so that they might anoint Jesus’ body (Mark 16:1). Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise (Mark 16:2), they went to the tomb (Matthew 28:1). There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it (Matthew 28:2). His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. (Matthew 28:3). The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men (Matthew 28:4). Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (Matthew 28:1) were on their way to the tomb (Mark 16:2) with the spices they had prepared (Luke 24:1) and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from entrance of the tomb?” (Mark 16:3). But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away (Mark 16:4) from the tomb (Luke 24:2). But when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus (Luke 24:3).

    While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men (Luke 24:4) dressed in white robes (Mark 16:5) that gleamed like lightning stood beside them (Luke 24:4). In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground (Luke 24:5). The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified (Matthew 28:5). He has risen! He is not here (Mark 16:6). Why do you look for the living among the dead? (Luke 24:5) He is not here; He has risen! Remember how He told you, while He was still with you in Galilee: (Luke 24:6) ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again’ (Luke 24:7). He is not here; He has risen, just as He said” (Matthew 28:6). Then they remembered His words (Luke 24:8).

    The angel said to the women (Matthew 28:5), “Come and see the place where He lay (Matthew 28:6). Then go quickly and tell His disciples (Matthew 28:7) and Peter (Mark 16:7): ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see Him’ (Matthew 28:7), just as He told you (Mark 16:7). Now I have told you” (Matthew 28:7). Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid (Mark 16:8) yet filled with joy, and ran to tell His disciples (Matthew 28:8).

    Mary of Magdala came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put Him!” (John 20:2). So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb (John 20:3). Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first (John 20:4). He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in (John 20:5). Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb (John 20:6). Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves (Luke 24:12), as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen (John 20:7). Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed (John 20:8). Peter, however, went away, wondering to himself what had happened (Luke 24:12). They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead (John 20:9).

    Then the disciples went back to their homes (John 20:10), but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb (John 20:11) and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot (John 20:12). They asked her, “Woman why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put Him” (John 20:13). At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus (John 20:14).

    “Woman,” He said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking He was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have put Him, and I will get Him” (John 20:15). Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward Him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!,” which means Teacher (John 20:16). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to Me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17). When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had driven seven demons (Mark 16:9).

    The other women ran to tell His disciples (Matthew 28:8). Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” He said. They came to Him, clasped His feet and worshiped Him (Matthew 28:9). Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (Matthew 28:10).

    While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened (Matthew 28:11). When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money (Matthew 28:12), telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole Him away while we were asleep’ (Matthew 28:13). If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble” (Matthew 28:14). So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed.
    While the other women were on their way (Matthew 28:11), Mary Magdalene went to the disciples (John 20:18) who were mourning and weeping (Mark 16:10) with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that He had said these things to her (John 20:18). When the disciples heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen Him, they did not believe it (Mark 16:11). The women came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them told this to the apostles (Luke 24:10). But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense (Luke 24:11).

    Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem (Luke 24:13). They were talking to each other about everything that had happened (Luke 24:14). As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus Himself came up and walked along with them (Luke 24:15); but they were kept from recognizing Him (Luke 24:16). He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast (Luke 24:17). One of them, named Cleopas, asked Him, “Are you the only one living in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened there in these days? (Luke 24:18).

    “What things?” He asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people (Luke 24:19). The chief priests and our rulers handed Him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified Him (Luke 24:20); but we had hoped that He was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place (Luke 24:21). In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning (Luke 24:22) but didn’t find His body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said He was alive (Luke 24:23). Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but Him they did not see” (Luke 24:24).

    Jesus said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! (Luke 24:25). Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter His glory?” (Luke 24:26). And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself (Luke 24:27).

    As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if He were going farther (Luke 24:28). But they urged Him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So He went in to stay with them (Luke 24:29). When He was at the table with them, He took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them (Luke 24:30). Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him, and He disappeared from their sight (Luke 24:31). They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).

    They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together (Luke 24:33) and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon” (Luke 24:34). Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when He broke the bread (Luke 24:35), but they did not believe them either (Mark 16:13).

    While they were still talking about this (Luke 24:36), on the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews (John 20:19), Jesus Himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you!” (Luke 24:36). They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost (Luke 24:37). Jesus rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen Him after He had risen (Mark 16:14). He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? (Luke 24:38). Look at My hands and My feet. It is I Myself! Touch Me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (Luke 24:39).

    When Jesus had said this, He showed them His hands and feet (Luke 24:40) and side (John 20:20). And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, He asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” (Luke 24:41). They gave Him a piece of broiled fish (Luke 24:42), and He took it and ate it in their presence (Luke 24:43). He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). Then He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:45).

    Jesus told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day (Luke 24:46), and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem (Luke 24:47). You are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:48). I am going to send you what My father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49).
    The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord (John 20:20). Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent Me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). And with that He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:23).

    1. ‘While the other women were on their way (Matthew 28:11), Mary Magdalene went to the disciples (John 20:18) who were mourning and weeping (Mark 16:10) with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that He had said these things to her (John 20:18). When the disciples heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen Him, they did not believe it (Mark 16:11). ‘

      That’s interesting, because in John 20:8, the disciples had already visited the tomb and believed. Perhaps by John 20:18, they had just forgotten that the tomb was empty.

      ‘He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in (John 20:5). Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb (John 20:6)…..’The women came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them told this to the apostles (Luke 24:10). But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense (Luke 24:11).’

      ’11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. 12 Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb.’

      Gosh, he had already done that in John 20:6

      I get it!

      In between Sara’s mention of John 20: 6 and Sara’s mention of Luke 24:11, they had invented a time machine, and went back in time to when Simon Peter first visited the tomb.

      Sceptics are stupid, they just didn’t allow for time machines being invented on that Easter Sunday…

      1. Hi Steven,

        you said, “That’s interesting, because in John 20:8, the disciples had already visited the tomb and believed. Perhaps by John 20:18, they had just forgotten that the tomb was empty.”

        your comment was in reference to Sara’s following compilation of verses

        ‘While the other women were on their way (Matthew 28:11), Mary Magdalene went to the disciples (John 20:18) who were mourning and weeping (Mark 16:10) with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that He had said these things to her (John 20:18). When the disciples heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen Him, they did not believe it (Mark 16:11). ‘

        i am just wondering if you are saying you see an explicit contradiction that you could identify. I read the various gospel accounts with your statement in mind and could not figure out exactly what you point is. It sounds to me like you are saying you see a contradiction between chronologies that can be specified. Whereas I think it’s ambigous as to how the parts of the different versions fit together in any harmonization.
        I am just wondering If you could clarify what the point is of your comment.
        Also for anyone who want to jump in I get the point that all the Gospels differ a lot about specific details I also think (for the most part) that if a person accepts each Gospel as a unique depiction (not ruling out common sources or Markan priority) then it can be reasonable to allow each author to write in their own way for their own reasons. After all, (despite a lot of common material usually associated with Markan priority) each author did in fact add, leave out or change things for any of various reasons. And they obviously IMO were not JUST copying their sources but creating their own works. Not to mention G-John is in another category all together. But as for the synoptics, I am not troubled by things such as precisely what time in the morning the resurrection happened if each account indicates it was more or less at sunrise. My biggest problems with the accounts are the angel in G-Matthew who rolls away the stone (apparently in front of the women) and then the problems associated with angels and even Jesus in G-Matthew telling the disciples to go to Galilee. The Gospel of Luke changed the reference about Galilee and in G-John Jesus said to tell the disciples he was returning to the Father; nothing about meeting him in Galilee. A third thing about the Galilee issue is that the disciples stayed in Jerusalem at least a week after the resurrection. Why didn’t they go immediately or at least the next day after Jesus appeared to them in the locked room. Were’nt they told by the angels & Jesus to head to Galilee and did Jesus change his mind or something? Perhaps they had rented their room for a week which may have something to do with the length of how long passover was celebrated or something like that. If anyone knows anything about that please let me know.

          1. 1. Because by the view of most Christians all the accounts are supposed to be reporting actual events and therefore the obvious question is how to reconcile accounts which appear to have contradictions but may have explanations if given the benefit of the doubt. Although it soon becomes apparent that one must run down numerous rabbit holes in search of explanations that can never be more than pure speculation. I am not sure anyone can rule out that there may be valid explanations if indeed the events actually happened. I suppose it comes down to taking a position based on one’s presuppositions or trying to construct arguments about why the accounts cannot be valid. But, it’s murky territory and I don’t know of a way to eliminate loopholes and say we’ve caught the gospel writers red handed in fabrications/contradictions. I think the information available to us is too sketchy to be sure of why the accounts got written the way they did. Although there is one item to me which seems like a blatant matter of authorial choice, namely that Luke changed the angel’s words about telling the disciples to go to Galilee. There is also the possibility that Luke condensed his account which is not out of the question. There is also the possibility that different traditions were floating around and each author used & edited what was available to him. But as I said all this leads down many rabbit holes and it only leads to a pile of speculation which can never definitively settle anything. But it also keeps the door open for apologists to say there are possibilities. I realize of course this means we should apply the same standard to claims of other religions. But of course you are aware how the argument widens at that point to include other issues, and I really don’t feel like going into all that at this point.

            2. I have never been comfortable with looking at the accounts as totally literary/apologetic creations. I leave that to folks such as yourself who have taken the time to knowledgeably examine things in that way.

            3. I was feeding off Steven’s comments that indicated he was dealing with a contradiction in the chronologies.

            4. I like to play by the believers rules so to speak and ask, well if all these things are true, how do you explain a, b, c, & etc. This method has been used for a long time and is valuable to highlight what the problems are.

        1. ‘ I read the various gospel accounts with your statement in mind and could not figure out exactly what you point is.’

          You mean Peter really did run to the tomb once, believed, was told Jesus had risen and then ran again to the tomb so that he could look and believe again.

          My point is that someone was cutting and pasting bits of the Gospel stories together to make them appear seamless, by doing a bit of sleight of hand and missing out what did not fit.

          I would do the same for anybody who was trying to con me,

          1. I think I see what you are trying to say, but if the accounts are condensed or incomplete because of authorial choices it is possible the contradictions were inadvertently created because of that. But I agree that a prima facie reading of the gospels presents problems and I have yet to see explanations that can truly solve the problems unless one wants to be dogmatic whether as a believer or a skeptic. Please see my response to Neil for more info on my position.

            1. The reasons for the differences strike me as most simply understood through the particular interests of each author.

              Mark is writing parable or symbol and brings in that curious young (once naked) man once more at the end, this time in baptismal (resurrection) robe — sitting there like the clothed man who had been freed from Legion; the women invert the tired old problem early in the gospel of people going out and telling everyone what had happened after Jesus had told them to say nothing — the women are as useless as the apostles; Galilee is symbolic of the kingdom of God (Kelber and Weeden etc etc);

              Matthew as usual gets rid of Mark’s obviously symbolic details and substitutes angelic drama and going to a real Galilee etc. wants to prove the argument with guards, etc.

              John is also symbol — before sunrise, dark, is a common enough symbol throughout John

              Luke is the last of the gospels who attempts to reconcile or combine the others plus perhaps the Gospel of Peter so adds the different women all together, and he is also relying on Genesis narratives so has the customary two angels found there delivering messages, etc.

              1. Your comments make a lot of sense although I am not sure if I am fully up to speed on some of the associations you made. Could you elaborate a little on what ideas Mark intended to invoke by having the young man dressed in a white robe. I think you mean that a white robe was worn by initiates who were baptized into the faith and that being baptized meant that those dead in their sins were (symbolically speaking), resurrected to life, or something like that.
                “the women invert the tired old problem early in the gospel of people going out and telling everyone what had happened after Jesus had told them to say nothing”
                Mark does portray a Jesus who wants to keep his identity as the messiah hush hush and I find it interesting that it sort of connects with the women keeping mum about the resurrection which is a really odd ending to G-Mark (before the added ending of course) but really does fit in with Marks theme (hope I am not overstating) of secrecy throughout his gospel.
                I actually don’t know anything about Galilee as being symbolic of the kingdom, could you elaborate a little about that.
                Also, do you mean G-Peter was relying on Genesis narratives so has the customary two angels found there delivering messages, etc. And if I understand you, you say that Matthew’s aim is to transform Marks rather leave it to your imagination resurrection narrative into something with in your face certainty, then that Luke had to find a way to sort it all out. But it seems to me about the only thing Luke has in come with Matthew or Mark is that some women went to the tomb. To me Luke comes accross as if he never even heard Matthew’s version because if he did he jettisoned everything except the women going to the tomb and seeing an angel/s. Plus if he only had Mark & Matthew to go on there wasn’t that much to iron out seeing as how Mark has the barest of details and could i think easily be overlapped with Matthew. But of course there is the matter of Mark’s women keeping quite. But I begin to wonder if Luke perhaps was skeptical of Matthews account and wanted to tone it down. Perhaps Luke spotted the absurdity of the guards and the bribe, not to mention other fantastic elements, and thought such details were just too much for his taste. I am not sure but I think you may also be saying you think Luke was the last of the gospels to be written even after John. If so can you point me to info on that.

              2. On the young man in baptismal garb I was in large part relying on an old article by Scroggs: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/10/02/that-mysterious-young-man-in-the-gospel-of-mark/ But one can also see independently of that article that the young man at the end of the gospel is a literary inclusio matching the opening of John the Baptist — the contrasting and symbolic clothes, the message, the responses (or lack of them) of the people, the setting in a lifeless place for a message of life, etc.

                As for Galilee being symbolic of the kingdom I believe this is from Weeden’s and Kelber’s works iirc. The idea is that in Galilee Jesus does all his wonderful healing works, preaches the liberating word, brings in both Jews and gentiles. In Jerusalem he does no such works and is in the place where he is hated and rejected. This is representative of Christ in the world generally at the time of the writing of the gospel and ever since. Mark does not explicitly state it but don’t forget the passage in Isaiah saying that the saving light would appear in Galilee (Isaiah 9).

                Luke is opposed to both Mark and Matthew and has an opposing message to get across. Luke rejects the Galilean appearances quite deliberately. For Luke Jerusalem must be the foundational headquarters from where Christianity began. He was addressing a Christianity in his own day (Marcionism) that rejected Judaism and Jewish associations. He was claiming that true Christianity, on the contrary, could be traced to the 12 disciples and God’s dealings with the Jews and Jerusalem.

                As for Luke being the last of the gospels, this is a view I do tend to favour. I cite a few sources in an old post at http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/09/24/more-on-luke-being-the-last/

              3. As I understand it, the author of Colossians (whoever he was) viewed baptism as a ritual that signified the death of your sinful self and your rebirth as a saved believer.

                Col. 2:12 — Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.

                He goes on to say that we have “put off” the sinful things of the world and “put on the new man.”

                So the imagery of the young man fleeing naked at Gethsemane and reappearing in “a long white garment” at the tomb seems to fit.

              4. Thanks for the info. I will need to think on those things and read your material. For the most part I have always taken the un-novel approach of looking at/considering the origin and development of the NT. That is, I never doubted that a certain Jewish Rabbi existed who made quite an impression , attracted disciples and went on to become the founder of the Christian faith. I presumed that at the least, his first followers had great faith in him and were energized /devoted enough after his death to believe that “surely this man was the son of God” etc. I’m not sure what to make of the proclamation of the resurrection if the disciples did not believe it happened and though I have seen arguments that the first Christians interpreted it as a spiritual phenomenon, I have never been able to buy it. Anyway, you can see that my approach has been to say that at least something happened, which either did happen as reported by the NT or took on a life of it’s own by the process of legendary development and became what it did. The challenge your viewpoint (if I understand you) poses for me is that I find it hard to believe that some ancient authors were sitting around like script writers in Hollywood going, Let’s see, there was that Jesus rabbi we kept hearing about who did all those miracles and then the Romans crucified him. What if we make him the messiah those Jews were expecting but they didn’t believe him but then he rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples. Let’s say he was the son of God who came down from heaven and he became a sacrifice on purpose as a peace offering with God for sin. Yeah, it’ll be the greatest story ever told. I guess you could say I’m a little overwhelmed by the idea that every line and story in the NT could be nothing more than created stories; that people were consciously creating a religion or pieces of it that they knew had no basis in reality; that they knew never really happened.
                I would be interested in an over view of how one gets from the idea of Jesus Christ and his first followers based on real events to others along the way who were constantly embellishing in stupendous ways, like Matthew’s account of the resurrection, to the full blown Christianity of the NT. I don’t find it hard to doubt that the Angel Gabriel dictated the Koran but when it comes to Christianity I feels to me if I may say that, that it would require elaborate efforts (rather conspiracy theory-like)when considered as totally creative fiction, that I wonder what I must be missing if that is what happened. Obviously the Jesus movement did not come out of thin air. I realize there were folks engaged in midrash, pesher, etc. but I think you know what I am getting at.

              5. ‘ Let’s see, there was that Jesus rabbi we kept hearing about who did all those miracles and then the Romans crucified him.’

                The first Christian writer , Paul, scoffs at Jews for wanting to hear about miracles and claims the Romans are God’s agents, sent to crucify wrongdoers, and who hold no terror for the innocent.

                Just how blatantly does Paul have to trash the idea of a miracle-working, Roman crucified founder before people stop saying that Paul is silent?

              6. You have a point. I didn’t think about the implications of the way I worded that. Paul did not mention anything found in the gospels except perhaps the crucifixion and obliquely the resurrection yet Paul thought that the crucifixion and resurrection was of supreme spiritual importance for all mankind. But the point I was trying to make or ask, is how does a certain Jewish rabbi start out as some cult leader, get Paul who doesn’t know anything about a miracle working Jesus as found in the gospels to view him as the fulfillment of Jewish religious beliefs, and then decades later is further morphed into the Jesus of the Gospels
                Romans 1
                1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— 2 the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life[a] was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power[b] by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. 5 Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from[c] faith for his name’s sake. 6 And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
                Like you said, Paul doesn’t know anything about a miracle working Jesus, so the questions are, what were the earliest beliefs about Jesus, and how and why did the cult of Jesus develop into the full blown Christology it became. The folks here at Vridar seem to find so much interconnected symbolic themes and other associations going on in the NT that suggest for lack of a better expression, that the gospels were the result of hyperactive creativity or something like that. Some of what I see here makes some sense but It’s a new thing for me to think along these lines and I guess it will probably take me a while to get a handle on it.

    2. ‘Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise (Mark 16:2), they went to the tomb (Matthew 28:1).’

      ‘Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. ‘

      Is it dark just after sunrise?

      ‘There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.’

      So while it was still dark the stone had been removed, and later an angel of the Lord removed it again.

  2. Sara and whoever, you can spin it however you want. The difrrent authors clearly had no idea what the others were saying. Like the article says, one writer will imply he has no idea whats going on in the other!!

  3. sara
    matthew said that the glowing angel said to mary mag

    “you are looking for jesus he is not here. he is on his way to… ”

    mary madgalene and the other woman get excited and run from the tomb to report what they had heard and then kai idou they crash in to jesus.


    mary runs away from the tomb to report to peter that the body of jesus was stolen
    mary madgalene makes her way back to the tomb and cries
    she leans forward and sees to angels in the tomb who ask her a question

    “woman why are you crying?”

    she’s crying because she doesn’t know where her god in flesh body has been placed

    matthew says that the mary knows where the living body of jesus is heading
    john says that mary DOESN’T KNOW WHO STOLE jesus body and doesn’t know where his BODY is placed

    the angels in john do not tell mary about the locatio n of jesus’ body
    mary turns around from the tomb and asks jesus ABOUT THE LOCATION of where they PLACED his body.

    sara, if jesus was right outside of the tomb dressed up as a gardner who conversed with mary, why did mark bull s hit his readers and tell them that they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid?
    they spoke to the gardner jesus OUTSIDE of the tomb, so why did mark LIE?

  4. Congratulations on the writing of an exciting new Gospel, Sara! It’s a bit late to get it in the canon, unfortunately, but it’s fine work. I’m sure the other evangelists would agree that they should have written it your way.

  5. Neil: “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.”

    I’m reminded of the scene in “1984” in which O’Brien asks Winston Smith how many fingers he’s holding up. Winston will say whatever O’Brien wants to hear, but that isn’t enough. He needs to believe he sees what the Party tells him is true. If O’Brien shows four fingers, but the Party says it’s five, then Smith must see five.

    There is a great deal of psychological power involved in getting people to swear they believe in impossible things. And I’m not just talking about walking on water or rising from the dead. I’m talking about square circles. If you can get people to believe that Jesus is 100% God and 100% man and that God is One and Three at the same time, you can get them to believe just about anything.

    Once people are conditioned to accept received truth over discovered truth, they can be made to believe just about anything. Believers channel their cognitive dissonance into a “sense of wonder and mystery.” They shut off the logical parts of the brain and tell themselves that they’ll understand some day up in heaven. But for now certain things must be accepted on faith.

    The real enigma for me is why we take seriously arguments from learned scholars with higher level degrees who insist, for example, that the “fact” of the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the evidence at hand. These are people who believe in square circles. Why do we pretend they will engage in an honest, rational discussion?

  6. Neil,

    It is the evident symbolism of fictitious names (of both people and places) used in the Gospels which has fascinated me for decades, but this pales next to the (3) Maries (John 19:25) that end up at the foot of the cross as a result of editorial synchronizing(?), or was the author swamped by an accumulation of symbolism? How about a perpetual virgin via sibling switching: why else would Mary have a sister named Mary? Obviously, not only did the authors have little respect for the accuracy of the narrative (as some claim, but I think is actually a rhetorical slide of hand), it seems that the method you mention would put accuracy at the furthest reaches of the author’s mind with theology and Christology at the forefront.

    Sometimes, the New Testament is almost a parody on savior cults of the 2nd century. I mean, I laugh!

  7. If the evangelists were forced to include the baptism by John because everyone knew the historical facts, does the fact that they felt free to change the empty tomb stories show that there were no historical facts to be known?

  8. I think that several, now varied stories about events after the resurrection originated from a single story about Mary Magdalene. That original story was that 1) Mary Magdalene and 2) Mary the mother of James were going to join the disciples and on the way they met the resurrected Jesus and had a conversation with him but did not recognize him until the very end of the conversation.

    Eventually this one story was elaborated with three resulting variations.

    In Matthew, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (identified in (27:56) as Mary the mother of James) and found it empty and then went to tell the disciples. On the way, they met Jesus and had a conversation with him and and then continued on their way to the disciples.

    In Luke, “the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee” (named later as Mary Magdalene and as Mary the mother of James and as Joanna) found the tomb empty and then went and told the disciples. Later, two of these followers of Jesus were walking on a road to Emmaus, when they met Jesus and had a conversation with him but did not recognize him until the end of the conversation.

    In John, Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty and went to tell the disciples. She found and told only Peter and “the beloved disciple”. The latter two went to the tomb and then left. Then Mary returned to the tomb and left again to find the other disciples. On the way, she met and had a conversation with Jesus but did not recognize him until the end of the conversation.

    All three variations name Mary Magdalene. Matthew and Luke indicate also Mary the mother of James, and Luke refers to this second Mary also by her husband’s name, Clopas.

    John seems to tell about only one woman, Mary Magdalene, but John does not specify that there was only this one woman.

    In all three variations, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James have found the tomb empty and are walking to tell the disciples and on the way they meet Jesus and have a conversation with him but do not recognize him until the end of the conversation. Then the two women find the disicples and tell them about the empty tomb and about their conversation with Jesus. This seems to be the original story, probably the conclusion of a series of stories about Mary Magdalene.

  9. In my comments on a previous Vridar post

    … I argued that Mary Magdalene earned her living by cleaning corpses in the tombs located in the town of Magdalene.

    With that argument in mind, I now speculate that the original story about Mary Magdalene finding Jesus’s tomb empty was a story about how Mary Magdalene became acquainted with Jesus and began to follow him along with the other disciples.

    Mary Magdalene was doing her normal work in the Magdalene tombs and was assigned to clean a body. She went to the designated tomb and found it empty, so she went walking to tell her boss about the empty tomb. On her way, she met a stranger and had a conversation with him. At the end of this conversation, the stranger introduced himself as Jesus and invited her to join Jesus’ other disciples and to follow him. That was the story of how Mary Magdalene became a disciple of Jesus.

    Now this story has been moved in the sequence of events so that now is occurs after the resurrection and in Jerusalem. In the story’s new time and location, Mary’s failure to recognize Jesus puzzles the readers. If Mary has been following Jesus around for many months and knows him very well, then why does she fail to recognize him until the end of their conversation? This failure to recognize Jesus even casts doubt on Mary’s credibility as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection. After all, If Mary herself even admits that she failed to recognize Jesus during a lengthy conversation, then maybe the man she talked with was not really Jesus.

  10. I recently saw The Hulk starring Eric Bana. In it, Bana’s character Bruce Banner gets exposed to gamma radiation because he’s attempting to shield his co-worker from being exposed to the harmful radiation after a malfunction in the lab. After his exposure, we cut to a scene where he’s in a hospital bed wondering why he’s not dead.

    A couple of days later, I saw the “second” Hulk movie staring Edward Norton. In this film, during the opening credits, we see Norton’s Bruce Banner sitting calmly in a chair about to be exposed to gamma radiation, even going so far as to wink at his co-worker letting her know that everything is ok. After the experiment, Banner immediately changes into the Hulk and completely destroys the lab, and from that moment on he is a fugitive running from the law.

    How do we account for these contradictory origin stories of The Hulk? Simple: The two stories were never meant to corroborate each other. The same explanation probably explains why there are contradictions in the Gospels.

  11. According the the synoptic gospels the resurrection was witnessed by women.
    In both Judean and Roman law women were considered unreliable witnesses and their testimony was considered to be invalid. According to Roman law:“The woman is incapable of being a witness in any form of jurisprudence where witnesses are required”. Women were reckoned with minors, slaves, the dumb and criminals to be incapable of being witnesses.”
    It is as if the authors of the synoptic gospels are telling their readers that the resurrection story is not to be taken seriously since it is a tale attested to only by women.
    It is as if christism was deliberately designed from the very start to be a religion fit only for the credulous, woman and slaves.

    1. It was also a common enough literary motif for some remarkable, plot-changing, often divine event to be witnessed by one who had no credibility (e.g. a slave, a possessed woman) with the normal folks. The Gospels are merely employing a common literary device of ancient fiction.

  12. Responding to Tony’s comment above at http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/why-gospel-contradictions-really-do-matter/#comment-21467

    I think your question may also be in the minds of many others for whom the Christ myth idea is hard to accept. Reading your comment I am wondering if part of the difficulty is with attempting to reconcile Christ mythicism with the basic narrative of Christian origins as we have it from the Gospels and Acts.

    My own view leaves everything we read in Gospels and Acts out of the picture entirely to begin with. They are very late first century or more likely mostly second century productions.

    Start with the New Testament epistles and other Second Temple literature — Books of Daniel and Enoch, the Assumption of Moses, the early layer of the Ascension of Isaiah, Odes of Solomon, Philo, Jubilees, Maccabees, Jewish Gnosticism.

    Forget Galilee and twelve apostles. They are late inventions, both Galilee and the 12 apostles being symbolic borrowings from the Old Testament images.

    Think, rather, Syria, Antioch, Damascus, Samaria, Alexandria, Asia Minor and independent apostles or messengers of which “Paul” was just one.

    Those who had ecstatic visions saw what their minds had dwelt upon in their studies of scriptures — such as a revelation of a heavenly man or christ figure. (The revelation of John knows nothing of a crucified Christ and Hebrews knows nothing of an earthly one.) Their studies – and visions – were informed by works like the Book of Enoch, and by interpretations that saw Isaac as being literally sacrificed and resurrected and whose blood was an atonement for the sins of the Jews. Some saw the God of the Old Testament as an inferior deity who had to be resisted. Their concept of God was not monotheistic in a modern sense of the word. God had various manifestations that acted independently, such as the Logos or something (or many things) comparable. Many created new communities that saw themselves “in” a spirit figure and a heavenly spirit “in” them.

    These are the kinds of expressions of religious fervour that appear to be behind the Second Temple literature I mentioned above. It was opposed to what we think of as the orthodoxy of the Temple cult. Many of them taught, instead, of a spiritual temple in place of the physical temple. In the writings of “Paul” we see excitement over the belief that the scriptures were being opened up to new spiritual insights — God was revealing a mystery long hidden from the human race. Doherty calls it “a riotous diversity” from which Christianity as we know it emerged.

    The gospel story itself only began to take shape some time after the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70 c.e. There appear to have been at least two major responses to this, perhaps three. There was a demand for a new myth of identity now that the old order had been lost and taken with it their old identities. Rabbinic Judaism handled the crisis in one way, and it was in competition with others who believed in the superiority of the spiritual temple over the failed and destroyed Mosaic one. From this latter group eventually emerged Christianity as we begin to recognize it.

    A replacement myth emerged that placed an unrecognized Moses-successor (Joshua/Jesus) as a prophet who was treated according to the myths about how all other Old Testament prophets were treated, and that explained the destruction of the Temple and justified or helped shape a new search for an identity among those not satisfied with the Rabbinic response. This figure, being the rationale and foundation for the new group identity, had, as a replacement of the OT’s twelve patriarchs, 12 apostles.

    Some think that Christianity took visible form when someone wrote the Gospel of Mark as a parable for those who saw themselves as a “new Israel” or people of God. Galilee, Capernaum, Jesus, the twelve disciples, the stories, the names, the settings, were all symbolic. Jesus himself was a parabolic figure illustrating the workings of the spirit of the heavenly father in the believer and the fate of such a one. The blood of the martyrs is an atonement for the sins of the people, according to long-held views of many who studied the stories of Isaac and the Maccabees. This concept, and identification with Daniel’s and Enoch’s heavenly “son of man” were also incorporated into this gospel myth.

    It was a metaphorical tale to help express a powerful identity for the believers of those who embraced it. But the story took on a life of its own among others who could not accept “Mark’s” quite Pauline-like antinomian position. It was just too good a story for many to think it was not also true. Matthew and Luke re-wrote it giving it a more “biblical-historical” tone. They also rehabilitated the disciples and made them authorities through whom the tradition was anchored to Jesus himself. This was important to counter the many other more abstract ideas floating around and being proclaimed by the likes of Thomas, Philip, Mary, etc that they each had their own visions of a heavenly Jesus. No, the new myth would undercut all of those by having those same disciples being put in their “true tale” of how it “really happened”. This myth, especially as “historicized” by Matthew and Luke, became the seed of orthodox Christianity.

    Tensions between these Christians and the rabbinic Jews are reflected in the gospel narratives as opposition between Jesus and the Pharisees and priests. Galilee was chosen as the setting because it Isaiah said this was the place where a great light would shine for Jews and Gentiles. Capernaum, the city of comfort, was the main centre of Jesus’ work in Galilee, etc etc etc I mentioned a third possible response to the crisis of 70 — and it was doubled in 135 with persecutions of Christians by a “false” Jewish Messiah (Bar Kochba) — and was thinking of those groups that remained truer to some of their original Jewish gnostic roots and became the basis of the Valentinians and such. Mark’s gospel probably originated more closely within such a group.

    1. Thanks, you’ve given me a lot to chew on and you are obviously well versed in these matters. I wouldn’t even know where to begin to engage you in these matters. I’ll have to read more of your articles and hopefully learn more about the things you talk about. From what i’ve read so far you are obviously a serious student/ teacher / blogger on these matters and provide a valuable resource to those interested.

      1. When I ‘left the fold’ I was faced with a choice. Either turn my back on my past and forget it or try to turn my past experiences into something positive. Had I been younger the smarter thing would have been the former; but after “investing” so many years in a misdirection I felt I could salvage something from all that experience and, with a few writing and teaching skills, do something positive with it all. I have never regretted the choice — though it does make for awkward conversation when I meet people. You don’t run into many people every day who love to explore Christian origins from a secular perspective! 😉

    2. “Those who had ecstatic visions saw what their minds had dwelt upon in their studies of scriptures — such as a revelation of a heavenly man or christ figure. (The revelation of John knows nothing of a crucified Christ… )“ – Neil Godfrey

      I agree with much of your scenario for the earliest period of Christianity (the period before the first Gospel was written at the turn of the century), but I see the ecstatic visionaries who gave us the Revelation of John in a somewhat different light. I think they did indeed know of a crucified Christ (“Their corpses will lie in the main street of the great city… where indeed their Lord was crucified” – Rev. 11:8), but that the particular mode of his death—crucifixion— was not an important element in their belief system They may have believed in Isaiah’s vision as related by the Ascension of Isaiah, but did not attach particular significance to the manner of the Son of God’s death related by that writing. What was important was that the Lord, the Lamb, was “slain” (Rev. 5:6, 9, 12; 13:8)). No need to emphasize—in contrast to “Paul”—that the slaying was by way of crucifixion. And Isaiah’s vision as a whole may have taken a back seat with them when compared with their own many very dramatic and impressive visions and revelations, a sampling of which is found in the book of Revelation.

      Their neglect of the crucifixion is one of the elements that, in my opinion, helps to identify them as belonging to the community whose apostles were attacked by “Paul” in his Corinthian correspondence. In First Corinthians he asserts that he preached Christ crucified. His opponents apparently did not—at least to nowhere near the extent that he did. And although their book of Revelation speaks of a Christ, a gospel, and a Spirit, it seems clear that “Paul” would view the contents of that book as being very different from what he believed in (“another gospel,” “another Spirit,” “another Jesus” – 2 Cor. 11:4). He takes the conservative stand that all should “speak the same thing” (1 Cor. 1:10) and that one should not “go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6; beyond the written Ascension of Isaiah gospel?). His Corinthian opponents, on the other hand, by their visions and revelations were going beyond what was written and thereby perverting what he considered to be the once-for-all gospel.

      His Corinthian opponents viewed “Paul’s” failure to stress visions and revelations as a sign that he was not a true apostle. And to counter that accusation, he reluctantly had to boast that he too had experienced ineffable visions and revelations (2 Cor. 12:1). But for him, those can never be anything that would change what he conceived to be the gospel message. For Paul, there could be only one foundation—the one he had laid down. So I suspect he would not look kindly on Revelation’s claim that their twelve apostles of the Lamb were to be the foundations of the walls of a new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:14). No; “Other foundation no man can lay”—not even Cephas, the Rock, or his party at Corinth—“than the one that is laid” (1 Cor. 3:11).

      Moreover, “Paul” would reject Revelation’s whole millenarian idea of a new material Temple or Jerusalem on this earth. For him God’s ultimate Temple is spiritual and is made up of the members of the church. And to be with the Lord one had to escape this world and the god of this world (”We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” -2 Cor. 5:8). Those who preached Revelation’s materialistic, millenarian kingdom of God on earth could only be viewed by “Paul” as being “false apostles” (2 Cor. 11:13) and in the service of “the god of this world”(2 Cor. 4:4).

      For “Paul”, as the first Christian gnostic, the consummation was to be a return to the fullness, the Pleroma of God: “his body, the fulness of him that fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). For “we all… are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another, as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18. Compare with Simon of Samaria’s teaching: “The Image is the spirit… If its imaging should be perfected… the small shall become great. And this great shall continue for the boundless and changeless eternity…” – Hippolytus, “Refutation”, 6,14). The claim that there will be some kind of transformed but still visible kingdom of God on earth conflicts with Paul’s dismissal of visible realities: “For this momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal… “ (2 Cor. 4:17-18).

      And that is why he brushes aside the Revelation “wisdom” of his Corinthian opponents. Theirs was a wisdom about realities of this visible world, a “kata sarka” wisdom about kings, empires, plagues, battles, etc. It aimed at identifying the symbolic figures in their visions and revelations; e.g : “Here is the mind which has wisdom: The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits… (Rev, 17:9); “Here is wisdom: Let him that has understanding count the number of the beast…” (Rev. 13:18); “Upon her forehead a name written ‘mystery…” (Rev. 17:5). Paul counters with what he considers to be the only important wisdom mystery, the one that the princes of this world failed to solve: “We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden, which God ordained before the world for our glory; which none of the princes of this world knew, for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:7-8).

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