Conflicting accounts of the Easter story


  • Question from PW, United Kingdom

    Can the Easter accounts in the gospels ever truly be reconciled to each other?

    The many differences between the respective Easter accounts, particularly regarding the resurrection, in the four gospels, and to a lesser extent, the writings of Paul, cast considerable doubt on the historical veracity of the gospels. The gospel writers appear to contradict each other and, given the widespread critical assumption that Matthew and Luke relied on the earlier gospel of Mark, these differences are hard to explain. Added to that, the enigmatic fourth gospel, and Paul’s occasional references to historical events (which may be earlier than any of the gospels), both seem to add further contradictions.

    However, John Wenham, in his book Easter Enigma [2nd Edition, Paternoster Press, 1992 or 1996], does attempt to reconcile the differing traditions to each other. Noting that the contradictions in the resurrection accounts actually undermine the source critical assumptions made by many New Testament scholars, Wenham argues that the three Synoptic gospels are independent versions which each enshrine facets of the earliest teaching in the Jerusalem-based church.

    Wenham outlines his argument thus: “It is by no means easy to see how these things can be fitted together while remaining strictly faithful to what the writers say…[but] It now seems to me that these resurrection stories exhibit in a remarkable way the well-known characteristics of accurate and independent reporting, for superficially they show great disharmony, but on close examination the details gradually fall into place.” [Op cit p.11]

    Recent New testament study has seen a departure from the old source critical positions, which saw the Synoptic writers as highly dependent on each other. Whether Wenham’s hypothesis of ‘independent reporting’ is true is, naturally, a matter for debate, but it does ring true. Even today, reports of a major news story would appear differently in a tabloid, or a broadsheet newspaper, or, to use a contemporary analogy, on CNBC or Al-jazeera.

    An aspect of this independent reporting is that the confusion between the writers over who did what and when, can be reconciled. An example Wenham cites is the women listed as standing at the foot of the cross. Matthew and Mark mention three women, while John mentions Mary, the mother of Jesus alongside three other women. All these women appear to have different names in the three accounts, but Wenham suggests, quite sensibly, that it is possible for a woman to be referred to by three names. He posits that Matthews “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” could be the same person as Mark’s “Salome” and John’s “Jesus’ mothers’ sister” (i.e. his aunt). This does raise the intriguing question of whether Jesus was the cousin of James and John, the sons of Zebedee. [See Wenham, op cit pp34-36]

    One criticism that could be made of Wenham is that he does not engage with the gospel accounts at anything other then face value. But the question he has set out to prove is that the four accounts can be reconciled. Whether they are reliable and can be believed is, of course, a matter of personal faith on the part of the reader.

    Thanks for asking your question, PW.

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