Dan Barker's Easter Challenge Answered

The infamous "Easter Challenge" of Dan Barker has been around for years, and I passed on addressing it for a while to see if any enterprising critic could tell us why differences in the Gospel accounts should be any more problematic or unresolvable than those found in four biographies of Abraham Lincoln done by professional historians. I had but one response in over a dozen years, which barely touched the subject and used objections already answered at the end of the comparisons (such as, e.g., the Bible is supposed to be inspired and inerrant, but the Lincoln histories are not).

Since this is the case, we'll now take a closer look at harmonizing the Resurrection narratives, using some of the relevant principles we have outlined in material found in that project. Enterprising Skeptics who wish to respond must deal with all of the data we have provided and respond in light of the various cultural and literary factors we have outlined. Not all are relevant to the Resurrection narratives, but we may begin by summarizing those that we will be making use of:

And with that, we'll proceed with two caveats:

  1. Mark 16:9-20 is excluded for reasons we outline here.
  2. 1 Cor. 15, despite Barker's challenge, is not to be included, though it could be. 1 Cor. 15 is a creedal statement meant to emphasize that the leading people of the church saw the resurrected Jesus. It is therefore stylized for a purpose and need not be force-fitted into the narrative accounts.

Matt. 28:1 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.
Mark 16:1-2 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.
Luke 24:1 Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.
John 20:1 The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre.

The first verses bring a hail of questions, all of which are fairly simple to answer, especially in light of the principles outlined above:

  • What time did they go?

    The times are read as, "as it began to dawn," "very early in the morning," (twice), and "when it was yet dark". All of these are subjective readings that are fully capable of describing the pre-dawn twilight just before the sun peeks over the horizon. In an era before precision clocks for all but the wealthy, this is hardly an issue -- and at worst an example of Rihbany's ma besay-il.

  • Who went?

    We have Mary Magdalene and the other Mary; we have those two plus Salome; we have those two plus Joanna and unnamed "others"; we have Mary Magdalene, though obviously not alone (v. 2, "we" do not know...) No one list excludes any other; none speaks of these being the only persons to travel to the tomb.

    We note the common Skeptical response that we cannot thereby exclude little green men from Mars either; but the difference again is whether the presence of other female disciples is in any sense an issue or an improbability. It isn't. Anointing the dead was considered women's work; a composite party is not at all unlikely.

    So why the differing lists? While it may become repetitive, it may as well be: ma besay-il. It doesn't matter. Each writer chose women representative of the party, based perhaps on their own knowledge or on that of their audience. Bauckham, in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses [50], concludes that the names were chosen based upon their value as eyewitnesses to those to whom the Gospels were addressed. Mary Magdalene appears in all four accounts; this suggests her prominence in the tradition and makes it difficult for any Resurrection account to leave her out. It is likely that she had the strongest, most detailed testimony of all the women, which corresponds with her being the only one to have a cameo like the one in John.

    Mark's readers would therefore have known Salome in some way, while Matthew's readers did not.

    And why not more detailed stories about these women? Matthew has little room to spare; he obviously needed to devote time to the "stolen body" claim and also wanted to close with the great commission. That left him almost no room for detailed Resurrection appearances or for special cameos like the one John gave Mary Magdalene. His report is by necessity short and to the point and he has no space for a detailed listing of who was where, and when. It is therefore unreasonable to demand that he meet the precision-demands of Western literature which has no such constraints.

  • Why did they go?

    John does not specify and needs no consideration; Luke and Mark agree that it was for burial issues, leaving only Matt's "see the sepulchre" claim. The reason for the difference: To polemically stand, again, against that controlling "stolen body" apologetic. To note that they came to do burial work is to allow an inroad for the charge of a stolen body.

    In contrast Matthew tells just enough to not give that charge meat -- while still not contradicting the other Gospels. He could hardly do otherwise. In the high context of the ancient world, it would have been recognized that (being that this was primarily women's work) they could be going to the tomb for no other purpose than to perform burial services. "Seeing" tombs for observation purposes was a pointless exercise. (On the other hand, this may not be so much a statement of purpose as a statement of result: They saw the tomb because they came to it.)

    Matt. 28:2-4 And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men.

    Matthew's insertion here is clearly dischronologized, a matter of topical arrangement, as was know to be used in ancient literature and is even used to some extent today. This could have happened at any time prior to the womens' visit. Since he has this, Matthew obviously does not need these statements:

    Mark 16:3-4 And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.
    Luke 24:2 And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre.

    The main issue of difference is why only Matthew reports the angel -- as well as the other miracles recorded later -- and that matter we have answered with the principles found here.

    Matthew 28:5-7 And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you.
    Mark 16:5-7 And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him. But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.
    Luke 28:3-7 And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus. And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments: And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.

    John is supplementing Mark and skips this section. Mark's "young man" is one of the angels; the phrase was used elsewhere (as in Josephus) to describe angels, so that there is no contradiction of identity.

    The point of "one angel or two" is answered by the principles here. The differences in the message reported and in the variably described reactions of the women are readily attributable to the sort of oral tradition variations we refer to here.

    Matthew 28:8 And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word.
    Mark 16:8 And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.
    Luke 24:8-9a And they remembered his words, And returned from the sepulchre...

    The major issue here is Mark's "they told no one" -- obviously not permanent (for the story is here being told) and if anything a rhetorical device meant to encourage the reader to NOT remain silent and instead spread the word. Other than this we now have a situation in which we have numerous ways for history to split off into different events. Every woman could take a different path and could leave at a different time and pursue a different destination. Only so many destinations are of course likely; at the same time, no Gospel would have the space to report every differing destination.

    By this reckoning Mary Magdalene and perhaps others left the tomb before the angelic messengers arrived, since it is obvious in John that she hadn't gotten the message yet.

    Matthew 28:9-10 And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him. Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me.
    Luke 24:9b-11 and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest. It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles. And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not.
    John 20:2 Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.

    Most harmonizers would say here, and I could easily agree, that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary of James left the party first, before the angels came in (and hence, Mark's report for example is telescoped, due to stylistic and/or space constraints) and went directly to Peter and others (the "we" of John's party), while other unnamed women like Salome went to other disciples and received a visitation.

    This is plausible, as it would make sense for a multi-member party to split up, so that if one party could not find their target, another might. In any event, as noted, Matt has saved most of his space for the "stolen body" apologetic and hasn't the room to recount anything more detailed.

    Matthew's interlude of 28:11-15 could take place anytime between the unspecified range of these verses. Chronologically as far as events with the believers were concerned, we leave Matthew for the duration. His space constraints lead him directly to the Great Commission which could take place anytime after the events of v. 10. Thus we need not fit it into any chronology. It is able to be reckoned anytime within the 40 days between Passover and Pentecost; it is a stylized account and not meant to be squared into a narrative sequences.

    This indeed is one great mistake of both critics and harmonizers, who often put too much pressure on themselves to fit events into a chronology. It simply isn't necessary to assume that these writers were trying to give an "all she wrote", "it happened in this order without time passing" chronology. Indeed we aver that Luke in his Gospel telescoped his 40 days between two verses. Matthew in 28:16-20 does the same sort of thing. The immediate skip to the Great Commission is a narrative device, not pure chronology.

    Luke 24:12 Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulchre; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass.
    John 20:3-10 Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre. So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead. Then the disciples went away again unto their own home.

    The big deal here is of course that Luke has reported Peter alone; John reports someone else -- himself, perhaps, but some say Lazarus. That is of little matter; what is of import is that Luke severely compresses the story -- obviously. Why?

    So that he may include the enormous Emmaus narrative (13-33), which will take up what space he has and constrain him from getting into more details. Telling what Peter saw closely is more important than telling of who went with him (and by John's reckoning, didn't see anything different).

    It is after Peter leaves the tomb that we have John's Mary Magdalene cameo, chronologically (20:11-18). We would once again suggest that the event is compressed for space reasons; the encounter and conversation was almost surely not that simple. This of course leaves a modern reader with an impression, when combined with the other Gospels, that Jesus is randomly popping back and forth to people giving them different messages. They would ask, why not tell them all the same message? In Mary Magdalene's case, it would likely because she had a different question than had been asked by any other: "Are you staying on earth now?"

    Luke 24:33-4 And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them, Saying, The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon.

    This appearance to Simon, otherwise undescribed, would take place sometime during the first day of the week -- as did all of the appearances so far outside of Matthew's chronologically displaced Commission scene. None of this is chronologically impossible, other than to those who wish to offer the vague objection that the resurrected Jesus sure got around, which is more observation than objection.

    Luke 24:35-44 And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread. And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. And when he had thus spoken, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them. And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.
    John 20:19-23 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when he had so said, he showed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord. Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.

    I would regard these as reporting the same meeting. Luke has no room now to report a dual meeting with Thomas first excluded, and each writer has their own focus: Luke on the tangible nature of Jesus' body; John on a more theological and "commissional" issue, as well as wanting to highlight Thomas' actions.

    If Luke is reporting to a Roman judge on behalf of Paul (as Mauck argues) then it isn't hard to see why he would report what he did. Meanwhile John will emphasize the tangible nature of Jesus in his second report.

    It is here where we come to an end of a close examination. The events of John 20:24-21:23 would chronologically occur in the 40 day period which Luke telescopes and brings to an end at his 24:45.

    Did it seem rather simple? It is, much more so than we might think. The ancient processes of literary reportage go a long way towards explaining allegations of discrepancy in the Resurrection narratives. Anyone who doubts this will need to explain why -- and do it in the context of those processes and explaining why they cannot apply.

    Objections Answered

    The Bible is filled with claims of events and information that the writers couldn't possibly have known from firsthand experiences, so your claim about them maybe not knowing events is invalid.

    It may be asked, for example, "How did Moses know what had happened on the six days of creation?" That one of course he had to be told by God; but there was no other way with that one, so this proves nothing relevant. Or it may be asked, "How did he know about all of the exploits of the patriarchs in the book of Genesis?" That one is simpler: It was all passed down by oral tradition. Or it may be asked, "How did 'Moses' know what was said in the conversions between Balaam and Balak, which took place when Moses wasn't present?" I expect Balaam's oracles were publicly recorded; we have archaeological examples.

    But when it gets down to it, this objection is empty anyway, for it assumes without basis that simply because things that we think a writer "could not have been known" are revealed, this means that always and in every case, they will get filler information. Note that this is not a matter of "can God inspire this way" but "is that what God did" and "is that what God is required to do".

    If the ancients did not consider these things errors, what does this prove but that they had no clear concepts of logic?

    Such an objection is both arrogant and culturally imperialistic. Yet even in the modern West, we have gradated levels of precision permitted; as we have said elsewhere: If we ask how many gallons of fuel a rocket contains, we expect a detailed answer like "4,942,827.78 gallons" from a NASA engineer, if he is involved in a technical discussion with other engineers. If he's talking to the press, and he is savvy, he'll say "4.9 million gallons" rather than bewilder the scientifically inert with more detail. Your average hobbyist (or even a reporter) will say "5 million gallons". Are any of them incorrect? No, because there is a semantic contract that correlates the level of precision with the level of expertise.

    Note that this is NOT a matter similar to that the ancients "thought that the earth was flat" and their belief in this made it true, or about something like them erroneously thinking pagan gods existed. What we are talking about, rather, is a case where (to make the analogy work, though it is unreal) everyone KNEW the earth was round, but agreed to keep calling it flat anyway, for whatever reason. No such reason could emerge in this instance.

    Where it does come into play is in compression of historical narratives; in reportage of only specific details; in arrangement of material to aid in comprehension. Critics have a burden to show that ancient commentators thought these were problems; appeal to the "laws of logic" is not relevant in context and is like asking to apply the "laws of logic" to the Mona Lisa or to Michaelangelo's David.

    The Biblical texts were art as much as report; "laws of logic" is fine for treatises of science, but not for compositions where creativity and constraints of the natural order apply.

    The Bible is supposed to be the inspired word of an omniscient, omnipotent deity, so these things should be up to modern standards.

    Again, this is merely arrogant imperialism. That God had such a role would not make inspiration, omniscience, omnipotence, or personal communication terms of that era subservient to modern Western (indeed, fundamentalist) values that have been held over history by only .02% of the human population.

    What if we had four ancient documents that gave four completely contradictory locations for the same event?

    Actually, in an explanation near the end of here, we have a perfect example of how Greek historiography of the time offered a "semantic contract" in which it was known that the miracle was done in place X, but writers put it in place Y (two places -- there is no example of FOUR discordant places in the any account I know of) to hearken back to another event -- perhaps one in which an event similar to a historically prior event was purposely displaced to allude to the earlier event. This is the way they did their reportage, and it is not our place to judge it or denigate it.

    Your timing answer won't work with Matthew, where it says "In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week."

    I do not see a problem here. The objection apparently assumes this means Matthew is saying that, just the very second the sabbath ended, the women were out the door, and Matthew even as much as self-contradicts because the sabbath ended at sundown, and they can't leave at both sundown and dawn.

    The word here, however, opse, can mean "late in the day" but by extension can mean after the close of the day, so that Matthew is saying, "after the sabbath was over".

    Why shouldn't Paul name all the women witnesses? He went all out in 1 Corinthians 15 to name witnesses to the resurrected Jesus in hopes of convincing skeptical Corinthians that this event had happened.

    This objection contains two errors. First, Paul was not "going all out" to name witnesses; the creed was meant to show that the leaders of the church, and the church at large, had witnessed the resurrected Jesus.

    Second, Paul was NOT trying to convince "skeptical Corinthians" that Jesus had been resurrected; they believed that already. Rather, he was trying to correct their false ideas about what sort of body a resurrection body would be, and using the apostolic witness to the "real" body of Jesus as an example.

    According to Mark and Luke, the women came to the tomb in order to anoint the body of Jesus with spices, but why would they have done that? According to Luke 23:55, the women followed Joseph of Arimathaea and saw both the tomb and how the body was laid.

    Why would we bring flowers to a funeral if we think someone else is already bringing a bunch of their own? But as an aside, the spices brought by Nicodemus and Joseph were the sort that came in blocks, and were laid beside the body -- they were not the sort of spices one "anointed" with.

    Why was Mary Magdalene so prominent that she had to be mentioned, while others were not?

    Luke 8:3 tells the story; Mary was a supporter (patron) of Jesus' ministry.

    The Gospels were trying to convince people. They would want to name as many witnesses as possible, so your explanation about excluding some women doesn't hold water.

    This is incorrect. The Gospels were NOT kerygmatic documents; they were for people who were ALREADY believers, had already heard from the witnesses, and did not need a list of names to convince them of what they had seen. Such witnesses WOULD be listed, as required, during oral kerygmatic preaching.

    Matthew uses the word idou, or "behold". It was used to draw attention to things. This invaldiates your claim of dischornologization.

    How so? There is no logical connection at all between the use of idou and whether or not what follows it is dischronologized. It means no more and no less that attention was to be brought to what followed. This is like saying that we will prove that "he will bear his cross" must refer to an animal called a bear because in other sentence in the narrative, it clearly does. Idou is not relevant to, and proves nothing about, chronological narrative sequences.

    Claiming things like dischronology and telescoping are justttempts to prove biblical inerrancy by assuming biblical inerrancy.

    No one needs to assume biblical inerrancy here -- all one needs is knowledge of ancient literary techniques, and some common sense. Inerrancy or not the answer remains the same.

    Explain what linguistic features in Matt. 28:11-15 show it to be "stylized" and not intended for chronological sequence. After all, Matthew uses "and" over and over, and that indicates chronology.

    It does not, not even in English; but let's go over those passages.

    11 Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and showed unto the chief priests all the things that were done.

    After what they saw, with angels, rocks rolling, and a quake, is this a description that matches the sort of heart-pounding excitement we'd expect? No, it's like they're walking down to the grocery store. Obviously, this is stylized and compressed.

    12 And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers,

    Like it just happened, just like that? No, this is a narrative device; as for example when it is said that some group of people all replied with the same words (as in Acts 2, when Peter's listeners are said to ask him the same question in unison, and like the next example). "Taken counsel" would obviously have to cover some significant quality meetings to come to a resolution.

    13 Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept. 14 And if this come to the governor's ears, we will persuade him, and secure you.

    Does this mean the elders all stood up like toast from a toaster and said in unison, "Say ye, 'His disciples came by night...'"? Hardly -- this is clearly stylized.

    15 So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day. 16 Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them.

    Here is where my point about narrative sequence comes in; the "then" here is introducing new material, not as though to say, "then, a second after the elders said this to the guards...", hence I noted what Matt reports in 16-20 could have happened any time in Luke's 40 days. It is true that nothing can happen without time passing; the point, though, is that "then" does not mean it happened an insignificant time later.

    Here's one you missed. Luke said that Peter stooped down and beheld the linen cloths, whereas John said that Peter entered the tomb when he arrived.

    The structure of ancient tombs of this period answers this: Peter's "stooped" repose means he was bending over the bench, inside the tomb.

    All this shows is that ancient writers are careless and ust started writing and let the words fall wherever they did.

    Hardly so. Given conditions the ancients had to write in, they did a lot of planning, much more even than we do -- but they had constraints, many more than we do.