The disciples’ contradictory reports of the crucifixion, nonobservance of the resurrection, contradictory reports of the discovery of Jesus’ tomb, contradictory reports of his appearances, doubts of his appearances, and Jesus’ accursed death make the story of the resurrection unreliable.
There are a myriad of contentions to raise about the validity of the resurrection, and so the points will be made in the sequence of the story itself. Before Jesus’ formal accusation by the Jews, his reception progressively soured among the chief priests and Pharisees. Understanding the tide’s direction, Jesus informs his followers of his impending fate. We are met with immediate textual confliction, as in Mark the disciples “did not understand the saying” [Mark 9:32], but in Matthew “they were overwhelmed with grief” [Matthew 17:23]. As the day of persecution draws nearer, Jesus prayed to the Father thrice that he not have to die [Matthew 26:39, 26:42, 26:44]. It is contradictory that Jesus, who is supposed to have “perfect reciprocity of knowledge between him and the Father” would think that he could be saved from his execution [Matthew 11:25-27 fn]. And if Jesus was God, and therefore aware of the significance of his death, his attempts to escape his fate equate to begging to avoid redeeming humanity.
The chief Jewish priests began to conspire to arrest Jesus, and Jesus’ own disciple betrays him to the priests [Mark 14:10]. Jesus is subsequently arrested, at which point he is “deserted by his closest followers” [Hoffman, 123] as his disciples “all left him and fled” [Mark 14:50]. Jesus is then condemned by the most learned Jews, the priests and elders at the Sanhedrin, who consider him a heretic and fraud [Mark 14:63-65]. A second disciple, Peter, then denies Jesus to an inquirer [Mark 14:68]. If the disciples truly witnessed God in the flesh, and saw Jesus’ convincing miracles, then why would they deny him?
Jesus is then brought to a Roman trial under Pontius Pilate and condemned to death. There are some aberrations surrounding the conditions of his death, as talmudic sources indicate he was stoned rather than crucified. However, considering some extant non-biblical sources follow the line of crucifixion, such as Tacitus, let us consider, at least for argument’s sake, that Jesus was indeed crucified under Pilate.
No gospel authors were present for the crucifixion, except for a claim from John [Mark 15:40, Matthew 27:55; John 19:27]. Realizing that “he cannot save himself,” Jesus is taunted by the crowd to show his divinity as they mockingly invite him “to come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” [Mark 15:31-32]. There was another belief among the Jewish population that Elijah would “come to the help of those in distress” and so the crowd afforded Jesus the opportunity to be saved by Elijah [Mark 15:36; Matthew 27:47]. No help materialized.
Other prophetic figures of this era, including Apollonius, faced similar near-death experiences, but were able to escape persecution through divination [Porphyry, 39]. As claims to divinity are “suspective of proof” it can be said that, from the Jews’ perspective, “at the point where such proof might have been expected Jesus produces none” [Porphyry, 40].
There are many textual contradictions surrounding the details of Jesus’ crucifixion. First, the date of crucifixion stands in question, as Mark places the event after Passover [Mark 14:16] and John places it before [John 18:28]. At the end of Jesus’ life, Matthew recalls Jesus crying out “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which is partially Hebrew [Matthew 27:46]; in Mark, Jesus cries out “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which is entirely Aramaic [Mark 15:34]; in Luke, Jesus cries out “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” [Luke 23:46]; and in John, Jesus says “It is finished” [John 19:30].
Matthew then states that after Jesus died “the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom” [Matthew 27:51], but Luke states that “the temple was torn down the middle” before Jesus died [Luke 23:45]. If the disciples, most of whom were not even present and writing second-hand, cannot remain consistent on multiple conditions of Jesus’ death, how can the story be held as reliable?
After the tearing of the sanctuary, Matthew claims that:
The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many. The centurion and the men with him who were keeping watch over Jesus feared greatly when they saw the earthquake and all that was happening, and they said, “Truly, this was the Son of God!” [Matthew 27:51-54]
Despite the Roman centurion witnessing an earthquake and resurrections, he made no mention of it to Pilate who was unaware that Jesus was dead when Joseph of Arimathea asked for the corpse [Mark 15:44]. So surprised was Pilate, that he “summoned the centurion and asked him if Jesus had already died” [Mark 15:45]. This is supposed to be the same centurion who miraculously converted after witnessing terrifying miracles, but thought it not important enough to notify Pilate of, and the centurion makes no mention of it to Pilate when confirming Jesus’ death.
Pilate’s surprise is noteworthy, as the pervasive perception of the crucifixion as the ultimate tormenting experience, whose inconceivable suffering paid the price of humanity’s sins, was from a historical perspective uncharacteristically quick. Crucifixion itself was not a unique punishment, nor was Jesus’ crucifixion especially cruel. The Jews crucified hundreds of people at a time and, while the men were still alive, were known to execute their families before the hanging mens’ eyes [Hoffman, 110]. While Jesus supposedly acknowledged his death as sacrificial for the forgiveness of sins [Matthew 26:28], nowhere does he speak of the eternity of the world’s sins being cast upon himself quid pro quo. For just as the suffering of a sacrificial lamb did not correlate with the intensity of the sin, why would Jesus need to suffer in his sacrifice? The extension of this argument begs what purpose the mockery of Jesus’ served, except to affirm to the crowd his mortal status [Matthew 27:31]. Furthermore, as Judaic sacrifices were conducted by the priests of the faithful [Leviticus 2:2], why was Jesus executed by the Romans instead of his elect?
After the crucifixion, we are left with little evidence of the disciples’ immediate actions, though we can plausibly imagine their panic, realizing that Jesus died an accursed death as there was “no expectation at all that Messiah, rather than establishing the throne of David and commanding the respect of gentiles and Jews alike, would be shamefully executed as a common criminal” [Craig].
The biblical narrative continues into the story of the resurrection and Jesus’ subsequent appearances. It must be immediately pointed out that “no one—not even Jesus’ followers—had witnessed the resurrection” [Hoffman, 120-121]. When we read of the resurrection, we are not reading from eyewitness testimony, but a deduction resulting from an empty tomb and reported sightings of Jesus posthumously. This alone should detract from the validity of the Christian argument, as there are many plausible explanations for an empty tomb, such as the priests’ belief the disciples would steal the body [Matthew 28:64], and claims of resurrections were common and not associated with divinity. In addition to Matthew’s claim that multiple bodies resurrected after Jesus’ execution [Matthew 27:52], John the Baptist supposedly resurrected after his beheading, and Herod, the “King of the Jews” who was often more amicable towards paganism than Judaism [Hoffman, 114], attested to John’s resurrection [Mark 6:16].
The gospels’ recounting of the scenes following the resurrection is fraught with contradictions. In Matthew, Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James, venture to visit Jesus’ tomb. They experience an earthquake and watch an angel descend from heaven and remove the stone blocking the tomb [Matthew 28:2]. The angel instructs them to notify the disciples that Jesus is going to Galilee, and “they went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed, and ran to announce this to his disciples” [Matthew 28:8]. They then meet Jesus on their way and pay him homage [Matthew 29:9]. In Mark, Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James, and Salome experience no earthquake, enter the tomb, discover it empty, and then encounter the angel who instructs them to notify the disciples that Jesus is going to Galilee; disobediently, “they fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” [Mark 16:8]. Here, Mark’s account of the incident ends. These two versions recount different participants, different circumstances surrounding the condition and discovery of the tomb, and have inverse outcomes. The stories are completely different in detail. The contradictions increase when factoring in the other gospels, as Luke mentions “two men in dazzling garments” who greet the women in the tomb, instead of a singular angel mentioned in Mark and Matthew [Luke 24:4].
After the revelation of the women, Matthew states that Christ appeared to the eleven disciples on a mountain in Galilee [Matthew 28:16], Mark states Jesus appeared “as the eleven were at table” [Mark 16:14], and John states that Jesus appeared “presumably in Jerusalem” [John 20:19 fn] to only ten of the disciples, as Thomas “was not with them when Jesus came” [John 20:24]. Luke corroborates that the appearance occurred in Jerusalem [Luke 24:36]. We once again have conflicting reports from the gospels about whether the appearance occurred in Galilee or Jerusalem, at table or on a mountain, and to eleven or ten disciples.
On top of all the contradictory reports in the gospels, it is stated that the disciples doubted whether their visions were real. Matthew 28:17 remarks, “when they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.” In Mark, the disciples disbelieve Mary Magdalene [Mark 16:11] and two of the disciples [Mark 16:13], which Jesus rebukes them for once he reveals himself to the whole group [Mark 16:14]. In Luke, the disciples think Jesus is a ghost, not the resurrected God incarnate, and Jesus acknowledges that they doubted his presence: “why do questions arise in your hearts?” [Luke 24:38]. The disciples’ doubt does more than raise contention about the validity of the appearances, it demonstrates that the disciples did not anticipate Jesus to appear to them after the crucifixion, despite his anticipatory claim to resurrect [Mark 8:31]. For if the disciples truly believed that Jesus was divine, and Jesus informed them he would resurrect, then why did the disciples question their God’s predictions materializing? It is far more plausible that the theology of the resurrection arose after Jesus’ death once he failed “to redeem Israel” [Luke 24:21].
If Jesus truly was given “all power in heaven and on earth” [Matthew 28:18] and it was his intent to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit,” then everyone must admit that revealing himself to a select group of disciples in secret, and commissioning eleven people to spread the gospel was an ineffective method to accomplish this goal [Matthew 28:19]. The most effective method would clearly be to reveal himself to all peoples across the globe. A more humble, but still improved tactic would have been to reveal himself to the Roman senate, or any reputable group of people, or disbelievers such as the Sanhedrin, to offer unbiased attestation.
The reality is that Jesus was just one of a plethora of first-century apocalyptic prophets, many of who had their own followings, performed miracles, and were executed by the Romans [Hoffman, 115; 124]. Indeed, the most reliable part of Jesus’ story is that “He died an accursed death under God’s own Law” [Ally]. Given the aforementioned facts, which include the disciples’ absence from the crucifixion, contradictory reports of the crucifixion, nonobservance of the resurrection, contradictory reports of the discovery of Jesus’ tomb, contradictory reports of his appearances, doubts of his appearances, and Jesus’ accursed death, by what standard are we to believe the story of the resurrection?