Monday, October 10, 2011
I was on the apologetics.com radio show discussing Apologetics and Youth Ministry. Listen to it here!
I was on the apologetics.com radio show discussing "The Edge of Evolution." Listen to it here!
The identity of Jesus of Nazareth has been debated since he walked on the earth. Even as Jesus was in the midst of his public ministry, the question of his identity was disputed among the people. The disciples informed him that some say he is “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets” (Matt. 16:14 NASB). The chief priests and the Pharisees believed Jesus to be a deceiver (Matt. 27:63) and a blasphemer (Matt. 26:65). The disciples of Jesus, as expressed by Peter, declared him to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Jesus affirmed this belief by Peter and proclaimed, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:17). The nature and identity of Jesus Christ has never ceased to be a debate among every generation that has lived since these words were uttered. Nevertheless, the self-understanding of Jesus is without question. His self-references, teaching, and behavior leave no room for doubt that Jesus believed himself to be God in flesh. I will limit my assessment specifically to the New Testament support apart from this self-understanding of Jesus, for many pages could be written on that topic alone; therefore, my focus will be on the Biblical case for the deity of Jesus Christ, as expressed by his followers. The first century witnesses documented in the New Testament canon testify to and provide excellent evidence for the deity of Jesus Christ. In this paper, testimony is to be understood as statements or proclamations made (whether implicit or explicit), which attest to the deity of Jesus. This testimony is found throughout the New Testament. Evidence relates to the significant deeds of Jesus, as recorded in the four Gospels, which bear witness to his deity. After evaluating the abounding testimony and evidence, the verdict will be indisputable.
The Testimony in the Four Gospels
The Synoptic Gospels
In the opening chapter of the first Gospel, Matthew narrates the events of Jesus’ birth. As he does throughout his Gospel, Matthew recounts the details of this story as fulfilling various Old Testament prophecies proclaimed centuries earlier. Perhaps the most significant is recorded in verses 22-23, which states, “Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us’.” Matthew is quoting Isaiah 7:14 and his “primary doctrinal intent is, of course, Christological. Conceived of a virgin, Jesus is a messianic king but also the embodiment of divine presence among his people.” The deity of Jesus is not a doctrine that develops over time, but it is proclaimed in prophecy and pondered at his birth.
The Synoptic Gospel authors also claim the fulfillment of prophecy in the purpose of John the Baptist, who is the messenger to prepare and “make ready the way of the Lord” (Mark 1:3; see also Matt. 3:3 and Luke 3:4-6). This prophecy, recorded in Isaiah 40:3, goes on to proclaim, “Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God” (italics mine). So the prophecy from Isaiah, which all three Synoptic Gospel writers view to be messianic in nature, professes that the path to be “prepared” by this future messenger will be for God! There are other similar examples that could be shared from the Synoptic Gospels. “The New Testament teaching that Jesus is God, then, has significant precedent in Isaiah.” Listed below is additional testimony declaring the deity of Jesus found in the Synoptic Gospels:
· As mentioned above, Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt. 16:16; Mark 8:29: Luke 9:20).
· Mark opens his Gospel, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”
· The disciples worship Jesus and say, “You are certainly God’s Son” (Matt. 14:33)!
· The disciples worship him (Matt. 28:17).
· The demons even proclaim Jesus to be the “Son of God” (Matt. 8:29) and the “Holy One of God” (Luke 4:34)!
The Gospel of John
One of the most significant Christological passages in all of the New Testament is the prologue of John’s Gospel. He states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (1:1-3). We know this “Word” that John is acclaiming is Jesus of Nazareth, because in verse 14 he states, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…” John uses the term “Word” (Greek, Logos) to mark the identity of who Jesus is – the very subject and purpose of his Gospel message that follows. William Temple has stated:
“The Logos, alike for Jew and Gentile, represents the ruling fact of the universe, and represents that fact as the self-expression of God. The Jew will remember that ‘by the Word of the Lord were the heavens made’; the Greek will think of the rational principle of which all natural laws are particular expressions. Both will agree that this Logos is the starting-point of all things.”
The opening words of John’s prologue are clearly meant to bring to mind the opening words of the Old Testament: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1, italics mine). So before John even gets through the first clause of his first sentence, he is explicitly establishing the deity of Jesus Christ by identify him with and in the Creator God who called everything into existence out of nothing. “These statements affirming the Word’s existence before creation and his involvement in bringing about the existence of all creation reveal him to be eternal and uncreated—two essential attributes of God.”
The prologue of John ends with another unequivocal testimony of the deity of Christ:
· “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (John 1:18 NIV).
· The Greek text states, “θεον ουδεις εωρακεν πωποτε μονογενης θεος ο ων εις τον κολπον του πατρος εκεινος εξηγησατο.”
· The Interlinear text records, “God no one has seen ever; an only one, God, the one being in the bosom of the Father, that one explained [Him].”
A close reading of this concluding verse to John’s prelude reveals that the author of the fourth Gospel explicitly refers to Jesus of Nazareth as “God.” The first use of the term “God” (theon) is referring to the Father, as the phrase is clearly alluding to God’s statement to Moses, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live” (Ex. 33:20)! However, the second use of the term “God” (theos) is a reference to the Son (the focal point of the prologue), who is “the one being in the bosom of the Father,” and is, therefore, not the Father Himself. “The affirmation that the ‘only Son’ is himself ‘God’ is a fitting conclusion to the prologue to the Gospel of John. It makes it clear that the one who was before creation (1:1) was still God when he came to make God the Father known to us through the Incarnation.”
An additional noteworthy testimony to the deity of Christ is the words of the disciple Thomas. After seeing the resurrected Jesus, he unabashedly states, “My Lord and my God” (20:28)! “This is an incredible response: not only does Thomas now believe that Jesus has been raised, but he also identifies him with the God of heaven. And so does John. The combination of John 1:1 with 20:28 is a one-two punch that levels any doubt about early belief in the divinity of Jesus.” John also asserts in 13:3 of his Gospel, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He has come forth from God and was going back to God...” The use of “come” and “going” by John clearly implies the preexistence of Jesus, for he would be returning to the Father from where he had come. Finally, Jesus’ disciples even testify to his omniscience. John 16:30 states, “Now we know that You know all things…” Interestingly, in the following verse Jesus responds, “Do you now believe?” Peter also testifies, “Lord, You know all things” (21:17). This, of course, is telling because God alone holds the attribute of omniscience.
The Evidence in the Four Gospels
The Synoptic Gospels
The evidence for the deity of Christ found within the Synoptic Gospels is abundant. As I pointed out in the testimony of the Gospel writers, Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled numerous messianic prophecies written centuries prior to his birth. In addition, perhaps the most overt manifestations of deity lie in the miracles of Jesus. All three Synoptic Gospel authors record a great storm on the sea that terrified the disciples, “but Jesus Himself was asleep. And they came to Him and woke Him, saying, ‘Save us, Lord; we are perishing!’ He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?’ Then He got up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and it became perfectly calm” (Matt. 8:24-26; see also Mark 4:35-41 and Luke 8:22-25). “The Gospels conclude this particular episode with the disciples’ question, ‘Who then is this?’ showing that the miracle points to Jesus’ unique (and, from a human point of view, hidden) identity.” With this miraculous episode in mind, it is significant to find in the Psalms confessions to God which profess, “Who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of the waves” (Ps. 65:7), and “You rule the swelling of the sea; When its wave rise, You still them” (Ps. 89:9). Listed below are some additional examples of Jesus’ power over nature, which give evidence of his deity:
· Jesus informs his disciples where to lower their nets, which results in a large catch of fish (Luke 5:1-11). He performs this miracle again in John’s Gospel (John 21:1-11).
· Jesus commands unclean spirits who obey him (Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:31-37).
· He rebukes a fever, which immediately leaves the sick (Matt. 8:14-15; Mark 1:29-31; Luke 4:38-39).
· In the city of Nain, Jesus brings a man back from the dead (Luke 7:11-17).
· He heals a paralytic (Matt. 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26).
· Jesus heals a man with a withered hand (Matt. 12:9-13; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11).
· Jesus feeds the 5,000 (Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-34; Luke 9:10-17).
· Jesus walks on the water (Matt. 14:22-33; Mark 6:45-52).
· He heals a blind man (Mark 8:22-26).
· Jesus cleanses ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19).
The additional examples provided above are merely a portion of the miracles Jesus performs during his public ministry. Their significance, as evidence for the deity of Jesus, is unmistakable. After all, it is the Old Testament Judaism God who heals all of Israel’s diseases. For example, in 2 Kings 5:7, the king of Israel receives a letter from the king of Aram concerning Naaman’s leprosy, and the king of Israel replies, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man is sending word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” “Jesus in effect takes God’s place as the healer of Israel. No doctors or medicine are necessary for him—he heals as God heals.”
The most important and extraordinary piece of evidence concerning the deity of Jesus Christ is his resurrection from the dead. Matthew chapters 28, Mark chapter 16, and Luke chapter 24 all record that on the morning of the first day of the week following Jesus of Nazareth’s crucifixion and burial, the tomb was found empty by a group of women. The Synoptic Gospels go on to record several appearances by the risen Jesus to his women followers and disciples. In all of human history, there is no single more significant act than the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His followers understood this significance and would devote the rest of their lives to spreading his name and message on the earth. N.T. Wright notes:
“This was what made them a messianic group within Judaism. This was what made them take on Caesar’s world with the news that there was ‘another king’. This was what made them not only speak of the one true God, but invoke him, pray to him, love him and serve him in terms of the Father and the lord, of the God who sent the Son and now sends the Spirit of the Son, in terms of the only-begotten God who makes visible the otherwise invisible creator of the world. This is why, when they spoke of the resurrection of Jesus, they spoke of the resurrection of the Son of God.”
The Gospel of John
Abundant evidence has already been provided in the Synoptic Gospels for the deity of Christ. Jesus performed a multitude of miracles and fulfilled numerous Old Testament prophecies, culminating in his incomparable victory over death! The Gospel of John provides even additional evidence for his deity, particularly in his attributes that demonstrate his unity with God the Father. For example, Jesus reflected the omnipresence of God when he healed the royal official’s son from afar. For the young boy was close to death, and “The royal official says to Him, ‘Sir, come down before my child dies.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your son lives.’ The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started off. As he was going down, his slaves met him, saying that his son was living” (4:49-51). Jesus also reflects the attribute of omniscience in the episode involving the woman at the well in Samaria. After just beginning a conversation with her, “He said to her, ‘Go call your husband and come here.’ The woman answered and said, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.’ The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet’” (4:16-19). She clearly implies that Jesus is correct in his assessment. Listed below are further examples of Jesus’ omniscience:
· Jesus knew that Lazarus had died before they received word he had passed (John 11:11-15).
· Jesus knew that Judas Iscariot would betray him (John 6:70-71).
· Jesus knew that Peter would deny him three times, and even warned him about it (John 13:36-38).
· Jesus predicts his death and resurrection (John 2:19).
· The Synoptic Gospels record Jesus’ prediction that the Romans were going to destroy the temple before that generation had passed away (Matt. 23:36-39; Mark 13:1-2, 30; Luke 21:20-24, 32). Within forty years, in the year A.D. 70, the Romans destroyed the temple.
· Matthew also records Jesus foretelling that his disciples would preach the gospel and make disciples of all nations (Matt. 24:14; 28:19). “This is an audacious claim in the early first century, considering how parochial and insignificant Judaism (let alone Jesus’ small following) seemed at the time.”
The Testimony in Acts and the Epistles
Acts of the Apostles
The most prolific testimony in the book of Acts for the deity of Jesus is in the apostles’ use of “Lord” when speaking to him and about him. In an early gathering of the brethren, prior to Pentecost, Peter refers to the “Lord Jesus” (1:21), and then they prayed the first recorded prayer to Jesus, saying, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all men” (vs. 24). In this one prayer alone, there are four implicit claims to the divinity of Jesus being expressed:
1. As stated, the use of the term “Lord” when addressing Jesus is an acknowledgement of his deity. Bowman and Komoszewski note:
“Early in his ministry, Jesus warned that even those who said to him ‘Lord, Lord’ (kurie, kurie) and claimed to do miracles in his name were condemned if they disobeyed him (Matt. 7:21-22; Luke 6:46; see also Matt. 25:11). This doubled form of address occurs repeatedly in the Septuagint in place of the Hebrew ‘Lord YHWH’ (Deut. 3:24; 9:26; 1 Kings 8:53; Ps. 69:6; Ezek. 20:49; Amos 7:2, 5) or ‘YHWH Lord’ (Pss. 109:21; 140:7; 141:8), but never in reference to anyone but YHWH.”
2. The very fact that the disciples are praying to Jesus is an affirmation of the deity of Jesus. There are no other examples found in Scripture of a righteous Hebrew person praying to anyone but YHWH.
3. In his prayer, Peter uses the expression, “You…who know the hearts of all men” (vs. 24). As noted from John’s Gospel, this is an acknowledgement of Jesus’ omniscience.
4. The expression by Peter (from #3) recalls an Old Testament prayer to YHWH by king Solomon: “…forgive and act and rend to each according to all his ways, whose heart You know, for You alone know the hearts of all the sons of men” (1 Kings 8:9, italics mine).
The significance of the points mentioned thus far, indeed throughout this biblical case for the deity of Christ, cannot be understated. This is appropriately comprehended when one appreciates the thoroughly monotheistic context from which Christianity arises. Komoszewski et al note:
“Christianity not only arose in a Jewish monotheistic context; it also embraced the monotheistic convictions of Judaism. Indeed, Christianity shared Judaism’s intolerance for devotion to any so-called god but the supreme God. In light of this fact, it would be remarkable to find any hints in early Christian writings that Jesus was treated as divine. Yet the Gospels and the larger New Testament supply such hints—and more.”
Listed below are additional examples found in the book of Acts testifying to the deity of Christ:
· The Gospel message is referred to as “the word of the Lord” (Acts 8:25; 13:44, 48-49; 15:35-36; 16:32; 19:10). This expression is found repeatedly in the Old Testament in reference to the message that YHWH would supply to His prophets. For example, 2 Samuel 24:11 states, “When David arose in the morning, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad…” (italics mine; see also 1 Kings 13:1-2; 2 Chronicles 36:21; Isa. 1:10; Jer. 1:4; Ezek. 1:3; Hos. 1:1-2; Joel 1:1; etc.).
· Stephen calls upon Jesus twice as “Lord” (Acts 7:59-60).
· When Peter declares in Acts 2:21, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord (a clear reference to Jesus) will be saved” (italics mine), he is quoting a passage from Joel, which has “YHWH” (2:32).
· In Acts 20:28, Paul states, “Be on guard…the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (italics mine). This is an astounding claim by Paul that God offered Himself at the cross for the church.
The Pauline Epistles
There are numerous statements made by Paul that testify to the deity of Jesus Christ. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul states, “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (2:9). This “high” Christological statement makes plain the complex truth that God, indeed, walked as a man. “The additional words ‘of Deity’ [from 1:19] specify what dwells in Christ in its entire fullness…so that He is the essential and adequate image of God, which He could not be if He were not the possessor of the divine essence.” One of the most important passages for understanding the identity and person of Christ is Philippians 2:6-11:
“[Christ] who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Many truths concerning the deity of Jesus can be determined from the rich content of this passage:
· Christ existed “in the form of God,” meaning that he existed in heaven before he became a man. This, of course, testifies to the preexistence of Jesus Christ.
· Concerning the phrase, he “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,” “Paul’s point is that although Christ was in God’s form and was (at least by right) God’s equal, he did not demand his divine rights but humbly took a servant’s form and became a human being.”
· The exaltation of Christ, so that “every knee will bow…and every tongue will confess,” exhibits the glory that is due Jesus – glory that is only fit for God.
Paul also proclaims the preexistence of Christ in his letter to the Romans. He states,
“For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh…” (8:3; see also Gal. 4:4-6). The implication is clear: The Son of God existed before becoming a human. In Romans 10:13, Paul quotes Joel 2:32, as Peter does in Acts, and applies “Lord” from that passage to Christ. Finally, in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul proclaims the sinless perfection of Jesus: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf…” (2 Cor. 5:21). There are many more implicit and explicit statements in the Pauline epistles, which testify to the deity of Jesus Christ.
Elements of the remaining epistles of the New Testament further compound the multitude of testimony and evidence already established, which declare the deity of Jesus Christ. Due to the enormity of proof already provided, I will only contribute a few more testimonies from the biblical text. To begin, in Peter’s second epistle, he states “To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (1:1, italics mine). The implication and importance of this phrase is obvious. Peter has attributed to Jesus two titles: Savior and God. Peter’s testimony concerning the deity of Jesus is loud and clear in his epistle before he even gets to the body of his letter.
The author of Hebrews affirms the sinless perfection of Christ, as Paul did in his letter to the Corinthians. The author states that Jesus, “who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15, italics mine). In addition to this, “Peter characterized Jesus as an ‘unblemished and spotless’ lamb (1 Pet. 1:19) ‘who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth’ (1 Pet. 2:22).” John also makes this assertion in his first epistle, “You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5, italics mine). Finally, concerning testimony in the book of Revelation, Bowman and Komoszewski claim:
“The worship offered to the Son is the same kind of worship offered to the Father. Revelation 4-5 presents three cycles of worship that culminate in chapter 5 with the worship of God and the Lamb together. First God is worshiped (4:9-11), then the Lamb (5:8-12), and finally God and the Lamb together (5:13-14). The noted commentator on Revelation, Henry Barclay Swete concluded, ‘This chapter is the most powerful statement on the divinity of Christ in the New Testament…’”
The evidence and the testimonies, presented in the New Testament, affirming the deity of Jesus Christ are compelling. The Gospels portray the Son of God as having absolute power over nature and evil spirits. He exhibits attributes that could only be manifested in God. These attributes include a reflection of the omnipresence of God. He also exemplifies omniscience and even omnipotence as he overcomes the grave in his triumphant resurrection from the dead. Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled numerous Old Testament prophecies and his closest followers frequently acknowledge the sinless perfection of their teacher. The evidence attested by the three-year public ministry of Jesus, and the testimony affirmed by his disciples and the authors of the New Testament canon provide the only verdict fathomable: Jesus Christ was God prior to the Incarnation, was God as he walked the earth, and is God now and for eternity.
Beale, G.K. and D.A. Carson, eds. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old
Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
Bowman Jr., Robert M. and J. Ed Komoszewski. Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the
Deity of Christ. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2007.
Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith. Third ed. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008.
Geisler, Norman and Frank Turek. I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. Wheaton:
Crossway Books, 2004.
Komoszewski, Ed J., M. James Sawyer and Daniel B. Wallace. Reinventing Jesus: How
Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture. Grand Rapids:
Kregel Publications, 2006.
New American Standard Bible. Anaheim: Foundation Publications, 1995.
New International Version. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 1998.
Novum Testamentum Grace. Barbara and Kurt Aland, eds. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft,
O’Brien, Peter T. Word Biblical Commentary: Colossians, Philemon. Nashville: Thomas Nelson
The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament. J.D. Douglas, ed. Wheaton: Tyndale House
Publishers, Inc., 1990.
Wright, N.T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 5.
Robert M. Bowman Jr. and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2007), 138.
Although worship, such as bowing, is not often thought of as a “statement” (although it can be), I place it under Testimony as a non-verbal statement.
Qtd. in Leon Morris, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 108.
Bowman and Komoszewski, 138-139.
John 1:18, Novum Testamentum Graece, Barbara and Kurt Aland, eds. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), 248.
John 1:18, The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament, J.D. Douglas, ed. (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1990), 318.
Bowman and Komoszewski, 142.
J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006), 174.
Bowman and Komoszewski, 201.
William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, third ed. (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008), 324-325.
N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 736.
Bowman and Komoszewski, 119.
Komoszewski, Sawyer and Wallace, 170.
Peter T. O’Brien, Word Biblical Commentary: Colossians, Philemon (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982), 111.
Bowman and Komoszewski, 84.
Normal L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004), 348.
Bowman and Komoszewski, 260, italics mine.
In “Jesus, Interrupted,” Bart Ehrman makes the claim, “Nowhere are the differences among the Gospels more clear than in the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection.” The implication, of course, is that the differences among the Gospel narratives demonstrate them to be an unreliable source of history and, thereby, sheds doubt on the Christian claim that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. There are five chapters in the canonical Gospels, which recount the events that occurred following the burial of Jesus. The disciple of Jesus, Matthew, reports the events in the twenty verses that make up Matthew chapter 28. Mark, who was a close associate of the Apostle Peter, gives an account of the resurrection in eight verses of Mark chapter 16. Luke, who was a close associate of the Apostle Paul, gives his account in fifty-three verses of Luke 24. Finally, the close disciple of Jesus, John, records the events following the burial of Jesus in fifty-six verses of John chapters 20-21. Overall, there are 137 verses recorded in the four canonical Gospels, which narrate the central event of Christianity that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead on the Sunday morning following His crucifixion and burial. After discussing the alleged discrepancies of the resurrection narratives in the four accounts forwarded by Bart Ehrman, I will attempt to give plausible explanations for these differences, followed by a proposed harmony of the events as they are recorded in the final chapters of the Gospels.
THE PROPOSED PROBLEM
Bart Ehrman states, “All four Gospels agree that on the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty. But on virtually every detail they disagree.” Ehrman goes on to state:
“Who actually went to the tomb? Was it Mary alone (John 20:1)? Mary and another Mary (Matthew 28:1)? Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (Mark 16:1)? Or women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem—possibly Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and ‘other women’ (Luke 24:1; see 23:55)? Had the stone already been rolled away from the tomb (as in Mark 16:4) or was it rolled away by an angel while the women were there (Matthew 28:2)? Whom or what did they see there? An angel (Matthew 28:5)? A young man (Mark 16:5)? Two men (Luke 24:4)? Or nothing and no one (John)? And what were they told? To tell the disciples to ‘go to Galilee,’ where Jesus will meet them (Mark 16:7)? Or to remember what Jesus had told them ‘while he was in Galilee,’ that he had to die and rise again (Luke 24:7)? Then, do the women tell the disciples what they saw and heard (Matthew 28:8), or do they not tell anyone (Mark 16:8)? If they tell someone, who do they tell? The eleven disciples (Matthew 28:8)? The eleven disciples and other people (Luke 24:8)? Simon Peter and another unnamed disciple (John 20:2)? What do the disciples do in response? Do they have no response because Jesus himself immediately appears to them (Matthew 28:9)? Do they not believe the women because it seems to be ‘an idle tale’ (Luke 24:11)? Or do they go to the tomb to see for themselves (John 20:3)?”
One point in particular seems to be irreconcilable. In Mark’s account the women are instructed to tell the disciples to go meet Jesus in Galilee, but out of fear they don’t say a word to anyone about it. In Matthew’s version the disciples are told to go to Galilee to meet Jesus, and they immediately do so. He appears to them there and gives them their final instruction. But in Luke the disciples are not told to go to Galilee. They are told that Jesus had foretold his resurrection while he was in Galilee (during his public ministry). And they never leave Jerusalem—in the southern part of Israel, a different region from Galilee, in the north. On the day of the resurrection Jesus appears to two disciples on the ‘road to Emmaus” (24:13-35); later that day these disciples tell the other what they have seen, and Jesus appears to all of them (24:36-49); and then Jesus takes them to Bethany on the outskirts of Jerusalem and gives them their instructions and ascends to heaven. In Luke’s next volume, Acts, we’re told that the disciples are in fact explicitly told by Jesus after his resurrection not to leave Jerusalem (Acts 1:4), but to stay there until they receive the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after Passover. After giving his instructions, Jesus then ascends to heaven. The disciples do stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes (Acts 2). And so the discrepancy: If Matthew is right, that the disciples immediately go to Galilee and see Jesus ascend from there, how can Luke be right that the disciples stay in Jerusalem the whole time, see Jesus ascend from there, and stay on until the day of Pentecost?”
I have shared this long passage from Ehrman, because it exhaustively displays the alleged problem of discrepancies among the resurrection narratives of the four Gospel accounts. In my next section, I will attempt to offer some plausible solutions to the differences Bart Ehrman describes.
SOME PROPROSED SOLUTIONS
The first problem Ehrman mentions is the issue of who visited the tomb on the morning of the resurrection. Matthew’s account states that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary visited the grave (28:1). Mark records Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb, along with “Mary the mother of James and Salome” (16:1). Luke mentions both Mary’s and adds Joanna and “the other women with them” (24:10). Finally, John’s Gospel documents only Mary Magdalene as visiting the tomb. Bart Ehrman rightly recognizes these accounts as varying in the details, but none of these accounts display a contradiction regarding who visited the tomb. In fact, Ehrman is being irresponsible (at best) or dishonest (at worst) to even ask the question in the form, “Who actually went to the tomb? Was it Mary alone (John 20:1)? John does not state that Mary visited the tomb “alone” – he merely only mentions her in the tomb visit! The fact that each Gospel writer did not feel the need to document the complete list of women who visited the tomb on Sunday morning should not cast aspersions on their credibility as honest historians. This is not even recognized as necessary according to our modern standards of documenting events.
To illustrate, I have compared three news articles recounting the events of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. USA Today mentions the attack by the Japanese, from the first-hand perspectives of Russell Meyne and Jim Morgan. Meyne recounts a plane crashing into a building, which killed four people, and he also describes witnessing battleships tipping over and dumping oil on the water. The Fort Worth Star Telegram article only agrees with USA Today on the major details: The date of the attack, the perpetrators of the attack, and the location of the event. The article does not mention Meyne or Morgan or a plane crashing into a building killing four people. It does mention separate details, however, such as the sinking of the USS Arizona and the USS Oklahoma. Interestingly, an msnbc.com article only mentions the sinking of the USS Arizona, but does not state that the USS Oklahoma sank, nor does it mention any of the details offered by the USA Today article. In fact, the msnbc article has different details, including the perspective of one Navy veteran named Louis Conter. It would be quite easy to get a dozen more articles from different newspapers, all of which would recount the most important details of December 7, 1941 in uniformity, but (without question) would differ in the details. Differences among the accounts are not a difficulty for the historical record – only contradictions would be problematic.
When this proper reasoning is applied to the question of who visited the tomb, it can very easily be explained. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome, Joanna, and other women visited the tomb on the morning of the first day of the week. Luke, who prefers to provide more details, mentions all of these women (although not all of them by name), Matthew and Luke both decide to only mention the two Mary’s, and John prefers to only mention Mary Magdalene, although he does not state that Mary “alone” visited the tomb. John’s reasoning is probably because he is going to recount the appearance of Jesus to her beginning in verse 11, and he is the only Gospel writer to do so in detail. It should be noted that, even though John only mentions Mary Magdalene, he does record her stating in 20:2, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid Him” (NASB, italics mine). So even John is implicitly conveying that it was not only Mary Magdalene who had visited the tomb. It is not difficult to conclude that there are no contradictions in any of these accounts, but merely differences among the details. As human beings, we share stories all of the time in this way, often recounting various details of an event based on whom we are speaking to, the length of time in which we wish to spend sharing a story, or even based simply on the kind of mood we are in. This is easily accomplished without stating an actual contradiction or abusing the truth.
Ehrman goes on to question, “Had the stone already been rolled away from the tomb (as in Mark 16:4) or was it rolled away by an angel while the women were there (Matthew 28:2)?” This is another inaccurate representation of the accounts. Matthew states in 28:2,4-5, “And behold a severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it…The guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men. The angel said to the women…” (italics mine). Is Matthew conveying that the women walked up to the tomb, saw the stone and the guards, and then the earth shook, the stone rolled away, and an angel descended from heaven? The account could be read in that way, but I think a more accurate interpretation (based on the clue given in verse 2) is that these events had occurred by the time the women arrived. This is also consistent with Mark’s account.
The next difference mentioned by Ehrman regards whom or what did the women see there? Matthew records an angel spoke to the women (28:5), Mark records that it was a young man in a white robe (16:5), Luke states that it was two men (24:4), and John does not mention an angel or men being at the tomb. As in the case of the number of women of visiting the tomb, we are once again not dealing with a contradiction regarding the number of angels but merely the differing details conveyed by the Gospel writers. After all, Matthew does not record that “only one” angel spoke to the women. Matthew and Mark might have only mentioned one angel because only one of them spoke to the women in their account. Furthermore, Mark’s account does not state that a young man “who was not an angel” spoke to the women. The “young men” in Luke’s account are clearly angels, so it should not be problematic that Mark and Luke would call them “young men” since that was how they appeared to the women. It is highly doubtful that Mark and Luke were trying to convey that two human men, wearing dazzling white robes (according to their descriptions), showed up at the tomb with a special knowledge of Jesus’ location.
What were the women told by these messengers? Matthew records the angel saying, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying. Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold I have told you” (28:5-7). In Mark’s account, we find the women being told, “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.’” (16:6-7). Finally, in Luke’s account, the women are told, “Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again” (24:5-7). Matthew and Mark both appear to record the same message, and the angel in Luke is likely giving an additional message by the same angel or an additional message by the second angel. Regarding the issues of the number of angels, their exact location at the site, and the messages they conveyed to the women, R.A. Torrey states, “The very simple solution of it all is that there was an angel outside the tomb when the women approached, and they saw another one sitting inside. The one outside entered and the one sitting arose and, standing by the women, together, or after one another, they uttered the words recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.”
A more difficult question is what did the women do next? Ehrman asks, “Do the women tell the disciples what they saw and heard (Matthew 28:8), or do they not tell anyone (Mark 16:8)? If they tell someone, who do they tell? The eleven disciples (Matthew 28:8)? The eleven disciples and other people (Luke 24:8)? Simon Peter and another unnamed disciple (John 20:2)?” Truthfully, Matthew’s Gospel does not record that the women told the disciples what they saw and heard, as Ehrman conveys, but it only states their intention to do so. Matthew states, “And they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples” (28:8). Mark’s Gospel concludes, “They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8). It should be noted that Mark’s description that the women were “trembling and astonished” accurately coincides with Matthew’s portrait of their “fear and great joy.” Norman Geisler points out, “Since Mark reveals that they did not speak because ‘they were afraid,’ it may be that at first they held their peace (as Mark indicated), and then later spoke up (as Matthew may imply). It is also possible that the women left the tomb in two groups at slightly different times, Mark referring to one and Matthew to the other.” Regarding who the women tell, once again, there is no contradiction between the Gospel accounts: The women told Simon Peter and another unnamed disciple, as reported by John (20:2), the women told the eleven disciples as reported by Matthew 28:8 (at the very least, Matthew implies this fact), and the women told the eleven disciples and others as recorded in Luke 24:9. Once again, Luke gives the most details. These are all very plausible explanations and place the burden of proof on Ehrman or any critic who would want to label very reconcilable accounts as incongruent.
What do the disciples do in response after hearing that the tomb was found empty? Ehrman questions, “Do they have no response because Jesus himself immediately appears to them (Matthew 28:9)? Do they not believe the women because it seems to be ‘an idle tale’ (Luke 24:11)? Or do they go to the tomb to see for themselves (John 20:3)?” Matthew’s account (as well as Mark’s) should be left out of this discussion, because clearly the Gospel writers chose not to relate the response of Jesus’ disciples. As stated in the introduction, it should be remembered that Matthew’s account of the resurrection is only twenty verses in length and Mark’s account is a mere eight verses. This contrasts greatly with Luke’s more detailed fifty-three verses and John’s fifty-six. Ehrman is right to point out that John’s Gospel records that the disciples visit the tomb to see for themselves (20:3), but he fails to mention that Luke’s Gospel also records this fact immediately after mentioning that they did not believe the women. Luke’s Gospel states that after hearing the testimony of the women, “these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe him” (24:11). Apparently, Ehrman forgets to mention the very next verse, which states, “But Peter got up and ran to the tomb…” (vs. 12). This is one of the many reasons why I find Bart Ehrman to be disingenuous in some of his criticisms. I have no doubt that he is aware of at least some of the holes in his thinking. Regarding Ehrman’s criticisms stated in the second paragraph of his extended quote (pages 3-4), I will respond in my next section.
A HARMONIZED ACCOUNT
To create a harmonized account of the resurrection narratives, I will begin by recounting the testimonies of the Gospel writers separately, as well as Luke’s further information in the opening chapter of the book of Acts:
àMatthew: On the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and another Mary visit Jesus’ tomb; women encounter angel who invites them into the tomb; angel announces Jesus’ resurrection and tells the women to give message to the disciples; women leave tomb and encounter Jesus on their way; Jesus informs the women to take word of His resurrection to the disciples and also instruction for the disciples to go to Galilee; some interaction occurs between the tomb guards and the chief priests; an unspecified time later the eleven disciples proceed to Galilee to a mountain where they encountered Jesus; Jesus commissions them; (Note: Matthew’s gospel does not record Jesus’ ascension).
àMark: On the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and another Mary visit Jesus’ tomb; women find the stone rolled away; they enter tomb and find a young man (presumably an angel) who announces Jesus’ resurrection and instructs the women to share this news with the disciples; women leave tomb trembling and astonished and do not say anything to anyone, because they were afraid. (Note: Mark’s gospel does not record Jesus’ ascension).
àLuke: On the first day of the week, women visit the tomb; the women enter the tomb and find the body of Jesus missing; angel announces Jesus’ resurrection; women leave and report the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples; disciples do not believe women; Peter runs to the tomb and finds it empty; Peter goes home marveling at what he found; on the same day, two disciples are confronted by Jesus on the road to Emmaus; the disciples (not knowing it was Jesus) recount the events of the women finding the tomb empty and “some” of the disciples confirming this fact; Jesus teaches these disciples, eats with them that evening and reveals Himself to them; Jesus vanishes from their sight; these disciples returned to the Jerusalem, met the other disciples, and recounted their experience with the risen Jesus; Jesus appears to all of them and eats with them; Jesus commissions the disciples and instructs them to stay in Jerusalem; an unspecified time later Jesus leads the disciples out as far as Bethany where He ascends into heaven; the disciples return to Jerusalem with great joy.
àJohn: On the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene visit Jesus’ tomb; Mary finds the tomb empty and runs to tell Peter and another disciple (likely John) that Jesus’ body has been moved; Peter and the other disciple go to the tomb and find Jesus missing; Both disciples leave and go home; Mary stood outside the tomb weeping and two angels appear to her (although she does not notice that they are angels); Jesus then appears to Mary; Mary then goes and announces to the disciples that she has seen Jesus alive; Jesus appears to the disciples when they are all together; eight days later, Jesus appears to the disciples again; an unspecified time later, Jesus appears to His disciples at the Sea of Tiberias; (Note: John’s gospel does not record Jesus’ ascension).
àActs: Luke mentions that Jesus appears to the disciples over a period of forty days; Jesus instructs the disciples not to leave Jerusalem; Jesus commissions the disciples and ascends to heaven; two men (presumably angels) appear to the disciples and announce that Jesus will return; the disciples return to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet.
Creating a harmony of the resurrection narratives is not a completely “clean” or easy job, but the mere fact that there can be a plausible harmony of the accounts suggests that harsh criticisms and claims of irreconcilable differences among the four Gospels is unfounded. I propose the following harmony:
àA proposed harmony of the resurrection narratives: On the first morning of the week, Mary Magdalene and other women visit the tomb, and find it empty. Disheartened because she believes Jesus’ body has been moved, Mary Magdalene separates from the rest of the women and quickly runs to inform the disciples that Jesus’ body has been moved. After Mary Magdalene leaves, the remaining women encounter two angels who announce that Jesus had risen from the dead. The angels also instruct the women to tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee. The women leave the tomb terrified, intending not to tell anything to anyone (at least, at first this was their intention). After leaving the tomb, Jesus appears to these women and, once again, instructs them to inform His disciples to meet Him in Galilee. These women then head to the disciples. Either before or after the women’s encounter with Jesus (but after the women had left the tomb), Peter and the other disciple (likely John) run and confirm that the tomb is empty. The disciples then return home. Mary Magdalene returns to the tomb after the disciples and stays behind even after the disciples leave. She begins to weep and then looks inside the tomb, where she sees the two angels, but she does not notice they are angels because she probably does not look directly at them (because she is weeping), and then Jesus appears to her and He makes Himself known to her. (Once again, this appearance could have occurred before or after Jesus’ appearance to the other women.) After Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and the other women, all of the women return to the disciples and inform them that they had seen the risen Jesus. The disciples do not believe the women. [After stating the disciples’ disbelief, Luke then mentions, “Peter got up and ran to the tomb…” Chronologically, I do believe this event to have happened prior to this point (as recorded in detail in John’s Gospel), but that Luke places it here for the purpose of wanting to simply share this fact.] After the women inform the disciples of what they saw, Jesus appears that afternoon to two of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, but the two disciples do not recognize Him. Jesus teaches them and then eats with them once they reach the village. While eating, Jesus makes Himself known to the two disciples. After Jesus leaves their sight, the two disciples return to Jerusalem at once and share with the remaining disciples (and the others there) about their encounter with the risen Jesus. While sharing, Jesus appears to all of them that evening, and even eats among them. So on the first day after Jesus had resurrected, He appeared to Mary Magdalene, the other women, and all of the disciples. During the next forty days, Jesus would appear to the disciples at least two more times (including in Galilee). According to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, Jesus would also appear to more than five hundred at one time and to James, the brother of Jesus. Jesus commissions His disciples in several instances, instructs them to stay in Jerusalem for a time, and then He ascends to heaven from Bethany, which is on the eastern slope of the Mt. of Olives, which is just east of Jerusalem. After Jesus ascends and disappears among the clouds, two angels appear to the disciples and inform them that Jesus will return in the same way He departed. Afterward, the disciples return to Jerusalem until Pentecost a week and a half later, when they receive the Holy Spirit.
As stated, creating a proposed harmony of the resurrection narratives is not a “neat” job, but the plausible explanations for these divergent details places the burden of proof on those who would discount the historical testimonies of these four Gospel authors. Newspaper articles and history books will often agree in the major details and diverge in the minor ones. The reason for this fact is often due to the enormous amount of details that one could include. This is exactly what we find among the four Gospels. The simple fact is that the events of that day and the forty days that follow are compressed into as few as eight verses (under 190 words), in Mark’s case, to as high as a mere fifty-six verses in John’s account. This fact alone is a reasonable explanation for the differences among the details! Even so, as I have illustrated in every example given by Bart Ehrman, these differences do not equate to contradictions. The very reasonable and numerous potential ways to harmonize the resurrection narratives only serves to strengthen the historical claim that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead.
Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Interrupted. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
Geisler, Normal L. and Thomas Howe. The Big Book of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids:
New American Standard Bible. Anaheim: Foundation Publications, 1995.
Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 47.
Although there are twenty verses in Mark 16 recorded in the Bible, the last twelve verses (9-20) are widely
regarded by scholars to be an addition in later manuscripts. Due to this, I will only be interacting with Mark 16:1-8.
Ibid., 48, italics mine.
All Bible verses recorded independent of another source will be from the Updated New American
Standard Bible (NASB).
R.A. Torrey, Difficulties in the Bible (Springdale: Whitaker House, 1996), 127.
Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 1992), 377.