Most readers of this magazine will not require special persuasion to dismiss Christian claims for the Resurrection, but it might be very helpful in any discussion with believers to have quick access to a clear and detailed presentation of the inconsistencies and self-contradictions in the biblical accounts. The problems made explicit here can be added to more general arguments that weigh heavily against traditional Christian doctrines. Some of those involve larger issues within the confines of biblical scholarship, while others are more scientific and philosophical in nature (for example, whether miracles are credible—or even, philosophically speaking, possible). Alexander Wedderburn’s Beyond Resurrection and Gerd Lüdemann’s The Resurrection of Jesus are probably the most effective modern critiques of the Resurrection; for miracles and other philosophical topics, the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an excellent entry point.
My title, perhaps cryptic at first sight, echoes a minor classic from a bygone era (that is, the world of print-on-paper publication): One Book/Five Ways: The Publishing Procedures of Five University Presses. It shows in remarkable detail the different approaches taken by publishing staffs at universities at Chicago, MIT, North Carolina, Texas, and Toronto to a manuscript titled No Time for Houseplants. Each press agreed to treat it as a real project and record the entire process as it passed through their administrative, acquisitions, editorial, design, production, and sales departments; the book was eventually published by the University of Oklahoma Press. The numerical parallel to the five major sources for the New Testament Resurrection stories inspired me to offer Free Inquiry readers the accompanying chart (.PDF), adapted and expanded from Dan Barker’s Losing Faith in Faith. Barker poses a series of questions with text-based answers, challenging Christians to produce an internally consistent Easter narrative, using every item and omitting none, from those supposedly “inerrant” sources. More than two decades later, Barker’s challenge remains unanswered by the Christian world; I hope the adjoining material will show with maximum clarity why it cannot be done.
I’ve organized the texts into five vertical columns, starting with Paul’s First Corinthians (which dates from the mid-50s CE and is thus our oldest—and yet least informative—source for the Resurrection), followed by the four Gospels, arranged in the chronological order of their composition as accepted by the majority of scholars: Mark (ca. 70 CE); Matthew (ca. 80–90); Luke/Acts (ca. 85–90); and John (ca. 90–110). This multicolumn approach has a substantial history in Bible scholarship, starting with the Hexapla (Six-fold) text of Origen, created around 240 CE, which displayed Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament. Almost a century ago, Ernest Burton and E. J. Goodspeed created two splendidly readable triple-column layouts of the Synoptic Gospels, showing the Greek originals alongside English translations phrase by phrase. The clarity of this form of presentation makes it easy to see both the word-for-word identity that led to the specialized application of the word synoptic (from 1841 in the Oxford English Dictionary)—and also the many places, especially in the Resurrection passages, where the texts depart, often significantly, from that lockstep uniformity, highlighting the failure of the traditions to preserve even a minimally coherent account of this supposedly world-changing event.*
For an even stronger visual effect, Allan Barr’s Diagram of Synoptic Relationships uses four color-coded columns (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Matthew again, in order to create a side-by-side comparison of Matthew and Luke). There is, by the way, in the otherwise remote field of Shakespeare studies, a purely coincidental but quite striking parallel to this A-B-C-A arrangement: Paul Bertram and Beatrice W. Kliman’s engagingly titled Three-Text Hamlet arrays the two Quartos and the First Folio in four columns (Q1, Q2, F1, and Q1 again, to focus on its idiosyncratic transpositions).
For the severely streamlined treatment given here, I haven’t quoted texts in their entirety, but I have added quotation marks to show where seemingly fragmentary phrases are in fact precise translations of the original Greek text. Also, green indicates identical expressions within the Synoptics (once in John), and red indicates passages at the end of Mark universally agreed to be later than the original text (16:9–19, including the phrase that “justifies” the deadly folly of snake-handling). This way of looking at familiar materials has two different purposes: first, it reveals the discrepancies in the Easter stories directly by immediate juxtaposition instead of obscuring them in the marginal cross-references that you find in many Bibles; second, it exposes even more forcefully the fact that the frequent Synoptic triple parallelisms are completely absent from the post-Easter-morning episodes. In fact, not one episode has so much as a double attestation.
The discrepancies in the biblical accounts were papered over for centuries as the product of fallible transmission of inevitably different storytellings across the decades of the first Christian century. Serious scholarly evaluation of the Resurrection narratives began only in the Enlightenment with the work, done in secret and not published in his lifetime, by Hermann Samuel Reimarus; Albert Schweitzer’s pathbreaking Quest of the Historical Jesus appropriately places Reimarus first in his survey of the origins of the “historical-critical” movement. Today, it matters less that Reimarus’s interpretation was wrong (he argued that the disciples themselves stole the body and fabricated the Resurrection) than that he was willing to ask bold questions and seek rational answers, refusing to accept the pious “harmonizing” and naive “magical thinking” of the past.
Even though there have been three “quests” to find reliable information about the “Historical Jesus,” modern scholars are painfully aware that the more they dig, the less reassuring the results are. This is especially true of the Resurrection accounts, as can be seen from two very telling refusals. The late Catholic priest Raymond Brown spends 1,600 pages of The Death of the Messiah on the “Passion Narratives” without addressing the Resurrection at all. He attempts to make a joke about this remarkable omission, saying that he “would rather explore that area ‘face to face’”—but this only underlines his avoidance of the problem. Perhaps even more striking is the announced plan of the Jesuit scholar John Meier not to deal with the Resurrection in the fifth and final volume of his monumental biographical study of Jesus, A Marginal Jew, which already covers more than three thousand pages.
One of the most famous pronouncements against the Resurrection is regularly attributed to Rudolf Bultmann, based on a 1941 lecture in which he called for “demythologizing” the New Testament. The first Christians proclaimed “He is risen” as the fundamental article of their faith, and the Greek word for “proclamation” is kêrygma; so the laconic phrase ascribed to Bultmann is “Jesus rose into the kerygma”—delicately suggesting that he didn’t rise into the world of the living in any physical or historical sense. (In fairness to Bultmann, I should acknowledge that this notoriously compact formulation doesn’t occur in that essay or, as far as I can tell, anywhere else in his voluminous writings.) The charts presented here may help interested secularists see—to use an old word in a new way—synopticall
y just what lies behind that memorable aphorism.
* For serious scholarly work, the great resources are the Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum by Kurt Aland (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2001) and Synopse der Drei Ersten Evangelien by Albert Huck and Heinrich Greeven (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1981). As an indication of the difficulty in reconciling New Testament textual traditions, Greeven notes (page x) that his text differs from the then-standard Greek New Testament edition, known in the trade as Nestle-Aland26, about nine times per chapter; there are sixty-eight chapters in the Synoptics, so that would mean more than six hundred divergences. Many are admittedly not very significant, but that number shows the impossibility of recovering an original “inerrant” text from thousands of variant readings.
Barker, Dan. 1992. Losing Faith in Faith. Madison: Freedom from Religion Foundation.
Barr, Allan. 1995. Diagram of Synoptic Relationships. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
Bertram, Paul, and Beatrice W. Kliman. 1991. The Three-Text Hamlet, New York: AMS Press.
Brown, Raymond E., S.S. 1994. The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave, 2 vols. New York: Doubleday.
Bultmann, Rudolf. 1953. “New Testament and Mythology.” In Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, edited by Hans Werner Bartsch. London: SPCK (German original, 1941).
Burton, Ernest D., and E. J. Goodspeed. 1920. A Harmony of the Synoptic Gospels for Historical and Critical Study. New York: Scribner’s, 1917; A Harmony of the Synoptic Gospels in Greek. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Flynn, Tom. “The Trouble with Easter” (an illustrated lecture, which he very generously made available to me).
Lüdemann, Gerd. 1994. The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Meier, John P., S.J. 1999. “The Present State of the ‘Third Quest’ for the Historical Jesus: Loss and Gain,” Biblica 80.
———. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, 4 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1991, 1994, 2001; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. Meier’s volumes have the official Imprimatur of the Church, but, remarkably, not the Nihil Obstat—almost certainly because in Volume 1 he pretty openly rejects the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, using the technical phrase “prescind from Church doctrine and tradition” to signal his independent stance. (I confess I haven’t checked all three thousand pages for other possible heresies.)
One Book/Five Ways: The Publishing Procedures of Five University Presses. S.l.: American University Press Services, 1977; Los Altos: William Kaufmann, 1978; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Reimarus, Hermann Samuel (1696–1768). 1970. The Goal of Jesus and His Disciples. Leiden: Brill.
Schweitzer, Albert. 1998. The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press (German original, 1906).
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (plato.stanford.edu).
Wedderburn, A. J. M. 1999. Beyond Resurrection. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson.
James H. Dee retired from the Classics Department of the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1999. He has published nine books in Classics, six articles in Free Inquiry and the Secular Humanist Bulletin, and forty-five op-eds (twenty-four secular humanist in content) in the Austin American-Statesman since 2001. He has delivered lectures to Center for Inquiry branches in Austin, Tucson, Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale, and Tallahassee, to the Atheist Community of Austin, and the Secular Student Alliance Chapter at the University of Texas.