Dear Rabbi Singer:
I'm doing a project on missionary and counter-missionary groups. There is a very large section in my project that deals with theology. I have read your site as well as the Jews for Jesus site, and I must say that the information is both deep and extensive. I must commend you. Your site offers many good counter arguments to the validity of Jesus being the messiah. I have, however hit a stumbling block.
I checked your Q&A section on the web pages, but found very little dealing with "Jewish" explanations of the resurrection. I found that quite odd, as any Christian will tell you that Jesus' resurrection is the foundation of the Christian religion. I assume that we as Jews do not believe in Christ's resurrection, so how do we explain the resurrection? Did a bunch of crazy people decide to create a story about a resurrection? This story was passed on to the time when the Gospels were written, so how inaccurate can they be? The memory of someone 40 years ago isn't considered faulty today, so accounts from 40 years may have been altered, but all adhere to a resurrection story. What is the Jewish take on the resurrection?
You certainly have not overstated the importance of the claim of Jesus' resurrection to the Christian church. As Paul candidly admits, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins." (I Corinthians15:17) In essence, the validity of Christianity stands or falls on this claim. Because of the importance of this topic, I have dedicated an entire segment on the tape, "Confused Texts and Testimonies," to this subject.
Bear in mind that Christianity is not the only religion in human history to proclaim to the Jewish people that their savior or demigod was resurrected from the grave. The claim of a deity who has defeated the grip of death is one of the most common themes embedded in the plethora of religions that have emerged since time immemorial. Your question, therefore, may be expanded even more widely because the claim of a divine savior who is born of a virgin birth, suffers a brutal death, and ascends to heaven was so very common among pagan and Gnostic religions during the first century (this was especially true for the regions around Tarsus, Paul's hometown). Mythologies throughout the Roman Empire and beyond contained widespread beliefs that notable mortals and god-men were born of virgins and returned from the dead. See accounts of Romulus, Apollonius of Tyana, Drusilla, Claudius, Dionysus-Bacchus, Tammuz-Adonis, Mithra, Osiris, Krishna, and Buddha.
The question for the Jewish people is simple. Should we accept the numerous claims made by widespread religions of a miraculous resurrection from the dead simply because their zealous defenders promoted them, regardless of how soon following the supposed event it was alleged to have occurred? Claims of biased followers need to be particularly scrutinized, especially if they were the only claims that exist.
Since the belief in Jesus' resurrection is the foundation of Christianity, we should certainly examine the credibility of this story. What is the evidence for the belief that Jesus rose from the grave? Aside from the accounts in the New Testament, there is no independent supportive documentation, nor is there any circumstantial evidence. There is not even one contemporaneous historian who mentions one word about the resurrection. The entire claim hangs exclusively on the New Testament texts. Moreover, it was the creators and defenders of Christianity who promoted the stories of the resurrection. Their biased testimony must therefore be examined more carefully. Is this testimony reliable? As a seeker of truth, you are the judge.
Obviously, a judge must be impartial, and objectively weigh all of the relevant evidence. Realize this is not a routine case; your relationship with God is at stake. As an individual examining the case for the resurrection, you should not be swayed by conjecture or hearsay, but demand clear proof.
If you were the judge presiding over a murder case, you would want to be absolutely certain before convicting the defendant. If the prosecutor called his key witnesses, but each told a different story, his case would be very shaky. The defense attorney would argue for the acquittal of his client by demonstrating the weakness of the prosecutor's case. He would impeach the state's witnesses by showing how their accounts are contradictory.
The resurrection narratives in the Gospels may be convincing testimony for people who have not read them very carefully. As a responsible judge, though, you can't be satisfied with just a casual examination of the evidence, especially if biased witnesses gave the testimony. The stories told in the New Testament, and the passion narratives in particular, are so inconsistent, that the resurrection story collapses under careful scrutiny. The conflicting testimonies of the evangelists are so unreliable, they would not stand up to critical cross-examination in any court of law. In fact, there is virtually not one detail of the crucifixion and resurrection narratives upon which all four Gospel authors agree. Yet, it is upon this story that the entire Christian religion stands or falls.
I have prepared the following three-part study to help you critically evaluate the case of the alleged resurrection of Jesus. This analysis consists of: (1) the crucial date of the crucifixion, (2) the events that supposedly followed the resurrection, and (3) a crucifixion/ resurrection chart that carefully maps out the inconsistencies among the four Gospels with regard to the passion narratives. Let's begin this examination of the resurrection stories by studying the date of the crucifixion as told by the four Gospels.
Click here to view the Crucifixion/Resurrection Chart
The Crucifixion Date:
On Which Day Was Jesus Crucified?
When examining the four crucifixion accounts as they are presented in the New Testament, it is difficult to point to a single event upon which all four Gospel writers agree. Even the date of the crucifixion is an issue of contention among the four Gospels.
A perfunctory examination of New Testament texts reveals that the Books of Matthew,1 Mark,2 and Luke3 all agree that the Last Supper was actually a Passover Seder. Bearing in mind that Jesus was crucified on the very next day following the Last Supper, that would mean that according to all three synoptic4 Gospels, Jesus was crucified on the first day of Passover, or the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan (for example, if tonight were a Passover Seder, then tomorrow would be the first day of Passover5).
The author of the Book of John, however, completely contradicts the first three Gospels, and maintains that Jesus was crucified on the eve of Passover, or the 14th day of Nissan. The Book of John reads, "Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover . . . . Then he handed him over to them to be crucified." (19:14-16)
The implications of this stunning contradiction cannot be overstated because both claims cannot be true. In essence, this is not the sort of inconsistency that can be explained away by missionaries insisting that the reason for the varying Gospel accounts is due to different perspectives of the Gospel writers. Jesus was crucified either of the eve of Passover, which is the 14th day of Nissan, as John contends, or on the first day of Passover, which is the 15th day of Nissan, as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke maintain. Jesus could not have been crucified on both days.
As a result of this conflict over the crucifixion date, numerous other aspects of John's passion narrative will differ radically with the synoptic Gospels. For instance, John's description of what transpired during the Last Supper is entirely different from the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John cannot include a Passover Seder in his version of the Last Supper because according to his reckoning of the date of the crucifixion, the night of the Last Supper fell on the night of the 13th day of Nissan, which was not a holiday. Therefore, in his Last Supper no aspect of the Seder ceremony occurs. In fact, in John's Last Supper, there is neither eating of the matzo nor drinking of the wine because in John's Gospel the evening before the crucifixion does not occur on the festival of Passover. In the book of John (chapter 13), where the events that occurred the night before the crucifixion are described, we therefore find no mention of anyone drinking wine, or eating matzo and herbs as we find in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John's account of the Last Supper only describes Jesus' washing the feet of the disciples.
Moreover, John begins his 13th chapter by saying, "Now before the festival of the Passover . . . ." This is a stunning opening statement because according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke that momentous night wasn't "before the festival of Passover, but rather it was the festival of Passover. Also, according to John, when Judas Iscariot mysteriously leaves the Last Supper with the moneybag, the disciples immediately presume that he is taking money to purchase food for the festive meal (13:29). Why would Judas be purchasing food for the feast if, according to the first three Gospels, they had just eaten it?
Furthermore, John's story describes how, when the Jews were handing Jesus over to Pontius Pilate to be crucified on the morning of the crucifixion, "They [the Jews] themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover."6 (John 18:28) Why were these Jews concerned about not being able to eat the Passover? According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke they had already eaten it because the Passover Seder took place the previous night. This is not a problem for John because John states that Jesus was crucified on the eve of Passover, so that this statement makes perfect sense in his story. In contrast, the synoptic Gospels never mention in their accounts the fear the Jews had of entering the home of Pilate. Such concern would be preposterous because in Matthew, Mark, and Luke's story, the Jews had already eaten the Passover lamb the previous night.
The first question that naturally comes to mind is: Why would John change the crucifixion date from the 15th day of Nissan to the 14th day? Why was it so important to the author of the fourth Gospel that Jesus be crucified on the eve of Passover rather than the first day of Passover, as the other three Gospels claim?
The simple answer becomes quite clear when we have a good understanding of what message John's Gospel was trying to convey to its reader.
Remembering that the book of John was the last of the four Gospels to be written, the author was trying to appeal to a second century church that had already become predominantly gentile. Bearing this in mind, John had to appeal to these pagans of the Greco-Roman world whom he was addressing. This was accomplished by carefully integrating heathen practices with elements of the Jewish faith. The notion that an animal was to be revered and sacrificed as a god was well known and widely practiced throughout the Roman Empire7 in mystery religions such as Mithraism, which flourished during the time that the Book of John was being written. This book's author was well aware of this and seamlessly fused together the Mithraic sacrifice of the redeeming bull with the Jewish sacrifice of the Paschal lamb.
It is for this reason that only in John's Gospel does John the Baptist proclaim of Jesus, "Behold, the Lamb of God . . . ." (1:29, 36) In fact, of the four Gospels, only John ever equates Jesus with the Passover lamb. If Matthew, Mark, and Luke agreed with the fourth Gospel that the lamb was the antitype of Jesus, as John insisted, why is it that when the synoptic Gospels described the communion at the last supper, Jesus raised the matzo saying, "This is my body"? He should have raised the Paschal lamb. At mass, priests should be giving their parishioners lamb chops rather than a wafer for communion.
In addition, only John's narrative includes the story of the Roman soldiers who pierced the side of Jesus rather than break his legs on the cross (John 19:31-37). This brief narrative only fits into the theological story line of the fourth Gospel. This is because only the author of the Book of John was eager not to have Jesus' bones broken so as not to violate the prohibition of breaking the bones of the Paschal lamb found in the Book of Exodus (12:46).
Therefore, we have come to the reason that John places the crucifixion on the 14th day rather than the 15th. Because the Torah commands Israel to slaughter the Paschal lamb on the eve of Passover or on the 14th day of Nissan (Exodus 12:6), John's Jesus is also "slaughtered" (i.e. crucified) on the eve of Passover or the 14th day of Nissan.
The Resurrection Accounts:
Can Both of These Stories Be True?
(1)After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. (2) And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. (3) His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. (4) For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. (5) But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. (6)He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. (7) Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you." (8) So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. (9) Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. (10) Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."
(1) Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. (2) So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." (3) Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. (4) The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. (5) He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. (6) Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, (7) and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. (8) Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; (9) for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. (10) Then the disciples returned to their homes. (11) But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; (12) and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. (13) They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." (14) When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. (15) Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." (16) Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). (17) Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" (18) Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
What is wrong with the two stories quoted above? If taken separately, the resurrection accounts presented by either Matthew or John appear fancifully viable. When read side by side, however, they collapse because it would have been historically and chronologically impossible for both accounts to have occurred. In fact, the crucial events presented in these two Gospel narratives are so manifestly contradictory that even liberal Christians, who often allow for occasional mistakes that appear in the New Testament, must take pause.
This brief study will examine several irresolvable contradictions in the variant Gospel accounts of the resurrection chronology as reported by the authors of Matthew and John. The following discrepancies, which we will now examine, have been selected because they cannot be ameliorated or explained away by such well-worn arguments as "each Gospel writer is giving us his own personal perspective." Such a rationalization becomes impossible because the above Gospel narratives are so irreconcilable that no explanation can account for the stark differences between them.
Matthew presents us with a post-resurrection story where the two Marys are greeted at the tomb by an angel who had just rolled away the stone from its entrance. After revealing to both women the empty place where Jesus' body once laid, the angel proclaims to them that Jesus had already risen from the dead. The angel goes on to instruct both Marys that they are to tell the disciples that Jesus had gone before them to the Galilee to meet them. (Matthew 28:1-7)
If that encounter wasn't convincing enough for the two women, Matthew continues to relate how, after leaving the tomb, both Marys unexpectedly meet the resurrected Jesus himself, whom they both worship. Jesus then essentially repeats the angel's instructions to them, and sends the women to inform the disciples that they are to meet the resurrected Jesus in the Galilee. (Matthew 28:8-10)
Like Matthew's account, John's resurrection narrative also contains an empty tomb. However, that is where the similarities between the first and fourth Gospel end. In John's version of the first Easter morning, when Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb, there is no angel there to greet her with information about Jesus' whereabouts or instructions about a rendezvous in the Galilee as we find in Matthew's account (Matthew 28:5-7). On the contrary, in John's story, after Mary finds the empty tomb, she concludes that someone had removed the body from the grave. Mary certainly had no reason to believe otherwise. She therefore quickly runs back to the disciples and reports, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!" (John 20:1-2)
The above account is entirely inconsistent with Matthew's post-resurrection narrative. Why didn't Mary know that Jesus' body was not laid anywhere? In Matthew's story, the angel had already reported to her that Jesus rose from the dead and had gone to the Galilee. It would therefore have been ludicrous for her to think that someone had moved the body when the angels had already informed her that Jesus' resurrection had occurred. Moreover, if the angel's instructions to her were not convincing enough, Matthew maintains that Mary also met the resurrected Jesus himself right after leaving the tomb (Matthew 28:9); and all this transpires before Mary ever sees the disciples. Why then in John's Gospel is Mary clueless as to where Jesus' body was moved, when according to Matthew, Mary had already heard from two reliable sources -- the angel at the tomb and Jesus himself -- that Jesus rose from the dead?
Further contradicting Matthew's post-resurrection account, John's story lacks the Roman guards whom Matthew places at the tomb to prevent anyone from removing Jesus' body. How could John's Mary have thought that someone removed the body, when according to Matthew, Roman soldiers were placed at the tomb for the specific purpose of preventing just such an occurrence? Obviously, the author of the fourth Gospel has no need for Roman guards at the tomb, so in John's crucifixion account they simply are not there.
This Gospel problem of the missing Roman soldiers in the Book of John raises another important issue. Missionaries often contend that it would have been impossible for anyone to have surreptitiously removed Jesus' corpse from the tomb because there were guards posted at the tomb who would have prevented such an occurrence. Therefore, they argue, without any possibility for the body to have been quietly whisked away, the only other logical conclusion is that Jesus must have truly been raised from the dead.
John's account, however, completely nullifies this argument because according to his story line that is precisely what Mary thought had happened. Mary clearly didn't feel as though the scenario of Jesus' body being removed was unlikely. In fact, according to John, that was her only logical conclusion. Clearly, Matthew's guards didn't dissuade John's Mary from concluding that someone had taken Jesus' body, because, in John's story, Matthew's Roman guards do not exist.
To compound the problem of the conflicting resurrection accounts even further, John's Gospel continues to unfold with Mary returning to the tomb a second time only to find two angels sitting inside the tomb. Mary is still unaware of any resurrection as she complains to the angels that someone had removed Jesus' cadaver. As far as John's Mary was concerned, the only explanation for the missing body was that someone must have removed it, and she was determined to locate it (John 20:11-13). Although in Matthew's account the angel emphatically tells Mary about the resurrection (Matthew 28:5-7), in John's Gospel the angels say nothing about any resurrection. The angels only ask Mary, "Woman, why are you weeping?" Mary then inquires as to whether the angels have removed Jesus' body. At that point, Mary turns around only to see Jesus standing before her, and mistakes him for the gardener. Mary is still completely unaware of any resurrection, and therefore asks the "gardener" if he was the one who carried away Jesus' body. It is only then that Mary realizes that she was speaking to the resurrected Jesus (John 20:14-16).
It is at this final juncture of the narrative that the accounts of Matthew and John remain hopelessly irreconcilable. The question every missionary must respond to is the following: When Mary met Jesus for the first time after the resurrection, had the angel(s) already informed her that Jesus rose from the dead? According to Matthew he clearly did, and in John's account they certainly did not. Both could not have occurred. As we survey the divergent New Testament accounts of the resurrection, we are not just looking at contradictory versions, we are simply staring at two entirely different stories.
Many Christian apologists have argued that the inconsistent resurrection accounts are similar to a traffic accident that is viewed by four different witnesses: Each who sees it has a distinct perspective. This might be a tenable idea if the evangelists were actually on the scene and watched the story unfold as the women approached the tomb. Yet this was not the case. Not only were the Gospel writers not eyewitnesses, they didn't even write their accounts of the story until at least 40-70 years after it allegedly took place. Moreover, most of the inconsistencies in the resurrection narratives (i.e. date, time, and place) cannot be explained away as differences in perspective.
Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.E.-50 C.E.), a renowned philosopher and a contemporary of Jesus, wrote extensively about his time. Yet his entire corpus of works fails to mention a word regarding Jesus or his alleged resurrection. Josephus' silence on this matter is also deafening. Consequently, the only information we have of this 2,000-year-old tale is the Greek document called the New Testament. Yet the moment our finger begins to navigate through its verses we are confronted and appalled by the plethora of glaring irreconcilable inconsistencies. Every element of the resurrection narrative is recklessly contradicted by another.
There is, however, a more significant issue here: the source. When a number of people, in different places, and at different times, write a description of an event that occurred in the significant past -- whether a year ago, a decade ago, or a half a century ago -- we expect and anticipate many contradictions. Why, you ask? Because humans are fallible, and are therefore likely to make unintentional and intentional errors. Accordingly, when we read descriptions of what transpired during a historical event, such as the assassination of JFK, disparities will inevitably exist among the accounts. Therefore, when various individuals witness a traffic accident and then attempt to clearly transmit the information they saw, errors will be made. This is what we expect from humans! The New Testament, however, does not make this claim. Its authors and those who promoted the Christian religion wanted us to believe that its content was divinely inspired! Every word is from God! With this claim, we must hold it to an entirely different standard of accuracy -- that of perfection. The time span from the first letters of Paul to the last words of Revelation is over a half a century. Moreover, these books were penned from one end of the Roman Empire to the other. Thus, if we are to assume they were written by mere mortals, without Heavenly inspiration, mistakes and inconsistencies are expected. God, however, is inerrant.
There is another difference between conflicting accounts of a traffic accident and conflicting accounts of the resurrection. The testimonies of a traffic accident are believable because they are likely to have occurred and make sense in our world. The resurrection story, on the other hand, is a biological and scientific impossibility. Thus, the only reason for believing its miraculous occurrence -- defying all natural laws -- is the believer's total reliance on the credibility of the divine author. Since the stunning contradictions clearly establish the human origins of the resurrection stories, we can no more accept their testimony than we can that of the Book of Mormon. Moreover, the resurrection story is a self-serving rationalization to account for a messianic failure.
I know there have been many frantic attempts to respond to some of the countless inconsistencies that exist in the Gospels. These answers, however, are so plainly forced and contrived that even a perfunctory examination of these rationalizations lets its reader know that they were written by desperate men, hopelessly trying to swim with shoes made of concrete. God doesn't suffer from human fallibility and certainly wouldn't present such a garbled account of what Christians consider the most crucial event in world history.
Best regards for a happy Passover.
Very truly yours,
Rabbi Tovia Singer
Click here to view the Crucifixion/Resurrection Chart
Click on the footnote to return to the article
4The synoptic Gospels are those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The word synoptic comes from two Greek words that mean "the same view." Matthew, Mark, and Luke are referred to as the synoptic Gospels because these three Gospels tell a similar story, and there is a strong literary relationship among them.
5This is true only in the land of Israel. In diaspora, however, it might be the second day of Passover because there is a custom to hold two Seders outside of Israel. Suggesting, however, that the Last Supper might have been in second Seder would create a 48-hour problem instead of a 24-hour problem.
6This is because it was a common custom among gentiles to bury their dead in their homes.
7This is particularly true of the pagan deity Mithras. Belief in this deity flourished throughout the Roman Empire during the second and third centuries C.E. Similar to Christianity, Mithra was called the "Mediator" (see I Timothy 2:5), and one Mithraic hymn begins, "Thou hast redeemed us too by shedding the eternal blood."
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