Updated: Sep 6
There are skeptical voices today that claim the Gospel narratives contradict each other. One of these voices belongs to Dr. Richard Carrier, an atheist, who specifically targets the resurrection accounts in the different Gospels as being contradictory. In regards to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he observes contradictions in the number of angels, the lists of witnesses to the resurrection, the details of the burial of Jesus, the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, etc. Does Dr. Carrier’s claim have any merit?
In my police career, when arriving at the scene of a crime, it was important for me to interview all of the witnesses of the crime. Oftentimes, these witnesses had different accounts of what happened. The witnesses would provide me with what they observed from their unique perspective. As an investigator, it was up to me to figure out what really happened from the evidence that I collected to include the testimony of the different witnesses. Later in my career as a U.S. Marshals Service fugitive investigator, I would often interview a number of informants/witnesses, on a case, who would give me differing pieces of information about the fugitive and his whereabouts. One person might tell me that they saw the fugitive last night with his girlfriend in Kernersville at a particular address whereas another witness may tell me that he heard that the fugitive was going in and out of Kernersville every couple of days in a blue Chevy truck.
These statements about the whereabouts of the fugitive are reconcilable even though they come from different perspectives and vary in small details. They both tell me that my fugitive is frequenting Kernersville even though one has more specific information than the other. In both instances (the crime scene and the fugitive investigation), it was up to me to determine the truth from the testimony of the different witnesses. One thing that I realized from my investigative career is that witnesses in the same case rarely gave identical testimony even though they had many points of similarity. If the testimony of two or more witnesses is identical in every respect, then this can lead one to believe that the testimony is rehearsed.
Does Dr. Carrier make valid points? Are the Gospels contradictory? In answering these questions, I think that the definition for the word “contradiction” would be a good place to start an analysis:
Here is a definition of the term “contradiction” that comes from Merriam Webster’s online dictionary:
2:a: a proposition, statement, or phrase that asserts or implies both the truth and falsity of something b: a statement or phrase whose parts contradict each other <a round square is a contradiction in terms>
3:a: logical incongruity b: a situation in which inherent factors, actions, or propositions are inconsistent or contrary to one another (Merriam Webster,)
Do these definitions of the term “contradiction” fit the Gospel narratives? My first observation is that this term applies to a single entity. For instance, the example given is of a “round square.” This is certainly a contradictory phrase but this contradiction is included within one phrase. We are now in the presidential campaign season (ugh!) and when you hear the candidates going back and forth, you don’t hear one candidate say to Donald Trump, “you just contradicted Ben Carson.” That would not make sense. What those irritable politicians do say to one another is “you just contradicted yourself.” In other words, a witness can contradict himself by stating something contrary to what he said before, but he cannot contradict someone else.
In light of what a contradiction actually is, Dr. Carrier’s accusation just does not make sense as the Gospel accounts are four separate versions of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If Dr. Carrier made the accusation that the Gospels have differences, then all would agree because they are thematically different accounts from different witnesses/sources. I would go further and say that they have to be different. If Carrier says that the accounts cannot be reconciled, then he has to deal with the great number of similarities that the Gospels share which is a big problem for him.
In the same way that information from different witnesses that I interviewed had differences in perspective and minor details, so also the Gospel evangelists wrote their accounts from different perspectives and utilized different sources. From reading the Gospel narratives, we can determine that Jesus Christ had a ministry that was accompanied by miracles and aided by twelve disciples, was crucified in Jerusalem during Passover weekend, was laid in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and that many groups of witnesses observed the empty tomb as well as the risen Jesus Christ. We can have confidence in these Gospel narratives as they give us the same story although from different perspectives. Furthermore, there is no historical testimony that offers evidence to rebut this testimony. If the body of Jesus was located subsequent to the crucifixion, then surely there would be testimony to support this counter-claim in the historical record, but there is none. Dr. Carrier’s accusation just does not make sense.
 Merriam Webster: An Encyclopaedia Britannica Company [Web]. Contradiction. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/contradiction Date of access: 23 June 2015.