Monday, April 5, 2010

Reconciling the Resurrection Accounts in the Gospels

This response is concerning the recent article, Why I don't buy the resurrection story, by Andrew Mangan, posted 4/1/2010 in the Capaha Arrow ( I will quote Mr. Mangan's text, and then place my comments delineated between triple asterisks (*** and/or in green).

Mangan begins:
"Easter is now a time for children to enjoy painted eggs, fluffy rabbits and delicious candy. How all those things came to do with the holiday of Easter is a total mystery to me. Instead, I want to talk to you about the event the holiday was intended for, the remembrance and celebration of the alleged death and resurrection of the Christian god-man Jesus, and how implausible the resurrection actually is."

*** " implausible"? The word implausible refers to a lack of validity or the unlikeliness of an event or concept. Actually, though the thesis statement of the article states that "implausibility" is to be one of the two main points the author wishes to make, the actual implausibility of the resurrection is never discussed by the author. A surface outline of some apparent difficulties is made concerning the order of events and participants, but nothing concerning the "likeliness" or the plausibility of the resurrection is ever raised (no pun intended).

When discussing plausibility, one must, out of necessity, look at possibility. When one considers the wonders we have discovered in biology, such as the incredible complexity of DNA or cellular mitosis, or as we look out into the cosmos, we see irrefutable evidence of a powerful and intelligent creator. The late Sir Fred Hoyle, considered one of the greatest astronomers of the modern age, made this observation:

"A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question."

So, if we accept that there is an intelligence outside of time and space that could create all that is perceived, and design something as complex as life and DNA (which took humanity decades with super-computers to crack the genetic code), then it follows logically that the idea of resurrection is not implausible. Actually, atheists must accept an absurd form of "resurrection" in nature, namely, abiogenesis: the implausible (and to many biologists- the impossible) transition from dead chemicals to a living, replicating organism. Talk about blind faith or implausibility. If there is a Creator capable of producing the universe and life, then performing a resurrection should surely be mundane, if not passe. ***

Mangan goes on:
"In 110 CE, Pliny the Younger was the first non-Christian to even mention Christianity itself, but yet, he never mentioned the resurrection."

*** This statement makes an incorrect declaration and an unwarranted inference. First, the inaccuracy of his claim. Pliny is predated by Josephus, a respected historian and clearly not a Christian, by many years. Josephus speaks of Christianity in the mid to late first century. Even though one of his two "Jesus" passages has been a subject of rich debate since about the 17th century, no serious doubt has been cast upon his discussion of the beginnings of Christianity, especially in light of the Pine translation from Arabic, which confirms the core information that few scholars debate.

Secondly, the author's unwarranted inference. The author seeks to create a connection between the "first mention" of Christianity and the resurrection account. He implies that, if the resurrection was so important, surely it would be discussed in the "first mention" of Christianity. What about the virgin birth, the miraculous healings, or the feeding of the thousands, or perhaps the innumerable teachings and discourses of Jesus? Shouldn't Pliny have delineated all of those all well?

The inference, though subtle, is invalid. Pliny does not seek to outline all of the bases for the faith, he mentions only that which concerns him of the Roman order and the impact of Christianity upon it. He doesn't even mention the death of Jesus, but only that His followers considered Him to be as God (god). He then goes on to discuss punishments for these Christians.

For further study into early accounts of Christianity, look into the writings of Roman historian, Tacitus, as well as the great second century debates by the early apologists.
Using the author's method and style of argumentation, here is a comparison from science: 'The first mention of abiogenesis (life from the dead--kind of like resurrection) is found in writings over 3.5 billion years after it allegedly transpired, but many scientists disagree over the process, which shows just how implausible abiogenesis really is' (just a little joke there).

Mangan continues:
"Therefore, one must rely on the gospels to tell this tale. However, when trying to reconstruct what the gospels say about the resurrection, one reaches something that cannot be surpassed: numerous discrepancies and contradictions."

*** A strawman argument is loosely constructed here. Using phraseology such as "cannot be surpassed" or "numerous...contradictions" is hyperbole and not befitting a supposed investigation. If the supposed difficulties in the gospel narratives "cannot be surpassed", then why have numerous volumes been written showing the harmony of the accounts?
One site that discusses these is found at:

Mangan again:
"When going through the timeline of this event in the four gospels, one of the first disparities we stumble upon is Matthew 28:1-2. In these verses, two women arrive at Jesus' tomb, an earthquake happens and then an angel descends from heaven to roll back a stone from the door for them."

***The earthquake and the stone being rolled away occurs BEFORE the women arrive. Time elapses between the two verses. Consider this line from a history book:

"John F. Kennedy was elected to be the 35th president of the United States and was assassinated."

This statement is absolutely true, yet the election and the assassination are separated by well over two years. Matthew says that the women went to the tomb (a fairly long journey by foot), and while they were on the way, there was an earthquake and the stone was rolled away. This happened prior to their arriving. No contradiction here, not even close, unless someone wants to force one due to earlier assumptions of it's inaccuracy.

Mangan continues:
"The trouble here is that this story changes from gospel to gospel. In Mark 16, there is no earthquake, nor any angel rolling back the stone."

*** This is an argument from silence, which is a logical fallacy. For example, if you read an article about on-going relief work in Haiti, would the article be false if it did not mention all the details about the earthquake? Obviously not. One does not have to recount all past events leading up to an event for the account to be valid. The account of the resurrection picks up as the women arrive in Mark 16, it need not give a minute-by-minute description of everything prior to this in order to be valid. At the point in which Mark picks up the narrative, the earthquake and the stone being rolled away have both already occurred.

"In fact, the stone is already rolled back when the women arrive. Luke and John agree with Mark on this one-no earthquakes occur and the stone has been rolled away prior to their visit."

*** Luke, John, and Mark just do not mention the earthquake, they do not say that it did not occur. This is no minor point. There would be a contradiction if one of the accounts said that the women rolled the stone away, or if one of them specifically said that "Mary Magdalene did not go to the tomb," or "there was no earthquake." Those would be contradictions, what we find in the narratives is not contradiction, but different aspects of the same event, or at different times. Mangan's main argument is, once again, a logical fallacy, an argument from silence. Actually, all the gospels agree.

The order of events, as combined, is as follows (1) Resurrection occurs (2) Women begin journeying to the tomb (3) Earthquake occurs (4) Stone is rolled away (5) Angel appears to the guards (6) Women continue to journey to the tomb (wondering about such things as the stone, etc) (7) Women arrive (8) Mary Magdalene sees the open tomb and supposes Jesus' body has been taken and runs to tell the apostles (9) Other women go into the tomb and see the angels. The only contradiction in the accounts is the one imagined in the minds of skeptics. Miller, in his investigation of the resurrection accounts, had this to say:

"(Do apparent discrepancies) mean that these are false reports, made-up by dishonest men to deceive us? On the contrary, this is good evidence that these are truthful accounts, because people who conspire to testify to a falsehood rehearse carefully to avoid contradictions. False testimony appears on the surface to be in harmony, but discrepancies appear when you dig deeper. True accounts may appear on the surface to be contradictory, but are found to be in harmony when you dig deeper."

To illustrate the fallacy of taking things only at face value without compositing information, consider the famous story of the four blind men who met an elephant. When interviewed later to recount this strange event, one said "It was like a rope," (having felt only the tail), another declared, "It was like a tree!" (He only felt a leg). The third said, "It was rather like a snake, " for he touched only the nose, and the fourth remarked that "it was rather like an eel," having only felt of the ears. On the surface it all appears contradictory and full of discrepancy, but it is not. It is merely four different aspects of the same event, four different vantage points. The four gospels are four perspectives on the same event.

Mangan continues:
"It only gets worse from there. Who were the women that came to the temple that day? Matthew 28:1 says it was Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary"; Mark 16:1: Mary Magdalene, "Mary the mother of James," and Salome; Luke 24:10: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, "Mary the mother of James," and "other women"; and John 20:1 only mentions Mary Magdalene."

***This, once again, is an argument made from silence. Consider this statement:

"President Obama visited the troops in Afghanistan recently."

According to Mangan's reasoning, this news report is false, because there were many dozens of people who traveled with the president to visit the troops. But, the statement still stands as true, "the president did visit the troops" (though not alone), and the statement "Mary Magdalene went to the tomb" (though not alone) also stands as valid and true. Whether in a group, or alone, Mary Magdalene was there, so the statement in the gospel of John stands as factually valid.

All historical statements of fact are similarly hamstrung, because it is impossible to accurately detail every possible fact about a situation, therefore, all statements of historical events are necessarily truncated in some respect. To demand that John give more information is unwarranted, he was focusing on the impact of this event regarding Mary Magdalene (In fact, if you study the gospel of John you will find that there are a great many passages about Jesus dealing with the individual, such as the woman at the well, the night meeting with Nicodemus, etc).

Here's another example: there are many verses in the Bible about Jesus being crucified. But, weren't there also two others crucified at the same time with him? Yes. But, it is still factually true that Jesus was crucified, even without further details about the others. It all depends on the focus of the statement. In John's account of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene is the focus, not the other women.

Another very plausible approach is that Mary Magdalene may have started out with the other women, but could have, as she got closer, moved ahead of the group. She may have been many years younger, and in her love for the Savior was eager to get there. So, she may have arrived slightly ahead, though starting out with the original group, looked at the open tomb, assumed someone took Jesus away and ran to the apostles.

Mangan again:
"Who was at the tomb when the women-or woman-arrived and where were they situated? Matthew 28:2-7: one angel sitting on the door stone; Mark 16:5: one young man sitting inside the temple on the right; Luke 24:4: two men standing inside; and John 20:12: two angels sitting on each end of the bed."

*** There, once again, is only a forced, supposed contradiction. The angel initially rolled the stone away and sat upon the stone (this was earlier and it frightened the Roman guards). Later, that same angel appears to the women inviting them to come into the tomb where he was "Come, see". The language indicates he was IN THE TOMB, hence "Come, see". Whether the angel moved from the stone into the tomb in a moment of time, or whether he "walked" into the tomb between the frightening of the guards and the arrival of the women is of no consequence.

The only problem is when one forces something that the scriptures do not say, namely, that the angel never left the stone, or that all the events of these two verses had to happen instantly, simultaneously (which it does not say). All that it says is that it is the same angel that rolled away the stone that initially spoke to the visitors, but it never says that he did so while sitting on the stone. In fact, the language indicates an interior position for the statement in question.

The author then takes aim at the exact position of the appearance of the angels. The word used in the Greek in Luke 24 for "standing" is a word that means to "appear," it does not necessarily imply a physical orientation, just nearby. Even in English we use the word in this respect, such as making a plan for something, but having another backup plan "standing by." It doesn't mean an orientation, but that it is near at hand. So, if the angels were sitting in the tomb, they are "appearing nearby." Perhaps they were standing and then sat as they invited the women in for a closer inspection. It makes no difference.

Mangan continues:
"Who, after the woman/women at the temple, did Jesus appear to? Matthew 28:16: 11 disciples; Mark 16:12-14: two disciples in the country, then later to 11; Luke 24:13 and 36: two disciples in Emmaus, then later to 11; and John 20:19 and 24: 10 disciples-Judas and Thomas being absent. The detrimental complication implied by these discrepancies is impossible to surmount."

*** "Discrepancies"? "Impossible to surmount?" Here is a perfectly plausible reconstruction of the details: "With further study, the apparent contradictions disappear. For example, all four accounts are in harmony with the following sequence of events: Very early a group of women, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, and Joanna set out for the tomb. Meanwhile two angels are sent; there is an earthquake and one angel rolls back the stone and sits upon it. The soldiers faint and then revive and flee into the city. The women arrive and find the tomb opened; without waiting, Mary Magdalene, assuming someone has taken the Lord's body, runs back to the city to tell Peter and John. The other women enter the tomb and see the body is gone. The two angels appear to them and tell them of the resurrection. The women then leave to take the news to the disciples. Peter and John run to the tomb with Mary Magdalene following. Peter and John enter the tomb, see the grave clothes, and then return to the city, but Mary Magdalene remains at the tomb weeping, and Jesus makes His first appearance to her. Jesus next appears to the other women who are on their way to find the disciples. Jesus appears to Peter; He appears to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus; and then appears to a group of disciples including all of the Eleven except Thomas." Casteel, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.

Mangan's argument is again from hyperbole. Merely using language that makes a situation seem different than it is ("impossible to surmount"), does not in any way, change the reality of a situation. If it is "impossible to surmount" then why has the order of events of the resurrection been easily demonstrated numerous times over the centuries, even as recently as this rebuttal? Like president Clinton arguing about "what your definition of 'Is' is," I guess it depends upon what your definition of "impossible" is. Apparently impossible means something that requires diligent study, comparison, and research. Why bother researching when it is much easier to dismiss something you have a priori decided to reject?

Mangan surmises and closes:
"Thomas Paine discovered the ramifications of these contradictions 200 years ago in "The Age of Reason," in which he wrote: "I lay it down as a position which cannot be controverted, first, that the agreement of all the parts of a story does not prove that story to be true, because the parts may agree, and the whole may be false; secondly, that the disagreement of the parts of a story proves the whole cannot be true. Now, I could prattle on about the total lack of contemporary accounts regarding Jesus' life and existence or that Jesus isn't really all that great of a guy (he tells you to hate your family and yourself in Luke 14:26 and advocates violence in Matthew 10:34-39), but I haven't the room in this paper to do such things. All I want you to take away from this is: Don't worry about the religious aspects of Easter-they're all bunk. Instead, enjoy the painted eggs, fluffy rabbits and delicious candy. I know I will."

*** "They're all bunk." Wow. When will the inflammatory and pointless hyperbolic language cease? This isn't serious investigation, it's a kangaroo court and the suspect is obviously guilty until proven innocent, which the judge will not allow anyway (how's that for a reverse hyperbole?). Since we're throwing out names and writers of the 19th century (Thomas Paine), how about this one? Dr. Simon Greenleaf, the Royal Professor of Law (Harvard University), is considered to be, possibly, the greatest legal mind of the modern age. He authored the landmark book, A Treatise on the Law of Evidence. Initially, Dr. Simon Greenleaf considered the resurrection of Christ to be a complete fabrication. He set out to completely expose it as a myth. After painstakingly reviewing the evidence concerning the resurrection, Dr. Greenleaf reached a surprising conclusion. He emphatically declared that the resurrection has been absolutely established according to the laws of evidence. Furthermore, Dr. Greenleaf turned from skepticism and became a Christian.

How about someone from the 20th century? Consider the famous former-skeptic-turned-Christian, C.S. Lewis. He said of his conversion (loosely paraphrasing) that he was "dragged kicking and screaming into the faith" because of the evidence. He didn't want to believe, but he couldn't deny the evidence, especially of the resurrection, once investigated.

I believe in freedom of speech and of the press, but I also believe in honest debate and serious inquiry. It is my sincere hope that the paper which printed Mr. Mangan's view of this remarkable event, will allow this balancing rebuttal to stand as well for those same readers to weigh, consider, and investigate.


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  2. A complete dismantling of Mangan's silly article. Thanks for taking the time and trouble to expose all of his errors.



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