One Sunday morning, not long ago, I sat listening to the sermon, and a statement caught my attention. It was from Matthew’s Gospel, dealing with the death of Jesus. What caught my attention was the description of what happened at the moment of Jesus’ death. There had been darkness from the sixth to the ninth hours, then there was an earthquake, accompanied by the tearing of the temple curtain. Mark and Luke both mention the torn curtain, and the darkness, but not the earthquake. John is silent on all of these details.
What caught my attention that Sunday morning, though, was what Matthew’s account mentions next, not found in any of the other Gospels: Matthew says that the tombs were opened as a result of the earthquake, apparently, and that many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, but did not emerge from the tombs until after Jesus had been resurrected. Here is a comparison of the passages from the ESV dealing specifically with Jesus’ death from the four Gospel accounts.
5 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
33 And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.
After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” 29 A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Now, I had read that passage from Matthew many times, and heard it expounded on, often in the context of the wondrous nature of the event. But I have been troubled by it now, for days, because in it, I fear, are elements that many of my faith heritage are not willing to acknowledge, let alone entertain in terms of significance.
I have heard many times that scriptures do not contradict each other. Well, other than the fact that all four passages deal with the death of Jesus, and all say he died, the details are not much in agreement.
Consider for a moment the fact that only Matthew mentions such a miraculous occurrence as many of the dead not only coming to life, but only emerging from the tombs after Jesus was resurrected. Why wouldn’t Mark (the text of which has been given the earliest date of any Gospel account) be in closer agreement with Matthew, the texts of which appear virtually identical in many passages? Luke the physician should have been extremely interested in and would have likely remarked on such an occurrence that was so contrary to what he would have known to be the natural order of things. John is silent on all of it, except the central truth of Jesus’ death.
According to those in my faith tradition, the church came into being on the Day of Pentecost, 50 days after the Passover, which was being observed about the time of the crucifixion. According to that traditional, accepted view, before that pivotal moment in church history, there could have technically been no Christians (even thought that term was not used until the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch), if the only Christians are people who are members of the church. If there were no Christians, there were no saints, as the typical teaching is that “saint” = “Christian.” Therefore, how could “sleeping saints” have been raised as Matthew alone records?
Perhaps this points out that our traditional doctrines may not be correct. According to this reasoning, if “saints” had “fallen asleep” before Jesus’ death, there must have been those considered as “Christians” before the formal institution of the church on Pentecost. Or, one alternative is that “saint” and “Christian” are not necessarily interchangeable terms. Of course, one way to justify this is in the acknowledgement in Acts that Christians are in fact disciples, and the living pre-crucifixion Jesus had many followers who were considered disciples.
I mention this not just to point out apparent inconsistency in the records, but also a decided inconsistency in how we have approached so many questions. I believe that much of how we think on many issues is dictated by the thoughts and opinions of whichever preacher was most charismatic, influential, or just plain loud somewhere in our past.
Other scriptural inconsistencies include the fate of Judas, which only Matthew says involved a change of heart of Judas’ part, leading him to return the 30 pieces of silver. When the chief priest and elders refused to accept it into the temple treasury because it was blood money, they went out and bought the potter’s field to be used for burying strangers. Judas himself, went out and hanged himself. But Luke records in Acts that Judas took the money, bought the field, and fell headlong, resulting in his internal organs bursting forth.
Now, I have heard preachers try to massage this discrepancy by saying that Judas did hang himself, and when he had reached an appreciable level of decomposition, he fell from the tree and burst open. That, however, is not what either record indicates. In fact, it attempts to rectify by reading into the story, or call it what it is, adding to the record. And that, according to what I was taught, is not allowed.
When you really look at it, Mark and John have little in common in the records of the resurrection. In Mark, three women arrive at the tomb on the First Day of the Week after the crucifixion and see one man clothed in white. John says Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, with no mention of the other two, and is met by two angels in white robes. Why is there such a noticeable difference?
I am not the first to notice such discrepancies. They are there for anyone to see who pays any attention to detail. But what do they mean? If the Gospels were indeed inspired, why aren’t the details identical? Is it that the sources were in conflict, or has the text evolved over time to demonstrate the extant variance?
Perhaps the greater question is, “Does it matter?” All four Gospels attest to the life of a remarkable teacher. All four show his teaching to be quite contrary to the normative human behavioral patterns of “looking out for number one.” All four attest to the historicity of Jesus, either by claims of eyewitness experience (John 21, I John 1) or by careful examination of evidence (cf. Luke 1, Acts 1).
I have more questions than answers. I know that some would proffer pat answers to such questions, but many of those answers are frankly full of holes.
Someone may say that by asking such questions, I’m looking for a way to deny the faith. On the contrary, I am looking for a way to strengthen it. If there are discrepancies, then there must be a reason for them. I reject the argument of the atheist, that they demonstrate the manufacture of Christianity by imperfect humans. By the same token, I cannot easily accept the glib and unfounded declaration of no internal discrepancies when I can see them with my own eyes.
For now, I rest on the premise that the core truth—the truth of Jesus’ life, death, and restored life—is foundational. His life’s work of teaching people how to live to attain citizenship in the kingdom that was during his time still at hand is valid for all time. This must form the unshakeable bedrock for faith. Jesus’ message of defying spiritual entropy, of rising above base animal nature, elevates humanity. And while splintered elements of Christianity have degenerated across countless generations, have fallen from grace by appealing to that baser nature by seeking not to serve others, but rather to gain advantage, even power, over their brothers and sisters, we can not only aspire to a glimpse of that heavenly kingdom, but we can become a part of its becoming, allowing heaven to pierce the dark veil of physical reality by God’s goodness and by Jesus’ grace shining through us. By staying close to Jesus’ teachings we can provide a preview of the glory that can be now and will be forever. As the reality of a forest is more than the sum of the few and disparate twigs we can see from a single, confined vantage point, the apparent discrepancies among Gospel details is of less importance than the encompassing truth of Jesus.