Inconsistencies in the Resurrection Narratives

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This is the fourth article in our weekly series on Christology. The following is a review of William Loewe’s The College Student’s Introduction to Christology. 

By Will Deatherage, Executive Director

In chapters eight, nine, and ten of The College Student’s Introduction to Christology, William Loewe explores the inconsistencies in the New Testament’s resurrection narratives. He describes how the earliest Christological creed (mentioned in Corinthians), which likely dates back to the mid 30s, neglects crucial details about Christ’s death and resurrection that were recounted in the Gospels. This, combined with the contradictions between Gospel narratives, has led several scholars to question the historicity of the latter’s events altogether. Chief among the more disputed events of the resurrection story are the empty tomb and the risen Christ’s appearances. For example, the gospels disagree about the purpose of the visit to Christ’s tomb, the number of people who visited it, the person who spoke to the disciples at the tomb, the events after said conversation, and the location and purpose of Christ’s appearances to his disciples. While some scholars allege that the inconsistencies of these narratives are evidence that the resurrection was invented by early Christians so they could deify their deceased teacher, Loewe argues that these discrepancies instead show the precedence that theological meaning held over historical accuracy. For example, Matthew’s story uniquely features guards who report the empty tomb to the Pharisees who, in response, spread a rumor that Christ’s disciples stole His body. This was likely included as a polemic against the Pharisees who excommunicated Matthew’s community, as well as as an explanation of the origins of the tomb theft allegation. Therefore, the inconsistencies of the resurrection narratives should not be considered as impediments on the historicity of the resurrection.

After reading these chapters from Loewe’s book, I have gained a greater appreciation for the lengths resurrection deniers must go to if they want to propose alternative hypotheses for what really happened after Jesus’s death. Loewe highlights the sudden and monumental shift from utter fear and anxiety to confidence in Jesus’s mission that the Apostles must have undergone, which suggests that they must have experienced something transformational. He also notes the miniscule likelihood that the resurrection narrative would have been invented by a group of Jews whose Messianic tradition anticipated a Davidic warrior king and a grandiose resurrection of the dead, not the resurrection of a singular pacifist who was killed in a most humiliating fashion. Loewe’s openness to doubt in the historicity of certain Gospel events might naturally disturb some readers, but the lack of coherence between resurrection accounts demands an explanation, and the one that emerges is valuable because it reorients the focus of scripture on theology, rather than historicity, like the authors of scripture intended.

In my opinion, the controversies surrounding the historicity of the resurrection narratives are excellent examples of faith seeking understanding. In the modern world, which equates objectivity with historicity, conflicting biblical narratives often present many challenges to faith. However, the more I investigate the underlying causes of these inconsistencies, the more my appreciation for how scripture ought to be read grows. Furthermore, by accepting the primacy of theological over historical readings of the Gospels, my own confidence in the historicity of the resurrection has significantly grown, as a proper reading of scripture irons out the tensions wrinkled by a flawed historical-centric approach. Many young Catholics I knew growing up abandoned the Church because they could not move beyond a historical reading of the Gospels that has been propagated throughout academia and the internet. My own stubborn pursuits of understanding, however, have yielded much fruit for my faith, and I look forward to finding innovative ways to give the same gift of understanding, which has helped my faith, to others.

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