The Easter Challenge

Dan Barker has issued a perennial challenge to Christians. In it, Dan asks, “tell me what happened on Easter. I am not asking for proof. My straightforward request is merely that Christians tell me exactly what happened on the day that their most important doctrine was born.” The terms of this challenge are to harmonize the gospel accounts from Easter morning until the end of each gospel, without omitting a single detail.

More than a decade ago, I decided to take up this challenge, simply to familiarize myself with the issues involved with this challenge, so that I may be better informed when discussing the gospel accounts with others. I intended to take as liberal a position as possible, including all non-redundant events under the assumption that differing details are omissions between the accounts. For convenience, when an event is recorded in two or more gospels, I included the text from the older source (assuming that Mark is the oldest account, followed by Matthew, Luke and John).

I did not include text from Mark 9-20, since it is not found in the original manuscripts, and most of its narrative content is a paraphrase of other gospels. I also did not include Acts 1:3-12, since the account in Luke ends with an ascension, and I will not be including Paul’s formula in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, since it does not contribute any narrative details in a context which promotes harmonization.

My source text translation is the New American Standard Bible.

Mark 16

[verses 9-20 are later additions to Mark, and considered later interpolations from the other gospel accounts. Verses 17 and 18 are not found in any form in the other gospels, and may be an interpolation from Acts 28:3-5]

1   When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him.
2   Very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen.
3   They were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”
4   Looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large.
5   Entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe; and they were amazed.
6   And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him.
7   “But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.'”
8   They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
9   Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons.
10   She went and reported to those who had been with Him, while they were mourning and weeping.
11   When they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they refused to believe it.
12   After that, He appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking along on their way to the country.
13   They went away and reported it to the others, but they did not believe them either.
14   Afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table; and He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen.
15   And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.
16   “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.
17   “These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues;
18   they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
19   So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.
20   And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed. And they promptly reported all these instructions to Peter and his companions. And after that, Jesus Himself sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.

 

Matthew 28

1   Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.
2   And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it.
3   And his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow.
4   The guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men.
5   The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified.
6   “He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying.
7   “Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you.”
8   And they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples.
9   And behold, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him.
10   Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see Me.”
11   Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened.
12   And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers,
13   and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’
14   “And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.”
15   And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.
16   But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated.
17   When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful.
18   And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.
19   “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,
20   teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

 

Luke 24

1   But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared.
2   And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
3   but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
4   While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing;
5   and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living One among the dead?
6   “He is not here, but He has risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee,
7   saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.”
8   And they remembered His words,
9   and returned from the tomb and reported all these things to the eleven and to all the rest.
10   Now they were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles.
11   But these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them.
12   But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings only; and he went away to his home, marveling at what had happened.
13   And behold, two of them were going that very day to a village named Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem.
14   And they were talking with each other about all these things which had taken place.
15   While they were talking and discussing, Jesus Himself approached and began traveling with them.
16   But their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him.
17   And He said to them, “What are these words that you are exchanging with one another as you are walking?” And they stood still, looking sad.
18   One of them, named Cleopas, answered and said to Him, “Are You the only one visiting Jerusalem and unaware of the things which have happened here in these days?”
19   And He said to them, “What things?” And they said to Him, “The things about Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people,
20   and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to the sentence of death, and crucified Him.
21   “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, it is the third day since these things happened.
22   “But also some women among us amazed us. When they were at the tomb early in the morning,
23   and did not find His body, they came, saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said that He was alive.
24   “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just exactly as the women also had said; but Him they did not see.”
25   And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!
26   “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?”
27   Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.
28   And they approached the village where they were going, and He acted as though He were going farther.
29   But they urged Him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is getting toward evening, and the day is now nearly over.” So He went in to stay with them.
30   When He had reclined at the table with them, He took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them.
31   Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight.
32   They said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?”
33   And they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found gathered together the eleven and those who were with them,
34   saying, “The Lord has really risen and has appeared to Simon.”
35   They began to relate their experiences on the road and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread.
36   While they were telling these things, He Himself stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be to you.”
37   But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit.
38   And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
39   “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
40   And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet.
41   While they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement, He said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
42   They gave Him a piece of a broiled fish;
43   and He took it and ate it before them.
44   Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
45   Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,
46   and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day,
47   and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
48   “You are witnesses of these things.
49   “And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
50   And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them.
51   While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven.
52   And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy,
53   and were continually in the temple praising God.

 

John 20,21

1   Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb.
2   So she ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.”
3   So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb.
4   The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first;
5   and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in.
6   And so Simon Peter also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he saw the linen wrappings lying there,
7   and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself.
8   So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed.
9   For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.
10   So the disciples went away again to their own homes.
11   But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb;
12   and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying.
13   And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because 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, and did not know that it was Jesus.
15   Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” 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, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher).
17   Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.'”
18   Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and that He had said these things to her.
19   So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
20   And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
21   So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”
22   And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
23   “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”
24   But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.
25   So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
26   After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
27   Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.”
28   Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”
29   Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”
30   Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;
31   but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.

 

1   After these things Jesus manifested Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and He manifested Himself in this way.
2   Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together.
3   Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will also come with you.” They went out and got into the boat; and that night they caught nothing.
4   But when the day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.
5   So Jesus said to them, “Children, you do not have any fish, do you?” They answered Him, “No.”
6   And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.” So they cast, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish.
7   Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put his outer garment on (for he was stripped for work), and threw himself into the sea.
8   But the other disciples came in the little boat, for they were not far from the land, but about one hundred yards away, dragging the net full of fish.
9   So when they got out on the land, they saw a charcoal fire already laid and fish placed on it, and bread.
10   Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish which you have now caught.”
11   Simon Peter went up and drew the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not torn.
12   Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples ventured to question Him, “Who are You?” knowing that it was the Lord.
13   Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and the fish likewise.
14   This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after He was raised from the dead.
15   So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.”
16   He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.”
17   He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.
18   “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.”
19   Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me!”
20   Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?”
21   So Peter seeing him said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?”
22   Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!”
23   Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?”
24   This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.
25   And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.

 

Harmonized Resurrection Narrative

When the Sabbath was over, as it began to dawn,1)Mark: when the sun had risen Luke: at early dawn  John: while it was still dark Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and Salome bought spices which they had prepared, [and] came to look at the grave so that they might come and anoint Him.

And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred,2)The tense of this event is debatable. For the convenience of this harmonization, I will assume the pluperfect. for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it. And his appearance was like lightning and his clothing as white as snow. The guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men.

[The women] were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” Looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large. When they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men3)Matthew: an angel suddenly stood near them in dazzling white robe[s]; [one was] sitting at the right. They were amazed and terrified and bowed their faces to the ground. The men said to them:

“Do not be amazed [or] afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He has risen; He is not here, just as He said; behold, here is the place where they laid Him. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again. But go, tell His disciples and Peter that He has risen from the dead, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.'”

They went out and fled from the tomb4)Authentic Markan testimony ends here. with fear and great joy and ran to report it to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, to the eleven and to all the rest.5)Mark: for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. And behold, [on the way] Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see Me.”

Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ “And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.” And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.

[Upon reaching Jesus’ disciples, the women] said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” But these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them. But Peter and the other disciple got up and ran to the tomb together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first; and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. And so Simon Peter also came, following him, and entered the tomb stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings only and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. And he went away to his home, marveling at what had happened. So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. So the disciples went away again to their own homes.

But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” 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.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and that He had said these things to her.

And behold, two of them were going that very day to a village named Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. And they were talking with each other about all these things which had taken place. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus Himself approached and began traveling with them. But their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him. And He said to them, “What are these words that you are exchanging with one another as you are walking?” And they stood still, looking sad. One of them, named Cleopas, answered and said to Him, “Are You the only one visiting Jerusalem and unaware of the things which have happened here in these days?” And He said to them, “What things?” And they said to Him, “The things about Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people, and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to the sentence of death, and crucified Him. “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, it is the third day since these things happened. “But also some women among us amazed us. When they were at the tomb early in the morning, and did not find His body, they came, saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said that He was alive. “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just exactly as the women also had said; but Him they did not see.” And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. And they approached the village where they were going, and He acted as though He were going farther. But they urged Him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is getting toward evening, and the day is now nearly over.” So He went in to stay with them. When He had reclined at the table with them, He took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight. They said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?”

And they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found gathered together the eleven and those who were with them saying, “The Lord has really risen and has appeared to Simon.” They began to relate their experiences on the road and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread. So when it was evening on that day while they were telling these things, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit. And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet and His side. While they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement, He said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave Him a piece of a broiled fish; and He took it and ate it before them. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”You are witnesses of these things. “And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”

Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.

After these things Jesus manifested Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and He manifested Himself in this way. Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will also come with you.” They went out and got into the boat; and that night they caught nothing. But when the day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. So Jesus said to them, “Children, you do not have any fish, do you?” They answered Him, “No.” And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.” So they cast, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish. Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put his outer garment on (for he was stripped for work), and threw himself into the sea. But the other disciples came in the little boat, for they were not far from the land, but about one hundred yards away, dragging the net full of fish. So when they got out on the land, they saw a charcoal fire already laid and fish placed on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish which you have now caught.” Simon Peter went up and drew the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples ventured to question Him, “Who are You?” knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and the fish likewise. This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after He was raised from the dead.

So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.” He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep. “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.” Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me!” Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?” So Peter seeing him said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true. And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.

But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God.

 

Conclusions

The first paragraph in my harmonization contains a sticky issue- the time at which the women arrived at the tomb. Mark indicates that it was “when the sun had risen,” Luke says that it was “at early dawn,” but John records that it was “while it was still dark.” I decided that Matthew’s version, “as it began to dawn,” was a good compromise between the admittedly minor differences in details.

The second paragraph comes solely from Matthew, and I have chosen a translation which indicates that the earthquake occurred in the pluperfect tense, that is, it happened in the past before the events described there. I understand that there is a great deal of debate about the choice of this tense, but I decided to err on the side of harmonization, for the benefit of this exercise.

The third paragraph also contains a contested issue- whether men or angels appear at the tomb. A common argument is that the authors who describe men intend for their readers to understand them to be angels. Since only one gospel explicitly calls them angels, I decided to use ‘men’ as the description in my harmonization.

The fifth paragraph also contains a troubling passage- that of Mark, who records that the women were afraid, and spoke to no one. This seems to be in direct contradiction to the other gospels, which record the women as going directly to the disciples and reporting what they had seen. In addition, Matthew characterizes them as joyful, not afraid. I have omitted the Markan characterization, since I can find no way to resolve it with the other accounts. I conclude this to be the first of the irresolvable contradictions between the accounts.

From the sixth paragraph onward the Markan account ends, and I see a wide disparity between the other gospels after this point. There is a small amount of overlap between Matthew and Luke, but for the most part the accounts are vastly different, shown by the large amount of monochromatic text. The gospel of John is completely separate from the other two gospels after that point, and there is absolutely no overlap between them. It has been suggested that this phenomenon is caused by the lack of a Markan narrative for the other three Evangelists to base their final narratives on. Without this common narrative, a wide disparity between details should be expected.

The major contradiction in this harmonization is evidenced by the tears of Mary Magdalene, derived from the text of John. In the eighth paragraph, Mary stands outside the empty tomb, weeping because she doesn’t know the location of Jesus’ body. She speaks with the same two angels that were mentioned previously as ‘men’, and even turns around to see the resurrected Jesus, but doesn’t recognize him. I find this behavior unbelivable, considering that in the fifth paragraph, she along with the other women see Jesus, recognize him, and worship at his feet. Why does Mary, having seen the risen Jesus so soon before (only the time required to run from the tomb to the disciples and back again), wonder about the location of his body, and even not recognize him when she sees him a second time?

The reason for this contradiction, I believe, is because the Synoptic gospels record the angel’s appearance and the appearance of Jesus before the disciples are told and visit the tomb, while John records the angels appearing only after the disciples visit the tomb. Because of this change in narrative chronology, a harmonization illustrates this glaring contradiction.

I decided to end this harmonization with the ascension in Luke. No other gospel account records an ascension; Matthew ends with the Great Commission, and John ends with the nebulous suggestion that Jesus’ ministry after his resurrection was productive enough to fill countless volumes with his deeds. The locations are also different between the three- John ends at the Sea of Tiberias, Matthew ends at a mountain in Galilee, and Luke ends in Bethany. I don’t consider this a contradiction in the context of this harmonization- just a lot of moving about by Jesus and the disciples.

In conclusion, I have found one external and one internal contradiction in my harmonization. I am certain that a more rigorous analysis could show more, but it was my intent to be as lenient as possible. However, despite my leniency, contradictions are apparent. I hope that this exercise will be as beneficial to others as it has been to me.

References   [ + ]

1. Mark: when the sun had risen Luke: at early dawn  John: while it was still dark
2. The tense of this event is debatable. For the convenience of this harmonization, I will assume the pluperfect.
3. Matthew: an angel
4. Authentic Markan testimony ends here.
5. Mark: for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The Unexpected Atheist

“The Romans called the Christians atheists. Why? Well, the Christians had a god of sorts, but it wasn’t a real god. They didn’t believe in the divinity of apotheosized emperors or Olympian gods. They had a peculiar, different kind of god. So it was very easy to call people who believed in a different kind of god atheists. And that general sense that an atheist is anybody who doesn’t believe exactly as I do prevails in our own time.”

Carl Sagan, “The Varieties of Scientific Experience”

Several years ago, I received a midday phone call and discovered on the other end a young woman with a troubling story. She had reached out to me in my role as then-director of the North Texas Church of Freethought, an occurrence which wasn’t terribly uncommon, as I found myself frequently the recipient of inquisitions from random members of the public. Still, she was surprised to find a real live atheist to talk with, and after some initial hesitation, shared her conundrum.

Raised a Bible-believing Christian, she had been an enthusiastic disciple and parishioner, who at the time found employment with her hometown church, a pleasant little Methodist congregation in rural Texas. She ministered primarily to the young children of the community, running their Sunday School program and youth activities.

She was also an atheist.

The transition from believer to skeptic had begun slowly for her, motivated by theological curiosity more than anything else, then picked up steam in large part due to the Four Horsemen, and ended in a flurry of critical Bible study. Though she had emerged the process psychologically unscathed and intellectually satisfied, her parochial vocation now concerned her greatly. Although she was still happy working with the church’s youth and they were happy to have her, her apostasy gave her the feeling of being disingenuous. After some reflection, she decided to tell the story of her deconversion to the church’s pastor and await his justice.

He listened patiently to her account, to her references of the Books of Daniel and of Dennett, and to her concerns that she had just disbelieved her way out of a job. In response, he smiled kindly, and said that his advice was the same for her as his bishop’s had been for him when he told a similar story: “It’s okay to have doubts, even if you feel that you can’t believe. You’re doing great work for your church, and I urge you to stay.”

She left her church a few months after our call.

Some time later, I received a distressing email from a Baptist pastor in rural North Carolina. He briefly introduced himself and told me a bit about his background and the makeup of his congregation before laying a stunning confession at my feet.

He was also an atheist.

He’d been so for several months, following a long and torturous journey of theological and philosophical exploration. His wife had been privy to this development, and fortunately was supportive of him. His congregation, he feared, would be much less so, to say nothing of the religiously conservative community around him. Did I, he asked, know of any way that he could find support and community? More importantly, did I know of any way that he could make a living for himself and his family after a lifetime of experience only in ministry?

I offered my sympathies for his plight, but little else aside from the names of some atheist organizations in the nearest city.

Then in 2011, in Houston for the Texas Freethought Convention, I was having drinks with a friend the night before the main session began. We were thrilling in the anticipation that Christopher Hitchens, then being treated for late-stage cancer at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, might be feeling well enough to attend the event personally. At one point she turned to me and said, “Zach, I just HAVE to introduce you to this guy I met, Jerry DeWitt. He’s absolutely the sweetest guy, and a former pastor who just graduated from The Clergy Project.”

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Jerry at the Texas Freethought Convention, October 2011

Indeed he was. From the moment we first shook hands, I found Jerry to be a humble, polite, and unassuming person. A great listener and a great questioner, he possessed none of the self-importance that I typically encounter when journeying through houses of worship. Indeed, such was his modest demeanor that I found it hard to imagine Jerry behind a pulpit, or under a revival tent, or even perched at a church entrance shaking hands and receiving the adoration of the faithful.

That all changed for me the first time I heard him preach.

It was a secular sermon, no doubt. Jerry had traveled to Dallas to speak at the Fellowship of Freethought’s monthly Gathering and promote Recovering from Religion, a new organization that he had taken on as its first Executive Director. Two months after we first met in Houston, many things had changed for Jerry. While initially he had been hopeful that the personal and financial costs of his apostasy would be minimal, during the intervening weeks he had lost his job, had been ostracized by his community, and the strain was beginning to affect his marriage. As he looked ahead to the future, he was worried that he would be struggling to keep a roof over his head and his life from completely derailing.

Still, he was with friends, and he had plenty to say. That day he gave a message that really cut right to the heart of what he had been going through as a Christian pastor slipping into apostasy.

Jerry @ FoFD

Jerry at the Fellowship of Freethought Dallas, December 2011

The face we show in public, Jerry taught, even if done for the most virtuous of reasons, can be used to define us. The traditions that we initiate and continue can be used to restrict us. The expectations that these things create will provide safe passage through the culture that sustains us, but we pay a toll in the loss of freedom and self-identity that can only be recovered by embracing a freethinking life.

This thesis, give or take a few hundred pages, became Jerry’s first book.

Titled, “Hope After Faith,” and subtitled “An Ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism,” it is endorsed by such Hell-bound luminaries as Richard Dawkins and Dan Barker (himself a former pastor as well), and currently enjoys a position of popularity with their books on best-seller lists. At least, among atheists, that is. By contrast, the most popular books out today among Christians are two separate (and contradictory) accounts of near-death experiences told in wildly fantastical (and non-Biblical) prose.

And more’s the pity. Because I think the true audience for “Hope After Faith” is not the atheist unfaithful, but rather the kind of believer whose religious experiences have been so unsatisfying that the active imagination of a four-year-old is preferable to even C. S. Lewis or, Heaven forbid, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Responses to Jerry’s story from Christians who’ve bothered to read it offer only one rejoinder: “You were never truly a Christian.” It’s a common refrain, all too common to those of us who have left the faith of our families.

It’s also a terribly bitter pill to force down someone’s mouth, cutting right to the core of their self-identity, their honest faith, and their cultural context. Perhaps Pentecostalism was the wrong denomination to start in – well, which is the right one? Perhaps Jerry was led to follow flawed leaders with bad theology – who are the right ones? Perhaps he didn’t pray fervently enough, read the Bible enough times, or (most insulting of all) simply wasn’t chosen as one of the Elect? Perhaps there is somewhere a list of confirmed Saints that remains uncontested, but as yet I’ve not seen it.

“We have to recognize, therefore, that even where a single deity is worshiped, the varieties of religious experience represented by the worshipers may differ to such an extent that it is only from the most superficial sociological point of view that they can be said to share the same religion.”

Joseph Campbell, “Masks of God: Primitive Mythology”

In his book, Jerry painstakingly recounts every event of religious significance in his life. It begins with a rock ‘n roll foundation of gospel and revival, prompted by a visit to Jimmy Swaggart’s tent meeting in 1986, that set the course of his religious journey from then on out. An intellectual and inquisitive boy, he more or less taught himself the ministerial trade and showed enough aptitude behind the pulpit to soft-launch himself into a something of a revival preacher. But curiosity and satisfaction are bitter enemies, so his rocky career bounced from church to church, from Brother This to Brother That, as he struggled to pile enough stones in a heap to serve as a witness to God that, yes, he believed in Him and, yes, he trusted in Him and, yes, he sought to do right by Him, as best as he could, as best as any Christian could hope.

In the end, of course, [SPOILER ALERT] Jerry’s heap of stones tumbles, he loses his livelihood, his wife, and his standing in the community.

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The book is divided into five “chapters,” which really only serve to separate the five steps in Jerry’s theology that led to his atheism: God Loves Everyone, God Saves Everyone, God is in Everyone, God is Everyone’s Internal Dialogue, and finally God is a Delusion. The first and longest chapter (taking up more than half of the pages of the book) ends with a personal and spiritual defeat and retreat that culminates years of eking out a living on the revival circuit, trying to please his young wife, and attempting (largely unsuccessfully) to find a satisfying church home. Written with author Ethan Brown, the memoir focuses narrowly on Jerry, which may have been necessary given the manner of its writing, but it unfortunately leaves key figures in Jerry’s life either poorly characterized (e.g., his family), or painfully one-dimensional (e.g., his Pentecostal mentors and friends).

My greatest disappointment with Jerry’s book, however, is that it fails to deliver on the promise of its title. Ending on a grey, lonely Christmas following his bankruptcy, the breakup of his marriage, and the fear of even walking into the local Wal-Mart, Jerry’s hope after faith is a small thing indeed. But perhaps that’s my problem, and not Jerry’s. After all, when he reached out to the atheist community he received plenty of moral support, but not much else. Plenty of people were willing to give him time on their podcast or blog, but who gave him a good-paying job? Who even gave him a “love offering?” Who started a fundraiser to save his house from foreclosure? If Jerry’s hope is malnourished after everything he’s been through, what have his fellow apostates done to feed it?

Many in the atheist community find the idea of an atheist pastor just as distasteful as do many Christians. To be an atheist is to leave all the trappings of religion behind, they say, and revel only in the delight of pure intellectualism. I have found this assumption to be inaccurate, as I have watched communities of freethought and humanism crystalize and grow by leaps and bounds around me, providing the same benefits that churches and temples have known for millennia. But these communities, for all their pluck and hard work, consistently lack something I feel is inescapably necessary, especially at this moment in time: revival.

We need to be reminded of the joys of existence, and to be inspired to manage its sufferings as well. We need to be reminded how to show compassion to those who desperately need it, and how to ask for help in times of trouble. In short, we need to have our humanism recharged. We need Jerry, and lots more like him. We need to prepare the way for doubting preachers, youth pastors, and theologians to enter our community, we need to figure out how to support them socially and financially, and we need to do it now. Otherwise our communities will grow like weeds and die off just as quickly, and people like Jerry will find no fertile soil for their talents and their time.

Happily, Jerry’s story is gaining attention, from a New York Times article to appearances on NPR and MSNBC, as well as an ongoing documentary:

Following his sermon in Dallas, I sat down with Jerry and told him that even if nothing else were certain about his life, I was convinced that he was born to be a preacher. One who, ironically enough, found a satisfying gospel to preach only after leaving the church and community he loved. How many other pastors like him put a mask over their inner theological struggles? How many other Christians like him hide their doubts behind the wall of tradition? “Be Brave,” Jerry says often while tweeting from the road, an admonition as much for himself as for those who follow him. It’s advice that I would give to anyone reading his book as well, especially believers; there but for the grace of God could go any of them.

“Mightier than Estë is Nienna, sister of the Fëanturi; she dwells alone. She is acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor. … But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion”