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With Easter not far away, I thought it would be instructional to examine the Easter story in some detail, and how the four Gospels seem to contradict one another on crucial details, and whether the different accounts can be harmonized.

This situation inspired Dan Barker, a former evangelical Christian preacher, to issue a challenge to Christians, namely:

The conditions of the challenge are simple and reasonable. In each of the Gospels, begin at Easter morning and read to the end of the book: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21. Also read Acts 1:3-12 and Paul’s version of the story in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. These 165 verses can be read in a few moments. Then, without omitting a single detail from these separate accounts, write a simple, chronological narrative of the events between the resurrection and the ascension: what happened first, second, and so on; who said what, when; and where these things happened.

Since the gospels do not always give precise times of day, it is permissible to make educated guesses. The narrative does not have to pretend to present a perfect picture-it only needs to give at least one plausible account of all of the facts. Additional explanation of the narrative may be set apart in parentheses. The important condition to the challenge, however, is that not one single biblical detail be omitted. Fair enough?

Dan Barker admitted that he was unable to complete the challenge, and I am sure, as a former preacher, he has more experience in apologetics than myself, but I will try to tackle the problem.

You may ask, why, as an atheist, am I attempting this challenge? I trying to illustrate how convoluted the narrative has to be to fulfill the criteria of the challenge, and how, most likely, much of it is fictional. Even with my best efforts, there are still some unresolved issues, which perhaps greater minds than mine can figure out (I welcome suggestions).

I have decided to start with the burial of Jesus, even though this was not part of the challenge, because difficulties already arise from this point onwards. I have tried to put the events in roughly chronological order, but the text is vague on some points, so I can only estimate as best I can. I used the “New Revised Standard Version” Bible as my source document, as this is the one considered the most faithful to the original Greek text. I have indicated which Gospel is referred to by {} when going through the various data points.

I have not included any conversations as this would make the whole article too long. I will only deal with the main events that occur in the various narratives.

I have made the assumption that, at that time, there were many more disciples/companions than “The Twelve.” This seems reasonable since names such as Nathanael and Cleopas appear in the text, which are not the names normally associated with the twelve disciples, and some of the texts mention “the eleven and companions.”


  1. Several women witnessed the burial of Jesus including Mary Magdalene, and Mary (Mother of Joses [Joseph], sometimes referred to as “Mother of James,” but I am assuming they are one and the same person) {Mark, Matthew, Luke}. They all left before witnessing Nicodemus coming with 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial {John}, but they all knew the exact location of the tomb.
  2. Some women prepared spices, which they already had on hand, to bring with them after the Sabbath {Luke}.
  3. Mary Magdalene, Mary (Mother of James), and Salome had to wait until after the Sabbath to buy the spices they needed to anoint Jesus’s body {Mark}.

Tomb visit

  1. There were at least 7 women who went to the tomb on Sunday morning. These included Mary Magdalene {Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John}, Mary (Mother of James) {Mark, Matthew, Luke}, Salome {Mark}, Joanna {Luke}, and at least three more unnamed women.
  2. The women left whilst it was still dark {“John”}, but it was just dawning as they approached the tomb {Mark, Matthew, and Luke}.
  3. Just before the women arrived at the tomb, an earthquake occurred that moved the stone from the entrance of the tomb, (unobserved by the women) {Matthew}. The earthquake partially stunned the guards, so the women came up to the tomb unchallenged {Matthew}.
  4. The women arrived at the tomb and saw that the stone had been moved and that Jesus’ body was missing. Mary Magdalene, Mary (Mother of James), and Joanna left to tell the disciples about this (This accounts for the mention of “… we don’t know where they have laid him”) {John}.
  5. After Mary Magdalene and the other women left, two women entered the tomb {Mark}, and the other women stayed outside {Matthew}. Then an angel descended and sat on the stone {Matthew}. This so frightened the guards that they fainted {Matthew}.
  6. The angel on the stone addressed the women outside the tomb and told them to tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee {Matthew}.
  7. The two women inside the tomb were met with another man/angel who also told them to tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee, but they became alarmed and ran off and were not heard from again, telling no one {Mark}.
  8. The two women, who were outside the tomb, left the tomb to tell the disciples where to meet Jesus {Matthew}.
  9. Meanwhile, the guards recovered and went to tell the Chief Priests about what occurred, and bribes were offered for their silence {Matthew}.
  10. On the way back, to tell the disciples, the two women encountered Jesus. They grabbed him and worshipped him {Matthew}. Jesus, again, told the two women to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee {Matthew}.
  11. Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene and the other women had told the disciples/companions that Jesus’s body was missing from the tomb, and then Mary Magdalene made her way back to the tomb alone. Peter and the “Beloved Disciple” went to the tomb to check this report, and reached the tomb ahead of Mary Magdalene, and examined the tomb {John}. Afterward, Peter and the “Beloved Disciple” left the tomb separately, and at some time, Peter met the risen Jesus {Luke, Paul} and then returned to join the other disciples/companions.
  12. When Mary Magdalene arrived back at the tomb, after the disciples had left, she saw two angels in the tomb, and she asked them where Jesus’ body was {John}.
  13. Mary Magdalene still had no idea that Jesus had risen, and was still convinced someone had moved the body {John}.
  14. Mary Magdalene then exited the tomb and saw Jesus, but did not recognize him, and asked him whether he had moved the body {John}.
  15. When Jesus called out “Mary”, she then recognized him, but was told not to touch him {John}.
  16. Later, Mary (Mother of James) and Joanna arrived back at the tomb, but did not initially notice Mary Magdalene outside the tomb. The two women went into the tomb where they saw the two men, and they were frightened. The men told the women that Jesus had risen, and to go and tell the disciples {Luke}.
  17. Later, Mary (Mother of James), Joanna, and Mary Magdalene joined up, and all returned to tell the disciples what had transpired, but were not believed {Luke}.
  18. Then the other women, who had met Jesus, arrived back to the disciples/companions and gave them the message to travel to Galilee. This time, their message was more convincing. Therefore, eleven of the disciples (including Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the “Beloved Disciple” and the sons of Zebedee [James & John]) left straightaway to travel to Galilee to meet Jesus {Matthew}. They met him on a mountain {Matthew}. Later seven of those disciples, who had traveled to Galilee, went to the Sea of Tiberias, where they went fishing. They again met Jesus there, and he helped them to catch many fish {John}.
  19. The disciples/companions who had remained in Jerusalem made preparations to leave for Galilee {my assumption—no Gospel citation}.
  20. Two of the disciples (Cleopas and an unnamed person) met Jesus on the road to Emmaus. They did not recognize him and they invited him to eat with them. Whilst eating with them, he broke bread whereupon they recognized him, but then he disappeared {Luke}.
  21. When these two disciples returned to the other disciples/companions in a locked room in Jerusalem, they were told that Peter had met Jesus earlier that day (time & place not specified – see above) {Luke}.
  22. Then Jesus appeared in the locked room where he showed them his hands and side to prove his identity. He ate some broiled fish to prove he was mortal (i.e., not a ghost) {Luke, John}.
  23. He told the disciples/companions that were still in Jerusalem not to leave the city until Pentecost {Luke}.
  24. The disciples who had traveled to Galilee returned to Jerusalem a week later. Thomas, who had traveled to Galilee, was told by the other disciples/companions that they had seen the risen Jesus. Thomas was unconvinced {John (even though Thomas traveled to Galilee, he had not been close enough to Jesus to confirm his identity, so he was one of those mentioned as “…some doubted” {Matthew}). Then Jesus suddenly appeared in the room where “The Twelve” and the other companions/apostles were {Paul}, and showed Thomas his wounds. Thomas was then convinced Jesus had risen from the dead {John}.
  25. About 40 days later, Jesus led the disciples to Bethany {Luke} (Mount of Olives {Acts} Note: Bethany is on the Southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives, so not strictly a contradiction). Here, he ascended to Heaven {“Luke”, “Acts”}. (Note: Luke gives the impression that the ascension took place on the same day as the resurrection, but it is possible he is “condensing” the events in the interest of brevity and readability. There is no definitive timeline in this part of his narrative.)
  26. At some time later, a large group of believers (supposedly 500) had an experience they attributed to a physical appearance of Jesus {Paul}.

I hope this article has been useful in laying out the story, and I invite comments as to where I could have changed the text to include all the events detailed in the four Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s epistles. I am fairly convinced that, some details between the Gospels are irreconcilable, but I could be proven wrong. Undertaking this challenge has further reinforced my opinion that, the Empty Tomb was a fictional plot device instigated by Mark (or an earlier source of Mark).

Later Gospel writers were then obligated to use the Empty Tomb in their narratives, but were free to craft different stories around it, in any way they chose, since it had no long-standing tradition, and Mark’s story was somewhat bland, lacking in detail, and having no post-resurrection appearances.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...