Four Sides of the Same Coin: When the Gospels “disagree”

Well, it’s the Lenten Season once again which means hamburger cravings hit their peek on Fridays late morning, fabric stores around the parish now have purple linen on back order, and there will be a new cable special setting out to “debunk” the Resurrection with inane historical mistruths and half-truths designed to cause the viewer to doubt the “greatest story ever told.”

Producers will even attempt to use God’s own Word against Him, pointing to apparent “discrepancies” and inconsistencies within the Sacred Scriptures. You might hear the question posted, “Why are the Gospel accounts of Easter Sunday morning and the Resurrection so different?” For instance:

  • In Matthew, one angel in white appears to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (Matthew 28).
  • In Mark, one “young man” in white “amazed” the two Marys and Salome (Mark 16).
  • In Luke, two men in “dazzling garments” appeared to the two Marys and Joanna (Luke 24).
  • In John, two angels in white appeared to Mary Magdalene (John 20).

So, what now? Which one is correct? Well, all of them are correct and truthful…in one way or another. The differences in the accounts are not questions of “if” but of “how” or “which.” If we view the story as a philosopher might, then we’d say, “there are contradictions, so it ALL must be false.” When studying this from a historical or theological perspective, however, we notice that all of the main points are the same, and that the discrepancies are in the smaller, “secondary” details. The facts don’t change:

  • Jesus’ body is placed in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.
  • The tomb is visited by a small group of women on Sunday morning.
  • Jesus’ body is gone.
  • They see a vision of angel(s) proclaiming that “Jesus is Risen.”

The smaller details “not matching up” should not make us worried that the story is untrue. Ironically, those minor differences should make us even more confident that the Resurrection is fact, not fiction! You see, if all four accounts were the exact same, we’d be asking ourselves, “How do we know that four people believed this and recorded it at different times, and it wasn’t just one person who wrote it and was then plagiarized three times?” The Holy Spirit inspired the Gospel writers in different ways (details) and with different routes (perspectives) to the same proverbial truth. Say there’s a three-car collision in the middle of an intersection. The police arrive on the scene and begin taking statements from four witnesses. All of the witnesses saw the same accident, but their reports to the officers on the minor details may vary. Why? Well, there could be a lot of factors as to why the four communicate the “same facts” in such different ways…

  • Maybe, one or two saw the beginning, and a couple others turned to catch the middle or end of it.
  • Maybe one or two pay great attention to detail and are sure to communicate the exact details to the officer, while the others don’t think the details “make of the car, etc.” are as important as “who is at fault.”
  • Maybe, one of the witnesses is “shaken” from seeing the accident and is very emotional when he gives the statement, but another is “great under pressure.”
  • Maybe one of the witnesses is an off-duty police officer who would offer facts more relevant to a police report, maybe one is a lawyer who gives facts from a legal point-of-view, maybe one is a doctor who explains facts based on the medical condition of the drivers, maybe one is a mechanic and can offer additional information based on the damage to cars.
  • Maybe one of the witnesses remembers something that they saw, a little later on in the day, after they had left the scene… and relate important facts to the officer verbally at a different time.

Now…Did the accident happen? Yes. Are the results of the accident the same? Yes. The same results even if the reports differ? Yes. No matter what report you read, will the drivers, damage, or location change? No. Will others (who weren’t witnesses) still form their own judgment? Yes. There are more Resurrection appearances in the Gospels, as well. There are still others which are not mentioned or recorded, (this fact is implied in the words of St. Luke in Acts 1:3). Different gospel accounts don’t mean that the facts are fiction, they simply mean that there is more than one way to tell the same story. Again, if each of the four were exactly the same…THEN we should be worried. Let’s, instead, focus on the fact that Christ rose from the dead and rejoice that He did!


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Mark Hart

Mark Hart serves as Executive Vice President for Life Teen International. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and a twenty-year veteran of youth ministry, Mark is a best-selling and award-winning author (or co-author) of over a dozen books and one of the most sought-after speakers serving in the Catholic Church, today. Mark hosts his own weekly satellite radio show, “Fired Up!”, for The Catholic Channel, Sirius XM 129 and is a Research Fellow for the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Additionally, his weekly audio podcast (Sunday, Sunday, Sunday) and HD video spots (Beyond Words) are helping youth groups, families and classrooms in over two dozen countries enter more deeply into the Sunday Mass readings. Mark’s humor and his passion for Scripture —as experienced in his DVD Bible Study Series, “T3” and “Encounter” — are helping hundreds of thousands of Catholics, young and old, begin to read and study the Bible in engaging and relevant ways. Mark and his wife, Melanie, and their children live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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  • Marian Potts

    The Resurrection is central to our faith. Christianity would have died out had not Christ risen from the dead. I think our faith is not in the exact details but acceptance of the Church’s teaching and the witness of the apostles who laid down their life on this belief.