Blog #283 – Questions about Easter Answered

Blog #283 – Questions about Easter Answered

William Lane Craig, is a Christian apologist and writer. In his website, “Reasonable Faith”, he has listed questions he has received concerning the accuracy and truthfulness of the Easter events as discussed in the four Gospel books of the New Testament. Below are two questions asked of Craig, followed by his answers.

What about other pagan miracle workers such as Honi the Circle-Drawer, Hanina be Dosa, and Apollonius of Tyana? Doesn’t the fact that these pagan people doing miracles similar to Jesus discredit Jesus as a miracle worker? First of all, these aren’t pagan miracle workers. Honi and Hanina ben Dosa were Jewish holy men who also were reputed as miracle workers. Far from undermining the historicity of the Gospel accounts, the existence of such figures supports the credibility of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry as a miracle worker, since it shows that such activity was at home in first century Judaism and was not ascribed to Jesus as a result of the influence of so-called “divine men” of pagan mythology. The stories of Jesus’ miracles are so widely represented in all strata of the Gospel traditions that it would be fanciful to regard them as not rooted in the life of Jesus. Thus, the consensus of New Testament scholarship is that Jesus did carry out a ministry of “miracle” working—however one might want to interpret or explain these.

The miracles of Jesus, like his exorcisms, were taken to be signs of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. As such, they functioned fundamentally differently from the wonders performed by Hellenistic magicians or Jewish holy men. Moreover, Jesus’ miracles differed from those of Honi and Hanina in that Jesus never prays for a miracle to be done; he may first express thanks to the Father, but then he effects it himself. And he does so in his own name, not God’s. Moreover, neither Honi nor Hanina carried out a prophetic ministry, made messianic claims, or brought any new teaching in conjunction with their miracles. Thus, Jesus is more than just another charismatic Jewish holy man. As for Apollonius of Tyana, this is a figure constructed in large part by Philostratus centuries later as a deliberate counterpoint to Christianity. The church had grown quite large and influential by that time, so Philostratus constructed Apollonius as a pagan alternative to Jesus.  

2. What about the seeming contradictions in the different gospel accounts? Here’s your straight answer, they don’t matter. So, let’s take them one at a time: Date and time of the crucifixion: All the sources agree that Jesus was crucified on Friday. What is in dispute is whether Passover was on Thursday or Friday. The Synoptics seem to suggest that Jesus’ Last Supper with the disciples on Thursday night was a Passover meal. John agrees that Jesus did share a Last Supper with his disciples on Thursday night in the upper room prior to his betrayal and arrest. But John says that the Jewish leaders wanted to eliminate Jesus before the Passover meal began Friday night. So, was Passover on Thursday or Friday? That’s the whole dispute! One possibility is that John has moved the Passover to Friday to make Jesus’ death coincide with the slaughter of the Passover lambs in the Temple. But maybe not: since there were competing calendars in use in first century Palestine, the sacrifices may have been made on more than one day. The Pharisees and people from Galilee reckoned days as beginning at sunrise and ending at the following sunrise. But Sadducees and people from Judea reckoned days as beginning at sunset and ending with the next sunset. In our modern age, we adopt what I think is the rather weird convention that the day begins in the middle of the night at midnight and goes until the next midnight. Well, this difference in reckoning days completely throws off the dating of certain events, as you can see on the following chart.

Passover lambs were offered on the 14th of the month of Nisan. According to the Galilean reckoning, the 14th of Nisan begins about 6:00 a.m. on the day we call Thursday. But for the Judean, 14 Nisan doesn’t begin until 12 hours later, about 6:00 p.m. on our Thursday. So, when the Galilean, following Jewish regulations, slays the Passover lamb on the afternoon of 14 Nisan, what day does he do it on? Thursday. But when the Judean offers his lamb in sacrifice on the afternoon of the 14th of Nisan, what day is that? Friday! When night falls, he then feasts on the lamb, by his reckoning, on 15 Nisan. Thus, in order to meet the demands of both Galilean-Pharisaical sensibilities and of Judean-Sadducean sensibilities, the Temple priesthood would have to have made Passover sacrifices on both Thursday and Friday. Jesus, as a Galilean and knowing of his impending arrest, chose to celebrate the Passover Thursday night, whereas the chief priests and scribes responsible for Jesus’ arrest went by the Judean calendar, as John says. Although we have no evidence that Passover sacrifices were made on both days, such a solution is very plausible. The population of Jerusalem swelled to around 125,000 people during the Passover festival. It would be logistically impossible for the Temple priesthood to sacrifice enough lambs for that many people between 3:00 o’clock and 6:00 o’clock on one afternoon. They must have sacrificed on more than one day, which makes it entirely possible for Jesus and his disciples to celebrate the Passover Thursday night prior to his arrest.

Similarly for the time of Jesus’ crucifixion: Mark says the crucifixion was at the third hour, that is, 9:00 a.m., but John says Jesus was condemned “about the sixth hour,” that is, around noon. Again, maybe John has moved the time until later. But maybe not: in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts the only times of day ever referred to (with one exception) are the third, sixth, and ninth hours. Obviously in an age without modern time-keeping devices round numbers or quarters of the day are being used. The third hour could refer to any time between 9:00 a.m. and noon.

Did Jesus carry his cross the entire way? No, Simon of Cyrene was probably a historical person, whose role in the narrative John simply chooses to omit. Simon was probably impressed into service by the soldiers when Jesus proved too weak to carry the crossbeam all the way to Golgotha.

Did the robbers rail against Jesus? Mark says merely that those who were crucified with Jesus reviled him. No details are given. But Luke tells of how one of the criminals expressed faith in Jesus. You could just write off Luke’s story as a pious development of the crucifixion narrative. But how do we know that Luke is not working with an independent source here which remembers this man’s repentance, whereas Mark passes over it? I don’t have any confidence that we have a real contradiction here.

When did the veil of the Temple tear? This alleged discrepancy is purely imaginary, since Mark and Luke mention the rending of the Temple curtain but don’t pretend to specify its timing. Luke would have been amazed had some modern reader accused him of contradicting Mark when he groups together the supernatural signs occurring at Christ’s death.

Who went to the tomb? A group of women, including Mary Magdalene who is always named. John focuses on her for dramatic effect, but he knows of other women, as is evident in Mary’s words, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (Jn 20. 2; cf. 20. 13). We don’t know all the names of the other women, but they included another Mary, who was the mother of James and Joses, and Salome. The fact that women, rather than men, appear in the narrative as the discovers of Jesus’ empty tomb is, by the way, one of the most convincing factors leading most scholars to accept the historicity of the narrative.

Was the stone rolled away before they got there and what did they see? Yes, it was; there’s no discrepancy here. They saw one or two angels. Mark’s “young man” is clearly an angelic figure, as evident from his white robe, his revelatory message, and the women’s response of fear and trembling. Moreover, Mark’s earliest interpreters (Matthew and Luke) understood the young man to be an angel.

What were they told? They were told to go to Galilee, where they would see Jesus. Since Luke doesn’t plan on narrating any Galilean appearances, he alters Mark’s wording of the angel’s message for literary purposes. The tradition of appearances in Galilee is very old and virtually universally accepted.

Did the women tell anyone? Of course, they did! When Mark says that they said nothing to anyone, he obviously means as they fled back to the disciples. Mark foreshadows the appearances in Galilee, so obviously he didn’t mean that the women failed to give the angel’s message to the disciples. This discrepancy is purely imaginary.

Did the disciples leave Jerusalem for Galilee? Of course, as indicated above. Luke just chooses not to narrate any Galilean appearances because he wants to show how the Gospel became established in the holiest city of the Jews, Jerusalem.

So, some of these alleged discrepancies are easy to answer and are what we should expect from independent accounts of the same event. Others are more difficult but are in the end not of great consequence. Historians expect to find inconsistencies like these even in the most reliable sources. No historian simply throws out a source because it has inconsistencies. But obviously, it doesn’t follow from an inconsistency between two independent sources that both sources are wrong. At worst, one is wrong if they can’t be harmonized.

The problem with focusing on discrepancies is that we tend to lose the forest for the trees. The overriding fact is that the Gospels are remarkably harmonious in what they relate. The discrepancies between them are in the secondary details. All four Gospels agree:

Jesus of Nazareth was crucified in Jerusalem by Roman authority during the Passover Feast, having been arrested and convicted on charges of blasphemy by the Jewish Sanhedrin and then slandered before the governor Pilate on charges of treason. He died within several hours and was buried Friday afternoon by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb, which was sealed with a stone. Certain women followers of Jesus, including Mary Magdalene, having observed his interment, visited His tomb early on Sunday morning, only to find it empty. Thereafter, Jesus appeared alive from the dead to the disciples, including Peter, who then became proclaimers of the message of His resurrection. All four Gospels attest to these facts. Many more details can be supplied by adding facts which are attested by three out of four. So don’t be misled by the minor discrepancies. Otherwise, you’re going to have to be sceptical about all secular historical narratives which also contain such inconsistencies, which is quite unreasonable.

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