Were the Stories About Jesus Passed on Reliably? A Response to Abu Zakariya (Part 4)

In previous posts, I have been reviewing a book by Muslim polemicist/apologist Abu Zakariya (in particular, chapter 5 of the book). So far, we have seen that Zakariya’s objections to the gospels as inspired Scripture and eyewitness testimony, and to Messianic prophecy, have fallen far short of convincing. Here are links to my three previous rebuttals to Zakariya:

In this fourth installment, I am going to interact with Zakariya’s fourth wave of attack, which is against the premise that the stories about Jesus were passed on reliably.

A Note About Differences and Reconcilable Variations

Before I begin to assess Abu Zakariya’s arguments, first a word about the implications of variations between the gospel accounts. In eyewitness testimony, it is not at all surprising that there would exist variations in minor detail while maintaining consistency about the core narrative. The existence of variations does not in itself entail that the narrative does not derive from the testimony of eyewitnesses, or that the core events did not happen. By pushing for the existence of actual (as opposed to apparent) discrepancies between the gospel accounts, at best the skeptic can cause us to revise our understanding of inspiration or inerrancy. It does not necessarily call into question the truth of Christianity, a proposition which rests on the reality of the resurrection of Jesus.

What minor variations do often suggest, however, is independence between accounts. In his book Horae Evangelicae or The Internal Evidence of the Gospel History, Rev T.R. Birks pioneered a category of argument, a somewhat less dramatic cousin of undesigned coincidences, called reconcilable variations. What is a reconcilable variation? It is when you have two accounts of the same event, or at least two accounts that appear to cross over the same territory at some point, and at first blush they seem so divergent that it’s almost awkward; but then, on further thought, they turn out to be reconcilable in some natural fashion after all. When two accounts appear at first so divergent that one is not sure they can be reconciled, that is significant evidence for their independence. When they turn out, upon closer inspection or upon learning more information, to be reconcilable without forcing after all, one has almost certainly independent accounts that dovetail. Thus, identifying plausible harmonizations for apparent discrepancies between the gospels has not only the effect of neutralizing the objection to the gospels’ veracity, but also it can, by establishing independence, provide positive evidence for their truth.

Early Competing Traditions About the Life of Jesus?

Zakariya contends that in the first century, besides the four canonical gospels, there were other competing traditions about the life and ministry of Jesus. To support this, he quotes from 2 Corinthians 11:4:

For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.

It is without question that there were false teachers in the first century who presented a different Jesus and a different gospel. There were the Judaizers, who insisted that gentile believers had to become circumcised Jews in order to be saved (Paul specifically takes them on in his letter to the Galatians); there were the gnostics who denied that the Christ had come in the flesh, thereby rejecting the physicality of the incarnation; and there were probably other groups who are unknown to us today. But the existence of such groups does not entail that they were associated with disciples and friends of Jesus, or even credible eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life. If Zakariya wishes to make this claim then the burden of proof is on him to supply the evidence.

Does the Gospel of John Change the Date of the Crucifixion?

Zakariya argues that the gospel of John deliberately changed the date of Jesus’ crucifixion for theological reasons, from the day of Passover (with the last supper being the Passover meal) to the day of preparation for Passover (before the eating of the Passover meal) — in order to make Jesus the Lamb of God (as John the Baptist represents him to be in John 1:19). He concludes,

Therefore, we can see that the author of the Gospel of John was willing to change the biography of Jesus in order to make him conform to their beliefs.

But before we are too quick to jump to such a conclusion, let’s take a look at the texts more carefully. John 19:14 does not say that it was the day of preparation for the Passover, but rather that it was the day of preparation of Passover. The very same term is used in Mark 15:42, but Mark also indicates what it means:

And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath.

Consistent with this, we read in John 19:31:

Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away.

Thus, John concurs with Mark that it was the day before the Sabbath. This is what he means by “the day of preparation.” When John writes “for that Sabbath was a high day”, he means that it was not just any Sabbath day, but a particularly special feast day — it was the Passover week Sabbath.

Now, one might complain at this point and urge that John contradicts the claim that the Passover meal had already been eaten. After all, we read in John 18:28:

Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.

It must be borne in mind, however, that the Passover was a week-long festival, not just one day. In fact, the other eight times that John uses the word “Passover”, he uses it to refer to the festival as a whole, rather than merely to the opening meal. In fact, the Passover seder is not the only ritual meal that is eaten during the Passover festival. The chagiga is another ritual meal that is eaten the following day at mid-day.

This interpretation is not special-pleading but is supported from a close read of the text itself. The reason that they did not want to enter the governor’s headquarters is so that they would not be defiled and could eat the Passover. But such a defilement would expire at sundown. They would then, after washing, be ceremonially clean for the evening meal. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that their concern was about some meal other than the evening meal.

There is therefore no contradiction between John and the synoptic gospels regarding the date of Jesus’ death by crucifixion. However, our study has revealed a case of a reconcilable variation, evidencing the independence of the narratives and thus the historicity of the core events.

Is There a Mary Magdalene Problem in the Resurrection Narratives?

Zakariya asserts that the gospel accounts concerning the resurrection of Jesus contradict one another in relation to Mary Magdalene’s experience on Easter morning. According to Zakariya,

We can see that in the Gospel of Matthew, Mary Magdalene is presented as having found the tomb empty, but after that she actually encountered Jesus as she was running away from the tomb. In the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene is also presented as having found the tomb empty. However, after she flees the tomb she doesn’t encounter Jesus but instead runs to the disciples and tells them that the body of Jesus had been stolen. Now, these two accounts of the resurrection are a contradiction; if Mary Magdalene met Jesus at the tomb, as Matthew says, then why did she report that the body had been stolen, according to John?

Abu Zakariya objects to any attempt to suggest that the variation can be accounted for by relating them to two different visits to the tomb. He writes,

We can see that Matthew and John must be talking about the same visit to the tomb. This is because in John 20:1, the stone was removed before Mary Magdalene’s first visit. This mirrors Matthew 28:2 which says that the stone was removed as Mary Magdalene was arriving. Moreover, Matthew mentions the day of the visit to the tomb (“after the Sabbath”), as does John (“first day of the week”). In the Jewish calendar, the day after Sabbath is the first day of the week. So, we know Matthew and John are referencing the same day. Matthew also mentions the time of the visit to the tomb (“towards the dawn of the first day”), as does John (“while it was still dark”), so we know they are referencing the same time frame. We must conclude that these contradictory accounts cannot be explained away: Matthew, who has Mary Magdalene meet Jesus and touch him after leaving the tomb, conflicts with John who reports that she left the tomb and told the disciples that the body of Jesus had been stolen and she didn’t know where it was.

However, once again, a more careful reading of the relevant texts reveals that there is no real contradiction here. Here is the account from Matthew 28:1-10:

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” 8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” 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 tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

Now compare this to the account from John 20:1-18:

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. 4 Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, 7 and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes. 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she 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 Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.

Now, it appears that Matthew either didn’t mention and/or didn’t know that there were several other women with Mary Magdalene when they came to the tomb and (more importantly) that they did not all leave the tomb together (Matthew mentions only one other woman with Mary Magdalene, who was Mary the mother of Jesus). Even though John only mentions Mary Magdalene, we know from John 20:2 that there were other women besides her who visited the tomb, since she uses the inclusive plural pronoun, “we do not know where they have laid him” (a dovetailing that forms an undesigned coincidence). According to Mark 16:1, “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices” and “went to the tomb.” And we know from Luke 24:10 that there were still other women, since Luke reports that there were “Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them.”

According to John, Mary Magdalene ran back immediately upon noticing the stone rolled away and surmising or seeing the tomb empty (there may have been one or two other women with her, we don’t know). Notice that Matthew does not say that the angel appeared to Mary Magdalene, but rather that he spoke to the women. Thus, it was the women other than Mary Magdalene who left the tomb together as described in Matthew and, while going to tell the disciples, saw Jesus on the way. Matthew says that plural women left the tomb and that “they” saw Jesus on the way but does not expressly say that Mary Magdalene was with them at that time. Again, he may just not have known that she’d left the group already, but he doesn’t explicitly say either way. John knew since he was one of the two disciples (along with Peter) to whom Mary Magdalene reported the empty tomb and missing body of Jesus.

We can pick up Mary Magdalene’s story as in John. She ran back to get Peter and John immediately upon seeing the stone rolled away. They came back to the tomb with or slightly ahead of her. By this time the rest of the women have already seen the angels and left. They may even be seeing Jesus on their own route back into the city while Peter, John, and Mary Magdalene are on their way back to the tomb. It must be borne in mind that the old city of Jerusalem was a maze. There is no reason at all to expect that these groups would have bumped into each other. Mary Magdalene (as explained in John) still thinks Jesus is dead at this point. She hangs around after Peter and John have looked at the tomb and left in puzzlement. She peers back into the tomb and the angels reveal themselves to her, but she doesn’t understand. She turns around, grieved, and sees Jesus and has the wonderful dialogue with him as told in John 20. She then goes back to tell the disciples more about all of this. All this time she isn’t with the other women. When the other women have seen Jesus, they run and tell at least some of the disciples, though they might have to wait for Peter and John to get back from their tomb visit. Of course, we also don’t know for sure that all of the disciples were staying together. The other women may actually have gone to see a different set of them in some different location.

Is there any support for such a harmonization in the text itself? Yes, there is. One would certainly gather from John that Mary Magdalene was alone in that scene by the tomb; it’s very individual and intimate and not at all like the joint meeting between Jesus and plural women in Matthew. And Mary does not appear to have left the tomb when she meets Jesus in John. In fact, she is hanging around near the tomb crying and hoping to find the body so that she can re-bury it. Whereas the women meet Jesus on their hurried way to tell the disciples in Matthew. Also, the women in Matthew appear to believe the angels, whereas in John Mary Magdalene still thinks the body has been moved. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, John 20:2 actually implies that Mary had left the group, since it says that “she [Mary] ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know (οὐκ οἴδαμεν) where they have laid him.” The use of the plural inclusive verb strongly implies that she had in fact left another group of woman, with whom she had discovered the empty tomb — the very thing that one would expect on the historicist hypothesis.

Thus, what appears on first blush to be a contradiction between John and Matthew turns out upon inspection to be readily harmonizable. It also, once again, by the principle of reconcilable variation, suggests strongly that these accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb are independent, thereby corroborating the veracity of the core narrative.

Did the Gospel of Matthew Invent Many Resurrections?

Zakariya quotes Matthew 27:51-53, which narrates the resurrection of various saints that accompanied the death of Jesus. Here is the text:

51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

Zakariya comments,

Now, none of the other Gospels mention this astonishing incident of the walking dead, only Matthew reports it…Notice that even though Mark’s account of the crucifixion is virtually identical to that of Matthew, Mark does not mention the rising of the dead saints. If such a miraculous event really happened, then there would be no rational reason for it to be omitted from the Gospel of Mark.

Zakariya further remarks that Paul and the other gospel authors likewise make no mention of this episode in their writings. Furthermore, he observes,

Matthew’s claim is also dubious from the perspective of the historians that lived around the first century. Historian Josephus (37 CE – 100 CE), a contemporary of Jesus from Jerusalem who wrote much about his city, fails to mention the most public of miracles.

Given that Jesus died in 30 or 33 CE and Josephus was born in 37 CE, I don’t know why Zakariya seems to think that Josephus was a contemporary of Jesus. But be that as it may, the argument from the silence of ancient authors for discounting singularly reported events — even very significant events — is a weak argument. To see why, we need only consider some similar examples from other ancient literature.

Josephus and Philo, for example, both pass over the expulsion of the Jews from Rome by Claudius in silence, although it is mentioned by the second century Roman historian Suetonius (Life of Claudius 25.4). We have only one passing mention of the event in a first century source (Acts 18:2). Yet all historians acknowledge that the event nevertheless took place. Another example is the destruction of Pompeii and Herculanaeum in the eruption of the volcano, Mount Vesuvius, in A.D. 79, which is written of in no surviving first century source — even though Pliny the Younger gives a detailed account of the eruption itself. We even only have one first century source (Josephus) who mentions the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 under Titus.

The weakness of the argument from silence is compounded further when we consider that the vast majority of the literature from first century Palestine has been lost. Thus, if someone else mentioned this episode in their writings, we have little reason to expect to still have his work. 


Once more, we have seen that the arguments leveled against the Biblical text by Abu Zakariya, upon close inspection, invariably fall apart. More than that, when these differences are viewed through the paradigm of reconcilable variations, they in fact evidence the independence of the respective accounts and thereby their veracity. In my next installment, I will consider whether, as Abu Zakariya contends, the Qur’an provides the correct insight into the crucifixion of Jesus.

2 thoughts on “Were the Stories About Jesus Passed on Reliably? A Response to Abu Zakariya (Part 4)”

  1. Pingback: Messianic Convergence in the Gospels: A New Way to Frame the Argument from Old Testament Fulfillment - Jonathan McLatchie | Writer, Speaker, Scholar

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