Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an? If it had been from [any] other than Allah, they would have found within it much contradiction. [Qur’an, Chapter 4, verse 82]
One of the proofs for Muslims that the Qur’an is of divine origin is that it contains no contradictions. This is all the more remarkable when one considers the way in which the Qur’an was revealed. In spite of being revealed in gradual stages, a few verses at a time over a period of 23 years, there is not a single verse which contradicts another.
The purpose of this article is to apply the Qur’anic standards for divine legitimacy to the New Testament.
DOES THE NEW TESTAMENT CLAIM INERRANCY
Many Christians believe in the inerrancy of the New Testament, meaning it is perfect and free of any errors, because of the presence of passages like the following:
In 2 Timothy 3:16, we are told that all Scripture is inspired. The Greek word used for inspiration is ‘theopneustos’ which means “God-breathed,” implying that what was written had its origin in God Himself:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”
In 2 Peter 1:21 we read that the writers were “carried along” by God. Thus, God used each writer, including his own human personality, to accomplish a divinely authoritative work:
“For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Now, when inerrantists are confronted with an irreconcilable contradiction, a typical reaction is to shift their argument to one of “the New Testament contains no contradictions of consequence”, meaning that whilst they acknowledge the existence of contradictions, they don’t consider them to be an issue because they don’t relate to theological issues and therefore don’t impact the overall truth of what the New Testament is teaching.
This article will focus on one major contradiction in a critical area of Christian theology, the Resurrection. As Paul himself concedes:
“But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” [1 Corinthians 15:12-14]
The Resurrection is the bedrock of the Christian faith. If the writers of the Gospels can’t get these details right, then it casts doubt on their credibility as inspired writers, and therefore the reliability of the New Testament as a whole. The stakes are high indeed.
Before getting into details of the contradiction, first we need to define what is meant by a contradiction:
The Law of non-contradiction is one of the basic laws in classical logic. It states that something cannot be both true and not true at the same time when dealing with the same context. In the law of non-contradiction, where we have a set of statements about a subject, we cannot have any of the statements in that set negate the truth of any other statement in that same set.
For example, let’s take a look at a commonly alleged New Testament contradiction. We have a set of two statements about the death of Judas:
1. Judas hung himself: “So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself” [Matthew 27:5]
2. Judas fell down and his bowels spilled out: “With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out” [Acts 1:18]
Neither statement about Judas contradicts the other. That is, neither statement makes the other impossible because neither excludes the possibility of the other. The statements can be harmonised by stating: Judas hung himself and then his body fell down and his bowels spilled out. In order to make the set of statements contradictory, we would have something like: 1) Judas hung himself. 2) Judas did not hang himself. Since either statement excludes the possibility of the other, we would then have a contradiction since both could not be true. However, to say that Judas hung himself and Judas fell are not contradictory since both could occur.
THE MARY MAGDALENE PROBLEM
The various Gospel accounts of the resurrection are so different that it’s hard to know what to focus on, but the visit of Mary Magdalene to the tomb of Jesus is central. In particular, the account of Matthew chapter 28 cannot be harmonised with that of John chapter 20.
Here is Matthew’s account of the tomb visit:
“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. 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” [Matthew 28:1-2]
But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 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” [Matthew 28:5-7]
So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. [Matthew 28:8-9]
So, in Matthew’s account Mary Magdalene is presented as having seen an angel at the tomb and heard the angel announce the resurrection of Jesus. After which she actually encountered Jesus as she was running away from the tomb in order to inform the disciples about what had happened.
Now here is John’s account of the tomb visit:
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. 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” [John 20:1-2]
In John’s Gospel, however, Mary Magdalene is presented as having found the tomb empty, after which she ran to the disciples and told them that the body of Jesus had been stolen.
The problem is obvious: if Mary Magdalene met Jesus at the tomb, as Matthew says, then why does she report that the body had been stolen according to John?
Since it’s important to have a firm grasp of the chronological sequence of events as described in Matthew and John, I have summarised the key information in a diagram (please click on picture to enlarge):
The best refutation of this contradiction by Christians that I have seen is the following:
John’s Gospel describes two visits by Mary Magdalene to the tomb. It is this second visit that was described in Matthew 28:
“But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet” [John 20:11-12]
When we factor in a third Gospel account of the story, that of Mark, then Mark’s Gospel illuminates for us that there were at least three women that headed to the tomb on the first visit (Mary Magdalene, Salome and Mary the mother of James), and not only two as Matthew mentions:
When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him [Mark 16:1]
So, with the additional knowledge of the second visit to the tomb described in John and the extra detail about the third lady Salome being present among the women as described in Mark it might now be possible to piece the different Gospel accounts together to create a harmonious picture. This is the chronological sequence of events:
1. At least 3 women, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, prepare spices to go to the tomb to anoint the dead body of Jesus (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1).
2. An angel descends from heaven, rolls the stone away from the tomb entrance, and sits on it. (Matthew 28:2).
3. The women arrive at the tomb and find it empty. Mary Magdalene leaves the other women there and runs to tell the disciples that the body of Jesus is missing (John 20:1-2).
4. The other two women still at the tomb (Salome and Mary the mother of James) see two angels who tell them that Jesus is risen and instruct them to tell the disciples to go to Galilee (Matthew 28:5-7).
5. The women leave to bring the news to the disciples (Matthew 28:8).
6. The women, on their way to find the disciples, see Jesus (Matthew 28:9).
7. Mary Magdalene later returns to the tomb on a second visit. She sees the angels, and then she sees Jesus (John 20:11-12).
I have summarised the Christian explanation in the form of a diagram (please click on picture to enlarge):
WHY THIS EXPLANATION DOES NOT WORK
Credit must be given to Christians for managing to come up with a seemingly coherent sequence of all these contrasting Gospel accounts. The sequence portrayed above, while creative, is simply impossible when we analyse Matthew and John’s accounts in a bit more detail:
1). Firstly, while it is true there are two visits to the tomb by Mary Magdalene in John, Matthew’s account has to be talking about the first visit. 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 and the other Mary were arriving; so Matthew must be talking about John’s first visit, not John’s second visit.
2). Secondly, 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 therefore the first day of the week. So we know Matthew and John are referencing the same day. Moreover, Matthew mentions the time of the visit to the tomb (“towards the dawn of the first day”), as does John (“while it was still dark”). Thus it is reasonable to conclude that both Matthew and John’s timelines are in perfect synchronisation.
3). Thirdly, it’s certainly true that Mark’s account mentions a third woman, Salome. But Matthew does not, so it’s reasonable to assume that he intended for his readers to interpret “they” as referring to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, who are the only women he mentions (I have emphasised in uppercase letters certain words to call attention to them):
1 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.”
This establishes that Matthew intended for his readers to understand that Mary Magdalene didn’t just hear the angel announce that Jesus had been raised from the dead but that she also saw him and touched him after she had run from the tomb.
So, the contradiction still stands in spite of the attempted Christian refutation: if, according to Matthew, Mary Magdalene had seen Jesus and touched him after leaving the tomb, then why, according to John, did she go tell the disciples that the body of Jesus had been stolen.
As has been demonstrated, the New Testament contains an irreconcilable contradiction in a major area of Christian theology, the Resurrection. Therefore it can be concluded that unlike the Qur’an, the New Testament is not 100% the word of God, nor is it 100% inspired by God, because God is perfect and does not inspire mistakes.
A wider issue emerges when we consider that the Resurrection is the bedrock of the Christian faith. If the writers of the Gospels can’t even get the details of this significant event right, then it casts doubt on their credibility as inspired writers, and therefore the reliability of the New Testament as a whole. Why should anything that they recorded about Jesus be accepted as a reliable account? Mankind should rely on the Qur’an as an accurate and reliable source of information about the life and teachings of Jesus, peace be upon him, because the Qur’an is free of contradictions.
Recommended resources for contradictions in the New Testament