Often critics of the argument for the Historical resurrection will point out that the Gospel accounts, when it comes to their resurrection narratives, disagree and contradict with each other thereby weakening the case for their historical reliability. Now, I believe there are two good preliminary points to be made here. The first is that if a historical event did occur then we should expect that it quickly generated multiple ways of telling the story. This is almost an axiom for sociologists who recognize that if two different witnesses give their respective accounts then they are bound to hone in on one feature and forget others – and where two people give testimonies which are too polished and similar there is a natural suspicion that the witnesses are fabricating their testimonies, or else at least corroborating them. Take the example of the famous exchange between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper in 1946, on the 25th of October, where Wittgenstein and Popper disagreed about whether there were actually problems in philosophy or only apparent problems. All in attendance were philosophers, some equally well remembered, such as Bertrand Russell. Apparently the argument got heated and ended with Wittgenstein eventually waving a hot poker from the fireplace around wildly, and then dropping it, he stormed out of the room… or did he? As N.T. Wright has pointed out, none of the witnesses present could seem to agree; controversy over exactly what had happened began almost immediately and stories spread around the world like wildfire.
There was a delightful irony in the conflicting testimonies. They had arisen between people all professionally concerned with theories of epistemology (the grounds of knowledge), understanding and truth. Yet they concerned a sequence of events where those who disagreed were eyewitnesses on crucial questions of fact.
A very real but surprising historical event quickly generated various different, even contradictory ways of telling the story. Therefore, it seems as though this point against the New Testament accounts bequeaths those accounts credulity which they otherwise would not have had. In other words, the fact that they seems to differ is not evidence that what they recount didn’t occur, but rather it is fantastic evidence that something surprising did in fact occur.
As a second preliminary point, since this argument often comes from Muslims, it should be noted that if the Muslim is sincere about this objection then at least it must be admitted that Christians have not tampered with their scriptures. If Christians had decided to change parts of the scriptures, surely it would have been here, the very crux of the whole Christian theology, that they would have been most tempted to edit and harmonize, making apparent contradictions agree with each other.
However, I think the Christian who believes in inerrancy can and should defend the Scriptures here by demonstrating that the accounts are actually possible to harmonize. Although it is unlikely that the Gospels were edited to produce this effect, one can find a way to harmonize the apparently different accounts; there are no actual contradictions between the accounts, but only apparent disparities which can, with due effort, be accounted for.
for example, in John 19:25, Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the wife of Cleopas are reported as being at the foot of the cross. However, only Mary Magdalene is mentioned as going to the tomb early on the Sunday morning. However, John hardly expected his readers to assume that a young woman was wandering around alone in the dark city streets. And when she arrived back from the tomb, her words were, “they have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him” (John 20:2). Her plural indicates that she had companions there with her, but John has neglected to mention them. Luke also shows this practice, where in Luke 24:12 he names only Peter as going to the tomb, but in 24:24 refers to “some” who went there.
~ The Resurrection of Jesus: A harmony of the resurrection accounts
I highly recommend reading the entire article from which that passage comes. Also, if one wishes to hear that paper’s harmonization disputed, one can go to the archives of the “Unbelievable?” Podcast, where, on the episode of the 4th of June, 2011, entitled “Making the resurrection add up” one can listen to Jay Smith, a Bible Scholar, debate it out with sceptic Stephen Pilcher. Enjoy.