One of the differences between a true story and a made-up story is that the made-up story is not consistent with anything that actually happened in the real world. In fact, that’s the essence of what it means to be a made up story. As a consequence of that difference, the made-up story has something else that the true story does not: spontaneous inventions.
For example, let’s consider the curious incident of the Messiah in the tomb.
According to Matthew 12, Jesus made a very specific prediction about how long he would be in the tomb.
But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. [Emph. added.]
Other gospels report similar statements about Jesus rising after 3 days, but Matthew is the only writer to specifically claim that Jesus predicted three days and nights of burial “in the heart of the earth.” That’s important, of course, because all four gospels agree that the Sabbath day was the only full day Jesus actually spent in the tomb. A small portion of the preceding Friday, and a brief part of the night of the following Sunday, and then poof, he’s “rising from the dead” early in the morning, roughly 36 hours after being buried, and not anywhere near 72 hours later.
So we’ve got our choice of discrepancies to deal with. Did Jesus lie about how many days and nights he was going to be buried? Did Matthew lie about what Jesus actually said? Did Jesus and/or Matthew intend to tell the truth, but somehow get it wrong, thus adding a false timeline to the “infallible” Scriptures? Let the spontaneous inventions begin!
The first, and perhaps easiest, invention is to simply assume that Jesus did not intend to be taken literally. He was just repeating “three days and three nights” for the sake of parallelism with the story of Jonah.
Of course, that one gets a little uncomfortable because it suggests that perhaps the story of Jonah was also not intended to be taken literally either. The hallmark of literal Bible interpretation is that words mean what they say except where the context clearly shows the usage to be metaphorical and/or symbolic. Here, on the other hand, Jesus is declaring the specifics of the sign that is to be given to an unbelieving generation, or in other words, a generation that’s not likely to go out of their way to seek a metaphorical interpretation just to try and make his words come true. Consequently, the non-literal interpretation is unlikely, and is very possibly the first step on a road that leads to liberalism. Heresy!
The next invention is to suggest that perhaps the Sabbath happened on a different day that week. In other words, maybe there was some kind of special “Sabbath” on Friday, allowing Jesus to be crucified and buried on Thursday, and then spend Friday, Saturday, and part of Sunday in the tomb. This invention is suggested in part by the fact that the word “Sabbath” can refer to annual holidays, above and beyond the regular weekly Sabbath on Saturday. Of course, then we have all the discrepancies related to Good Friday being such an early Christian holy day. One spontaneous invention leads to another.
Let’s just make up another invention then. Let’s assume that, for whatever reason, the early Christians simply forgot which day Jesus was crucified. Maybe the death, burial, and resurrection of the Savior just weren’t a big deal early on, and believers couldn’t be bothered to remember the details of the Gospel correctly. Maybe later generations spontaneously invented the details of the resurrection story, and started teaching things that weren’t really true. Hmm, of course, that’s leading us towards the idea that maybe all the details of the Gospel were invented by later generations, in the absence of any reliable historical data. Another road to apostasy! Better try again.
So then we get into inventing a rationalization based on the idea that part of a day equals a day. Thus, Day One is the couple hours or three between the time Jesus is supposed to have died on the cross until sunset (which marks the beginning of the next day on the Jewish calendar), then all night and all day Saturday as the Second Day, and then the first few hours of the morning on Sunday as the Third Day. But the problem here is that this invention only gets us two days and two nights: Friday night happened in the morning before Jesus was crucified according to the Jewish calendar, so that one doesn’t count, and the resurrection is supposed to have happened on Sunday as the day was only beginning to dawn, i.e. it was still night and not yet after sunrise, and thus no Third Day (as distinct from the Second Night). Even with counting partial days as full days, we still come up a day and a night short of what Matthew claims Jesus predicted.
So then we remember that Israel had been conquered by the Romans, who marked days from midnight to midnight, like we do. Let’s invent a count based on Roman time-frames! After all, there’s no end to the number of spontaneous inventions we can come up with, so anything goes.
This approach seems to score a little better, because now we’ve got Friday from about 3 pm to sunset as Day One (Friday), then from sunset to midnight (Night One, Friday), then from midnight to sunrise on Saturday (Night Two, Saturday), then sunrise to sunset (Day Two, Saturday), then from sunset to midnight (Night Three, Saturday), then from midnight until shortly before sunrise (Night Four, Sunday) — wait, shit, that’s two days and four nights, not three days and three nights! Not to mention, we’ve more or less admitted at this point that some Roman-minded citizen, rather than a Jew, was inventing Jesus’s prediction of three days and three nights, otherwise he would have counted the days and nights differently. We’re just digging ourselves in deeper! But have we run out of spontaneous inventions? Hah, we’re just getting started!
On the other hand, what’s the point? We can’t turn a made-up story into a true story by adding more made-up stories onto it. But neither can we stop adding made-up stories onto earlier stories. That’s why religious debates never end, especially between believers: each party is spontaneously inventing whatever they need to make their made-up story sound like it covers all the discrepancies. And there’s no end to the spontaneous inventions because made-up stories, by their very nature, are not consistent with the truth.
That’s what we should learn from Matthew. It’s a compelling story, in a way, but it’s the product of spontaneous invention, intentionally designed to make it sound plausible even though it’s made up. We can see the discrepancies, not just by their failure to be consistent with the facts, but by the endless spontaneous inventions they inspire.