Part 2a

Part 2b

Objection #1

Objection #3

Objection #2: The Gospels Contain Contradictions

Bart Ehrman

RightObj17After explaining that there are some differences that are simply variations and some that seem to be at odds without being “flat-out contradictions”, Ehrman speaks of a third category of difference.

“There are other differences that, in the opinion of a large number of historical critics, simply cannot be reconciled without doing real violence to the text.” (Jesus Interrupted, p.22)

In Ehrman’s books, debates, and general teaching, he seems to be fond of asking a question about some detail or other in the Gospels, and answering his own question with the following phrase.

“It depends on which Gospel you read.” (Jesus Interrupted, p.41)

RightObj18For Ehrman, the fact that the Gospels contain genuine contradictions is plain for anyone to see. You just need to read the Gospels side by side and start to ask questions of the text. After a while, he is convinced that you will be reciting his mantra, saying that understanding what happened during the life of Jesus depends on which Gospel you read.

Alleged Contradictions in the Gospels

I appreciate that Ehrman makes distinctions between different levels of variation, because sometimes there are contradictions suggested that actually say nothing contradictory. RightObj19I once read an article discussing where Jesus was born, whether it was Nazareth or Bethlehem. Because Mark and John do not narrate the birth of Jesus, the evidence was being drawn from Matthew and Luke. What I kept thinking as the topic was being discussed is that both Matthew and Luke state explicitly that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-6; Luke 2:1-7), and never say that He was born in Nazareth. That being said, there are obviously more serious difficulties present, or I would not feel the need to discuss it. Before doing so, however, it is worth discussing what implications genuine contradictions would have, were there to actually be irreconcilable differences, as Ehrman believes.

What Would Contradictions Show?

As Ehrman himself describes, he had a crucial experience when he was at seminary and wrote a paper on Mark 2.

RightObj20“Jesus wants to show the Pharisees that ‘Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath’ and so reminds them of what the great King David had done when he and his men were hungry, how they went into the Temple ‘when Abiathar was the high priest’ and ate the show bread, which was only for the priests to eat.” (Misquoting Jesus, p.9)

On the same page, Ehrman goes on to point out that the problem is that 1 Samuel 21:1-6 describes Abiathar’s father as the high priest at the time when David did this. At the time, he tried to explain how the problem could be reconciled. However, his professor wrote at the end of his paper, “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.”

After taking time to consider the possibility, he describes that once he “made that admission, the floodgates opened.” I will have more to say about this particular example below, but for the time being, I want to bring attention to these “floodgates” and what one contradiction would open the door to.

Some might assume that if a particular writing has made a mistake in one detail, it would then become suspect in every detail. This is an attitude that would indeed open floodgates, as it did with Ehrman, because he found himself looking for mistakes and no longer attempting to harmonize apparently contradictory passages. This creates an atmosphere of suspicion, so that the Gospels are guilty until proven innocent. The historian in this situation acts like a defense lawyer that is more interested in having their client plead guilty than doing the extra work to try to prove innocence. Though this might be considered the easier approach, this is not how history is to be done, and this is most obvious when other ancient literature is considered. RightObj22After mentioning generally respected ancient historians, New Testament scholar Gary Habermas explains that there are “frequent inconsistencies and contradictions in these writings.” Is history then lost to us? Habermas provides the answer.

“…scholars can make allowance not only for the subjective factors involved in the recording and interpretation of events, but even for incorrect data. The reconstructing of ancient history relies on the ability of the scholar to determine the facts of the past in spite of these deterrents.” (The Historical Jesus, p.261-262)

RightObj23aIn other words, to consider a particular writing generally reliable does not require that every word be accurate, in terms of ancient historiography. Historians could expect to find contradictions in these other trusted historians, so it would not be a shock to think that there might be some in the Gospels, from a historical perspective. Claiming genuine contradictions does not mean that these events did not happen, so the skeptics have more work to do if they want to prove the Gospels to be generally unreliable. Thus, even if there was a proven contradiction in the Gospels, this need not open the floodgates. The jump from fundamental confidence to fundamental skepticism would be unwarranted on the basis of one inconsistency, or even a few more.

Even if Christians could not give a totally satisfactory explanation for all the difficulties in the Gospels, it would not justify claiming contradictions left and right. The texts should be innocent until proven guilty and not the other way around. RightObj24Skeptics often treat the Gospels as if they are a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: one wrong answer and you can end up losing a lot of money. In reality, if a contestant answered all the questions right and got the million dollar question wrong, we would still consider that person to be a generally reliable source of information. However, the nature of the game show states that a wrong answer after the $32,000 question returns the contestant to $32,000, regardless of whether they get the next question wrong or the final one. In the case of the Gospels, I suggest that the benefit of the doubt could certainly be extended to most, if not all, of the apparent contradictions. I also suggest that even if contradictions be admitted, that the Gospels would not be denied the respect they deserve as historical documents.

Furthermore, discrepancies could actually contribute positively to a case for general reliability of the Gospels. For one thing, the idea of differences is not a modern discovery, for early Christians knew about the difficulties. Apart from a few scattered individuals like scribes trying to harmonize Gospel accounts through editing manuscripts and Tatian writing his Diatessaron to harmonize the four Gospels into one, the Christians by and large left the four accounts as they were.

N.T. Wright

N.T. Wright

As N.T. Wright states, this points to the early nature of the accounts.

“The later we imagine them being written up, let alone edited, the more likely it would be that inconsistencies would be ironed out.” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p.612)

In addition, if you consider the evidence I presented in the previous article concerning undesigned coincidences together with the idea of discrepancies, it emphasizes that the same basic story emerged from largely independent sources. The discrepancies show that the authors did not simply copy each other, while the undesigned coincidences show that these accounts line up in a number of striking ways. RightObj26aRenowned legal expert Simon Greenleaf captures the significance of these peculiarities in his book on the reliability of the Gospels from a legal perspective.

“There is enough of discrepancy to show that there could have been no previous concert among them, and at the same time such substantial agreement as to show that they all were independent narrators of the same great transaction, as the events actually occurred.” (Simon Greenleaf, The Testimony of the Evangelists, p.34)

I happen to believe that the Gospels fit together very well, and that the discrepancies are only apparent and not genuine contradictions. I will move on to defending that now and will do so by way of some instructive examples. However, I think it is significant that even if someone does not agree with me on every point, there can still be a high degree of confidence placed in the reliability of the Gospels.

RightObj-figure 2-2

Dealing with Contradictions

In reading Ehrman’s description of how the floodgates opened for him through the passage in Mark 2, I find a bit of irony. In his paper, he said he “had to do some pretty fancy exegetical footwork to get around the problem” and that his argument “was a bit convoluted” (Misquoting Jesus, p.9). Well, whatever his paper may have been, the solution need not be complicated. RightObj27It is true that Abiathar was not the high priest when David ate the show bread, but if we look closer, the verse need not be saying that. Ehrman chooses to translate the verse “when Abiathar was the high priest”, but there are various translations (some older, some more modern) that render the verse “in the days of Abiathar” or “in the time of Abiathar”. So, instead of putting David’s action in the time of Abiathar’s high priestly service, it is simply placing it in the time of Abiathar, who is most known as the high priest he later became. In fact, it was not too much later that he became high priest, for the high priest at the time, Abiathar’s father Ahimelech, was killed by Saul shortly after David’s visit (1 Samuel 22). Reference is likely made to Abiathar rather than his father, because his father is a minor character, whereas Abiathar served through David’s entire reign following Ahimelech’s death. Now, if Ehrman asks why Abiathar is then called high priest, if he did not yet belong to the office, I could turn around and ask why he calls David “King” in reference to the same passage. David was not yet ruling Israel at this time, but was running from Saul. The answer is that Ehrman calls him “King David” because that is how we recognize him, so it is for the purpose of identification, even though it is anachronistic to speak of him as king at this point. Well, I do not see any reason why the same would not be done for Abiathar, who did become the high priest, so that is how we recognize him.

It can be easy to look at two descriptions, notice that they do not line up, and then immediately pronounce that there is a contradiction. From this, a person may decide that one description is wrong, or maybe even that both are wrong. However, with a little more investigation, it may be revealed that this is not the correct way to assess the facts. RightObj28A personal story from Dr. Kenneth Kantzer illustrates this perfectly.

“Some time ago the mother of a dear friend of ours was killed. We first learned of her death through a trusted mutual friend, who reported that our friend’s mother had been standing on a street corner waiting for a bus, had been hit by another bus passing by, was fatally injured, and died a few minutes later. Shortly thereafter, we learned from the grandson of the dead woman that she had been involved in a collision, was thrown from the car in which she was riding, and was killed instantly. The boy was quite certain of his facts, relayed them clearly, and stated that he had secured his information directly from his mother – the daughter of the woman who had been killed.” (Quoted in Lynn Gardner, Christianity Stands True, p.39)

At this point, it may seem like there is no possible way of reconciling these two accounts of what happened to this woman. One said that she was fatally injured by being hit by a bus while standing on the street and died a few minutes later. The other said she was killed instantly and that she had been through from a car she was riding in. However, when more facts are presented, it is revealed that both accounts are true, and they merely reported different aspects of the same general string of events.

“We learned that the grandmother had been waiting for a bus, was hit by another bus, and was critically injured. She had been picked up by a passing car to rush her to the hospital –but in the haste, the car in which she was being transported to the hospital collided with another car. She was thrown from the car and died instantly.” (Quoted in Lynn Gardner, Christianity Stands True, p.39)


John Ankerberg

Dillon Burroughs

Dillon Burroughs

Therefore, considering that such an apparent contradiction as this can turn out to correspond with the facts, it is helpful to have some guidelines for approaching Gospel discrepancies. John Ankerberg and Dillon Burroughs provide a good framework for dealing with contradictions, which is also easy to remember because of the alliteration. The 4 D’s are as follows: define the issue, determine the options, develop strengths and weaknesses, and decide on what is most likely (How Do We Know the Bible Is True?, p.60-61). In my discussion of undesigned coincidences in the previous article, I mentioned a couple proposed contradictions. I would now like to use one of them as an example for applying the 4 D’s to Gospel passages.

The example that I have heard Ehrman use many times would be identifying which women were at the tomb. After asking the question of which women were at Jesus’ tomb in the resurrection narratives, he predictably replies, “It depends which Gospel you read.” RightObj30Well, whatever our conclusion, we need to start by defining the issue. After all, to claim a contradiction, you must first clearly identify the problem. The problem is that the Gospels all give different lists of which women went to the tomb. Matthew mentions two women, both named Mary (Matthew 28:1), while Mark mentions three women, two named Mary, along with one named Salome (Mark 16:1). To complicate matters further, Luke also mentions two women named Mary, but adds Joanna and even “the other women” (Luke 24:10). To round things off, John mentions one Mary and no other women (John 20:1). In determining the options, we could say (1) that only one woman was at the tomb, (2) that there were only two women there, (3) that there were only three women there, or (4) that there were an unspecified amount of women at the tomb. In developing strengths and weaknesses, we see that options 1 to 3 would contradict the other Gospel accounts, and it must be said that the authors do not claim that only these individual women were present at the tomb. It may be that these are the only ones they mentioned for varying reasons. In the case of option 1 (based on John), one of the undesigned coincidences mentioned in the previous article is that Mary says “we” when addressing Jesus, implying that there were more people present. Option 2 (based on Matthew) also contains an undesigned coincidence as the women take hold of Jesus’ feet, which is another detail that I showed to be connected with John’s account, again implying that more than one woman was present. Option 3 (based on Mark) could explain the first two, for where three women are present, two and one are also present. RightObj31Option 4 (based on Luke) shows that Luke knows of more women than the ones he names. He mentions both women named Mary from the other Gospels, adds that Joanna was also among them, and neglects to mention Salome from Mark’s account. If this is the correct option, Luke is saying that at least five women were at the tomb: Mary, Mary, Joanna, plus at least two other women (to make it plural), one of which was likely Salome. This could explain the other three options, for where five women are present, three, two, and one are also present. Again, it may be that the authors are being selective in who they name. Finally, in deciding what is most likely, option 4 seems to explain the most. Luke very clearly chooses to name some and not others, so it is not a stretch to suggest that the other Gospel authors have done the same, while mentioning fewer women. This feature of the Gospels not telling us every person that was there is not only observable in the resurrection narratives, but in other parts of the Gospels as well. N.T. Wright gives special attention to Luke in this regard.

“Luke is quite capable of highlighting one person when he knows, and tells us later, that more than one was involved.” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p.613)

RightObj32This may seem imprecise to some, but imprecise is not the same as inaccurate. We might expect historians to tell us everything and everyone that was involved, but for the most part, this is not what historians do. The reasons for this selectivity would range from the author naming whom they consider to be more important to the author relying on a source that only lists certain individuals and not others. Specifically for the resurrection account, we must keep in mind that none of the Gospel writers were themselves present when the women discovered the empty tomb. So, relying on eyewitness testimony, reliable though it may be, they might have been limited in the information given to them. Even if we cannot establish the reasons for the omissions with certainty, we can acknowledge that such reasons likely exist, and that Luke’s account allows for there to have been as many women at the tomb as any of the other Gospels suggest.

Going through every other proposed objection is beyond the scope of this article. However, some representative examples will serve to illustrate at least some of the reasons why skeptics claim that there are many contradictions. I will not go through the 4 D’s in detail as with the example above, but will attempt to present the problem and solution more briefly. New Testament scholar Mark Roberts provides some helpful perspective regarding alleged contradictions and Craig Blomberg mentions the most common discrepancy.

“Given the variation we see in the Gospels, these stories and sayings weren’t delivered in exactly the same words every time. This would be especially true when the original Aramaic of Jesus was translated into Greek.” (Mark Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels?, p.79)

“By far the most common kind of difference between Gospel parallels involves simple variation in language.” (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, p.157)

RightObj34Think about this: why would Jesus only be allowed to say something one time in one place? After all, if it is good teaching in one village, it might still be good teaching in another village. If Jesus rebukes the Pharisees in Galilee, is He prevented from giving a similar rebuke in Judea? This is important to consider when dealing with discrepancies. Upon closer examination, some of the alleged contradictions might turn out to be similar stories or sayings at different points in the life of Jesus. That being said, there are times when we can be pretty sure that the event is the same, and yet, the Gospels present Jesus saying different words. One example of this could be when Jesus receives the little children. It is true that this could have happened in general more than once. However, both Matthew and Mark present the same context before and after this event (Matthew 19:1-30; Mark 10:1-31), so it is not controversial to say that this is the same event. Now, in Matthew 19:14, after Jesus welcomes the children, He adds, “for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven”, but in Mark 10:14, He says, “for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (ESV). This pattern is the same in other parts of Matthew, even within these same passages. RightObj34aSo, the question could be asked whether Jesus said “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God”. Well, in this case, it is a matter of one word, but the more skeptical would say that this is a significant change in theology. Whatever you think about the significance of the difference, it is still a difference. To address this issue, it could first be said, as Roberts did, that Jesus was speaking in Aramaic and the Gospel writers wrote in Greek. That means that even before the Bible was translated into English (which is helpful for the writing of this article), Jesus’ words were already a translation. The Gospel writers considered Jesus’ words and tried to communicate what He had said in Greek in the most understandable way. Perhaps Matthew, writing to Jewish readers, maintained the Aramaism in writing “kingdom of heaven”, while the other Gospels render it “kingdom of God” to make it more understandable. There are other examples where more words appear differently, but for all such passages, Blomberg gives further helpful perspective.

“Greek and Hebrew had no symbols for quotation marks, and a historian or biographer referring to what others said did not necessarily try to cite their exact wording. So long as what was written remained faithful to the meaning of the original utterance, authors were free to phrase their reports however they liked, and no-one would accuse them of misquoting their sources or producing unreliable narratives.” (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, p.157)

RightObj35Now, I have used quotation marks to let people know that this was a direct quote, but I could just as easily paraphrase what Blomberg was saying and still give him the credit for having said it. It is the same with ancient standards of historiography. Even though biographers could give exact wording, there was not an expectation that they had to. This seems to be the case with kingdom of God/kingdom of heaven, with the difference being a matter of translation, but we must remember that quotation marks in our Bible were not placed there by the Gospel authors. As long as the meaning stays constant, slight differences in wording do not constitute contradictions. We should not impose our modern preferences on these ancient texts that followed the literary conventions of their day.

RightObj-figure 2-3

Roberts also points out that “Many of the apparent contradictions turn out to depend on superficial or rigid readings of the text.” (Can We Trust the Gospels?, p.108). To give an example of a superficial reading, the accounts of Jesus feeding four thousand men and that of Him feeding five thousand men are thought to be doublets by some skeptics. A doublet would be a supposed repetition of the same event with contradictory details, so that it seems like they are two stories, when in reality, only one happened. It might initially sound plausible that there was a story of Jesus feeding some number of people, and that subsequent accounts had variations of 4,000 and 5,000. However, there are several reasons for accepting that these are distinct and accurate accounts, and not contradictory accounts of the same event. Since I have mentioned most of them in the previous article, I will quickly summarize a few of them here. RightObj36First, the feeding of the five thousand is narrated in all four Gospels, so it was a well-known event and would not easily be confused with a feeding of four thousand. Second, the location in a desolate place is confirmed by an undesigned coincidence and the close proximity to Bethsaida is confirmed through a different undesigned coincidence. Third, the timing during the Passover is confirmed by an undesigned coincidence. Fourth, the large gathering of people coincides with the timing in yet another undesigned coincidence. Fifth, the Gospels that mention both events present them in the same order, with the same surrounding context before and after. There are more reasons that could be mentioned, but more generally, the Gospels contain Jesus doing and saying things that sound the same on the surface. Looking more closely, though, distinctions do set each one apart, so it would be superficial to pronounce a contradiction in such cases. In my own study of the Gospel of Matthew, I have recorded 36 different occasions in this Gospel alone where Jesus does or says something that is the same or similar to another part of the same Gospel. In Luke I found 22, but there may be even more, as I have studied Matthew more than Luke. The point is that when we come across something that sounds similar within a Gospel or between different Gospels, we cannot immediately assume that it is the same story. We would need to consider the context for that. Remember that Jesus would likely have said the same thing in different places at different times.

Parallel passages in Matthew

Parallel passages in Matthew

Parallel passages in Luke

Parallel passages in Luke

As I have already said, sometimes we can be fairly certain that the same event is being portrayed, so further guidelines are in order. Roberts also gives an example of an overly rigid reading (Can We Trust the Gospels?, p.102). RightObj38Matthew and Luke both record the three temptations of Jesus by the devil, but they do so in a different order. These temptations are (1) turning stones to bread, (2) throwing Himself off the temple, and (3) worshipping the devil to receive all the kingdoms of the world. Matthew’s order is 1, 2, 3, while Luke has it go 1, 3, 2. Now, looking at this, it would strain credulity to say that these are two separate events, as we could do above, so it does appear that Matthew and Luke disagree about the order in which the temptations happened. Wait a minute, though. Must the events proceed in chronological order to be considered correct? Just because it is what we might expect of a modern biographer, we should not automatically impose that on all biographers. “In fact, historians and biographers in the Hellenistic world often preferred thematic to chronological orderings of events.” (p.103). Since Luke often pays greater attention to time and dates, perhaps he has presented the material in the order that it happened. I then find it very plausible that Matthew has placed the temptation concerning the kingdoms of the world last for thematic purposes. Matthew intended to show through his Gospel that Jesus was the King of the Jews, not of an earthly kingdom, but of the kingdom of heaven. Matthew is then attempting to present a climax by placing the temptation where Jesus denies the offer of earthly kingdoms last, even though it was likely second chronologically. This is not a contradiction, but merely a thematic presentation, emphasizing the bigger picture of Jesus’ mission.

Finally, I would add that even if the skeptic remains unconvinced by the current explanation for some difficulty, it does not negate the possibility that a satisfactory explanation exists. The renewed confidence in Luke 2 that I mentioned in the previous article is instructive. RightObj39I will not go through all the details again, but basically, Luke 2 was formerly thought to contradict history and the implied chronology of the birth narrative in Matthew. Luke seemed to place the birth of Jesus around 6AD, the date of Quirinius’ census, whereas Matthew’s account could not have Jesus’ birth any time later than 4BC, the time of King Herod’s death. This seemingly irreconcilable discrepancy has subsequently been vindicated by both archaeological and literary sources. So, though I have said above that the presence of a contradiction would not necessarily negate reliability, I would even recommend caution in giving up on a problematic text forever.

That being said, there are plenty of competent scholars who have looked at every suggested contradiction and have affirmed their confidence in the truth of the Bible.

Gleason Archer Jr.

Gleason Archer Jr.

Gleason Archer Jr. is a representative example.

“As I have dealt with one apparent discrepancy after another and have studied the alleged contradictions between the biblical record and the evidence of linguistics, archaeology, or science, my confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture has been repeatedly verified and strengthened by the discovery that almost every problem in Scripture that has ever been discovered by man, from ancient times until now, has been dealt with in a completely satisfactory manner by the biblical text itself—or else by objective archaeological information.” (Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p.12)

RightObj-figure 2-4


Craig Blomberg provides a measured assessment of the subject of discrepancies in the Gospels.

“Not every proposed harmonization is as credible as every other, but enough are sufficiently credible that it is best to give the text the benefit of the doubt where we are less sure rather than immediately speaking of proven contradictions.” (In J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.35)

'You're no longer entitled to benefit of the doubt.'

As I have said, skeptics do not have to believe that the Gospels are totally without contradictions in order to judge them to be generally reliable. Reconstructing history requires work and sometimes this work includes trying to find out what really happened using conflicting, but still fairly trustworthy, sources. The opening of Ehrman’s floodgates is thus unwarranted on the basis of a single contradiction. That being said, I believe that there are good explanations for the proposed contradictions within the Gospels. Some are easier to reconcile than others, but even in the harder cases, I agree with Blomberg that the Gospels should be given the benefit of the doubt. I do not intend this as a request that the skeptic take it on faith that a solution will be found, but as a challenge for the skeptic to go and find the history that so often lies beneath the surface.


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