So far in this series, I have been making a positive case for the historical trustworthiness of the gospels. However, before we continue, it is important to look at one major issue that always comes up in any conversation or debate regarding the historicity of Jesus’ comings and goings. That is the issue of contradictions. Skeptics allege that the four gospels are hopelessly contradictory. If the gospels really are contradictory in a plethora of places, then how can we consider them to be historically trustworthy? After all, true accounts, especially eyewitness accounts from people who were supposedly there, would be able to get their facts straight, right?
A contradiction is two statements which both cannot be true at the same time and in the same sense. For example, “Evan Minton is a man” and “Evan Minton is a woman” cannot both be true at the same time and in the same sense. They could both be true in different senses. Perhaps, by chance, there is a woman somewhere in the world who just happens to have my given and family name. Although rare, some women are named Evan, such as the actress Evan Rachel Wood. And I know of some Mintons to whom, as far as I’m aware, I have no family relation to. Two statements could also be true at different times such as “I am pregnant” and “I am not pregnant”. A woman could utter both of these and be correct in each case, so long as these statements are said at different times. But a contradiction is two statements said to be true at the same time and in the same sense, and there is no logically possible way for both to be true. Symbolically, a contradiction is asserting “Both A and Non-A”. If Matthew says A but Luke says Non-A, then either one or both have to be wrong.
In this installment of my gospel reliability series, I’m going to tackle the issue of contradictions. My hope is to show the reader that they do not pose a problem for the historical reliability of the gospels.
Contradictions Aren’t That Big Of A Deal Even If We Concede They’re There.
First, all of the alleged contradictions are in the peripheral details of the gospel narratives. The gospels never contradict themselves on the main part of the stories, not even prima facie.
All four gospels agree that Jesus was a wise teacher who claimed to be God This is a point of contention, I know. But see my Cerebral Faith Live episode “The High Christology Of Mark’s Gospel” in which I show that Mark, widely considered to be the earliest … Continue reading and performed miracles of the healing kind (he healed the blind, the deaf, the lame, raised the dead) and performed exorcisms. He preached the kingdom of God and claimed to be the promised Messiah. Jesus was crucified, and his tomb was discovered empty the following Sunday morning by at least one woman. Afterward, Jesus appeared to his apostles on numerous occasions.
This is the narrative of the four gospels in broad strokes. The gospels don’t even appear to contradict themselves on the major issues. It is only minor peripheral details where claims of contradictions arise. This is actually a hallmark of eyewitness testimony. As former homicide detective J. Warner Wallace said; “In all the cases I’ve ever worked, from simple theft and assault cases, to robberies and homicides, I’ve yet to have a case where the witnesses of the event agreed on every single detail. It’s never happened………… Skeptics often cite the variations between accounts as evidence of their unreliability. As a detective who has worked multiple eyewitness cases, I find their variations to be within an expected and acceptable range. And, like other cases involving more than one eyewitness, I find that some gospel accounts raise as many questions as they seem to answer. Interestingly, I also see the expected “unintentional eyewitness support” from one gospel account to another (I’ve written about this in my book); this support is precisely what I’ve seen in cold-case homicides that I’ve worked. Finally, let me say something about inerrancy and reliability. While I believe that the original gospel narratives are inerrant, I don’t need this standard to trust what the gospel accounts have to say about Jesus. Remember, reliable accounts are sometimes incorrect in some particular detail. This does not necessarily disqualify them, especially if the detail is not essential, can be understood on the basis of some additional testimony or evidence, and if the error on the part of the witness can be explained. Inerrancy is not required of witnesses in a court of law, reliability is. With a standard far lower than the gospels possess, the documents can still be considered reliable.” J. Warner Wallace, “Why We Should Expect Witnesses To Disagree”, June 22nd 2015, — https://coldcasechristianity.com/writings/why-we-should-expect-witnesses-to-disagree/
As you can see, even if I were to grant for the sake of the argument that the gospels contradicted each other, this wouldn’t be an issue. For one, as I already said, they’re all in the peripheral details. For another, these kinds of discrepancies are to be expected when you have multiple people telling the same story. Indeed, when witnesses usually agree on every detail with no variation, we suspect the witnesses of collusion. That is, they got together and checked with one another in order to make sure that their stories lined up perfectly. When you think about it, the fact that the gospels do at least appear to contradict themselves in certain places is evidences that they are, to some extent, independent attestation. Think about it; skeptics love to try to play up the synoptic problem. Godless Engineer recently did this in a debate with David Pallmann on the resurrection of Jesus on Trinity Radio Trinity Radio, David Pallmann VS. Godless Engineer, “Did Jesus Rise Bodily From The Dead?”. Godless Engineer (GE) really emphasized the fact that Matthew and Luke copied a lot of their material from Mark. This is true enough. I don’t think anybody disagrees that Matthew and Luke used a lot of Mark when recounting the same incidents in Jesus’ ministry. The only point of contention would be whether Matthew and Luke were drawing on Mark or whether Mark and Luke were drawing on Matthew. If you watch the debate, you’ll see that David Pallmann … Continue reading. However, the way GE talked about Matthew’s and Luke’s use of Mark, you would think that all they did was just take copies of the gospels of Mark and stamped their name on it, not adding anything new or adding their own additional source materials. The Synoptics are not totally independent, that’s true. However, neither are they totally dependent. They do employ Mark, but they also add their own material. If they were just pouring over Mark and just trying to copy his gospel in every detail, don’t you think we wouldn’t have any contradictions?
When Defending The Historical Truth Claims Of Christianity, It Is Not Necessary To Tackle Every Alleged Contradiction
Given all that I said above, contradictions, even if they exist in the gospels, don’t affect the case for reliability. But, for my Christian readers, should you be forced to respond to every alleged example of contradiction and bring your proposed harmonizations to the table? This used to be something I did when I defended say, the resurrection, on the supposition that the gospels are reliable. It was an extremely daunting task and often I spent so much time trying to harmonize discrepancies that I ended up getting nowhere with the skeptic I was trying to evangelize. This is but one reason why I was attracted to The Minimal Facts Approach, because this approach just got core facts such as Jesus’ death by crucifixion, his empty tomb, postmortem appearances, etc. by the use of the criteria of authenticity (discussed in an earlier installment in this series) and circumvented the issue of contradictions and gospel reliability. No longer was I forced to go down every rabbit trail, answering every little claim of contradiction. But what if you want to defend the resurrection of Jesus and do so via gospel reliability (a Maximalist case)? Are you stuck?
Well, I posted this concern on Facebook and Erik Manning gave some very useful advice in the comment section. He said;
“Good question. Sorry this isn’t a short answer but I’d point out that the positive evidence, such as undesigned coincidences, is way more numerous and carries greater evidential weight than the apparent contradictions. There’s an epistemic asymmetry between the positive and negative evidence. And the appearance of parallel arguments evaporates once expectations are properly calibrated. If we assume that a group of historical documents is strongly reliable, then we can actually expect to find small differences between the accounts, just like in other documents that are considered reliable. Therefore, the existence of these small differences can’t be used as strong evidence against the reliability of the documents. There’s plenty of examples of apparent discrepancies from secular history.
For example, according to Josephus, the embassy of the Jews to Emperor Claudius took place in seed time, while Philo places it in harvest time; but that there was such an embassy is uncontroversial. Numerous examples can be given.
I also don’t think the skeptic has to dictate when and where I address contradictions, I can just mention that “I’m making a positive case first, then we’ll talk about it” I’ve done this with doubters worried over contradictions, and often when these see the positive evidence their concerns tend to evaporate.
Second, the typical laundry list of contradiction examples that skeptics trot out looks impressive if you don’t scratch beneath the surface. But if you dig further, you find that they are really trying to sell people a bill of goods. Ehrman’s examples are often generated by incomplete quotes, tendentious and silly readings and translations, arguments from silence, overreadings, and a preference for complex over simple theories. It’s often that discrepencies fall into certain categories or patterns.
At most, the long scary lists of errors shrinks from fifty or sixty to perhaps five or six. Those cases merit (and have received) plenty of thoughtful scholarly attention. The presence of such a small number of errors would not, by themselves, impugn the core historical integrity of the narratives. This is true even if we were to call them all errors without further investigation.
At this point I like to point out maybe 2-3 that Ehrman or others have focused on and show how weak they really are.” Erik Manning, comment found on Evan Minton’s Facebook post. See here –> … Continue reading
So basically, the positive case for gospel reliability is great both in the quantity and quality of arguments, that the negative case from apparent contradictions shrinks to where it doesn’t affect the case. So, when you are defending the historicity of the resurrection, don’t think you need to respond to that Facebook comment where a counter-apologist has just copy/pasted a hundred different supposed contradictions, laid back, and called it a day.
Let’s Get To Harmonizing
Although it isn’t strictly necessary to deal with gospel differences in making our case, as already said, nevertheless, if one has the time to do so, it is not a bad idea to look at these differences and see whether they can really be harmonized. As already stated in the introduction to this series, I’m not going to get into the back-and-forth debate over whether we should harmonize or jump to the bizarre fictionalizing literary devices that New Testament scholars like Michael Licona endorse. That would bog down the flow of this series and probably overwhelm the reader. Rather, like I said, I’m going to assume the harmonization method by default and proceed accordingly.
Due to the fact that skeptics have a tendency not to be able to exegete their way out of a paper bag, a lot of so-called objections are just due to not following the rules of hermeneutics. As such the number of contradictions in The Bible as a whole could fill volumes. As Manning said in the ones above, some are just dumb and any responsible exegete could clear them away pretty easily if they took a course in hermeneutics. On the other hand, some are apparent contradictions but aren’t too difficult to harmonize, and some are really tough, with some being so incorrigible that even an inerrantist like myself am tempted to label these as true contradictions. For the sake of space, I will address contradictions according to two criteria, (1) the frequency with which skeptics bring them up, (2) The forcefulness of the discrepancy. Not every contradiction I bring up will meet both criteria. Some may be frequent, but be really weak (i.e common sense can harmonize them). Some might be forceful but won’t be brought up by your common YouTube atheist nearly as often. And some will be both. But, generally, I’ll try to stick to these so that the run time of this article isn’t longer than it absolutely has to be.
- Jairus and The Healing Of His Daughter
The two comparable passages are Mark 5:21-24 and Matthew 9:18-20. In Mark, Jairus comes to Jesus and says “My little daughter is dying” and asks Jesus to heal her. Jesus goes with him, but gets interrupted on the way by a woman with a bleeding issue. Jesus heals her and then carries on his way to Jairus’ house. Upon arriving, some people come out and tell Jairus “Your daughter is already dead. There’s no need to bother the master anymore.” However, in Matthew, things are slightly different. Jairus comes to Jesus and says “My daughter has just died.”
Well, which is it? When Jairus first approached Jesus, was his daughter in the process of dying or already dead? Now, Michael Licona has ridiculed harmonizers in the past on this very passage see, for example, Michael Licona, “Why Are There Differences In The Gospels?” a public talk at an apologetics conference in 2014. –> … Continue reading. He has said something to the effect of “Well, maybe Jesus’ healing didn’t stick. Maybe Jesus went and healed his daughter once, but it didn’t take so she died, prompting Jairus to come back and ask Jesus to heal her again, this time saying ‘My daughter has just died’ whereas the first time, Jairus said ‘My daughter is dying'”. This is indeed a pretty stupid way to try to harmonize the accounts. I mean, for one thing, as Dr. Licona points out, these can’t be two separate incidents because you have the woman with the bleeding issue in both. Dr. Licona jokingly says that maybe Jesus had a head cold that day and his healing powers weren’t as strong as they usually are this is 25 minutes to 28 minutes into the apologetics conference lecture linked to in the previous footnote.. I agree with Dr. Licona wholeheartedly that this is a bad way to try to harmonize the accounts. However, is our only recourse to say that Matthew or Mark purposefully edited the account for storytelling reasons? I don’t think so.
There is another way to harmonize them that I think is quite plausible. Perhaps what Jairus actually said was something like “My daughter is dying! In fact, she’s probably already dead!” For one thing, no New Testament scholar thinks that everything Jesus and other characters in the gospel narratives said were recorded with verbatim accuracy. There were no tape recorders back then. For Jairus to say “My daugher is dying! In fact, she’s probably already dead!” in real space and time, and for Mark to record the first sentence and for Matthew to record the second sentence doesn’t seem like a “desperate harmonization technique” to me. Additionally, when the life of children are in imminent peril, the parents of those children are often hysterical. Is it really that much of a stretch to think that Jairus, who obviously loves his daughter, wouldn’t say something like this? “She’s dying! She’s probably already dead! It may be too late! She’s dead! My God! *sobs*” Peter (who Mark got his information from) and Matthew simply record different parts of his emotionally charged request. What is so implausible about this idea? And if this is really what happened in the process of writing this event down, then there is no contradiction. Jairus said both “My daughter is dying” and “My daughter has died” back to back.
With a little “real world historical imagination” as philosopher Lydia McGrew would call it, we’re able to harmonize this text in a way that isn’t, as Dr. Licona often suggests, is “waterboarding the text until it says what we want it to say”.
- Matthew’s and Luke’s Genealogy
Matthew 1 and Luke 3 seem to present different ancestry lists for Jesus. Jesus has a different grandfather here in Luke 3:23 (Heli) than He does in Matthew 1:16 (Jacob). Is there a contradiction here?
Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe write “This should be expected, since they are two different lines of ancestors, one traced through His legal father, Joseph and the other through His actual mother, Mary. Matthew gives the official line, since he addresses Jesus’ genealogy to Jewish concerns for the Jewish Messiah’s credentials which required that Messiah come from the seed of Abraham and the line of David (cf. Matt. 1:1). Luke, with a broader Greek audience in view, addresses himself to their interest in Jesus as the Perfect Man (which was the quest of Greek thought). Thus, he traces Jesus back to the first man, Adam (Luke 3:38). That Matthew gives Jesus’ paternal genealogy and Luke his maternal genealogy is further supported by several facts. First of all, while both lines trace Christ to David, each is through a different son of David. Mathew traces Jesus through Joseph (his legal father) to David’s son, Solomon the king, by whom Christ rightfully inherited the throne of David (cf. 2 Sam. 7:12f.) Luke’s purpose, on the other hand, is to show Christ as an actual human. So he traces Christ to David’s son, Nathan, through his actual mother, Mary, through whom He can rightfully claim to be fully human, the redeemer of humanity. Further, Luke does not say that he is giving Jesus’ genealogy through Joseph. Rather, he knows that Jesus was “ as was supposed” (Luke 3:23) the son of Joseph, while he was actually the son of Mary. Also, that Luke would record Mary’s genealogy fits with his interest as a doctor, in mothers in births, and with his emphasis on women and his gospel, which has been called ‘“’the Gospel For Women'”. Norman Geisler, Thomas Howe, “The Big Book Of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers From Genesis To Revelation”, Baker Books, pages 385-386
That’s at least one plausible way to deal with this. Another solution is brought up by Ry Leasure in a Cross Examined blog post he wrote on exactly this subject. It’s that one is recording Jesus’ royal lineage and the other, the biological lineage. Leasure wrote; “According to this view, Matthew gives us several clues to suggest that he’s giving us a theological genealogy with an emphasis on King David, not a strict biological line.
For starters, Matthew begins the genealogy by stating, ‘The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham’ (Mt. 1:1). It’s well-known that Matthew writes to a primarily Jewish-Christian audience who would have understood the expectation that the Messiah would come through the line of David (2 Sam. 7:12-16; Isa. 9:6-7; 11:1-5; Jer. 23:5-6). Therefore, from the outset, he tips off his readers to where he’s going with this genealogy.
Second, the mention of ‘Christ’ alongside the name of Jesus in verse 1 also indicates Matthew’s intentions. … It’s the Greek title for the Messiah. So, when Matthew prefaces his genealogy by stating that it’s the genealogy of Jesus Christ, he’s giving further evidence to his readers that his intention is to demonstrate that Jesus comes in the kingly line of David.” Ry Leasure, “Do The Genealogies Of Jesus Contradict?” Cross Examined, September 26 2020, — https://crossexamined.org/do-the-genealogies-of-jesus-contradict/
I myself don’t take a hard stance on either of these two options. I find both perfectly plausible ways of harmonizing the genealogies that we find in Matthew and Luke.
- The Centurion Who Requested Healing For His Son-Like Servant
“When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. ‘Lord,” he said, ‘my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Shall I come and heal him?’ The centurion replied, ‘Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.’ When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, ‘Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ Then Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.’ And his servant was healed at that moment.” – Matthew 8:5-13
“When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, ‘This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.’ So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: ‘Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.’ When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.’ Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.” – Luke 7:1-10
In Matthew, we read that the centurion came to Jesus and asked Jesus himself if he would come and heal his servant. In Luke, we read that the centurion didn’t come in person but sent some Jewish elders who asked him. And these Jewish elders were sympathetic to this particular centurion because he built them a synagogue. The similarities between these two accounts is too uncanny to say that they were simply different events; maybe two different centurions who wanted servants healing. I think positing two different scenarios works with some alleged contradictions, but not here. In both cases, the centurion’s message to Jesus is not to come in person because they feel unworthy, and that if Jesus simply says the word, the servant will be healed. Both servants use an analogy to express their reasoning; they have people under their authority and whenever they simply give the word, their servants do as they are told. In both cases, Jesus is amazed and says that he hasn’t found this much faith anywhere in Israel. It seems highly unlikely that all of these similarities would repeat themselves in two different occasions. Therefore, I am of the opinion that we can’t resolve this apparent discrepancy by saying that these are two different incidents.
The most popular way to deal with this discrepancy is to say that it really was the Jewish elders who came to Jesus and made the request. Matthew says the centurion said it, but he doesn’t explicitly make it clear that the centurion came in person. In their book “The Big Book Of Bible Difficulties”, Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe explain that “In the 1st century, it was understood that when a representative was sent to speak for his master, it was as if the master was speaking for himself.” Norman Geisler, Thomas Howe, “The Big Book Of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers From Genesis To Revelation”, Baker Books, page 334. Geisler and Howe go on to give the analogy of the Secretary of State meeting individuals from other countries, and him speaking in the name of the president. What he says, the president says.
There is one problem with this solution though. Unlike in English, Greek has different words for the second person depending on whether you’re talking to one person or multiple persons. In English, we just have “you”. Although we do make it up for that in various ways such as saying “You guys”, “You people”, “Yoozes”, or as people like to say in my area of the United States, “Y’all”. In the Greek of the New Testament, when Jesus says “Go. Let it be done just as you believed it would.” the Greek word for the second person terms is singular. This indicates that he was only speaking to one man rather than a group. So doesn’t this suggest that Matthew really believed that Jesus was only having a conversation with one person, i.e the centurion?
Probably, though before I give up inerrancy (which, I must remind the reader, isn’t what this series is defending), I think one possible explanation is that the “Go” was intended for the Jewish elders, and the “Let it be done just as you believed it would” was intended for the centurion. Perhaps Jesus expected the Jewish elders to repeat these words to the centurion when they met up with him again. I will admit that I am not entirely satisfied with this explanation, but while I consider it somewhat unlikely, it isn’t impossible.
But let’s say there really is a true blue contradiction here. So what? Maybe Matthew just made a good-faith error. Or maybe Luke is the one who made the error. Maybe Matthew recalled from memory that a centurion came and asked Jesus. Maybe Luke’s source material somehow got this specific episode garbled. What follows? That you can’t trust any of the gospels on anything? No. Go back and read the subheaders above. The positive evidence for the reliability of the gospels dwarfs any evidential force against unreliability that this one mistake might have. Even people who are trustworthy, accurate, and get things right a lot of the time sometimes make good-faith errors. It doesn’t mean we throw them out and reject everything they say.
- Did Jesus Carry His Own Cross Or Not?
In Mark 15:21, Matthew 27:32, and in Luke 23:26, Jesus gets help from Simon of Cyrene to carry His own cross when He’s so weak, He stumbles and cannot carry it anymore. In John 19:17, Jesus seems to carry his own cross the entire way.
This one is actually pretty easy to answer. I think it’s clear that Matthew, Mark, and Luke record the instance of Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry His own cross, while John simply omits it. John just simply skips over the part about Simon helping Jesus. Why did John do that? I don’t know. Almost everyone agrees that John’s gospel was the last one to be written. It’s very likely that John knew that the other gospels already existed and that’s why he chose to omit not just the instance of Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross, but a lot more things that the synoptics choose to include. J. Warner Wallace, in his book “Cold Case Christianity” gives an example of this happening in one of his interviews with witnesses to a burglary. He says that they all gave their version of what happened to him, but then he realized that there was one more witness that he didn’t know about! She came up to him and simply chose to omit everything the other witnesses already said. She figured that since the other witnesses already told him these things, there was no need for her to rehash those details. She chose simply to add more information to the details the other witnesses already gave. J. Warner Wallace then argues that he thinks the apostle John was doing exactly the same thing. He chose to mention things the synoptic gospels did not. J. Warner Wallace, “Cold Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates The Claims Of The Gospels”, David C Cook, pages 77-78.
- When crucified, Jesus’ cross had an inscription — but there are several different things that the sign says. Just what exactly did this sign above Jesus’ head say? Which one is correct?
Mark 15:26 – The inscription: “The King of the Jews.”
Matthew 27:37 – The inscription: “This is Jesus the King of the Jews.”
Luke 23:38 – The inscription: “This is the King of the Jews.”
John 19:19 – The inscription: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”
There are actually two different ways that all of these different descriptions could be true. For one thing, we know that the sign above Jesus’ head had the description in multiple different languages. Perhaps the statement that Jesus is King of the Jews is worded differently in each of the different languages, and the gospel writers simply translate the wording of only one of those languages. Another explanation is that the description actually said “This is Jesus of Nazareth, The King Of The Jews”, but each of the descriptions in the gospels is an impartial description. I’ll illustrate what I mean below. The bold letters below are the words that the gospel author decided to include in his account.
Mark 15:26 – “This is Jesus of Nazareth, The King Of The Jews”,
Matthew 27:37 – “This is Jesus of Nazareth, The King Of The Jews”,
Luke 23:38 – “This is Jesus of Nazareth, The King Of The Jews”,
John 19:19 – “This is Jesus of Nazareth, The King Of The Jews”,
So what we probably have here are simply impartial reports rather than contradictory reports.
- Some gospels say Jesus was crucified with two thieves. Some say both thieves cursed Him, one repented and asked Jesus to remember him as He went into His kingdom.
Mark 15:27 – The two thieves are mentioned, but there is no conversation
Matthew 27:44 – The two thieves taunt Jesus
Luke 23:39-43 – One thief taunts Jesus and the other believes in Jesus. Jesus promises the 2nd thief that they would be in Paradise that day.
This one is one of the more difficult to resolve, in my opinion. But it might be that both thieves cursed Jesus at first, and then one of them, after seeing Jesus’ love and compassion on the people (e.g Jesus cry to God to “Forgive them for they know not what they do”), realized that Jesus was who He said He was. Maybe he thought “This must be the son of God! After all, who else but God’s son can be so loving and forgiving towards people who are doing something so cruel!?” Maybe he thought that only the son of God could have such a superhuman ability to have that level of compassion on his enemies. Afterward, he stopped cursing Jesus and asked Jesus to remember him when He went into His kingdom.
The reason why Mark doesn’t include any conversation at all is simply because he chose to omit it. This is another example of an impartial account rather than a contradictory account.
- The crucifixion of Jesus is the central event of the Passion narrative, but the narratives don’t agree on when the crucifixion occurred.
Mark 15:25 – Jesus was crucified on the “third hour.”
John 19:14-15 – Jesus was crucified on the “sixth hour.”
Matthew 27:45, Luke 23:44 – It’s not stated when the crucifixion starts, but the “sixth hour” occurs during the crucifixion.
Out of all the alleged contradictions, this one may be the trickiest one to find a plausible answer to. There are some answers that some Christian Apologists have given, and they do sound somewhat plausible.
I read an article about biblical inerrancy and the historical case for Jesus Christ’s resurrection on ReasonableFaith.org, William Lane Craig’s website. It was the in the Q and A section of his website and he was writing a response to someone. Philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig writes “All the sources agree that Jesus was crucified on Friday. What is in dispute is whether Passover was on Thursday or Friday. The Synoptics seem to suggest that Jesus’ Last Supper with the disciples on Thursday night was a Passover meal. John agrees that Jesus did share a Last Supper with his disciples on Thursday night in the upper room prior to his betrayal and arrest. But John says that the Jewish leaders wanted to eliminate Jesus before the Passover meal began Friday night. So was Passover on Thursday or Friday? That’s the whole dispute! (I hope this puts the issue in perspective for you.)”
Dr. William Lane Craig went on to say
“One possibility is that John has moved the Passover to Friday to make Jesus’ death coincide with the slaughter of the Passover lambs in the Temple. But maybe not: since there were competing calendars in use in first century Palestine, the sacrifices may have been made on more than one day. The Pharisees and people from Galilee reckoned days as beginning at sunrise and ending at the following sunrise. But Sadducees and people from Judea reckoned days as beginning at sunset and ending with the next sunset. In our modern age, we adopt what I think is the rather weird convention that the day begins in the middle of the night at midnight and goes until the next midnight. Well, this difference in reckoning days completely throws off the dating of certain events.”
Dr. William Lane Craig went on to say “Passover lambs were offered on the 14th of the month of Nisan. According to the Galilean reckoning, the 14th of Nisan begins about 6:00 a.m. on the day we call Thursday. But for the Judean, 14 Nisan doesn’t begin until 12 hours later, about 6:00 p.m. on our Thursday. So when the Galilean, following Jewish regulations, slays the Passover lamb on the afternoon of 14 Nisan, what day does he do it on? Thursday. But when the Judean offers his lamb in sacrifice on the afternoon of the 14th of Nisan, what day is that? Friday! When night falls, he then feasts on the lamb, by his reckoning, on 15 Nisan. Thus, in order to meet the demands of both Galilean-Pharisaical sensibilities and of Judean-Sadducean sensibilities, the Temple priesthood would have to have made Passover sacrifices on both Thursday and Friday. Jesus, as a Galilean and knowing of his impending arrest, chose to celebrate the Passover Thursday night, whereas the chief priests and scribes responsible for Jesus’ arrest went by the Judean calendar, as John says. Although we have no evidence that Passover sacrifices were made on both days, such a solution is very plausible. The population of Jerusalem swelled to around 125,000 people during the Passover festival. It would be logistically impossible for the Temple priesthood to sacrifice enough lambs for that many people between 3:00 o’clock and 6:00 o’clock on one afternoon. They must have sacrificed on more than one day, which makes it entirely possible for Jesus and his disciples to celebrate the Passover Thursday night prior to his arrest.” William Lane Craig, “Question Of The Week 15, Inerrancy And The Resurrection”, June 30th 2007, — … Continue reading
- Jesus’ last words before dying are important, but no one seems to have written them down.
Mark 15:34-37, Matthew 27:46-50 – Jesus says: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (but they use different Greek words for “God” — Matthew uses “Eli” and Mark uses “Eloi”)
Luke 23:46 – Jesus says: “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.”
John 19:30 – Jesus says: “It is finished.”
This complaint, to me, seems rather petty. Just like with the sign above Jesus’ head, why can’t all of the wordings be correct? Jesus said “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” AND THEN He said “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” AND THEN “It is finished.” After al, it’s not like it takes very long to utter any one of these statements. They only take a brief second to say. I don’t se any implausibility in saying that Jesus uttered ALL of these words one after another. Rather than having contradictory reports, it seems to me that what we have are merely impartial reports.
And as for the different words used for “God”, this is simply a paraphrase. The propositional content of the statement is the same. Moreover, most scholars don’t think the gospel writers quoted Jesus verbatim. They think the gospel authors were more concerned with having the propositional content of Jesus’ sayings correct rather than the wording. The “Ippsasima Vox” rather than the “Ippsasima Verba”.
- Who Visited Jesus’ Tomb?
Mark 16:1 – Three women visit Jesus’ tomb: Mary Magdalene, a second Mary, and Salome
Matthew 28:1 – Two women go over to Jesus’ tomb: Mary Magdalene and another Mary
Luke 24:10 – At least five women visit Jesus’ tomb: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and other women.
John 20:1 – One woman visits Jesus’ tomb: Mary Magdalene. She later fetches Peter and another disciple
I think what we have here is a group of women going to the tomb. 5 of them, including Mary Magdalene (who is always named), Joanna, Salome, and Jesus’ mother. John focuses on Mary likely for dramatic effect, but he knows of other women, as is evident in Mary’s words, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2; cf. John 20:13). John simply chooses to zero in on Mary and not mention the other women.
- What Time Was It When The Women Got To The Tomb?
Mark 16:2 – They arrive after sunrise
Matthew 28:1 – They arrive at about dawn
Luke 24:1 – It is early dawn when they arrive
John 20:1 – It is dark when they arrive
To me, this seems like the optimist and the pessimist arguing over whether the glass is half full. This was clearly very early in the morning. Like 5:00-6:00 am. At that time, it was probably mostly dark and the sun was just beginning to rise. It’s like the morning equivalent of twilight. Therefore, I think all of the descriptions are accurate. They just describe it differently, like the optimist and the pessimist describing the amount of water in the glass.
- Were There Guards Or Not?
Matthew 27:62-66 – A guard is stationed outside the tomb the day after Jesus burial
Mark, Luke, John – No guard is mentioned. In Mark and Luke, the women who approach the tomb do not appear to expect to see any guards
But just because the guards aren’t mentioned in Mark’s, Luke’s, or John’s account does not mean that there weren’t any. Again, I think we merely have impartial accounts here rather than contradictory accounts. Moreover, think about this; if Mary and the other women did not expect there to be guards, then who did they think was going to move that massive stone for them when they arrived at Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body? They weren’t strong enough to move that stone by themselves. It’s very likely that there were indeed guards at the tomb and that the women thought that they would help them move the stone so that they could go in and anoint the body.
- Did The Women Tell Anyone That Jesus Rose From The Dead or Not?
Mark 16:8 – The women keep quiet, despite being told to spread the word
Matthew 28:8 – The women go tell the disciples
Luke 24:9 – The women tell the eleven and to all the rest.
John 20:10-11 – Mary stays to cry while the two disciples just go home
Did the women tell anyone? Of course, they did! If they didn’t, how did Mark get the information to write this account down? When Mark says that they said nothing to anyone, he obviously means as they fled back to the disciples. Mark foreshadows the appearance of Jesus in Galilee, so I think it’s clear that Mark did not mean that the women stayed silent about it forever. This inconsistency is merely make-believe.
- Was Jesus’ First Postmortem Appearance In Jerusalem or Galilee
The skeptical YouTuber Holy Kool-Aid explains this appearant contradiction, thusly;
“In Matthew and Mark’s gospels, Jesus’ disciples are instructed by an Angel to meet him up north in Galilee and he first appears to them there where He blesses them and sends them out into the world, but in Luke and Acts, Jesus first appears to all of his disciples in Jerusalem and he explicitly tells them to stay in Jerusalem until after they receive the Holy Spirit, which happens after he ascends into heaven. He never meets them in Galilee.” Holy Kool-Aid, as quoted in Testify’s video “Deflating Over A Dozen Gospel Contradictions”, March 12th 2023, — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srOSFdjVvuA
I think that Erik Manning of Testify, who produced a half-hour video responding to about a dozen of these so-called contradictions that Holy-Kool-Aid produced, gives a really good response. Ergo, I’ll quote from the video transcript here. Manning said;
“This one is a little bit of a sticky one but it’s not too difficult if you look at it more closely. Let’s think about why the women were charged by the angel to have Jesus’s disciples meet him in Galilee. In Matthew 26:32 Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper that he would meet with them in Galilee after his resurrection. The reference to meeting in Galilee by the women who saw Jesus after his resurrection could have been like a password, for the male disciples were the only ones present at the Last Supper. Although some of the male disciples doubted the women’s account of seeing Jesus and the angels, the mention of meeting in Galilee should have provided a clue that their story was true. It’s possible that the message was intended for a larger group than just the male disciples – including the 70 disciples that Jesus had sent out earlier, And more than 500 people who saw Jesus at once according to the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:6. Therefore, the group of people who met Jesus in Galilee could have been much larger than just the eleven mentioned in Matthew 28:17 and those who doubted could have been people who had just not seen Jesus since his resurrection.
When Jesus was in more intimate settings, there is no theme of doubt. John’s account in the gospel confirms that Jesus met with his disciples in both Jerusalem and Galilee and Luke’s mention of staying in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit could be reconciled by assuming that the disciples traveled to Galilee and back during the 40 days Jesus spent with them after his resurrection, which Luke mentions in Acts 1:3.” Erik Manning, Testify, “Deflating Over A Dozen Gospel Contradictions”, March 12th 2023, — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srOSFdjVvuA
Summary and Conclusion
This only begins to scratch the surface of the contradictions that skeptics think they’ve found in the gospels. However, hopefully, you can see that most of these are only apparent contradictions, not real contradictions. Most of them can be harmonized easily, and others can be harmonized when a little bit more thought is given and more research is done. Moreover, as J. Warner Wallace pointed out, the number of apparent discrepancies in the accounts are in the peripheral details and are exactly the right amount of variation we expect to find in multiple eyewitness accounts. In a way, the fact that skeptics can even find what appear to be contradictions in the peripheral details is, ironically, evidence for the eyewitness nature of the gospel accounts. If they were all just riffing on Mark and each other completely, we would expect their testimonies to line up with 100% accuracy. Very neat and tidy. This would probably cause the skeptic to argue that the gospels are not eyewitness testimonies because “They obviously all got together and colluded.” Although the Synoptic Problem is real, and Matthew and Luke most certainly quote Mark in various places, it is not as though they just took a copy of the gospel of Mark, put their names on it, and called it a day. They are obviously bringing in sources besides Mark to supplement Mark, either their own memories (as in the cases of Matthew and John) or from an interviewed eyewitness or written source (i.e. Luke). There is not complete independence, nor complete dependence, but a blend of the two. Whether there is dependence or not will depend on the pericopes you’re examining. that’s scholar babble for “Bible passages”.
In the final analysis, the long lists of contradictions the skeptics love to trot out do not pose a threat to the case for the reliability of the gospels. These differences can be harmonized, but even if we didn’t harmonize anything at all, the wealth of positive evidence just drowns this negative evidence. After all, given all of the evidence we’ve surveyed in this series so far, which is more likely; that the gospel authors are fabricating the entire Jesus story whole cloth, or that they make a few good-faith errors while trying their best to present us with what actually happened? Even conceding the discrepancies to the skeptics, I would opt for the latter alternative. But, as we’ve seen, the claims of contradictions don’t hold up under scrutiny.
|↑1||This is a point of contention, I know. But see my Cerebral Faith Live episode “The High Christology Of Mark’s Gospel” in which I show that Mark, widely considered to be the earliest gospel, has just as high of a Christology as John. It’s just not as in-your-face as John save for Jesus’ response to Caiphas at his trial in Mark 14 which, contra Lydia McGrew, I think IS an explicit claim to deity. It’s just not explicit to us 21st-century Westerners because we don’t know The Old Testament backdrop of Jesus’ response and the Ugaritic literature. Some of these things Jesus says and does which display his divine self-understanding in Mark get repeated in parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke, meaning these gospels have a high Christology as well.|
|↑2||J. Warner Wallace, “Why We Should Expect Witnesses To Disagree”, June 22nd 2015, — https://coldcasechristianity.com/writings/why-we-should-expect-witnesses-to-disagree/|
|↑3||Trinity Radio, David Pallmann VS. Godless Engineer, “Did Jesus Rise Bodily From The Dead?”|
|↑4||The only point of contention would be whether Matthew and Luke were drawing on Mark or whether Mark and Luke were drawing on Matthew. If you watch the debate, you’ll see that David Pallmann holds to Matthean priority, not Markan priority. But the fact that two Synoptics use one other isn’t disputed at all|
|↑5||Erik Manning, comment found on Evan Minton’s Facebook post. See here –> https://www.facebook.com/evan.minton.9/posts/pfbid02yEbHBc78WHP9c4GpYoQNEDdHn7bwARjqTaNiNdsyumdUkweYT8AvcAtBT8uB9XS9l|
|↑6||see, for example, Michael Licona, “Why Are There Differences In The Gospels?” a public talk at an apologetics conference in 2014. –> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtemSTrkogE&t=2s|
|↑7||this is 25 minutes to 28 minutes into the apologetics conference lecture linked to in the previous footnote.|
|↑8||Norman Geisler, Thomas Howe, “The Big Book Of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers From Genesis To Revelation”, Baker Books, pages 385-386|
|↑9||Ry Leasure, “Do The Genealogies Of Jesus Contradict?” Cross Examined, September 26 2020, — https://crossexamined.org/do-the-genealogies-of-jesus-contradict/|
|↑10||Norman Geisler, Thomas Howe, “The Big Book Of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers From Genesis To Revelation”, Baker Books, page 334|
|↑11||J. Warner Wallace, “Cold Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates The Claims Of The Gospels”, David C Cook, pages 77-78|
|↑12||William Lane Craig, “Question Of The Week 15, Inerrancy And The Resurrection”, June 30th 2007, — https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/inerrancy-and-the-resurrection|
|↑13||Holy Kool-Aid, as quoted in Testify’s video “Deflating Over A Dozen Gospel Contradictions”, March 12th 2023, — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srOSFdjVvuA|
|↑14||Erik Manning, Testify, “Deflating Over A Dozen Gospel Contradictions”, March 12th 2023, — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srOSFdjVvuA|
|↑15||that’s scholar babble for “Bible passages”|