This is my second post in a series on the New Testament Gospels. My first post was on whether the Gospel writers were eyewitnesses. Now, I’ll turn my attention to the contradictions between the Gospels.
Regardless of what anyone says, the Gospels do contain prima facie contradictory statements. Many Christians will at this point turn their efforts to show that these contradictions are only apparent or theologically unimportant. This remains to be seen in many cases. I’ll provide you some interesting examples and a brief look at attempted resolutions. You can decide for yourself if you find the resolutions compelling.
Possibility and Probability
When I mention contradictions, the response I often hear is why it is possible for this contradiction to only be apparent. There is a serious problem with this, including from the theist’s perspective. If there is one thing on which most Christians and non-Christians can agree, it is that we should be after the truth. If something in the Gospels is not true, then the Christian should want to know about it, and vice versa.
So then why is possibility a problem? When we are looking at historical documents, we can at best determine what probably happened. We can determine what is most likely given the available evidence or we can conclude there is not enough evidence to say. Possibility is largely irrelevant. If a text lends itself to a straightforward interpretation, for example, if there is no hint of symbolism or exaggeration, then we would need some probable reason to invite hidden meaning. Likewise, if a text seems obviously meant as symbolic or figurative, then we would need some probable reason to conclude it was literal. Consider Jesus’ teaching the he was a light to the world. It is certainly possible he meant that he would turn into a physical lamp for all time, but we would find this interpretation silly. It seems quite clear he is using figurative language and we would need reason to deviate.
So, if someone wants to offer a harmonization for a contradiction, they should provide reasons it is probable, not just possible.
Contradictions among the Gospels
Below, I’ve briefly described four contradictions in the Gospel narratives and the resolutions suggested by apologists. I’m not going to provide lengthy opinions on why I don’t find these resolutions compelling, unless requested; in which case, I can provide further details in the comments.
The Genealogy of Jesus
The lineage of Jesus is discussed in Matthew 1:2-17 and Luke 3:23-38. The Matthean account provides the lineage from Abraham to Joseph in 39 generations. The Lukan account provides the lineage from Adam to Joseph in 74 generations. So, what are the contradictions? Well, there are two issues. First, in Luke’s account, there are 54 generations from Abraham to Joseph (several more than Matthew). Second, there are altogether different names given at certain points. For example, ask yourself a simple question. Who is Joseph’s (the husband of Mary) father? Is it Heli or is it Jacob?
The most popular resolution for this is to say that one account is the genealogy of Mary, rather than Joseph. The defender of this will often say that men can be subbed for women in genealogies.
Why is this important? The messiah was supposed to be a descendant of King David, so these authors wanted to show this connection in support of their claim. We should wonder, though, how reliable these genealogies are.
Jesus’ Teaching Method
We have another problem that can be elucidated by a simple question. Did Jesus teach the crowds in parables or in more direct sayings? According to several verses in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus only taught the crowds in parables; see Matthew 13:10-17, Matthew 13:34-35, Mark 4:10-13, and Luke 8:9-10. Then, contrast this with Jesus’ method of teaching in John. John’s gospel is filled with what are called the “I am” sayings. These are very direct messages, rather than the hidden spiritual meaning contained within parables. I will explore this more in my post on whether John is reliable based on its many differences.
I don’t know whether there is a clear favorite resolution for this, but I would imagine it would try to show that both could be the case. This argument would basically claim that Jesus gave some teachings in parables and some in direct sayings.
Why is this important? If Jesus really spoke to crowds only or predominantly through parables, then we have compelling reasons to question John. Many important theological positions are derived mainly from the clear “I am” sayings of John.
The time and date of crucifixion
Again, we begin with a question. When was Jesus crucified? According to Mark, chapters 14-15, Jesus was arrested after the Passover meal and crucified the following day. According to John, chapters 13-19, Jesus was arrested and crucified on the day of preparation for the Passover. The Last Supper in John’s narrative is actually not the Passover Seder, as it is in the Synoptic Gospels. These are different days. A good side-by-side comparison can be found here. The hours for when the crucifixion occurs are also different, but that seems to be of less importance.
Attempted resolutions for this conflict include saying the authors used different calendars or that Jesus and his disciples ate an early Passover meal.
Why is this important? This discrepancy may seem minor. However, it matters quite a bit theologically. Many scholars feel that John deliberately placed Jesus’ crucifixion on the day of preparation for Passover to show him as a symbol for the Passover lamb, which is traditionally slaughtered on that day.
Jesus’ demeanor near the end of his life
How did Jesus act during his last hours? Was he fearful and suffering? Was he calm and collected? Well, it depends on what you read. For example, see the suffering portrayal of Mark 14:33-36 and Mark 15:34, in which Jesus cries out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” These are his last words before he dies. This is also contained in Matthew 27:46. Now consider the intriguing narrative in Luke 23:26-46. Jesus does a number of interesting things here which do not betray suffering or agony. He calms mourners, saying, “Do not weep for me.” He shows mercy, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He calms one of those crucified with him, saying, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” And even at the end, he says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Those are his final words. In this portrayal, Jesus knows exactly what is happening, where he is going, and does not seem troubled or afraid. Finally, consider John’s portrayal. Jesus is more authoritative in speaking with Pilate in John 19:11. In this gospel, the final words of Jesus were “It is finished” in John 19:30.
A common resolution is to “mash” these differing accounts together to say they all happened. As Bart Ehrman says, you get the famous seven last words of the dying Jesus.
Why is this important? Understanding this seems very important if we want to understand how Jesus viewed himself and his role of being crucified. This is certainly an important theological question.
There are several inconsistencies among the gospels. I have outlined only a few here, but they are quite significant, in my opinion. I encourage you to read the accounts yourself and develop your own opinion on whether or not they can be resolved. I agree with Ehrman that, when we try to create a collage and say that all of these things happened simultaneously, then we rob each author of their individual perspective and theological goals. These differences make much more sense when we consider these authors were from different backgrounds and held different beliefs about the life and message of Jesus. Through their individual gospels, they each express their own views. Bear in mind, these were never written to be part of a canon; they were written to stand on their own.
What I did not cover.
I did not cover some major issues with John, the birth narratives, and the resurrection narratives. These will be given in more detail in their own posts as part of this series. There are some other important discussions that could branch off this topic which I also did not cover. These include textual variants in the actual manuscripts and contradictions between the Gospels and other books in the canon. Bart Ehrman is an excellent resource on both. Misquoting Jesus covers textual variants among manuscripts and Jesus Interrupted covers contradictions between various New Testament books, not restricted to the Gospels.
- Gospel Truth: Do we have eyewitness testimony?
- Recap of Bart Ehrman Lectures
- Gospel Truth: A Christmas Story(ies)