Do the Gospels contradict each other?

I’ve sometimes heard this asked by someone experiencing a crisis-of-faith. More often, it’s turned around into an emphatic statement by someone who’s antagonistic to the Christian faith. In both cases, the basic problem is the perception that the Gospels are the very words of God and therefore must be exactly and completely right. On the other end of the spectrum, some believers feel that pointing out possible errors in the text requires an immediate and very emotional response, usually one that turns the contradictions into “apparent contradictions“. Sometimes that’s an important distinction (as you’ll see below), but other times that’s just a way to deny the fact. To white-wash over something that might otherwise jeopardize one’s theology.

This coming Easter is a perfect opportunity to illustrate what I’m talking about.

There are five accounts of the Easter story in the Bible: one in each of the Gospels, and a very abbreviated version in Paul’s writings (particularly 1 Corinthians 11 and 15). All address the same event: the arrest, trial, execution, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. So they should say the same things, right?

The Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus celebrating the Passover with his disciples … the Last Supper in the upper room … on the Thursday evening. John says it happened on the Friday.

When the Romans crucified someone, they typically put up a sign declaring their crime. Depending on which Gospel account you read in the NIV, the sign over Jesus said either “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew), “The King of the Jews” (Mark), “This is the King of the Jews” (Luke), or “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John).

Matthew, Mark and Luke say it was Joseph of Arimathea who put the body of Jesus into a tomb, while only John says that Nicodemus, a prominent member of the ruling Jewish council, helped with this.

Where the story lines really diverge is in the descriptions of what happened on the morning that the tomb was found empty:

In Matthew, the stone is still in front of the tomb when the women arrive, but in the other three accounts the tomb already appears to be open.

In Matthew, one angel is sitting (on the stone), but in Luke two men are standing inside.

Mark mentions Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome entering the tomb, seeing a young man dressed in a white robe, then fleeing and not telling anyone, seemingly because they were frightened out of their skulls. Later, though, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene (the others aren’t mentioned), who then tells the disciples, but the disciples don’t believe her.

In Matthew, Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’ (no mention of Salome, or any other women for that matter) enter the tomb, but now the ‘young man’ is an angel. They weren’t paralyzed into silence by fright, but ran “afraid yet filled with joy” to tell the disciples. They encounter Jesus before they get there, but there’s no mention of any disciples coming to the tomb.

In Luke, ‘the women’ (later identified as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them) enter the tomb, but now they see two angels. What they’re told by the angels in this account is different than what they’re told in Matthew’s and Mark’s versions. They go back … full of confidence and beginning to put some of the details together with things Jesus had taught before he was betrayed (in other words, not frightened into silence) … to tell ‘the Eleven’, who don’t believe them. In this version, though, Peter later goes to the tomb to check things out. There’s also no mention of the women encountering Jesus.

In John, Mary Magdalene sees the stone rolled away (no mention of other women or of seeing any angels), so runs back to tell Peter and John (no mention of the other disciples). The three run back to the tomb, Peter and John leave, and then Mary sees two angels and encounters Jesus.

In Paul’s account (1 Corinthians 15), which is dated to before Mark’s account, Jesus appears to Peter (no mention of Mary) “and then to the twelve” (which contrasts with Matthew’s and Mark’s version of him appearing “to the eleven”).

Okay. So clearly there are differences here. And some can legitimately be labelled ‘apparent contradictions’. For example, all four Gospels name Mary Magdalene, three refer to another Mary, only Mark mentions Salome, and only Luke features Joanna. But none of these authors say that only the specific people mentioned were present (and all others excluded). When an American president visits some small town in the USA, one newspaper might only name the president as having visited, while a young on-air radio reporter might also mention the security personnel surrounding him, another reporter interviewing witnesses to the spectacle might quote the Mayor hosting the visit as mentioning that the President was accompanied by the Governor of the state, a woman in the crowd might recall that the First Lady was at the President’s side standing with the Governor’s wife, and a porter in the hotel where the President stayed might specifically recall an administrative aide standing close by who tipped him handsomely for taking their luggage. These people aren’t contradicting each other. Just telling the same story from different perspectives and emphasizing different things. And maybe getting a few minor details wrong in the process.

But other parts of the Crucifixion story are harder to reconcile, such as the actions and reactions of the various disciples, and the circumstances around the encounter with the risen Jesus. I wouldn’t label these ‘apparent contradictions’. These sound more like different recollections of an event that happened years before the writing of these accounts. If you’re seriously interested in piecing together how these diverse accounts actually harmonize, I recommend this link, which begins with the reasonable assumption that there were two groups of women leaving from different locations a mile apart … the three Mary’s and Salome leaving from John’s house (John 19:27), while others were leaving with Joanna, the wife of the manager of Herod’s household (Luke 8:3), from the Hasmonaean Palace … and meeting at the tomb. It then outlines how individuals and groups scattered in various directions telling people in a number of locations. It certainly puts to rest much of the conflict in these accounts. Bear in mind that the original readers at the time the Gospels were written could have easily pointed out that the stories didn’t add up, but none did. So what gives us the right to look back 2,000 years later and say “it couldn’t have happened that way”.

And that’s one reason (of many) why I’ve come to see the Bible as being just as much a human document as a divinely-inspired one. If the Bible were a transcript of God’s very own words … inerrant and infallible … there shouldn’t be any haziness around this story. Instead, these accounts all had human authors, and appear to have emerged in the way that many books normally emerge: through extensive information gathering, painstaking reflection, struggles with exactly how to word something, redaction and revision, et cetera.

Let’s talk about the second Gospel, since most agree that it was the earliest of the four gospel accounts.

The earliest church fathers agreed that the author was Mark, a travelling companion of Paul (Acts 12:25) and of Peter (I Peter 5:13), but not a disciple. Some contemporary scholars claim it was written by some other unnamed author (the earliest manuscripts don’t bear any author’s name), and that the church fathers later attributed it to Mark to give it greater authenticity: but if that were the case, why would they use the name of a relatively unknown ‘nobody’, rather than one of the disciples? It’s like finding an unnamed insider account of the discussions between Ulysses S. Grant and his generals during the peak of the American Civil War, and conspiring to attribute it to the guy who kept their horses.

Most also agree that Mark got much of his material from Peter, one of the disciples who walked and talked with Jesus. It’s so unlikely that they decided, decades after the events transpired, to sit down and quickly bang out this text in its entirety. Instead, Mark likely began collecting these stories soon after he began travelling with Peter: who’s to say that the collecting didn’t begin even just a couple years after the events?

So Mark begins writing down stories and key events on a scroll … not a loose-leaf binder in which one can shuffle around the pages, or an electronic file where one can insert new text into the middle of the growing text file. As time went on and the stories accumulated in the order that they were remembered, perhaps Mark drew little arrows or inserted comments to link up the stories in the proper order. Or if a newly remembered event was short enough, he might try to write it in the margins of the scroll or squeeze it in small lettering in between the previously written lines. Otherwise, he might add it to the bottom of the scroll or on another separate fragment of paper, along with some kind of notation to indicate where that story fit in the emerging time-line.

It’s entirely possible there were times in one of their visits to a church, as Peter was recounting one of the stories and referred to a specific person without saying their name (because he never knew, or had forgotten) … say ‘the blind beggar’, or ‘the woman at the well’, or ‘the guy who carried Jesus Christ’s cross’ … and someone in the audience would jump up and say “Yeah, that was my uncle. He told us about that!” And in the process Mark now had a name that he could attach to the character in the story, and perhaps some more details about the story like the place and time or other characters in the story. So Mark would continue to add little notes in the margins and extra scraps of paper in his ‘Stories of Jesus’ file.

In this way, the additions and insertions just kept accumulating.

Along the way, from time to time during their decades of travelling, someone might ask if they could make a copy of the manuscript so that their church or their town could also have a record of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ: if so, they almost certainly would have collated the bits and pieces of paper, scrolls and inserted notes into one single clean manuscript with the correct time-line. It’s also likely that Mark’s original scroll would eventually get quite tattered after years of travelling on foot and the constant unrolling and further editing, or that Mark got tired of trying to keep this sloppy mess of scroll and inserted parchments organized, so that he himself would decide that it’s time to re-write the whole thing onto a fresh clean scroll.

Mark and Peter would then move on, continuing to collect more stories and details as they travelled. And so you have more and more drafts and revisions. For all we know, the version of Mark that you now hold in your hand (dated to 3 or 4 decades after the events recorded in it) was actually version nineteen!? Remember, all scholars will agree that we don’t have the originals … we only have copies of copies of copies.

[One final word about Mark’s account: none of the earliest manuscripts of Mark contain the second half of chapter 16 … verses 9-20 … the part which describes many of the post-resurrection details. I won’t contest the idea that this second half was added much later by a different author, as many New Testament scholars say (the writing style is completely different). But clearly the original version of Mark didn’t end there. After writing a lengthy manuscript about a miracle-working Jesus who claimed to be the Son of God and the fulfillment of Jewish scriptures, would Mark have concluded it simply with an anticlimactic statement like: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. The end. Period. Full stop.“? I highly doubt it.]

Matthew, Luke and John would have been doing the same thing. Instead of sitting down several decades after the events transpired and quickly banging off their own manuscript, without consulting the others to make sure they got their stories straight, I think they would have been collecting stories and details from eye witnesses over the course of those decades, possibly even beginning within a few years of the Crucifixion itself. Remember, only the final versions of these books are dated to many decades after the recorded events (and that we only have copies of copies of copies). If you look at these texts as the emerging experience and understanding of the authors, with the normal human limitations, rather than a dictation from God which has to be perfect and exact in all details, these discrepancies not only lose their toxicity, but they even add to the credibility of the accounts.

The alternative is indeed that these authors sat down many decades later and wrote the manuscripts from start to finish, but then you have to contend with the foggy memories of extremely elderly men. Or you might insist that God was directly responsible for the wording … which is often implied when people emphasize divine inspiration… but then you have to explain why he told one author one thing but another author something different.

So do the Gospels contradict, even over something as fundamental as the Easter story? Absolutely.

Is that a problem? Not at all. If two historians disagreed about certain details of a key battle that Caesar was said to have had, would you feel compelled to conclude that the battle never happened, or that Caesar never existed?

Would we have been better off if we had the kind of evidence that meets modern standards, like video/audio recordings and official transcripts from government or scientific authorities? Unlikely. Just think of the controversies that still surround the Kennedy assassination or ‘9/11′.

Can we believe their story? What else explains why thousands of members of the early apostolic churches allowed themselves and their families to endure persecution to the point of being martyred by the Romans? Becoming human torches to light the Coliseum? Being completely ostracized by their Jewish relatives, neighbours and business partners (see an earlier blog about how unacceptable this whole story would be from a Jewish perspective)? There’s something very compelling about that kind of endorsement. None of that makes sense if anyone at that time could dispute any of the details in the stories … and, again, none ever did.

Or you can choose not to believe, but don’t rationalize that on the basis that “there are contradictions in the stories”.

 

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4 thoughts on “Do the Gospels contradict each other?

  1. I agree that contradictions between the books doesn’t discount the general narrative entirely and, despite being an atheist/agnostic, I have never really felt biblical errors were a threat to anything other than simple biblical inerrancy. One can have faith without having to worship a pack of ancient scriptures, and one can still find guidance in them without expecting them to be perfect.

    What I don’t understand, however, is your assertion that early Christians willing to be martyred for the cause is any sort of evidence that the story was true. Yes, many people probably could not dispute the stories, but that’s not surprising at all in that day. Most people were poorly traveled and illiterate. How would they be able to look into the authenticity of writings and (mostly) retellings? How would they know whether the story was accurate… particularly those Christians who were far removed from Judea? Most people who were impressed by Christianity in the day probably wouldn’t have had any way of verifying the story. Certainly, it was clearly compelling. But that’s hardly anything new. Millions of people have been willing to lay down their lives, safety, and families for the sake of their various religions or their charismatic leaders. We certainly don’t assume that this makes everything that these religions or charismatic leaders say true. Indeed, they are often viewed as dangerous and even evil… until they manage to gather enough followers to start a main-stream religion, that is.

    I don’t think that this discounts the biblical stories. I just think that it does not offer any sort of “endorsement” either. You said yourself, people are perfectly willing to persist in delusions even in this day of photographic evidence, research, media coverage, cell-phone videos, and free information. People are even willing to suffer or die for them (thinking of all the people who died of faith healing here). How could the early centuries C.E. be any better? Is it not more likely that they might have been worse?

    Just my thoughts. What do you think?

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  2. … many people probably could not dispute the stories, but that’s not surprising at all in that day. Most people were poorly traveled and illiterate.” Except that the entire Easter story took place in and around Jerusalem, and even the average nobody would regularly travel to Jerusalem, they had been doing so for centuries, and congregate in the very synagogues where key players in these events could be approached. They could have checked out Golgotha, and the tomb where local witnesses would say “yes, they did put him in there, but he isn’t there now“. They could have talked to vendors and buyers in the marketplace who watched the procession up the Via Dolorosa. To anybody in the city who witnessed the execution and all the aftermath.

    … Millions of people have been willing to lay down their lives, safety, and families for the sake of their various religions or their charismatic leaders.” To answer this, I’d like to quote from an excellent article by Glenn Andrew Peoples that is well worth reading yourself: “The point is that if Jesus did not rise from the dead and did not meet with his apostles after the resurrection, then the Apostles would be in a unique position to know that he did not. In other words, unlike sceptical enquirers today, the Apostles actually knew whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. It’s true that many people do die for beliefs that are, in fact, not true. It is not true, however, that a lot of people willingly die for a belief even though they are fully aware that the belief is a load of rubbish.“. Ten of the twelve apostles were martyred for this faith. So was Paul and a long list of other church fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. And not in one singular event in which the entire Christian community was herded into an enclosed area and slaughtered corporately, but at various times over many decades. They would regularly hear of yet another fellow believer arrested and martyred. And they knew it was only a matter of time before their number was called. Why live like that if you knew you were defending a lie? An elaborate hoax? Do you really think that?

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  3. To “Anonymous”: I’ve chosen to remove this link, as you haven’t invested any time to engage the discussion yourself with reasonable and thought out comments, nor are you willing to stand behind what is represented, not even in the form of a pseudonym. Merely posting a link under the moniker “Anonymous” doesn’t entitle you to use my blog as a platform. [I had originally typed “speaker’s podium”, but realized all you were using it for was as a pedestal for a link to a web-site]. If you want to post here, you have to write something well thought out and/or back it up with your name/identity.

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