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Mere Contradictions

posted Jun 16, 2015, 6:28 PM by Jack Bandy   [ updated Jun 18, 2015, 3:53 PM ]

One of my personal summer projects is/was to work through the above infographic (which you can find in full here) that I saw on reddit over easter weekend. It’s snazzy. Oftentimes, it’s assumed that we Christians either (a) don’t see things like this or (b) deny them when they come into our line of site (i.e. "ACTIVATE COGNITIVE DISSONANCE MODE"). I will demonstrate this is not the case.

I want to challenge Matt Barsotti’s claim that the gospels “are not telling the same story.” Really, that claim is non-sequitur. Even if you use all the information in the infographic, you can’t reasonably arrive at that conclusion. One of the options listed at the end lets one “Use historical methods to look for the common core between the gospels where they overlap. Assert that the big claim of the resurrection is true.” That is, in essence, the position I want to defend: the gospel's salient points coincide.

My notes look a lot at the first section, “Mere Contradictions,” but also explore the points made throughout the other sections. Unlike the infographic, I will cite my sources for the claims, so you can go check them out yourself.

Contradiction: a combination of statements, ideas, or features of a situation that are opposed to one another.

Fate of Judas?

There are four red x’s to indicate one central contradiction: how did Judas die?

  • Acts 1:18 “Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out”

    • This paragraph is parenthetical

  • Matthew 27:5 “And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself”

Paul refers to Luke, the author of Acts, as “Luke the beloved physician” in Colossians 4:14. It is not surprising that Luke gives such an explanation of Judas’ death in Acts, while the account in Matthew only gives the original cause. As an analogy, consider a pedestrian hit by a car. An observer, if asked, would recount the pedestrian died “because he was hit by a car.” If the body was taken to a doctor, the doctor would say, for example, the pedestrian died “due to heavy impact on the skull.”

Note the shared details: the thirty pounds of silver that Judas was rewarded for betraying Jesus in order to by the field that was renamed to “The Field of Blood.” Matthew and Acts speak differently as to who directly used this money to buy the field. If it is a contradiction, it is an insignificant one. However, one can imagine several scenarios with which both the Matthew and Acts accounts align.

At the feet of the Cross?

Each gospel mentions women in observance of the crucifixion, and three of the four explicitly name two of those women (both named Mary, if you get confused you can go here). Given the shared details and the personal context of John’s gospel, this doesn’t qualify as a contradiction.

  • Matthew 27:55: “There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph"

  • John 19:25: “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene”

    • John’s words, “by the cross,” differ from the poster’s, “at the foot of the cross.”

    • John’s gospel states that Jesus saw (his mother) Mary from the cross and put her into the care of one of his disciples, an example of his (then) radical treatment of women. This dialogue is not recorded in the other gospel accounts, but again, it is not contradicted. Have you ever exchanged dialogue with someone? Good. What about from far away? John’s gospel even includes exclamation points when Jesus has this dialogue.

  • Mark 15:40: “There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses”

  • Luke 23:49: “And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things”

Famous Last Words

What explicit claims do the gospels make about Jesus’ last words? In fact, the gospels coincide with great precision at this point in the narrative if you read complete verses. For example, each gospel mentions the sour wine Jesus drank. Mark is the only gospel that omits Jesus surrendering his spirit (it is safe to assume this surrender constituted Jesus' last words), but Mark's description that Jesus “uttered a loud cry” is certainly compatible with this. This detail from Mark is not, however, opposed to the claims of the other gospels. Matt is really stretching the text to call anything here a “contradiction.”

  • Matthew 27:50 “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit

    • (Quote on the infographic is from Matthew 27:46)

  • Mark 15:37 “And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last”

    • (Quote on the infographic is from Mark 15:34)

  • Luke 23:46 “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last”

    • (Quote on the infographic is from the same verse)

  • John 19:30 “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit

    • (Quote on the infographic is from the same verse)

Stay or Leave?

Contradictions about the resurrection are the most important among those Matt points out in the infographic. For me and many others, everything about the Christian faith rests on Jesus’ resurrection. It would be a powerful critique if the gospels flatly contradict each other in the details of Jesus’ travels post-resurrection. Many unique details exist in harmony, not including this one regarding Jesus’ instructions to the disciples.

  • Matthew 28:10 “Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me”

    • Matthew 28:16 “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them”

  • Mark 16:7 “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you”

  • Luke 24:50 “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven”

I will examine more details about this (maybe) contradiction in the next few sections.

Greeters at the Tomb?

Technically, this contradiction can be solved rather easily: if there were two or three, there was at least one. I acknowledge this 'solution' is not very satisfying, ("How many angels were there, one or two?" "Yes!") but I don't think it is a detail that calls into question the existence, life, teachings, death, or resurrection of Jesus. And, once again, note the shared detail: angels greeting the women at Jesus’ tomb in the morning.

  • Mark 16:5 “And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed”

  • Matthew 28:2An angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it”

    • Matthew 28:8 “So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings’”

  • Luke 24:4two men stood by them in dazzling apparel”

  • John 20:12 “And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain”

Finding the Tomb - Who? When? Where?

The infographic does a pretty good job of outlining the discrepancies, but in doing so, it also shows how the different accounts intertwine and form a more plausible scenario. Four perfectly harmonious accounts which included and excluded the same details would make a historian more suspicious than four accounts which include and exclude different details. Imagine if we doubted everything that Fox and CBS reported simply because they shared different details. Here is a general outline of Jesus’ appearances after the resurrection. You will see that no claim flatly contradicts any other claim.

  • Easter Sunday (in the Jerusalem Area)

    • John 20:11 and Mark 16:9 Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene outside the tomb

    • Matthew 28:8 Jesus appears to two Marys as they hurry from the tomb

    • Luke 24:34 and 1 Corinthians 15:5 Jesus appears to Peter

    • Mark 16:12 and Luke 24:13 Jesus appears to two disciples on the Emmaus road

    • Luke 24:36 and John 20:19 Jesus appears to the apostles (minus Thomas) in a house in Jerusalem

  • Later on that week

    • John 20:26 and Mark 16:14 Jesus appears to the apostles (including Thomas) in a house

  • Later on (in Galilee)

    • John 21:1 and Matthew 28:16 Jesus appears to the apostles

    • 1 Corinthians 15:6 Jesus appears to more than 500 followers and to James

    • Matthew 28:16 Jesus gives the great commission

True Colors?

Optical illusion dress

This is certainly not the first time in history that two people have looked at an article of clothing and described it as two different colors. Also, the color difference is negligible, not conflicting. I’ll point out yet another shared detail: the Romans clothed Jesus in a unique way before his crucifixion.

  • Mark 15:20 “And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.”

  • Matthew 27:28 “They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on Him”

  • John 19:2 “And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on His head, and put a purple robe on Him.”
    • The infographic doesn’t mention John’s description.

Lamb to Slaughter?

John’s gospel is notoriously philosophical. He opens with the claim that God is the logos – the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. He states towards the end of his gospel, “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” The purpose is to help you believe, and he takes a unique approach, in light of which, it is not surprising that John’s gospel includes a philosophical discourse during Jesus’ appearance before Pilate.

  • Isaiah 53:7 “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.”

  • Matthew 26:23 “But Jesus remained silent”

  • John 19:9 “But Jesus gave him no answer"

    • John 18:20 “Jesus answered him…”

    • John 18:34 “Jesus answered him…”

Gospel Truths

  • Anonymity This is a very weak criticism about the historicity of the gospels. Much can be gathered from any document without knowing the original author. While the authors weren’t attempting to hide their identity, it was not the focus of their work. Furthermore, the gospels were exchanged in-person. Imagine, if you will, a time where the post office didn’t exist, and you personally delivered mail, would you sign your name on everything? Lastly, most scholars are interested in attributes of the authors, rather than their identity. For example, we are more interested that the author of Luke interviewed eyewitnesses (which he did) than we are about knowing the author's full name and birthday.

  • Undated Again it is important to consider what the original authors aimed to communicate. The date of their authorship was not of the utmost importance. Nonetheless, dates for all the gospels are provided later in the infographic. New Testament scholars (read “critics”) agree that the gospels were written within the lifetime of the original eyewitnesses, so it would be difficult to completely fabricate a story like this. (Imagine your parents publishing stories about an alien invasion from their High School years).

  • Greek Greek was the language of business/education at the time. The Gospel of Luke even opens with a particularly scholarly dialect in verses 1-4, before continuing in a more common language. Greek would also be the most easily translated language out of the three languages with which Jesus was acquainted (add Aramaic and Hebrew). Jews would have been particularly familiar with the language.

    • Why would the disciples not write in their own language? Now that the reason for using Greek is clear, one can assume the disciples would take the means to do so, whether that involved a translator or a scribe or what have you.

  • Not in first-person If the historicity of the gospels is to be challenged, this point only shoots itself in the foot. A formal recount of a historical event would have been told as a narrative, not an autobiography.

Local Legends and Glaring Omissions

  • Matthew

    • “Hand-Washing Pilate” I find the following claim outlandish: “these points of trial melodrama would have been known to all the writers, if they actually happened.” Nonetheless, there is quite a good reason only Matthew mentions this. Aimed towards an audience of Jews, this gospel packs in a number of old testament references, this being one of them. The fact that Matthew includes details in order to appeal to a Jewish audience does not invalidate those details. Even if it is embellishment, the core Jesus narrative is unaffected by this detail.

      • Deuteronomy 21:6-8 “And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, and they shall testify, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed’”

      • Matthew 27:24 “So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves’"

    • Tomb Seal” In fact, each gospel explicitly mentions the stone in front of the tomb. It’s kind of like saying “no other gospel said the door was locked.” Well, every gospel made it clear that a key was required to open the door.

      • John 20:1 “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb”

      • Matthew 28:2 “an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it”

      • Mark 16:3 “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?"

      • Luke 24:2 “they found the stone rolled away from the tomb”

    • “Guards” The soldiers are less important, at least in my eyes. The fact that Matthew is the only one to include them may very well be due to him answering the skeptics.

  • Luke

    • “Trial Punt to Herod” I don’t have an answer for this one. It does not really make sense to me that the other gospels wouldn’t include this.

    • “Ascension of Jesus” There are direct references to Jesus’ ascent in three of the four gospels, so I wouldn’t qualify this as a “glaring” omission. But the symmetry in the table was worth preserving, I suppose.

      • Luke 24:51 “he parted from them and was carried up into heaven”
      • Mark 16:19 “after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven”
      • John 6:62 “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before”
        • John 20:17 "Jesus said, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father"
  • John

    • “Spear to the Side” I really wish other gospels had mentioned this. Again, I don’t really have an answer for this one, but I’m pretty comfortable crediting it to the skeptical audience to which John was writing.

    • “Magical Powers” Addressed in “Quizzical conundrums”

Whoppers that fail the fact check

From what I know, the historical record is not as great as Matt purports it to be. A few of these really are whoppers, but overall I don’t think he’s relying too much on there being “no evidence.” Would historians really want to record an earthquake? Even more trivial, if a storm came and made the sky dark for a few hours, who would write about it? Josephus was one of the only historians we have from the area around the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. He wrote about Jesus, but not weather patterns. So I’m counting out the first three.

  • “Massive Quake at Crucifixion”

  • “3 Hours of Darkness Mid-day”

  • “2nd Quake on Easter Morning”

  • “Temple Veil Torn in Half” Again, Matthew was writing to the Jews and packing in Old Testament references. The temple veil is a huge icon. We’re talking Charles Dickens-style symbolism here. There’s a whole lot I could write about it, but I’ll just mention that it marks the end of the old covenant, Jesus’ sacrifice tears down the barriers to heaven, and now all may enter.

  • “Many Dead Walk the Streets” I don’t have a great answer for this one. Hopefully it’s not talking about physical bodies. Jesus raised Lazarus, but, zombies in the bible? This might be worthy of the “whopper” title.

Other Quizzical Conundrums

Emphasis on “quizzical.”

  • Why did the women go to the tomb?

    • Mark 16:1 and Luke 23:56 and John 19:39 To anoint Jesus with spices.

    • Luke 16:3 “And they were saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?’”

  • Why was the tomb found open?

    • The empty tomb is probably the strongest piece of hard evidence anyone has or had pointing to Jesus’ resurrection. How would anyone know it was empty if it was sealed? Again, he has kind of shot himself in the foot, already pointing out that “all the resurrection accounts depict the stone being rolled back.”
      • Counterargument "If Jesus is truly resurrected, then having Him appear to Roman authorities, lead said authorities to the still-sealed tomb, and having it opened to show that he truly was resurrected would've been MUCH better. An open tomb only raises questions about body-snatchers and all that jazz."
        • The proposed scenario seems like a better performance, but is it reasonable to be unimpressed by a man coming back to life just because he didn't also walk through a rock? Furthermore, for multiple reasons made clear in the gospels it is unreasonable that the Roman authorities would ever have consented to rolling back the stone.
        • The body-snatching theory is a giant box of worms, you can take a peak inside if you'd like: William Lane Craig mentions some key aspects of it in a fairly accessible essay here.
    • It's also come to my attention that Matthew actually depicts tomb as still sealed when the women visit.
      • Matthew 28:2 "an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it"
  • Was Pilate actually reluctant to convict?
    • The gospels included this detail exactly because it was so unlikely. We remember and record things that are worth remembering and recording, if Pilate broke character, such an event would qualify. Furthermore, describing Jesus as a “a violent small-time troublemaker” is neither historically accurate nor logically reasonable, even with all the evidence in the infographic.


Personifying this infographic:

Two quick points then you can leave. First, quit thinking of the gospels as chapters of the same book. The New Testament is cool and all, but putting each book under the same cover has distorted our perception of their historicity. When we talk about the gospels, we are talking about four independent sources recording the same event, written by different people, at different times, and reporting many of the same low-level details. Historians are often ecstatic with two sources that even remotely resemble one another!

Which brings me to my next point. Have you read all those biographies and weather records from Jerusalem and other areas of the near-east that were written in the first century AD? … If you answered “no,” you’re right! Literacy rates were at best around 10% (I’m using an atheist’s book as my source for that number: Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?), so these stories would have spread predominantly by word of mouth. In light of low literacy rates, how would we expect Jesus’ crucifixion to be recorded? I don’t think these four accounts are too far off from the model we might imagine. Bill (Craig) and Bart (Ehrman) discuss this point – which I might dub the “evolution of the Jesus narrative” – in an awesome debate that you can find here. I’ll end this post abruptly so you can go watch.