Lecture 6: Are there Contradictions in the Gospels?

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How can we trust the Bible when it is so full of mistakes and internal contradictions? Really? Where are they? Doesn't harmonization help us see how the gospels can describe the same event but in different terms? If the Bible and science and history disagree, doesn't the Bible, properly interpreted, deserve the benefit of the doubt?

Historically Accurate


1. Challenge

2. “Synoptic Problem” and Harmonization

a. Description

1) Wording

2) Order

b. What do the Synoptics say about themselves?

1) Selection (Luke 1:1-4; John 21:25)

2) Purpose (John 20:30-31)

3. Harmonization

a. Definition

b. Example of Jesus’ early years

c. Other examples

1) Two cleansings of the temple

2) Order of the temptations

d. Modern biographies’ obsession with insignificant details

1) Jesus’ death

2) One or two donkeys

4. Hermeneutics

a. Romans 4 and James 2:23

b. Slavery

5. Contradictions between Bible & history or science

a. Secular source is wrong

b. Science is wrong, or incomplete

c. Our understanding of the Bible wrong

6. Conclusions

a. Ask the person where the “contradictions” are

b. There is almost always a conservative answer if you look for it

c. Scripture has shown itself to be basically believable


Course: Why I Trust My Bible

Lecture 6: Contradictions

This is the 6th lecture in the online series of lectures on Why I Trust My Bible by Dr Bill Mounce. Bill was a preaching pastor at a church in Spokane, WA, and prior to that a professor of New Testament and director of the Greek Program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He also taught at Azusa Pacific University and is the author of the bestselling Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek.

1. Challenge

Now, we are going to look at ‘contradictions’. I put contradictions in quote marks because I don’t think there are any. I am going to talk about whether the Bible agrees with itself, does it disagree with science and supposedly contradictions? Another one of Ehrman’s books called Jesus Interrupted, Revealing the Hidden Contradictions to the Bible and Why We Don’t Know about Them. We will go through these so-called synoptic problems by looking at the idea of harmonization and hermeneutics. Lastly, we will consider contradictions between the Bible and History or Science.

2. Synoptic Problem and Harmonization

We will first discuss what some people believe to be Contradictions within the synoptic Gospels. I want to look at three different kinds of these contradictions and how we can deal with them. One of these has to do with the so-called synoptic problem. I will spend the buck of my time on this point with something called harmonization. The word synoptic just means the same and the synoptic problem involves explaining the similarities and the differences among the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke? Some people say that this proves there are contradictions in the Bible and hence it is not trustworthy and thus unbelievable. Examples include certain wordings; often the wording of the three Gospels is very much the same, such as in Matthew 3:7, it reads ‘but when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’ And then in Luke 3:7 it reads, ‘he said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’ As you see, these two verses are almost the same. And yet there are differences in the wording such as with the two thieves on the Cross such as in Matthew and Mark where they were reviling Jesus but then in Luke, one of the thieves repents. There are also similarities and differences in terms of the order of things. All three synoptic Gospels basically agree that Jesus primarily had a ministry in Galilee and in Jerusalem. There are also differences in order, for example, the temptations in Matthew involved turning the stones to bread, jumping off the temple and worshipping the devil but in Luke they include turning the stones to bread, worshipping the devil and then jumping off the temple.

The best way to answer the question on why these things exist is to let the Bible speak for itself. One of the more important passages is in the prologue within Luke 1:1-4, ‘many have undertaken to draw up an account of things that have been fulfilled among us. Just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word; with this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I, too, decided to write an orderly account for you most excellent Theophilus so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.’ Basically, Luke is saying that he is going to write a term paper. Luke researched the subject and then he put it together in an orderly way, not necessarily chronological but in an orderly way because he wanted Theophilus to know the certainty of what he has been taught. Theophilus was probably a young Christian and Luke wanted him to understand that these things really did happen. This wasn’t just all myth. So Luke tells us up front that there is a particular selection of material and a purpose. The purpose of this, among other things, was historical credibility. You also see the same thing elsewhere; for example, at the end of John in chapter 21:25, John says, ‘now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.’ Perhaps this is somewhat hyperbolic but the point was that there was a collection. There are a lot of things that the Gospel writers could have told us but they decided to select some of it. What stories they selected was based on their purpose. Luke’s purpose was the historical reliability of the Gospel.

It is interesting in John 20, we see John’s purpose, ‘now Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, 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.’ So we have some fairly strong statements saying that there were a lot of accounts and the Gospel writers went out and they had a purpose and even groups of purposes which became the grid by which they made their decision as to which accounts they would record and which ones they wouldn’t record. So there was purpose and selection.

3. Harmonization

Now come harmonization which asks the question, is there a way to conceive of an event having happened such that both accounts could be true. Can you harmonize the passages? Is there a way to picture two thieves on the Cross reviling Jesus and one repenting. Is there a way to view how the situation may actually have happened that could give rise to both accounts where both are true? You don’t have to prove the harmonization to be right; I think you just have to say whether it is possible or not. A friend of mind teaches this in college; before he starts he takes two students out into the hallway; he presents the synoptic problem by calling in one student to tell them what had happened in the class during the last ten minutes. Then they bring in the other student to do the same. Both tell a different story, yet they were in the same class at the same time and moment. They saw some things that were the same but also saw a lot of things that were also different. So this is what harmonization is all about; you can see why different people can give different descriptions of the same account, but yet both could be true.

The best example of this in the Gospels would be the birth narratives. Let’s look and compare Matthew and Luke. Matthew starts with a genealogy where Luke starts with the visit of the angels along with John the Baptist. Then they come together and agree that Jesus was born and shepherds came to visit them and then other things and they both agree that Jesus ends up in Nazareth years later. So you have a different beginning, then you have a similarity of the birth, the shepherds and Nazareth but then you have totally different things happening between these points. In Matthew you have the wise men coming and you have Herod killing all the babies two years old and younger. You have the flight to Egypt and Herod dying and then with Joseph returning to Nazareth. But in Luke after the shepherds is the circumcision in the temple, the naming and the offering in the temple and Jesus ends up in Nazareth. So how could you trust two different stories that are so different? So let’s look at harmonization. When it comes to the magi, there are two points: where was Jesus when the magi came? Chapter 2:11. He is in a house. And we know that Herod was crazy and evil and if Jesus had just been born, why would he kill babies that were two years old and younger? One of the clues includes the time the baby was circumcised which is usually eight days after birth. So we know that the circumcision happened immediately, but the magi weren’t so sure. Then you have the naming and offering in the temple and again we know that this happened relatively quickly. But you also have the story of Simeon who has been told that he will not die until he sees the Messiah. He sees Jesus and then breaks forth into this beautiful hymn about Jesus being a light to the gentiles. One of Luke’s themes is that the Gospel is not just for the Jews but also for the gentiles. This story sets the stage for Jesus and his ministry for gentiles also. This is why the travel narrative of Jesus is longer than in other Gospels. This involved a ministry to the gentiles which is very important to Luke; so from the first day, Jesus was destined to be a light to the gentiles.

So how are we going to put all these things together? Can you think of some kind of situation that could give rise for both of these accounts? Yeah, it is actually very simple! So Jesus was born, the shepherds came that night and eight days later, he was taken to be circumcised and after that named and offered in the temple. And then, very easily they could have returned to Bethlehem as Joseph was from Bethlehem, being his ancestral home. So he could have stayed there for a while, a year or year and a half; the magi come and Herod finds out from the magi. Jesus could have been alive for least a year; Herod goes to kill all the babies that are two years old and younger. So Mary and Joseph head for Egypt and after Herod’s death, they return home to Nazareth. So this is a possible way to handle the birth of Jesus and makes perfectly good sense. There was a selection of material and there are purposes governing that selection. In the Matthew passage, there are prophecies such as ‘out of Egypt, I have called my Son.’ It was important for Jesus to be seen as the fulfilment of Prophecy and this prophecy was from Hosea. When the babies were killed, this is a fulfilment of prophesy, something that was important to the Jews, but not so important for the gentiles. Luke doesn’t have any real reason to include this, but yet, this is what harmonization is. When it comes to apparent contradictions in the synoptic Gospels, harmonization solves just about any perceived problem.

Well, what about the cleansing of the temple? In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus cleanses the temple at the end of his ministry, but in John, he cleanses the temple in the beginning of his ministry. Is it possible that Jesus did this twice? The first time it perhaps was to inaugurate his ministry in order to establish the fact that he is going to be contrary to Judaism. He goes and pronounces judgement and purifies the temple and then goes through his three and half year ministry; nothing is changed and he does it again as an act of judgement. If you look at Leo Morse’s commentary on John, he actually points out all the things that are different between John’s account at the beginning and then the synoptic Gospel’s account. He could very easily have done it twice. The order of temptation is another very simple answer; in Matthew, he was tempted to the stones to bread and he was tempted to jump off the temple and then he was tempted to worship the devil. In Luke, the temple connectors are gone and turn stone to bread, to worship the devil and jumping off the temple. The temple is in Jerusalem and from a literary standpoint for Luke, the city of Jerusalem is very important and so from a literary standpoint, jumping off the temple was a combination of those. In English, when we see things in sequence, we automatically consider them as sequential, but this does not carry over into Greek, it is only a peculiarity of English. When this happens in Greek, it doesn’t assume chronological sequencing. And remember that Luke isn’t writing a chronological account of what happens with Jesus, but instead he wrote an orderly account.

Parenthetically, let me mention that there so many modern biographies suffer from a face book obsession where every little detail become important. The question we have to ask ourselves, does the Biblical author have to tell us everything or can each writer relay the information that he wishes to convey in order to accomplish his purposes. Does he have to tell us everything? No, of course not; this is a modern obsession with details and it is not the way biographies were written. If you look at Ehrman’s book and you can see how this works out; Ehrman emphasizes the difference between the synoptic Gospels. For example with Mark, Jesus is silent and fulfills the prophecy of Psalm 22. In Luke he shows concern for the women who are crying and deals with the thief on the cross and says, ‘father into your hands, I commit myself.’ There is difference but are they so different that they both can’t be true? Of course, they can both be true. Jesus hung on the cross for a long time; during a stage of that, he could have been absolutely silent fulfilling the prophecy, but then at other times he could have responded to the thieves or to the women, forgave the people who were crucifying him. You can see how both of those things can be true and they both fall within the purview of what the writer were writing and how they are writing it and what they are trying to accomplish. It really isn’t that difficult to deal with this. Were there one or two donkeys in Matthew? He was riding on a donkey and on a colt, making it two of them. But in Mark and Luke both have a colt, singular, and in John, he talks about a donkey’s colt. Jesus wasn’t riding on two donkeys. Does this really matter whether it was one or two? Of course it doesn’t matter. Or if Matthew is really saying that the colt and the donkey is the same animal, then that is an interpretative issue. But it isn’t hard to imagine why one writer would see two and the other writer would only talk about the one Jesus was actually riding on.

Just a parenthetical comment with the obsession with detail; we don’t have to say everything. Even today, a good biographer is not going to say everything they know. So this really solves a lot of problems.

4. Hermeneutics

The second area in regards to contradictions involves the whole area of hermeneutics. This is the science and art of Biblical interpretation and basically involves how we study our Bible. Sometimes we can see what appears to be a contradiction but the real problem involves miss-interpreting the passage. In one place, Jesus says that if you are not with me, you are against me and in another place it says, if you are not against me, you are with me. At first glance, this seems to be the opposite but have you interpreted the passage properly. See what the passage is saying within the context of the sentence and the paragraph and the story. But when it comes to the context of the Pharisees, Jesus tells them that they can’t be in between; they must be one way of the other and if you aren’t actively for me then you are by definition against me. So it is two statements that sound like contradictions but it is because we have miss-interpreted the verses. And so many of these so-called contradictions simply go away once you come to understand what the passage is really saying. Another example is Paul and James on Abraham. In Romans 4 and James 2, they both quote Genesis 15:6; ‘Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ The problem is that they both draw opposite conclusions. They cite the same passage from the same person but Paul uses it to prove that justification is by faith but James quotes the passage to prove that Justification is by works. Is this a contradiction? It really depends upon what the word, ‘justification’ means. Paul is talking about how to enter into a right relationship with God but James is talking about how you live in such a way that shows that you are in right relationship with God. You enter into that relationship by faith and that is illustrated by Abraham and you live in a relationship by faith and that is also illustrated by Abraham. So because of the use of the word, justification, is difference, you can come out with what sounds to be a contradiction but it isn’t.

Sometimes you will hear that the Bible teaches that slavery is good. No it doesn’t; it simply doesn’t. The seeds of abolition clearly come from Paul; Philemon is to accept the slave back as a brother, not a slave. Paul is radically defining what it is to be a human being. In 1st Timothy in the list of sins, being in slavery, someone who sells slaves is Paul’s interpretation of breaking of one of the Ten Commandments. It is a sin to sell people and the seeds are all there in Scripture. The Scriptures don’t say that slavery is Biblical. So the second major category of contradictions has to do with us misunderstanding what the Bible is saying.

5. Contradictions Between Bible and History or Science

Thirdly there are what appear to be contradictions between the Bible and history and also the Bible and science. It is certainly possible that the secular source could be wrong when the Bible seems to disagree with history or science. So maybe history and science is wrong. There was a well-known Old Testament scholar named Wellhausen who dictated Old Testament scholarship and he argued that a lot of the Old Testament could not have been written by the people we think who wrote it. And certainly not as early date wise as we assign it. He says that writing wasn’t invented until four or five hundred BC. He is simply wrong; we have alphabets going way back to the third millennium BC. He also argued that the suggestion about David playing a harp; it couldn’t possibly be historically accurate because music had not been invented. Can you conceive of any point in time of history of humanity where there wasn’t music? Of course not! Sometimes the secular sources are just wrong. There is a debate with Luke where he dates the census during the rule of Quirinius, the Roman governor is Syria. The dates that were given elsewhere for Quirinius don’t match up with the Biblical account, so they both can’t be right. Perhaps the secular source is wrong. Why does it always seems to be the Bible that is wrong! It is also possible when Scripture seems to disagree with science that perhaps science is wrong. For a long time, we thought that the best way to heal someone was to cut them and let them bleed out. We see that this now is stupid. When someone is sick they need their blood. So science was wrong; bleeding out like this is the worst thing you can do.

Perhaps science needs to have a little humility and understand that they have been wrong in the past, but they do seem to eventually correct themselves, but science is not always right. But again, in regards to the issue of hermeneutics, you have to be very careful when science and Scripture appear to contradict each; perhaps the secular source is wrong or either your interpretation of the Scriptures are wrong. This perhaps is the case for dating the Bible and the genealogies in the Bible; we are simply not sure how old the earth is. The earth seems to be young but we are simply not sure. Perhaps science is wrong in regards to creation and Genesis 1 isn’t meant to convey science but instead it is meant to convey theology, that the World was created by God, intelligently on purpose with men and women with the apex of creation. After all, you have light on day 1 before you have the sun on day 4. We have to believe that the greatest god in almost any ancient cosmology is the sun. But Moses comes along and writes that our God is so much greater than Ra, the Egyptian Sun god that he can create light without the Sun. So the potential contradictions between the Bible, science and history deserves a little humility on all sides, but be aware it is not always the Bible that has to be wrong. We might be interpreting it incorrectly or either the science is wrong and our understanding of history is wrong.

6. Conclusions

In conclusion, when people come and say that I can’t trust my Bible because of all the contradictions in it. I have lost track on how many times that I have heard that. The first thing that you should say is: can you show me one? What you will usually find is that the vast majority of people don’t have a clue where the problem passages are. As already mentioned there are what appear to be contradictions but on closes analysis, these simply don’t exist. But you need to know whether that person truly has an intellectual problem when apparent contradictions in the Bible or whether they are just mimicking what their professor has said or what some book they read said. This is not the real issue; the real issue is that they don’t want to submit to God. So in any argument, start by saying: show me the one you are struggling with and then let’s work on it together. The vast majority of the time, they will not know one. The second point that I want to stress; there is almost always a conservative answer to these contradictions. Some a little more difficult than others but most of them can easily be explained. When I was in grad school, Daryl Bock and Crag Bomberg were two of my best friends. We went to the same school in Aberdeen Scotland and Thursday was my favorite day because us three guys would have lunch together and argue about everything including errors in the Bible. I had studied in a college that said that there were errors in the Bible while Daryl went to Dallas Theological and Crag went to Trinity, two schools that taught that there weren’t errors in the Bible. So having learned from these arguments, I have found that there is almost always a conservative answer to these problems. So, I believe that Scripture deserves the benefit of the doubt; it has shown itself to be unbelievably accurate, internal coherent and consistent. It fits into history and what we know about science really beautifully. Yeah, there are some issues and questions but I think the Bible deserves the benefit of the doubt because it has proven itself to be true over and over again. I really encourage you to look through these issues with your friends and /or your pastor, especially with those you trust. It comes to a point that you can trust the Bible; it is not full of contradictions.


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