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Jesus Interrupted 2: A World of Contradictions


Ehrman is confronting the view that the Bible is 100% accurate and inerrant. He notes some important contradictions, and ones that cannot be harmonized. For example, Mark says the crucifixion happened on one day at 9AM, and John says that it occurred on another day after noon. The only way to harmonize these two would be to say that the crucifixion happened twice, but that would not work with Christianity. One could dispute the dates, but they hold up under scrutiny.

Ehrman points out that not only do the Gospels have contradictions, but so do other parts of the Bible. Acts contradicts Paul’s own account of his actions. So much for the historically accurate doctor, huh? Ehrman emphasizes though that a Bible that is not inerrant does not falsify all forms of Christianity, just some types. He also says that a big lesson to be learned is that the authors had different beliefs. John’s message is not Mark’s. Paul’s message is not Luke’s. This is what we can expect from a human document written by a variety of authors with a variety of theological beliefs, not one written by God.

Kindle Notes:

Whereas the New Testament, consisting of twenty-seven books, was written by maybe sixteen or seventeen authors over a period of seventy years, the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures, consists of thirty-nine books written by dozens of authors over at least six hundred years (377).

And so the contradiction stands: in Mark, Jesus eats the Passover meal (Thursday night) and is crucified the following morning. In John, Jesus does not eat the Passover meal but is crucified on the day before the Passover meal was to be eaten (493).

In terms of the historical record, I should also point out that there is no account in any ancient source whatsoever about King Herod slaughtering children in or around Bethlehem, or anyplace else. No other author, biblical or otherwise, mentions the event. Is it, like John’s account of Jesus’ death, a detail made up by Matthew in order to make some kind of theological point? The historical problems with Luke are even more pronounced. For one thing, we have relatively good records for the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there is no mention anywhere in any of them of an empire-wide census for which everyone had to register by returning to their ancestral home (574).

If the Gospels are right that Jesus’ birth occurred during Herod’s reign, then Luke cannot also be right that it happened when Quirinius was the governor of Syria. We know from a range of other historical sources, including the Roman historian Tacitus, the Jewish historian Josephus, and several ancient inscriptions, that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until 6 CE, ten years after the death of Herod (595).

And why did he have to be born in Bethlehem? Matthew hits the nail on the head: there is a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Micah that a savior would come from Bethlehem. What were these Gospel writers to do with the fact that it was widely known that Jesus came from Nazareth? They had to come up with a narrative that explained how he came from Nazareth, in Galilee, a little one-horse town that no one had ever heard of, but was born in Bethlehem, the home of King David, royal ancestor of the Messiah. To get Jesus born in Bethlehem but raised in Nazareth, Matthew and Luke independently came up with solutions (614).

Scholars have long noted that John is in many ways the most virulently anti-Jewish of our Gospels (see John 8:42–44, where Jesus declares that the Jews are not children of God but “children of the Devil”). In that context, why narrate the trial in such a way that the Roman governor repeatedly insists that Jesus is innocent? Ask yourself: If the Romans are not responsible for Jesus’ death, who is? The Jews. And so they are, for John. In 19:16 we are told that Pilate handed Jesus over to the Jewish chief priests so that they could have him crucified (777).

Nowhere are the differences among the Gospels more clear than in the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. I often have my first-year students do a simple comparison exercise in which they list everything said in each of the four Gospels about the events between the time Jesus was buried and the end of the Gospels. There can be no better introduction to the idea of horizontal reading. There are scads of differences among the four accounts, and some of these differences are discrepancies that cannot be readily (or ever) reconciled (812).

Note: The most important event contains the most discrepencies, exactly to be expected if the narratives are in fact legendary.

All four Gospels agree that on the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty. But on virtually every detail they disagree (825).

Who actually went to the tomb? Was it Mary alone (John 20:1)? Mary and another Mary (Matthew 28:1)? Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (Mark 16:1)? Or women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem—possibly Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and “other women” (Luke 24:1; see 23:55)? Had the stone already been rolled away from the tomb (as in Mark 16:4) or was it rolled away by an angel while the women were there (Matthew 28:2)? Whom or what did they see there? An angel (Matthew 28:5)? A young man (Mark 16:5)? Two men (Luke 24:4)? Or nothing and no one (John)? And what were they told? To tell the disciples to “go to Galilee,” where Jesus will meet them (Mark 16:7)? Or to remember what Jesus had told them “while he was in Galilee,” that he had to die and rise again (Luke 24:7)? Then, do the women tell the disciples what they saw and heard (Matthew 28:8), or do they not tell anyone (Mark 16:8)? If they tell someone, whom do they tell? The eleven disciples (Matthew 28:8)? The eleven disciples and other people (Luke 24:8)? Simon Peter and another unnamed disciple (John 20:2)? What do the disciples do in response? Do they have no response because Jesus himself immediately appears to them (Matthew 20:9)? Do they not believe the women because it seems to be “an idle tale” (Luke 24:11)? Or do they go to the tomb to see for themselves (John 20:3)? (827)

Since there are discrepancies between what different authors want to say—sometimes small, insignificant contradictions and sometimes significant—it is important to let each author speak for himself and not pretend that he is saying the same thing as another. The discrepancies should teach us that Mark’s view is not John’s, John’s is not Matthew’s, Matthew’s is not Paul’s, and so on (1009).

The historical-critical approach to the Bible does not assume that each author has the same message. It allows for the possibility that each author has his own perspective, his own views, his own understandings of what the Christian faith is and should be (1051).

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