When you read the first three Gospels, you are likely to observe countless similarities. And that is the dominant picture: the places, the names, the crowds, the rural setting, busy Jerusalem. However, some skeptics see insurmountable problems.
A close reading reveals some differences in the details. Are these differences the same as contradictions? What is a contradiction? If there are any, can they be resolved? Are the Gospels reliable if some of the details are different among them?
This article, Part Thirteen in a series on the reliability of the Gospels, is not at all intended to convince skeptics, but to provide some perspective for believers who take Scripture seriously and authoritatively. Writing this article has clarified my own thoughts.
However, I admit that I write it under protest. I believe that if we always reduce a good story to propositions, then we lose sight of – maybe damage – a good story and its literary devices. I wonder whether we should apply cold rationalism to narratives in the way I’m about to do in this article. Yet, since the following issues come up, let’s proceed. For me, though, I’ll get a clothes pin to clip on my nose.
Since these articles can be read as stand-alones, here are my standard reminders for true beginners of Gospel studies. Recall that Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a lot of passages in common, so they are called the synoptic Gospels (synoptic means viewed together). The authors are sometimes called synoptists. Slashes // mean parallel passages among them. The writers of the four Gospels are also called evangelists.
Hovering over the references below will bring up the NET Bible version on each of these.
1. What is a contradiction?
What we need is an everyday definition. Two sentences together are contradictory in this way: If one sentence is true, then other has to be false. It’s either one way or the other. For example, this pair says:
- A computer is in my office.
- A computer is not in my office.
Imagine I have a computer in my office. Then the first sentence is affirmed, so the second one is denied, “automatically.” To put this more philosophically, “the negation is true whenever the affirmation is false, and the affirmation is true when the negation is false” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Next, to keep things simple, we don’t need to get into the law of excluded middle, but see the link to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) at the end of this Q & A for more information.
Consider this example:
- Today is Wednesday.
- Today is Thursday.
For us, we can regard this everyday example as a contradiction, though, technically, the pair is called a contrary because both cannot be true, but both can be false (“Today is Friday”).
Those two pairs of examples merely serve as warm-ups to get us used to the other pairs here, but the entire topic can get complicated quickly! So, happily, we do not need to spot which passage in Scripture or which pair in this article is a contradictory or a contrary – or a discrepancy, conflict, disagreement, and so on. Regardless of the labels, all we need to do is resolve them in Scripture. Various solutions can apply to the troublesome passages, as we proceed.
For further information, see Brooke Noel Moore and Richard Parker, Critical Thinking. Also go here for a glossary of terms. See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and its definition of a contradiction, along with a contrary. Aristotle’s Metaphysics Book 4 (scroll down to Chapters 6 and 7) is for the very advanced.
2. Do you have examples in the Gospels?
Three come to mind right away. But these are only samples. Two can be resolved easily (A and C), the other not so easily (B).
A. REPORT OR NO REPORT?
- The women reported the resurrection to the men (Matt. 28:8).
- The women did not report the resurrection to the men (Mark 16:8).
I have reworded this pair slightly, but it follows the texts carefully. The apparent contradiction is resolved because Mark is not finished. Verse 8 is the very last one, according to the best manuscripts. So we can stamp this “insufficient information in Mark.” However, if readers prefer to believe that Mark appropriately ends at 16:8, then the time factor resolves the seeming contradiction. It is not difficult to imagine that sometime after the women’s initial fear, they reported the resurrection to the men. Thus, Matt. 28:8 says that the women “ran” to tell the men of what they saw and heard. So the parallel accounts can be harmonized (not a bad word) easily, without stretching things. Both sentences can be true at different times in the Easter narrative.
B. STAFF OR NO STAFF?
The context of this puzzle is Jesus’ first commission of the twelve disciples as he sent them out to preach during his own ministry. We focus on the staff or walking stick, but the excerpted explanation, below, notes another difference.
- The disciples are permitted to take a staff (Mark 6:8-9).
- The disciples are not permitted to take a staff (Luke 9:3; Matt. 10:9-10).
This one is a stickler (no pun intended), to be sure. But Walvoord and Zuck come up with an explanation. They write:
The two concessions of a staff and sandals are unique to Mark. Both are forbidden in Matthew 10:9-10, and the staff is forbidden in Luke 9:3. Matthew used ktaomai (“to procure, acquire”), instead of airō (“to take”); so the disciples were not to acquire additional staffs or sandals – but to use the ones they already had. Mark and Luke both use airō, “to take or carry along.” But Luke says, “Take nothing for the journey – no staff (rhabdon),” presumably no additional staff; while Mark says, “Take nothing for the journey except (Mark 6:5) a staff (rhabdon),” presumably the one already in use. Each writer stressed a different aspect of Jesus’ instructions (p. 128, emphasis original).
So the apparent contradiction is resolved. Or the three passages do not add up to a contradiction, if they are read in their historical and textual contexts and according to their proper sense.
However, it is understandable that some readers may not be satisfied with the explanation in that excerpt. So the following comment on the three passages is worth taking to heart:
Only if one has a very legal mind is there a significant difference . . . Jesus normally speaks in the hyperbole of a wisdom teacher, not the legal precision of a Pharisee . . . These passages are also another reminder to us that we do not have all of the answers . . . these passages call us not to lose the forest for the trees. Jesus called his missionaries to travel simply, without the normal provisions for a journey. They had to depend on God for their support.” (Kaiser, et al., pp. 423-24)
I like how that team of scholars mentions “hyperbole.” That is an acceptable literary Scriptural device, which is an intentional exaggeration to draw attention to the main point. For example, Jesus uses a hyperbole when he says that we should not pull a speck out of our bother’s eye, while we have a big beam or plank in our eye (Matt. 7:3). Can we literally have a beam or plank in our eye? Can we rightly say, “There’s an error in Scripture, because no one can literally have a beam or plank in his eye!” However, the attitude behind the “gotcha” misses the literary technique of hyperbole.
The same is true of the mustard seed. Is it the smallest seed (Matt. 13:32; Mark 4:31)? The question misses the point. Jesus was using hyperbole to encourage his followers. Even if our faith is very small – the smallest it can be – it can grow to benefit those around us. Plus, historically the mustard seed “was the smallest seed used by farmers and gardeners there and at that time” (NIV Study Bible, note on Matt. 13:32, emphasis added). So the hyperbole is resolved by the historical context – as if it our job to “fix” hyperboles. Nonetheless, time resolves the puzzle.
I also like the attitude of the team of scholars, noted above in this Q & A (Kaiser, et al). We will return to their balanced attitude and wider perspective at the end of this article (see Q-&-A’s Six, Seven, and Eight). I already referred to my own point of view in the Introduction, and will do so again in Q & A Seven.
C. ONE OR TWO BLIND MEN?
This pair of bulleted propositions is easily resolved. Matthew’s account simply provides more detail. Historically, the lame and sick and other “expendables” formed little groups within the larger society (cf. Luke 17:11-19; John 5:1-15). So there may have been more than two, but Matthew focuses on two, and Mark on one. It is likely that Bartimaeus’ name was remembered because he told his story to the persons who remembered it in some way (cf. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pp. 45-46; 52-55). The other recipient(s) of healing were not remembered well enough to have his (their) names recorded. One commentator says that perhaps Mark focused on the one who did the speaking.
The gist of the explanation about the one and two blind men can be applied to the one and two demoniacs who were helped (Mark 5:2 // Matt. 8:28; Luke 8:27). One and two angels appearing at the empty tomb do not make a contradiction, and their roles can be easily explained (Mark 16:5 // Matt. 28:2-3; Luke 24:4). See the Further Reading section, below, for the literature, particularly Gleason Archer’s book.
In any case, the Gospel writers omit or admit details into their accounts as they saw fit. Not even the most conservative inerrantist denies this, simply because it is everywhere affirmed even in a casual reading of the Gospels. But these differences do not add up to genuine contradictions or contradictories or discrepancies or whatever. That is, they do not add up to ones that cannot be resolved with a little commonsense and knowledge of the meaning of words and the historical and textual contexts.
Now let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. The Gospel authors are free to include or exclude some details as they saw fit. What about that? That question leads us to the next one.
3. In the big picture, what’s at work in the authorship of the Gospels?
It is difficult to find a more scholarly yet accessible account of the apparent conflicts and the differences in the Gospels than Craig Blomberg’s chapter on this topic in the Historical Reliability of the Gospels, (pp. 152-95). If we take into account the following factors and sometimes the missteps of scholars, then conflicts and discrepancies disappear. Readers, particularly critics, who are serious about this topic must get his book and read the chapter. It is excellent. They should also look into the books and articles listed in the References and Further Reading section, below.
Conflicting theology? This category says that the evangelists reworded or reordered their material, true, but at the same time they (apparently) created conflicting theology. An example is Jesus’ pronouncements on his disciples after he stilled the storm. “O you of little faith!” (Matt. 8:26) and “Do you still have no faith?” (Mark. 4:40). In reply to the common criticism, however, Blomberg explains the two passages:
What appear are different perspectives on the disciples’ ever-wavering response to Jesus throughout his earthly ministry, with Matthew choosing to highlight the positive side as a model for the fainthearted among his readers and Mark underlining the more negative side for precisely the same reason – to encourage those in his audience who felt inadequate that they too could grow in their Christian lives . . . As with the accounts of stilling the storm, the theological perspectives are not identical, but they are complementary. (p. 155-56)
So alleged conflicts in theology can be resolved with only a little effort. Plus, it is probable that Matthew incorporated ninety percent of Mark’s Gospel into his. Let’s assume this for a moment. That means Matthew saw the “little faith!” and “no faith?” difference. (How else could Matthew incorporate Mark’s Gospel, if Matthew did not have Mark’s Gospel in front of him? By memory? Maybe, but that does not take away from my comment that follows.) Did Matthew panic? “Oh my! I may be creating a formal contradiction?” Not in the slightest. What Blomberg says here is correct. Matthew has a higher, theological purpose. He also had a literary purpose (see Q & A Seven, below). If a critic of Scripture has a “gotcha” moment with these two verses or others, then so be it. But he must work his way through the scholarly literature, referenced below, before he can gleefully triumph.
The practice of paraphrase. With our technology today, we can match passages word for word. In the ancient world, writers did not have qualms about paraphrasing and summarizing. “Even defenders of Scripture’s infallibility freely admit that the evangelists usually recorded only Jesus’ ipsissima vox (actual voice) rather than his ipsissima verba (actual words)” (p. 118).
Chronological problems. As far back as Augustine (AD 354-430), students of the Gospels recognize that the four evangelists did not intend a detailed itinerary of Jesus’ life. Can we correctly fault them for what they did not intend? In fact, they achieved their intended goal quite well. From the birth to the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the evangelists follow the broad outline of Christ’s life perfectly. But these front-ranking, traditional scholars note:
A fully satisfactory historical harmony of Jesus’ life is impossible. It was simply not the evangelists’ intention to provide us with the kind of data we would need for such an enterprise . . . The evangelists narrate historical facts, but they so select, arrange, and present these facts that little information of the kind needed to piece together a detailed life of Jesus is available. (D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 123, emphasis added)
But these same two scholars also maintain: “Coherence at the historical level is . . . relatively easy to attain” (ibid.). The differences are in the details.
Omissions. The evangelists were writing biographies in their own age, in the Greco-Roman world. All these biographers and historians omit data, large or small. The four evangelists are no different (see the previous category in this Q & A). Do we rightly criticize them for writing texts that they intended? Do we rightly criticize them for not writing texts that they never intended? Instead, shouldn’t we rightly take them in their historical context?
Composite speeches. Scholars see similar sayings in the Gospels, particularly Matthew and Luke, and these scholars assume that passages can be combined. For example, Matthew has five major teaching sections (chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25). They are largely unparalleled in Mark, and they are sometimes scattered throughout Luke. Scholars – even John Calvin (AD 1509-1564) the Reformer – place some of these sermons into one composite speech, such as the four beatitudes (Luke 6:20-22) and four more beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-10), plus four woes (Luke 6:24-26), and so on. However, this is not a valid enterprise in all cases, for it rips apart the intentions of the evangelists who were writing a flowing narrative or story. But a careful look at the possibility of putting together a composite removes many difficulties. “Such practices scarcely discredited the historical reputation of ancient writers in the eyes of their contemporaries . . . so it is unfair to malign them today by applying anachronistic standards of historiography” (Blomberg p. 188).
Apparent doublets. Sometimes scholars see similarities in two passages and assume that they refer to the same event. Blomberg says an example is the anointing of Jesus in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50) and in the house of Simon the Leper (Mark 14:3-9 // Matt. 26:6-13). As one can see from the references, the first episode occurs early in Jesus’ ministry, while the other occurs toward the end. If they are the same event, then this creates discrepancies. However, there are enough verbal dissimilarities in the passages that we should not hastily conclude that they refer to the same incident. Plus, Simon was the commonest name in Israel from 330 BC to 200 AD (Bauckham, p. 85). Jesus had two disciples with this name and a brother (so called). Thus, separating the two scenes resolves the discrepancies. Each apparent doublet needs to be taken case by case.
Variations in names and number. The best-known examples are the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. The differences can be accounted for by viewing Matthew’s list of names as showing Joseph’s family line and Luke’s list as showing Mary’s family line.
As noted in the previous Q & A, I would add to his list literary techniques like hyperboles. A little sensitivity to storytelling can make apparent conflicts evaporate.
Thus, what is at work in the authorship of the Gospels is that the evangelists were free within limits to shape their traditions – written or oral – but to keep to the same flow of the narratives (see Part Five: “Gospel Traditions: Melt in Your Mouth?” for more information on freedom within limits). In the next article, I will list over one hundred and forty similarities in all four Gospels and over two hundred similarities in at least one synoptic and the Gospel of John. Therefore, in the big picture, the Gospels agree on the broad historical outline and ministry of Jesus. After all, the evangelists were following the methods of Greco-Roman biographers, and so the evangelists should be read in that broader context.
Blomberg then wraps up his chapter:
All of these observations add up to a strong case for the historical accuracy of the first three Gospels. Those who disagree may be invited to reconsider their methodology and to reflect on the possibility that they are treating the biblical documents more harshly than is warranted. (p. 195)
4. Can we solve all problem texts?
Not to everyone’s satisfaction. Three examples may be what we have already answered or tried to answer: “little faith, no faith”; “staff, no staff”; and “the smallest seed or not.” But the vast, vast majority of problem texts have been solved more easily than we might expect at first. For me, the Gospels have a pretty good record (to put things modestly), and so does the rest of Scripture, considering it became part of history, not some ethereal, other world. If we give up on the reliability and inspiration of Scripture because of the few unsolved texts, then we have lost our bearings. Recall the scholars who said that we must not lose sight of the forest for the trees (see Q & A Two and letter C).
As inerrantist Wayne Grudem writes:
. . . Our understanding of Scripture is never perfect, and this means that there may be cases where we will be unable to find a solution to a difficult passage at the present time. This may be because the linguistic, historical, or contextual evidence we need to understand the passage correctly is presently unknown to us. (Systematic Theology, Zondervan, 1994, p. 99)
His humility about our imperfect understanding Scripture is refreshing.
5. Are these differences in the Gospels new territory for the Church?
Not at all. We must consider the breathtaking fact that the Church has been dealing with these issues for many centuries. Here are two thinkers in the early church.
Tatian, who lived around AD 110-172, put together a harmony of the four Gospels in a continuous narrative, called the Diatessaron (literally “through four”). In that link, it has been translated from Arabic, though it was originally written in Syriac or Greek, and some say Latin. In any case, note the approximate date when he lived.
Irenaeus (around AD 115-202) is a rich source of Christian traditions. He was probably from Smyrna (look under “Asia” on the map), in Asia Minor, but eventually he became the bishop of a town now known as Lyons, France. He wrote a large-scale refutation of the heresies that were gaining momentum in his days. In the linked passage, he celebrates the differences and diversity in the four Gospels (Against Heresies 3.11.8). Scroll down to sec. eight, and note the four beings to which he assigns the four Gospels.
So we must not lose sight of the historical perspective, as if we are the first ones to explore the territory and as if we should be shocked. The Church is still going strong.
6. Stranger Danger?
Children are taught to avoid strangers. At its core, the four Gospels are narratives or stories – true stories. Applying severe, rational logic onto literature, secular or sacred, or onto a good old fashioned story, may open the door for a stranger to enter the world of story. I concede that transforming truths and facts in a story into propositions can be done and maybe should be done at times, but in all cases? I doubt that it should, in the way I have done in this article, and in many other instances.
For example, in the calming of the storm episodes, in Matt. 8:26, Jesus utters emotional words, in a vocative (direct address) and an interjection, almost (“interjection” means a word or phrase that expresses emotion and gets someone’s attention). “O you of little faith!” In Mark 4:40, he asks a rhetorical question, “Do you still have no faith?” Whatever grammatical labels we attach to the two expressions, they are literary devices denoting emotion.
I simply do not believe that we should boil them down to propositions and to a strict contradiction. Assuming, again, that Matthew borrows from Mark, I believe that when Matthew opted for “little faith!” after reading (or hearing) Mark’s “no faith?” Matthew was not worried about a discrepancy. He intended to portray the emotion of Jesus in Matthew’s own way. What we have here is the ipsissima vox (very voice) of Jesus, not his ipsissima verba (very words). Should we run roughshod over Matthew’s intentional literary technique? I don’t think so. It was not meant to be dissected with a sharp, steely scalpel.
However, if readers and scholars still insist on dissecting the Gospel stories with hard logic and rationalism and boiling them down to propositions, then count me out of most of the festivities, after this article. They should consult the literature in the References and Further Reading section, below.
7. What does all of this mean for the Church of all denominations?
I wrote this article for believers, not skeptics. Believers need to go out into the world, enjoying confidence in Scripture. If they hear the naysayers and nitpickers tearing it apart, then maybe this article and the References and Further Reading section will provide some good information. Knowledge is the best antidote to counter misleading public statements and personal confusion.
The Church has known about these issues for centuries, and she is still going strong, because the four Gospels have nourished her. And they can still nourish you, too, if you keep an open mind. So happy reading!
Written by James Malcolm
Articles in the Series
13. Are There Contradictions in the Gospels?
Church fathers and the authorship of the four Gospels
Reliability of the New Testament Manuscripts (Part 4 is the summary)
References and Further Reading
Before believers get discouraged about a passage, they need to research the literature. And before critics celebrate any “gotcha!” moment, they too need to work through the literature.
Gleason Archer. New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Zondervan, 2001.
William Arndt. Does the Bible Contradict Itself? A Discussion of Alleged Contradictions of the Bible. 5th rev. ed. Concordia, 1976.
—. Bible Difficulties and Seeming Contradictions. Rev. ed. Concordia, 1987.
Craig Blomberg. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. 2nd ed. Intervarsity, 2007. See Chapter Four.
R. T. France. “Inerrancy and New Testament Exegesis.” Themelios (1975) 12-18. He is a world-class scholar who respects Scripture. Incidentally, in that article, he explains the differences in the pericopae about the centurion (Matt. 8:5-13 // Luke 7:1-10). Did the centurion approach Jesus, or did the Jewish elders?
Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. Baker, 1992.
John W. Haley. An Examination of the Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible. Scholarly Publishing House, U Michigan P, 2005.
Walter Kaiser, et al. Hard Sayings of the Bible. Intervarsity, 1996.
The New International Version Study Bible. It explains problem texts in the notes. Written by a large team of scholars, the NIV Study Bible is excellent for many other reasons, as well.
David E. O’Brien. Today’s Handbook for Solving Bible Difficulties. Bethany, 1990.
Mark D. Roberts. Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Crossway, 2007. See Chapter Nine.
—. “Are There Contradictions in the Gospels?” October 2005.
John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Vol. 2. Victor Books, 1983-1985. Sometimes they sort out the difficulties.