Are There Contradictions
in the Gospels?
In a previous article I built a case for the trustworthiness of the Bible by bringing to the witness stand a variety of different evidences, or witnesses, all of which testified to its trustworthiness. Some of the different evidences we considered were…
All of those taken together build a strong cumulative case for the trustworthiness of the Bible. In our time together now I’d like to return to this topic by tackling head on the number one challenge that critics of the Bible make against the trustworthiness of the Scripture. What challenge am I talking about? Oh you’ve heard it before. You’ll tell a person that you’re a Christian and that you believe the Bible is God’s word, and very often the response is: “But everybody knows the Bible is full of—what?
Ahhh see! You know. You’ve heard the challenge yourself. Now, many times when I’ve heard pastors touch on the idea that there are supposed contradictions in the Bible, they’ve said: “Just tell the skeptic to show you one–and then hand them your Bible!”
That’s not bad advice. Most of the people who will ever tell you that the Bible is “full of contradictions” can not show you even a single example. They are just parroting off something they’ve heard. But, my friends, there are apparent contradictions in the Bible. And there is coming a time for many of you when you will discover one yourself, or perhaps somebody will actually point one of them out to you.
Years ago when I was a College and Career Pastor at Calvary Chapel in Vista, California, I used to teach a Bible study out at a local college. One afternoon a young man by the name of Nema came over to our group as everybody was heading back to class. He informed me and a few of the guys standing around that he was a Muslim and that he had some problems with the Bible, even saying that the Bible was full of contradictions!
Having heard the suggestion of what to say in response to that kind of claim, I handed him my Bible and said, “Can you show me one?”—and you know what he said?
"Sure. Where would you like for me to start?"
I gulped for a breath of air, and said to myself: "This is not how it’s supposed to happen!" I handed him my Bible, and he began to flip around in my Bible for the next twenty minutes and point out what appeared to be legitimate contradictions in the Bible. We did our best to explain to him some of the possible solutions to the difficulties. Boy did that inspire me to do some research and investigation!
I bring this scenario up, because that may very well happen to you!! So in this article I want to do more than just tell you “Hand them your Bible and ask them to show you one!” I want to:
• Look at some popular examples of apparent contradictions
The first apparent contradiction I want us to look at is found in Matthew 28. This one has to do with...
This is a popular apparent contradiction cited by critics of the Bible, so we’ll start here. Let’s take a look:
It appears from what Matthew says that there was only one angel at the tomb at the time of Christ’s resurrection.
Now turn over to John, chapter 20. Notice that verse 10 makes it clear that what we’re about to read, was later in the morning after most of the disciples had gone to their homes. It says...
So, the disciples had already visited the empty grave and gone home—with the exception of one (Mary) as we will she here momentarily. This is something critics almost always overlook. And that’s unfortunate, because it helps solve the alleged problem. All right, let’s continue reading...
John makes it clear that Mary saw “two angels” (Jn. 20:12).
So the critic says...
CRITIC: “Aha! Matthew says there was one angel on the scene and yet John says there were two! That is a contradiction!”
Is this really a contradiction as the critics suppose? Not at all. The possible solutions are so simple, it’s hard to believe that this is so often cited as a contradiction.
Let’s suppose you email a friend later and say, “I saw a pastor [notice the singular phrasing] by the name of Charlie at church this morning.” World’s most boring email, but there it goes.
Now, someone else comes along after you and emails the same person and says, “I saw two pastors, Charlie and Joe, at church this morning.”
Has this person contradicted your previous statement? Not at all. This person is just giving a fuller account of what happened at church this morning. He’s making it clear there was actually more than one pastor on the scene here today. It’s not that you were wrong when you said you saw a pastor. You were just speaking with a narrower view of the days events.
The same is true with the accounts of the angels at Jesus’ tomb.
Matthew mentioned one angel—the angel who rolled away the stone very early in the morning (Matthew 28). John, talking about a scene later in the morning, tells us there were two angels on the scene (John 20).
ASSUMING A PARTIAL REPORT IS A FALSE REPORT.
There are places in the Bible, especially in the Gospels, where one author chose to leave out certain details in his account of an event that another author chose to include.
It is perfectly acceptable—even in today’s society—for reporters and biographers who are writing about the same event or person, to include or omit details that others do not.
When we read the news on two different websites, we expect to read some different details about the same story.
If the Gospels all included the exact same details with similar wording, they would have been discredited long ago on grounds of collusion. By collusion, I mean that the authors of the Gospels got together secretly and agreed to harmonize their writings with the intent of deceiving people.
All right, with the number of angels at Jesus's tomb cleared up, let’s look at a second apparent contradiction. This one has to do with...
According to this passage, we learn that Jesus was a carpenter. But look at what Matthew writes...
Critics, on the lookout for ways to discredit Christianity, say that the Gospels contradict one another here. Why?
CRITIC: “One says Jesus was a carpenter (Mark 6:3) and another says His father was the carpenter (Matt. 13:55).”
So, which was it?
• Was Jesus the carpenter as Mark tells us?
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to think this through. I’ve taught this study to junior high kids and almost all of them raise their hands when I ask the question (“Who was the carpenter?”).
THEY WERE BOTH CARPENTERS.
Jesus, like most men at the time, followed in the footsteps of His father. The crowd of people knew that and were asking both questions...
• “Is not this the carpenter?” (Mark 6:3)
So there’s no contradiction here at all. This apparent contradiction is laid to rest with some careful Junior High level reflection (as is the case with many of them).
A third apparent contradiction that critics have pointed out in the Gospels out has to do with...
And if you know the rest of the story, you know Jesus went on to open the eyes of this blind man. But notice back there in v. 35 where it took place. Luke says that Jesus healed this blind man as He was “coming near,” or as the NASB translation says, as He was “approaching Jericho.”
So, get this image in your mind. Jesus is approaching Jericho off in the distance when the man was healed. Now keep that in mind and turn over to Mark, Chapter 10. Mark seems to say something different.
Did you catch that? Mark, as the story goes on to say, tells us that Jesus healed this man as He left Jericho. Notice there again v. 46. It says, “As He went out of Jericho…” (Mk. 10:46). So the critic says...
CRITIC: “Surely Luke or Mark made a mistake. They can't possibly both be right.”
And that appears to be the case, doesn’t it? What’s the solution?
A German archaeologist by the name Ernst Sellin, working on an excavation in Israel between 1907 and 1909 discovered that there were actually what have been called “the twin-cities” of Jericho in Jesus’ time. There was the old city of Jericho (from the Old Testament story of Joshua) and the new Roman city of Jericho separated by about a mile. [Joseph Free, Archaeology and Bible History, 1992, p. 251]
There were two cities called “Jericho,” separated from one another by about a mile. Luke referred to one of the cities and Mark referred to the other. Luke referred to the city that Jesus was approaching. Mark referred to the one that Jesus had left. The incident occurred as Jesus traveled between the two.
The authors of the Bible did not err. The critic, who assumes that this is a contradiction, errs because he or she is unfamiliar with ancient Roman and Jewish geography.
Critics of the Bible would be wise to consult a good Bible commentary (or two or three) before passing judgment on the Bible. These kinds of solutions are easily accessible for the person willing to do a little homework.
When God rescued His people from Egypt, He instructed them in the Book of Exodus (12:18) to celebrate the Passover (their deliverance from Egypt) once a year on “the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight.”
He was very specific as to the day. It would be a once a year anniversary to remember what God had done in delivering them from their slavery in Egypt. Well, critics of the Bible think this creates a problem in the New Testament. Let’s read what Matthew writes...
You know the rest of the story. Jesus’ disciples went on to enjoy the Passover meal with their friend and Lord the night before His crucifixion.
Now, John seems to contradict this by saying that the Jewish people ate the Passover meal the next day, on the day of Jesus' crucifixion (24 hours later).
—speaking of the people who arrested Jesus
"led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium,"
—“Praetorium” is a Latin word that means palace. It was Pontius Pilate’s residence
"and it was early morning. But they themselves did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled,"
—They had developed a tradition that said they would become ceremonially unclean entering a Gentile residence. Why would that be a big deal?
"but that they might eat the Passover.”
—When? Later that day, the evening after Jesus and His disciples ate the Passover.
John here seems to place the Passover meal 24 hours later than the other three Gospels. And so, critics of the Bible, like Bart Ehrman, point to this and say there is a discrepancy, an error, a contradiction. Well, they are overlooking background historical data that solves the alleged difficulty.
In Jesus' day, the Passover meal was eaten on two different evenings. How do we know that? Two different sources outside the Bible tell us that was the case. What sources am I referring to?
1. Flavius Josephus
2. The Mishna
These two sources reveal to us that the Pharisees and the Sadducees (the two popular religious parties in Jesus day) disagreed about the day of the week on which to celebrate the Passover. The reason was because there was a disagreement over when a day began. Was it at sunrise or was it at sunset?
The Jews who lived in northern Israel by the Sea of Galilee, and the Pharisees believed that a day began with the sunrise.
The Jews who lived in southern Israel (which would have included Jerusalem) and the Sadducees, calculated days from sunset to sunset.
This difference in opinion, as to when a day started, is what led Jesus and His disciples from northern Israel to celebrate the Passover a day before those who lived in the south did. [Sources: John MacArthur, "The Last Passover, pt. 1" and Michael J. Wilkins in Clinton E. Arnold, gen. ed, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 162]
So once again, with a little research, an alleged contradiction is cleared up. The Passover meal was eaten on two different days.
Let’s look at a fifth apparent contradiction that critics have pointed out. It’s found over in Mark 15 and it has to do with...
What time was Jesus crucified? Approximately 9:00 AM. Why do we believe that? Mark 15.
Mark here tells us here that Jesus was nailed to the cross during “the third hour.” When did a day begin?
Papias (A.D. 60-130) and Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-215) tell us that the source of information for Mark’s Gospel came from the apostle Peter who related the events to Mark. Where was Peter from? Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 1:21, 29). Ahh, where’s that? Northern Israel. When did the Jews in northern Israel believe that a day began? At approximately 6AM, with the rising of the sun. So, to say “the third hour” (Mark 15:25) would be the equivalent of approximately 9AM. Well, that poses an apparent problem. Turn over to John 19.
Notice back there in v. 14, that this whole scene with Pilate, this whole trial which took place before Jesus was crucified, took place at “about the sixth hour” (John 19:14).
Do you see the problem here? Critics do. Is there a solution? Of course.
As I pointed out a minute ago, Mark (Mark 15:25) was referencing a Jewish time system, which for him began at sunrise. John, on the other hand, when he makes mention of Jesus standing before Pontius Pilate at the “sixth hour” (Jn. 19:14), was referencing the Roman time system whose day began at midnight (like ours).
Referring to the Roman time system is something John does throughout his Gospel. [See Norman Geisler, When Critics Ask, p. 376]
For example, see John 20:19 where the evening of the resurrection is still called the first day of the week (Sunday) not the second day of the week.
So, this scene here with Pilate, that John says took place at “about the sixth hour,” took place early in the morning (around 6:00 AM), three hours before Jesus was crucified. This fits perfectly with the sequence of events and lines up precisely with what John said elsewhere. You’ll recall that he said in John 18:28 that Jesus was standing before Pilate "early [in the] morning."
But why would John use the Roman time system? Matthew, Mark and Luke all used the Jewish time system; why would John, who was also a Jew, do differently? Well, where was John was when he wrote his Gospel almost thirty years after the other Gospels were written? Was he in Israel still living with the Jews when he wrote the Gospel of John? No. Where was he? Eusebius and other first and second century writers tell us he was living in Ephesus.
What was Ephesus? Ephesus was the capital of the Roman province of Asia. John was living under the Roman time system when he penned his Gospel! That was what he and his original audience would have been accustomed to.
Using Jewish time references with readers in the Roman Empire (hundreds of miles away from Israel) would have been confusing to them. And so to avoid confusing them, John converts the references to times they would understand. So, knowing a little background about when and where John wrote his Gospel solves the apparent problem.
Jesus stood before Pilate at “the sixth hour” (according to the Roman time system – John 19:14), which would have been about 6:00 AM. And Jesus was crucified about "the third hour” (according to the Jewish time system – Mark 15:25), which would have been about 9:00 AM our time.
This next apparent contradiction has to do with...
We read here of how Judas died. He hung himself. That's pretty clear. But critics say there is a contradiction found over in Acts 1...
That’s pretty graphic, hunh? Judas fell and his body burst open. Probably not a verse you’ve highlighted or committed to memory. But, be that as it may, critics say...
“There’s a contradiction here. One account says Judas hung himself. Another account says he fell.”
Well, what’s the solution? Did Judas hang himself or did he fall?
The answer is both. Judas hung himself and then one of three things likely happened...
1. The rope snapped or came untied
And what happened? Judas fell to the ground, his body broke open and out gushed his entrails. Again, neither of these accounts are contradictory. They are complementary. When you take both accounts together they provide a fuller picture of what happened to Judas.
The seventh and final apparent contradiction we’ll look at in this article has to do with...
Matthew 5:43-45, Jesus said to His disciples...
You’re probably familiar with those words. Jesus taught that we, His disciples, are to extend love to our enemies. We are to “bless” them, “do good” to them and “pray for” them (v.44). That was what Jesus did, and that’s what He commands us, as His followers, to do as well. Well turn over to Luke, chapter 19. Jesus seems to contradict Himself. Look down at v. 27. If you have a Bible that has the words of Jesus in red, you’ll notice that v. 27 is in red ink. These are Jesus’ words my friends. Jesus says…
What!? Jesus tells His disciples to bring His “enemies” before Him and “slay them”!? That seems to contradict everything Jesus just said in Matthew’s Gospel! What’s going on? Here’s the solution:
The words found there in Luke 19:27, although spoken by Jesus, actually appear in a parable and are attributed to a slave-owner. You need to start reading back in v. 11 to get the whole story. Jesus is stating what the slave-owner said in his parable, not commanding His disciples to slay anyone. In fact, look at v. 28 (Lk.19), the verse immediately after the verse in question. Luke writes, “When He had said this, He went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem” (Luke 19:28).
Jesus left immediately after He finished the parable. This totally rules out any possibility that He intended people to be brought to where he was so they could be slain. Critics assume the Bible contradicts itself here in Luke because of a...
FAILURE TO UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT.That, my friends, is the number one mistake that people make when interpreting the Scriptures. Failing to understand the context. You must be careful to remember that...
So, I encourage you to always investigate the context of a passage you read. That will, more times than not, help clear up a difficult passage.
The Bible is absolutely trustworthy and it proves to
So friend, I encourage you to...
That’s why He’s given you the Bible, so that you might know Him.
Do you know God in a personal, intimate way? You can!
That’s why Jesus—God in the flesh—died on the cross. Because of His great love for you, He died there in your place, to pay the penalty for your sins! Why? So that you could be forgiven, rescued from spending eternity in Hell, and be brought back into a relationship with your Creator.
He rose from the grave three days later and today He is offering mankind (you!) the forgiveness of sins and the “free gift” (Rom. 6:23) of everlasting life to all those who will turn from their sins and place their faith in Him. Place your faith in Jesus today: Steps to peace with God.
CHARLIE H. CAMPBELL (Twitter: @charlieabready)
Charlie Campbell is the Director of the Always Be Ready Apologetics Ministry and a popular guest speaker at churches and conferences. He is the author of numerous articles, books, and DVDs, including:
• Scrolls & Stones: Compelling Evidence the Bible Can Be Trusted
• Evidence for the Existence of God
• One Minute Answers to Skeptics
• Archaeological Evidence for the Bible
• The End Times: Ten Upcoming Events in Bible Prophecy
• The Case for the Resurrection
• Teaching and Preaching God's Word
His DVDs and books have been endorsed by Norman Geisler, Charles Colson, Chuck Smith, Ed Hindson, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Jeremy Camp, and many others.