Do Contradictions In The Gospels Make Them Untrustworthy?
“I believe the gospels are unreliable because of all the contradictions,” someone told me online years ago.
I responded by saying, “I disagree. I think what you see in the gospels, because of the readily apparent contradictions, is the presence of a lack of editorializing.”
A Christian friend watching this conversation take place emailed me later and said,
“What are some of the ‘readily apparent contradictions’ you’re referring to? I always tell people there are ‘differences’ but not contradictions. Differences can be explained (even if we’re not sure how to explain them) whereas contradictions can’t be – they’re just wrong.
So what are some of the contradictions? (And I’m not asking to be argumentative, I want to know so I’ll be better prepared to talk to people and answer their questions and “defend” the faith.)
Since this is a common question, let me share what I consider to be some examples of explicit contradictions. Then let me share why I’m so happy they’re there.
Contradictions In the Resurrection Story
According to the Christian faith, there was no more important miracle than Jesus’ resurrection. If there wasn’t a resurrection, according to the apostle Paul, then there’s no legitimate basis for the hope of an afterlife. With this in mind, if there was ever a section of the gospels you’d think would be free from problems for its readers, it would be the resurrection accounts. However, the exact opposite is true.
When you place all four resurrection accounts side by side you immediately notice glaring contradictions…
What time did the women visit the tomb?
§ Mark: “Just after sunrise” (Mark 16:2)
§ John: “While it was still dark” (John 20:1)
Who were the women that visited the tomb?
§ Luke: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women (Luke 24:10)
§ John: Mary Magdalene alone (John 20:1)
What was their purpose?
§ Matthew: To see the tomb (Matthew 28:1)
§ John: Jesus’ body was already treated with spices before they arrived (John 19:39-40)
Who met the women at the tomb when they arrived?
§ Matthew: One angel (Matthew 28:2-7)
§ Mark: One young man (Mark 16:5)
§ Luke: Two men (Luke 24:4)
§ John: Two angels (John 20:12)
Where were these messengers located at the tomb site?
§ Matthew: Angel sitting on a stone (Matthew 28:2)
§ Mark: Young man sitting inside the tomb (Mark 16:5)
§ Luke: Two men standing inside (Luke 24:4)
§ John: Two angels sitting on each end of where Jesus was laid (John 20:12)
Did the women tell anyone what they witnessed?
§ Mark: No – “They said nothing to anyone” (Mark 16:8)
§ John: Yes – “Mary Magdalene went to the disciples…and told them…” (John 20:18)
Are These Contradictions?
Of course these are contradictions.
Not “the appearance of contradictions,” as many Christian apologists claim that they must be in order for us to trust the Bible. These are legitimate contradictions as measured by any laws of historical, philosophical and literary analysis.
Do they discredit the trustworthiness of the gospels? Of course not.
Lack Of Editorializing = Reliability
We (and any court of law) trust witnesses who corroborate the main facts of a story, but diverge on non-essential details. We know “something’s up” when four witnesses go under oath and share the exact same story, line by line. When that happens, everyone realizes that the four of them “got their story straight” beforehand.
It’s fashionable today for misinformed critics of the Bible to claim that the stories of Jesus included in the gospels were later smoothed over, and the contradictory and unflattering parts were edited out.
As you just saw in the resurrection accounts alone, the exact opposite is true. The testimony of each gospel was left intact, despite the problems raised when compared side by side.
The presence of contradictions, not the absence of them, points to the resurrection story’s credibility.
Contradictions Serve As Evidence That The Gospels Contain Eyewitness Stories
In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Leon Morris writes, “The differences between the Gospels amount to no more than a demonstration that in them we have the spontaneous evidence of witnesses, not the stereotyped repetition of an official story” (p. 731).
In other words, the contradictions in the minor details point to the fact that the main parts of the story that have unanimous agreement (Jesus died, was buried, raised from the dead, and was seen) are to be believed.
What we’re dealing with in the gospels are legit eyewitness testimonies.
And you can trust them because of the contractions, not in spite of them.
What do you think?