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FIRST-PERSON (part 4): The problem of differences: Do the Gospels contradict one another?

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–As I mentioned earlier this week, Bart Ehrman and I have debated on two occasions. In both of them, Ehrman contended that the New Testament Gospels are not reliable because they contain differences between them when reporting on the same event. Pertaining to Jesus’ death, Ehrman asks whether Jesus was crucified on the day of the Passover meal or the day before, at 9 a.m. or noon, whether He or Simon of Cyrene carried His cross, and whether one or both thieves with whom He was crucified cursed Him.

Pertaining to Jesus’ resurrection, Ehrman asks how many women went to the tomb; what their names were; whether there were one or two angels at the tomb or a young man; whether the women reported the empty tomb to the male disciples or remained silent; whether Jesus first appeared to His disciples in Jerusalem or Galilee?; whether Jesus ascended on Easter or weeks later. To all of these questions Ehrman answers, “It depends which Gospel you read.”

Differences among accounts are of interest to historians. However, they are not usually as destructive to historical investigation as Ehrman suggests. You may be surprised to learn that survivors of the Titanic contradicted one another pertaining to whether the ship broke in two prior to sinking or went down intact. We may wonder how some of the eyewitnesses could be so mistaken when they were right there. But they were. And yet, no one concluded that the Titanic didn’t sink. The only conclusion was that a question mark remained pertaining to this relatively minor detail.

Let’s look at an example from antiquity. In the year A.D. 64, the city of Rome, which was the capital of the civilized world at the time, caught fire and burned. The event is reported by three primary sources, Tacitus (c. A.D. 112), Suetonius (c. A.D. 115) and Dio Cassius (c. A.D. 200), none of whom are ideal sources. Tacitus has an aristocratic bias and invents speeches. Suetonius is indiscriminate in his use of sources and Dio contradicts himself. None were eyewitnesses to much if any of the first-century events they report. And their accounts of the fire of Rome contain differences. Did Nero send men openly to torch the city (Suetonius) or did he do it in secret (Dio) or was he not at all responsible for the fire (Tacitus)? It depends whom you read. Did Nero watch the blaze from the tower of Maecenas (Suetonius) or from his palace roof (Dio) or was he 35 miles away in Antium (Tacitus)? Depends whom you read. We may never have certainty pertaining to some of the details related to the fire. But these sources are good enough to conclude that Rome burned.

The same historical principle applies to the Gospels. While Ehrman contends that the Gospels are biased, not written by eyewitnesses, and contain differences, he still agrees with nearly every other New Testament scholar that they’re reliable enough to provide historians with a substantial collection of facts that can be known about Jesus. My point is that, even prior to a discussion over whether the differences among the Gospels can be resolved, it’s noteworthy that differences in the Gospels often cited involve relatively minor details and are of limited importance.

That said, what about the differences cited by Ehrman? Let’s look at a few. For example, Jesus could have carried His cross a portion of the way but could not go the entire way due to having been severely scourged, resulting in Simon’s enlistment to complete the task. All historians are selective in the material they preserve and John simply may not have found the story of Simon to be noteworthy for inclusion in his Gospel. A contradiction would exist only if John had clearly stated that Jesus was alone in carrying His cross the entire way. Without difficulty, we may imagine both thieves cursing Jesus with one becoming repentant after seeing how Jesus suffered righteously and without bitterness toward His enemies.

Pertaining to Jesus’ resurrection, much confusion has occurred over a quick reading of the beginning of John 20. Matthew, Mark and Luke report that multiple women went to the tomb while John appears to report that Mary went alone. However, a careful reading of John 20:1-2 reveals that John was only showcasing the woman doing the speaking, since Mary reports to the disciples, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb and WE don’t know where they have laid him!” Luke makes a similar move in reference to the disciples who went to the tomb upon hearing the women’s report (Luke 24:12, 24). This observation can also account for the differences in reports pertaining to whether there were one or two angels at the tomb.

On another matter, did the first group appearance of the risen Jesus to His disciples occur in Jerusalem or Galilee and did Jesus ascend on Easter or weeks later? Much of the confusion results from Luke’s account where Jesus’ resurrection, along with all of the appearances and the ascension seemingly occur on Easter. The appearances and ascension are spread over a period of time in the other Gospels. This, too, is easily resolved when we consider the literary device of time compression, also known as telescoping where one can imagine numerous historical events represented by multiple segments of a telescope that are collapsed into one. For purposes of economy, Luke has compressed all of the events into one day. However, he was certainly aware that they had occurred over a longer period. For in Acts 1:3, he reports that the risen Jesus appeared to His disciples over a period of 40 days. Ehrman’s indictment of the Gospels as unreliable for reporting different locations and durations simply reveals that he has not spent enough time carefully considering these texts in the context of their ancient literary conventions.

Not all apparent contradictions in the Gospels are so easily addressed. But it is important to note that most of them impact little if anything. And Ehrman knows this. Despite the hesitations he expresses toward the reports of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the Gospels, he still concludes, “One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate.” Regarding the resurrection appearances to Jesus’ disciples, he writes, “[W]e can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that … [Jesus] soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.”
Mike Licona is the apologetics coordinator at the North American Mission Board. For a better understanding of today’s world religions and for resources that will help you defend your faith, visit NAMB’s apologetics website at www.4truth.net.
A four-part video series featuring an interview with Mike Licona about Bart Ehrman accompanies this series. To view the videos, go to http://bit.ly/1oPRbA.

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  • Mike Licona