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Contradictions in the Bible

This is an extremely difficult article to write; but that is only true because people assume that one must be either on the side of cynicism and doubt, or on the side of the kind of zeal that sees no harm in altering the facts.  Nevertheless, I feel that faith which is built on a distortion of the truth needs to be challenged if it is to be genuine faith at all.

What I’m talking about are contradictions in the Bible.  There have been whole books written about this, most of them by skeptics trying to discredit all faith in the Bible.  And there has been at least one book written in an attempt to go through and explain away the contradictions. (Evidence that Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell).  Neither extreme appeals to me; so I’m going to have a go at entering this debate, in the hope of contributing to a more honest, but believing approach.

To narrow things down a bit, I will, in this article, only deal with accounts in the four Gospels relating to the resurrection of Jesus (material from Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21).  If you read the Bible much, you will have noticed that these same sort of contradictions exist in a lot of other places as well.

From the atheist side, there has been a long-standing challenge, with a $2,000 cash prize for any Christian who can write a single narrative including all of the facts relating to the resurrection in the four gospels, in such a way that they do not contradict one another.  When you compare the four gospels you are immediately faced with a long list of questions which reveal just how difficult it would be to meet such a challenge:

1. How many women came to the tomb on that first Easter Sunday?

Matthew says it was Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary”.  

Mark says it was Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome.

Luke says it was certain women from Galilee along with others who accompanied them.  He later names one of them as Joanna.

John says it was Mary Magdalene (on her own).

Possible explanation: To make them all correct, we could just say that there was a group of at least five or six people (probably all women) who went there early in the morning, and that this group included the four women named above.  So far, no big problem.

2. What did they find on arriving?

Matthew says there was an earthquake, after which an angel came down from the sky, rolled back the stone, then sat upon it, scaring the guards half to death.  From his seat on the stone, the angel addressed the women.

Mark says the stone had already been rolled away when they got there, and so they went inside the sepulchre, where a “young man" spoke to them.

Luke says much the same as Mark, except that he says there were two “men" inside the sepulchre.

John, who had earlier stated that only Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, says that, on seeing the stone rolled away, she fled, assuming that the guards had taken the body.  No mention of angels/men, no mention of Jesus having risen from the dead, and no mention of Mary Magdalene entering the tomb.

Possible explanation:  We could assume that Matthew was talking about something that happened before the women arrived (i.e. the earthquake, the arrival of the angel, and the guards reacting in fear), and that when he talks about the angel addressing the women, he has omitted the fact that the angel had moved inside the tomb by the time the women arrived.  To make it consistent with what Luke wrote, there could be a second angel (or “young man”) inside the tomb whom Matthew and Mark failed to mention.  And we could say that Mary fled on her own before seeing the angel, thus leaving the other women to go inside without her.  Of course, at this stage it’s getting a bit more difficult to reconcile the differences, because it would certainly make sense that Mary’s curiosity would have led her to go inside too, by which time she would have learned that the body had NOT been stolen by the guards.  Nevertheless, on the whole, there still are not overwhelming problems with the passages.

3. What did the angel(s) say?

Matthew says that the angel told the women that Jesus had risen from the dead and then invited them to come inside the tomb to see that the body was gone.  He told them to pass word to the disciples that Jesus would meet them at an unspecified rendezvous point in Galilee (which, he says, Jesus had earlier told them about).

Mark says that the “young man” said essentially the same thing (about meeting the disciples in Galilee, and in particular, about meeting Peter there), but the young man does so from inside the tomb, where he was first discovered by the women.

Luke says that two men told the women that Jesus had risen from the dead, and that they too made reference to Galilee, but only to say that when the disciples had been in Galilee, Jesus had predicted that he would die and then return to life “on the third day".

John says nothing about angels nor about men speaking to anyone.

Possible explanation:  It is widely accepted that the young man and the men were angels.  The only problem here is the reference to meeting in Galilee (mainly because of what follows, where things happen in Jerusalem instead). Traditional stories about the resurrection say almost nothing about events in Galilee, as the focus is more on what is said to have happened there in Jerusalem.  I have never seen any kind of a time frame for travel from Jerusalem to Galilee and back.  People just seem to appear in different places instead.

4.  How did the women react to what the angel(s) said?

Matthew says that the women ran to tell the disciples what the angel had said, and bumped into Jesus on the way.  They “held him by the feet and worshipped him”.  At this time Jesus, too, told them to go and let the disciples know that he was going to meet them in Galilee.  They did as they were asked, and told the disciples, who presumably believed them (because they headed off to Galilee, as asked).

Mark says that the women were so afraid that they said nothing to    anyone.  However, he goes on to say that Mary met Jesus on her own, presumably later, and she ceased being afraid.  She went and told the others that Jesus was alive, but they didn’t believe her.

Luke says that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and some other women all went and told the eleven remaining disciples that Jesus had risen and that he would meet them in Galilee.  The disciples did not believe them.

John had earlier said that Mary Magdalene fled and told the others only that the guards had stolen the body of Jesus.

Possible explanation:  Here it becomes virtually impossible to reconcile the contradictions.  Luke has specifically mentioned Mary Magdalene in the company of women who went to tell the Eleven that Jesus had risen, whereas John had said that Mary Magdalene went to tell them that the body had been stolen.  Mark further contradicts Matthew and Luke, by saying that the women said nothing.  We also have the confusing matter of the women being told that Jesus was more or less on his way to Galilee, yet they bumped into him somewhere between the tomb and the Upper Room.  It is noteworthy that the women touched Jesus, whereas later he told Mary not to touch him.

5.  What about Peter and John?

Matthew says nothing about Peter and John, only that, when the disciples heard the message to meet Jesus in Galilee, they departed for Galilee, as instructed, meeting him on some unspecified mountain in that province, which is over 100km north of there.

Mark, who earlier had said that the women said nothing, tells us that Mary Magdalene met Jesus on her own (presumably after she and the others had decided to say nothing to anyone).  After that meeting she delivered the message that he was alive.  Mark says that the disciples did not believe her.  No mention is made of Peter or John.

Luke says that the disciples did not believe the women, although Peter ran to the tomb and saw that it was empty, and just “wondered” at it.

John, who had earlier said that only Mary came back, that she had only spoken to him and Peter, and that she had reported that the body had been stolen, goes on to say that he and Peter both raced to the tomb, saw that it was empty and that the linen cloth was lying in it, and then, for some unknown reason, they both “believed”.

Possible explanation:  Someone has suggested that the linen cloth may have lain on the floor in the form of a body, indicating that the body of Jesus had miraculously passed through it (without having to unroll it), and that may have caused Peter and John to believe.  It’s possible that Matthew jumped ahead a couple of weeks, skipping all that happened in Jerusalem, in which case the disciples may have not believed at first (as stated by Mark and Luke), but then later believed, at which time they went to Galilee.  There still is some confusion as to why Jesus and the angel(s) would send a message for the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee, and then go to meet them in Jerusalem instead.

6.  What about other encounters?

John goes on to tell the popular story about Mary’s encounter with Jesus AFTER John and Peter had visited the tomb.  This is not recorded by the other gospel writers, although Mark may have been talking about the same incident.  The problem is that it is out of order by comparison with what John has written (a common problem when trying to compare stuff in John’s gospel with the other three gospels).  In John’s account, Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping (because she still thought that the body had been stolen), and then she (finally) looked inside, to see two angels (not “men” this time).  She then turned around and saw a third person (Jesus).  Neither Jesus nor the angels are recorded as having said anything about Jesus having risen from the dead; but Jesus just spoke her name, and in that instant Mary Magdalene knew it was Jesus and she believed.  Jesus instructed Mary not to touch his body, because he had not yet ascended to heaven.  And Jesus told Mary to let the others know that he was going to “ascend” to heaven.  John says that she told the others, but we are not told whether they believed her or not.

Mark makes brief mention of two incidents both of which were recorded in some detail by Luke and one of which was recorded in detail by John:

Luke tells the story of Jesus meeting with two disciples who were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  When they worked out that it was Jesus whom they had spoken with, they raced into Jerusalem, where the other disciples reported that they now believed too, because of reports they had received from Peter.  This leads on to the story of Jesus appearing miraculously in the room while the two from the Emmaus story were still there.  Jesus invited the disciples to “handle me”, in order to convince themselves that he was not a ghost, thus raising question about whether he had, in fact, already “ascended” to heaven.

John tells the story of Jesus coming through the wall of this same    locked room in Jerusalem, to reveal himself to the other (unbelieving?) disciples.  John specifically says that it happened on the same day that Jesus rose from the dead.  And he says that Jesus made another appearance in the same room eight days later, when Thomas was present.   

Mark says, in his brief account of these two incidents, that Jesus rebuked the disciples for their unbelief, and then he ascended to heaven, presumably right there in Jerusalem, possibly even from inside the room.

Matthew makes no mention of the ascension, even though he said that the disciples went straight to a mountain in Galilee after they had received word from the women that Jesus had risen from the dead.

The entire 21st chapter of John’s gospel is dedicated to events that John says happened in Galilee, although there is no mention of an ascension.  

Luke specifically says that Jesus ascended to heaven in Bethany,    which is very close to Jerusalem; so the question of why they went to Galilee is uncertain, as well as when it happened, and when they all returned to Bethany for the ascension.

So What Does this Mean to Us?

Obviously, trying to piece all the bits together is definitely fraught with contradictions.  I think most Bible scholars who have gone through the sort of comparisons I have written above would have to admit that the pieces do not fit together well.  It is only the most obsessive fundamentalists who would argue that there are no contradictions.  For such people, it is absolutely essential that they believe that the Bible is infallible.  Without that air of invincibility, they are thrown into a world where one could choose to believe some things and not believe others.  Such a world could, in their opinion, lead to spiritual chaos.

And yet look at what has emerged from NOT facing up to the reality of mistakes in the Bible.  We have fundamentalists of just about every persuasion, each trying to argue the literal relevance of one passage while dismissing a literal interpretation of another.  The Calvinist/Arminian debate is just one such example.  Both have excellent proof texts, but both must close their minds to the other’s proof texts.  Can one honestly take the whole Bible literally?  I don’t think so.  We may take some things literally, and I think that is a good thing.  But when we do, we must also accept that there are other bits that we do not take so literally.  We may think there were errors in translation, that the Bible has been tampered with throughout the ages, that the meaning has been lost through changes in the language, or any number of other rationalisations, but the bottom line is that some amount of “wrestling” is necessary to smooth out the wrinkles.

Those fundamentalists who argue that one must believe that every word is infallible, are the ones who actually set the stage for critics to say with confidence that the entire Bible is a lie.  This all-or-nothing approach is taken by both sides, and yet it is just as wrong when used by the critics as it is by the apologists.  

The Bible does not have to be perfect to be the best revelation of the will of God that the world has ever known.  By using the word “best” (instead of “perfect and complete”), we leave room for disagreement; but we do not need to accept that it nullifies all that the Bible says.

The Jesus Seminars

I don’t know a lot about it, but apparently there has been a movement in the U.S. where a number of eminent theologians were called on to rank various teachings of Jesus according to those ones which are most reliable.  It was called “The Jesus Seminars”.  They came up with a fairly good summary of what Jesus taught, ranked from those teachings which were most fully supported by evidence and coherence, to those which were somewhat more questionable, often because of contradictions, or because of lines which seemed out of context.

Far from being chaotic, the picture was one of a loving Messiah, pointing people to a new kingdom, where love and faith reign supreme, and where people trust the Creator of the Universe to care for their needs, as they focus on loving others and sharing this exciting message.  There was no need to discard anything, just as I would not advocate throwing out anything from the four accounts of the resurrection that we have just gone through.  But people were able to openly say that they did not understand some passages so well as they understood others.  It set the scene for a more reasonable coming together of those who have found help and hope in Jesus Christ and his teachings.

Some of us might rank the teachings differently, but we would do so on the basis of an understanding that none of those teachings (least of all the ones with a lower rank) could be used as a club to beat someone else into believing as we do.

Take, for example, our understanding of the resurrection and the return of Jesus.  There are a lot of people who have trouble with such teachings.  Nevertheless, we Jesus Christians feel that teachings about the resurrection and the second coming are extremely important, especially in the age in which we now live.  We can appreciate that others may have good reasons for doubting, and we can accept that sometimes these teachings have been abused and misinterpreted in ways which eventually proved to be harmful.  But what we have discovered about such things as The Revelation, is just how perfectly (well, almost perfectly!) it meshes with that same overall picture of the teachings of Jesus mentioned above… about a world that transcends all the kingdoms of man, culminating in an eternal kingdom which will rule over the population of the earth under the just yet gracious leadership of Jesus.  Developments like the microchip implant mesh with talk of love for money and where it is leading, which also comes from the most reliable teachings of Jesus.  A far more “reasonable” understanding emerges from this more honest approach.  In fact, it has been our opinion that the pieces start fitting together much more easily when we stop trying to force them into place.

In Conclusion

It may seem like an insignificant (or even dangerous) teaching, to say quite plainly that there are contradictions in the Bible; and yet we have found that more harm results from trying to hide that truth than from searching for what is “most” reliable in the Bible, and holding strongly to that. We have started by assuming that a more honest approach will produce stronger faith, even if that faith takes a somewhat different direction.  There must be many atheists in the world who are only atheists because they could not accept a dishonest approach to the Bible.  Such people may actually turn out to have more integrity than those who have fudged on the truth in order to defend biased doctrinal agendas.  

And so we put this article out there for consideration.  Let us all look for ways to walk within the light that we have, while acknowledging areas of teaching which yet await further light, for the greater good of a kingdom which does not belong to us, but to him who is Light.

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