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Contradictions Between the Gospel Records?

If we diligently study the four gospels with an eye of faith, then we are rewarded with a deepened connection to God and His Son.
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In His wisdom, God provided four Divinely inspired narratives of Jesus’ life. There could have been many more; one gospel writer acknowledges this:

And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 22:25).1

Rather than embrace the richness of multiple perspectives on Jesus’ life, some critics (sadly, even some ostensibly in the household of faith), use what they perceive to be contradictions amongst the four accounts as a springboard to assert that some aspects of the gospel accounts are factually wrong. 

Such assertions have no place in our community of faith. The very first doctrine we reject is: “That the Bible is only partly the work of inspiration—or if wholly so, contains errors which inspiration has allowed.” Faith can only be built on the foundation of complete trust that the Bible is inspired by God, factually true, and essential for salvation: 

The Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:15-17).

In short, we don’t get to pick and choose what is true about the Bible.

Before we examine claims that the gospels contradict each other, it’s important to define what Bible critics mean by “contradiction.” Critics mean that information is either true or false. In this context, Hobbes provides a succinct definition: “Both parts of a contradiction cannot possibly be true.”

Therefore, claim the critics, if Jesus cleansed the temple at the start of his ministry (as recorded in John 2), then he can’t have cleansed it at the end of his ministry (as documented in Matt 21). These critics reason that one account must be true and the other false.

This kind of illogical reasoning is memorialized in the well-known poem “The Blind Man And The Elephant.” In the poem, six blind men encounter an elephant, yet none of them recognize it as such. One says it’s a wall, another a tree, another a spear, etc. If the blind men had compared their accounts to develop a complete picture, they would have understood there wasn’t a contradiction. So it is with the gospel accounts.

If we compare the four narratives in an intellectually honest manner, then we see there is no contradiction. If we diligently study the four gospels with an eye of faith, then we are rewarded with a deepened connection to God and His Son: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” (Prov 25:2).

Jesus’ Temptations

Critics question the reliability of the gospel accounts by pointing out that Matthew and Luke have different accounts of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness:

How can we trust the accounts, critics say if they can’t even agree on the order of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness? Such critics fail to understand that Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness were both cyclical and repeated. 

Jesus didn’t face three temptations experienced once; he faced three temptations repeated again and again, in different sequential order. We know this because Luke tells us the temptations continued even after the wilderness: “Now when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13).

The sequence of temptation that Jesus faced was dictated by his struggles with the flesh (i.e., “opportune time”). Both Matthew’s sequence, and Luke’s sequence, occurred as recorded.

The Lord’s Prayer

Critics have assailed the model prayer that Jesus gave as an example of a gospel contradiction. Matthew’s account (6:9-13) and Luke’s account (11:2-4) are different. “There can be only one true version,” say the critics.

The purpose and timing of the model prayer are plainly different for each account. In Matthew, the model prayer was part of the Sermon on the Mount and was a rebuke to the Pharisees’ prayer practices. Conversely, in Luke, it is part of the later Galilean ministry, given in response to his disciples’ request. The conflict lies solely in the critics’ imaginations. 

Manufactured Contradictions

As John points out, every gospel writer had a mountain of material with which to work. Although Divinely inspired, each writer decided what details to include and what to omit. Rather than acknowledge that the gospel writers paint different parts of the same picture, critics create contradictions where none exist. Three examples are illustrative:

  • Were there two demon-possessed men (Matt 8:28) or one (Mark 5:2)?
  • Were there two blind men (Matt 20:30) or one (Mark 10:46)?
  • Were there two angels at the tomb (Luke 24:4) or one (Mark 16:5)?

Although critics frame the question as a binary choice, the real answer is that Mark, for the purposes of his narrative, chose to focus on only one.

Even when there are two explicitly different accounts, critics create contradictions where they don’t exist. Perhaps the best example is the account of Jesus’ feet being anointed (Luke 7:36-50 compared to Matt 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-8). Here, critics base their reasoning on the premise that it must be only one event. This contradiction is easily resolved once the context of the narratives is understood. 

The same woman—Mary of Bethany—anoints Jesus twice, earlier in his ministry and later in the last week of his life. In Luke, Mary was in her family home in Galilee and anointed Jesus in grateful celebration for her new life as a forgiven disciple. Jesus had forgiven Mary, while her father, Simon, had not.

In the other accounts, Mary is in her family’s second home in Bethany. Like many wealthy Galilean families, Mary’s family had a second residence near Jerusalem,2 and here she anoints Jesus because she—alone amongst the disciples—understands that Jesus must die. Jesus’ responses to the two events show they were different occurrences:

“You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven.” (Luke 7:46-47).
“When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.” (Matt 26:12).

Similarly, critics point to the apparent contradiction between the accounts of Jesus’ cleansing the temple. Matthew (21:12-17) and Mark (11:15-18) place Jesus’ actions in the last week of his life. John places Jesus’ actions at the beginning of his ministry. Rather than acknowledge the simple fact that both accounts are accurate—that Jesus began and ended his ministry by cleansing the temple—critics arbitrarily assert that only one account must be true.  

Critics also take the opposite approach, using differing descriptions of the same event to manufacture a contradiction between gospels. For example, a critic asks: “The gospels also disagree about where Jesus taught his most famous sermon. Was it on a mount or on a plain?” A close look at the texts demonstrates that there is no conflict.

Matthew says the teaching takes place on an oros, a Greek word that can mean both mountain (e.g., Matt 4:8) and hill (Matt 5:14). Luke describes the setting using a unique word; the word that’s translated “plain” occurs only here. The word simply means a flat place. Taken together, we understand that Jesus used a setting that resembled a natural amphitheater—seating for the crowd and an elevated place for the teacher. 

Not Recognizing That Details Are Different Parts of the Same Process

Rather than acknowledging that gospel writers emphasize different parts of a process, critics set one event against another in a binary way. Crucifixion was a process, and Jesus was on the cross for several hours. During that time, several comments were made to Jesus and about Jesus. Both Matthew and Mark quote the centurion as saying, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Matt 27:54; Mark 15:39); however, Luke records the centurion as saying, “Surely this was a righteous man.” (Luke 23:47).

Rather than insisting on only one account being correct, surely it makes more sense to believe that over the course of several hours, the centurion would have been moved to say many things about Jesus and that Matthew and Mark focused on one saying and that Luke focused on another.

A centurion figures in another example. Luke (7:1–10) records the centurion sending Jewish elders to ask Jesus to heal his servant, but Matthew (8:5-13) states that the centurion went to Jesus directly. We infer that a process unfolded:

  1. The centurion asked the Jewish leaders to intervene on his behalf.
  2. Jesus agreed and made his way to the centurion’s home.
  3. The centurion met Jesus on the way and entreated Jesus personally.

We can see that Luke, a gospel to the Gentiles, would want to highlight the action of Jews on behalf of Gentiles. Similarly, Matthew, a gospel to the Jews, would want to underscore the faith of a Gentile. Both actions happened as part of the process that resulted in Jesus’ healing the centurion’s servant.

A similar incident regards the accounts of the women at the tomb. Mark says the women ran from the tomb and told no one (Mark 16:8). In Matthew’s version, the women run to tell the disciples (Matt 28:8). The simple explanation is that Mark is emphasizing that the women did not speak inside the tomb (because they were afraid), not that they never reported the good news to others.

Taken as a whole, the gospels support this explanation; Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John agree the women did not speak inside the tomb.

The call of the disciples is another process critics mistakenly understand as a singular event. John (1: 35-42) records Andrew and Peter responding to Jesus’ call in the context of John the Baptist’s preaching. Matthew (4:18-22) and Mark (1:16-20) place the setting of Jesus’ call as fishing on the Sea of Galilee.

Luke (5:1-11) sets the calling against the backdrop of a miraculous haul of fish. Rather than viewing the disciples’ calling as a singular event, we can see that the gospels record an iterative process that resulted in Andrew, Peter, James, and John becoming closer and closer to Jesus, finally becoming his “full-time” disciples. John documents the initial contact, Matthew and Mark portray the next step, and Luke records the final step.

Jesus’ Last Passover

Let’s be clear. Matthew, Mark, and Luke state that Jesus ate a Passover meal with the Twelve. However, John’s gospel makes no direct mention of Christ’s last meal being a Passover and appears to state that the Passover meal occurred after Christ was arrested. There are three ways this apparent contradiction can be resolved.

  1. Jesus ate the Passover meal with the twelve. John’s use of the term “Passover” doesn’t mean only the Passover meal but rather the events of Passover week. Although John doesn’t explicitly identify Jesus’ last meal as a Passover, there are many clues in his account that identify the meal as a Passover.3
  2. Jesus ate an early Passover meal ahead of the actual Passover date.
  3. The synoptic gospels use the Galilean calendar of the Pharisees; however, John uses the Judean/Roman calendar used by the Sadducees.

Each of the three explanations above is a plausible way of understanding the apparent contradiction between the Synoptics and John. 

Our Foundation

The foundation of our belief is clear:

THE FOUNDATION.—That the book currently known as the Bible, consisting of the Scriptures of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles, is the only source of knowledge concerning God and His purposes at present extant or available in the earth, and that the same were wholly given by inspiration of God in the writers, and are consequently without error in all parts of them, except such as may be due to errors of transcription or translation.—2 Timothy 3:16; 1 Corinthians 2:13; Hebrews 1:1; 2 Peter 1:21; 1 Corinthians 14:37; Nehemiah 9:30; John 10:35.

The gospels are four narratives of Jesus’ life, providing factually correct information derived from eyewitnesses. Peter tells us we can rely on them to be the foundation of our faith: 

For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. (2 Pet 1:16-18).

Shawn Moynihan,
Guelph Ecclesia, ON

  1. All Scriptural citations are taken from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.
  2. We know Mary’s family was wealthy because of Lazarus’ tomb. To be buried in a tomb was a mark of the wealthy, as the fulfillment of Isa 53:9 demonstrates.
  3. Joachim Jeremias’s book The Eucharistic Words of Jesus provides fourteen distinct details that identify the Last Supper as the Passover Seder.
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