‘Just read the text,’ cries biblical studies author (and skeptic) Bart Ehrman again and again during his lecture Are the Gospels Historically Reliable? The Problem of Contradictions.
Bart Ehrman puts forward some difficult passages … But a moment or two of thinking erased many of the contradictions.
So, I did read the text. And, what I found is that Bart Ehrman puts forward some difficult passages for believers. But what I also found is that a moment or two of thinking erased many of the contradictions. Some of the contradictions were so fragile that it made me wonder if Bart Ehrman was being just a little bit disingenuous.
And there is a lot at stake here. In the words of Ehrman, ‘If you read a description of how something happened in the past and it isn’t what happened. Then it is not historically reliable.’ (9 mins 50 sec). This goes to his wider thesis, ‘’If the account is wrong in the small things, how do you know it isn’t wrong in bigger things?’
Ehrman’s definition of a contradiction is: ‘Two or more accounts that are different from each other and in a way that cannot be reconciled.’ And so, ‘two contradictory accounts cannot both be historically accurate.’ Agreed.
At the start of his lecture, Ehrman enthusiastically urges us to read the Bible horizontally. What he means by this is to compare like passages in Luke, Mark & Matthew with each other. He shares this with the enthusiasm of a scholar that has discovered something radically new. But, even back in the 1980s, my old NIV noted all the like passages across the gospels.
But, enough preamble. Let’s get into the contradictions and see if Bart Ehrman’s contradictions hold up. I’m treating them in the order they come up in his lecture.
1. Jairus and the Healing of his Daughter.
The two comparable passages are Mark 5:21-24 and Matthew 9:18-20. Ehrman makes much of a key difference here. In Mark’s account, Jairus’ daughter is not dead. But in Matthew’s account, she is.
Now, here is something very interesting. Ehrman urges his listeners to just read the text. When we do that we notice a few things.
In Mark’s Gospel, when Jairus speaks to Jesus he says, ‘my daughter has death’ in the original language Koine Greek. This is a bold and vivid image. And we’d be forgiven for thinking the daughter is in fact dead. It is only when some people come from Jairus’ house to tell him, his daughter is now dead that we realise she was in fact living.
While Jesus was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” (Mark 5:35 NIV)
This confirms Ehrman—kind of.
When you read Mark and Matthew carefully you’ll see Mark’s account of the interruption of the bleeding woman and the events around Jairus’ daughter more extensive than Matthew. There are lots more details. Mark’s account is 23 verses long while Matthew’s is only 9. As you read these two accounts, you’ll see that Matthew has compressed both stories, of Jairus’ daughter and the bleeding woman, summarising them in a couple of sentences. He misses lots of details.
Could it be then that Matthew has simply put a summary of the situation on Jairus’ lips, thereby removing the need for the detail of the servants?
There is one more thing to consider. The verb used by Matthew, translated as ‘has died’ is an aorist. It is often translated with past tense for simplicity’s sake but it is much more like the overview of an action or occurrence. This means Jairus could either be saying his daughter has just now died (past tense simplicity) or that her death is an imminent reality, just like Mark. My daughter has death.
Perhaps this does not convince you. Fair enough. But do consider that both accounts agree in these significant details:
- Jairus’ coming;
- Kneeling at Jesus’ feet;
- Jairus asking Jesus to put his hands on his daughter;
- The bleeding woman interrupting;
- The words to the bleeding woman;
- The girl being dead when Jesus arrives;
- The words of Jesus—‘The girl is not dead but sleeping;’
- The laughter and disbelief of the crowd;
- Jesus taking her by the hand.
The key to the event is that the girl is dead before Jesus arrives. Which is really the drama and central point of this event. Jesus raised a dead girl. I think a fair reading of the text shows the overwhelming consistency, even with different styles.
The key to the event is that the girl is dead … Jesus raised a dead girl.
And here I come to one of my caveats. Each of the Gospels is retelling the events of Jesus. And each is representing them as historical events. But I wonder if Bart Ehrman is applying a 21st century standard. He isn’t ‘just reading the text,’ he’s applying modern notions of absolute precision in (verbatim) reporting and using a minor difference in the speech of one character as an excuse to throw the whole event out the window. Does the difference he spotted really mean that Jairus’ daughter really wasn’t at the point of death or in fact dead when Jesus arrived?
But let’s move on.
2. Luke and Matthew Genealogy
The next difference is between the genealogies found in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38.
Historically, scholars understood the differences between the genealogies due to one being Mary’s and the other Joseph’s. However, as Ehrman and others note, it isn’t ever said to be Mary’s line but Joseph’s. So, what can explain this difference? The current thinking is that two genealogies represent two different aspects of Joseph’s heritage. One genealogy is his biological line but the other may be his legal genealogy. See a short discussion on genealogies here with scholar Darrel Bock. (Are the Gospels historically reliable.)
But there is another thing to note that shows more is going on, if we just read the text. And by this I mean the whole Bible. You might notice in Matthew’s account he misses three kings in a row. Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah (cf 1 Chronicles 3 and the Sons of Solomon). He also misses Jehoiakim. Now, some have posited this is just so that Matthew gets his nice neat 14 generations from Abraham to David, David to Exile and Exile to Jesus Christ. Matthew is driven by maths not history.
But not so fast! When you go back and look at these four kings above, what you discover is that each of these kings failed to live in the pattern of David. Each king rejected the Lord and so did not follow the path of king David. In other words, they were not true Sons of David. (Ahaziah—2 Kings 8:25-27, Joash—2 Chronicles 24:17, Amaziah—2 Chronicies 25:27, Jehoiakim—2 Kings 23:36-37). So Matthew leaves them out! What confirms this is King Abijah who did not devote himself to the Lord and yet was explicitly confirmed for David’s sake (1 Kings 15:15). So Matthew keeps him in. Matthew tells us, in 1:1 that it is an account of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham. Perhaps Matthew was reading the text, that is the Jewish Scriptures, more carefully than Bart Ehrman.
They were not true Sons of David … so Matthew leaves them out!
But there is another problem with Bart Ehrman’s understanding. Regarding genealogies, Ehrman asserts very strongly that Jews didn’t keep records of their descendants: ‘…this did not happen’ (20 min). Both genealogies, in other words, are probably bunkum.
But ancient Jews, not keeping genealogies must be news to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus who wrote in Life of Flavius Josephus:
I will accordingly, set down my progenitors in order. My grandfather’s father was named Simon…
Josephus continues for line after line, until …
Thus have I set down the genealogy of my family, as I have found it described in the public records.
Not only does Josephus recount his genealogy but he says it is a matter of public record. How could it be in the public records if the keeping of genealogies is a thing that did not happen?
Furthermore, there is a detailed description of the Jews practice of keeping genealogies in Contra Apion  and pages and pages of them in the Old Testament. Jews keeping genealogies looks like something that well and truly happened. And so, it should be no surprise to find the genealogies in either Luke or Matthew.
What is it that Bart Ehrman said earlier? Something like, ‘if the details are wrong how do you know it isn’t wrong in the bigger things.’ Should we apply this to Ehrman’s scholarship?
But let’s move on.
3. The Flight to Egypt
The third contradiction Ehrman raises is the flight to Egypt. Luke 2:2-40 and Matthew 2:1-23.
Now there are many differences in these accounts. Luke has shepherds and no Magi. Matthew has dreams from angels, Magi, more dreams and the flight to Egypt. These seem like glaring contradictions. Until you stop for a moment and consider Luke’s opening statement.
Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. So it also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in an orderly sequence. (Luke 1:2-3)
Luke got his information from carefully investigating everything, from the very first. And as scholars like Bauckham have pointed out, this information would have come from interviewing eyewitnesses.
Luke got his information from carefully investigating everything … from interviewing eyewitnesses.
This is significant. This is the simple obvious explanation for why the dream, the flight to Egypt and the return is not in Luke’s narrative. He didn’t have any eyewitnesses to verify it. Who can bear witness to a dream apart from the dreamer? The same applies to the visit of the Magi in two ways. They didn’t arrive at the same time as the Shepherds, despite our Christmas story mash-ups. So, again, no eyewitnesses. And they weren’t around to interview since they came from and returned to Persia (at best guess).
Could it be that Luke leaves out these details, not to contradict Matthew, but simply because he couldn’t get direct and independent verification?
But, we’re not out of trouble yet. In Luke’s gospel, Mary and Joseph go up to the temple after Mary’s purification and then return to Nazareth. Matthew has them fleeing to Egypt and then ending up in Nazareth.
Now, why does Luke seem to say they went straight back to Nazareth after the purification ritual? I don’t think he does. Consider that Google maps reckons it is a 22-minute drive or about 9.3 km from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. So, a few hours walk. Joseph could have popped up and back to Jerusalem on the same day for the shopping because the stores in Jerusalem had a better range. Likewise, for the purification ritual at the temple.
After the purification ritual, at some point, they fled to Egypt. What makes this even more plausible is that we know the Magi came to see Mary and Joseph sometime later than the shepherds in Bethlehem. Herod wants to kill all the children in Bethlehem two years and under (Matthew 2:14). So, they could have been at Bethlehem for some time, popping up and down to Jerusalem as needed—shopping, purification ritual, what have you.
Ehrman again makes much of this contradiction. But, as we’ve seen, the issue is resolved easily if we take Luke at his word that he carefully investigated everything and based his account on what was important to the eyewitnesses he was able to speak to.
4. Jesus’ Death and the Tearing of The Temple Curtain
This is another apparent contradiction that seems to be very persuasive: Mark 15:37-39 vs. Luke 23:45-46. Ehrman points to the contradiction very directly. It is about whether the temple curtain rips and then Jesus died or if Jesus died and then the curtain rips.
But, a little bit of careful reading reveals there is no contradiction. None! First, let’s note that in both these passages, in Mark and Luke, there are time markers in the text, the rough equivalent of us using ‘when’ or ‘after’ or even more directly ‘at 12pm’. So in Luke:
It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. (Luke 23:44-45 )
But when it comes to the verses in question. There are no time markers.
And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then (AND) Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. (Luke 23:45-46 ESV)
Meanwhile in Mark:
And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. (Mark 15:37-38)
Yes, they describe what happened in a different order. However, the critical point is that there are no temporal indicators in the verses above. The death of Jesus and the curtain ripping are simply joined by a coordinating conjunction (kai) that is translated with the following ‘and, but, also, even, but, yet’.
So Luke reads:
The curtain was torn and Jesus breathed his last.
And Mark says:
Jesus breathed his last and the curtain was torn.
If you’re the average girl or guy in the street you can’t see this because modern English translations like the ESV use then (as above) for the kai when a simple and would have sufficed. This is misleading to the average girl or guy in the street. But it shouldn’t be to a scholar like Ehrman.
Calling this a contradiction makes me wonder if Bart Ehrman is being disingenuous.
So, given the coordinating conjunction, the point in Luke and Mark, is that the two events, of Jesus’ death and the curtain being torn, are to be understood as happening simultaneously. That is the point of the narrative. Jesus’ death opened the way up to God. Putting it another way, there is no sequence in their mind between Jesus’ death and the temple curtain being torn.
So why the different order in Luke and Mark? That’s simple. When you tell someone about two things that happen at the same time you have to choose to talk about one of them first. You can’t write or speak two sentences at the same time. Luke and Mark just put their sentences in a different order.
Calling this a contradiction makes me wonder if Bart Ehrman is being disingenuous. He did a PhD in textual criticism. He presumably knows the Greek of the New Testament. He would know about coordinating conjunctions. This seems a bit too obvious to miss. Again, we need to ask Ehrman’s question of his own work, ‘if the details are wrong how do you know it isn’t wrong in the bigger things?’
Wider Historical Events
Regarding the general reliability of the Bible against known historical events. Ehrman argues there was no registration that matches up with Luke 2.
However, Brooke W. R. Pearson, argues quite convincingly that the key sentence in Luke 2:2 ought to be read as ‘this registration was earlier (or before) Quirinius governed Syria,’ rather than, ‘This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.’ Pearson shows both that this a legitimate translation and that it fits the wider known historical context very well. Here’s the article on the ‘Lucan Census Revisited,’ to read for yourself.
I wonder if Bart Ehrman has considered this research. How would he respond? I hope he would be willing to respond, since he challenges his hearers to go where the evidence leads. And he asserts that it is better to change your mind and be intelligent than refuse to change your mind and be ignorant.
Yes, I admit it, I haven’t resolved all of Bart Ehrman’s contradictions. And I’m sure he can raise more of them.
However, I put it to you that from those we’ve looked at, some of his ‘contradictions’ don’t stand up to scrutiny. Just reading the text revealed that. Given that, perhaps Ehrman isn’t just reading the text as much as he asserts he is and perhaps his knowledge of the first century isn’t quite as robust as he makes out.
In short, I think you’d be unwise to reject the Gospels because Bart Ehrman says they aren’t trustworthy. Even if he confirms what you’ve already decided.
First published at risenchurch.org.au
For they send to Jerusalem the ancient names of their parents in writing, as well as those of their remoter ancestors: and signify who are the witnesses also. But if any war falls out, such as have fallen out a great many of them already, when Antiochus Epiphanes1 made an invasion upon our country: as also when Pompey the great,2 and Quintilius Varus3 did so also: and principally in the wars that have happened in our own times: those priests that survive them compose new tables of genealogy, out of the old records, and examine the circumstances of the women that remain. For still they do not admit of those that have been captives.
 The participle in Luke 23:45 is an aorist.