Shredding the Gospels: Contradictions, Errors, Mistakes, Fictions by Diogenes the Cynic
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
Better late than never but I promised this thread so here it is. This is really a spinoff of a thread in which the question of the historical reliability of the Gospels has been asserted in defense of certain arguments. Rather than derail that thread with a long Gospel-debunking thread, I have offered to start a new thread in order to defend some of the following claims that I have made. I have asserted that:
- The Gospels are not eyewitness accounts.
- The Gospels contain numerous and irreconcilable contradictions between themselves.
- The Gospels contain numerous factual errors (geographical, historical, legal) and demonstrable fictions.
I know all this has been done before. I just want to create a nice, fresh thread as an adjunct to the other debate and to invite any challenges to my case or attempts at apologia. It has been said in the other thread that all my objections to perceived errors and contradictions can be explained. I am reasonably sure that I will hear nothing new but I invite all attempts just the same. Now, onto the shredding. I’ll take my points one at a time.
1. Traditionally Mark’s Gospel is said to have been written by a disciple of Peter who is presented in an embarrassing light.
2. Doesn’t Mark show signs of having been written after the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 AD?
3. Why would Matthew quote verbatim another eyewitness, Mark?
4. Was the Evangelist Luke the same one who knew Paul?
5. Does John claim to be an eyewitness?
6. Where did John, an illiterate fisherman, get his Hellenistic philosophy?
7. Isn’t John an anti-Jewish Gospel?
8. Could all the words attributed to Jesus have been said by him and memorized exactly by John?
9. Josephus relates that Theudas of Galilee came after Judas the Galilean not before him as Acts 5 suggests.
10. Since the permanent excommunication of Christians from the synagogue didn’t take place till much later, why does John represent it as happening in Jesus’ lifetime?
11. Would the Jews have tolerated it if Jesus had claimed to be God as John says?
12. Don’t Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies contradict one another?
13. Why are references to Jesus’ flight to Egypt missing outside Matthew?
14. Does the story of the Magi suggest the Holy Family lived in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth?
15. Luke seems to locate Jesus’ birth during the census of Quirinius in AD 6 whereas Matthew locates the birth before the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC.
16. Did the Sermon on the Mount take place on a hill or on the plain?
17. When was Passover in the year of Jesus’ death: Thursday night or Friday night?
18. When was Jesus crucified, and when did Jesus’ die?
19. What were Jesus’ last words?
20. Who bought the field in which Judas died?
21. In Mark 6:45, 53, if the disciples were journeying to Bethsaida, on the northeastern shore of the sea of Galilee, how come they ended up at Genessaret on the north-western shore, where presumably they were starting from?
22. If Jesus was journeying from Jericho to Jerusalem, would he have passed through Bethphage and Bethany in that order as Luke 19 suggests?
23. The Resurrection.
24. How is Jesus’ route from the region of Tyre, through Sidon and then up through the midst of the territory of the Decapolis (Mark 7:31) geographically possible?
25. How can pigs from the territory of the Gadarenes or Gerasenes run directly into the sea of Galilee?
26. How can Bethany be “beyond the Jordan” if it is on the western side? (John 1:28).
27. How can Jesus (Mark 10:1) cross the Jordan into Judea from Capernaum, both of these being in the West?
28. Does Mark 10 make Jesus assume that a woman has a right of divorce under Jewish law?
29. Is Mark mistaken when he attributes to “all the Jews” practices relating to Levitical conditions of purity?
30. Was Jesus’ trial illegal in terms of Jewish law, being held on a festival day and imposing the death penalty for words that are not blasphemous?
31. Do the Gospels disagree with Josephus as to the date of John the Baptist?
32. Isaiah’s prophecy generally applied to the virgin birth refers to an almah or young woman, not a virgin.
33. Matthew applies to Christ prophecies that literally apply to Israel.
34. What prophecies are being fulfilled in Matthew 26:56?
35. Why does Matthew attribute a prophecy of Zechariah to Jeremiah?
36. Why is Pilate called hegemon (procurator) when he was really prefect?
37. Why does Luke represent Lysanias the tetrarch as living in the days of John the Baptist when he died in the previous century?
38. Annas and Caiaphas were never simultaneously High Priest in John the Baptist’s time.
Only two of the canonical Gospels, Matthew and John, are alleged by tradition to have been written by eyewitnesses but I’m going to address Mark and Luke as well because I feel like wrecking those authorship traditions just to be thorough. First of all, I should say that none of the four canonical Gospels names its own author, none of them claim to be eyewitness accounts or even to have spoken to eyewitness of Jesus. All are written in the third person and none of the authors tell us anything about themselves. All of the traditional ascriptions of authorship come from 2nd century tradition.
The first Gospel written is Mark. Mark is not by tradition an eyewitness account but 2nd century tradition casts him as a secretary of the Apostle Peter who haphazardly wrote down everything Peter said in no particular order. The basis for this tradition stems from a single claim by Papias who said (c. 130 CE) that he got the information from John the Presbyter (not to be confused with John the Apostle). That’s it. That’s the entire case for Mark as a secretary of Peter. Now let’s examine the credibility of this claim.
- First, Mark does not say that he knew Peter, talked to Peter, ever met Peter or got any information from any eyewitness.
- Secondly, the author is extremely hostile to Peter. Mark is a decidedly Pauline, anti-Jewish and anti-Petrine diatribe. Mark is very hostile to the apostles in general and to Peter in particular. He takes every opportunity to depict the apostles as being dense and not getting Jesus’ true message (reflecting the tension between Pauline communities and the Jerusalem cult in the last half of the first century). More to the point (and this is important) Mark does not give Peter any redemption after his betrayal. Mark does not grant Peter and appearance from Jesus. Mark’s Peter denies Jesus, runs away and that’s it. Now why would a Petrine memoir not include a Petrine witness of the resurrection? Wouldn’t that be the most important part? How does it make any sense to exclude it?
- Thirdly, the book is quite obviously a literary construction and is manifestly not a transcription of oral anecdotes. The literary structure of Mark, both in its chiastic forms and its use of the Hebrew Bible as a allusory template or “hypertext” preclude the possibility of transcribed oral tradition. GMark is a carefully constructed literary work. It should also be mentioned that Mark is a Greek composition which shows no signs of translation from Aramaic, the language of Peter and the language he would have dictated his memoirs in.
- Fourth, Mark makes a number of errors regarding Palestininan geography and Jewish laws and customs which show that his information could not have been collected from a Palestinian Jew. Mark’s passion, in particular, is so riddled with factual. historical and legal inaccuracies that it cannot be historical and cannot have come from an eyewitness. (I will address the specific errors in the section devoted to that subject).
- Fifth, the book could not have been written during the lifetime of Peter. Mark knows about the destruction of the Temple which means that Peter was dead (at least by Christian tradition) when the book was written.
To summarize, the canonical Gospel of Mark is an anonymous book written outside of Palestine in a Gentile language to a Gentile audience sometime during or after the Jewish-Roman War. The author is hostile to Jews and to the apostles. He does not know Jewish laws or customs. He does not know the geography of Palestine. He does not like Peter. He never makes any claim to have known Peter or to have ever been to Palestine. In 130 CE some guy said he heard from another guy that the author was a secretary of Peter’s.
Let’s move on to Matthew. The Gospel of Matthew, by tradition, is attributed to the apostle of that name. Like Mark, this authorship tradition stems from Papias (it was also claimed by Irenaeus but he was probably parroting Papias). Papias clamed that, “Matthew composed the sayings [logia of Jesus] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” (Adv Haer 3:1:1). If such a Logia ever existed, it is not Canonical Matthew.
- GMatt is not a “sayings” Gospel for one thing and was not written in Hebrew for another.
- Furthermore, GMatt is largely dependent on Mark and (most probably) another written “sayings” tradition (in Greek, not Hebrew) called Q.
- Matt’s dependence on Mark also puts its date somewhere around 80 CE (if not later) which is pushing the envelope for the plausibility of the author being a contemporary of Jesus. It’s not impossible, of course, but this is an era when people generally didn’t live much past forty or fifty years of age.
- The bigger obstacle for apostolic authorship is the fact that Matthew copies so extensively from secondary sources. An eyewitness should not be expected to copy verbatim from a non-eyewitness.
- There is also the fact that GMatt contains some of the more demonstrable fictions and signs of OT cannibalism but more on those aspects in their proper sections.
- It also bears repeating that the author Matthew never claims to have been an apostle or a witness, never states his name and never claims to have known any other witnesses.
To sum up for Matthew: Papias claims that an apostle named Matthew compiled a sayings Gospel in Hebrew. The Canonical Gospel of Matthew is written in literary Greek and is not a sayings Gospel. The author never claims to have been an apostle or an eyewitness. It relies heavily on secondary Greek sources as well as the Septuagint.
Once again, an eyewitness would not rely on the accounts of non-witnesses to recount events that he had supposedly seen for himself. It was written at least 50 years after the alleged crucifixion. The author includes demonstrable fictions which can clearly be shown to have been derived from the Septuagint. Papias’ Logia, if it existed, has never been found.
Let’s do Luke. The traditional author of Luke-Acts is supposedly a physician and traveling companion of Paul named Luke. Neither Luke nor Paul is a witness of Jesus even by tradition so I suppose I could stop right there but I think I’ll take the time to point out that even the tradition which does exist is dubious.
- First of all, the author of Luke-Acts never claims to have known Paul.
- The earliest known claim for this tradition comes from Irenaeus in the late 2nd century who probably based his conclusion on the “we passages” from Acts as well as a stray mention of someone named Luke in Philemon (the name turns up in a couple of the non-authentic Pauline letters as well but the authentic corpus only mentions the name once in passing).
- There is no reason whatever to suppose that the Luke mentioned by Paul has anything to do with either GLuke or Acts.
- The “we” passages in Acts are those passages during which the narrative voice changes from third person to first person plural. This is the source of the supposition that the author of Luke-Acts was a companion of Paul’s but Vernon Robbins has shown that this was merely a Greek literary device for describing sea voyages.
- Furthermore, Luke knew Josephus, which puts that Gospel into the mid 90’s CE at a bare minimum and probably later. This means that Paul had been dead 30 years before Luke-Acts was written.
- Furthermore, Luke is dependent on both Mark and Q which (contrary to some Christian folklore) means that Luke had no access to first hand accounts from other witnesses.
- There are also historical inaccuracies in Luke as well as contradictions with other Gospels which I will get to in time.
It is highly unlikely, then, that the book was written by a companion of Paul and there is absolutely no reason to connect the “Luke” who is so casually mentioned by Paul in one letter to the composition of Luke-Acts.
So, to sum up Luke, it is an anonymous Gospel whose author makes no claim to first hand knowledge and no claim to knowledge even of Paul. It was written more than a half century after the crucifixion, is dependent on secondary sources and contains numerous historical errors and contradictions with the other Gospels.
The fable of a physician named Luke who traveled with Paul comes from a claim made 150 years after the crucifixion and is corroborated by nothing in the text itself.
Time for John. By tradition, the GJohn is written by the apostle of that name and is also identified as the mysterious “Beloved Disciple” mentioned within the text.
- This tradition, like Luke, stems from a late 2nd century claim by Irenaeus (who is known to have confused John the Apostle with another John, called “the Presbyter” and may have been doing so again).
- As with the other canonical Gospels, the author of GJohn does not identify himself or claim to be a witness.
- The seeming self-identification in 21:24 is a later redaction to the book, not part of the original manuscript and did not name the author “John” in any case. It is also not really a first person singular assertion, (“I wrote this”) but a first person plural avowel that “we know” these were the words of a disciple (without naming the disciple).
- Further, there is the very late date (c. 100 CE if not later) which puts it at the absolute edge of any plausible lifespan for a contemporary of Jesus.
- It also shows a heavy Hellenistic influence, both in its literary style and its theology. How does an illiterate Palestinian fisherman suddenly become proficient in stylized literary Greek and become aware of Alexandrian Jewish-Greek concepts like the Logos?
Looking at the text of GJohn, we can see that any claim to the book as an eyewitness account does not hold water.
- GJohn is also arguably the most anti-Jewish work. It goes beyond being just a polemic against the Pharisees or the priests and becomes a full on indictment of all Jewish people. Kind of weird since the author (like Jesus) was allegedly a Jew.
- GJohn contains some of the longest, most otherwordly and most implausible speeches for Jesus. The length of the discourses in itself mitigates against their historicity simply by virtue of the implausibilty of those speeches surviving verbatim for 70 or more years in the memory of this fisherman — and nowhere else. These discourses are found nowhere else in early Christian literature. They do not have the short and sweet anecdotal quality of the Q pericopes which are easy to remember and transmit through oral tradition.
- GJohn also shows layered authorship. It is not the contiguous work of a single author but the result of multiple redactions by multiple hands.
- What is really the nail in the coffin, though, is that GJohn anachronistically retrojects the expulsion of Christians from Jewish synagogues (an event which occurred c. 85-95 CE) to within the life of Jesus. An eyewitness could not have made this mistake.
To sum up for John, it is an early 2nd century book which is heavily Hellenistic in its language and theology. It is markedly anti-Jewish, it contains speeches for Jesus which are not only incompatible with the character of Jesus as he is presented in the synoptics (not to mention that it simply strains all credulity that a 1st century Jewish audience
would tolerate a guy claiming he was God) but simply cannot be credibly defended as authentic transcriptions of speeches remembered verbatim for 70 years by an illiterate Palestinian fisherman (and by nobody else) and then translated into Greek by that same fisherman.
It contains contradictions with the synoptics which I will get to in time. It shows multiple hands of authorship and it contains an anachronism so glaring that it is a fatal blow to any consideration of eyewitness testimony. Its traditional authorship stems from a single unreliable claim by Irenaeus (a guy who couldn’t keep his “Johns” straight) around 180 CE.
Well, that should do it for my case against the Gospels as being eyewitness accounts (even by proxy). In my next post, I shall address contradictions between different Gospels. I would invite rebuttals to my first post in the meanwhile.
Back in a bit, Thread is developing….
There’s really a lot I could list here if I really wanted to include all the minor contradictions and seemingly self-contradictory statements of Jesus himself but I’m just going to stick with some of the more glaring, contradictory , factual claims about Jesus. Contradictions which I submit cannot be reconciled.
Geneaologies of Jesus: Matthew vs. Luke
Let’s start with the genealogies for Jesus given in Matthew and Luke.
Matthew gives the following:
A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham….
6 and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife,
7 Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah….
16 and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.
Now let’s look at Luke.
Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph….
31 the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, 32 the son of Jesse….
38 the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.
First of all let’s bear in mind that these are really geneologies for Joseph, not Jesus. If you believe that Jesus was born of a virgin as both Matthew and Luke assert, then it must be admitted that Jesus himself has no connection to either geneology.
That makes them rather a moot point since the whole point of these things is to show Jesus’ descendancy from David. It’s a contradiction in itself to say that Jesus was “born of a virgin” and then try to prove a Davidic lineage through Joseph.
Looking at the genealogies themselves we see that Matthew starts with Abraham and counts down to Joseph, while Luke starts with Joseph and counts clear back to Adam (also note that Luke calls Adam “the son of God.”) The parts I’ve bolded are the parts where the genealogies diverge. Matthew claims descendancy from David through Solomon, Luke through Nathan. They are completely different after that and claim different fathers for Joseph.
Typically, this disparity has been addressed by apologists by claiming that one of the genealogies goes through Mary. There is zero support for this in the texts, though, and a matrilineal connection to David would not have been sufficient to legitimize a claim to Davidic inheritance under Jewish law anyway. The genealogies clash and that’s that.
There is also a huge disparity between Matthew and Luke as to the date of birth. Matthew claims that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great but Luke claims that Jesus was born during the census of Quirinius (6-7 CE) which is ten years after Herod died in 4 BCE. This is an irreconcilable gap, although many apologists have tried to contrive an earlier census there is no evidentiary support for such an event and some significant evidence against it. More on this in the errors section.
Nativity: Matthew vs. Luke
Matthew’s and Luke’s Nativities are quite different and each mentions things not mentioned by the others. Not every difference is a necessary contradiction but some of the differences are and it might be useful to examine them side by side.
Synopsis of Matthew’s Nativity
Joseph and Mary are engaged but they haven’t had sex yet. Mary turns up pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph (understandably) wants to break up with her but then an angel comes to him in a dream and tells him that the Holy Ghost knocked her up and she’s still a virgin and Joseph should marry her anyway. Somehow Joseph buys all this and agrees to stay with Mary.
Jesus is born in Bethlehem (Matthew does not have anything about a census or an inn. He just says Jesus was born in Bethlehem with the implication that Joseph and Mary already lived there).
Some “astrologers (magoi) from the East” show up at Herod’s court and ask him where the new king of Judea is because they “saw his star in the East.” (note: Matthew does not call them kings and does not say how many there were. The “three kings” image is an extra Biblical popular tradition) Herod gets pissed and calls the priests to ask them where the “Annointed” is supposed to be born.
The priests tell him Bethlehem and quote from Micah. Herod then tells the astrologers to go to Bethlehem and find the kid and then report back to him, ostensibly so he can “pay homage” to the kid but really so he can kill him.
The astrologers go to Bethlehem and then follow the star until it stops over a house (not a stable) with Jesus in it. The astrologers give mad props to Baby Jesus and give him gold and frankincense and myrhh. Then an angel comes to them in a dream and warns them not to go back to Herod so they secretly split back to their own countries instead.
Then an angel comes to Joseph in a dream (in Matthew’s Nativity it seems like everybody is constantly getting hounded by angels in their dreams) and tells him to haul ass to Egypt and bring Jesus with him. Joseph packs up his family and blows.
When Herod gets stood up by the astrologers he loses his shit and orders all male children under two years of age in and around Bethlehem to be killed (“slaughter of the innocents”).
Herod dies and Joseph gets the message (yep, you guessed it) from an angel in a dream and returns to Israel. He finds out that Herod’s son, Archelaus is king of Judea so he’s afraid. Joseph gets visited by an angel in yet another dream and is told to go to Galilee (which, incidentally was being ruled by another of Herod’s sons, Herod Antipas, so it’s not clear why Galilee would have been any safer….but to be fair, Archelaus sucked much harder than Antipas.
He was so bad, in fact, that he was forcibly removed in 6 CE by the Romans, Judea was made part of the province of Syria and Quirinius was put in charge). So Joseph drags the family to Galilee and settles down in Nazareth.
Synopsis of Luke’s Nativity
There is a long, boring story about the conception of John the Baptist. During the pregnancy of JBap’s mother, Elizabeth, an angel comes to Mary (who is already living in Nazareth) and tells her that she’s going to be impregnated by the Holy Spirit. Mary goes to visit Elizabeth and Elizabeth gets all excited and there’s some more boring stuff and then JBap is born.
Jump to a pregnant Mary travelling to Bethlehem with Joseph to register for Quirinius’ census. Jesus is born in a stable (and Luke actually intimates that it is for privacy, not because there was no room inside). Cut to a bunch of shepherds tending their flocks at night.
An angel comes down and scares the crap out of them. The angel tells them to chill and informs them that the Messiah has been born and is lying in a mager in bethlehem. then a whole bunch more angels come down and start singing at the shepherds. Then all the angels disappear and the shepherds rush off to Bethlehem and find Baby Jesus and give him mad props.
Then, eight days later, Joseph and Mary take Jesus to Jerusalem to the Temple to be circumcised. While they’re at the Temple an old guy named Simeon comes up to them because the holy spirit told him all about Jesus. Simeon gives Baby Jesus mad props and then predicts doom and gloom for Israel. Then an old lady “prophetess” named Anna happens by and sees this and she starts telling everybody else all about it.
Then after Jesus is properly snipped, Joseph and Mary and Jesus all go back to Nazareth. There is nothing about a flight to Egypt. They go straight to Nazareth and Jesus commences to growing up “strong and wise.”
It’s pretty easy to see that with the exception of the place of birth and the defense of Mary’s virtue these stories have virtually no relationship to each other. as I said above, not every detail in Luke is necessarily in contradiction to Matthew but whatever is not directly contradicted is pretty much incidental in contrast to the details that clash. Let’s add some of them up:
- Matthew implies that Mary and Joseph were living in Bethlehem when Jesus was born and the magi visit them in a house. Luke says they lived in Nazareth and were only in Bethlehem to register for a census.
- Matthew says that Jesus’ family fled to Egypt after Jesus was born and then moved to Nazareth only after they had returned from Egypt and an angel told them to move to Galilee.
- Luke says nothing about Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” or a flight to Egypt. He explicitly states that Jesus went to Jerusalem to be circumcised eight days after he was born and then immediately returned to Nazareth.
- Luke also says nothing about the magi, or about a star or about the house where the magi visited Jesus in Bethlehem.
These are completely different stories and it seems that neither author has any awareness of the other. To recap the most intractable contradictions between the Nativities, we have
- Two completely different genealogies for Joseph.
- Luke places the date of Jesus’ birth ten years later than Matthew.
- Matthew has Mary and Joseph living in a house in Bethlehem when Jesus was born while Luke says they were living in Nazareth and travelling to Bethlehem for a census.
- Matthew says that Jesus’ family fled to Egypt after the birth and moved to Nazareth only after the death of Herod. Luke says they were living in Nazareth all along and returned there immediately after Jesus was circumcised.
- Luke knows nothing of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents or of a flight to Egypt. In fact, by Luke’s chronology, Herod was already dead when Jesus was born.
Moving past the Nativities and into the ministry of Jesus we have some more agreement, at least in the synoptics, since Matthew and Luke now have Mark to copy from and also share Q but there are still some contradictions.
- For instance, remember the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew? (5:12) Luke says it happened on a plain (6:17).
- John also omits that whole 40 days in the wilderness bit from the synoptics and just has Jesus start immediately hanging out with the disciples a couple of days after his baptism.
There is much that can be made of the seeming contradictions in Jesus’ own words and rhetoric but I’m going to skip past all that and go on to some more interesting contradictions in the Passion and Resurrection narratives.
Passion and Resurrection Contradictions
The synoptics disagree with John on the timing of the last supper and the crucifixion as they pertain to the Passover.
- The synoptics say that the last supper was a Passover seder (hence on the eve of the Passover) while John says that it was the night before the seder.
This can get a little confusing because it uses the Jewish demarcation of days starting and ending at sunset but maybe I can make it easier saying it like this:
- John and the synoptics agree that Jesus was arrested on a Thursday night and crucified on Friday. The difference is that the synoptics say the Passover started on Thursday night (making the last supper a seder) and ended on Friday night. John says the passover started on Friday night (after Jesus had already been crucified) and ended on Saturday night.
John also disagrees with the synoptics as to the time of day that Jesus was crucifed.
- According to the synoptics, Jesus was nailed up at the third hour (9 AM), darkness came over the land around the 6th hour (noon) and Jesus kicked the bucket around the 9th hour (3 PM).
- John says that Pilate ordered Jesus taken away to be crucified at noon.
The significance of John’s chronology is that Pilate orders Jesus to be crucified at the same time the Paschal lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple (something which had occurred the day before according to the synoptic chronologies).
Last Words of Jesus
Now let’s examine Jesus’ alleged last words on the cross:
45 From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land.
46 About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi,[c] lama sabachthani?–which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?[d]
47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, ‘He’s calling Elijah.
48 I mmediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink.
49 The rest said, ‘Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.
50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
(Mark says almost the same thing but renders the Psalm quote in Aramaic rather than Hebrew)
And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, “Father, unto thy hands I commend my spirit:” and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.
When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished:” and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.
These are three distinctly contradictory claims for the last words of Jesus on the cross. No one Gospel mentions the quotes from the other Gospels and all of them assert their own lines as Jesus’ very last words.
Death of Judas
Before we get to the resurrection narratives, let’s look at Judas. I’m going to go outside the Gospels for this one and compare Matthew to Acts, but since Acts was written by Luke it should still serve to show a contradiction between authors of the Gospels.
Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death. They bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate, the governor. When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned,
he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left.
Then he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.
Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty silver coins, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”
(With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)
- In Matthew, Judas throws the money back at the priests, then goes and hangs himself (Matt doesn’t say where), then the priests take the money and buy a field.
- In Acts, Judas buys a field himself and then he falls headlong and his guts explode.
The resurrection/appearance narratives are really a mess of contradictions so I’ll just write a brief synopsis of each account and then pick out the contradictions.
Synopsis of Mark’s Resurrection
Scene: Sunday Morning
Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James and Salome are walking to the tomb. As they’re walking they’re talking and worrying about how they can get somebody to help them move the rock. They get to the tomb and see the rock has been rolled away. They go inside and see an angel sitting in the tomb.
The angel shows them that Jesus’ body is gone and tells them to inform Cephas and the rest of the disciples that Jesus is risen and that they should all go to Galilee where they will be able to see him. The women run away from the tomb but they don’t tell anybody because they’re terrified.
Mark cuts off right there (16:8) with no further visits to the tomb and no appearance narratives.
Synopsis of Matthew’s Resurrection
Scene: Sunday Morning
Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” go to the tomb (no mention of Salome this time). Right when they get to the tomb, there’s an earthquake, an angel comes down from the sky, rolls away the rock and sits down on it. This time there are guards at the tomb and they get scared.
The angel then tells the women pretty much the same thing the other angel said in Mark. he shows them that Jesus is gone and tells them to tell the disciples that Jesus wants to holler at them in Galilee. The women run away but this time they run bang into Jesus. They freak out some and Jesus tells them to chill and then tells the women to let the disciples know he would holler at them in Galilee.
At this point, there’s an interjection in which the guards run to the priests and tell them what they saw, so then the priests bribe the guards to say that the disciples stole Jesus’ body.
Back to the disciples. The eleven of them go to a mountain in Galilee and Jesus appears. They give Jesus mad props but some are still doubtful. Jesus tells them to go out and preach the message and baptize people and that he will always be with them.
And that’s it for Matthew.
Synopsis of Luke’s Resurrection
Scene: Sunday Morning
Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, Joanna and “the rest of the women” go to the tomb. As in Mark, they find the stone already rolled away. They peep inside the tomb. What? No Jesus! As they’re standing there trying to figure out what’s going all of a sudden TWO angels appear out of thin air. The women freak, the angels tell them to chill and tell them that Jesus has risen.
The women run to tell the disciples (but Luke’s angels do not explicitly instruct them to do so this time). The disciples don’t believe them but then Peter jumps up and runs to the tomb. He peeps in and sees that Jesus is gone. He goes home “marvelling.”
Cut to “two of them” (one named Cleopas, the other unnamed) walking to Emmaus. They meet Jesus but they don’t recognize him. They tell him all about Jesus and the women and the empty tomb. Jesus tells them how dumb they are for not knowing the prophecies (which didn’t actually exist but that’s another can of worms). They stop to have some grub and when they break bread, they recognize Jesus, then he vanishes.
Cleopas and the other dude run back to Jerusalem and find the rest of the disciples. The rest of the disciples tell them that Jesus had risen and appeared to “Simon” (who may or may not be the “Peter” who Luke says had seen the empty tomb but does not say had seen the risen Jesus. I mention this because Luke actually uses the name “Peter” in the former case and “Simon” in the latter, so this may indicate two different people).
Cleopas and the other dude start telling the disciples about seeing Jesus on the road to Emmaus and then Jesus suddenly appears while they’re talking. (please note that they are still in Jerusalem and have not yet gone to Galilee) They freak, Jesus tells them to chill and he shows them all the rad holes in his hands and feet.
Then Jesus asks them if they have anything to eat (I guess he hadn’t eaten in three days). They give him some fish and he eats it. Then he preaches at them for a while before leading them to Bethany where he ascends into the sky. The disciples go happily back to Jerusalem, and that’s the end for Luke.
Synopsis of John’s Resurrection
Scene: Sunday Morning
Mary Magdalene (alone) goes to the tomb. The stone has already been rolled away. She runs and finds Simon Peter along with the “Beloved Disciple” (who will henceforth be referred to as “BD”). Mary Magdalene tells them that the body has been “taken.” Peter and BD go running to the tomb.
BD outruns Peter and gets there first and sees some strips of burial linens lying utside the tomb. Peter gets there and goes inside the tomb. Peter sees that Jesus is gone. BD then goes in and sees it too. Peter and BD go back home.
Mary Magdalene is left crying outside the tomb. She peeps inside the tomb and sees two angels. Then Jesus comes up behind her and she sees him but doesn’t recognize him. She thinks he’s the gardener and asks him if he moved the body and could he tell her where it was. Then Jesus says her name, “Mary,” and she recognizes him.
He tells her not to touch him but to go tell the disciples about him. She goes and finds the disciples and tells them (John doesn’t say where they are). Later that night, Jesus appears to the disciples and shows them all his rad wounds. Then he breathes on them and says he’s giving them some Holy Spirit and tells them that he’s giving them the power to forgive sins.
Then we get the Doubting Thomas story. Thomas doubts. Thomas sticks fingers in rad nail holes. Thomas believes. Then Jesus says that people who believe without proof are more blessed than those annoying skeptics.
John really ends there. There’s another emended chapter which I won’t bring into the contradictions argument but just to be thorough, the emended chapter tells a weird story about Jesus appearing to the disciples in Galilee and helping them catch some fish, then he keeps asking Peter if he loves him and gives him his evangelical marching order and hints that he’s going to come to a rough end. Then Peter sees the BD following them and asks Jesus about him.
Jesus tells Peter it’s not his business if Jesus wants to BD to hang around until he returns. Then the author says there was a rumor that the BD wasn’t supposed to die before Jesus came back but Jesus didn’t actually say tthat he just said “what business is it of yours if I DO want him to stay?”
End of emended John.
- So how many women went to the tomb? Was it Mary Magdalene by herself? Was she with the other Mary? The other Mary and Salome? The other Mary and Joanna and the “rest of the women?”
- Was the stone already rolled away when they got there or did they see an angel come down and do it?
- How many angels were there, one or two? Where were they? Were they in the tomb or sitting on the stone or did they appear out of thin air or did they descend from the sky?
- Who was the first person to see Jesus? Was it Mary Magdalene? If so, when did she see him? Did she crash into Jesus on her way to tell the disciples or did he come up behind her after she had returned to the tomb and was peeping in at the angels?
- Where and when did Jesus appear to the disciples? Was it in Jerusalem or was it Galilee?
I would challenge anyone to resolve these stories without leaving anything out. I say they’re irreconcilable.
I’m going to leave my contradictions post right here. This is by no means a complete list and I haven’t even mentioned contradictions with Paul but I think I’ve made my case that the Gospels contradict themselves. Coming up next: factual errors. Sorry this is late. I am still working on this stuff, I swear.
It’s hard to know where to start with this one or how to categorize the errors so I guess I’ll just take the Gospels one at a time starting with Mark.
Errors in Mark
Mark probably has the greatest number of factual inaccuracies. He makes mistakes of geography, custom and law. The trial before the Sanhedrin is Mark’s invention and is a catalogue of errors unto itself but let’s start with geography.
|The Gerasene Demoniac: |
In Mark 5:1, Jesus and company sail across the Sea of Galilee and come to “the land of the Gerasenes.” There they encounter a man possessed by unclean spirits. Jesus drives out the spirits, the spirits enter some pigs and the pigs run down a hill and jump into the lake. If you look at the map below you can see that Gerasa is 30 miles south southeast of the lake. That’s a pretty big jump for those pigs.
There is also no 30 mile long embankment running down from Gerasa to the lake. Matthew recognized Mark’s blunder and tried to correct Gerasa to Gadara (the Matthew story also contains two demoniacs instead of one so Matthew’s version of the story contains two contradictions with Mark) but Gadara was still six miles from the lake. Luke retains Gerasa in his version indicating that Luke didn’t know much about Palestinian geography either.
|Tyre to the Sea of Galilee through Sidon: In 7:31, Mark says the following:|
“And again he [Jesus] went out from the borders of Tyre, and came through Sidon unto the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the borders of Decapolis.” There is at least one clear error here and arguably two. Looking at the next map below we can see Tyre and Sidon on the coast of the Mediterranean sea, northwest of the Sea of Galilee.
Mark says that Jesus went from Tyre through Sidon to get to the lake. But Sidon is north of Tyre. It’s exactly the wrong direction. You cannot go through Sidon to get to Galilee from Tyre. There also wasn’t any road from Sidon southeast to Galilee but that’s a minor point.
|The other arguable error is that Mark seems to suggest that Jesus went through the Decapolis to get to the lake. The Decapolis was a cluster of ten Greek cities, most of which were located to the southeast of the Sea of Galilee. It is represented in the next map below. |
Mark’s meaning is a little awkward even in Greek. He says …ana meson twn oriwn dekapolewV (…ana meson ton horion decapoleos); literally, “…up through the middle of the borders of the Decapolis.” Now the “up” part is somewhat debatable.
The preposition ana denotes upward movement and with the accusative can indicate either “up through” or just “through.” In this case we find the construction ana meson which can mean “up through the middle of” or “into the middle of.” It would clearly be a boner for Mark to say that Jesus went from Sidon “up through” the Decapolis to get to the lake.
Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and just translate it as “into the middle of” it still isn’t quite clear what he means. There seems to still be an inplication that Mark thinks the Decapolis is between Sidon and the lake. It’s possible that he means Jesus went to the lake first and then to the middle of the shores of the Decapolis but then we have a lake in the way (to get to middle of the shores of the Decapolis) and Mark says nothing about another lake crossing here.
It is also possible that Mark is truncating a description of a journey which goes all the way around the lake to the south and then goes “up through” the Decapolis to get the middle of southeastern shore of the lake. If that’s what he means, he picks a very confusing way to convey it.
This may or may not be an error but I mention it because it’s said directly in conjunction with another error and the entire verse gives an impression that Mark did not have an accurate understanding of the geography he was describing.
Crossing the Jordan into Judea
Mark 10:1 says that Jesus travelled down from Capernaum then crossed the Jordan into Judea. But crossing to the east bank of the river would have put him outside of Judea into Perea. Furthermore, travelling from Capernaum to Judea would have entailed going through Samaria, a hostile territory which Jews habitually avoided.
Customarily, travellers from Galilee to Judea crossed the river north of Samaria, went south along the river in the Transjordan and then crossed back over to Judea. Mark seems to know that crossing the Jordan was part of the journey but doesn’t seem to quite grasp the mechanics of the trip.
Of course it is possible that Mark just elided the initial crossing from his description, however what is actually in the text provides a misleading picture of the route.
Bethsaida and Gennesaret
In Mark 6 we get the story of Jesus walking on water. This occurs immediately after Mark’s first loaves and fishes story:
Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray. 47 When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. 48 He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them.
About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, 50 because they all saw him and were terrified. Immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take courage! It is I.
Don’t be afraid. 51 Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, 52 for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. 53 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there.
Jesus tells the disciples to get in the boat and start heading across the lake to Bethsaida which was on the northeast shore. Jesus somehow gets rid of the crowd (usually this is accomplished by getting Elvis out of the building, not leaving him behind to clear the venue himself, but whatever) and then goes up a mountain to pray. That night the disciples get to the middle of the lake.
Jesus sees them (somehow from the shore in the middle of the night) straining against the wind. He walks out to them on the surface of the water, the disciples freak, Jesus tells them to chill and he gets in the boat. Then they continue across the lake until they land in Gennesaret….which is on the northwest shore, the same side of the lake they presumably started on.
Bethpage and Bethany
(Ok, this one’s kind of minor but what the hey)
In Mark 11, Jesus and his posse are walking from Jericho to Jerusalem. Mark describes their route as going through Bethpage the Bethany but they would have passed those towns in the opposite order coming from Jericho.
There are some other nitpicky things as well. Mark calls Bethsaida a “village” when it was actually a good sized city. He also names some towns that are unknown from any other literature from the time (Dalmanutha, Arimathea, even Nazareth) and may have been Mark’s own inventions (I think at least Arimathea probably was).
Legal and cultural errors in Mark
Mark doesn’t know Jewish divorce law.
In Mark 10:11-12, Jesus forbids divorce: 11 He answered, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
Verse 12 implies that Mark believed women had a right of divorce in Jewish law. They did not.
Mark doesn’t know ritual purity laws.
Mark says this in 7:3-4: 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.
These laws only applied to priests, not to Pharisees and not to “all the Jews.”
The trial before the Sanhedrin
Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin contains a number of procedural and legal errors. Each of the following details would have been in direct contradiction to Jewish law.
- Mark’s trial is at night. The Sanhedrin was forbidden to hold trials at night.
- Mark’s trial happens at the home of the high priest. The Sanhedrin was permitted to hold trials only in the Gazith Hall at the Temple.
- Mark’s trial is held on Passover. This is perhaps the greatest implausibility of the story. Jewish law absolutely forbid any such activity on high holy days or on the sabbath.
- Jesus is given a death sentence immediately. Jewish law required that a death sentence could not be pronounced until 24 hours after the trial.
- Mark has Jesus being convicted of blasphemy for claiming to be the Messiah:Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ,[f] the Son of the Blessed One? 62 ‘I am, said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven. 63 The high priest tore his clothes. ‘Why do we need any more witnesses? he asked. 64 ‘You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?
- They all condemned him as worthy of death (Mk 14:61-64)Claiming to be the Messiah was in no way blasphemous nor any violation of Jewish law. The Jewish Messiah was (and is) not God. There is no way that a person claiming to be the Messiah could have been convicted of blasphemy.
The death of John the BaptistArguably, Mark also makes one very notable historical error in that he places the execution of John the Baptist within the life of Jesus. According to Josephus, however, JBap was arrested and executed about 36 CE, several years after the crucifixion.
To be fair, there is no corroboration for Josephus’ date, so this may be better characterized as a conflict with Josephus than a provable error but there is no corroboration for Mark’s dating either. Between Mark and Josephus, at least one of them is wrong and possibly both. I think it is also fair to say that Mark is more likely to be wrong than Josephus.
Errors in Matthew
A lot of Matthew’s inaccuracies are just repetitions of Mark so I won’t mention them again. Most of Matthew’s personal inaccuracies (independent of Mark) are in blatant misconstruals of passages from the Hebrew Bible as being Messianic prophecies. Here are a few of them.
- Probably the most infamous one is in 1:23 where Matthew misquotes Isaiah 7:14. This is one I’m pretty sure that most anyone who frequents this board already knows about so I won’t belabor it. Suffice it to say that the Isaiah quotation does not say “virgin” (it says almah = “young woman”) and is not a Messianic prophecy.
- In 2:15 (after Jesus’ fictional sojourn in Egypt is over) Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1 (“…out of Egypt I have called my son”) but Matthew deceptively leaves out the first part of the verse which identifies “my son” as Israel. The verse, in it’s entirety, says: When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. This is not a prophecy of any sort but a reference to the Exodus.
- In 2:17-18, Matthew tries to claim Herod’s slaughter of the innocents (a Matthean fiction) is a “fulfillment” of Jeremiah 31:15, which reads as follows: This is what the LORD says: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” This is not a prophecy and has nothing to do with Herod. In context it is about the Babylonian Captivity.
- Matthew claims another “fulfilled prophesy” in 26:56: 55 At that time Jesus said to the crowd, ‘Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56 But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled. Then all the disciples deserted him and fled. But he doesn’t say what prophecy he’s referring to and nothing similar exists in the Hebrew Bible.
- 27:9 contains an out and out screw up. Matthew claims a fulfilled prophesy from Jeremiah but the passage he quotes (or paraphrases) is actually from Zechariah (11:12-13). It’s also not a Messianic prophecy.
Matthew also contains some of the gaudiest and most demonstrable fictions.
Errors in Luke-Acts
I will combine Luke-Acts since it is (presumably) the same author.
As with Matthew, a lot of Luke’s errors are imported from Mark but he has a few of his own.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar–when Pontius Pilate was Procurator [Gr. Hegemon] of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene– 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…
The first two verses of Luke 3 contain three factual errors.
- Pilate was a Prefect, not a procurator.
- Lysanias of Abilene died in 36 BCE
- Caiaphas was the only high priest at this time. Annas had been deposed years before.
There was no tradition of dual high priests in any case. Annas and Caiaphas were never “co-” high priests.
Luke’s description of the census of Quirinius, aside from contradicting Matthew as to dating, is also flawed or at least highly implausible in its assertion that people were required to return to their ancestral homes to register. No such condition existed and it would have been a logistical nightmare anyway.
Also, Quirinius’ census only applied to Judea, not Galilee, so Joseph (if he was a resident of Nazareth as Luke avers) would not have been bound by it.
In Acts 5:36-37, Luke has a character named Gamaliel talking about a revolt by Theudas which had not happened yet relative to the alleged setting of the story. “Gamaliel” is supposedly talking in the 30’s CE but the revolt he speaks of happened in the mid 40’s. Moreover, he claims the revolt of Judas the Galilean happened after the revolt of Theudas but it actually happened 40 years before.
In Acts 21:38, Luke has a Roman commander ask him if he was the “Egyptian” who led a band of sicarii into the desert. Although Josephus does mention a “false prophet” called “the Egyptian” he does not associate him with the sicarii, who were assassins, not followers of prophets. In Jewish Wars, Josephus talks about the sicarii directly prior to talking about the “Egyptian” leading some followers to the Mount of Olives and Luke (who used Josephus as a source) probably conflated them.
Errors in John
Just a couple because this post is getting long and is much delayed already.
- In 1:28, John says that John the Baptist was baptizing in “Bethany on the far side of the Jordan.” Bethany was on the western side of the Jordan in Judea and there is no known place which was called Bethany in the Transjordan.
- The major error in John is the anachronistic placing of the expulsion of Christians from Jewish synagogues within the lifetime of Jesus. This is a howling mistake in John.
The above is not a complete list of errors in the Gospels but it’s a nice little sampler of some of the better ones.