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A New Way of Explaining Contradictions in an “Inerrant” Bible

The other recent development in conservative evangelical apologetics – so far as I can discern as an outsider – is a real move to adopt serious historical scholarship on the Bible and apply it to the defense of the reliability of Scripture.   That may seem like a paradoxical move to non-evangelicals, since it is precisely serious historical scholarship that, since the 18th century, has been the major problem when it comes to the reliability of the Scripture.  In fact, it’s the *main* problem.  So, uh, how does that work?

I believe, but I may be wrong, that Mike Licona is at the forefront of this development within evangelical circles.  Two of his most popular books are Evidence for God and The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. His view is that we should not try to harmonize different Gospel accounts in every instance.  Sometimes, of course, it’s perfectly suitable and appropriate (I agree on this).  But sometimes harmonization simply leads to weirdness and implausibility.  At least in the eyes of most reasonable human beings.

And so, for example, in Matthew’s Gospel, at the Last Supper, Jesus tells Peter that he, Peter, will deny him three times that night before the cock crows.   In Mark’s Gospel, he tells Peter that he will deny him three times before the cock crows twice.  Well, which is it?  In the old style of harmonization – I thought this was funny even in my younger days – a standard reconciliation is to say that what actually happened is that Peter denied Jesus SIX times: three times before the cock crowed and three more before it crowed the second time.  Yeah, right.

The problem with that interpretation, apart from being rather risible, is that it means that none of

the Gospels indicates what Jesus actually said or what actually happened, since what *really* happened isn’t what any of the Gospels says.   Do you really want to change, or rather, sacrifice what the authors said in order to make sure they don’t disagree?

Mike has written a recent book taking a very different approach, one that actually is interested in historical research; it’s called Why Are There Differences in the Gospels (Oxford University Press, 2016).  Rather than harmonize the accounts, he tries to explain why they are different.  And they are different because …

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Who Would Invent the Story of Women at the Tomb??
Modern Evangelical Christian Apologetics



  1. Spencer Black
    Spencer Black  October 21, 2019

    I often wonder how it is that we have such a knack for rationalizing or explaining things away, and why we even want to. I often did this when I was a Christian.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      It is *so* human nature. We have to fight against it, or it ain’t ever goin’ away…

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    anthonygale  October 21, 2019

    When someone presents an idea that seems reasonable enough, to an extent at least, at what point do you draw the line?

    Perhaps Matthew said “don’t even take a staff” to emphasize Mark’s “take only the bare essentials.” That seems reasonable I suppose. It might also simply mean that either Matthew or Mark blundered. The point can be: contradictions don’t matter if they preserve/were made to emphasize the overall meaning, which remains intact. This could work with other discrepancies. Does it matter that John changed the day Jesus died to symbolize him being the Passover lamb being slaughtered? Does that negative any “big picture” that the Synoptics mean to convey? I’m not sure it does.

    I’m not sure this works with every contradiction though. What might be a good example of a contradiction in which this principle cannot work?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      Interesting. I can see what you mean on one level. But if you report my words precisely opposite to how I said them, in my books it’s an error. There’s a difference between saying “it’s not a contradiction” and saying “it doesn’t matter if it’s a contradiction.” Those seem to me to be very different perspectives.

      On your other question — another good one. I’d say that John’s account of Jesus’ teachings stand at odds with those of the Synoptics. It’s not a “contradiction” strictly speaking, but my sense is that your theory would eliminate *every* contradiction strictly speaking, so there really can’t be contradictions!

      • Avatar
        anthonygale  October 23, 2019

        As you’ve pointed out, how one defines and uses terms can be a point of contention as much as the ideas themselves.

        If one means to say the Bible doesn’t contain “errors” as long as it remains “true” despite “discrepancies” then perhaps it could be “inerrant.”

        In the case of ancient biographies at least, if it was accepted that nobody knew what Jesus or Julius Caesar said one day, but they know (with relative certainty at least) what happened in the past, and they accepted that speeches were made up, then there is no “correct” speech. Did Jesus say “take only a staff” or “do not take a staff?” Maybe he said neither and, even if we could ever know, quoting the historical Jesus was never the intention in the first place. If that is true, why is the discrepancy necessarily an error?

        I don’t mean to suggest this line of thought can explain all discrepancies or show that the Bible is inerrant. But I do think it has some merit.

      • Avatar
        Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  October 24, 2019

        [Bart] I’d say that John’s account of Jesus ’teachings stand at odds with those of the Synoptics. It’s not a “contradiction” strictly speaking.
        [Fernando] My knowledge of English is not as good as those who have that language as a vernacular and who write in this blog. Therefore, I turn to the dictionary.
        And with the dictionary in hand, “stand at odds” – i.e., in conflict or at variance – is a contradiction strictly speaking.

    • Avatar
      Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  October 24, 2019

      [anthonygale] “The point can be: contradictions don’t matter if they preserve / were made to emphasize the overall meaning, which remains intact.”
      ————————————————– ——————-
      You are talking then about hyperbole, a rhetorical figure that should never be taken literally.
      However, misused hyperbole can lead to contradictions, because it can change the nature or sense of what you want to emphasize.
      But it is more: in the example that you put:
      […] “and [Jesus] tells them to take nothing with them except a staff: no bread, no bag, no extra money. Just a staff (Mark 6: 7-13). In Matthew’s version Jesus tells them not to take anything, and explicitly says “not a staff” (Matthew 10: 5-15) “, there is no place to talk about Matthew using a hyperbole when narrating the words of Jesus. It simply changes them completely – “not a staff”, for example – in relation to what can be read in Marcos, and therefore, is a pure contradiction.

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    Apocryphile  October 21, 2019

    Sort of reminds me of the argument that a Pope can make mistakes, yet still be infallible on ‘matters of the faith’. It seems to me the crux of the problem is that Mike and others who follow his ‘logic’ still desperately need to believe that the Bible is the word of God, and as such, cannot *really* have any errors in it. To accomplish this and make their argument ‘credible’ to an educated 21st century audience; however, they need to engage in extreme and convoluted mental gymnastics that would put even Simone Biles to shame. I think as long as the Bible is seen in this manner – as the direct word of God – people of faith are going to have to engage, to a greater or lesser degree, in these mental (apologies to Jerry Stiller) ‘feats of strength’.

  4. Avatar
    doug  October 21, 2019

    I can empathize with people who want the Bible to be inerrant, as I once did. But no matter how much I wanted the Bible to be inerrant, the Bible finally convinced me that it was not.

  5. Avatar
    thebookguy  October 21, 2019

    Anyone familiar with C. Dennis Mckinsey’s 800+ page volume titled Biblical Errancy? Surely this book and others are an absolute nightmare for apologists. What other titles would be good to add to our reading lists?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      I don’t know it. What does he say?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      I don’t know the book. What does he say?

      • Avatar
        thebookguy  October 22, 2019

        To me, the following contradictions seem to change the “gist” of the message they seek to convey.
        You mention the first of these in many debates and talks.
        Mark 15:34 (” Jesus cried, my god, my god, why hast though forsaken me?” versus john 10:30 (“I and the father are one.”)
        Matt 11:14 (John the baptist is Elijah) VS John 1:21 (John says he isn’t Elijah)
        John 1:25-36 & 3:23-24 (While in prison John the baptist knew who Jesus was) VS Matt 11:2-3 (While in prison he did not know who Jesus was)
        ROM 3: 23 ( “For all have sinned and come short”) VS Luke 1:6 (“Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth were both righteous before the God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.”) AND JOB 1:8 ( “my servant job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and upright man.”)

        Mckinsey lists over 50 chronological contradictions your familiar with, over 30 between Matthew and Luke’s gospels and 18 or so between Matthew and Mark’s where the order of the events are reversed. And no, these chronological contradictions don’t change the gist of the message. As Mike suggests, what happened, happened, the authors shouldn’t be held to standards we hold to modern historical events, so if they want to change the details a bit so as to be more palatable and digestible for the readers whats the harm, right? Conceding this leaves Mike’s argument vulnerable, whereby one may contest as you have already said, these texts are simply not historically reliable in a modern society. This is progress of a kind!

      • Avatar
        thebookguy  October 23, 2019

        Biblical Errancy: A reference guide by Mckinsey is perhaps the most comprehensive book of bible errors and contradictions in circulation aside from the bible itself, it comes with a heavy price tag. After further reflection on the contents, the author doesn’t make any arguments apologists would shudder at per say. in fact, within the cover is a comprehensive list or errors and contradictions to be used as a reference guide to support previously held arguments. Cheers!

  6. Avatar
    darren  October 21, 2019

    I find this thread so interesting because we get to see, almost in real time, outside influences (in this case, critical scholarship) changing a religion, or at least the understanding and interpretation of a religion. It seems the truth of what scholars like you point out eventually does require a response, or a recasting of the Christian understanding of their holy books. Like when Galileo concluded the earth revolved around the sun — at first resisted by the church, but eventually a truth the church came to accept and somehow incorporate. Among the best of the scholarly believers you debate (my favourite is Simon Gathercole, who always gives you a good argument), which would you say is most likely to end up on a similar path as you — from uncritical belief to some form of agnosticism/atheism? And if I could sneak another question in, I’ve always wondered if a younger Bart Ehrman, at the peak of his evangelical beliefs, would have supported a Trump-like president, like so many current ones do, despite his lack of traditional christian morality and other personal failings?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      I’m afraid I really don’t know — on either question. 1. Most of them, I should hope. 🙂 2. I think I would be in tremendous conflict.

  7. Telling
    Telling  October 21, 2019

    Hi Bart,

    I just finished a historic novel beginning with the Crucifixion (but it was another man, not Jesus) and from that point on I change Acts to a historical novel that attempts to accurately tell of Paul’s journeys and when, where, and why he wrote his fourteen letters. But while I try to include every significant element in his letters and in Acts, with his letters and Acts dialogue verbatim, I additionally add narrative that is not in Acts that weaves in my alternate view of the Jesus message. It worked better than I expected and I think lends credibility to the Jane Roberts/Seth account of Jesus not being crucified. It is titled “And the Cock Crows: How Rome Buried the Jesus Message”. I am planning it’s release on Amazon in early November but I can email you a finished proof version today in Kindle or Epub. I’ll send Kindle format to you this evening but if you prefer Epub I can send that also.

    If you have desire and wherewithal to review it I would much be interested in anything you find to be implausible or inaccurate within the book’s intent.

  8. Avatar
    Hngerhman  October 21, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    It seems that under this rubric, there would be various levels of analysis at which the label of errant/inerrant could apply. At the “every single datum is utterly correct” level, it seems he’s conceding the ground – by sidestepping on relevance. But at the macro-level, he’s claiming to retain inerrancy (which by definition means both consistent and true).

    For ‘inerrant’ to apply to the entirety of the gospel accounts as a whole, one would need to bifurcate the definitional predicate of the term. So, ‘inerrant’ means “entirely consistent and accurate in the gist, and only irrelevant details could vary.” OK, so far so good.

    But it then follows that Jesus’s last words must be irrelevant.

    I don’t think that’s what he’d want to say, do you? Thanks as always!

    NB – Perhaps you can convince him to guest post, and he can voice his own response!

  9. Avatar
    tadmania  October 21, 2019

    Congratulations, professor! You seem to have achieved a status enjoyed by many popular non-Christian persons and institutions — you are an entity worthy of emulation. Striving to remain relevant despite their thinning ranks and waning influence, modern Christians copy the popular culture wherever they can. One need look no further than the Evangelical multi-media pep talks that suffice for sermons these days, or compare Christian albums with their secular contemporaries, to see the pattern. The big plate capitulation, of course, is the transfiguration of the Biblical Jesus into a sort of cosmic boyfriend/buddy. No longer able to command the masses, the church attempts to invite and validate the individual.

    Listening to Mike Licona is light work. You may wish to reconsider inviting him to write for the people here. It would make for a futile venture (large thanks to you) for him to pass his cotton candy apologetic to this meat and potatoes crowd.

  10. Avatar
    rburos  October 21, 2019

    Having him guest post would be fascinating (and not in a judgemental way)!

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    Gary  October 21, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    In your conversations with Mike Licona, have you ever asked him: “If we can agree that some of the stories in the Gospels are possibly non-historical (the cock crowing story, the dead saints shaken out of their graves story, etc..) isn’t it then also possible that all three Appearance Stories in the later three Gospels are non-historical? Maybe the detailed appearance stories in Matthew, Luke, and John are literary/theological embellishments of the bare-bones appearance accounts found in the Early Creed?”

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      Yes, more or less. He thinks those accounts can be “proven”

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    mwbaugh  October 21, 2019

    The biggest contradiction I can think of in the Gospels comes in the passion stories. In the Synoptics, Jesus and his disciples share the last supper before the arrest that night (Thursday). He is tried and crucified the next day (Friday).

    John has the arrest come before the Passover meal. Jesus’ trial is on Thursday, and the crucifixion takes place Thursday evening, at the same moment the Passover lamb is slaughtered.

    The scholarship I’m familiar with says that the historical contradiction is because the author of John wants to make a theological point about Jesus as sacrificial lamb. That’s more important to him than the (apparently) older tradition of crucifixion on Good Friday, so he changes the date.

    I wonder how Mike would reconcile this.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      I’m not sure he would. Others have lots of strategies, e.g., by arguing that John and Synoptics were working with different calendars…

  13. Avatar
    rdrstarbase@gmail.com  October 22, 2019

    OK, from a quick read, it seems to me that at lot of this discussion revolves around ones definition of “inerrancy.” I sense that maybe a straw man is being set up here. Does Mike himself really equate “inerrancy” with factuality? That’s where I see a straw man being set up.If Mike means that the obvious contradictions we see in the New Testament don’t detract from the basic message and meaning of the passages, what’s wrong with that?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2019

      The word inerrant literally means “without error.” If he wants to say that a text that has errors is without error, that’s my problem. he should just use a different term that doesn’t mean that — for example, “theologically reliable.”

  14. Avatar
    brenmcg  October 22, 2019

    “Mike and I completely agree that Matthew changed Jesus’ words. And that he had reasons to change it. And that he liked it better the way he gave the story than the way Mark did.”

    But then coincidentally Luke comes up with the same reasons to change it and like’s his version better also.

    Better by far is to see Matthew’s version as the original and Mark failing to understand why Jesus would tell his disciples not to bring a staff or wear sandals.

  15. Avatar
    Brittonp  October 22, 2019

    My evangelical friends are not interested in the details of biblical scholarship. They are only interested in simple God given truths. God says to do this and don’t do that. For them relativism is the spawn of the devil. They hold vehemently to biblical inerrancy because accepting contradictions and errors could erode their simple beliefs.

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    RonaldTaska  October 22, 2019

    For Dr. Licona: Would the sky fall if Dr. Licona just said that the Gospel authors often describe different minor details, (such as how many times the cock crowed), but they agree on the major points, such as Jesus rose from the dead? Why is the doctrine of “inerrancy” so important to him?

    Also what does Dr. Licona make of your “Jesus Before the Gospels” which explains contradictions by attributing them to changes during decades of oral storytelling before the Gospels were actually written?

    For Dr. Siker: I am really struggling to understand how there can be truth outside of historical or scientific truth. And, if so, how does one know whether such “truth” is true? What if people disagree about what that truth is?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2019

      Surely it is true that I love my wife and that Dover Beach is a moving poem. But neither is open to historical or scientific verification.

  17. Avatar
    veritas  October 22, 2019

    Even among scholars it becomes difficult to admit you may be wrong based on what you believe,another words,gave up what is dear to you. Admission to someone else’s ideology becomes increasingly difficult to admit. It reminds me of going to court for a traffic ticket (speeding) . In Canada there is an option called,”guilty with an explanation”.It allows the person admits their wrong doing and maybe get a nice enough judge to reduce the fine.That’s why people try. They flood the court system based solely on this option.Most of the time the judge will grant a reduced fine based on your plea admission.Too bad well educated people,not just in religious issues,but in a lot of circumstances, cannot agree on evident issues.Admission becomes difficult.Truth is difficult to expound as human beings.Hence Pilate saying to Jesus,”What is truth”.I think it was historian,Paula Fredriksen, who said,” Theology without philosophy cannot exist”.Bart I confer with you,but convincing others,especially those in Christian circles,becomes an arduous task,especially since you have de-converted.I like Daniel Dennett’s comment when he said,” Time will change even the staunch believer,we must be patient.”I was in the Chicago Defender’s conference and they were ganging up on you.I wanted to come on stage on your side,but refrained.You did not need anyone.Good control.

  18. Avatar
    Bwana  October 22, 2019

    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack, a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.

    – Leonard Cohen

    (I always thought there was a strong hint of inerrancy in Leonard Cohen’s gist.)

  19. Avatar
    mtavares  October 23, 2019

    It seems like these discussions are as much wrapped up in psychology as they are scholarship. Sometimes I wonder how bad things would have to get in terms of discrepancies, contradictions, genocide (real or exaggerated), etc for some folks to acknowledge biblical problems.

    I believe it was at the end of a debate between Mike Licona and Dale Martin, on whether or not the bible could be used historically to prove the resurrection, someone asked Martin how he could still believe given he was arguing against it. He said something like “It’s a miracle…a miracle I wake up every morning and believe it”. I found it cathartic to see someone who believes to frankly acknowledge the difficulties, and I wished the debate could have restarted from that point! Could I make a shameless request for a future Dale Martin guest post similar to what Judy Siker has been doing? 🙂

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    David Quesada  October 23, 2019

    I understand now that the historical Jesus believed he was the Jewish Messiah, but can we determine WHY he thought he was the Jewish Messiah in the first place?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2019

      No, that would involve working out a detailed psychological evaluation, and we simply have not basis for doing it (though people have often tried! It was very common in the 19th century! And people still try today in our post-Freudian times. But we have no grounds for making teh assessment, other than pretty much guessing)

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