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Contradictions in the Gospels – Rev Matthew Firth’s Final Response

Thanks for such an interesting debate, Bart. Here goes with my final response:

In my view, a genuine contradiction between two texts occurs when those texts carry mutually exclusive accounts, i.e. accounts where, if one account is correct, the other cannot be. In the examples you have cited, you have failed to show that the so-called contradictory accounts are genuinely mutually exclusive. You have therefore failed to provide any examples of genuine contradictions.

Sure, the examples you’ve cited are, on the face of it, contradictions, but only if one doesn’t go beyond the surface and if one is insistent on applying contemporary values to the practice of ancient authors. It seems to me that the so-called contradictions you’ve cited are akin to saying that the following two accounts are contradictory: 1. Yesterday, Alice enjoyed a meal with Bob in New York. 2. Yesterday, Alice spent the day with Bob in London. But these accounts are not contradictory. They do not present mutually exclusive events, and their failure to each give an exhaustive account of the day is neither here nor there. You might not like the fact that the two accounts have been very selective, but that does not mean there is a contradiction.

Similarly, no mutually exclusive events are mentioned in the examples you’ve cited, and there are therefore no contradictions.

In the case of your Luke 24 example, we know from Acts 1 that Luke knows that there was a period of forty days between the resurrection and ascension. That he chooses to omit this period from his prose in Luke 24 is neither here nor there: it’s a pretty standard piece of literary selection for an ancient author. It does not imply a genuine contradiction.

In your argument, you seem to be taking the text merely at face value and not even entertaining the possibility that Luke acted like an ancient author, as well as assuming the very worst of Luke: that he was a hopeless historian who couldn’t make his mind up about whether the forty-day period happened or not. Surely a far more honest assessment is to assume that, like many ancient authors, Luke simply chose to omit an event that he knew to have happened. I suspect that you take a contrary view not because of any sound reasoning but rather because it’s something that you believe. In other words, you have an intrinsic prejudice against the text: you assume that Luke got it badly wrong and that the surface level of the text is all that there is, rather than the more natural assumption that Luke knew what was going on but simply chose to omit a particular time period from one account.

To see my responses to the rest of Bart’s comments, you will need to subscribe to the blog. It’s all really interesting. If you want to see it, join the blog.

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Being Willing to Accept the Truth
Contradictions and Contradictions: Final Response to Matt Firth

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Victor  May 12, 2019

    Thanks for the interesting debate! I have a question about genealogies, probably to Bart.
    Most people nowadays don’t know their ancestors 20 generations back. Sometimes it is claimed that in ancient Israel, people actually did keep track of their ancestors much better. What is actually known about it? If the genealogies in the Gospels were largely made up from scratch, what were the rules by which such things were made up in the ancient literature?

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    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2019

      There’s actually almost no evidence at *all* that people in the first century could trace their genealogies back for generations. Modern readers have been misled into thinking they could simply because of these genealogies you find in the Bible. But they are almost completely implausible.

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      • Avatar
        RSKICE  May 14, 2019

        It is extremely unlikely that ordinary people could trace their family back 20 generations. Kings maybe, upper-class unlikely. You would need a data of 1.000.000 individuals to be sure of some accuracy. These individuals of course need to be connected somehow. Like where born, spouse, children, where did they live, who where their parents, Grandparents, GG parents and so. It is therefore unlikely that the Jews kept records like that for everyone. If so what was the purpose to keep them? I have a database of about 650.000 individuals of nation that is small (300K) and interrelated. But sometimes I must go other sources find things out. Even though we (Icelanders)are all related in the 10th generation.
        About contradiction in the genealogy of Matthew and Luke I am going re-post this here: The other contradiction in the in genealogy of Jesus is that Matthew says is was 28 generation from David to Jesus i.e. about 1000 yrs. However, Luke says it was 43 generation about 1500 yrs. If Luke is right, then Jesus was born about 500 yrs. later than Matthews Jesus. This inconsistency is irreconcilable. We know that Matthew omitted four evil kings in his genealogy but still we are talking about 400 yrs. difference.

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  2. Avatar
    Stephen  May 12, 2019

    This debate went about like I expected. Prof Ehrman responded like a historian and Rev Wirth like a Christian apologist. I’m really disappointed that Rev Wirth felt the need to question Prof Ehrman’s honesty and his good faith.

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  3. Robert
    Robert  May 12, 2019

    Matthew Firth: “you seem to be … assuming the very worst of Luke: that he was a hopeless historian who couldn’t make his mind up about whether the forty-day period happened or not. Surely a far more honest assessment … In other words, you have an intrinsic prejudice against the text …”

    You should know this is untrue. It has already been pointed out that Bart has advanced credible text-critical reasons for not thinking that the ascension was originally part of Lk 24. But rather than read the comments on your posts, it is easier for you to assume that others are dishonest and biased.

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    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2019

      I”m afraid he doesn’t know about my text-critical arguments; I decided not to go there in my response since I didn’t want to go down an unnecessary path, even though, you’re completely right, it brings him into an absolute dead end.

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  4. Avatar
    Hngerhman  May 12, 2019

    There is a disagreement over the definition of contradiction.

    Possible does not equal plausible nor does it equal probable.

    It is possible that there is a wormhole that warps spacetime such that the Luke/Acts accounts mesh (it’s physically possible), that it’s levirate marriages all the way back to Adam (it’s mathematically possible), and that there were two men named Jairus who had daughters that Jesus healed at differing points along their respective timelines (it’s logically possible).

    If, to avoid contradiction, an argument must rely on raising the epistemic and logical standards so high such that quite literally only the physically, mathematically or logically impossible would count as contradiction, then there is no possibility of empirical/factual contradictions at the level of human epistemic constraints. That is what occurs when tenuously possible arguments are counted as dispositive.

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  5. Avatar
    fedcarroll77  May 13, 2019

    Right!?

    I still don’t buy it. The genealogies May be a “sort of” plausible solution, it is not the most probable. Your solution is still problematic.

    How do you explain the repetitive names in Luke’s? How about where he got his information? The writer of Luke could not of got his genealogy of Nathan from the Hebrew Bible nor Josephus’ works because none have his lineage. How can you expect believers and historians to buy your solution when we have no evidence?

    Onto the marriage law in Deuteronomy 25…still you fail to explain how they are brothers. Your purely assuming they are. Where is your evidence? As a historian we cannot assume unless we have evidence to support it, and our conclusion must be the most probable based on the current evidence, not on wishful thinking. How are you assuming Matthan and Matthat are brothers? Also you would clearly have to assume this happened all the way back through the lineage line back to zorobabel. Plus the current understanding is that xorobabels family was most likely murdered by the Persians due to rebellion. So our current evidence does not match your idea. Also in the Levirate law it does say that the brother does not have to marry the deceased brother’s wife, how do we know this did not happen?

    Nice attempt to try to fuse and weave your solution together. Unfortunately it has too many holes and is not the most probable. The most probable solution is that these writers had no clue of who jesus’ family tree were do they inserted sets of individuals to promote their message as Jesus being the earthly messiah.

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    • Avatar
      HawksJ  May 13, 2019

      With all due respect, fed, Firth is in no way, shape, or form arguing about probabilities, but about possibilities.

      He is not a historian, but a theologian, and an apologetic one at that. He starts with the presupposition that there are no contradictions, so he sees his job as just figuring out the ‘tricky ones’. Presumably, the explanation is out there, he just needs to find it.

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  6. Avatar
    godspell  May 13, 2019

    It’s interesting how at a certain point, Rev. Firth just decided to stop mentioning the almost entirely different accounts of Jesus’ birth written by Matthew and Luke. It’s not a necessary contradiction (though it is weird) that neither Mark nor Matthew mention Jesus’ birth at all, nor is there any indication in their accounts that he was born in Bethlehem (which was critical to persuading most Jews he was Messiah), whereas there are multiple indications he was from Nazareth.

    Jesus had to have either been conceived in Bethlehem (where Matthew says they were living) then taken to Egypt to flee a massacre history has no record of (and it would), then taken to Nazareth–or conceived in Nazareth (where Luke says they were living) then born in Bethlehem because of a bizarrely conducted census involving a long dangerous trip for a heavily pregnant woman that we have no record of (and it would), and no mention of Herod’s wrath or a subsequent trip to Egypt at all.

    Rev. Firth has decided to make his stand on ground he knows most laypeople find confusing. But there is nothing the least bit ambiguous about the two accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth and surrounding events. They don’t match. They were written independently, and all indications are that neither is true. That ground is unsuited to defense, so he has abandoned it.

    And thus has conceded the argument. Affably.

    He’s no more stubborn and evasive than the Mythers, say that much.

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  7. Avatar
    Phil  May 13, 2019

    Rev Firth, I think it would be better for you to avoid insinuations such as your remark “I suspect that you take a contrary view not because of any sound reasoning but rather because it’s something that you believe ” , because it looks to many of us as if you are performing contortions for the very same reason.

    “Given the common practice of ancient authors in leaving out material that they know to have occurred”…what kind of argument is that? It seems one that you feel gives you space to squeeze in anything that you need to to avoid the appearance of a contradiction.

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    • Avatar
      Bewilderbeast  May 13, 2019

      Yep. I was struck by his rudeness! Phew!
      Well . . . bless him anyway. Sorta.

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  8. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  May 13, 2019

    “ke knows that there was a period of forty days between the resurrection and ascension. That he chooses to omit this period from his prose in Luke 24 is neither here nor there: it’s a pretty standard piece of literary selection for an ancient author”

    what we can derive from luke (not acts) that he implied or was aware of 40 days in acts? what in his language employed in luke (not acts) would indicate such thing?

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    • Avatar
      davebohn  May 13, 2019

      Dr. Bart- you openly defined “contradiction” in advance, and Pastor Firth (conveniently, perhaps) offered an alternative definition after-the-fact. Oh well, I hope it was fun anyway!

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  9. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  May 13, 2019

    luke:
    42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

    matthew :
    11 While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened.
    comment : meaning the women went to report to the 11, “he is risen”

    matthew :
    Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee….
    meaning : after they were told by the women the news, “he is risen,” they went to galilee.

    luke:
    44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you…

    so luke just has disciples see jesus, then the women tell the disciples “he is risen” for the second time?

  10. Avatar
    jogon  May 13, 2019

    Bart, does Matthew Firth speak Koine Greek? It sounds like he’s just using a concordance

    • Bart
      Bart  May 14, 2019

      He certainly doesn’t speak it. I assume he can read it to some extent, but my sense is that his knowledge of it is very rudimentary, based on some of his comments, the sources he cited (which would not be the sources scholars use), and his decision not to discuss important grammatical points.

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  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 13, 2019

    Rev. Firth: Thanks for your discussion. Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that you are correct. Does it follow that if a person does not agree with you, then he/she is wrong, not welcome in the Christian community, uneducated, or just plain doesn’t get it? I have followed these arguments for years, and have observed that anyone with reasonable questions about such things quickly gets ostracized and shunned. So, can one have a view different than the one you present and still have a reasonable point of view or is it essential that Christians accept the Bible as being inerrant? In my church experience, moderates are fleeing in droves because they just don’t agree with this inerrant view of scripture. If so, should conservatives just say “good riddance” or find some way to hear and really respect these differing views as also being reasonable?

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  12. Avatar
    AstaKask  May 13, 2019

    Since we don’t have the originals, I wonder if the texts were tampered with to remove all overt contradictions. I guess we’ll never know.

    • Avatar
      b.dub3  May 15, 2019

      We do know. The overt contradictions are still there, so I’m confused by the comment..

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  13. Avatar
    Jbonk18  May 13, 2019

    Am I the only one that finds in funny that Rev. Firth keeps using the Levirate marriage, but just keeps adding a generation? I’ve drawn out the family tree…if you do that(as Rev Firth suggests) then you realize Jacob and Heli are half brothers and half cousins with the same paternal great grandfather because their respective different fathers were also brothers. So in this specific case, Joseph is Jacob’s son biologically and Heli’s legally because Jacob and Heli were brothers. What was the name of their father? Well one was Matthat and the other was Matthan because of the brother providing an heir provision in the law. Let’s go back another generation since they were also brothers, who was Matthat and Matthan’s father? Well…in a super unlucky coincidence the fathers for the next 20 generations all passed away before providing an heir and so the family tree never reunites until King David. The brothers providing an heir was to maintain the family tree so you should be able to go back a generation or two or three at the most and then get back to the same paternal line.

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    • Bart
      Bart  May 14, 2019

      Yup, that was the point I was wondering about, but he stopped after the second generation. Would have loved to see it worked out with 20!

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  14. Avatar
    hoshor  May 13, 2019

    This display of intellectual dishonesty is all too familiar when discussing the bible with individuals indebted to its content and inerrancy. In reality, it does their reputation no favors and further drives the stake into the divide between the truth-seekers and the tradition defenders.

    I personally pride myself on levelheadedness and preserving the concept of judging content on its own merit, however, I find it difficult to believe a word said coming from a person who lacks the basic integrity to concede the most painfully obviously conclusions for old, tired arguments.

    If one is able to mind-warp their way through the obvious contradictions, than I see no limit for one to go to resolve conflict for which is determined to be emotionally unsatisfactory for themselves.

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  15. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  May 13, 2019

    Well, I will admit to being taken aback at this unjustified statement:
    “Surely a far more honest assessment is to assume that, like many ancient authors, Luke simply chose to omit an event that he knew to have happened. I suspect that you take a contrary view not because of any sound reasoning but rather because it’s something that you believe. In other words, you have an intrinsic prejudice against the text: you assume that Luke got it badly wrong and that the surface level of the text is all that there is, rather than the more natural assumption . . ”
    . . and will refrain from a blunt comment on why I believe the “more honest” participant in this debate could change his viewpoint without losing his job, and does not rely on defending one ‘immovable’ position for his job.

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  16. Avatar
    seahawk41  May 13, 2019

    Rev. Firth makes a lot out of the idea that Luke (and others) left out information they knew about and that this negates the apparent contradiction. Of course, we all leave out information we know about all the time. But it seems to me that the point is whether Luke would have left out *significant* information, indeed information that makes the accounts appear to contradict one another. The example of Alice and Bob is interesting, but I have a hard time imagining someone telling the story that way on two subsequent occasions. FWIW.

  17. Avatar
    James Chalmers  May 13, 2019

    You asked for the Reverend Firth to put the case for no contradictions, and you got on the side a free reading into your soul or psyche–where he found dishonesty, prejudice (intrinsic, no less), and religious conviction giving rise to a compulsive need to find contradictions where there are none, or rather, only seeming ones. A twofer of sorts.

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  18. Avatar
    sjh0278  May 13, 2019

    While I still have my doubts about the Gospels’ accuracy, Rev Firth’s responses attracts me to read the Gospels with a view from a different perspective. Creatively constructing and/or re-constructing the events adding date and time to each event could be an interesting project.

    Thanks again Rev Firth and Dr Ehrman for doing the debate.

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  19. Avatar
    mjoniak  May 13, 2019

    It looks like he doesn’t even respond to your objections. He just reasserts that his explanations are “perfectly plausible” without even seriously considering the arguments.

    He also talks a lot about “common practices” but fails to provide any examples.

    And, of course, it’s levirate all the way down!

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  20. Avatar
    Jim  May 13, 2019

    Now I have a headache and a bleeding nose … I’ve never face-palmed so many times, ever.

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