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Contradictory Stories and Historical Method

I was surprised and intrigued to see the reactions I received to my post in which I responded to Mark Goodacre’s five points calling into question the traditional story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library.  In it I pointed out that just because a story changes over time does not mean that the gist of the story is false.  If some tellings indicate that the jar was two feet tall and others that it was six, or that there were two people involved or seven, this does not indicate that the story is, at its heart, false, only that it has been changed in the retelling.

A number of readers to the blog reacted by saying that the arguments Mark was making about the discovery of the library are precisely the kind of arguments that I (and critical scholars generally, including, probably Mark!) would make, and have made, against the stories of the Gospels about Jesus.   If I want to use those kinds of argument against the historicity of the Gospel accounts, what grounds to I have for challenging them when used to argue against the historicity of the account of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library.  Aren’t I showing that my arguments against the historicity of the Gospels are flawed?

Great question!   Here are two of the many comments I received along these lines:



Interesting – but aren’t Mark’s reasons some of the ones you have for doubting the historicity of the Gospel stories? Would love to see a discussion of the similarities and differences

I can’t help thinking of how *you* claim that there being multiple versions of the “empty tomb” story (differing in how many women were there, what they saw, what they were told to do, what they later *did* do) makes the “gist” of the story unbelievable!



I think these are terrifically interesting comments and questions!   And important.  Many thanks to these two, and the others, who raised them.

So let me clarify my view of historical evidence, as it applies both to the Gospels and to the Nag Hammadi Discovery Narrative (let’s call it the NHDN).   This can help explicate the value of historical sources.

My view of the matter, in short, it is this:

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Questions on the Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library
My Response To Mark Goodacre on the Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 24, 2015

    So, in general, contradictions suggest that incidental details have been changed or exaggerated or embellished, but implausible accounts suggest that the “gist” is not true?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 25, 2015

      Yup, that’s pretty much it — depending on just *how* implausible the acocunts are.

      • Rick
        Rick  June 25, 2015

        Particularly when “plausibility” also turns on matters dependent on the stories truth. The Nag Hammadi manuscripts exist without regard to being authenticated by their finder. Presumably they have met all learned tests to demonstrate that they are what they are. As you have pointed out, the manuscripts scholarly worth does not depend on how many people found them or how big the jug was…. Frankly it sounds a bit like a fisherman’s story with the jug growing into a “whopper”.

        The empty tomb on the other hand is central to central to the Christian Faith – to wit: “he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” No empty tomb, no resurrection of the body and you’ve got visions of a dead beloved leader by friends and family at the worst or a ghost story at best.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 26, 2015

          Well, technically speaking you could have a resurrection of the body without an empty tomb … if the body was thrown into a common grave instead of into a private tomb, e.g.

        • Avatar
          jwaf  September 9, 2015

          If only there were a way to ‘quantify’ historical truth. Interesting to me to contrast the documentation of ancient religions or accounts of anything at all ancient with, for example Mormonism in the time of at least the telegraph and published newspapers.

          So many social, political, ethical, etc. judgments and decisions being made these days on the basis of double ignorance. Although come to think, the money that’s supposed to influence US elections is not (mostly) for buying votes directly but to do TV advertising of — truth???

  2. Avatar
    toejam  June 24, 2015

    Great post. Any chance of a further update on the proposed Ehrman v. Price debate? I notice there’s a kickstarter fund up and running now to get it off the ground. Or would you rather not advertise it in the hopes it doesn’t go ahead?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 25, 2015

      I’m not eager to do the debate, but am willing to do so if there is funding for it. I’m not sure how the funding drive is going. The funds matter because I use my speaking engagements as a way to raise money for charity.

  3. Avatar
    godspell  June 24, 2015

    It seems like the survival of Jesus’ physical body became more and more important as time went on. The notion that not merely your spirit but your body would be resurrected someday was important to some Jews, and became an extremely important part of Christianity–the concept expressed in the prayer for a burial at sea, that someday the oceans will give up their dead. And even ‘The Rapture’.

    So that could explain the tomb story. It was something they had to come up with, a detail added long after the fact. Because otherwise, he really would have been eaten by scavenger birds and by dogs. Which personally, doesn’t bother me at all. There are cultures that leave their dead for other of God’s creatures to dispose of, and it has always seemed like a good system to me–circle of life and all that. I much prefer that to images of all the corpses in the world reviving at once. It’s a bit too George Romero for me.

    • Rick
      Rick  June 25, 2015

      I wonder if there was not a period of “back and forth” argument with the Jews that would account for story escalation in explanation.

      Jesus Movement: He has risen we have seen him.
      Jews: So, you saw a ghost, big deal.
      JM: No, he was real flesh and blood …. quick write a story – we’ll have Thomas touch him!
      Jews: No way, he was torn apart by dogs…
      JM: Haven’t you heard about the empty tomb?

  4. John4
    John4  June 24, 2015

    Well, yes Bart, the contradictions in the empty tomb accounts may lead us to wonder if the whole thing was made up, I agree. And I can easily accept your learned assertion that, based on the the known practices of the Romans when it came to crucifixion and the disposition of criminals’ bodies, it would have been highly anomalous in the provinces of the Roman Empire for Jesus actually to be buried on the day of his death.

    On the other hand, our knowledge of the practices of the Romans when it came to crucifixion and the disposition of criminals’ bodies can hardly be comprehensive. Anomalies do happen. And, the Joseph of Arimathea tale *is* independently attested in the Synoptics and in John.

    So, which hand do we choose then? Historical gist or fabrication? Independent attestation or historical plausibility?

    I recently read and enjoyed your *How Jesus Became God*. As I recall, you there noted that Paul, our earliest source, says nothing of an empty tomb. Paul simply mentions post-resurrection appearances which, presumably, were visionary. I find it plausible that visions could have led to empty tomb accounts as the story grew. I have trouble, though, imagining a fabricated Joseph of Arimathea in both the Synoptics and in John. It would certainly be easier to reject (as I personally am inclined to do) the contradictory empty tomb traditions if there were no tomb at all. But, despite the problem of the historical plausibility of entombment following crucifixion, the problem of the independent attestation of Joseph of Arimathea strikes me as weightier.

    Am I missing something here, Bart?

    Many, many thanks as always! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  June 25, 2015

      Yes, if the Joseph of Arimathea thing was made up, then it was made up and spread around enough for both Mark and John to hear about it (since Matthew and Luke get their story from Mark). But that’s true of a lot of stories that I would say are non-historical. The walking on the water and the feeding of the multitudes, e.g., are in both Mark and John.

  5. Avatar
    jcsisjcs  June 24, 2015

    Back to the NHL discovery. What do you think about the theory they were discovered in an illegal tomb raid/treasure hunt and the elaborate story is a lie to distract from the unsavory truth?

  6. Avatar
    groucho  June 24, 2015

    Why not apply the same methods of historical analysis to both yours and Goodacre’s accounts? On what points do they converge, and where to they diverge? Do the points in fact matter in the overall substance or are they trivial? if we compare them – just as you compare gospel accounts – we should get a reasonably accurate account of the Nag Hammadi discovery.

    Gary Thomas
    Tallahassee, FL

    • Bart
      Bart  June 25, 2015

      Yes, my point is that we do indeed to this, with every historical account. Convergences, though, do not necessarily demonstrate accuracy.

  7. Avatar
    RGM-ills  June 24, 2015

    You left out one very important point Professor. The gospels are presented as edited and published by the inerrant almighty finger of the divine, who cannot tell a lie or compile an incongruity. The NHDN isn’t claiming to be written or rendered with such absolute purification. You’re point, time and time again is that either the anonymous authors of the scriptures were as they present, beyond error and contradiction through supernatural guidance or they were not. Leaves room for historicity or not, but no room for the holy spellchecker claims made therein. No such feature is present in the NHDN, it’s all human and vulnerable to exploitation and exaggeration of the false memories you have been presenting.

  8. Avatar
    Judith  June 25, 2015

    This was critically important and timely for me as I had questions, too, after reading your response to Mark Goodacre’s five points.

  9. Avatar
    gavm  June 28, 2015

    speaking of “How jesus became god” i read that yr going to be debating this at the 2016 geer-heard forum. this should be a ripper. i hope you give this Bird guy the worst public experience of his life. can i suggest during the debate that you dont go down the road of “Bird is doing theology not history” or “the supernatural cant be used a as historical explanation”. not to say yr not correct (you r the expert after all) but this line of reasoning just doesn’t really work in Lincoln–Douglas type debates because he will just say “that an unfounded bias” and you wont have time to go into the rather complex reasoning of it. better to just rip his arguments to threads one by one.
    after Sean Carroll grt performance there it would be good to see you get the win too.

  10. talmoore
    talmoore  October 13, 2015

    I’ve noticed that human beings have a natural aversion to saying “I don’t know.” So if you ask them a question to which they don’t have an immediate answer, more often than not they’ll provide an answer that seem adequate to them. In the case of the Nag Hammadi jar, it’s possible that someone asked another person how large the jar was, and instead of offering an “I don’t know” they simply gave a best guess, and that became an authoritative answer. The problem starts when you have two authoritative answers that contradict, in which case it’s best to assume that both answers are ex rectum. If we have two contradictory accounts of how large the Nag Hammadi jar was, or Jesus tomb, etc. it’s probably best to assume that all accounts are ex rectum.

  11. Avatar
    jwaf  June 2, 2016

    Apologies further for my neophyte circumstance, but has seemed again and again to come down to the good old “enlightenment” issue of ‘historicity’. As has always struck me curious at best, it appears very much, if not entirely a matter of historical validity not of Yeshua & immediate associate’s discourses and doctrines, but of the versions and citations of the first through third century or so authorities and other emergent kahunas, orthodox or otherwise.

    It seems that it is these brass who proclaim essentially history about events and writ, which usually includes a fundamental attestation OF THEIR OWN HISTORICALLY AUTHENTICATED “INSPIRED INERRANCY” in the matter. The classic enlightenment point was that this is obviously circular.

    Even today, this circularity appears to endure under the title of “tradition” in some way.

    Much, seems to me, could be settled simply in terms of a consensus evaluation of historical validity of the early “fathers” lettres. I have wondered if there has or ever will exist some attempt, at least, of a numerical rating scale of historical credibility by some effort of definition that can be applied to things from Iliad and Odyssey to Diary of Anne Frank to the shooting of Dan McGrew, to cite random examples.

  12. Avatar
    JeremeK  September 3, 2016

    You also have to realize that with the Nag Hammadi account, we actually have something to show for it (the library itself). As for Jesus being buried and raising, we have nothing to show for it.

    You would think that such a miraculous site would be remembered and maybe even monumental. No one knows.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2016

      Fair enough. But you would expect evidence of the existence of a book, but not evidence of someone who ascended to heaven. (What physical evidence could there be? He’s not here!)

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