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Discrepancies *Inside* the Fourth Gospel

OK, back to contradictions. This thread (such as it is – so far there’s been no thread) began with a reader’s question of how there could be contradictions in the work of a single author? Was he just inattentive? Didn’t he care? Was he sloppy?

In the previous post I pointed out that with someone like Paul, it was possible that he changed his mind about some things over the decade covered by his letters. But how about internal contradictions within a book? There are lots of these two? How can they be explained?

In some instances they can be explained by the fact that an author has taken a variety of different sources and incorporated them into his writing. On occasion, these sources have discrepancies (sometimes very slight) between them, and the author for some reason or another did not choose to smooth them out. Or he didn’t notice them! (More on that in my next post.)

A terrific set of examples comes from the Gospel of John. Most people reading John don’t see these internal discrepancies, which are sometimes called literary seams. But they’re there if you want to look for them. This is how I discuss them in my NT textbook, in my chapter on the Fourth Gospel.


The Presence of Literary Seams. If I were to sew two pieces of cloth together, everyone would know. I am a lousy seamster, and the connections would be plain for the world to see. Some authors who splice their sources together are obvious as well, in that they don’t cover up their handiwork but leave numerous literary seams. I do not mean to say that the Fourth Evangelist was a sloppy (literary) seamster. But he did leave a few traces of his work, traces that become evident as you study his final product with care. The following are several illustrations.


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Writers Who Contradict Themselves
Why Are There Contradictions in the New Testament?



  1. Avatar
    toejam  October 31, 2013

    Great stuff. Spong talks a little bit about this in his latest book on John’s Gospel, though rarely with as specific examples as these. Thanks! I think the most obvious example of splicing in John is the way it appears to wrap up at John 20:30-31, only to continue on with John 21 with a story with similar elements as those told about Pythagorus and his catch of 153 fish. And given that 153 is a square number, it makes more sense that the story originated about Pythagorus and was adapted as a Jesus miracle, rather than the other way around.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  November 2, 2013

      So, in addition to Homeric overtones in the Gospel of Mark, we have a Pythagorean sacred number in the Gospel of John. Jesus comes confronts Paul for Hellenistic Christian persecution–the martyr of Stephen. And Jesus tells Hebrew leaders: it’s in your law, not our law. Educated Hellenistic Jews would not only know the literature of Ancient Greece (Homer) but also the math of Pythagoras. The Gospels were written in Greek.

      1. Jesus was a Hellenistic Jew
      2. While the Gospel according to Matthew and perhaps the Gospel according to Luke make Jesus Jewish, the Gospels of Mark and John stamp Hellenism onto the Jesus story.

      Christianity is not just an outgrowth of Egypto-Judaic influences but Egypto-Greco-Judaic influences.

      In reference to the post to which I’m replying, I binged/googled “Pythagoras and 153 fish and found this:

      Question: What Pythagorean concepts were recognized by the Therapeutae?

      • Avatar
        Steefen  November 2, 2013

        1) Jesus was a Hellenistic Jew like the martyr Stephen or the Gospels of Mark and John, written in Greek, also have Hellenistic flourishes (for John, Logos and 153 fish, a Pythagorean holy number.

        Let’s think about that:

        Jesus called the Hebrew establishment hypocrites and vipers. Is there one chance they would write gospels about Jesus for posterity, preserving his legacy? No.

        It is said, when someone is crucified, punishment would also include not only killing the person but that for which he stood. They didn’t like him or Stephen saying the Son of Man was at the right hand of the Power. The Temple Establishment must have censored writings of and about Jesus. This is also why there is poor representation of Jesus’ writings and the writings of the Hebrew disciples.

        On the other hand, after Stephen was executed, the Hellenist Jews who were faithful to Jesus Christ got out of Jerusalem, and they wrote their Gospels outside of Jerusalem, making geographical mistakes because they were no longer in Palestine to walk through Palestine as they would trace their steps while writing. Why would they go back before 66 C.E.? They definitely wouldn’t want to return to Jerusalem in 66-71 C.E. except as Zealots fighting the Temple Establishment and Rome.

        Tentative Conclusions:
        After the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, Peter, meeting with the disciples at Solomon’s Gate at the Temple were forbidden to continue the Son of Man movement of Jesus. He and the disciples were not allowed to speak against the Temple or turn over any tables. However, the Hellenistic Jews who scattered after the killing of Stephen were as free as the congregation at Antioch, if not freer, to write about Jesus. The gospels were completed outside of Jerusalem by those far enough away from an atmosphere of censorship. They may have been started in Jerusalem while Jesus was still alive up right before the killing of Stephen, the martyr. Clearly, those who repeated the beliefs of Jesus were in danger. (Later, Paul came around with Judaism-Lite Christianity, a watering down of Judaism that didn’t go over to well in Jerusalem, either.)

        Dr. Ehrman does not seem to agree that the atmosphere created by Josephus and the Flavians influenced the New Testament in a post-Squashed Revolt era (Josephus leading the propaganda with his Jewish War).

        However, the Temple Establishment, post-Jesus, shuts down Peter and the disciples from 1) theological designs of the Son of Man at the right hand of God (an example is made of Stephen and the Hebrew Christians did nothing in his defense), 2) criticisms of Temple establishment, disruptions of Temple activities, 3) making sacred scripture of Jesus’ sayings or biography for use in Hebrew synagogues. Elements of Jesus’ ministry were censored. One can see the clamping down at Jerusalem. Peter goes off and eats non-kosher food, but when he returns he eats kosher food.

        Dr. Ehrman, would you agree the Temple Establishment influenced public speech and what was written by someone they had executed?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  November 3, 2013

          I don’t think the Temple establishment had any sway over the authors of the NT, since all but Paul were writing after 70 CE and all of them, including Paul, were writing outside of Palestine,

          • Avatar
            Steefen  November 4, 2013

            In your book Did Jesus Exist, you leave your readers with the idea that the sayings of Jesus and his biography were in circulation before 70 C.E. Second, the seams in the gospel of John, could (not necessarily do) prove there were earlier sources. And what about Q? That could be early as well.

            I’m suspicious about no writing about Jesus within three years of his resurrection.

            Please comment on how plausible that is along these lines:

            1. Julius Caesar is murdered. Yes, the historians cover this. I’m under the impression letters were sent out to the empire. In addition to news in Roman histories, are there any surviving letters of his death? Sure, coins will tell the story within a year, as well.

            He has a funeral. I guess busts dated and by sculptures tell that story.

            2. Cleopatra dies. Antony die. Augustus dies. Herod the Great dies.

            Aren’t we likely to get some great poet’s poem on the death of Julius or Augustus?

            Not one poem is written for Jesus within three years but something kicks off a big writing campaign for his memory after 41 years and you have the Destruction of Jerusalem which makes him yesterday’s news.

            Something is not right here.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  November 6, 2013

            My sense is that no one would have dreamed of writing an account of the crucifixion of another Jew found guilty of crimes against the state (any more than they would write about either of the two others crucified with him that morning)….

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  November 3, 2013

        I”m afraid we know next to nothing about the Therapeutae.

        • Avatar
          Steefen  November 4, 2013

          What about Pythagoreans? Even today, his theorem is taught.

          Given the post-70 C.E. writing blitz for the memory of Jesus, this Ancient mass media event shows that Christianity just didn’t spread by salesmen (disicples, Paul, Paul’s letters), it spread by the balloon of gospels–whatever kicked that blitz off.

          Did Jesus need to ascend to heaven right off the cross for people to write about him?


          There is no doubt Josephus saw three people crucified. Had them taken down. One survives, just like in the gospels.

          Maybe the Jesus writing blitz was a reaction to the Jewish Revolt Crucifixion at Calvary.

          New Testament scholars who tackle this question will answer a very important question, in my opinion.

          • Avatar
            Steefen  November 7, 2013

            Bart Ehrman:
            My sense is that no one would have dreamed of writing an account of the crucifixion of another Jew found guilty of crimes against the state (any more than they would write about either of the two others crucified with him that morning)….


            But Jesus’ life did not end at the crucifixion.

            Second, Josephus did write an account of the crucifixion of another Jew found guilty of crimes against the state. He wrote accounts of the many who died in the revolt.

            Jesus’ crucifixion to written account – 40 years
            St. Stephen’s stoning to written account – 50 years
            Jewish Revolt Crucifixion witnessed by Josephus to written account – 23 years

            When one googles/bings “When was Acts of the Apostles written,” five reasons are given that Acts had to be written during or after the completion of Jewish Antiquities by Josephus. If Luke were a friend of Paul, why wouldn’t he be a friend of Josephus as well, given the similarities in their biographies? Luke reads Paul. Luke reads Josephus.

            “Ancient writers did not acknowledge their sources using footnotes in the style of modern academic authors, but they did have another way of acknowledge their sources, known as mimesis. This was an intellectually amusing technique that required placing a clue, or flag, within the text, enabling others to identify the source. But the flag must not be obvious – it had to be a clue that needed to be searched for and identified.” [This cannot be ignored in textual criticism. I don’t quite remember you, Dr. Ehrman, marking this in the books I’ve read by you. Maybe you did somewhere.]

            Dr. Ehrman, this is all interesting. Thanks for having a blog.

    • gmatthews
      gmatthews  November 3, 2013

      153 isn’t the square of any whole number. The reality is, to me, more interesting. 153 was considered a divine or sacred number (like the golden ratio which more people are familiar with) to ancient Greeks like the Pythagoreans. I’ll skip the math and just say that 153 is one half of a ratio (153:265) which was called the the ratio of the fish or the measurement of the fish (the visualization is two intersecting circles– or, to Greeks the pisces). Due to the symbol of the fish having associations with early Christianity and all of the associations of Jesus to fish and fishing it becomes obvious how the connection between Pythagoras and Jesus started. While I had long forgotten that ratio I remember a college professor bringing it up in engineering school in college.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 1, 2013

    I look forward to the next post for the explanation. I had previously read this section about “literary seams” in your textbook, but it is helpful to read it again. Gospel contradictions and possible explanations for them are quite interesting to me. They certainly undermine the idea of Biblical inerrancy.

  3. Avatar
    RyanBrown  November 1, 2013

    Great post, although your sentence, “But they’re there if you want to look for them,” need only be the first three words, as I’m betting you’d agree. Religions are incredibly dependent on not examining too closely, even within their own scriptures.

  4. Avatar
    RichardToothman  November 1, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I have a couple questions, not related to this topic. I have heard that the name Joshua in the old testament and the name Jesus in the new testament are actually the same. Is this true? I’ve also heard that there are quite a lot of parallels between the two characters on what they did and how they lived.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 1, 2013

      Yes, Joshua is the Hebrew form of the Greek name Jesus. (so when you read the OT in Greek, Joshua is called Jesus). There are certainly some parallels, but not as many as with other OT figures (Moses, Elijah, e.g.)

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  November 2, 2013

        But it’s long been my understanding that while the meanings are the same, the older form of the name was Yehoshua, the later form Yeshua. That is, in Jesus’s day, the name Yeshua – very common – was the “modern” form of Yehoshua. Isn’t that correct?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  November 3, 2013

          Not quite. Yeshua is the Aramaic form of the Hebrew Joshua, the Greek form of which is Jesus.

  5. Avatar
    stephena  November 1, 2013

    I’ve seen some, but not all, of these examples of inconsistencies in John before. Fascinating stuff. The “none of you ask, Where are you going?” line has always bothered me, and clearly debunks inerrancy right there (it only takes ONE error!)

    I’ve read somewhere (perhaps in one of your books!) that flipping chapters 5 and 6 would “solve” or help solve that problem. Would that work as a “fix?”

    Has a book been written that attempts to untangle the DEVELOPMENT of John (and/or ALL of the Gospels?) If not, please write one! In your spare time. 😉

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 1, 2013

      Yup, flipping chs. 5 and 6 works. You’d have to explain how they got switched in the first place, of course.

      The best book on the development of John is probably Raymond Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple.

  6. Avatar
    stephena  November 1, 2013

    [You don’t have to post ANY of this comment, but there are two typos in the post and technical Issue I want to share with you:

    “There are lots of these two?” in the second paragraph, apparently should read, “There are lots of these, too.”

    And in the second to last paragraph, “earlier part of my chapter, not included here I this post],” should probably end, “here in this post.]”

    A technical issue for the Webmaster: Two of the three choices below the Add Comment box are “Notify me of follow-up comments by email.” and “Notify me of follow-up comments VIA E-MAIL” These are essentially the same choices, worded differently. It’s likely you never see this, as the moderator, but it could be confusing to new posters. Keep up the good work!]

  7. Avatar
    Steefen  November 1, 2013

    Thanks for the lesson. The next post should be interesting, too.

  8. Avatar
    hwl  November 1, 2013

    Is the presence of literary seams is evidence that the final redactor used multiple sources, most likely written sources? If so, does it undermine the claim that the author was Apostle John, who was writing from memory in his old age (leaving aside numerous other reasons against apostolic authorship)?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 1, 2013

      Yup, I’d tried to argue at the end of my post that these were written sources. And yes, that almost certainly means that the book was not written by Jesus’ own disciple John.

      • Avatar
        gavriel  November 2, 2013

        Would it be correct then, to say that John adds two independent sources for The Last Supper ? In addition to Mark and Paul.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  November 3, 2013

          It depends on what you mean by the Last Supper. John has Jesus at a final meal with his disciples, but I think we can assume that Jesus did have a final meal with his disciples whatever the Gospels say. (!) What’s striking is the John does not contain anything about the “Institution of the Lord’s Supper” (this is my body… etc.)

          • Avatar
            gavriel  November 5, 2013

            My question was not about the “Institution of the Lord’s Supper”, but rather the assumption that some sort of a solemn gathering, including a meal, took place, and if the two merged accounts in John could be regarded as independent witnesses to that.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  November 6, 2013

            Well, yes — I think most early Christians thought that Jesus (as the Son of God) must have known what was in store for him and so at his last meal he made it a special occasion. Whether that’s historically accurate or not is a different question. I’m ambivalent on the issue myself….

  9. cheito
    cheito  November 1, 2013

    DR Ehrman:


    a. In chapter two, Jesus performs his “first sign” (2:11) in Cana of Galilee, changing the water into wine.  In chapter four, he does his “second sign” (4:54) after returning to Galilee from Judea, healing the Capernaum official’s son.  In itself, this is no problem.  The problem emerges when you read what happens between the first and second signs; for John 2:23 indicates that while Jesus was in Jerusalem many people believed in him “because they saw the signs that he was doing.”  How can this be?  How can he do the first sign, and then other signs, and then the second sign?   This is what I am calling a literary seam.


    Note The words His signs and signs in 2:11 below.

    John 2:11-This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.

    John 2:11 acknowledges two things:
    1-changing water into wine is Jesus’ beginning of His signs.
    2-Changing water into wine is not the only sign Jesus had performed but here the context implies that it was the first sign, or beginning of His signs, performed *specifically* in Cana of Galilee. However John uses the word “His signs” So Jesus had performed other signs elsewhere.

    John 2:23 confirms this.

    John 2:23-Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing.

    Note: Galileans were among the many who were at the feast in Jerusalem and who had witnessed Jesus signs there during the Passover feast. John 4:45 below confirms this.

    John 4:45-So when He came to Galilee, the Galileans received Him, having seen all the things that He did in Jerusalem at the feast; for they themselves also went to the feast.

    In 4:46 Jesus again returns to Galilee where he had made the water into wine. Again suggesting He returns a second time to Galilee.

    John 4: 46-Therefore He came again to Cana of Galilee where He had made the water wine.

    Note the the emphasis on *again*. The second sign here is not referring to the the second miracle Jesus had ever done but the second miracle Jesus did *specifically in Galilee after He had come out of Judea.

    John 4:54 below confirms this.

    John 4:54-This is again a second sign that Jesus performed when He had come out of Judea into Galilee.

    What do you think DR Ehrman?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 3, 2013

      I don’t think that’s what hte Greek mean. 4:54 does not mean that the first sign was also performed after Jesus came from Judea to Galilee. It means that this sign was after Jesus came from Judea to Galilee, and it was his second sign.

      • cheito
        cheito  November 4, 2013

        What about John 4:45-So when He came to Galilee, (THE SECOND TIME) the Galileans received Him, having seen all the things that He did in Jerusalem AT THE FEAST; for they themselves also went to the feast.

        Note: Galileans were among the many who were at the feast in Jerusalem and who had witnessed Jesus signs there during THE PASSOVER FEAST.

        and also John 2:23-Now when He was in Jerusalem AT THE PASSOVER, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing.

        • cheito
          cheito  November 4, 2013

          My point is that when Jesus went to Galilee the second time the Galileans received Him because they were at the Passover feast and had witnessed the signs he had done there ( Read John 4:45 below).

          John 4:45-So when He came to Galilee, the Galileans received Him, having seen all the things that He did in Jerusalem at the feast; for they themselves also went to the feast.

          Jesus had already done other signs besides turning water into wine and the Galileans knew this. Therefore John 4:54 has to be interpreted acknowledging what 2:23 and 4:45 declares. (Read John 2:23 below)

          John 2:23-Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His *signs* which He was *doing*.

          John 2:23 and 4:45 occurred before Jesus went to Galilee the second time and performed His sign there. It’s obvious thatJesus had done other miracles. The second sign can’t mean that it was Jesus’ second miracle because the Galileans had already witnessed other miracles He had done previously as I demonstrated from the texts themselves above.

          I think it’s clear Dr Ehrman. Do you agree?

          Note the word *signs* below in John 2:11. John is saying that this one sign that was done in Galilee is one among many SIGNS He had done elsewhere. ‘This beginning OF HIS SIGNS Jesus DID IN CANA of Galilee’

          (John 2:11-This beginning of His *signs* Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.)


          John 2:23-Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His *signs* which He was *doing*.

  10. Avatar
    simonjc5423  November 2, 2013

    In 2:23 it says Jesus did many signs in Jerusalem. In 4:54 it says it was the second sign he did in Galilee. This seems consistent to me. I’m curious to see if my response works, however.

    Don’t really see much of a way around “B”.

    Just curious: do we know of any other ancient texts that have these literary seams as well? Any examples?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 3, 2013

      I think 4:54 is saying that he did this second sign after he came from Judea to Galilee, not that this is the second sign he did in Galilee.

      I’m sure there are others; there are certainly some in the NT (e.g., the book of Acts)

      • Avatar
        simonjc5423  November 6, 2013

        What do you think about Raymond Brown’s comment here: “Perhaps all this statement means is that this is the second sign performed under the peculiar condition of coming from Judea into Galilee. But if the statement is taken absolutely, it seems to ignore the signs worked at Jerusalem and mentioned in ii 23 and iv 45. (Knowledge only of Galilee miracles seems to be implied also in vii 3; see also vi 2.).”

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  November 6, 2013

          Yes, i agree with it, and don’t see any grammatical reason to take it in any way other than “absolutely”….

  11. Avatar
    Habakuk  November 3, 2013

    What I found most puzzling in John: Chapter 3:26 says that the disciples of John tell him that Jesus himself is baptizing, in 4:2 we are told that Jesus did NOT baptize, but only his disciples.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 3, 2013

      Yes, that’s usually seen as another seam.

      • Avatar
        judaswasjames  November 6, 2013


        Here’s another: In 13:31, Jesus tells the disciples as Judas walks out the door, (“and it was night”), that “NOW is the Son of man glorified”. To reiterate for effect, the very next line, 32, says it is “at once” or “immediately”. Just one more verse later, we see: “Yet a little while I am with you”! Well, which is it? “Now and at once”, or “in a little while”? Traditionally, this is seen as reference to the crucifixion and ascension. Why do you think there is this apparent discrepancy?

        I know why, but I want to see if you noticed this, and if you did, why you think this is apparently a discrepancy.

        I also can explain 14:31. It isn’t really my explanation, so this one can’t be pinned on me. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation, and it comes from someone who I believe has personal experience to be qualified in answering it.

        There is a far more consequential anomaly in 13:12-20, the foot-washing segment. I’ll do that one later. I don’t think you have spotted this one. I believe it is actually the key to understanding the entire New Testament!

  12. Avatar
    judaswasjames  November 7, 2013

    Bart, on 14:31: “The reader might expect them to get up and go.”

    You don’t get UP and go. It says “rise” or “arise”. Jesus says it to the disciples when ‘Judas’ comes (it’s James, as successor). He means go within in their meditation, “watch with me” for AN HOUR. There are many instances of this: “lift up your eyes [consciousness]”, “when thy eye be single [eye center meditation]”, “when Moses lifted up the serpent [consciousness centered at the Kundalini center]”, Judas “entered the luminous cloud” (Gospel of Judas). Nearly every gnostic writing has something similar. Also the Sounds (the Word, “His Holy Name” at Qumran) within are ubiquitous in scripture: David’s ‘lyre’ and ‘songs’ of the Lord, Samuel’s “do a thing in Israel that will make the ears of all Israel ring” 1 Sam. 3:10; in the gnostic writings they are the “5 seals”. That’s related to the 5 stones in David’s arsenal against his ego-self, ten foot tall ‘Goliath’, etc. This is taught even today in India. It was taught TO ME.

  13. Avatar
    Billy Geddes  November 8, 2013

    A Quick Question Prof Ehrman: How much do the gospels vary in their ‘Jewishness’?

    Scholars today seem to point to John as the most Jewish, for example John shows Jesus going to two passovers, the feast of tabernacles, and hannukah. So possibly here Jesus is seen as fulfilling Jewish messianic expectations.
    Although traditionally, Matthew was said to be the most Jewish.

    It is very likely that Jesus did go to such festivals, but surely John is not recording historical events, but making theological interpretations!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 8, 2013

      I think they differ in how “Jewish” (whatever that means) they were. But I don’t think it likely that Jesus was able to go to Jerusalem for the festivals. If he was a lower class peasant, he would not have been able to afford the time or money. (it’s a week just to walk there)

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