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What Is a Contradiction?

As many of you know, Rev. Matthew Firth, an Anglican rector trained in theology at Oxford, will soon be participating on the blog in a fund-raising event, for which many of you, bless your souls, have already donated.  This will entail a debate with me over whether there are contradictions in the Gospels.

The debate will start soon, but I thought I should lay a little bit of groundwork.  I hadn’t planned on doing this originally, and haven’t told Rev. Firth that I’m going to do it now – but I’ll show this post to him and allow him to respond if he feels inclined, prior to my opening gambit when I mention several points in the Gospels that appear to me to be contradictory to one another.

I do not plan or intend anything in this post to be controversial, but in case Rev. Firth does want to respond, he’s certainly welcome to do so.  Otherwise, we can just get on with the debate.   But I did want to say a few words about why we are limiting ourselves to the Gospels and what I consider a contradiction to be.  Again, this seems fairly straightforward to me, but maybe I’m wrong about that!

I’ve been asked several times why we’re limiting ourselves to the Gospels.  That was Rev. Firth’s idea and I’m completely happy with it.  There are indeed other possible passages we could look at – for example, possible contradictions between the Gospels and the book of Acts (e.g., connected with the death of Judas) or between Acts and the letters of Paul (did Paul go to Jerusalem to meet the disciples of Jesus immediately after leaving Damascus or not), etc. etc.   I would argue that when looked at in detail, these various accounts do have contradictions; Rev. Firth almost certainly (I’m surmising) would argue they do not.  But we’re not going there.  And why?

For me, it’s simply a question of focus.  We could spend months arguing about all the passages of the Bible that appear contradictory.  But his contention is that there are not *any* contradictions in the Gospels, and so I don’t need to point to contradictions anywhere else.  It’s a very good idea to limit what we consider, not from twenty-seven books but just from four.  Plus, at the end of the day, most people interested in the issue of contradictions are indeed interested in the Gospels, since if they are contradictory in what they say about the life of Jesus – then how can we know what he really said and did?  Obviously that’s a hugely important issue, not just for Christians but for anyone interested in the human past, at least in our part of the world.

But what counts as a contradiction?   I hope Rev. Firth and I don’t disagree on that, though if we do the debate will take on a different tenor.

I have a pretty commonsensical and direct understanding of a contradiction, that it entails …

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Contradictions in the Gospels
Fund Raising Event on the Blog: Contradictions in the Gospels??



  1. Avatar
    Tom  April 15, 2019

    Today, I saw an interesting post at Anxious/Patheos by Baylor University Distinguished Professor of History, Dr. Phillip Jenkins concerning the sequence of resurrection appearances by Jesus. the post is at: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2019/04/they-gathered-around-a-coal-fire-2/.
    Dr. Jenkins posits that the Galilee shore appearance is actually the first resurrection appearance as promised in Mark 14:28 and Mathew 26:32, and mentioned in Mark 16:7. He does refer to Paul’s list of appearances (1 Cor 15:4-7) but also references Luke 24:34 as well when making his case.
    Dr. Jenkins post is not about contradictions per se, but can be understood as promoting historically critical readings of the gospels..

  2. epicurus
    epicurus  April 15, 2019

    I wonder if he is a biblical inerrantist of some sort. That of course has many definitions as well.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2019

      Well, if he doesn’t believe there’s a single contradiction, it’s hard to see what else he would be! But we’ll see. I really don’t know.

  3. Avatar
    fishician  April 15, 2019

    Oh my goodness, you’re using the word “sensible” in a discussion of religion. There’s your first contradiction! (Sorry, couldn’t resist, but in a book where every other page has a seemingly impossible miracle I’m not sure the word “sensible” makes sense!)

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2019

      Ha! I wasn’t saying that an explanation of a miracle would be sensible (to a post-Enlightenment person)! Only that some readings of apparent contradictions could be.

  4. Avatar
    mkahn1977  April 15, 2019

    Maybe not a contradiction but since the virgin birth is such a vital part of the theology it’s amazing that Mark and John don’t mention it—big omission?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2019

      It may be amazing, but it’s not a contradiction! (No one else in the New Testament mentions it either. Very striking)

  5. Avatar
    kqn  April 15, 2019

    Expectation Management. Good idea.

  6. Avatar
    godspell  April 15, 2019

    Well, here’s hoping the argument goes better than this–


  7. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  April 15, 2019

    It *would* be a contradiction if the author of Luke said something like “Never in Jesus’ public ministry did he claim that he was in some sense divine so that Jews took up stones to stone him.”

    Dr Ehrman ,

    if anyone else said , “why do you call me good, ONLY God is good”

    this would be enough to convince people that the person is saying he isn’t God.

    christian apologists say that none of the variants in the manuscripts go against there theology. i am asking, if they are ready to twist “why do you call me good…” into something other than what it plainly says, why wouldn’t they do that with variants that do go against their theology?

    they will try to make it fit all together like they do with john and synoptics.

  8. Avatar
    turbopro  April 15, 2019

    >> The debate may end up being over what is sensible.

    One should think that this should be the case, right.

  9. Avatar
    rburos  April 15, 2019

    To be tongue-in-cheek: Dr Ehrman saying “bless your souls” is probably the first contradiction to be found in the debate. Of course I’m too lazy to make any effort at searching in order to help a joke, but I thought it at least slightly apropos. . .

    Eagerly awaiting the back and forth–

  10. Avatar
    chixter  April 15, 2019

    I’m interested in reading what Rev. Firth ‘s responses are to: the disciples told to go to Gallilee to meet the resurrected Jesus, vs. stay put in Jerusalem. Who went to the tomb, what was observed there, etc. This is all in plain text in any bible.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2019

      I would say “who went to the tomb” isn’t exactly a contradiction, since none of them says that the ones mentioned in the other accounts did *not* go to the tomb. They are differences hard to explain, but not flat-out contradictions.

  11. Avatar
    Kohlglau  April 15, 2019

    I’m really glad you wrote this post. At first I thought you were setting up a standard for what constitutes a “contradiction” that would be agreed upon in the debate; that would probably be a dead end to the debate because many people cannot agree what a contradiction is (and even when they can agree to what it is, they could disagree on when and how it applies to certain cases). Looking forward to the debate, and thanks for all you do with your scholarship and the blog.

  12. Avatar
    Stephen  April 15, 2019

    Completely off the subject but watching the video of Notre Dame burning was gut wrenching.

  13. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  April 15, 2019

    I would like to know how Rev. Firth reconciles the birth narratives. During Christmastime last year, a friend of mine, who teaches Sunday school to teens, was looking over her lesson a few minutes before class began, only to realize that the stories say different things. She called me after Sunday school was over saying she fumbled her way through the lesson because she didn’t know what to do. She had never noticed the differences before.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2019

      I’ll be intereseted too!

    • Avatar
      John Murphy  April 17, 2019

      “She called me after Sunday school was over saying she fumbled her way through the lesson because she didn’t know what to do.”

      Convert to Catholicism. She’ll never have to trouble herself with a Bible again. 😉

  14. Avatar
    flcombs  April 15, 2019

    Great post on the issue. I would add something related: consistency. If the standards used by (in this case) Christians also allow holy books of other gods to be equally “inerrant” then why believe in the Bible over others? It shouldn’t be a “reasonable” standard if it makes all religions each “correct” when they can’t all be true.

  15. Avatar
    jmmarine1  April 16, 2019

    What about the considerable differences of approach between the various gospels? As a for instance, the synoptics vs. John on the question/place of miracle in their narratives. The miracles in John are all signs specifically given to prove who Jesus is, though the Jesus of the synoptics dismisses the need to perform miracles (to prove who he is) as the desires of a wicked and evil generation. Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-2 both seem to indicate that the author of those books exhausted the available sources in order to write (an orderly) life of Jesus, and to write for those interested in the instructions that the risen Jesus gave to his disciples. However, John writes a gospel in which that author tells a story that includes over 95+% of material that Luke (and the other synoptics) do not include, though John’s author states:
    25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.’ (John 21:25, NRSV)
    Were the sources exhausted (Luke-Acts), or are they inexhaustible (John)? Though these examples (and there are others; eschatology, Kingdom of God, exorcisms, parables) may not technically be contradictions, they certain point to very different approaches to the same subject.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2019

      Right, these are all important. All the differences are! But not all the differences are “contradictions.”

  16. fefferdan
    fefferdan  April 16, 2019

    I was just reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest. John’s version has Judas just standing by, not identifying Jesus with a kiss. It portrays Jesus as asking “who are you looking for?” and then identifying himself. It even portrays those arresting him as falling to the ground when Jesus says “I am he.” How is this version – where Jesus seems totally in control and voluntarily identifies himself – NOT a contradiction to the synoptics’ version where Judas kisses him to identify him.

  17. Avatar
    JoeS  April 17, 2019

    Any contradiction can be explained away if you’re creative enough and really want a story you’re passionately invested in to make sense. One of my favorite has to do with Star Trek. Back in the original 60’s series, Klingons had smooth human-like heads, but Klingons in the movies and subsequent TV series had alien-looking ridged heads. This caused a kerfuffle among some Trekkies. What do Klingons “really” look like and how are fans to explain this contradiction?

    My favorite explanation, from one of the Star Trek novel writers, was that ridged heads are the true form of the Klingons and always have been, but TV technology in the 60s was not advanced enough to reproduce their true form on the image, so how Klingons are represented now (with ridged-heads) is actually how Kirk and Spock saw them in the 60s even though that’s not how we saw them on TV. Therefore there is no contradiction, the problem is just a misinterpretation of the “true” account of the original series.

  18. Avatar
    AstaKask  April 21, 2019

    How about what year Christ was born? He’s supposedly born both before 4 B.C. (Matthew) and in 6-12 A.D. (Luke).

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2019

      Hard to say. Neither Gospel actually names a date. And the events of Luke do take place at the time of King Herod (who died in 4 BCE): see Luke 1:5.

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