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Why Contradictions Matter for Understanding the Life of Jesus

Realizing that there are contradictions in our surviving New Testament texts matters a good deal when it comes to trying to reconstruct the history behind them.  I’ll devote several posts to this question, a couple of dealing with the life of Jesus and at least one other involving the life of Paul.

The basic issue, of course, is that if you have two contradictory witnesses to an event, then they both can’t be right: they contradict one another!   At the point of the contradiction, either one of them is wrong, or they are both wrong, but they both can’t be right – unless the contradiction can be reconciled in some way (in which case it is not really a contradiction).

And so the first step is to look carefully at the sources and see if they line up with one another or if there are places where they are at odds.  If they appear to be at odds, then the next step is to be see if it is only an *apparent* contradiction or an *actual* one.  If it’s an actual one, they you need to decide if there are good grounds for accepting one of the other as factual and the other a distortion, leaving open the possibility that both of them might be distortions.  At every point, of course, you have to have grounds for your decision.  History can never simply be a matter of choosing to think that one thing or another happened because you simply would like it to have been that way.

Over the history of this blog I have given many, many instances in which the accounts of Jesus life are at odds with one another.   They start right at the beginning, with …

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Are the Gospels Principally Concerned to Show What Actually Happened?
Internal Discrepancies in the Gospel of John

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Comments

  1. godspell  July 8, 2018

    One can imagine many Christians over the centuries reading these conflicting accounts and quietly coming to the conclusion that one or both are wrong on some points–there were good reasons why Rome was not pleased by Mr. Gutenberg’s invention, precisely because the very first book he printed was a bible.

    It was far from uncommon, in past centuries, for educated Christians, with genuine faith, to privately question the divinity of Jesus. Lincoln was a known skeptic on this point–one of the few books he could have gotten his hands on as a young man was the bible. You can’t read his Second Inaugural and say he was any kind of atheist. He was a critical believer. A believer on his own terms.

    To me, the four varying accounts of Jesus’ baptism are even more interesting, because that almost certainly did happen. I’m guessing you’ll get to that.




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  2. caesar  July 8, 2018

    Does the Micah prophecy about Bethlehem refer to the town of Bethlehem, or the tribe of Bethlehem? That is, could it be saying that someone important is coming from a family line, as opposed to a town?




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 9, 2018

      There wasn’t a tribe of Bethlehem; you may be thinking of Benjamin?




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      • fishician  July 9, 2018

        Micah says: “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.” So it seems to be referring to a clan within the people of Israel, not the town.




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      • anthonygale  July 9, 2018

        I remember reading once that there was also a Bethlehem in Galilee. Is that true? The case was made that perhaps Joseph was from the northern Bethlehem, making it more plausible Jesus could have been born there. The NT is quite clear in saying Jesus was born in Judea. And Micah says Bethlehem is small among the clans of Judea. I think that is why ceasar asked if it could refer to a tribe. Since the OT also speaks of Bethlehem in reference to Judea, it seems the northern Bethlehem birth place theory is unlikely. But it is still an interesting idea.




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        • Bart
          Bart  July 10, 2018

          No, there was no Bethlehem that we know of in Galilee at the time. The whole point of the narrative is that it is the town that David came from, which was in Judah.




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      • caesar  July 10, 2018

        I guess ‘tribe’ is the wrong word…most translations say Bethlehem is small among the ‘clans’ of Judah. If this is correct, a ‘clan’ refers to a family, not a town. I’ve heard this argument made by rabbis. I looked up the word in a concordance, and it’s eleph, which is almost always translated as ‘thousands’ in the OT…I can imagine there are thousands of ‘clans’ in Judah, but not thousands of cities.




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  3. rburos  July 8, 2018

    [putting this here because I’m not sure where else to put it]

    You often add a remark about books to your posts, and I’ve always sought them out–but Joel Marcus’ book(s) on Mark is one I’m particularly grateful for. Obviously I am unable to agree/disagree in any meaningful way, but a book that takes 80 pages of explanation just to set you up to be able to spend a few pages unpacking just one sentence (i.e. ARCHE EUANGELIOU IESOU CHRISTOU) has been a fascinating ride so far. I really hope you keep this blog going for a long time.

    P.S. I absolutely LOVE the word limit–excellent addition to the community here.




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 9, 2018

      You mean his commentary on Mark I assume. Yeah, pretty amazing. Took him 20 years to write that thing!




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      • rburos  July 10, 2018

        Tell him if I spend the next 20 years reading it I’ll consider it time well spent. I’m even taking time away from reading that textbook by some guy named Ehrman. . .




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  4. saavoss  July 8, 2018

    Professor Ehrman, can you please recommend a good source for determining which (if any) of the teachings/sayings attributed to Jesus might be historically accurate? That is, how can we know with any certainty what the historical Jesus actually taught his followers? I am interested in reality, even if the best we can have is “probable” history, not theology. Please reply. Thank you.




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 9, 2018

      I give a relatively full discussion of just that issue in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. As to how we can know — that’s coming up next on the blog.




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    • 3Timothy  July 9, 2018

      I recommend “The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus” (1993), edited by Robert W. Funk.

      It was put out by the Jesus Seminar, which was made up of scholars (along with some non-scholars) who employed rigorous standards when judging if statements found in the gospels were said by the historical Jesus–as opposed to words being written decades later and then put on the lips of Jesus.

      Not everyone will agree with the findings. But the book is a serious attempt to figure out which statements in the gospels are likely or unlikely to originate with the historical Jesus. I think Bart would have “fit in” as a participant in the Jesus Seminar voting proceedings (I’ll leave it up to Bart to agree or disagree about if he would have felt comfortable voting as a Jesus Seminar member).

      The Jesus Seminar Fellows used a voting system to evaluate the authenticity of about 500 statements and events.

      Colors are used to indicate the degree of confidence that a saying or act was or was not authentic:

      Red = Jesus did say the passage quoted, or something very much like the passage.

      Pink = Jesus probably said something like the passage.

      Grey = Jesus did not say the passage, but it contains Jesus’ ideas.

      Black = the historical Jesus did NOT say the passage—instead, it comes from later admirers or a different tradition.




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      • Bart
        Bart  July 10, 2018

        Yes, it’s an interesting publication. And I disagree heartily with its decisions!!




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  5. wostraub  July 8, 2018

    The non-historicity of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, the census under Syrian governor Quirinius and the associated ten-year time differential (Jesus was born during the reign of the former and then later under the governorship of the latter) would also seem to be irreconcilable.




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 9, 2018

      Yes, those would be contradictions with known facts of history rather than internal inconsistencies/contradictions.




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  6. Ancalagon1017  July 8, 2018

    Matthew & Luke most likely used the Septuagint, so, their usage of Isaiah 7:14 would not be a mistranslation as the LXX uses the word “parthenos” which means virgin. Also the Septuagint predates the masoretic text(which btw, is complete with all new punctuation) – Why is the masoretic text considered to be the “original text” – its from 7th10th CE!
    The alma argument, to me, has always been lame…




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 9, 2018

      Not sure what is lame about it? Matthew thinks Isaiah was referring to a woman who had never had sex, but that’s not Isaiah’s talking about (for which the Hebrew word would be bethulah). I’m not saying that Matthew himself mistranslated the passage, only that the translation he used was susceptible of misunderstanding.




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  7. UCCLMrh  July 8, 2018

    I think your fundamentalist past has a grip on you that you just can’t release. I suppose we should celebrate the positive consequences–the wonderful series of books that we have enjoyed. But watching the pain it causes to you (and remembering my own) still hurts. You are succeeding in demonstrating to me, at least, that the contradictions really don’t matter. Of course the stories are legends. What else could they possibly be?




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 9, 2018

      I’m not sure what you mean. I don’t feel a bit of pain about my past. If I think about it at all, it is only with sense of liberation. Most of the time I simply enjoy life. A great deal in fact. But on the more important issue: pointing out contradictions in sources has nothing to do with being a fundamentalist; it’s what historians do with all their sources.




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  8. jwesenbe  July 8, 2018

    In this one post you have presented all that is needed to refute the messiah narrative.




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  9. Nichrob  July 8, 2018

    As a point of reference: I am the “Texas” gent who had dinner with you in Chappel Hill (Again thanks for that opportunity). When I have a discussion about the historicity of the Bible or Jesus with fellow TX neighbors, friends, etc, I use the “method” of presentation you use in this blog. You separate the historical from the “theological”. Why? In Texas it’s easy to “offend” because we have many “fundamentalists” in Texas. (Another country song: “All my Fundi’s Live in Texas…). Any way, I’ve picked up what appears to be a “change in your tone” with your blog. I may be wrong, but has something sparked a “kinder gentler Bart presenter……”? When I start out in my discussions with: “Are you nuts, you really believe that”, I have a tendency to “lose” my audience. But, if I try to explain (what you and others have taught me) and separate the “theology” from history, I reduce the “you are a member of Satan” look from my audience (which is a look you get often in TX…). So my question, again, is: are you changing the presentation…? PS. I / we, love that you write “trade books”. I believe it is a duty to humanity that “those in the know” should / must inform the plebeian (me). And, thanks for all you do…




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 9, 2018

      I haven’t consciously changed anything, no. But I think as I’ve gotten older I have become more forgiving of difference generally, especially in the realms of religion and politics. I’m even doing my best to understand otherwise intelligent people who don’t agree with my social values, even though I affirm them quite strongly!




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  10. Ryzzer  July 8, 2018

    Hello Mr. Ehrman
    I just recently became a member of your fine blog, and wanted to ask a question.
    Something I’ve always wondered about is the three wise men. Are they a reference to something in the Old Testament? And do we have any idea exactly where they came from, as it just says ‘the east’?

    Thank you for all your hard work!




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 9, 2018

      It’s interesting that the text never says that there were three of them! Only that the wisemen/magi — however many of them there were — brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrhh. But yes, the passage is a narrative exposition of Numbers 24:17, about a star arising out of Israel that will crush the enemies of the Israelites. The people of the East see it and come in submission to it, bringing gifts suitable for a king. It makes sense that if someone fromthe east comes to Israel to worship the star, that they would be star-gazers; and there was a famous idea that easterners (e.g. Babylonians) had prominent astrologers.




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  11. Iskander Robertson  July 8, 2018

    i think that luke worded his infancy narrative like he did because he had no idea that any danger faced the child or that he wrote his account to counter matthews claim that the child’s life was in danger. when i read luke, i ask myself, “where is the danger?”
    luke’s jesus travels to judia before he reached the age of 12 and continues on ward . if one is to honestly read luke, can one go away with the belief that the child faced danger from birth on ward ?




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  12. prestonp  July 8, 2018

    “That’s because the two points on which they agree (virgin birth and Bethlehem) are theologically heavily loaded. They both are trying to make a very important claim about Jesus and his identity. Several claims in fact.’ Bart
    You cannot state that as fact, although that is what you are doing. There is nothing in the above chronology that contradicts either Matthew or Luke. The only way to find a contradiction between Matthew 2:21–23 and Luke 2:39 is to make assumptions.
    Silence does not equal denial. Luke’s omission in his narrative of the flight to Egypt cannot be construed as evidence that it never happened. Luke never says that Joseph and Mary did not go to Egypt; he simply doesn’t comment on the event. Matthew never mentions the shepherds of the nativity—are we to assume because of Matthew’s omission that no shepherds came? Do we expect them to include every detail of their lives?
    “When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.” When? Immediately? Eventually? It doesn’t say.
    It’s also quite possible that Joseph was planning to resettle his new family in Bethlehem, thinking it would be good for the Son of David to be reared in the City of David).
    Simeon and Anna begin spreading the news that they have seen the Messiah in Jerusalem (Luke 2:25–38).
    Sometime later, the magi arrive at Jerusalem and confirm the news on the street that the Messiah has been born (Matthew 2:1–2). Herod sends the magi on to Bethlehem, where they find young Jesus (Matthew 2:3–11).
    4) The magi return home a different way, and Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:12–13).
    After a while, Herod figures out that the magi have disregarded his wishes, and he orders the slaughter of all males two years old and younger near Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16). The “two-year” computation indicates that Jesus could have already been that old.
    Herod dies in 4 BC.
    Joseph brings his family back from Egypt (Matthew 2:19–21). Joseph changes his plan to settle in Bethlehem and instead moves back to Galilee (Matthew 2:22–23).
    Not enough words permitted to refute all the claims in just one comment.




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 9, 2018

      I think you’re missing my point — probably because I haven’t explicated it fully. Matthew indicates that the family fled from Bethlehem to Egypt (on foot, obviously). That would have taken a journey of weeks, and a stay there of much longer. But Luke indicates that, instead, they went straight from Bethlehem back to Nazareth 32 days after Jesus’ birth. It’s hard to see how both can be right. (So it’s not an argument from silence.)




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      • Iskander Robertson  July 9, 2018

        “Matthew indicates that the family fled from Bethlehem to Egypt (on foot, obviously). That would have taken a journey of weeks, and a stay there of much longer. But Luke indicates that, instead, they went straight from Bethlehem back to Nazareth 32 days after Jesus’ birth. It’s hard to see how both can be right. ”

        apologist will say that the parents went straight to galilee with infant, after the rituals, then they were doing the yearly rituals in judea, jerusalem. they will say, “each year his parents went to jerusalem….” text does not say WHERE they were coming from…
        quote :
        Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, 42 and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to festival custom.
        43 After they had completed its days, as they were returning….

        so when child is 0-2 they are going to judea, jerusalem from bethlehem. when child escapes to egypt, they are STILL going to judea , jerusalem. seems like the family did not fear going judea because even though matthew said they were afraid to go, they could always hide in crowds…




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        • Bart
          Bart  July 10, 2018

          If that’s the case, and they knew that Herod was about to kill all the children in Bethlehem, why wouldn’t they just return to Nazareth?




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          • Iskander Robertson  July 10, 2018

            apologists will say that egypt was closer.
            one apologist said that when the text says, “But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.”

            it doesn’t mean that joseph was afraid to go there, it just means he was afraid to go because of the child. so according to the apologist, joseph was doing his visits to judea , jerusalem for the festival EVERY YEAR.

            i just cannot accept these explanations , if i knew greek , maybe these explanation would completely fall apart.




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          • Bart
            Bart  July 12, 2018

            They fall apart without the Greek. Egypt was closer???




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  13. forthfading  July 8, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Is the fact that we have four biographies of Jesus (someone living in the first century) unique to the historical time period? Are there other figures in Greek or Roman history that have different people writing bios of them?

    Thanks




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 9, 2018

      Only the big names — e.g. kings and emperors. I don’t know of any lower class person other than Jesus for whom this would be true.




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  14. RonaldTaska  July 8, 2018

    Great post. I agree that the legendary explanation is the most probable explanation for most of the birth narrative.




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  15. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  July 8, 2018

    Reading both Matthew and Luke one can see how the accounts do not line up. 1. Was this an issue for the early Church or was historical accuracy not not a concern. 2. Since Matthew was written prior to Luke were things like the Roman Census of the flight into Egypt an invention of Luke?




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 9, 2018

      Yes, early Christian scholars were quite concerned about it, and tried to work out the contradictions; Luke may have invented these things, or the storytellers from whom he received his accounts did.




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  16. anthonygale  July 8, 2018

    I just read How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian by John Dominic Crossan. I’m guessing you have most likely read it. Do you agree with his conclusion that discrepancies in the Bible can be explained by authors “subverting” the texts in a manner consistent with the “normalcy of civilization?” For example, the historical Paul supported women being leaders in the churches, but a patriarchal Roman would not have accepted that, so they changed it which explains discrepancies seen in the pseudo Pauline epistles (as well as an addition to an undisputed one). My guess is that, at least is some cases, something like this happened and most scholars would agree. But do you agree with his conclusion this is a trend across the Bible, enough so that one can identify a portrayal of God that is ultimately consistent? In any case, I much prefer the notion of a nonviolent God concerned with distributive justice than a violent one concerned with retribution.

    I ask not only because I am interested in your opinion, but it seems relevant to the post. I am wondering if discrepancies, in some cases at least, can be ultimately informative. Using the criterion of dissimilarity, it’s not hard to imagine why a Roman would write in Paul’s name that women should be silent in churches, but it’s harder to imagine why Paul would have said so if he didn’t really believe it. I suppose it would be easier if all the authors (and sources) agreed, but that may be asking too much.




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 9, 2018

      Yes, I agree this sort of thing happened. Thought I think I would phrase it differently if I were writing for a general audience: subverting texts to make them consistent with the normalcy of civilization sounds a bit highfalutin to me! (At least it’s not how I normally talk)




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  17. ardeare  July 9, 2018

    At least one major religion that I’m aware of believes that God actually came down and had sexual relations with Mary, causing her to become pregnant. On another note, I’ve spent considerable time wondering what Mark thought. Secular scholars seem to believe that Mark was unaware of the virgin story and that’s why we don’t see it in his gospel. Religious scholars seem to think that the Mark we have today is a readers digest type version of the earliest traditions. Hence, he was scant on some of the details. Still, others surmise that the beginning of Mark were somehow damaged and that’s why the virgin story is missing.

    For many reasons, I think Mark probably did hear the stories of the virgin birth but made a conscious decision to leave it out. Primarily because he felt the stories may have been sensationalized and he wasn’t willing to damage his own reputation, the reputation of the early Christians who would have been using his gospel, and most of all, the reputation of Jesus by providing a reason for a possible convert to scoff and reject the message; a message that Mark very much believed in.




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  18. mannix  July 9, 2018

    What interests me about the birth narrative is the source of information. There were only 3 “witnesses” to the story: Jesus, Joseph, and Mary. One would think Jesus would not qualify due to his age. However, one may want to contend that, being divine, His memory was perfect even back to birth! Despite it being the most reliable source, I doubt most would think Jesus recounted His nativity to His disciples. Next is Joseph, but no one seems to know what happened to him (at least in Canonical scripture) Many think he was middle aged when Jesus was born, so by 30 AD he probably wasn’t around to give information. That leaves Mary, who would have had to recount the events to someone in order to start the oral tradition process. (I doubt she directly related the events to the evangelists since the stories are different and the fact she would have been about 100 years old at the time Lk and Mt were written.)

    So what DID Mary relate, if anything? Either Mt’s story or Lk’s? Then one is wrong. Or they could BOTH be wrong. Or she may not have spoken to ANYONE about the birth, and both accounts are the results of speculative legends. As an aside I wonder how Mary would have “witnessed” Mt. 2:3-6.




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  19. webattorney  July 10, 2018

    Your post raises an interesting question: if the Bible had no inconsistencies, would you then believe that Christian God exists and Jesus is God?




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 10, 2018

      No, for me the contradictions in the Bible have nothing to do with faith, one way or the other.




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  20. dschmidt01
    dschmidt01  July 10, 2018

    Very interesting discussion Dr. Ehrman. As I learn more and more from your blog I’ve started to think of the gospels as early examples of fan fiction. Thanx for all you do. I shared your blog with a new friend and with luck they will become a new member.




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