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Why Does Luke Appear to Contradict Himself?

A question has come from a reader, based on my recent post dealing with the apparent contradiction between Luke and Acts on the timing of Jesus’ ascension.   Do contradictions often result from authors editing several documents together and inserting them side by side in their work?  If different source documents have different views, that would create contradictions in the final product which embodies their amalgamation, no?  Here’s the question.



I continue to be struck by how often Bible authors, since there were no copyright laws, seem to edit two or more different versions of an event together as seen in the Documentary Hypothesis. Is it likely that Luke and Acts had such an editor editing two or more manuscripts together thus producing contradictions? I would also like to know if this kind of editing together of two or more manuscripts was a common way of writing ancient books.



The answer is Yes and Yes.  This apparently did happen with the book of Acts and it is indeed a phenomenon we can also see elsewhere.  I’ll deal with the former issue here.

With respect to Acts, the author – we’ll just keep calling him Luke for the sake of convenience – must have had a number of sources of information for his stories about the activities of the apostles, especially Peter and Paul, during their missionary journeys.  If he didn’t have any sources, then he would have simply been making everything up himself.  But that’s obviously not the case, since he refers to many events that Paul himself refers to in his letters.  So he got the information from *somewhere* (whether he is accurate in what he says about it is another question).

The question is always “Where?”  And for that we have no direct information.  Given all the information great and small that he appears to get wrong about Paul, it is apparently not the case that …

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Internal Discrepancies in the Gospel of John
Sources for the Hebrew Bible: A Blast from the Past



  1. Avatar
    wannes  June 25, 2018

    The reference to Acts 2:38, shouldn’t it be 2:36?
    And is there much difference between the original The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture(1993 version) and the updated version (2011)? I have the older version, and there the verse in question isn’t mentioned (only took a quick look at the index of scripture).

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2018

      Yup, 2:36. Scribal corruption of the text. I didn’t edit the book for the second edition, for reasons I explain in the Preface. I wanted it to stand as it appeared 20 years earlier as a kind of intervention in the field. What I did, though, was add an Afterword that discussed developments related to the book that had transpired in scholarship since it was first published.

  2. Robert
    Robert  June 25, 2018

    What are the chances that Luke was more or less consciously aware of all of these diverse views and did not consider it all that important to decide for any one among the various options? In other words, might Lukel have had a relatively sophisticated view of the allusive and metaphorical sense of some of these terms and ideas? Or do you think he just patched together sources in a clumsy and unconscious way with little real interest in what he was writing? Is that a leading question?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2018

      I wish there was a way to know! But my sense is that he didn’t realize the tensions created by the different sources. (Just as frequently happens with writers today!)

  3. Avatar
    mannix  June 25, 2018

    Unless some ancient form of shorthand existed, I don’t see how ANY source can remember what someone said 20 years previously. If the speeches were handed down via oral tradition, the “telephone” scenario undoubtedly played some role in altering what was actually said. If someone was educated enough (and recalled accurately) to write down the speech in Aramaic soon after it was given, it still needed to be translated into Greek, with any attendant changes that may have accompanied that process. It’s a wonder any of these apostolic speeches in the NT can be deemed to be accurate.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2018

      Yup, I agree. I deal with all that at some length in my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

  4. Altosackbuteer
    Altosackbuteer  June 25, 2018

    Is Jesus both the Son of God AND the Son of David?

    If Jesus is (and always was) the Son of God, then he CAN’T ALSO be the Son of David, in the sense of descending directly from David in the male line because, as the evangelists stipulate, Joseph (a true Son of David) was NOT the real father of Jesus.

    Which means, at the outset, that Jesus also CANNOT be the Messiah, since the Messiah must be a direct descendant in the male line from King David, and God as the father of Jesus is no descendant of King David. So the Christian claim that Jesus is the Messiah is undone at the very outset, done in by the NT itself.

    And, it does NO good to say, as some evangelists do, that Jesus was descended from King David through his mother. First of all, Mary, as a female, doesn’t count in the royal line of succession; secondly, even if she did, the NT does not claim that she descended directly from King David, and therefore, for a Protestant to make this claim is to do what he condemns Catholics for doing — creating a tradition that is not written in the NT.

    • Avatar
      adamyoung  June 26, 2018

      Dude your name is awesome. My friends and I used to laugh at the use of the term “sackbut” in the Bible. Was it in Daniel?

      • Altosackbuteer
        Altosackbuteer  June 27, 2018

        The word “sackbut” occurs 4 times in the KJV, all of them in Daniel 3.

        A “sackbut” is really just a trombone, but one built according to the construction technologies of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. It comes from a French composite word meaning “push-pull,” which of course is what we do. “Sackbuteers do it pushing and pulling,” you could say.

        Anyway, since it was the first brass musical instrument with complete 12-tone Major/Minor tonal freedom, it came into vogue during King James’ time. That the word appears in the KJV is a reflection of Renaissance culture, and not necessarily what was being played in the Prophet Daniel’s time.

        I am now looking up these instruments in my Hebrew edition of Daniel (though Daniel 3 is in Aramaic not Hebrew). Daniel 3:5,10, 15 mention SIX instruments, but Daniel 3:7 mentions only 5. “Sackbut can’t be “korna,” for that means “horn.” “Sumfania” is missing in Verse 7, so that can’t be it, either.

        I believe the word from Aramaic which corresponds to the KJV “sackbut” is “sabcha,” which my translation renders as “drum.” Not a wind instrument at all.

        By the way, the KJV kinda gets the Aramaic word “korna” correct. It means “horn,” which KJV renders as “cornet.” In King James’ time, a “cornetto” was a long, thin, curved-like-a-pickle hollow wooden instrument with holes drilled in the side for intonation. But it is buzzed with the lips as one would a modern trumpet, and it sounds a lot like one, too.

        I used to play both the alto Eb and tenor Bb versions of the sackbut, either in churches or in productions of Early Music. Thanx for commenting.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  June 25, 2018

    Or maybe “Luke” was a grad student pulling an all-nighter, and Acts was the first and final draft.

  6. Avatar
    anthonygale  June 25, 2018

    My initial response to the idea of authors leaving seams and contradictions when combining sources is to ask why they werent more careful. But perhaps that is unfair. For one thing, Im not sure how much better I would do myself. I also wonder if the writers even cared if there was a contradiction or seam. That might seem odd to a modern reader, but so does the fact that there were no spaces between words. Depending on the intent of the author writing the account, did the contradictions or seams matter? And if not, might the authors have been aware of the discrepancies and left them in?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2018

      I wish we knew! My hunch is that they didn’t realize they had left a discrepancy and would have ironed it out if they did know.

  7. Avatar
    Petter Häggholm  June 25, 2018

    “…In another Luke explicitly states that he became the Christ at his resurrection (2:38)”


    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2018

      Yup, sorry. Scribal corruption.

      • Avatar
        Petter Häggholm  July 4, 2018

        Seeing no less than three comments pointing out this minor error, I feel almost guilty about taking up part of your comment-maintenance time with it (twice now, including this comment); but hopefully it’s heartening to know that a healthy percentage of your readers (a) are scrupulous enough to remark on even minor references like that and still (b) are happy to pay for blog membership!

  8. Avatar
    fishician  June 25, 2018

    To go back to the apparent Luke-Acts contradiction about Jesus’ ascension: What did the early Christians think Jesus was doing during those 40 days before the Acts ascension? Was he hanging out with the disciples? Was he going back and forth between heaven and earth, making spot appearances (in which case there could be more than one ascension)? Luke refers to convincing proofs during this time, but doesn’t detail them. Surely one of the oddest things in the Gospels is that the Resurrection is the most critical part of the Jesus story (at least Paul argues so), and yet the Gospel writers can’t agree on what happened after the Resurrection.

  9. Avatar
    gavriel  June 25, 2018

    I have a question relating to an apparent contradiction in Matthew. The passage Matt 5:43-48 stands at odds with 23:13-33 according to many. Is the latter reflecting the views of the later communities or does it point to a defect in Jesus’ teachings? A similar denouncement of opponents also appears in Q, Matt 11:20-24, Luke 10:10-16, so it looks to me as if it cannot entirely be ascribed to later communities. Jesus could not decently handle opposition ?

  10. Avatar
    3Timothy  June 25, 2018

    Thanks–I see how contradictions can be accounted for if Luke had different sources of information.

    Bart, may I ask your opinion about a contradiction in Matthew? Is this a case of Matthew pulling from different sources?

    Jesus says in Matthew 5:44-45, “…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

    Later, in Matthew 12:34, Jesus tells Pharisees, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?”

    Abusive language is not a sign of love. Was Matthew unaware of this glaring contradiction? Or was Matthew fully aware of the contradiction but faithfully passed along sayings from two sources that happen to clash? (I don’t think the historical Jesus had a problem with Pharisees, but that’s not what I’m asking about.)

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2018

      Hard to know. I know many Christians today who think that Jesus taught that you should love and that he wants them to hate….

  11. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  June 25, 2018

    Hi Bart, this is fascinating information. Can you explain how Luke 2:38 can be interpreted as Jesus beoming Christ as his resurrection? Thanks in advance!

    New International Version
    Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

  12. Avatar
    Tony  June 25, 2018

    An even easier way of resolving Luke’s inconsistencies is that the author simply did not care. Luke created literary fabrications in spite of his self-proclaimed historical credentials in Luke 1:1-4. Luke’s agenda’s and sources for his gospel and acts were different. For his gospel sources he had Mark, Matthew and Josephus. For Acts he used Paul’s letters as well as Josephus.

    For example, Luke did not like Matthew’s birth story much and changed it in 2:8-18. Luke obviously did not expect later NT scholars to pick away at his literary creations for accuracy and consistency!

  13. Avatar
    forthfading  June 25, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman

    Scholars agree that Paul himself would have been a source correct? The “we” sayings and so forth. Are scholars assuming too much?


    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2018

      No, that has to be considered, whether Paul himself got some things wrong. But some things he surely got right — such as whether he went to Jerusalem immeiately after his conversoin or not.

  14. Avatar
    ardeare  June 26, 2018

    Does Luke ever offer a reason as to why Jesus had to leave after he was resurrected? It would seem to better fulfill scripture and the aims of Christianity if Jesus had just stayed on the earth, set up his kingdom, and taught everyone the truths that they were still searching for. If he has no explanation, it would seem to offer up a fourth possibility (birth, baptism, resurrection) that perhaps Jesus needed to *ascend* to the Father before he was fully Christ the Savior.

    I looked up the accounts in Acts 1:9-12 and Luke 24:50-53. They both tell a similar story of Jesus ascension with ACTS having angels tell the apostles that Jesus will return. I may be answering my own question but I also went back and looked at Acts 1:6-7 “So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Would it be accurate to assume the question as to why Jesus left again was foremost on Luke’s mind?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2018

      I don’t see any angels or instructions to the disciples about Jesus’ return in Luke 24:50-53.

      • Avatar
        ardeare  June 26, 2018

        There aren’t any angels in Luke which is why I wonder if Luke felt the need to include additional information in ACTS that would answer why Jesus had to ascend; that being that the Father had not yet appointed a time for him to set up his kingdom. It would seem to have been the common sense question of the day, “Why didn’t Jesus just stay and set up his kingdom now?” Luke may have been imitating that Jesus had to ascend in order to complete his Messianic mission (step 4) before being allowed to set up the kingdom. I had never thought of it that way before but Luke wastes no time in ACTS getting directly to the point of, “Where is Jesus?” and “Why did he have to leave again?”

        • Bart
          Bart  June 27, 2018

          I’m not sure what you mean by there not being angels in Luke. They show up a good deal.

  15. Avatar
    Ryan  June 26, 2018

    Hello. I find this very interesting. And not too far off topic, I was hoping you would be so kind as to direct me to the best work(s) for one interested in studying biblical redaction criticism? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2018

      I have a brief discussion of how it works in my chapter on the Gospel of Matthew in my NT textbook. Or if you want a fuller treatment, try the book called What Is Redaction Criticism?

  16. kadmiral
    kadmiral  June 26, 2018

    Just as in the OT with the Documentary Hypothesis, contradictions are formed often when two or more sources are weaved together into one new narrative. Apparently, just like in Acts. It seems these authors/editors of two or more sources, both in the OT and in Acts, are not concerned with creating contradictions. Is there non-biblical ancient precedent for this practice of ignoring created contradictions while combining sources for some history or narrative story telling?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2018

      I’m sure there are! I’ve never studied other contemporary literature with this partciaulr question in mind. Maybe someone else can help?

      • Avatar
        godspell  June 29, 2018

        The longer a narrative work is, the more likely there are to be contradictions in it. The Mahabarata (perhaps the longest surviving narrative of the ancient world, certainly the richest) has many glaring contradictions, which are believed to result from later additions to the earliest version of the story, but could also stem from other things (life is contradictory–what is right at one moment may be wrong at another–truth is contradictory.)

        Now I’ve read there are many later versions of The Mahabarata (not modern, but from centuries later), which take the oldest and most complete original text available, and accentuate this or that part of it to the author’s satisfaction. I’m sure in some cases those iron out contradictions in the earlier text, but I’d be willing to bet they add some as well.

        If you look at the Arthurian myths, the earliest texts we have don’t resemble what we see in the movies much. Most of what we remember from that story came much later, and a lot of it is contradictory.

        For example, Galahad is basically a replacement for Perceval in the grail legend. Percival’s a lot more interesting, you ask me, but maybe that was the problem–he’s having too much fun–too Celtic, you see. An earlier form of spirituality, more spontaneous, less reverent.

        And yet later storytellers try to include them both, make Percival Galahad’s sidekick or whatever, because everybody remembers Percival. Or you just meld them, mix and match elements, because the myth structure has gotten so top-heavy, it’s hard to tell a harmonious balanced story if you don’t scrape away some of the accretions of time.

        Frankly, the NT is very simple by comparison. You can read the whole thing in an afternoon, it hasn’t changed all that much over two millennia, and the contradictions mainly aren’t that hard to explain (even though the explanation, in many cases, is that the writer is misinformed, or has his own point to make.)

        If they really were making it all up, there’d be a lot more of it. Of course, once you get to the Middle Ages and beyond, there IS a lot more of it. But nobody other than Mel Gibson gets all hot and bothered over “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” And work of that general ilk.

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 30, 2018

    I would add that the three somewhat different versions of Paul’s conversion given in Acts seem to come from 3 different sources,

  18. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  July 3, 2018

    Do you think Luke’s apparent use of conflicting sources without any attempt at harmonization lends support to the claim that Theophilus was a wealthy patron, rather than a literary device? It would seem so to me, that Luke would want his patron to be satisfied that he has been presented with all points of view about Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2018

      Interesting idea, but I don’t know of any analogies for that. What we do have analogies for are people having multiple sources tat are at odds, that when combined create tensions/contradictions (e.g., in the Gospel of John)

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