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Why Differences and Discrepancies Matter Theologically/Religiously

On Wednesday I will be having a public debate with Mike Licona at Kennesaw State University on the topic: “Are the Gospels Historically Reliable.”  This is something I’ve thought long and hard about for my entire adult life, and so has he.  But we disagree, heartily.  It should be a lively and interesting debate.

Just now I was looking through the ancient history of the blog, and I ran across this post where I discuss the issue from a different perspective (different from what I usually say) — one in which I claim that it is *helpful* for Christians to realize that the Gospels have discrepancies.   Interesting thought, I think, and think I thought!

*****************************************************************************

In my two previous posts I’ve been trying to explain that the historical-critical view of the Gospels, in which they are recognized not always to represent historically accurate information about Jesus, is not necessarily a view that “trashes” them.  Instead, it is a view that tries to understand what they really are instead of insisting that they are something else.   Accepting them for what they are is surely a good thing; making them into something they are not can’t be good.

In this post I want to do something highly unusual for me.  I want to explain, for those of your who are Christians (or for anyone else who is interested), why this critical view of the Gospels is in fact *theologically* valuable, far more theologically value than a view that would insist that the Gospels have no discrepancies between them or errors of any kind, but are historically accurate accounts of what happened in the life of Jesus.

When I was a Christian, once  I came to the conclusion that the Gospels in fact are full of contradictions and discrepancies and historical inaccuracies– after many years of research – I also came to realize that this understanding was remarkably fruitful from a theological point of view.

If Mark and Luke, for example, have different ways of telling the same story, then they each want to emphasize and teach something that is different (not the same).  The discrepancies tell you what each one wants to teach.  If you’re not a fundamentalist who cares only that the Gospels are historically accurate, and if you have any literary sensitivity at all, if you have any sense that “what really happened” is not the only or even the most important thing, if you have any grasp on the reality that great literature can teach important lessons (even if it contains material that didn’t happen) – then recognizing what each Gospel is trying to teach enables you to…

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Why Discrepancies Matter for Interpretation
Small Differences that Make a Difference

103

Comments

  1. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 18, 2018

    Back on Feb. 8, flyboydh1 wrote: “Just a clarification. Micah 5:2 does not say that Messiah will be born in Bethlahem. This verse is mistranslated in Christian Bibles unfortunately and leads many Christians astray. Mathew’s use of this verse is completely taken out of context.”

    You didn’t reply to that. He seems to be saying there was a mistranslation in the *Septuagint*, and no one *prior* to the Gospel writers’ time – decades after Jesus’s death – would have expected the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem. That would be pretty important! Was he correct?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2018

      I didn’t respond both because he didn’t ask a quesiton and because I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. You can read a good translation of the Hebrew (not the Septuagint) text in any modern Bible translation. I wondered if he was confusing Micah 5:2 with the problem found in Isaiah 7:14.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  February 19, 2018

      The MT Hebrew of Micah 5:2 (5:1 in the MT) doesn’t specifically say “Messiah,” and neither do any English translations that I have seen. It does refer to מוֹשֵׁל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל — “moshel b’Yisreal,” which can be translated variously as ruler in Israel, governor in Israel, leader in Israel, etc. The implications in other parts of the Hebrew Bible is that a “moshel” is a generic ruler, whether that ruler is a vassal subject to a suzerain or an indepedent king. However, many interpretations of that passage, both by Christian and Jewish scholars, assume it is refering to the Messiah.

      • Avatar
        HistoricalChristianity  February 25, 2018

        Or a messiah, someone who fills that role in a particular instance, like Cyrus.

  2. Avatar
    brandon284  February 19, 2018

    Hi Dr. Ehrman, I trust this debate will be online sometime? I absolutely need to see this!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2018

      Yup, we’ll be posting it. Assuming I don’t get destroyed….

      • Avatar
        kminor2  February 20, 2018

        Well, based on the last debate I watched between you two… you won’t get destroyed. He definitely does not have a respect for the historical *method*. He has a poorly defined process and doesn’t seem to have insight into how he veers into theological arguments when the focus of the debate is clearly historical. He just can’t see it.

  3. Avatar
    jakethedog  February 19, 2018

    Hi Bart,

    Will you debate be recorded and available to watch in future? Even as a pay per view?

  4. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  February 20, 2018

    in the gospel of mark, the disciples ask jesus to “send her away for she keeps crying after us”
    jesus’ reply is, ” i have come only for the lost sheep”

    that reply makes no sense to me unless the disciples said “help her…”

    “send her away…”

    “i have come ONLY for the lost sheep…”

    does jesus’ reply sound like he just heard the disciples say “send her away…” ?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2018

      I’m not sure which passage you’re referring to.

      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  February 20, 2018

        mat 15:23
        Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

        He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

        this one is confusing to me. jesus does not want to SPEAK to her because ” he was sent ONLY to the lost sheep of israel” ?
        the disciples originally told him to help her, but he replied “negative, i was sent only to the lost sheep….”

        • Bart
          Bart  February 22, 2018

          Yes, it’s only when she begs him that he responds, and then by suggesting that she is a small dog!

      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  February 20, 2018

        did they originally say “help her…”
        to which jesus replied ” negative, i was sent ONLY to the lost sheep ” ?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 22, 2018

          The Greek for the disciples’ request is difficult. Literally it says “And the disciplies came to him ans asked him “Send her away” (Or “release her”). It’s not clear what they mean. Is it “Get rid of her?”

    • Robert
      Robert  February 20, 2018

      You’re not quoting the earlier, simpler Markan version but rather the more complicated Matthean version, which adds, among other things, the ‘send her away’ comment of the disciples. Either Matthew was not aware of the difficulty he inadvertently introduced and continued the sense of Mark’s account as if Jesus were responding to the woman and not to the disciples and/or perhaps he understood the apostles’ remarks in the sense of ‘do what she asks and send her away and thus send her away’.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  February 25, 2018

      The story of Mark 7 was about the Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile. The author honestly represents that Jesus, as a sage of Second Temple Judaism, wouldn’t deal with Gentiles, only Jews. But the author cracks the door open with a preview of the Christian idea that the religion about Jesus would be available to Gentiles. Matt 10:5-6 reinforces the first part, but seems to ignore the fact that Jesus, following Hillel, appealed to Samaritans as well as sinners.

      For the story of Matt 15, the school of Shammai didn’t want repentant sinners (much less Gentiles) to receive benefits of the Mosaic Covenant. That’s how they described the situation of a latecomer receiving the benefits of those who have been faithful Jews all their lives. The parable of the workmen. Again, a hint that Christianity would be available to Gentiles ‘later’.

  5. webo112
    webo112  February 20, 2018

    Professor,
    I really hope you don’t hold back any punches, and really expose the issues, and show how they in fact affect the theological views they so revere. We have only seen mere glimpses of your full debating powers (which btw are what I find a big difference between your opponents; they don’t have the debate skills and past professional debate experience [debate team] you have).

    I can tell you often pull back punches in debates, but I think its time you ramp up and show them the full scholarship/debate skills you poses.
    I am going to read your recent posts on this subject, but from the last post I read on this, I think you were on track for fresh new points for them to deal with. And if you argue and explain why the differences matter in this debate; it will be great new discussion I am looking forward to listening to.

    I just hope Mike hasn’t read your recent blog posts to get a jump on your arguments.

  6. Avatar
    Khalidibrahim  February 20, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, I have read a few of your books and I am just finishing “How Jesus Became God.” I like how you examin events through data without being condescending. I was wondering if you know that almost everything about the narrative of Jesus is already written about Krishna in Hinduism. I just read a book in Arabic that compares between the two narratives and almost everything is exactly the same. Krishna’s divine birth was document centuries before Jesus time. He was believed to be born of a virgin woman, he was God incarnate, he was crucified, he ascended to heaven, he came to save the world from sin, etc. shocking similarity, which makes me think the authors of the NT copied the myth from Hinduism!

  7. Avatar
    Khalidibrahim  February 22, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, I just finished your “How Jesus Became God” book and was impressed with your analysis. I especially liked how you used written sources to uncover what was in circulation orally before it was written–the traditions! I have a few comments on the topic of Logos that I would like to share here from the Islamic perspective. In Arabic, there are two distinct words for the plural form of the English word ‘word’. These are ‘Kalimat’ and ‘Kalam’. Both can only be translated into ‘words’ in English because English doesn’t have an equivalent for the first Arabic word, Kalimat. Kalimat are the words (commands) God spoke that became creation. For example, the Kalima (singular form of Kalimat) ‘sun’ existed as a word only with God. When God spoke it, it became the actual physical entity-the sun. An analogy of this would be the expression in Genesis “God said let there be light and there was light.” So the Kalima ‘light’ was the word that became creation upon God saying it.

    On the other hand, God’s Kalam (words) are his words spoken to his prophets and messengers sent down as revelations. The things God spoke when addressing Moses in the Old Testament, for example, and the Quran are his Kalam. In the Islamic belief, Jesus was God’s Kalima, which God spoke and it became a creation–Jesus in the flesh. As such, Jesus was God’s Kalima in the same way light was God’s Kalima and sun was God’s Kalima. They all became creation and came into existence in the world when God spoke them. This explains what the author of John in NT was trying to say–that is, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God … All things were made through him.” Everything was created through the word which was Kalimat, not Kalam. Unfortunately, English language can’t make this distinction through its vocabulary, which has confused Christian theologians and Jesus followers for centuries!

    I was wondering if such distinction is made anywhere in the literature you know of in English, Greek, or Hebrew on the topic of Logos? If not, I am interested in writing on this subject.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 23, 2018

      There were different words for “word” in Greek — rhema and logos, e.g. But they don’t correspond to what you’re describing in Aramaic. There were, of course, very long and detailed reflections on what Logos might mean in relation to Jesus in the Christian theologians of the fourth century and later (starting with Justin, actually, in the second century)

      • Avatar
        Khalidibrahim  February 24, 2018

        Thank you for the reference to ‘rhema’; I didn’t know that variant in Greek existed. I will read on it and see whether or not philosophers and theologians made a distinction between ‘Logos’ and ‘rhema’.

        By the way, Dr. Ehrman, when I was reading your explanation of the three criteria for historical narrative verification–independent attestation, dissimilarity, and contextual credibility– I was reminded of several more criteria that Muslim historians/scholars of textual criticism established in 8th and 9th century when they started to collect and verify the sayings of Prophet Muhammed. They established an entire field in this regard called the ‘Science of Men’ which concerns with how to verify if the narrative a man relates is true or false. They established a wide range of methods and criteria. One of these criteria relates to whether or not the man who tells the narrative is considered as honest and honorable in his immediate community. If the man is known for telling a lie even once or engaging in an act that tarnishes his credibility, the narrative is discarded as inauthentic. Like I mentioned, this is just one criteria; there are many more. For example, most of Mathew’s Gospel would be considered inauthentic or questionable because he has contradictions according to this criteria. I was wondering if Western historians use such criteria? Or are aware of the methodology Muslim scholars of textual criticism established?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 25, 2018

          We can’t say if any of the early Christians story tellers or Gospel writers were “honorable” because we don’t know anything about them — including who they even were!

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  February 27, 2018

      Anyone of that era would immediately recognize logos, not as any kind of ‘word’, but as the name of a very popular idea of Greek philosophy. That’s why it’s so important to know what the word meant then, how it was used. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logos

  8. Avatar
    JRH  February 28, 2018

    I think another problem with inconsistencies is the lack of dates in the gospels (and the Old Testament too) Why is this? The ancient Jews had a calendar. Why didn’t they use it to put dates in their various historical narratives? IMO escaping slavery in Egypt is a pretty big deal for any ethnic group. We know when slaves in the U.S. were freed, we know when serfs in Russia were freed. So why didn’t the Hebrews keep track of the year they left Egypt?

    Same questions about the New Testament. Both the Jews and the Romans had a calendar in the first century BC. So why aren’t there any dates in the New Testament? I know these stories were passed down orally before they were written. But didn’t anybody want to know what year Jesus was crucified? Or what year Paul met with Peter in Jerusalem? Why didn’t Paul put a date on his letters like modern letter writers do? And what about Luke-Acts? The writer of this gospel was apparently a highly educated person. It’s easy to believe that poorly educated writers of the Bible didn’t know any better or didn’t care about dates, but what’s Luke’s excuse? He should have known the importance of dates in the writing of history.

    If you look at Greek history, they recorded the dates of lots of things, such as the Battle of Marathon, death of Socrates, etc. In fact the only Greek works that aren’t dated is Greek mythology. So the lack of dates in the Bible makes these stories look like mythology too.

    So Bart, why no dates?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2018

      Officials had calendars. Most people didn’t have/use them and didn’t ever think much about them.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 2, 2018

      It’s unlikely that Israel even had writing during that era. Besides, an author isn’t typically motivated to assign specific dates to recorded legends.

      By the time Christianity (the religion ABOUT Jesus) began, no one had a clue when Jesus was born or died. Passover was chosen for the death narrative because it fits a theme (sacrifice of the Passover lamb) and because it helps explain why Rome would have executed an innocent man. People were threatening to riot, and the busy Passover season was a bad time to have riots.

      Luke and the other diarists weren’t writing history. They were writing ancient bios narratives. History wasn’t the point.

      Paul’s letters were occasional, not historical or related to any particular time. When Paul referred to something that was going on in a particular assembly, everyone in that assembly knew what he was talking about. Something had to be significant for news of it to make its way to Paul.

      • Avatar
        ftbond  March 5, 2018

        re: “Passover was chosen for the death narrative because it fits a theme (sacrifice of the Passover lamb)…”

        So, you think Josephus just *imagined* that Jesus was crucified at the Passover? Like, maybe, he just made that up?

        • Avatar
          HistoricalChristianity  March 8, 2018

          That was a tradition. Where does Josephus say that? Or even any mention of his death outside of Testimonium Flavianum?

          Only in 1 Corinthians 5:7 does Paul (or anyone else) express the idea of Jesus as a Passover lamb in an epistle. Even the synoptic gospels don’t do that. They just use the Passover season as a plausible time for a riot. It’s also a plausible way to get both Jesus and Pilate into Jerusalem, where the Jewish rulers were.

          That’s a minor point for Paul. His main point in that chapter is an analogy between sin and leaven. Passover was the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Early Christians (especially Gentile Christians, the vast majority) didn’t think of Jesus as the Passover lamb. They thought of him as the universal sacrifice. Not just the one animal for that one particular sacrifice of that one particular feast of one particular religion.

          Most likely no one ‘knew’ that Jesus was crucified at Passover. But it did become a tradition. Who knows, that tradition might have even started with this, Paul’s off-handed comment making an analogy with the Passover lamb, just because he was talking about leaven. Rumors have started with less.

          • Avatar
            ftbond  March 12, 2018

            does Josephus *need* to mention that Jesus was crucified “at the Passover” more than once?

            and does it matter in an *historical* sense whether Paul (or anybody) mentions that Jesus was the “Passover lamb” (a theological point)? What matters is that the reason the theological point is being made at all is because Jesus was, indeed, crucified “at the Passover”.

            Tell you what: I keep hearing guys like you say stuff like “rumors have started with less”. So, put your money where your mouth is. The next time a close friend or relative of yours dies, you yourself go to the mutual friends of the deceased, and to the family of the deceased, and tell them straight-faced that you have seen your deceased friend very much alive again. Don’t say it like “I could have sworn, I saw him”, or “maybe it was a dream, but, sometimes I think I still see him”, or anything like that. Tell them “I *saw* him alive, I spoke with him. He *is* alive”. And stick with that story.

            Then, do some follow-up investigation, and find out what those mutual friends and family had to say about *you*, after you told them that story. See how many of them believed you. See how many of them thought you were bonkers. And see how many of them had been deeply hurt by your inconsiderateness and insenstivity.

            My Big Bet is that NONE of them will believe you. And my Second Big Bet is that you yourself won’t ever do this Research Project in the first place, because you flat couldn’t do that to your own close friends and the family of someone you loved, who had died.

            So, get back with me on this Research Project. If you’re not even willing to do it, then you’ve proven my case already: rumors of “resurrections” really aren’t all that easy to start.

          • Avatar
            Iskander Robertson  March 28, 2018

            “My Big Bet is that NONE of them will believe you. And my Second Big Bet is that you yourself won’t ever do this Research Project in the first place, because you flat couldn’t do that to your own close friends and the family of someone you loved, who had died.”

            how many people went and checked out that 500 people saw jesus? who went ? did the writer say people did check? no he didn’t, why didn’t he?

            “So, get back with me on this Research Project. If you’re not even willing to do it, then you’ve proven my case already: rumors of “resurrections” really aren’t all that easy to start.”

            yes they are. people seen elvis presely. people seen michael jackson. they are very easy to start. i know people who believe that dead saints have appeared in different faces.

          • Avatar
            HistoricalChristianity  March 30, 2018

            There is no mention of the cricifixion by Josephus outside of Testimonium Flavianum, which is widely recognized as a later Christian addition. No ms of it, or reference to it, appears earlier than Eusebius, leading some to conclude that Eusebius himself wrote it.

            Rumors of resurrections would be ridiculed today, but not in the first century. Other demiurges were said to have been raised from the dead.

  9. Avatar
    ftbond  March 5, 2018

    The really good thing about someone having declared the Gospels as “scripture”, and “inerrant” and “the Word of God” is that now, all these many centuries later, it gives scholars – both believers and skeptics – job security, a chance to write books, and great opportunities for debates.

    Thing is, I very seriously doubt the gospels were even regarded as “scripture” by anyone in the first century. If they were regarded now, in the same fashion I believe they were regarded back then, then dang – we probably wouldn’t even have this blog to endlessly comment on. 🙂

  10. Avatar
    Radar  March 16, 2018

    Professor Ehrman,

    I have heard at least three different views of the crucifixion date among the gospels. Going from memory, it seems your view of John’s timing, that Jesus was crucified on the day of preparation for the Passover, meant Jesus was executed on Thursday before the Passover meal, at the time when the Passover lamb was sacrificed, whereas in the synoptics Jesus was crucified on Friday, the day of Passover, well after the sacrifice of the lambs and the previous evening’s Passover meal.

    I heard someone else say that John’s “day of preparation” is synonymous with Friday, meaning, the day of preparation **for the Sabbath** that occurred **during the Passover festival week** — and that John made plain that the crucified ones needed to be taken down before Sabbath began that evening, pointing to a Friday crucifixion within John.

    I heard someone else, holding to a Thursday crucifixion, argue that there were two Sabbaths, a special “high” one on Friday because of the Passover regulations, and the usual one on Saturday.

    Can you bring any clarity to the interactions between or the feasibilities of these options?

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2018

      Not quite! In all four Gospels Jesus is executed on Friday, the day before the Sabbath — so taht in all four it is the day of preparation for the Sabbath (i.e. the day on which the sabbath meal is prepared to be eaten that evening). In Mark’s Gospel that Day is a Passover day as well. In John’s Gospel that day is the day *before* the Passover, so it is not only the day of preparation for sabbath but the day of Preparation for Passover. Obviously Jesus was not killed both the day before the Passover meal and the afternoon after it!

      • Avatar
        Radar  March 19, 2018

        Dr. Ehrman,

        Thanks for correcting my stupid misstatement of your timeline. There were too many variants blending in my brain when typing my question off the top of my head. I think I can refine the key question better:

        Harmonizers of John and the synoptics say Jesus is shown eating the Passover meal in John 13, with the cup and reclining and the morsel. Thus, while John 19:14’s “day of preparation for the Passover” sounds like preparations being made for the initiating Passover meal, “the day of preparation” would really refer to the usual Friday preparations for the Sabbath, and the “for the Passover” portion would refer to the Passover festival week, such that “the day of preparation for the Passover” means merely the Sabbath preparation day that occurred during the Passover festival week, following the Thursday evening Passover in John 13 that matches the synoptics’ timeline. Then, John 18:28’s case of those not wanting to enter the Praetorium in order to avoid defilement so that they could eat the Passover, would also not be a reference to the initial Passover meal, but the subsequent eatings of the festival week (2 Chron 30:22).

        Although I do not find the harmonizers’ case to be clearly compelling, I do not find it clearly dismissible either. Do you think there is any plausibility to the assertions? The harmonizers who attack you for using motivated reasoning to biasedly “question inerrancy” clearly themselves use motivated reasoning to biasedly defend it. I’m not interested in labelling motives, I’m just interested in weighing the plausibilities of examples and explanations, and I would value your opinion on their case.

        Thanks again!

        • Bart
          Bart  March 21, 2018

          Yes, the harmonizatoin doesn’t work, precisely becuase it is stated in John 19:14 that it was the day of preparation for *Passover* not for “Sabbath* — i.e., it was the afternoon before the meal was eaten

          • Avatar
            Texaggie79  May 30, 2018

            Dr. Ehrman. Several apologists I come across with this argument state that the timeline works because the day marker that was used was sunset to sunset. So if the day before Passover was until sundown, then you can account for the discrepancy.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 31, 2018

            It’ snot sunset to sunset. It’s when it gets dark till when it gets dark. Everyone agrees on that. The discrepancy is whether the Passover meal was eaten before Jesus’ arrest (as in the Synoptics) or after his death (as in John)

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