Shredding the Gospels: Contradictions, Errors, Mistakes, Fictions
by Diogenes the Cynic — Moderator, Biblical Criticism and History, Internet Infidels forums
|Shredding the Gospels: Contradictions, Errors, Mistakes, Fictions by Diogenes the Cynic
Better late than never but I promised this thread so here it is. This is really a spinoff of a thread in which the question of the historical reliability of the Gospels has been asserted in defense of certain arguments. Rather than derail that thread with a long Gospel-debunking thread, I have offered to start a new thread in order to defend some of the following claims that I have made. I have asserted that:
I know all this has been done before. I just want to create a nice, fresh thread as an adjunct to the other debate and to invite any challenges to my case or attempts at apologia. It has been said in the other thread that all my objections to perceived errors and contradictions can be explained. I am reasonably sure that I will hear nothing new but I invite all attempts just the same. Now, onto the shredding. I’ll take my points one at a time.
1. The Gospels are not eyewitness accounts
Only two of the canonical Gospels, Matthew and John, are alleged by tradition to have been written by eyewitnesses but I’m going to address Mark and Luke as well because I feel like wrecking those authorship traditions just to be thorough. First of all, I should say that none of the four canonical Gospels names its own author, none of them claim to be eyewitness accounts or even to have spoken to eyewitness of Jesus. All are written in the third person and none of the authors tell us anything about themselves. All of the traditional ascriptions of authorship come from 2nd century tradition.
The first Gospel written is Mark. Mark is not by tradition an eyewitness account but 2nd century tradition casts him as a secretary of the Apostle Peter who haphazardly wrote down everything Peter said in no particular order. The basis for this tradition stems from a single claim by Papias who said (c. 130 CE) that he got the information from John the Presbyter (not to be confused with John the Apostle). That’s it. That’s the entire case for Mark as a secretary of Peter. Now let’s examine the credibility of this claim.
To summarize, the canonical Gospel of Mark is an anonymous book written outside of Palestine in a Gentile language to a Gentile audience sometime during or after the Jewish-Roman War. The author is hostile to Jews and to the apostles. He does not know Jewish laws or customs. He does not know the geography of Palestine. He does not like Peter. He never makes any claim to have known Peter or to have ever been to Palestine. In 130 CE some guy said he heard from another guy that the author was a secretary of Peter’s.
Let’s move on to Matthew. The Gospel of Matthew, by tradition, is attributed to the apostle of that name. Like Mark, this authorship tradition stems from Papias (it was also claimed by Irenaeus but he was probably parroting Papias). Papias clamed that, “Matthew composed the sayings [logia of Jesus] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” (Adv Haer 3:1:1). If such a Logia ever existed, it is not Canonical Matthew.
To sum up for Matthew: Papias claims that an apostle named Matthew compiled a sayings Gospel in Hebrew. The Canonical Gospel of Matthew is written in literary Greek and is not a sayings Gospel. The author never claims to have been an apostle or an eyewitness. It relies heavily on secondary Greek sources as well as the Septuagint. Once again, an eyewitness would not rely on the accounts of non-witnesses to recount events that he had supposedly seen for himself. It was written at least 50 years after the alleged crucifixion. The author includes demonstrable fictions which can clearly be shown to have been derived from the Septuagint. Papias’ Logia, if it existed, has never been found.
Let’s do Luke. The traditional author of Luke-Acts is supposedly a physician and traveling companion of Paul named Luke. Neither Luke nor Paul is a witness of Jesus even by tradition so I suppose I could stop right there but I think I’ll take the time to point out that even the tradition which does exist is dubious.
It is highly unlikely, then, that the book was written by a companion of Paul and there is absolutely no reason to connect the “Luke” who is so casually mentioned by Paul in one letter to the composition of Luke-Acts.
So, to sum up Luke, it is an anonymous Gospel whose author makes no claim to first hand knowledge and no claim to knowledge even of Paul. It was written more than a half century after the crucifixion, is dependent on secondary sources and contains numerous historical errors and contradictions with the other Gospels. The fable of a physician named Luke who traveled with Paul comes from a claim made 150 years after the crucifixion and is corroborated by nothing in the text itself.
Time for John. By tradition, the GJohn is written by the apostle of that name and is also identified as the mysterious “Beloved Disciple” mentioned within the text.
Looking at the text of GJohn, we can see that any claim to the book as an eyewitness account does not hold water.
To sum up for John, it is an early 2nd century book which is heavily Hellenistic in its language and theology. It is markedly anti-Jewish, it contains speeches for Jesus which are not only incompatible with the character of Jesus as he is presented in the synoptics (not to mention that it simply strains all credulity that a 1st century Jewish audience would tolerate a guy claiming he was God) but simply cannot be credibly defended as authentic transcriptions of speeches remembered verbatim for 70 years by an illiterate Palestinian fisherman (and by nobody else) and then translated into Greek by that same fisherman. It contains contradictions with the synoptics which I will get to in time. It shows multiple hands of authorship and it contains an anachronism so glaring that it is a fatal blow to any consideration of eyewitness testimony. Its traditional authorship stems from a single unreliable claim by Irenaeus (a guy who couldn’t keep his “Johns” straight) around 180 CE.
Well, that should do it for my case against the Gospels as being eyewitness accounts (even by proxy). In my next post, I shall address contradictions between different Gospels. I would invite rebuttals to my first post in the meanwhile.
Back in a bit, Thread is developing….
2. The Gospels contradict each other
There’s really a lot I could list here if I really wanted to include all the minor contradictions and seemingly self-contradictory statements of Jesus himself but I’m just going to stick with some of the more glaring, contradictory , factual claims about Jesus. Contradictions which I submit cannot be reconciled.
Geneaologies of Jesus: Matthew vs. Luke
Let’s start with the genealogies for Jesus given in Matthew and Luke.
Matthew gives the following:
Now let’s look at Luke.
First of all let’s bear in mind that these are really geneologies for Joseph, not Jesus. If you believe that Jesus was born of a virgin as both Matthew and Luke assert, then it must be admitted that Jesus himself has no connection to either geneology. That makes them rather a moot point since the whole point of these things is to show Jesus’ descendancy from David. It’s a contradiction in itself to say that Jesus was “born of a virgin” and then try to prove a Davidic lineage through Joseph.
Looking at the genealogies themselves we see that Matthew starts with Abraham and counts down to Joseph, while Luke starts with Joseph and counts clear back to Adam (also note that Luke calls Adam “the son of God.”) The parts I’ve bolded are the parts where the genealogies diverge. Matthew claims descendancy from David through Solomon, Luke through Nathan. They are completely different after that and claim different fathers for Joseph.
Typically, this disparity has been addressed by apologists by claiming that one of the genealogies goes through Mary. There is zero support for this in the texts, though, and a matrilineal connection to David would not have been sufficient to legitimize a claim to Davidic inheritance under Jewish law anyway. The genealogies clash and that’s that.
There is also a huge disparity between Matthew and Luke as to the date of birth. Matthew claims that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great but Luke claims that Jesus was born during the census of Quirinius (6-7 CE) which is ten years after Herod died in 4 BCE. This is an irreconcilable gap, although many apologists have tried to contrive an earlier census there is no evidentiary support for such an event and some significant evidence against it. More on this in the errors section.
Nativity: Matthew vs. Luke
Matthew’s and Luke’s Nativities are quite different and each mentions things not mentioned by the others. Not every difference is a necessary contradiction but some of the differences are and it might be useful to examine them side by side.
Synopsis of Matthew’s Nativity
Joseph and Mary are engaged but they haven’t had sex yet. Mary turns up pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph (understandably) wants to break up with her but then an angel comes to him in a dream and tells him that the Holy Ghost knocked her up and she’s still a virgin and Joseph should marry her anyway. Somehow Joseph buys all this and agrees to stay with Mary.
Jesus is born in Bethlehem (Matthew does not have anything about a census or an inn. He just says Jesus was born in Bethlehem with the implication that Joseph and Mary already lived there).
Some “astrologers (magoi) from the East” show up at Herod’s court and ask him where the new king of Judea is because they “saw his star in the East.” (note: Matthew does not call them kings and does not say how many there were. The “three kings” image is an extra Biblical popular tradition) Herod gets pissed and calls the priests to ask them where the “Annointed” is supposed to be born. The priests tell him Bethlehem and quote from Micah. Herod then tells the astrologers to go to Bethlehem and find the kid and then report back to him, ostensibly so he can “pay homage” to the kid but really so he can kill him.
The astrologers go to Bethlehem and then follow the star until it stops over a house (not a stable) with Jesus in it. The astrologers give mad props to Baby Jesus and give him gold and frankincense and myrhh. Then an angel comes to them in a dream and warns them not to go back to Herod so they secretly split back to their own countries instead.
Then an angel comes to Joseph in a dream (in Matthew’s Nativity it seems like everybody is constantly getting hounded by angels in their dreams) and tells him to haul ass to Egypt and bring Jesus with him. Joseph packs up his family and blows.
When Herod gets stood up by the astrologers he loses his shit and orders all male children under two years of age in and around Bethlehem to be killed (“slaughter of the innocents”).
Herod dies and Joseph gets the message (yep, you guessed it) from an angel in a dream and returns to Israel. He finds out that Herod’s son, Archelaus is king of Judea so he’s afraid. Joseph gets visited by an angel in yet another dream and is told to go to Galilee (which, incidentally was being ruled by another of Herod’s sons, Herod Antipas, so it’s not clear why Galilee would have been any safer….but to be fair, Archelaus sucked much harder than Antipas. He was so bad, in fact, that he was forcibly removed in 6 CE by the Romans, Judea was made part of the province of Syria and Quirinius was put in charge). So Joseph drags the family to Galilee and settles down in Nazareth.
Synopsis of Luke’s Nativity
There is a long, boring story about the conception of John the Baptist. During the pregnancy of JBap’s mother, Elizabeth, an angel comes to Mary (who is already living in Nazareth) and tells her that she’s going to be impregnated by the Holy Spirit. Mary goes to visit Elizabeth and Elizabeth gets all excited and there’s some more boring stuff and then JBap is born.
Jump to a pregnant Mary travelling to Bethlehem with Joseph to register for Quirinius’ census. Jesus is born in a stable (and Luke actually intimates that it is for privacy, not because there was no room inside). Cut to a bunch of shepherds tending their flocks at night. An angel comes down and scares the crap out of them. The angel tells them to chill and informs them that the Messiah has been born and is lying in a mager in bethlehem. then a whole bunch more angels come down and start singing at the shepherds. Then all the angels disappear and the shepherds rush off to Bethlehem and find Baby Jesus and give him mad props.
Then, eight days later, Joseph and Mary take Jesus to Jerusalem to the Temple to be circumcised. While they’re at the Temple an old guy named Simeon comes up to them because the holy spirit told him all about Jesus. Simeon gives Baby Jesus mad props and then predicts doom and gloom for Israel. Then an old lady “prophetess” named Anna happens by and sees this and she starts telling everybody else all about it.
Then after Jesus is properly snipped, Joseph and Mary and Jesus all go back to Nazareth. There is nothing about a flight to Egypt. They go straight to Nazareth and Jesus commences to growing up “strong and wise.”
It’s pretty easy to see that with the exception of the place of birth and the defense of Mary’s virtue these stories have virtually no relationship to each other. as I said above, not every detail in Luke is necessarily in contradiction to Matthew but whatever is not directly contradicted is pretty much incidental in contrast to the details that clash. Let’s add some of them up:
These are completely different stories and it seems that neither author has any awareness of the other. To recap the most intractable contradictions between the Nativities, we have
Moving past the Nativities and into the ministry of Jesus we have some more agreement, at least in the synoptics, since Matthew and Luke now have Mark to copy from and also share Q but there are still some contradictions.
There is much that can be made of the seeming contradictions in Jesus’ own words and rhetoric but I’m going to skip past all that and go on to some more interesting contradictions in the Passion and Resurrection narratives.
Passion and Resurrection Contradictions
The synoptics disagree with John on the timing of the last supper and the crucifixion as they pertain to the Passover.
This can get a little confusing because it uses the Jewish demarcation of days starting and ending at sunset but maybe I can make it easier saying it like this:
John also disagrees with the synoptics as to the time of day that Jesus was crucifed.
The significance of John’s chronology is that Pilate orders Jesus to be crucified at the same time the Paschal lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple (something which had occurred the day before according to the synoptic chronologies).
Last Words of Jesus
Now let’s examine Jesus’ alleged last words on the cross:
(Mark says almost the same thing but renders the Psalm quote in Aramaic rather than Hebrew)
These are three distinctly contradictory claims for the last words of Jesus on the cross. No one Gospel mentions the quotes from the other Gospels and all of them assert their own lines as Jesus’ very last words.
Death of Judas
Before we get to the resurrection narratives, let’s look at Judas. I’m going to go outside the Gospels for this one and compare Matthew to Acts, but since Acts was written by Luke it should still serve to show a contradiction between authors of the Gospels.
The resurrection/appearance narratives are really a mess of contradictions so I’ll just write a brief synopsis of each account and then pick out the contradictions.
Synopsis of Mark’s Resurrection
Scene: Sunday Morning
Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James and Salome are walking to the tomb. As they’re walking they’re talking and worrying about how they can get somebody to help them move the rock. They get to the tomb and see the rock has been rolled away. They go inside and see an angel sitting in the tomb. The angel shows them that Jesus’ body is gone and tells them to inform Cephas and the rest of the disciples that Jesus is risen and that they should all go to Galilee where they will be able to see him. The women run away from the tomb but they don’t tell anybody because they’re terrified.
Mark cuts off right there (16:8) with no further visits to the tomb and no appearance narratives.
Synopsis of Matthew’s Resurrection
Scene: Sunday Morning
Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” go to the tomb (no mention of Salome this time). Right when they get to the tomb, there’s an earthquake, an angel comes down from the sky, rolls away the rock and sits down on it. This time there are guards at the tomb and they get scared. The angel then tells the women pretty much the same thing the other angel said in Mark. he shows them that Jesus is gone and tells them to tell the disciples that Jesus wants to holler at them in Galilee. The women run away but this time they run bang into Jesus. They freak out some and Jesus tells them to chill and then tells the women to let the disciples know he would holler at them in Galilee.
At this point, there’s an interjection in which the guards run to the priests and tell them what they saw, so then the priests bribe the guards to say that the disciples stole Jesus’ body.
Back to the disciples. The eleven of them go to a mountain in Galilee and Jesus appears. They give Jesus mad props but some are still doubtful. Jesus tells them to go out and preach the message and baptize people and that he will always be with them.
And that’s it for Matthew.
Synopsis of Luke’s Resurrection
Scene: Sunday Morning
Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, Joanna and “the rest of the women” go to the tomb. As in Mark, they find the stone already rolled away. They peep inside the tomb. What? No Jesus! As they’re standing there trying to figure out what’s going all of a sudden TWO angels appear out of thin air. The women freak, the angels tell them to chill and tell them that Jesus has risen. The women run to tell the disciples (but Luke’s angels do not explicitly instruct them to do so this time). The disciples don’t believe them but then Peter jumps up and runs to the tomb. He peeps in and sees that Jesus is gone. He goes home “marvelling.”
Cut to “two of them” (one named Cleopas, the other unnamed) walking to Emmaus. They meet Jesus but they don’t recognize him. They tell him all about Jesus and the women and the empty tomb. Jesus tells them how dumb they are for not knowing the prophecies (which didn’t actually exist but that’s another can of worms). They stop to have some grub and when they break bread, they recognize Jesus, then he vanishes.
Cleopas and the other dude run back to Jerusalem and find the rest of the disciples. The rest of the disciples tell them that Jesus had risen and appeared to “Simon” (who may or may not be the “Peter” who Luke says had seen the empty tomb but does not say had seen the risen Jesus. I mention this because Luke actually uses the name “Peter” in the former case and “Simon” in the latter, so this may indicate two different people).
Cleopas and the other dude start telling the disciples about seeing Jesus on the road to Emmaus and then Jesus suddenly appears while they’re talking. (please note that they are still in Jerusalem and have not yet gone to Galilee) They freak, Jesus tells them to chill and he shows them all the rad holes in his hands and feet. Then Jesus asks them if they have anything to eat (I guess he hadn’t eaten in three days). They give him some fish and he eats it. Then he preaches at them for a while before leading them to Bethany where he ascends into the sky. The disciples go happily back to Jerusalem, and that’s the end for Luke.
Synopsis of John’s Resurrection
Scene: Sunday Morning
Mary Magdalene (alone) goes to the tomb. The stone has already been rolled away. She runs and finds Simon Peter along with the “Beloved Disciple” (who will henceforth be referred to as “BD”). Mary Magdalene tells them that the body has been “taken.” Peter and BD go running to the tomb. BD outruns Peter and gets there first and sees some strips of burial linens lying utside the tomb. Peter gets there and goes inside the tomb. Peter sees that Jesus is gone. BD then goes in and sees it too. Peter and BD go back home.
Mary Magdalene is left crying outside the tomb. She peeps inside the tomb and sees two angels. Then Jesus comes up behind her and she sees him but doesn’t recognize him. She thinks he’s the gardener and asks him if he moved the body and could he tell her where it was. Then Jesus says her name, “Mary,” and she recognizes him. He tells her not to touch him but to go tell the disciples about him. She goes and finds the disciples and tells them (John doesn’t say where they are). Later that night, Jesus appears to the disciples and shows them all his rad wounds. Then he breathes on them and says he’s giving them some Holy Spirit and tells them that he’s giving them the power to forgive sins.
Then we get the Doubting Thomas story. Thomas doubts. Thomas sticks fingers in rad nail holes. Thomas believes. Then Jesus says that people who believe without proof are more blessed than those annoying skeptics.
John really ends there. There’s another emended chapter which I won’t bring into the contradictions argument but just to be thorough, the emended chapter tells a weird story about Jesus appearing to the disciples in Galilee and helping them catch some fish, then he keeps asking Peter if he loves him and gives him his evangelical marching order and hints that he’s going to come to a rough end. Then Peter sees the BD following them and asks Jesus about him. Jesus tells Peter it’s not his business if Jesus wants to BD to hang around until he returns. Then the author says there was a rumor that the BD wasn’t supposed to die before Jesus came back but Jesus didn’t actually say tthat he just said “what business is it of yours if I DO want him to stay?”
End of emended John.
I would challenge anyone to resolve these stories without leaving anything out. I say they’re irreconcilable.
I’m going to leave my contradictions post right here. This is by no means a complete list and I haven’t even mentioned contradictions with Paul but I think I’ve made my case that the Gospels contradict themselves. Coming up next: factual errors. Sorry this is late. I am still working on this stuff, I swear.
3. The Gospels contain factual errors
It’s hard to know where to start with this one or how to categorize the errors so I guess I’ll just take the Gospels one at a time starting with Mark.
Errors in Mark
Mark probably has the greatest number of factual inaccuracies. He makes mistakes of geography, custom and law. The trial before the Sanhedrin is Mark’s invention and is a catalogue of errors unto itself but let’s start with geography.
Crossing the Jordan into Judea
Mark 10:1 says that Jesus travelled down from Capernaum then crossed the Jordan into Judea. But crossing to the east bank of the river would have put him outside of Judea into Perea. Furthermore, travelling from Capernaum to Judea would have entailed going through Samaria, a hostile territory which Jews habitually avoided. Customarily, travellers from Galilee to Judea crossed the river north of Samaria, went south along the river in the Transjordan and then crossed back over to Judea. Mark seems to know that crossing the Jordan was part of the journey but doesn’t seem to quite grasp the mechanics of the trip.
Of course it is possible that Mark just elided the initial crossing from his description, however what is actually in the text provides a misleading picture of the route.
Bethsaida and Gennesaret
In Mark 6 we get the story of Jesus walking on water. This occurs immediately after Mark’s first loaves and fishes story:
Jesus tells the disciples to get in the boat and start heading across the lake to Bethsaida which was on the northeast shore. Jesus somehow gets rid of the crowd (usually this is accomplished by getting Elvis out of the building, not leaving him behind to clear the venue himself, but whatever) and then goes up a mountain to pray. That night the disciples get to the middle of the lake. Jesus sees them (somehow from the shore in the middle of the night) straining against the wind. He walks out to them on the surface of the water, the disciples freak, Jesus tells them to chill and he gets in the boat. Then they continue across the lake until they land in Gennesaret….which is on the northwest shore, the same side of the lake they presumably started on.
Bethpage and Bethany
(Ok, this one’s kind of minor but what the hey)
In Mark 11, Jesus and his posse are walking from Jericho to Jerusalem. Mark describes their route as going through Bethpage the Bethany but they would have passed those towns in the opposite order coming from Jericho.
There are some other nitpicky things as well. Mark calls Bethsaida a “village” when it was actually a good sized city. He also names some towns that are unknown from any other literature from the time (Dalmanutha, Arimathea, even Nazareth) and may have been Mark’s own inventions (I think at least Arimathea probably was).
Legal and cultural errors in Mark
Mark doesn’t know Jewish divorce law.
In Mark 10:11-12, Jesus forbids divorce: 11 He answered, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
Verse 12 implies that Mark believed women had a right of divorce in Jewish law. They did not.
Mark doesn’t know ritual purity laws.
Mark says this in 7:3-4: 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.
These laws only applied to priests, not to Pharisees and not to “all the Jews.”
The trial before the Sanhedrin
Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin contains a number of procedural and legal errors. Each of the following details would have been in direct contradiction to Jewish law.
The death of John the BaptistArguably, Mark also makes one very notable historical error in that he places the execution of John the Baptist within the life of Jesus. According to Josephus, however, JBap was arrested and executed about 36 CE, several years after the crucifixion.
To be fair, there is no corroboration for Josephus’ date, so this may be better characterized as a conflict with Josephus than a provable error but there is no corroboration for Mark’s dating either. Between Mark and Josephus, at least one of them is wrong and possibly both. I think it is also fair to say that Mark is more likely to be wrong than Josephus.
Errors in Matthew
A lot of Matthew’s inaccuracies are just repetitions of Mark so I won’t mention them again. Most of Matthew’s personal inaccuracies (independent of Mark) are in blatant misconstruals of passages from the Hebrew Bible as being Messianic prophecies. Here are a few of them.
Matthew also contains some of the gaudiest and most demonstrable fictions.
Errors in Luke-Acts
I will combine Luke-Acts since it is (presumably) the same author.
As with Matthew, a lot of Luke’s errors are imported from Mark but he has a few of his own.
The first two verses of Luke 3 contain three factual errors.
There was no tradition of dual high priests in any case. Annas and Caiaphas were never “co-” high priests.
Luke’s description of the census of Quirinius, aside from contradicting Matthew as to dating, is also flawed or at least highly implausible in its assertion that people were required to return to their ancestral homes to register. No such condition existed and it would have been a logistical nightmare anyway.
Also, Quirinius’ census only applied to Judea, not Galilee, so Joseph (if he was a resident of Nazareth as Luke avers) would not have been bound by it.
In Acts 5:36-37, Luke has a character named Gamaliel talking about a revolt by Theudas which had not happened yet relative to the alleged setting of the story. “Gamaliel” is supposedly talking in the 30’s CE but the revolt he speaks of happened in the mid 40’s. Moreover, he claims the revolt of Judas the Galilean happened after the revolt of Theudas but it actually happened 40 years before.
In Acts 21:38, Luke has a Roman commander ask him if he was the “Egyptian” who led a band of sicarii into the desert. Although Josephus does mention a “false prophet” called “the Egyptian” he does not associate him with the sicarii, who were assassins, not followers of prophets. In Jewish Wars, Josephus talks about the sicarii directly prior to talking about the “Egyptian” leading some followers to the Mount of Olives and Luke (who used Josephus as a source) probably conflated them.
Errors in John
Just a couple because this post is getting long and is much delayed already.
The above is not a complete list of errors in the Gospels but it’s a nice little sampler of some of the better ones.