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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Which Written Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy?

Don Stewart :: What about All the Contradictions in the Gospel Accounts?

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What about All the Contradictions in the Gospel Accounts? Doesn’t This Make Their Writings Unbelievable?

Which Written Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy? – Question 10

One of the main arguments that is often used against accepting the reliability of the four gospel’s account of the life and the ministry of Jesus are the so-called contradictions that are found. Supposedly, the authors disagree with each to such a degree that it is impossible to believe what they wrote. To many, this makes their testimony impossible to accept as true. How do we respond to this objection? A number of key points need to be made about this issue.

1. The Nature of the Gospels Needs to Be Understood

To begin with, it is important that we understand the nature of the gospels, and of ancient historical writing, before we answer this question.

2. Ancient Biographies Were Not Written the Same as Modern Biographies

In the ancient world, historical biographies were not written in the same way as modern biographies. Not every major event in the life of the person is listed but rather only those events that fit the purpose of the author. The writers are selective in what they record and what they omit. This is what we find in the gospels.

In fact, John tells us that he is selective of what he wrote. We read,

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of His disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing you may have life in His name. (John 20:30-31 HCSB)

Consequently, we must read the gospels in light of the stated purpose of the authors. This is why we find in the four gospels an inordinate amount of space devoted to the events leading up to the last week of Jesus’ life. For example, over one half of the Gospel of John is written in this manner. Obviously, it was these events that the author believed were the most important.

3. The Events Were Not Always Written in Chronological Order

Ancient writers did not necessarily write the events in chronological order. The writers felt free to write according to themes at certain times, they did not always adhere to strict chronology. Again, this is what we find in the four gospels. Certain events in Jesus’ life are placed in different order in the four gospels. However, the order is not always to be understood chronologically. Ancient readers understood this and so should we.

4. Stories Were Be Condensed and Summarized

Furthermore, stories which are recorded can be condensed. Often, the writer summarizes the basic elements of what happened rather than recording every word and everything that occurred. Again, this is what we find in the four gospels. The same story, told by two different writers, is condensed and summarized by each writer. In doing so, we would expect the same general outline but differing details. This is exactly what we find.

5. History Was More than a Record of Events

In the ancient world, history was never written merely to record what happened. There was always some sort of meaning attached to the events. This is not only true of the four gospels, but in all other ancient historical writings. The fact that the writers were attempting to promote some cause, or to teach valuable lessons, is how the ancients wrote and recorded history. This does not take away from their truthfulness. Otherwise, we would have to say we could know nothing of the ancient world since all of its authors were trying to promote something along with their recording of the facts. What is needed is a careful evaluation of what they said and to determine if it matches up with reality.

6. The Four Gospels Do Not Contradict Each Other on the Essentials

When we examine the four gospels, we must do so in light of how all ancient historical documents were written. Once this is done, many of the so-called problems immediately vanish.

To begin with, it must be noted, that the four gospel writers tell the same basic account of Jesus. There is no contradiction when it comes to the essential facts of Jesus’ life and ministry. Any differences are on secondary details. This is exactly the sort of thing we would expect from four independent authors writing about the same events. We would expect them to tell the same basic story but not with the same exact details. The way in which the gospels now stand shows them to be historically credible. Rather than giving a contradictory picture of Jesus, the differences actually show their independence of one another.

The Problems Can Be Harmonized

This brings us to our next point. The differences in detail in the secondary matters, which we do find in the four gospels, can be harmonized. What is necessary is an understanding of how these documents were written, the purpose for their writing, and what they really are saying. Each problem must be examined individually. Once this is done, a reasonable solution to the problem can be found. This, of course, is only true if the investigator is willing to discover the truth and not assume that the events in Jesus’ life, as recorded by the four gospels, must be impossible to harmonize.

Christianity Would Not Have Grown with False Testimony

There is something else that needs to be considered. The early church grew at an incredible rate. There were thousands of new converts soon after Jesus’ death. These new believers were converted in the city of Jerusalem; the same place where the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection had just occurred. If the earliest teaching about Jesus had been in any way false there were plenty of people who could have contradicted it. The disciples would have been accused of lying about, or exaggerating, what Jesus said and did. The movement, based upon their crucified leader, would have immediately died.

Instead, the authorities attempted to hush up what really happened at Jesus’ empty tomb. Indeed, Jesus’ disciples were not called liars when they testified to His miraculous deeds. The fact that this was the case can be seen in the statement of Simon Peter to a large crowd on the Day of Pentecost. This happened only fifty days after Jesus died and rose from the dead. He said the following to this hostile crowd that had gathered:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know...” (Acts 2:22 RSV)

Peter’s statement makes it clear that everyone knew that Jesus had performed miracles. This was no doubt about this. There would have been no possibly way in which Peter could have made this statement unless it was absolutely true and impossible to refute.

Indeed, the question about Jesus’ miracles was always about the source of His power. Not, “Did He do it,” but rather “How did He do it?” Peter told the crowd what they already knew to be true: Jesus Christ was a miracle worker. He then went on to explain the greatest miracle of all. Jesus had risen from the dead! His message was received by the crowd and three thousand people were converted that day.

The Burden of Proof Is on Those Who Deny the Testimony of the Gospels

With these facts in mind, the burden of proof is on those who would attempt to deny the gospel accounts of Jesus. There must be evidence brought forward to reject the testimony of the four evangelists. While the gospels will meet any reasonable standard of proof, they will not, however, meet an impossible standard. Unfortunately, this is the standard some people set. By definition, they make it impossible to demonstrate the accuracy of the gospels. However, unreliability must be proven, not merely assumed. Implausible theories of what might have happened will not do. What is needed are facts. When the facts are honestly considered, the story of Jesus not only holds up, it passes all reasonable tests of what we would expect of any ancient historical writers.

In sum, we conclude that the gospels are trustworthy documents. The supposed contradictions can be harmonized if one is willing to take the time and consider all of the evidence. Unfortunately, too few people ever do this.

Summary – Question 10
What about All the Contradictions in the Gospel Accounts? Doesn’t This Make Their Writings Unbelievable?

One of the most often brought up objections to accepting the New Testament account of Jesus is that so-called contradictions in the gospel accounts. Indeed, problems with chronology are mentioned along with stories giving different details, etc. These problems are used to deny the trustworthiness of the story. Indeed, if the writers could not get their own stories straight then why should we believe what they say?

However, once we have an understanding of ancient historical writing, many of the problems immediately go away. We can make the following observations.

For one thing, ancient biographies were not written in the same manner as modern biographies. At Jesus’ time biographies did not necessarily cover all the events in a person’s life. Instead the writers were selective in what they wrote. The New Testament writers tell us that selectivity was also their goal. This is why we find the emphasis on certain events in Jesus life; in particular His last week on earth before His death.

In addition, the fact that the events are not always listed chronologically is not a problem. Ancient biographies were not always chronological. Furthermore, that the gospels sometimes condense and summarize stories about Jesus is likewise not problematic. This was how ancient writing was often done. Again, the readers would have understood this technique.

We must also remember that we are not simply looking at the listing of historical events in the gospels. While the events were historical they are more than mere history. Indeed, there is always a divine meaning that goes along with the events. In other words, everything listed has meaning attached to it.

With respect to the so-called contradictions, the main events in Jesus’ life, the essentials, are agreed upon by all four gospels. It is only in the secondary details that we find minor differences. Furthermore, these differences can be reasonably harmonized if one is willing to take the time to examine them.

What also needs to be considered is the rapid growth of Christianity in the ancient world. The fact that Christianity grew as quickly as it did indicates that the people readily accepted its message. If the authoritative documents contained hopeless contradictions it is hard to imagine how the faith spread like it did.

This being the case, we have every reason to believe the four gospels are an accurate description of what Jesus said and did. The burden of proof is on those who deny what they say. To make their case they must present convincing evidence against the trustworthiness of the gospels. This evidence has never been forthcoming from unbelievers for the simple reason that it does not exist. The gospels are accurate accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry.

What about the Claims That Jesus Never Said Most of the Things Attributed to Him in the New Testament? ← Prior Section
Did the Gospel Writers Use Previous Written Documents to Compile Their Accounts? Next Section →
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