Gospel Contradictions
Kameron Schulz

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Kameron Schulz"
Subject: Re: gospel contradictions
Date: Tuesday, September 12, 2000 10:23 PM

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It is much more effective to show the major problems with the Gospel stories than it is merely to present a list of contradictions -- which a trained Evangelical Christian apologist will respond to with any number of pat answers derived from the various Bible Difficulties-type books stocking the shelves of the Christian bookstores.

I will discuss three major problems: (1) construction, including showing how the Gospels were constructed by the various competing Christian communities and showing the anti-Jewish, pro-Roman bias inherent within the Gospels; (2) the entire discussion regarding the very historicity of Jesus; (3) biblical errors, including why we must exercise caution when approaching biblical criticism this way

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The Construction of the Gospels and the Bias Therein

The Gospel accounts betray a revising process ("Luke" revising "Matthew" which itself is a revision of "Mark"). The later Gospel writers copied from the earlier Gospels, and many times "improved" the image of Jesus.

A longtime favorite example of mine is to show how the scribe, in the Gospel of Mark (the earliest Gospel) approaches Jesus out of curiosity and with due respect, and asks him which are the greatest commandments. In the other Gospels, the same character (variously masked but obviously describing the same story) "tempts" Jesus and tries to trip him up -- suggesting that the later Gospel writers tried to "improve" on the Mark story, in order to portray the Pharisees as Jesus's enemies.

Another favorite is the cursing of the fig tree. (Never mind that this tale portrays Jesus as being hungry and looking for figs when it's not even fig season!) In Mark, the tree does not wither immediately, but the disciples marvel over it the next day. Matthew's story has it wither immediately, and the disciples marvel immediately after it withers. In our National Bible Week Poster, I suggest that Matthew was dissatisfied with a Jesus who would take a whole day to wither a damned fig tree.

The best treatment of the progressive nature of the Gospels, from earlier to later, is Randall Helms's Gospel Fictions. This book contains at least three themes: First, most of the details of the Jesus character's life are based upon tales from the Hebrew Scriptures, such as various events in the live of Moses, Joshua, Elijah, and others. The early Christians had only the Hebrew Scriptures and were convinced that the entire story of Jesus was contained within these Scriptures. Only much later did they write down the legends in the Gospels. Secondly, when dealing with the same events, the later Gospels seem to be trying to show a more powerful Jesus than the earlier Gospels, almost as if trying to outdo the earlier "Jesus" as portrayed in the Gospels upon which they were based. Finally, the various Christian communities each had an agenda, and most of them had access to the earlier Gospels (many of which were never canonized). The differences between them betray the likelihood that they were trying to "correct" the other versions rather than trying to complement them. This is a fascinating book that makes a much stronger case than any simple list of "contradictions" ever could.

Another important perspective is shown by Hyam Maccoby in his almost impossible to find book, Revolution in Judaea: Jesus and the Jewish Resistance. In it, Maccoby goes to great lengths to show the fierce anti-Jewish, pro-Roman bias contained in the Gospels. First, he thoroughly documents the cultural roles of the various Jewish factions: basically, it was the quisling Roman sympathizers, such as the Herodians and the Sadducees, versus the nationalist Pharisees seeking to free Judaea from Roman occupation, ranging from those expecting a supernatural event to the Zealots, who expected no help from above and who were ready to fight tooth and nail for their national liberty. Then he shows how the Gospel accounts, for the most part, have nothing good to say about the Pharisees (even though they were actually the good guys from any Jewish perspective) and little if anything bad to say about any Roman characters. (Remember, Jerusalem was leveled by Titus before any of the Gospels were circulated.) Finally, he examines several incidents where Pharisees were actually cordial to Jesus -- at one point actually protecting him from assassination by Herod's thugs (Luke 13:31).

Maccoby's primary suggestion, as pertains to the question at hand, is that the Gospels as we know them were heavily edited from earlier stories, and that some of these earlier stories "show through" in that they completely contradict the editorial bias which permeates most of the Gospel stories. To bolster his case, he shows several places where the Gospels show the Pharisees denouncing Jesus for doing things that Pharisees would never denounce anyone for doing -- only the Sadducees would talk this way!

But seeing this anti-Jewish, pro-Roman bias in all four Gospels is very important to seeing that the entire Gospel story is itself one massive contradiction. After seeing this, all the petty little "contradictions" pale in significance. I think almost any of the Jesus Seminar books ought to at least touch on this discrepancy, but Maccoby constructs his entire book around this one problem, attacking it from many different angles. You might find it on one of the various used book search engines, such as: Advanced Book Exchange; Barnes & Noble Rare, Secondhand & Out of Print Search (expensive); Powell's City of Books (I've found four copies here over the past ten years).

You'll probably have excellent luck with an inter-library search, if your local library borrows from other libraries, or by borrowing from one of the major universities, such as the University of California, which has, I think, the most diverse and complete collection of books anywhere.

Maccoby's other popular book is The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, which should be much easier to find than his other book. In his other book, he shows that Jesus (if he existed at all) was almost certainly a Pharisee, which was the party of the people and the group loyal to Judaea in the struggle against Roman occupation (a situation about which the New Testament is conspicuously silent). In this book, Maccoby shows that Paul cannot have been telling the truth when he told his Gentile listeners that he was a trained Pharisee. This one plays up another very important fundamental discrepancy: the dispute between Paul's Gentile followers and Peter's Jewish followers. Some traditions, particularly the Ebionites, claim Peter's group as predecessors and overtly denounce Paul as a false apostle, whereas Paul sternly denounces Peter in Galatians chapter 2. This whole scene is downplayed and smoothed over in Acts 15, which was written much later than Galatians, after the fall of Jerusalem silenced anyone who might have contradicted Paul's version of things. But the strong suggestion in this book, as in the earlier works of Baur and Bauer, is that there were at least two rival groups. (Later works show that there were more than this, and I will cover this below.)

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The Historicity of Jesus, and the Lack of a Case Thereof

The final problem I will discuss is the very existence of a historical Jesus. G. A. Wells, in his various books on the subject, shows that the only remotely contemporary mention of Jesus is the Gospels themselves. Mark, the earliest Gospel, was written no earlier than C.E. 70, and probably no later than C.E. 80. Otherwise, we have absolutely no mention of a historical Jesus.

Paul, in his relatively undisputed works (those that hardly any scholars think are forgeries: Romans; I and II Corinthians; Galatians) mentions a Jesus, but says nothing of when he lived other than some unspecified time in the past. These works of Paul predate the Gospel of Mark by between ten and fifteen years. When Paul does talk of "witnesses" to the resurrection, his "facts" differ significantly from those in the Gospel stories, which say nothing of the "500 at one time." Also, Paul's understanding of "resurrection" differs significantly from that described in some Gospel stories, his being very much like a phantom (a seed planted, turning out much differently than the original body), whereas the Gospels tend to describe a simple re-animation of the physical body.

A very small number of Christian apologists still point to the so-called Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus (Antiquities 18:63-64). Most who've studied the arguments against the validity of this fragment tend to consider it a move of desperation on the part of those who still argue for its genuineness: it is thought to be easier simply to admit that there are no contemporary witnesses to Jesus's historicity. (It's certainly more honest!) The most famous apologist who still insists on its validity is Josh McDowell, though he simply asserts that Josephus is an independent contemporary witness, without even mentioning the doubts that have persisted since shortly after most scholars think this paragraph was invented. I have summarized Wells's arguments against this passage's genuineness in the dialogue, "Seek Jesus: Josephus Said He Existed." John E. Remsberg (mentioned above) handily refutes its genuineness (showing how old these arguments are) and also has some choice comments on why the early Christians would stoop to forging a passage in a major work of history.

Some Christian apologists also point to a writing by Cornelius Tacitus (circa C.E. 55-117 or later), who was governor of Asia in about C.E. 112. First, Tacitus was writing about Christians, not Christ. Secondly, from all appearances, he was simply parroting some other source, and never investigated beyond those sources. Finally, by the time he probably wrote this (C.E. 112 or so), the Gospel accounts had enjoyed wide circulation. I briefly mention the problems with claiming Tacitus as a "contemporary" or even an "independent" witness of the existence of Jesus in the same dialogue, "Seek Jesus: Josephus Said He Existed." John E. Remsberg gives the Tacitus passage a very thorough treatment and also has a few things to say on using Tacitus as a witness for the historicity of Jesus.

The Jesus Seminar is doing a world of good precisely because they do not agree as to which "historical" Jesus is the real one. A new book exploits this problem by positing "Jesus Agnosticism." Robert M. Price's "Deconstructing Jesus" has, though I haven't even finished reading it, supplanted my previous "Jesus as Rebel against Rome" model.

Price points out the Parable of the Wheat and Tares (Matthew 13:24-30) wherein a farmer plants a crop of wheat. As soon as the plants begin to sprout, his assistant shows him that half the plants are not wheat but the darnel weed. "An enemy has done this!" the farmer exclaims. This parable has been said to show that Christianity started out as pure orthodoxy and later became infested with heresy.

The model Price advocates is described with another parable:


"It is as if a man sowed his field with all kinds of seeds at random. 'Let a hundred flowers bloom!" he said. Soon the plants began to sprout, each different from the others, until one plant with long tendrils choked out all the others and filled the field with its own seedlings." (Page 22.)


Price is saying that many different myths flourished in the Roman Empire and elsewhere, and were later consolidated into the Roman Catholic religion that we all hate to love. He also makes good use of the fact that Paul's Gentile followers were rivals of Peter's Jewish followers (Peter and crew having remained in Jerusalem at least until Paul's final journey to Rome, and probably for his entire life. Maccoby brings up the Ebionites as witness to the fact that the Jerusalem Christians thought of Paul as a false teacher, and Price also delves into this and many other problems.

Price's point, though, is that every Jesus Seminar-type model is valid as long as the advocate emphasizes certain points and ignores the rest of the evidence. It is certainly impossible to harmonize all the available information into a Unified Theory of Christ -- if you will. And this fact will work to the advantage of anyone trying to refute the Gospel myth. The main gist is that even if we could find a historical figure upon whose life the Gospel tales were built, we could never know anything certain about this individual. And pointing this out makes a strong case against the orthodox Gospel story.

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Lists of "Bible Contradictions" and their Limitations

Of course, if you are interested in a simple list of Gospel discrepancies, you could do much worse than John E. Remsberg's classic 1908 book The Christ. We have posted the entire work in our Historical Section and have, I think, the only Internet presence of this work. I got it from a fellow who calls himself Zardoz, and corrected many errors that his copy had. (All our historical works go through at least two comparisons with the real McCoy, and many have gone through three separate comparisons with the hard copy -- unlike most of the stuff out there, particularly that on Internet Infidels, most of which goes through a single OCR line-by-line conversion to text, seemingly with no corrections whatsoever.

Remsberg's book is thorough and is a great piece of comedy. He was trying to make available to the common reader the material presented by Strauss and Renan, which is tough to follow. Prometheus has issued a reprint of this fine work, of we have an extremely clean copy of it online (clean as online copies go, that is).

Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason is another classic work which contains many arguments that have yet to be answered to my satisfaction. We posted the Independence Edition edited by Paine scholar Daniel Edwin Wheeler in 1908 (a great year for anti-Gospel works).

Of course, C. Dennis McKinsey has The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy, but I highly recommend watching out for the several places where he resorts to petty errors unique to the clumsy and antiquated language of the King James. On the other hand, while conducting a study of mathematical errors in the Hebrew Scriptures (based upon McKinsey's Encyclopedia), I discovered that the New International Version, produced by a team of "scholars" who admit in the Preface that they are biased toward biblical inerrancy, covers up many legitimate discrepancies that the other versions leave intact. In many cases they resort to obscure manuscripts or to the Greek or Syriac versions, but in some cases they flat-out mistranslate the passage so that it conforms to their preconception of an "infallible Word of God." The NIV "scholars" obviously availed themselves of the many "Bible Difficulties"-type books that I mentioned above.

McKinsey spent 20 years publishing his "Biblical Errancy" newsletter, and has just released Biblical Errancy: A Reference Guide, which is kinda like The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy on steroids. It has exhaustive cross-references, alphabetical and topical listings, references to passages in the order in which they appear in the Bible, and even an asterisk system to rate the relevance of various passages to the question being discussed.

Again, many who study and write about biblical errancy have a habit of claiming passages as problematic that I would never call problem passages. A classic example (that McKinsey doesn't use, which I may have used flippantly in the past, but refuse to use today) is Romans 3:7 where Paul says, "For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged as a sinner?" Many opponents of Christianity have suggested that Paul is here advocating the use of falsehood to further the Gospel. (No, it was Martin Luther who advocated this, not Paul.) Taken out of its context, this sentence seems to have Paul advocating the use of falsehood. A careful reading of this passage, though, shows that Paul is actually mocking those opponents of his who, according to Paul, falsely accused him of holding this position.

The entire passage, in context, makes this clear:


5. "But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance? (I speak as a man)
6. God forbid: for then how shall God judge the world?
7. For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged as a sinner?
8. And not rather, (as we be slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say,) Let us do evil, that good may come? whose damnation is just."


Notice the parenthetical phrase, "I speak as a man," and the other parenthetical part about being "slanderously reported, as some affirm that we say." Paul may have actually advocated the deliberate use of falsehood to further the Gospel (why else would he feel the need to "protest too much" along these lines), and other passages come a little closer to suggesting that he held this position, but he is not admitting it here. This is where several Bible critics (but not McKinsey, in this case) differ from the rest. McKinsey, for the most part, is very careful to examine all possible interpretations.

Though his studies are exhaustive in that he has collected by far the most examples, he does not address the topic of which original manuscripts say what, and (unfortunately) he does not attack such "translations" as the New International Version, which deliberately compensate for the classic problem passages through: (1) what I would describe as "work-around" translation (where a passage could go either way, and the benefit of the doubt is given toward the presupposition of inerrancy, rather than going with the way similar constructions are usually or naturally translated); (2) selective use of obscure source manuscripts; (3) flat-out mistranslation of problem passages.

I think a wonderful (and wonderfully useful) study would be to compare all of McKinsey's problem passages in each of the popular translations: the King James, the New American Standard, and the Roman Catholic versions, and New International Version, and then to document places were this or that version (most likely the New International Version and the Jehovah's Witnesses New World Translation) seem to deliberately cover up known Bible problems.

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Final Thoughts

I hope this puts this all into a better perspective for you. I personally find it much more compelling if I stick with the big issues, even though developing this perspective was a lot more work than simply coming up with a simple list of contradictions.

I am not in the habit of trying to deconvert Christians, though many write to me on this forum and I consider this forum a proper setting for such discussions (though I never engage in such discussions elsewhere). But, if I were trying to deconvert someone, I would pay attention to the teachings of 1970s-era cult deprogrammer Ted Patrick. I interviewed him in about 1980 and he showed me the main point of his practice: "Ask questions to which the answers lie outside the cult member's world view." Eventually, he told me, the human mind cannot help but try to reconcile the discrepancies between the cultic picture of reality and the person's observations.

Patrick's secret to success was to learn as much as he could about the cult's dogma and to try to think of obvious contradictions between it and observable reality. Contrary to the prevailing rumors of the era, Patrick never tied people to chairs and beat them into submission: he merely peppered the with questions. True, he violated people's civil rights by kidnaping them, and for this he served a prison term and was driven out of business. But I do use his technique on this forum and also during those rare occasions when I will allow myself to engage with someone in a social setting.

To me, the bottom line is this: Anybody making a claim for the existence of something (such as a god) is obligated to make the strong argument and to bring forth the evidence. I, as a listener to these claims, need do nothing. If this person can make a case, I will probably convert to theism; unless and until such time, I remain an atheist. This is called the Burden of Proof, which states that the person making an existential claim (a claim that a thing exists) is required to make the case for the thing's existence.

An atheist is (among other things) a person who lacks a god belief -- who lacks theism. It seems as if the atheist would be at an advantage in that he or she is not required to make any case for the nonexistence of gods, but I don't see it this way. I cannot prove a negative existential claim (a claim that a certain thing does not exist), so I am at a grave disadvantage. To assert that no gods exist is an untenable position, so I am stuck with saying that I have yet to encounter a claim for the existence of a god that holds water. So, to say that the Burden of Proof is a position of convenience for the atheist is simply not true: the atheist cannot prove the nonexistence of a god.

Finally, whenever someone makes a claim that contains the sound "God," you must insist that the theist describe what they mean when they utter that sound. For you to respond "No, there is no such thing" is premature on your part even if you already know what they are talking about. The good side of this little quirk is that you need never go up against the concept of "God" at all: you need only attack the theist's attempts to describe what he or she means when using this term.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Serving those without theism for five years

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