Are There Contradictions in the Gospels? (Or how to hold your nose and write at the same time)
by James M. Arlandson
When you read the first three Gospels, you are likely to observe countless similarities. And that is the dominant picture: the places, the names, the crowds, the rural setting, busy Jerusalem.
However, a closer reading reveals some differences in the details. Are these differences the same as contradictions? What is a contradiction? If there are any, can they be resolved? Are the Gospels reliable if some of the details are different among them?
This article, Part Thirteen in a series on the reliability of the Gospels, is not at all intended to convince skeptics, but to provide some perspective for believers who take Scripture seriously and authoritatively. Writing this article has clarified my own thoughts.
However, I admit that I write it under protest. I believe that if we always reduce a good story to propositions, then we lose sight of – maybe damage – a good story and its literary devices. I wonder whether we should apply cold rationalism to narratives in the way I’m about to do in this article. Yet, since the following issues come up, let’s proceed. For me, though, I’ll get a clothes pin to clip on my nose.
Since these articles can be read as stand-alones, here are my standard reminders for true beginners of Gospel studies. Recall that Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a lot of passages in common, so they are called the synoptic Gospels (synoptic means viewed together). The authors are sometimes called synoptists. Slashes // mean parallel passages among them. The writers of the four Gospels are also called evangelists.
Hovering over the references below will bring up the NET Bible version on each of these.
1. What is a contradiction?
What we need is an everyday definition. Two sentences together are contradictory in this way: If one sentence is true, then other has to be false. It’s either one way or the other. For example, this pair says:
- A computer is in my office.
- A computer is not in my office.
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Imagine I have a computer in my office. Then the first sentence is affirmed, so the second one is denied, “automatically.” To put this more philosophically, “the negation is true whenever the affirmation is false, and the affirmation is true when the negation is false” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Next, to keep things simple, we don’t need to get into the law of excluded middle, but see the link to SEP at the end of this Q & A for more information.
Consider this example:
- Today is Wednesday.
- Today is Thursday.
For us, we can regard this everyday example as a contradiction, though, technically, the pair is called a contrary because both cannot be true, but both can be false (“Today is Friday”).
Those two pairs of examples merely serve as warm-ups to get us used to the other pairs here, but the entire topic can get complicated quickly! So, happily, we do not need to spot which passage in Scripture or which pair in this article is a contradictory or a contrary – or a discrepancy, conflict, disagreement, and so on. Regardless of the labels, all we need to do is resolve them in Scripture. Various solutions can apply to the troublesome passages, as we proceed.
For further information, see Brooke Noel Moore and Richard Parker, Critical Thinking. Also go here for a glossary of terms. See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and its definition of a contradiction, along with a contrary. Aristotle’s Metaphysics Book 4 (scroll down to Chapters 6 and 7) is for the very advanced.
2. Do you have examples in the Gospels?
Three come to mind right away. But these are only samples. Two can be resolved easily (A and C), the other not so easily…