Dealing with New Testament Contradictions.


It is true that the New Testament, especially the gospels, have contradictory accounts concerning certain events and details. To draw out an analogy we should consider the Titanic. When the ship sank many eyewitnesses claimed that it snapped in half whereas others disagreed and said it went down as a whole. These, for obvious reasons, contradict each other and cannot be reconciled. But for the interested investigator one does not dispute that the titanic did in fact sink. When historians wish to learn about a fire that engulfed Rome they are urged to consult accounts penned by Suetonius and Tacitus. However, their stories are contradictory. Being aware of this no historian actually doubts that there was a great fire in Rome within the 1st century. Even though the accounts disagree with each other, they still independently attest to the basic fact of a fire. In the same way most historians do not conclude that Jesus’ tomb was not found empty because we don’t know the number of angels who visited the tomb. Concerning the overall story that would be a secondary detail.

However, what has been noted within the New Testament is that most of the cited contradictions are differences. As noted, was there one or two angels at the tomb when it was discovered? Here one account omits information whereas the other account includes more detail. We wouldn’t call that a contradiction. This is one example that can be extrapolated elsewhere too. New Testament scholar Mike Licona believes that “Many of the alleged contradictions are actually differences and not contradictions.” This is an educated conclusion Licona came to after compiling a 50 page report on differences found within the gospels. Licona explains that “there were certain literary liberties that were allowed, time compression, lack of precision when it came to minor chronological details such as the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, Matthew and Luke – one of them inverts the second and the third. We wouldn’t regard that as a contradiction, we would say that that is a difference.”

Philosopher and exegete William Craig, also noting the difficulties that the differences pose, observes that “when you look at the supposed inconsistencies, what you find is that most of them – like the names and number of the women who visited the tomb – are merely apparent, not real. Moreover, the alleged inconsistencies are found in the secondary, circumstantial details of the story…”

One must also be careful not to commit the fallacy of the excluded middle. That is to say that because a text has errors and contradictions in it we then need to dismiss it entirely. That is not how historical investigation operates. Essentially the skeptic maintains that our only choices are to choose between option A (that there is not one error in a text, therefore we can trust it) or option B (that we reject a text because we find an error in it). However, there might be an option C. Option C could say that even though there are errors in a text we can still trust it as historical, or at least generally reliable. To either be forced to choose option A or B and exclude option C is simply not the case when it comes to the historical method.

If we were to grant the skeptic’s argument that the New Testament accounts are full of irreconcilable errors it still would not go as far as to undermine core details, namely, that Jesus actually lived, was a miracle worker, that he believed himself to be the messiah, that he was crucified, that he was buried, that he was raised from the dead, and that the disciples and skeptics alike proclaimed this in the midst of suffering, with some of them even going to their deaths. These are details that our accounts agree on regardless of contradictions, errors, and discrepancies.

So, even if we grant the skeptic his argument, it doesn’t follow to its conclusion.

Let me know your thoughts!

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