Most people think of a contradiction as two statements that conflict with each other. Sometimes if a person sees two or three different sets of details in the Gospels, they believe this constitutes a contradiction.
Cannot Be True At The Same Time
In the technical sense, a contradiction occurs when there are statements which describe a particular topic that cannot all be true at the same time. For example: Jesus went to Galilee, and Jesus did not go to Galilee. It is impossible for both of these statements to be true at the same time since they are divergent to each other.
Can Be True At The Same Time
When differences are seen in an account by multiple writers, but they can all be true at the same time, this defines these descriptions as contradictory. If these details are simply things that one person remembered that another did not, these are normal attributes of truthful testimony.
The following example from Matthew 20:29-34, Mark 10:46-52, Luke 18:35-43 would often be seen by many people as contradictory:
And as they departed from Jericho, a great multitude followed him….
And they came to Jericho: and as he went out of Jericho with his disciples, a great number of people also followed…
And it came to pass, that as he was near Jericho, a certain blind man sat by the road begging…
These three statements, though they include different details, they can all be true at the same time.
- Matthew said they departed from Jericho.
- Mark said they came to Jericho.
- Luke said they were near Jericho.
All three descriptions are of the same event. Jesus is walking from Jerusalem to Jericho with the twelve disciples. We will see in just a few paragraphs that all three can be true at the same time, if we understand where these men are on the road to Jericho.
A Second Possible Contradiction:
All three writers agree that this event took place at or near Jericho. The event that we are primarily concerned with is the healing of Bartimaeus.
- Matthew states that “two blind men were sitting by the road…”
- Mark states that “blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the side of the road, begging…”
- Luke states that “a certain blind man sat by the road begging…”
Is it a contradiction that Matthew remembered two blind men, while Mark remembered only Bartimaeus? Luke remembered one blind man, but did not know his name?
Again, it looks like a contradiction, but all three statements can be true at the same time, defining these three statements as non-contradictory.
Differences In Where This Event Took Place:
- Matthew begins his testimony with Jesus and the disciples going out of Jericho.
- Mark begins his recollection with the group coming into Jericho and going back out.
- Luke states that these men were coming near Jericho.
The city of Jericho is just five miles west of the Jordan river and about fifteen miles northwest of Jerusalem. We should remember that the old city of Jericho was destroyed, as recorded in Joshua chapter 6, and it was never rebuilt. A new city of Jericho was built to the south of the old city by Herod the Great who had a summer palace at that location. This event that the three Gospel writers record, took place somewhere between the Old City and the New City of Jericho, on the road from Jerusalem. This explains the diversity of their descriptions.
By the testimony of all three men, it appears that the healing of Bartimaeus took place somewhere outside the new city of Jericho. Each of the three men who recorded this event, saw this event taking place from a slightly different perspective. This is what we would expect to see, if we read the testimony of any three individuals who were asked to write what they saw.
In any event, whether this all took place while going out of the old city of Jericho, coming into the new city of Jericho or while they were near the new city of Jericho, it does not affect the validity of the story which describes Jesus healing a man who was blind. There very well may have been two or more blind men; as they would often travel together to gain as much attention from those who would pass by. The focus of the story is on Jesus healing a blind man; in this, all three writers agree.
The fact that we see three different descriptions of the location from the same event, in which Bartimaeus was healed by Jesus, leaves us with a great deal of evidence in support of this account as genuine. These three narratives do not conflict with each other, they simply record the perspectives of each individual writer in remembering what took place. All three men record that Jesus healed Bartimaeus, and this is the point of the entire story. The principle importance of this event is that Jesus has the power to cause a man who was born blind, to see again; signs that can only be attributed to a work of God, as the Messiah.
Knowledge Of What We Are Reading Is Crucial
For the untrained, seeing these differences appears to be evidence of contradictions. What defines these three versions of the same event as non-contradictory is the fact that all three of the different statements can all be true at the same time, without excluding the other statements.
When people are reading through the Bible and they encounter these differences between the four Gospels that describe the same event, they think, or are told by a critic who wrote an article about these differences, that what they are reading is inconsistent with truthful testimony.
In fact, when professional organizations like the FBI us forensic techniques to examine written text, they look for these differences in details as evidence of truthful statements. What we observe in the above three accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke for Blind Bartimaeus, is exactly the kind of forensic evidence that proves these three men are telling the truth.
All three of the statements in this event with Bartimaeus depicts slightly different remembrances of the three men who are writing, but their statements do not conflict with each other. Each man remembers what happened from his own memory. When we carefully examine what each of the three are saying, we see that they are telling the same story, but beginning at different places when the recount what happened.
Matthew starts with Jesus and the disciples going out of Jericho. Mark starts with the group coming into Jericho and going back out. Luke starts with these men coming near Jericho.
If you talk to someone who alleges that there is a contradiction in the Bible, ask them what they think the contradiction is. Then apply the standard for what constitutes a true contradiction: If they cannot all be true at the same time, it is a contradiction; if they can be true at the same time, the are not a contradiction.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because they have different details, they cannot all be true. Different details do not make the story untrue, they simply show that these writers remembered different parts of the same event. This always happens in every event where multiple people are present at the same time.
Detecting Fraudulent Testimony
If the statements all match perfectly, this is a sure sign that the witnesses got together and agreed on what they would say beforehand, because they story is not true. We have all seen this happen in several movies where witnesses are going to be questioned by the authorities. They agree on what they will say to the police so that their story will be believed.
This works in Hollywood movies, it doesn’t work in the real world.
When people are telling the truth, they will recount different details of the same event. Some will include details the others did not; some will omit details the others included.
When we examine carefully all of the alleged contradictions in the Bible, we find that there are none that are valid. People have either used an incorrect definition for what they think a contradictions is, or they have not looked close enough to see that the inclusion of different details or exclusion of details that others added or left out, is still the same story and these differences still define the accounts as all possible at the same time.
A Proper Perspective Concerning Contradictions:
What would happen if four men wrote a testimony of what they saw and heard concerning the most important event in the history of the world? They would obviously record what they remembered, including the exact words the primary person in the story had spoken. Witnesses would likely record, in symmetry, the most important events, such as the death of this person, and in the case of Jesus, His resurrection three days later. They would all remember that Jesus claimed to be God and performed miracles to prove this claim. They would all write that what Jesus had said and done was predicted by the scriptures of the Old Testament. This was of preeminent importance because without the verification of these fulfilled prophecies by Jesus, nothing else He said or did was of any consequence.
These witnesses would not include a precise recollection concerning all the other details of Jesus while He was on earth. Precisely the same narratives would not possible, and we should not expect that every event would have the precise same details. Would we find perfect harmony is precise words and descriptions in all four narratives? No, of course not. We are talking about human beings who remember and prioritize things differently from other people. What was remembered and what was significant to one person might be further down the list for another person.
The fundamental question is: if the witnesses remember different details, but record the same primary points, is this a reliable witness?
What we would be looking for in the four accounts is agreement over the most important points with acceptance that in any given account, one witness might prioritize certain things he remembered, while another witness might prioritize other details. At the end of the Gospel of John, the Apostle states that not everything Jesus said and did are recorded in the Gospels. If they were, perhaps all the libraries in the world could not contain them.
And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen. ~John 21:25 (NKJV)
When we assert the certainty that the Bible is without error or is inerrant, what are we saying? Does this mean that the men who wrote did not write anything different from the others, or does this mean that the fundamental principles of the witnesses are without error?
For example: Matthew might include details that Mark does not. Luke might omit a certain detail that Matthew included. In spite of these minor differences, all four Gospel writers include the primary and most important facts that make the narrative of Jesus essential. The fact that He was born, lived, performed miracles in fulfillment of the Hebrew prophets, claimed to be Yahweh, was arrested, condemned to die, crucified, and rose from the dead after three days; these are the important points that require precise accounting if we are to accept that such a man actually existed and was the promised Messiah of the Old Testament.
The minor details concerning what happened in-between these events; earlier inclusion of an event when another writer places it later; additional details of an event, or omission of one part of an event that others included, do not detract from the primary account that we are most concerned about.
It is a fact of contradictions that there can be many differences in the accounts of multiple witnesses that could all be true at the same time, which do not make the account inaccurate.
If Matthew said Jesus was crucified but Mark said He was not, this is a contradiction. If Luke states that Jesus was raised on the third day, but John states He was not, this is a contradiction. If the writers include or exclude details, or state different timing for the events that took place, this does not change the fundamental story of Jesus. These facts state that He came in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah, fulfilled all 400 of these prophecies, performed the miracles the prophets said that Messiah must perform, He was crucified and rose from the dead.
Critics assert that because there are these minor differences, the entire story cannot be trusted; this could never be true of any historical narrative. If we examine the accounts of any past or present event that has taken place during the history of the world, we find that when the writers are telling the truth, there are always minor differences in their testimony, while the primary account they are telling us, remains consistent.
When Paul wrote the fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, He recounted to the readers of this church, “what was most important.” Paul tells the fundamental parts of Jesus history as He is dying for the sins of the world, in agreement with the prophets of the Old Testament. Jesus was buried, raised to life on the third day, as the prophets predicted, and He was seen alive by over 500 eyewitnesses.
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. ~1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (NLT)
Paul said that he is passing on to us what is most important. No place does Paul assert that anything the Gospel writers recorded was in error or in contradiction to the other writers. Paul was a meticulous scholar of the Hebrew scriptures. Details and facts were extremely important to Paul. If there were any fundamental problems with anything the writers of the synoptic Gospels had written, which he was certainly carrying with him to the people he preached Jesus to in Asia Minor, he would have stated this in his subsequent letters.
Paul understood that each man was writing a particular perspective of Jesus that was intended for a specific group of People.
- Matthew writes to reveal Jesus as the promised King, the Messiah.
- Mark presents Jesus to us as a servant who came to die for the sins of the world.
- Luke writes from the perspective of a medical doctor and presents Jesus to us as a human being.
- John begins his Gospel of Jesus, by informing us that Jesus did not have a beginning, He has always existed as the Eternal God (John 1:1).
Jesus called these men to write a testimony of what He had said and done so that people everywhere in the world could know that the Messiah had come in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophets and salvation was now available to any person who would believe.
Did Jesus intend that these men would not write anything from their memory that was different from the others? Did Jesus not call these different men from different walks of life so that they would each tell their own truthful testimony, from their own unique perspective? Of course He did. There is nothing in any of the four Gospels that would accurately be classified in the strict sense of the definition, as a true contradiction.
There are no accounts that are so divergent to the others that they could not all be true. What we read are additional details that one Gospel writer included that another did not. One writer did not mention a particular detail that another remembered. These are not contradictions, they are what we should expect in truthful testimony between multiple witnesses, if they are telling the truth.
Detecting Fraud In Written Testimony
The only occasion where testimony between multiple witnesses would agree precisely with each alleged witness is when the witnesses are seeking to deceive the reader into believing that the story is true, when in fact it is not. Professionals who use forensic techniques to examine written testimony, understand that precise testimony amongst four witnesses is evidence of fraud. It is not possible that four people could remember and record the exact same testimony.
The differences we read in the four Gospels are forensic evidence of truthful testimony. Nothing that differs in any of these variations affects the important and fundamental narrative of what Jesus came to declare. Paul describes these important facts in 1 Corinthians 15, as “I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me.”
We can have confidence that if there were any facts in the Gospels that Paul had doubts about, or Luke for that matter, who interviewed the eyewitnesses who had been with Jesus from the beginning, we would have heard from Paul or Luke in their own writings. We do not find any assertion of errors or contradictory testimony between what the Gospel writers recorded and the other writers of the other letters included in the New Testament wrote.
We also do not find any disagreement in the early church fathers regarding alleged contradictions or discrepancies in any of the more than 31,000 citations that have survived history and can be read by any person today, from these early Christian leaders. Not once is there any statement by the early church leaders that a particular statement made by one Gospel writer was in doubt because he wrote a slightly different detail from the other Gospel writers.
The four Gospels do not contain contradictions which are relative to the integrity of the narrative. The differences in testimony help us to understand that we are reading a truthful account of genuine events that took place in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus
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