The day was December 22, 69 CE. It was no ordinary day, at least not for the people of ancient Rome, and it was certainly not a quiet one. The previous year had seen the overthrow and suicide of the scandalous emperor Nero and the final collapse of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Earlier this year, the Roman empire had been divided and fought over by three successive, short-lived emperors. The first, Galba, had been assassinated by an angry mob in January, the second, Otho, had committed suicide in April, and now the third, Aulus Vitellius, was about to breathe his last.
After a series of military confrontations between Vitellius and the fourth and final claimant to the throne, Titus Vespasian, things had not gone well for the Vitellian faction. His last hopes frustrated, Vitellius had not been able to flee the city, broken a previous treaty for peace, and even murdered Vespasian’s brother. The man had no hope left as he hid in a janitor’s closet and awaited his final hour. Finally, after the foremost of Vespasian’s forces had invaded the city and entered the palace, Vitellius was caught and identified. The miserable man was then led down the Sacred Way like a common criminal, the crowd yelled and pelted him with filth, his statues were torn down before him, and the savage mob reveled in the collapse of his regime. Finally, Vitellius was brought to the Gemonian Stairs, a site were the bodies of executed criminals were exposed, where he was then tortured and executed.
What happened next? Our sources disagree. The biographer Suetonius Tranquillus (Vit. 17.2) records the following:
“At last on the Stairs of Wailing he was tortured for a long time and then despatched and dragged off with a hook to the Tiber.”
However, the historian Cassius Dio (64.21.2-22.1) writes:
“At that the soldiers became enraged and led him to the Stairway, where they struck him down. Then they cut off his head and carried it about all over the city. His wife later saw to his burial.”
Wait! What happened to Vitellius’ body? Was his body thrown into the Tiber like a condemend criminal or did his wife have the opportunity to bury his body?
This was the subject of a graduate paper that I wrote during my Classics M.A. program at the University of Arizona. The two sources very likely contradict each other. Why is this and what does it entail?
Contradictions are not odd in ancient history. Different writers have different sources, opinions, versions of the event that they favor, and they will often report two different things. In the paper I did not begin by twisting myself in pretzels attempting to harmonize this contradiction. Nevertheless, there are many ways that I could have: “Perhaps Vitellius’ wife later found the body floating down the Tiber, got it to shore, and then buried it!” “Perhaps the soldiers merely dragged it to the shore of the Tiber, but despite all ordinary practice and effort, did not throw it in!” “Perhaps she only buried the head, which in Dio’s version was carried around the city, but the body was still thrown in just as in Suetonius!”
Notice how neither author says any of these things. Suetonius says nothing about a burial. Dio says nothing about the Tiber. They both provide two versions of the event, where if I were only reading one, I would have none of the impressions given by the other. In order to harmonize the contradiction, I would have to in fact invent a third, super version of the event, which would make the event unlike what either author had written.
That approach, however, would be a highly amateur way to approach ancient history. The only reason that I would undergo such ridiculous rationalization is if I had some presupposition that Suetonius and Dio can never disagree with or contradict one another. Instead, my paper focused on how Suetonius and Dio had two different interpretations of Vitellius’ reign. Suetonius throughout his account was far more hostile to Vitullius and thus gave him a more miserable and dishonorable end. Dio was slightly more sympathetic towards the pretend emperor and thus at least dignified him with a funeral. Whose version is correct? I have no idea. As can be seen from my description above, it was a crazy day. The city was overrun by soldiers and mob violence. Any number of things could have happened, and perhaps both authors could be wrong. A responsible historian recognizes the limitations he or she has with any given text.
Unfortunately, fundamentalist apologists, with their presuppositions about biblical inerrancy and their desperate attempt to prove their religion through “history,” cannot approach these issues like professional historians. Instead they seek all sorts of improbable, fantastical scenarios in a desperate effort to reconcile the contradictions in the Gospels. They invent stories found in none of the Gospels, rearrange the material, and ultimately construct what is in fact an entirely different narrative. As Bart Ehrman discusses in Jesus Interrupted, this new “super gospel” is only an artificial fabrication of some later believer, really just writing their own preferred Gospel and ignoring the how the authors originally told their four different versions of the story.
A dedicated apologist can find a fantastical scenario to explain any two or several biblical contradictions. Consider just a simple one with the death of Judas. The Gospel of Matthew (27:3-10) states:
“3 When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4 ‘I have sinned,’ he said, ‘for I have betrayed innocent blood.’
‘What is that to us?’ they replied. ‘That’s your responsibility.’
So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.
6 The chief priests picked up the coins and said, ‘It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.’ 7 So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. 8 That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: ‘They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, 10 and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.’”
The author of Acts (1:18-19), however, records a different version of the event:
“18 With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. 19 Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.”
There are glaring differences between these two accounts: Did Judas return the silver pieces or did he keep them? Did Judas buy potter’s field or did the Jewish priests? Is it called the field of blood because foreigners are buried there or because Judas blew up there? Did Judas hang himself or did he fall headlong and explode?
Not surprisingly, apologists have performed several logical somersaults to try avoid these obvious contradictions: “Maybe Judas symbolically bought the field through the Jewish priests!” “Maybe the rope snapped and then Judas fell headlong and blew up! (And he just coincidentally hanged himself in the same field the priests purchased).” As early as the church father Papias (c. 140 CE), there have been rationalizing ad hoc assumptions made to try to remedy these discrepancies. Papias’ version tries to pull the old apologetic stunt of saying that Judas did not really die from handing:
“Judas did not die by hanging, but lived on, having been cut down before choking. And this the Acts of the Apostles makes clear, that falling headlong his middle burst and his bowels poured forth.”
A classic apologetic harmonization! Of course, Acts says absolutely nothing about Judas being cut down from hanging, or even hanging himself at all, and Papias is just completely making up this detail to ignore the obvious contradiction between the two accounts. Need further proof? Read what Papias has to say about what happened to Judas next:
“Judas walked about as an example of godlessness in this world, having been bloated so much in the flesh that he could not go through where a chariot goes easily, indeed not even his swollen head by itself. For the lids of his eyes, they say, were so puffed up that he could not see the light, and his own eyes could not be seen, not even by a physician with optics, such depth had they from the outer apparent surface. And his genitalia appeared more disgusting and greater than all formlessness, and he bore through them from his whole body flowing pus and worms, and to his shame these things alone were forced [out]. And after many tortures and torments, they say, when he had come to his end in his own place, from the place became deserted and uninhabited until now from the stench, but not even to this day can anyone go by that place unless they pinch their nostrils with their hands, so great did the outflow from his body spread out upon the earth.”
So wait! Judas went on to become a TLC episode of My 600-lb Life and then blew up in the field in Acts because of obesity? As Papias’ account shows, a committed apologists can make up just about anything and perform the greatest logical gymnastics to avoid recognizes contradictions that would be recognized in any secular texts.
Neither the author of Matthew nor the author of Acts say any of these things, and by reading either account alone no one would come away with the impressions given by the other. Once one recognizes that these are two different authors, however, the differences become much more understandable. Matthew says that Judas felt remorse, returned the money, and hanged himself in guilt. This version is slightly more sympathetic towards Judas. The author of Acts disagrees: Judas selfishly kept the money, purchased land with it, was cursed by his evil, and burst forth in sin and gore. Both authors have different perspectives of the event. This kind of explanation is no different than the one I have given above for the discrepancies between Suetonius’ and Cassius Dio’s two versions of Vitellius’ death. Suetonius and Dio include different details based on whether they wish to give a more favorable or less favorable version of Vitellius death. In the case of the Gospels, the author of Matthew gives a more favorable version of Judas’ death than is found in Acts.
Which account is correct? I don’t know. Probably neither. The reference in Matthew to Zechariah 11:12-13 (incorrectly listed as Jeremiah) suggests that the whole thirty pieces of silver story was merely invented to draw an allusion to the Old Testament. Ultimately, we just have two authors with two opinions, and any effort to reconcile these discrepancies would only be due to a presupposition about inerrancy that one would never use for any non-religious text.
Let’s examine another secular contradiction similar to the one above. When the praetorian prefect Aelius Sejanus rose to a high position of power under the Roman emperor Tiberius, the prefect came into conflict with the emperor’s son Drusus. The young prince did not appreciate Sejanus’ influence on his father and the conflict of interest, according to our historians, escalated into violence. The historian Tacitus (Ann. 4.3.1) records that the following scuffle took:
“Drusus, who could not brook a rival and was somewhat irascible, had, in a casual dispute, raised his fist at Sejanus, and, when he defended himself, had struck him in the face.”
The historian Cassius Dio (57.22.1), however, has a different version of the event:
“Sejanus, puffed up by his power and rank, in addition to his other overweening behaviour, finally turned against Drusus and once struck him a blow with his fist.”
Who threw the punch? We have a common elementary schoolyard dispute. Each author depicts the other as the aggressor. Tacitus has Drusus as the irascible prince strike the prefect in a fit of anger. Dio has Sejanus as the overconfident prefect overstep his rank and sock the prince. Who actually threw the punch? I don’t know. There are many ways in which I could attempt to harmonize this contradiction: “Maybe Drusus threw the first punch and then Sejanus hit him back! (and, for whatever reason, Tacitus only chose to tell one half of the story and Dio chose to tell the other half).” “Maybe these are two different events! Maybe on one date Drusus hit Sejanus and on a completely separate day Sejanus hit Drusus!”
The problem is that neither Tacitus nor Dio record any of these details. I would merely be inventing ad hoc assumptions due to an unjustified presupposition that Tacitus and Dio can never contradict each other. The actual context of each author, however, explains the contradiction. In Tacitus’ narrative Sejanus is very cold and calculating, so that even when the arrogant prince strikes him in the face, he is able to stay composed and still court Tiberius’ favor. In Dio’s version Sejanus has far less control, and in his recklessness even goes so far as to strike the prince. Each author has a different view of this event and who was the aggressor. Historians can and will disagree, and given the scandalous and anecdotal nature of this story, who knows who is correct or if either punch even happened. Responsible historians recognize that they have limitations when dealing with limited information like this in a text.
Just as Tacitus and Dio can have two different views of Sejanus, the Gospel authors all have different views of Jesus. In fact, the contradictions reveal that the authors were deliberately disagreeing with each other. The Gospels are not independent sources: Matthew derives his material from as much as 80% of Mark’s narrative, Luke derives his material from as much as 65% of the verses in Mark, and John, although more loosely, was probably likewise adapting material from Mark’s narrative (as shown by Ruprecht in This Tragic Gospel). These authors are reading each other’s texts. So why are there contradictions between the stories? Are they really that careless about details? Hardly. Instead, each author adapts and alters the information in the previous Gospels to give their own opinion about Jesus.
A horizontal reading of the Passion narratives in Mark, Luke, and John will reveal that each account has contradictions with each other and that, far from being insignificant details that can be harmonized, the different details reflect the narrative aims of the authors and how they changed and adjusted their material to suit their own version and interpretation of the event. The analysis below summarizes many of the observations made by NT scholar Bart Ehrman in Jesus Interrupted, which is highly recommended for further reading on the topic of biblical contradictions.
The Suffering Servant in Mark: Literary critics have long recognized that the author of Mark depicts Jesus using the “Suffering Servant” motif found in Isaiah 53. During the scene of his crucifixion, Jesus is depicted as having been abandoned by all, including god, and is shown to endure suffering in a great moment of despair.
Accordingly, on the Via Dolorosa, Jesus is abandoned by all of his followers. While some loyal women, including Mary Magdalene, watch the crucifixion, they stand at a distance (15:40). Then Jesus is crucified between two criminals, both of whom mock and deride Jesus (15:32). In his final words (15:34-37), Jesus declares that even god has forsaken him:
Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’) …With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.”
Then (15:39), the Roman centurion standing beside Jesus declares: “Surely this man was the Son of God!” The symbolism in this account is poignant and deliberate. Jesus is forsaken by all, including god, dies in misery, and it is ironically the Pagan centurion who recognizes him as the son of god.
The Noble Martyr in Luke: Luke’s Passion narrative is very different from Mark’s. Far from being depicted in despair, Jesus is instead represented as a noble martyr, who remains calm and composed in the face of persecution.
In Luke’s narrative, a great number of people follow Jesus (23:27), including the women who remained at a far in Mark’s narrative. Rather than be in despair, Jesus turns to and comforts the women (23:28): “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children.” Jesus is crucified between two criminals, one of whom repents to Jesus and Jesus replies (23:42-43): “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” In his final words (23:46), Jesus accepts his fate and commits his spirit to god:
“Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.”
Then (23:47), the Roman centurion standing beside Jesus declares: “Certainly this man was innocent.” The differences between Luke and Mark’s narratives could not be more obvious: Luke emphasizes that Jesus was unjustly executed, but that nevertheless he endured his persecution and did not despair. Jesus comforts the women and the one criminal beside him, and the Roman centurion, rather than declaring him the son of god, instead recognizes that he was innocent.
These differences are not accidents. Luke was familiar with and using Mark’s narrative. Instead, the author of Luke wished to depict Jesus in a different manner, and chose to adapt and change different details to suite his own version of Christ.
The Lamb of God in John: In John’s narrative, Jesus is depicted as the passover lamb who was sacrificed, just like the lambs in Exodus 12, so that those who accept his blood offering might not perish, but instead be saved.
A problem for the author of John was that in the three previous Gospels (Mark 14:12; Matthew 26:17; Luke 22:7-8), Jesus was not crucified on the Day of Preparation when the lamb is sacrificed. Instead, the Last Supper was held on this day and Jesus was crucified on the following day. The author of John, however, wanted Jesus to be crucified at the same time the passover lambs were being prepared to fit his motif of the “Lamb of God.” Accordingly, John changed the details to have Jesus executed a day earlier than the other Gospels, on the Day of the Preparation for the Passover when the lambs are sacrificed (19:14). While apologists have attempted highly convoluted ways to reconcile the differences between the days with ad hoc theories about the dating of the Passover and the Last Supper, the far more simple explanation (especially considering that John likely knew of the previous Gospels, or at least common traditions between them) was that the author merely changed the date to serve his own theological purposes.
When Jesus is crucified, the author of John adds another detail not found in the previous Gospels to suite his “Lamb of God” motif. Shortly after Jesus has died, the soldiers come to break the legs of the crucified men in order that they might die more quickly by suffocation. When they came to Jesus (19:32-33), however, they realize that he has already died, and so do not break his legs. The author of John adds this detail to the story, in order to draw a parallel with Exodus (12:46), which discusses how to prepare the lambs for the Passover sacrifice: “you shall not break any of its bones.” In his final words in John (19:30), Jesus signifies that the sacrifice has been completed:
“When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
Once more in John, Jesus speaks different last words than in the other Gospels to fit the literary purposes of the author. John signifies that the sacrifice is complete and that the Lamb of God has fulfilled his purpose.
Awkwardly Smashing the Different Accounts Together: Now, apologists will attempt to harmonize these different last words, beautiful on their own in the original context of each narrative, by instead smashing them clumsily together into a “super gospel,” which in truth records things differently than all of the original accounts. Take, for example, apologist JP Holding’s clumsy rendition of Jesus’ last words smooched together:
“(Mt/Mk) About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of those standing there heard this, they said, ‘He’s calling Elijah.’ … (Jn) When he had received the drink Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head …. (Lk) Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last…”
Why would Jesus cry out that god had forsaken him and then just a few moments later say that he has committed his spirit to god? Why would he say, “It is finished,” in climactic finality, but then say more just a few moments later? None of the authors say that any of this happened in such order, and notice how rearranging the material into an arbitrary “super gospel” bruises the details of each. Mark’s “Suffering Servant” motif is ruined, if Jesus is calm and commits his spirit like at the end, as in Luke. Luke’s “Noble Martyr” motif is ruined, if Jesus cries out in despair, as in the ending of Mark, which is unlike how Jesus is depicted everywhere else in Luke’s Passion narrative. Ultimately, one would only create such a disjointed harmonization if they had presuppositions about inerrancy and could not accept the possibility that different author maybe, just maybe, have different opinions.
Conclusion: Why are there contradictions between the Passion narratives in the Bible? Any honest historian or literary critic would quickly realize that the most likely, most powerful explanation is simple because the different authors had different views of Jesus and adjusted their material to fit their own theological purposes. Mark is not Luke, Luke is not John. Just as we saw with Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio, these authors reported different versions of events in accordance with their own narratives.
What do biblical contradictions entail? Perhaps surprisingly for apologists, contradictions in the Gospels are not the main reason I doubt their historical reliability. While they may cast into doubt the exact details of certain sayings, anecdotes, and details, we see from the secular examples that historical authors can have these sorts of contradictions as well. I discuss in my other blogs, “Methodological Approaches to Ancient History” and “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” stronger reasons why I doubt the historical reliability of the Gospels. Instead, the main message to take away from biblical contradictions is that the Bible is a very human book. Different human authors had different opinions, different narrative goals, and disagreements about their view of Jesus. Accordingly, we find exactly what we would expect: the different authors provide different versions of the story. This is strong evidence that Bible is not a divinely inspired, inerrant work, but a compilation of multiple texts, often in disharmony with each other.
Ironically, by not attempting to harmonize or rearrange the material, the Gospels are far more beautiful literary works. Mark’s “Suffering Servant” motif is far more poignant when it is not smashed clumsily together with the very different “Noble Martyr” motif in Luke. John’s “Lamb of God” is a far more powerful symbol, when the author changes some of the details from the previous Gospels. By appreciating each work as its own, one gets a far more powerful set of different messages from each Gospel, rather than missing the point of each Gospel, by attempting to awkwardly harmonize them, due only to an unwarranted presupposition about inerrancy.