Bible Contradictions: Why Are They There? What Do They Entail?

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.

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:

Monty Python“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.

-Matthew Ferguson

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34 Responses to Bible Contradictions: Why Are They There? What Do They Entail?

  1. Veritas says:

    Many of these contradictions are pretty well reconciled. Just do a search.

    • No, as the blog demonstrates, they show how the authors had different opinions of events and adjusted their narratives to express different ideas. You can recognize this fact by treating them just like every other ancient text, as the Vitellius and Sejanus examples show, or you can twist yourself in logical pretzels because you are committed to a presupposition of inerrancy. I am well aware that apologists have long sought to harmonize contradictions in the Bible in this way, but I do not think that they use sound exegetical methods.

      • Veritas says:

        It’s pretty simple really. The text in Acts says he fell and his intestines fell out- doesn’t say that was his cause of death.

        Also, about the money- it’s quite simple. If I give my friend $40, and he buys a game, did he buy the game? Yes. However, it is also correct to say I bought it as well.

        • Once more, you are missing the point. I can say that Drusus threw the first punch (via Tacitus), but then Sejanus hit him back (via Dio), but neither author records the event in that away. It would be purely inventing ad hoc assumptions because one is committed to the idea that the texts can’t contradict, even when there are clear thematic reasons why the authors would tell the story differently. And no, the money example is flawed. Judas buys it for himself in Acts. In Matthew the Jewish priests spend the money because it is unclean. It is called the field of blood in Luke because Judas blew up there, but in Matthew because it was a graveyard. Two different authors, two different stories.

        • mansubzero says:

          when judas bought the field in acts, was his guilt level high?

          • It’s not indicated in Acts, which has Judas selfishly portrayed as keeping the money. Instead, Judas exhibits guilt in Matthew by returning the money and not buying the field.

            Of course, these guys will twist themselves in logical pretzels to avoid ever acknowledging a contradiction. Honestly, if the author of Matthew really, really thought that Judas did not buy the field and hung himself, and if the author of Luke really, really thought that Judas did buy the field and then died, not from hanging, but from being cursed, falling forward, and gushing forth, I do not know how these authors could have conveyed it any more clearly to escape apologetic hyper-skepticism towards contradictions.

            Apologists will accept any harmonization, no matter how fantastical, to avoid the far, far easier exegesis that two different authors just have two different opinions.

  2. Veritas says:

    However, then you are making the assumption that Judas died from that fall. Example- John 19:1. Did Pilate do the scourging himself? No.

    It does not say he bought it himself. It says he “acquired a field with the price of his wickedness”.

    They bought the field and made it a graveyard- a person exploded so they called it a field of blood. No contradiction.

    • No, in Matthew he dies of hanging and in Luke he dies from magically blowing up. Early Christian authors recognized the contradiction, which is why authors like Papias tried to reconcile it with ridiculous stories.

      Yes, he [Judas] acquired a field. Not that the Jewish priests bought a field. Neither Matthew nor Acts refer to the event the way you do. You are just trying to reconcile the contradictions through ad hoc assumptions.

      Furthermore, you continually fail to grasp the point of the article. I already answer all of these issues in it. Now let me ask you: Do Suetonius and Dio contradict about Vitallius’ death? Do Tacitus and Dio contradict about the feud between Drusus and Sejanus?

  3. Veritas says:

    “he dies from magically blowing up”

    Where does it say this? It doesn’t. You are making assumptions. It says “and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out.”

    Where does it say he died from this? How would he fall, exactly?

    • Where does it say he died from hanging, the rope snapped, and then he fell down? It doesn’t. You are making assumptions, since you are committed to a presupposition of inerrancy. As I explain in the blog, Matthew shows a more repentant Judas who commits suicide by hanging, but Luke has him keep the money and then die from what appears to be a curse (hence why he blew up). The Papias quote shows how early Christians saw this problem and invented stories about Judas being cut down and then becoming fat through a curse.

      You will not get any more comments approved until you answer my question about Vitellius and Sejanus and Drusus.

      • Veritas says:

        However, again, you change the subject.

        I don’t care about Vitellius. I’m addressing your false analogy.

        • mansubzero says:

          where does matthew say that judas died in a field or any field? was the only location for suicide fields?

          • The funny thing is that when you simply make up details that aren’t in the text to harmonize two contradictory accounts, you can create virtually any scenario you want to explain the details that are in the text. For example:

            The Jewish priests bought the field with the money that Judas returned, but then Judas later stole the silver back from the guy who sold the field. He then used the same money to buy the field from the priests. Later, he hung himself elsewhere, but cut himself down before he died. He then went to the field and committed hari-kari, opened his bowels, fell forward, and burst forth. All of this is more probable than a simple contradiction between two authors…

  4. Pingback: Judas' Death in Acts and Matthew - Christian Forums

  5. No, you don’t even understand the subject. People can make up any set of ad hoc assumptions to explain away any contradiction. Thus, I could just make up a story about Vitellius’ wife bobbing for his body in the Tiber to harmonize Suetonius and Dio, but that story wouldn’t be found in either text. I would purely be making up stories on my couch because I was committed to the idea that these texts can never contradict. No one would do that for a secular text, which is the point, but apologists twist themselves in pretzels over contradictions in the Bible.

    I see that you have tried to call in reinforcements from “Christian Forums” in a spectacular effort to beat this dead horse. I’ll answer your question about how to harmonize the two: why don’t you use Papias’ harmonization? Judas got cut down, became fatter than a chariot, his genitals swelled up, and then he exploded. There you go. That explains the differences between Matthew and Acts and it is supported by a 2nd century church father. So there is even more “historical” evidence for this story.

    If you don’t use Papias’ harmonization and just say that he fell down when the rope snapped, you will have a contradiction between your made up harmonization of Matthew and Acts and Papias’ harmonization. Oh wait? You don’t care if you contradict Papias? But two texts can never contradict, right? Oh, you don’t care because it isn’t in the Bible, that’s it. Yep, we only make up these ridiculous ad hoc assumptions to save our precious religious texts, because, yep, we have presuppositions of inerrancy.

    • Veritas says:

      So, what your problem is, is that neither text mentions a “rope-snapping”, correct?

    • Potato says:

      Because this is an article specifically about Judas, I take it you wouldn’t mind?

      Other than that, sorry to jump into your conversation with someone else.

      “No, you don’t even understand the subject. People can make up any set of ad hoc assumptions to explain away any contradiction. Thus, I could just make up a story about Vitellius’ wife bobbing for his body in the Tiber to harmonize Suetonius and Dio, but that story wouldn’t be found in either text.”

      >Most important rule of all- different perspectives are not contradictions.

      >This isn’t a matter of whether or not she found his body. Judas’ body would “explode” if he was hanged. The only way for him to really “explode” is if he was already decaying. Cultural and scientific details exclude it from being ad hoc. What would be “ad hoc” is if I went “Ash Ketchum flew up with his magical giant tape recorder and shot Judas’ guts out with a sawed off shot gun.”

      >This isn’t the only way of reconciliation. Matthew could be alluding to 2 Samuel, the word for “hanging” does not always mean physical hanging, and Peter could just be reporting on rumors. When the Pharisees converted in later in Acts, they could have spilled the beans. There are others.

      “I would purely be making up stories on my couch because I was committed to the idea that these texts can never contradict. No one would do that for a secular text, which is the point, but apologists twist themselves in pretzels over contradictions in the Bible.”

      >People actually do.

      “I see that you have tried to call in reinforcements from “Christian Forums” in a spectacular effort to beat this dead horse.”

      >I don’t really think there is anything wrong with him asking for help. Are people not allowed to ask questions?

      “I’ll answer your question about how to harmonize the two: why don’t you use Papias’ harmonization? Judas got cut down, became fatter than a chariot, his genitals swelled up, and then he exploded. There you go. That explains the differences between Matthew and Acts and it is supported by a 2nd century church father. So there is even more “historical” evidence for this story.”

      >If you choose to take Papias seriously.

      “If you don’t use Papias’ harmonization and just say that he fell down when the rope snapped, you will have a contradiction between your made up harmonization of Matthew and Acts and Papias’ harmonization.”

      >Papias could be right (for some reason). The higher possibility is that he was merely joking around.

      “Oh wait? You don’t care if you contradict Papias? But two texts can never contradict, right? Oh, you don’t care because it isn’t in the Bible, that’s it. Yep, we only make up these ridiculous ad hoc assumptions to save our precious religious texts, because, yep, we have presuppositions of inerrancy.”

      >Anything can be termed “ad hoc” arbitrarily. And really, whether it presupposes inerrancy or not doesn’t make it any less or more valid.

      • Okay, Potato. For anyone who hasn’t seen the other pages, Potato has been posting obsessive comments on here for the last two days:

        What I mean by an ad hoc assumption is people adding details to the story that aren’t found in the texts themselves. If you are creative enough about making up details that aren’t in the narrative, you can always find a way to explain away the differences between two accounts. I don’t think that this is a reasonable exegetical practice with the Pagan examples I give above, and as such, I do not think that there is anything wrong, in principle, with NT scholars at least considering that there may be genuine contradictions in the Gospels.

      • Potato says:

        D: C’mon that wasn’t nice.

        Okay, fine, that seemed a little sarcastic.

        However, am I not allowed to deliver a response? Yes, I understand that it is only in accordance to your rules. It is your site. For that, I apologize for my 1,300 something word response.

        However, maybe my posts are not “obsessive” but perhaps a little “excessive”. I merely went here because you noted before that the previous post was not about Judas.

  6. Potato, in case you can’t tell I am really losing interest in the conversation. I had to write about a 25 page response to Nick Peters the other day and you and other people from Christian blogs are posting lengthy and tedious comments. Let’s take a pause for the cause for a little while.

  7. Wilson says:

    Acts (1:18-19) – It sounds more likely that Judas fell headlong _onto his sword_ and his intestines spilled out, etc. ‘Falling upon your sword’ was a typical expression for committing suicide, for example the last defenders of Masada drew lots after killing the rest, and the chosen one killed the others then fell upon his own sword. This interpretation of mine would imply that the text was incomplete and unreliable as early as Papias.
    I greatly enjoy this site, keep up the great work.

  8. mansubzero says:

    are you aware of any websites which address the christian how it could have been explanations which try to reconcile contradictory passages in the bible?

    inerrancy exposed no longer available

    farrell till’s errancy email list has closed.

    • I don’t know of any right now. I do know of resources that chart and document Bible contradictions, but I’m not familiar with any online resource that specifically rebuts inerrantist attempts to harmonize contradictions. Normally what I do when I come across an inerrantist is consult scholarly commentaries on the verses that will normally explain the nature of the contradiction. But, sorry that I can’t offer more.

      • mansubzero says:

        Hello Mr Ferguson

        if you can please clarify the following

        when mark says

        “See the place where they laid him.”

        is this an indication that the women are already in the tomb and are requested to see a location in the tomb as opposed to matthew’s angel to instructs the women to “come, see the place…”

        • Hey Mansubzero,

          Yes, I seem to have left out that issue when I previously answered your question.

          In Mark 16:4-6, it says that the women approached the tomb, but saw that the stone was already rolled away. The text then says that the women entered the tomb and were surprised to see a young man dressed in white robes sitting on the right side. This young man then says ἴδε ὁ τόπος ὅπου ἔθηκαν αὐτόν (“see the place where they laid him”), presumably referring to the place that he was sitting.

          In Matthew 28:2-6 the women approach the tomb while the stone is still lying before the door. An angel then appears, who roles away the stone blocking the entrance, and then says: δεῦτε ἴδετε τὸν τόπον ὅπου ἔκειτο (“come, see the place where he lay”). The only difference is the adverb δεῦτε, which can mean “come now” or “come hither.” It is probably used because the women are outside of the tomb in Matthew’s version, whereas in Mark’s version they are already inside the tomb.

  9. mansubzero says:

    Hello Mr Ferguson

    the women enter the tomb and mark has the man in the tomb say ,

    “See the place where they laid him.”

    indicating that the place was right before the women’s eyes.

    is this what mark is saying that the place of the bodies location was right before the women’s eyes?

    now compare to matthew:

    The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
    The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.
    He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.

    the guards became afraid and the angel thinks the women became afraid.why would they be afraid if they weren’t even on the scene ?
    do you see a contradiction between “come and see the place…” vs “see the place where” ?

    “come and see the place” would mean that the women had to move from one location to the other i.e follow the angel into the tomb

    “see the place…” would indicate that the location of where the body was placed was right before thier eyes.

    • Hey Mansubzero,

      Personally, I think that the story of Jesus’ burial and the discovery of the empty tomb is contradicted between all four of the canonical Gospels. These contradiction reflect a pattern in which Jesus was gradually given more and more of an honorable burial, reflecting later inventions and embellishments.

      Mark 15:46 has Joseph of Arimathea hastily wrap Jesus in a linen cloth and then place him “in a tomb cut out of rock,” which he then roles a stone against. Because this was a hasty burial (done in order that Jesus’ body not be left exposed overnight, in compliance with Deuteronomy 21:22-23), three women arrive after the Sabbath (Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome) bringing with them spices in Mk 16:1, so that they might go and anoint Jesus’ body (since Jesus had only been hastily buried after his crucifixion).

      Now, compare this with the account of Jesus’ burial in John 19:39-40. In this later account, Joseph of Arimathea is accompanied by Nicodemus, who brings with him 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes. The two of them not only wrap Jesus in a linen cloth, but anoint him with spices in accordance with Jewish burial customs. This is what Mark has the women come after the Sabbath in order to perform, but in John it is done before Jesus’ burial. Jn 19:41 then says that Jesus was laid in a tomb, located in a garden, which had never been used before. After the Sabbath, Jn 20:1 has Mary Magdalene come alone (no mention of Mary the mother of James or Salome), with no mention of spices to anoint Jesus.

      As can be seen, between Mark (70’s CE) and John (90-100’s CE), the story of Jesus’ burial has been changed from a hasty burial to a highly honorable one. This tells us that the later Gospel authors were inventing details in order to embellish Jesus’ burial.

      Now consider a diachronic analysis of the tomb’s description between our four accounts:

      Mark 15:46 has Jesus buried “in a tomb cut out of rock” (ἐν μνημείῳ ὃ ἦν λελατομημένον ἐκ πέτρας), which is more honorable than if Jesus had just been left on the cross or thrown in a sand pit.

      Matthew 27:60 has a “new” (καινός) tomb cut out of rock, meaning that the author of Matthew added the detail that this tomb had never been used before. This new addition increased the honor of Jesus’ burial, since an unused tomb is more honorable than a previously used or occupied tomb.

      Luke 23:53 includes a similar embellishment, when it states that Jesus was buried in a tomb, in which “nobody before had been laid” (οὐδεὶς οὔπω κείμενος).

      John 19:39-41 further adds that Jesus was not only laid in a new tomb, located in a garden (an even more beautiful place of burial), but was also anointed with 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes, which the earlier Gospels not only make no mention of, but even suggest had not occurred, with both Mk 16:1 and Lk 24:1 stating that women had to bring spices to the tomb after the Sabbath, precisely because Jesus had not been anointed.

      As even Christian scholar James McGrath points out (although I do not agree with all of his conclusions) in The Burial of Jesus (pg. 76), the different accounts of Jesus’ burial reflect “attempts to make the burial of Jesus appear more honorable than it actually was. Such details regularly contradict earlier sources.”

      My thinking is that the whole scene of the empty tomb, even in Mark, was invented to give Jesus an honorable burial in a rock-hewn tomb. This invention was done because Christians wanted there to be a more honorable scene of Jesus’ burial than if he had just been buried in a shallow grave or sandpit. But this has nothing to do with the history of the event itself.

      I agree with Bart Ehrman that there is little reason to believe that the Romans gave crucified criminals decent burials (which he argues in his blog series “Did the Romans Allow Decent Burials?”), and that in all likelihood Jesus was buried either in a shallow, unmarked grave, or was buried in a mass sand pit with other cruficied criminals. The early Christians did not like this embarrassing end for their messiah, so the author of Mark felt the need to include a rock-hewn tomb, but his embellishment was not the last, since all three of the later Gospel authors felt the need to invent even more details and add them to the story, which explains the contradictions noted above.

  10. Hi Matthew, I’ve just found your excellent blog. Have already read a few pieces, and looking forward to reading many more. Keep up the good work! Cheers, James (Reasonably Faithless).

  11. rambo2016 says:

    Mr Ferguson

    Do you think that the author of jeremiah is writing against the priestly writers?
    was jeremiah aware of the belief that yhwh commanded sacrifices in the wilderness period?

    Thus saith Yahweh of hosts, god of Israel: “Add your burnt-offerings to your sacrifices, and eat the flesh. For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt-offerings and sacrifices”. (Jer 7:22)

    “Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?” (Amos 5:25)

  12. rambo2016 says:

    Mr Ferguson

    i want to follow a scholarly methodology instead of going to discussion forums and getting arguments from there. can you recommend any scholarly books on jeremiah which deal with jer 7:22 in great length?

    • Hi Rambo,

      Here is what William Holladay (Jeremiah 1, pg. 261) says about Jer. 7:22:

      “The phraseology of ‘I did not … command them’ suggests that Jrm is trying to correct a false understanding that people might have gained from a legal tradition such as the Covenant Code (see Exod 20:24; 23:18) … But the bald statement that these sacrifices were not a part of the instruction to Israel at the time of the exodus raises great difficulties. It is paralleled by the implication of the rhetorical question in Amos 5:25 and of the linking of sacrifice with kingship in Hos. 3:4; these passages stand in stark contrast the presentation of the total Pentateuch as it now stands. Some of the polemic against sacrifice in the prophets can be explained as a way of saying, ‘I would rather have righteousness than sacrifice’: this would be plausible for Isa 1:11-14; Hos 6:6; 8:13; Amos 5:21-24; and Mic 6:6-8. This relativizing of the attitude toward sacrifice is taken by a number of authorities and has been maintained for the present texts.

      But the present verse, and the analogous texts in Amos and Hosea already cited, do not lend themselves to this interpretation without violence. The words certainly press the hearer to the conclusion that Jrm believed that the Sinaitic covenant had nothing at all to do with ‘burnt offering and sacrifice’; and given the assumption that Jrm must have known the Covenant Code, the evidence that he knew (at least part of) Deuteronomy and (at least some parts of) the P tradition (on the latter compare 4:23 and 20:3-6), the problem becomes severe.”

      Holladay discusses a possibility, raised by Jacob Milgrom, that this verse may be only referring to individual sacrifices, and not to the activities of the Temple court. However, I think that this is speculative.

      As I see it, this verse provides prima facie evidence of a contradiction between Jeremiah and how the exodus is actually depicted in the Pentateuch. It is strange, as Holladay notes, that Jeremiah had access to (at least part of) Deuteronomy and yet still makes this seemingly inaccurate statement.

      But I think that it is fully plausible that Jeremiah is writing against the priestly writers, as you suggest. Jeremiah’s knowledge of Deuteronomy can be explained by this interpretation, since the contradiction would not be some accident, but a deliberate choice to downplay the role of sacrifice during the exodus. After all, during the Babylonian exile, Jeremiah does not want the Jews to fall into idolatry by committing sacrifices. One of the best ways to do this is to reinterpret what God commanded during the exodus, regardless of what the earlier priestly writers had claimed. It’s not like two different texts can’t give different instructions and relate two different versions of events.

  13. Pingback: Vridar » A Historian’s Explanation for Bible Contradictions

  14. A commenter on the linked post above, with regard to Suetonius’ and Dio’s different accounts of Vitellius’ death, said the following in criticism of this article:

    “There are no real discrepancies here: the word “despatched” is a misleading translation; the Latin verb can also mean “slaughtered”, “chopped up”, “cut up”, i.e. it’s quite acceptable for a decapitation. Both mention the torture (Dio in the preceding paragraph), both mention the staircase. If the corpses of tyrants were thrown into the Tiber, which did happen, they were dragged through the city streets, and if one’s been decapitated you also need to parade the severed head, which is what Dio chose to mention, probably because not all of his readers would have recognized the symbolic nature of dragging a corpse through the streets to the river. And the “burial” could have been a standard Roman funus imaginarium, if the body had really vanished. (Moreover, the Greek verb can also stand for funeral rites in general, not an actual burial of an actual body.) It’s not very hard to deal with these two passages, if you’re a decent historian, which this guy doesn’t seem to be: “The two sources clearly contradict each other”? Hardly. The only discrepancy is that Suetonius has him tortured on the stairway, while Dio has him tortured close by.”

    To which, I replied:

    “It’s not very hard to deal with these two passages, if you’re a decent historian, which this guy doesn’t seem to be…”

    Decent historian David Shotter (Suetonius: Galba, Otho, & Vitellius, pg. 190):

    “Dio (LXV. 21, 2) says that Vitellius was beheaded at the Steps; his head was carried around by his murderers, whilst his wife gained custody of the body and gave it a proper burial – hardly possible if Suetonius’ version is correct.”

    Obviously, I am not the first Classicist to make this observation about Suetonius’ and Dio’s different accounts of Vitellius’ death.

    “There are no real discrepancies here: the word “despatched” is a misleading translation; the Latin verb can also mean “slaughtered”, “chopped up”, “cut up”, i.e. it’s quite acceptable for a decapitation.”

    minutissimis ictibus excarnificatus atque confectus (“slashed with the smallest cuts and despatched”) could hypothetically entail decapitation, but there is no reason to suggest that Suetonius means this without conflating Dio’s account. Suetonius elsewhere in his biographies tends to specify when the emperors are decapitated (cf. Gal. 20.2).

    It is also worth noting that Suetonius discusses the burial of every other emperor besides Vitellius in his biographies. The emphasis on dragging his body to the Tiber, in fact, strongly suggests that there was no burial. I contrast the lack of burial in Suetonius’ Vitellius with the burials of all of the other emperors in Suetonius’ biographies in this academic paper:

    Likewise, a major theme in Suetonius’ Life of Vitellius is Vitellius’ disrespect for the dead (Vit. 10.3), which provides a thematic reason why Suetonius would want to emphasize an account that denied Vitellius burial.

    “And the “burial” could have been a standard Roman funus imaginarium, if the body had really vanished. (Moreover, the Greek verb can also stand for funeral rites in general, not an actual burial of an actual body.)”

    Funny enough, I actually discussed this very issue with professor Thomas Scanlon (UC Riverside) a couple years ago. We both concluded that this was not the best interpretation of the passage.

    ἔθαψε could mean “she performed funeral rites in the absence of possessing the corpse,” but there is absolutely nothing in Dio’s account that would suggest this was the case. The standard meaning of the verb is to bury. For example, Dio describes Otho’s burial using the exact same verb (64.15).

    The only reason to suppose that Dio does not mean the literal burial of the body is if one conflates Suetonius’ account. However, why do so? Especially when Suetonius goes unusually out of his way to deny Vitellius burial.

    The most I can say for your interpretation is that it is “plausible.” However, I consider it to be a rather strained reading of the texts. I have, nevertheless, changed the wording in the article to read “very likely contradict,” out of consideration of your comment.

    Likewise, you should acknowledge that this is at least potentially a contradiction. I do not think you can exclude the possibility that these authors may very well disagree with each other about the fate of Vitellius’ body.

    Furthermore, this is hardly the only contradiction between two Pagan authors in antiquity. Even ancient historians acknowledged contradictions between their sources (cf. Suet. Calig. 8). There are plenty others, and the most that your criticism would affect is that I would need to give some other examples of contradictions that are even more explicit and less plausibly reconciled.

    The greater point of the article is that Classicists recognize that there can be contradictions between Pagan authors. It is thus perfectly methodologically consistent for New Testament historians to recognize contradictions in the Gospels and other biblical texts. Even Christian scholars like James McGrath acknowledge such contradictions.

    Thus, when inerrantists are overly stubborn or speculative in insisting on interpretations of biblical texts — no matter how strained — that reconcile apparent contradictions, they are engaging in a case of special pleading. We recognize such contradictions in Pagan texts. It is thus perfectly plausible that there are also similar contradictions in Christian texts.


    Matthew Ferguson

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