I – II – III – IV – V – VI – VII – VIII – IX – X – XI – XII – XIII – XIV – XV – XVI – XVII – XVIII – XIX – XX – XXI – XXII – XXIII – XXIV – XXV – XXVI – XXVII – XXVIII – XXIX – XXX – XXXI – XXXII – XXXIII – XXXIV – XXXV – XXXVI – XXXVII – XXXVIII – XXXIX – XL – XLI – XLII – XLIII – XLIV – XLV – XLVI
But wait a minute – even if I couldn’t make sense of the theology, that didn’t mean that Christianity was automatically false, right? After all, if Jesus actually did perform miracles and rise from the dead and everything, then that meant Christianity would have to be true, even if I couldn’t personally make sense of the theology of it. If Jesus’s life actually happened as described in the Bible, then there was nothing more to talk about; if the reasoning behind it still seemed questionable to me, well, that was my problem, not Christianity’s.
Unfortunately for Christianity, though, the biblical accounts of what happened in Jesus’s life are such a mess that even trying to establish a seamless narrative of it in the first place is a hopeless task. There are as many mistakes and contradictions in the New Testament as there are in the Old Testament – possibly more so, considering that there are four Gospels (not to mention several additional books from Paul and others) that all try to tell the same story and don’t always agree with each other. And these mistakes and contradictions stretch all the way from Jesus’s birth to his death (and beyond), calling into question everything from his miracles to the most basic details of his biography.
Start with his birth, for instance. Needless to say, this is one of the most important events in all of Christianity, for obvious reasons. But the Bible can’t get the details of it straight – not even where it occurred or in which decade. As Dawkins writes:
A good example of the colouring by religious agendas is the whole heart-warming legend of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, followed by Herod’s massacre of the innocents. When the gospels were written, many years after Jesus’ death, nobody knew where he was born. But an Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2) had led Jews to expect that the long-awaited Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. In the light of this prophecy, John’s gospel specifically remarks that his followers were surprised that he was not born in Bethlehem: ‘Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?’
Matthew and Luke handle the problem differently, by deciding that Jesus must have been born in Bethlehem after all. But they get him there by different routes. Matthew has Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem all along, moving to Nazareth only long after the birth of Jesus, on their return from Egypt where they fled from King Herod and the massacre of the innocents. Luke, by contrast, acknowledges that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth before Jesus was born. So how to get them to Bethlehem at the crucial moment, in order to fulfil the prophecy? Luke says that, in the time when Cyrenius (Quirinius) was governor of Syria, Caesar Augustus decreed a census for taxation purposes, and everybody had to go ‘to his own city’. Joseph was ‘of the house and lineage of David’ and therefore he had to go to ‘the city of David, which is called Bethlehem’. That must have seemed like a good solution. Except that historically it is complete nonsense, as A. N. Wilson in Jesus and Robin Lane Fox in The Unauthorized Version (among others) have pointed out. David, if he existed, lived nearly a thousand years before Mary and Joseph. Why on earth would the Romans have required Joseph to go to the city where a remote ancestor had lived a millennium earlier? It is as though I were required to specify, say, Ashby-de-la-Zouch as my home town on a census form, if it happened that I could trace my ancestry back to the Seigneur de Dakeyne, who came over with William the Conqueror and settled there.
Moreover, Luke screws up his dating by tactlessly mentioning events that historians are capable of independently checking. There was indeed a census under Governor Quirinius – a local census, not one decreed by Caesar Augustus for the Empire as a whole – but it happened too late: in AD 6, long after Herod’s death. Lane Fox concludes that ‘Luke’s story is historically impossible and internally incoherent’, but he sympathizes with Luke’s plight and his desire to fulfil the prophecy of Micah.
There is very little that can be ascertained from the four Gospels about the historic Jesus. His birthday is unknown. In fact, the year of Jesus’ birth cannot be known. The writer of Matthew says Jesus was born “in the days of Herod the king.” Herod died in 4 B.C.E. Luke reports that Jesus was born “when Cyrenius [Quirinius] was governor of Syria.” Cyrenius became governor of Syria in 6 C.E. That is a discrepancy of at least nine years. (There was no year zero.) Luke says Jesus was born during a Roman census, and it is true that there was a census in 6 C.E. This would have been when Jesus was at least nine years old, according to Matthew. There is no evidence of any earlier census during the reign of Augustus; Palestine was not part of the Roman Empire until 6 C.E. Perhaps Matthew was right, or perhaps Luke was right, but both could not have been right.
Matthew reports that Herod slaughtered all the first-born in the land in order to execute Jesus. No historian, contemporary or later, mentions this supposed genocide, an event that should have caught someone’s attention. None of the other biblical writers mention it.
The genealogies of Jesus present a particularly embarrassing (to believers) example of why the Gospel writers are not reliable historians. Matthew gives a genealogy of Jesus consisting of 28 names from David down to Joseph. Luke gives a reverse genealogy of Jesus consisting of 43 names from Joseph back to David. They each purport to prove that Jesus is of royal blood, though neither of them explains why Joseph’s genealogy is relevant if he was not Jesus’ father: Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Ghost. (I’d like to see the genome of the Holy Ghost’s DNA.) Matthew’s line goes from David’s son Solomon, while Luke’s goes from David’s son Nathan. The two genealogies could not have been for the same person.
Matthew’s line is like this: David, Solomon, 11 other names, Josiah, Jechoniah, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel, Abiud, six other names, Matthan, Jacob and Joseph. Luke’s line is like this: David, Nathan, 17 other names (none identical to Matthew’s list), Melchi, Neri, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel, Rhesa, 15 other names (none identical to Matthew’s list), Matthat, Heli and Joseph.
Some defenders of Christianity assert that this is not contradictory at all because Matthew’s line is through Joseph and Luke’s line is through Mary, even though a simple glance at the text shows that they both name Joseph. No problem, say the apologists: Luke named Joseph, but he really meant Mary. Since Joseph was the legal parent of Jesus, and since Jewish genealogies are patrilineal, it makes perfect sense to say that Heli (their choice for Mary’s father) had a son named Joseph who had a son named Jesus. Believe it or not, many Christians can make these statements with a straight face. In any event, they will not find a shred of evidence to support such a notion.
There is an insurmountable problem to this argument: the two genealogies intersect. Notice that besides starting with David and ending with Joseph, the lines share two names: Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, both commonly known from the period of the Babylonian captivity. If Matthew and Luke present two distinct parental genealogies, as the apologists assert, there should be no intersection. In a last-ditch defense, some very creative apologists have hypothesized that Shealtiel’s grandmother could have had two husbands and that her sons Jechoniah and Neri represent two distinct paternal lines, but this is painfully speculative.
The two genealogies are widely different in length. One would have to suppose that something in Nathan’s genes caused every one of the men in his line to sire sons when they were 50 percent younger (on average) than the men in Solomon’s line.
Matthew’s line omits four names from the genealogy given in the Old Testament (between Joram and Jotham), and this makes sense when you notice that Matthew is trying to force his list into three neat groups of 14 names each. (Seven is the Hebrew’s most sacred number.) He leaves out exactly the right number of names to make it fit. Some have argued that it was common to skip generations and that this does not make it incorrect. A great-great grandfather is just as much an ancestor as a grandfather. This might be true, except that Matthew explicitly reports that it was exactly 14 generations: “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations.” (Matthew 1:17) Matthew is caught tinkering with the facts. His reliability as a historian is severely crippled.
Another problem is that Luke’s genealogy of Jesus goes through Nathan, which was not the royal line. Nor could Matthew’s line be royal after Jeconiah because the divine prophecy says of Jeconiah that “no man of his seed shall prosper sitting upon the throne of David, and ruling any more in Judah.” (Jeremiah 22:30) Even if Luke’s line is truly through Mary, Luke reports that Mary was a cousin to Elizabeth, who was of the tribe of Levi, not the royal line.
(Some Christians desperately suggest that the word “cousin” might allowably be translated “countrywoman,” just as believers might call each other “brother” or “sister,” but this is ad hoc.)
Since Jesus was not the son of Joseph, and since Jesus himself appears to deny his Davidic ancestry (Matthew 22:41-46), the whole genealogy is pointless. Instead of rooting Jesus in history, it provides critics with an open window on the myth-making process. The Gospel writers wanted to make of their hero nothing less than what was claimed of saviors of other religions: a king born of a virgin.
ProfMTH mentions a few more problems with the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s birth:
And Tom Flynn raises still more issues – also providing a possible explanation for them:
Most Americans naively assume that Christmas has to do with the birth of a child in a manger in Bethlehem in or around the year 0 – or was it the year 1? Of course, it was neither. Most Christians now believe the Nativity occurred a few years earlier: in 4 BCE or perhaps 7 BCE.
But was there a Nativity at all? Indeed, need we assume that anything the Gospels say about Jesus is historical?
One reason for skepticism is that in so many aspects – not just those revolving around that manger in Bethlehem – the story of Jesus as told (with sundry contradictions) in the four canonical Christian Gospels is so thumpingly familiar – familiar, that is, in the sense that it echoes so many earlier myths and creeds.
Most savior man-gods were claimed by their followers to have been born of a virgin, venerated by kings in the crib, murdered, and resurrected. Zealous chroniclers claimed virgin births and often resurrections for historical figures as well, including most of the Caesars, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and even the mathematician Pythagoras. If Jesus was the Son of God, then we might expect his résumé to make unique claims not anticipated by hack biographers of the rich and famous. If, on the other hand, Jesus was a man just remarkable enough to trigger the myth-making machinery of his time – or if […] he was wholly legendary – then such formulaic and derivative claims are just what we should expect.
Now, let’s turn to the Christian record. What do the Gospel writers say about Jesus? When it comes to his birth, as a group, they say nothing. The Gospels of Mark and John never mention the Nativity. Only Matthew and Luke describe it.
But it’s misleading to say “Matthew and Luke.” One might better say “Matthew vs. Luke,” for the Gospels bearing their names contradict each other on almost every detail. The popular image of shepherds and wise men side by side before the cradle? Matthew says wise men. Luke says shepherds. Neither says both.
The star in the East? Only in Matthew.
“Hark, the herald angels sing” . . . but only in Luke. Matthew never heard of them.
But then, only Matthew heard of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. […] That’s right, the indiscriminate killing of every male baby in Judea – with one significant exception – did not merit Luke’s attention. On the other hand, no Roman historian chronicles this atrocity either, not even Flavius Josephus. Josephus reviled Herod and took care to lay at his feet every crime for which even a shred of evidence existed. Had Herod really slaughtered those innocents, it is almost unimaginable that Josephus would have failed to chronicle it.
Matthew says Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem, moving to Nazareth after their flight into Egypt. But Luke says Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth all along; Jesus was born in Bethlehem only because Joseph and Mary had traveled there to enroll in the census. Roman records mention no such census; in fact, Roman history records no census ever in which each man was required to return to the city where his ancestral line originated. That’s not how the Romans did things.
Our litany of errors continues. Matthew and Luke both claim to catalogue the male ancestors of Jesus – through Joseph – back to King David. Matthew lists twenty-eight generations between David and Jesus. Luke lists forty-one. Matthew and Luke propose different names for Joseph’s father and grandfather. They propose different names for each ancestor separating Joseph from Zerub’babel, a late Old Testament figure. Incredibly, over the five-hundred-year span preceding the birth of Jesus, Matthew and Luke, whom many Christians consider divinely inspired, cannot agree on the name of a single one of Joseph’s ancestors!
This disparity is less troublesome if one views Christianity in historical rather than metaphysical terms. Scholars tell us the Gospels of Matthew and Luke developed independently in discrete Christian communities. Neither evangelist could know that the other had guessed differently about story details or had made different choices about which pagan traditions to borrow. But why should either evangelist include a genealogy through Joseph if Jesus were born of a virgin – in which case Joseph would not be his father?
Conversely, why should either evangelist borrow various stories (if not the same stories) about the virgin birth, veneration by kings, miracles at age twelve, and the like from sundry Hellenistic mystery cults if the idea was to show Jesus as the Jewish Messiah?
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke preserve, as if in amber, contradictions that embroiled the early Church. The earliest Christians aimed to convert Jews alone; only after the world embarrassingly failed to end as prophesied were Gentiles also targeted for conversion. Hellenistic Gentiles cared nothing whether Jesus was the Hebrew Messiah. If this new religion were to appeal to them, Christianity would need to display some of the elements familiar to them from Hellenistic mystery religions: a hero demigod, born of a virgin, worshiped in the crib, quick to work miracles, fated to die and rise again.
The logics of Davidic descent and virgin birth are mutually exclusive. Forced into the same narrative, they collide like a southbound freight train and an eastbound propane truck. Yet each had its zealous proponents. Unable to jettison either the Jewish Messiah tradition or the Hellenistic virgin-birth tradition, Christianity just held its breath and plunged forward carrying them both. Amazingly, the new religion got away with it.
The more we step back and look at these all these mistakes and contradictions from an outside perspective, the harder it becomes to consider the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s birth credible. But the problems don’t stop there; contradictions about Jesus’s life continue to pile up as the Gospels follow him into adulthood. The first major event of Jesus’s ministry, for example, is his baptism by John the Baptist, a prominent prophet in his own right at the time (and one who would also end up being arrested and executed like Jesus was). According to Matthew 3:11-17, Mark 1:7-11, Luke 3:16-22, and John 1:26-36, John instantly recognizes that Jesus is the messiah, and as soon as he baptizes him, the heavens open up and God declares Jesus to be his son. Later on, though, while John is in prison, Matthew 11:2-3 and Luke 7:18-22 describe him hearing about Jesus’s works – seemingly for the first time – and sending two of his disciples to find out if Jesus might actually be the messiah. Had John somehow forgotten about before? Or were those earlier details just embellishments by the Gospel writers, and/or additions by later editors?
There are more contradictions right after Jesus’s baptism. According to Mark 1:12-13, the first thing Jesus does after being baptized is to immediately go into the wilderness for 40 days, where he’s tempted by the devil. But according to John 1-2, Jesus doesn’t go into the wilderness at all; he spends the first two days after his baptism recruiting his first disciples, and then goes with them on the third day to a wedding in Cana (traveling with them to Capernaum and Jerusalem after that).
In the Gospels that do describe Jesus going into the wilderness, there’s still more disagreement about what actually happens there. Matthew 4:5-8, for instance, says that the devil first takes Jesus up to the parapet of the temple, then takes him to a high place to view all the kingdoms of the world (remember, the ancient Hebrew cosmology held that the earth was flat, so being able to see the whole world all at once would have sounded plausible to the biblical authors). But according to Luke 4:5-9, the devil takes him to the high place to view all the kingdoms first, and then takes him to the parapet of the temple.
Likewise, once Jesus returns to civilization and starts recruiting his first disciples, the order and context in which he meets them is entirely unclear. According to John 1:35-51, Jesus’s first two disciples – Andrew and another unnamed man – start off as disciples of John the Baptist; but the day after Jesus’s baptism, John tells them that he is the son of God, so they approach Jesus, strike up a conversation with him, and subsequently switch their allegiances to him. After that, Andrew recruits his brother Simon Peter; then Jesus goes into Galilee and recruits Philip, and Philip recruits Nathanael. That’s how Jesus meets his first disciples according to John’s Gospel – Andrew, then Peter, then Philip, then Nathanael. But according to Matthew 4:18-22 and Mark 1:16-20, that’s not how it happens at all. In Matthew and Mark’s version, Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee (after returning from his 40 days in the wilderness) and he notices Peter and Andrew fishing; he calls out to them, inviting them to become “fishers of men,” and they drop what they’re doing and become his disciples. He then goes a little farther, sees James and his brother John in a ship mending their nets, and calls them to follow him as well, which they do. So in Matthew and Mark’s version, it’s Peter and Andrew, then James and John. Luke 5:1-11 tells a different version of this story still, in which Jesus comes aboard Peter’s ship after its crew has fished all day and caught nothing. They head out onto the water, and Jesus preaches for a while before finally telling Peter to let down his nets one more time. The nets come back up miraculously full of fish, and Peter (along with his fishing partners James and John) are so impressed that they all become followers of Jesus. Andrew isn’t mentioned at all in Luke’s version of the story – it’s just Peter, James, and John, all recruited at once. And on top of all this, the Gospels can’t even agree about when these events supposedly take place; according to Matthew 4:12-19 and Mark 1:14-17, they happen after John the Baptist is arrested and thrown into prison – but according to John 1:40-42 and 3:22-24, they happen while John the Baptist is still free.
At any rate, once James and John become Jesus’s disciples, they become so devoted to him that they ask to be seated at his left and right hand in Heaven. At least, according to Mark 10:35-37, they do. But according to Matthew 20:20-21, it’s their mother who asks for them. At another point, the Gospel of John describes Jesus traveling around with his disciples baptizing people (John 3:22) – only to turn around in the very next chapter and say that Jesus never baptized anyone at all, but that only his disciples did (John 4:2). Even when describing the momentous event of Jesus’s first sermon – his famous Sermon on the Mount – the Gospels can’t agree on whether it actually takes place on a mountaintop at all, as Matthew 5:1-3 claims; according to Luke 6:17-20, Jesus goes down into a flat plain to deliver it. And the Bible even contradicts itself on topics as important as who Jesus’s twelve disciples actually were; according to Matthew 10:2-4 and Mark 3:14-19, there’s a disciple named Thaddaeus, but in Luke 6:14-16 and Acts 1:13, his slot is filled by Judas, the brother of James (not to be confused with the other Judas, Judas Iscariot).
The Gospel accounts of Jesus’s miracles are equally riddled with holes. There’s story in which a Roman centurion asks Jesus to heal his sick slave, for instance; according to Matthew 8:5-8, he asks Jesus himself, but according to Luke 7:1-7, he sends others to ask for him. (Jesus gladly heals the slave, of course, but he doesn’t take issue with the fact that the centurion owns slaves in the first place.) After this miracle, Jesus goes to Peter’s house to heal Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever (Matthew 8:14-15), and then according to Mark 1:29-42, he leaves Peter’s house and cures a man of leprosy. But according to Matthew 8:2-15, the order of these events is switched around – Jesus cures the man’s leprosy before he ever meets the centurion or heals Peter’s mother-in-law. Similarly, there’s a story in which a man named Jairus asks Jesus to heal his daughter; in Mark and Luke’s version of the story, she’s on the verge of death when her father approaches Jesus (Mark 5:22-23; Luke 8:41-42) – but in Matthew’s version, she has already died (Matthew 9:18). (Jesus revives her in both versions.) Another story describes Jesus performing an exorcism on a man possessed with demonic spirits, which Jesus transfers into a nearby herd of pigs, who promptly run off a cliff to their deaths (Mark 5:2; Luke 8:27). But according to Matthew 8:28, there are actually two possessed men whose demons get transferred into the pigs. Likewise, when Jesus and his disciples go to Jericho, Luke 18:35 describes Jesus curing a man’s blindness before entering the city – but according to Mark 10:46, he encounters the blind man after leaving the city, and according to Matthew 20:30, there are actually two blind men, and Jesus cures them after leaving the city.
Even the miracle of Jesus’s transfiguration – in which his disciples witness him miraculously transforming into a state of radiant glory – is unclear in its details. According to Matthew 16:28–17:2 and Mark 9:1-2, it happens six days after Jesus foretells his death; but according to Luke 9:27-28, it happens eight days afterward. (To be fair, it does say it was about eight days afterward, not necessarily exactly eight days, so you might be willing to let that one slide if you consider the Bible to have been written by flawed men – but such sloppy reckoning is harder to explain if you consider it to be the perfect word of God himself.)
Either way though, this event of Jesus foretelling his own death gives us a nice segue into another major issue with the New Testament: the fact that it doesn’t just contradict itself when discussing mundane logistical details, but also when discussing serious theological ones. Here’s a hugely significant question, for instance: Did Jesus actually know all things? John 16:30 and 21:17 say that he did – and if you consider Jesus to be the same being as God the Father, you might agree – but verses like Mark 6:6, Luke 8:45-46 and Matthew 8:10 show Jesus expressing surprise at unexpected events; and in Mark 13:32, Jesus flat-out says that he doesn’t know the exact date when the apocalypse will happen (“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”). So then was Jesus actually the same being as God the Father after all? Verses like John 8:58 and 10:30 say he was; but verses like John 12:48, John 14:28, Matthew 19:17, and Mark 10:18 say he wasn’t. (Those latter two verses are particularly interesting because Jesus denies even being a good person, much less a sinless one.) Was Jesus all-powerful? Matthew 28:18 says he was; but Matthew 20:23 and Mark 6:1-6 say that Jesus was incapable of doing certain things. (Mark 6:1-6 actually says that he was unable to perform miracles for the people of his hometown because they didn’t believe in him strongly enough – which is an embarrassingly revealing thing to say, considering that so many phony mystics and mind-readers use the same excuse when their own miracles fail.) And what about the question of whether Jesus came into the world to judge people? Here we don’t even have to look outside the Gospel of John to find repeatedly conflicting answers. In John 5:22-27, Jesus says, “The Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son. […] The Father […] hath given him authority to execute judgment.” But then in John 8:15, he turns around and says, “I judge no man.” In John 9:39, Jesus reverses himself again, saying, “For judgment I am come into this world.” Then in John 12:47-49, he contradicts himself one more time, saying, “If any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day. For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me.” Didn’t he say earlier that it was the other way around? Was Jesus just lying one of those times? Actually, the Bible even manages to contradict itself on whether we should believe Jesus’s words about himself; in John 8:14, Jesus says, “Though I bear record of myself, yet my record is true” – but in John 5:31, he says, “If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true.”
At any rate, regardless of whether Jesus considered it his responsibility to pass judgment, there are multiple occasions where we can see him doing so for ourselves. There’s a story in which Jesus is hungry and comes across a fig tree, for instance – but because figs are out of season, there are none on the tree; so in response, Jesus curses the tree to never bear fruit again (not exactly the fig tree’s fault, but whatever; maybe Jesus just wasn’t in a forgiving mood that day). According to Matthew 21:19-20, it withers away the instant he curses it; but in Mark 11:19-20, he and his disciples continue on their way, and it’s only when they pass by the same spot a day later that they notice the tree has withered away. Around the same time, those Gospels also describe Jesus throwing his famous “temple tantrum,” in which he takes a whip and assaults the merchants and moneychangers in the temple, flips over their tables, spills their money everywhere, and drives them out into the streets. But again, the timing of this event differs depending on which Gospel you read. According to Mark 11:12-17, it happens after Jesus curses the fig tree – but according to Matthew 21:12-20, it happens before. And according to John 2:11-16, it actually happens years before, at the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry. How can such a dramatic disparity be squared? Some Biblical apologists have tried to rationalize it by lamely saying that Jesus must have simply thrown multiple temple tantrums.
Either way though, we know how the story ultimately plays out: Jesus’s rabble-rousing upsets the authorities so much that they have him arrested and condemned to death. Before he’s arrested, he shares one last meal with his disciples, during which Peter asks him, “Lord, whither goest thou?” (John 13:36), and Thomas adds, “Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). But a few moments later, Jesus becomes indignant and wonders why no one has asked him the question that they literally just asked him: “Now I go my way to him that sent me; and none of you asketh me, Whither goest thou?” (John 16:5).
Shortly after this exchange, Jesus goes off to a private area and, according to Matthew 26:36-42, Mark 14:35-36, and Luke 22:41-42, starts pleading with God to save him from crucifixion. (Again, this seems like a strange thing to do if Jesus actually is God – is he just praying to himself?) But John 12:27 depicts a braver Jesus who openly mocks the idea of doing this: “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.”
Finally, Judas turns Jesus over to the authorities – and according to Matthew 26:47-49, Mark 14:43-45, and Luke 22:47-48, he identifies Jesus for them by kissing him; but according to John 18:3-5, Jesus walks out to meet them and openly identifies himself, while Judas simply looks on. The authorities then take Jesus straight to the high priest Caiaphas, according to Matthew 26:57, Mark 14:53, and Luke 22:54 – but according to John 18:13, they actually go first to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas. The elders and chief priests accuse Jesus of saying “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” – a seemingly blasphemous statement which, according to Mark 14:57-58 and Matthew 26:59-61, is nothing but a phony charge fabricated by false witnesses, but which John 2:19-21 claims that Jesus actually did say. Then they send him to Pontius Pilate for more questioning – and according to Matthew 27:12-14 and Mark 15:3-5, Jesus remains completely silent throughout the entire interrogation; but according to John 18:33-37, he and Pilate have an entire conversation together. (Jesus’s silence in Matthew and Mark may have been an attempt by the authors to bring his story into line with Isaiah 53:7: “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth.”)
While all this is happening, bystanders keep approaching Peter and asking him if he knows Jesus – but three times in a row, Peter denies knowing him. Jesus had predicted earlier that this would happen; in Matthew 26:34, Luke 22:34, and John 13:38, he tells Peter, “The cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me.” And according to Matthew 26:70-74, Luke 22:57-60, and John 18:17-27, that’s what does happen; Peter denies Jesus three times, and then the cock crows. But according to Mark 14:30, Jesus actually predicts that Peter will deny him three times before the cock crows twice – and in Mark 14:67-72, the cock does in fact crow once after Peter’s first denial and then a second time after his third denial.
The Gospels also differ on who exactly is questioning Peter when he makes these three denials. Matthew 26:69-73 says a servant girl is the first to ask him, then another servant girl, then a group of people. Mark 14:66-71 says it’s a servant girl, then the same girl again, and then a group of people. Luke 22:54-60 says it’s a servant girl, then a man, then another man. And John 18:15-27 says it’s a servant girl, then a group of people, then a male servant.
Meanwhile, the other disloyal disciple, Judas, is overcome with remorse for what he’s done. According to Matthew 27:3-8, he goes to the chief priests and returns the thirty pieces of silver they’d given him to betray Jesus; then he leaves and hangs himself. The priests later use the silver to buy “the potter’s field, to bury strangers in,” and that field earns the nickname “the field of blood.” According to Acts 1:16-19, though, it’s actually Judas himself who buys the field – and he goes there to die, not by hanging, but by falling over and spilling out his guts.
Likewise, when the time finally comes for Jesus himself to die, the Gospels once again contradict each other on the details. According to Mark 14:12, Mark 15:25, Matthew 26:17-20, and Luke 22:7-14, his crucifixion happens the day after the Passover meal, during the third hour of the day (i.e. nine in the morning). But according to John 18:28, 19:14-16, and 19:31, it happens the day before the Passover meal, and it happens after the sixth hour of the day (i.e. after noon). Jesus is dragged before the people, mocked, and forced to wear a beautiful robe; according to Matthew 27:28, it’s a scarlet robe, but according to Mark 15:17 and John 19:2, it’s a purple one – and according to Luke 23:11, it’s Herod’s soldiers who make Jesus wear it, while according to Matthew 27:27-28, Mark 15:15-17, and John 19:1-2, it’s Pilate’s soldiers.
They then march Jesus off to be crucified – and according to John 19:17, Jesus carries his cross all the way to the execution site; but according to Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, and Luke 23:26, the soldiers compel a bystander named Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross for him. Once they arrive and crucify Jesus, they crucify him alongside two thieves – and according to Matthew 27:44 and Mark 15:32, both of the thieves insult and ridicule him. But according to Luke 23:39-43, only one of the thieves mocks him; the other one sides with Jesus, and Jesus tells him, “Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (This is despite John 20:17 saying that Jesus wouldn’t actually ascend to Heaven until after his resurrection three days later.)
Jesus’s last words on the cross, according to Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34, are “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” But according to Luke 23:46, his last words are “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” – and according to John 19:30, he simply says “It is finished.” (You might be noticing a trend here; the earlier Gospels tend to portray a more anxious and uncertain version of Jesus – pleading to be spared beforehand, remaining silent during his interrogation, crying out in desperation on the cross, etc. – while the later Gospels portray him in a much more self-assured light – always confident that everything that happens to him is part of the divine plan. Ehrman has a good summary of the different portrayals in the clip below, from 12:35-17:38 (and the rest of his speech is also worth watching if you get a chance).)
The contradictions keep going after Jesus’s crucifixion. Just before Jesus’s death, according to Luke 23:45-46, the temple curtain spontaneously tears in two; but according to Matthew 27:50-51 and Mark 15:37-38, it actually happens after his death. (Matthew 27:51-53 also mentions a great earthquake and dead people rising from their graves to walk the streets, but none of the other Gospels include those details.) Once Jesus is buried and comes back to life again, the contradictions ramp up to another level still. As Barker writes:
The resurrection of Jesus is one of the few stories that is told repeatedly in the bible – more than five times – so it provides an excellent test for the orthodox claim of scriptural inerrancy and reliability. When we compare the accounts, we see they don’t agree. An easy way to prove this is to issue this challenge to Christians: Tell me what happened on Easter. I am not asking for proof at this stage. Before we can investigate the truth of what happened, we have to know what is being claimed to have happened. My straightforward request is merely that Christians tell me exactly what happened on the day that their most important doctrine was born. Believers should eagerly take up this challenge, since without the resurrection there is no Christianity. Paul wrote, “If Christ be not risen… we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.” (I Corinthians 15:14-15)
The conditions of the challenge are simple and reasonable. In each of the four Gospels, begin at Easter morning and read to the end of the book: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21. Also read Acts 1:3-12 and Paul’s tiny version of the story in I Corinthians 15:3-8. These 165 verses can be read in a few moments. Then, without omitting a single detail from these separate accounts, write a simple, chronological narrative of the events between the resurrection and the ascension: what happened first, second and so on; who said what and when; and where these things happened.
The narrative does not have to pretend to present a perfect picture – it only needs to give at least one plausible account of all of the facts. The important condition to the challenge, however, is that not one single biblical detail be omitted. Of course, the words have to be accurately translated and the ordering of events has to follow the biblical ordering. Fair enough?
Many bible stories are given only once or twice, and are therefore hard to confirm. The author of Matthew, for example, was the only one to mention that at the crucifixion dead people emerged from the graves of Jerusalem to walk around show themselves to everyone – an amazing event that could hardly escape the notice of the other Gospel writers, or any other historians of the period. But though the silence of others might weaken the likelihood of a story – because if they did repeat it, believers would certainly tout the existence of such confirmation – it does not disprove it. Disconfirmation comes with contradictions.
Thomas Paine tackled this matter 200 years ago in The Age of Reason, stumbling across dozens of New Testament discrepancies: “I lay it down as a position which cannot be controverted,” he wrote, “first, that the agreement of all the parts of a story does not prove that story to be true, because the parts may agree and the whole may be false; secondly, that the disagreement of the parts of a story proves the whole cannot be true.”
I tried to solve the discrepancies myself, and failed. One of the first problems I found is in Matthew 28:2, after two women arrived at the tomb: “And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.” (Let’s ignore the fact that no other writer mentioned this “great earthquake.”) This story says that the stone was rolled away after the women arrived, in their presence. Yet Mark’s Gospel says it happened before the women arrived: “And they said among themselves, Who shall roll away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.” Luke writes: “And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre.” John agrees. No earthquake, no rolling stone. It is a three-to-one vote: Matthew loses. (Or else the other three are wrong.) The event cannot have happened both before and after they arrived. Some bible defenders assert that Matthew 28:2 was intended to be understood in the past perfect, showing what had happened before the women arrived. But the entire passage is in the aorist (past) tense, and it reads, in context, like a simple chronological account. Matthew 28:2 begins, “And, behold,” not “For, behold.” If this verse can be so easily shuffled around, then what is to keep us from putting the flood before the ark, or the crucifixion before the nativity?
Another glaring problem is the fact that in Matthew the first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples happened on a mountain in Galilee (not in Jerusalem, as most Christians believe), as predicted by the angel sitting on the newly moved rock: “And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him.” This must have been of supreme importance, since this was the message of God via the angel(s) at the tomb. Jesus had even predicted this himself 60 hours earlier, during the Last Supper (Matthew 26:32). After receiving this angelic message, “Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:16-17) Reading this at face value, and in context, it is clear that Matthew intends this to have been the first appearance. Otherwise, if Jesus had been seen before this time, why did some doubt? Mark agrees with Matthew’s account of the angel’s Galilee message, but gives a different story about the first appearance. Luke and John give different angel messages and then radically contradict Matthew. Luke shows the first appearance on the road to Emmaus and then in a room in Jerusalem. John says it happened later that evening in a room, minus Thomas. These angel messages, locations and travels during the day are impossible to reconcile.
Believers sometimes use the analogy of the five blind men examining an elephant, all coming away with a different definition: tree trunk (leg), rope (tail), hose (trunk), wall (side), and fabric (ear). People who use this argument forget that each of the blind men was wrong: an elephant is not a rope or a tree. You can put the five parts together to arrive at a noncontradictory aggregate of the entire animal. This hasn’t been done with the resurrection.
Apologists sometimes compare the resurrection variations to differing accounts given by witnesses of an auto accident. If one witness says the vehicle was green and the other says it was blue, that could be accounted for by different angles, lighting, perception, or definitions of words. The important thing, they claim, is that they do agree on the basic story – there was an accident (there was a resurrection). I am not a fundamentalist inerrantist. I’m not demanding that the evangelists must have been expert, infallible witnesses. (None of them claims to have witnessed the actual resurrection.) But what if one person said the auto accident happened in Chicago and the other said it happened in Milwaukee? At least one of these witnesses has serious problems with the truth.
Luke says the post-resurrection appearance happened in Jerusalem, but Matthew says it happened in Galilee, sixty to 100 miles away! Could they all have traveled 150 miles that day, by foot, trudging up to Galilee for the first appearance, then back to Jerusalem for the evening meal? There is no mention of any horses, but 12 well-conditioned thoroughbreds racing at breakneck speed as the crow flies would need about five hours for the trip, without a rest. And during this madcap scenario, could Jesus have found time for a leisurely stroll to Emmaus, accepting “toward evening” an invitation to dinner? Something is very wrong here.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Of course, none of these contradictions prove that the resurrection did not happen, but they do throw considerable doubt on the reliability of the supposed reporters. Some of them were wrong. Maybe they were all wrong.
I say to Christians: Either tell me exactly what happened on Easter Sunday or let’s leave the Jesus myth buried next to Eastre [Ēostre], the pagan Goddess of Spring after whom your holiday was named.
(KJV=King James Version; NRSV=New Revised Standard Version; NIV=New International Version)
What time did the women visit the tomb?
- Matthew: “as it began to dawn” (28:1)
- Mark: “very early in the morning . . . at the rising of the sun” (16:2, KJV); “when the sun had risen” (NRSV); “just after sunrise” (NIV)
- Luke: “very early in the morning” (24:1, KJV) “at early dawn” (NRSV)
- John: “when it was yet dark” (20:1)
Who were the women?
- Matthew: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (28:1)
- Mark: Mary Magdalene, the mother of James, and Salome (16:1)
- Luke: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women (24:10)
- John: Mary Magdalene (20:1)
What was their purpose?
- Matthew: to see the tomb (28:1)
- Mark: had already seen the tomb (15:47), brought spices (16:1)
- Luke: had already seen the tomb (23:55), brought spices (24:1)
- John: the body had already been spiced before they arrived (19:39, 40)
Was the tomb open when they arrived?
Who was at the tomb when they arrived?
- Matthew: One angel (28:2-7)
- Mark: One young man (16:5)
- Luke: Two men (24:4)
- John: Two angels (20:12)
Where were these messengers situated?
- Matthew: Angel sitting on the stone (28:2)
- Mark: Young man sitting inside, on the right (16:5)
- Luke: Two men standing inside (24:4)
- John: Two angels sitting on each end of the bed (20:12)
What did the messenger(s) say?
- Matthew: “Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead: and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you.” (28:5-7)
- Mark: “Be not afrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him. But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.” (16:6-7)
- Luke: “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.” (24:5-7)
- John: “Woman, why weepest thou?” (20:13)
Did the women tell what happened?
- Matthew: Yes (28:8)
- Mark: No. “Neither said they any thing to any man.” (16:8)
- Luke: Yes. “And they returned from the tomb and told all these things to the eleven, and to all the rest.” (24:9, 22-24)
- John: Yes (20:18)
When Mary returned from the tomb, did she know Jesus had been resurrected?
When did Mary first see Jesus?
- Matthew: Before she returned to the disciples (28:9)
- Mark: Before she returned to the disciples (16:9,10)
- John: After she returned to the disciples (20:2, 14)
Could Jesus be touched after the resurrection?
After the women, to whom did Jesus first appear?
- Matthew: Eleven disciples (28:16)
- Mark: Two disciples in the country, later to 11 (16:12, 14)
- Luke: Two disciples in Emmaus, later to 11 (24:13, 36)
- John: Ten disciples (Judas and Thomas were absent) (20:19, 24)
- Paul: First to Cephas (Peter), then to the 12. (Twelve? Judas was dead). (I Corinthians 15:5)
Where did Jesus first appear to the disciples?
- Matthew: On a mountain in Galilee (60-100 miles away) (28:16-17)
- Mark: To two in the country, to 11 “as they sat at meat” (16:12, 14)
- Luke: In Emmaus (about seven miles away) at evening, to the rest in a room in Jerusalem later that night. (24:31, 36)
- John: In a room, at evening (20:19)
Did the disciples believe the two men?
What happened at the appearance?
- Matthew: Disciples worshipped, some doubted, “Go preach.” (28:17-20)
- Mark: Jesus reprimanded them, said “Go preach” (16:14-19)
- Luke: Christ incognito, vanishing act, materialized out of thin air, reprimand, supper (24:13-51)
- John: Passed through solid door, disciples happy, Jesus blesses them, no reprimand (21:19-23)
Did Jesus stay on earth for a while?
- Mark: No (16:19) Compare 16:14 with John 20:19 to show that this was all done on Sunday
- Luke: No (24:50-52) It all happened on Sunday
- John: Yes, at least eight days (20:26, 21:1-22)
- Acts: Yes, at least forty days (1:3)
Where did the ascension take place?
- Matthew: No ascension. Book ends on mountain in Galilee
- Mark: In or near Jerusalem, after supper (16:19)
- Luke: In Bethany, very close to Jerusalem, after supper (24:50-51)
- John: No ascension
- Paul: No ascension
- Acts: Ascended from Mount of Olives (1:9-12)
It is not just atheist critics who notice these problems. Christian scholars agree that the stories are discrepant. Culver H. Nelson: “In any such reading, it should become glaringly obvious that these materials often contradict one another egregiously. No matter how eagerly one may wish to do so, there is simply no way the various accounts of Jesus’ postmortem activities can be harmonized.”
A. E. Harvey: “All the Gospels, after having run closely together in their accounts of the trial and execution, diverge markedly when they come to the circumstance of the Resurrection. It’s impossible to fit their accounts together into a single coherent scheme.”
Thomas Sheehan agrees: “Despite our best efforts, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ post-mortem activities, in fact, cannot be harmonized into a consistent Easter chronology.”
The religiously independent (though primarily Christian) scholars in the Westar Institute, which includes more than 70 bible scholars with Ph.D or equivalent, conclude: “The five gospels that report appearances (Matthew, Luke, John, Peter, Gospel of the Hebrews) go their separate ways when they are not rewriting Mark; their reports cannot be reconciled to each other. Hard historical evidence is sparse.”
I have challenged believers to provide a simple non-contradictory chronological narrative of the events between Easter Sunday and the ascension, without omitting a single biblical detail. Some have tried but, without misinterpreting words or drastically rearranging passages, no one has given a coherent account. Some have offered “harmonies” (apparently not wondering why the work of a perfect deity should have to be harmonized), but none have met the reasonable request to simply tell the story.
It’s actually even worse than that, because there are even more resurrection contradictions than the ones Barker lists. For instance, Matthew (20:18-19, 26:31-32), Mark (8:31, 10:33-34, 14:28), and Luke (18:31-33) all describe Jesus telling his followers that he would rise from the dead after three days – but according to John 20:9, they have no idea what’s coming; his resurrection catches them completely by surprise. When Mary Magdalene first encounters the risen Jesus, according to Matthew 28:9, she and her companions meet him after they’ve left the tomb and are going back to see the disciples; he greets them with two words – “All hail” – and they instantly fall down and start worshiping him, holding onto his feet in adoration. But according to John 20:14-17, Mary is still weeping at the tomb alone (she doesn’t have any companions in John) when Jesus appears to her and he asks her why she’s weeping; but she doesn’t recognize him at all. She assumes he must be the gardener, and she asks if he knows what’s happened to Jesus’s body. It’s only when Jesus calls her by name that she realizes it’s him – but even then, she doesn’t start worshiping at his feet; Jesus tells her that she can’t touch him at all (“for I am not yet ascended to my Father”). He simply tells her to go back to the disciples and tell them of his resurrection. Luke 24:23 tells a different story still; in Luke’s account, Jesus doesn’t appear to Mary or any of the other women at all – they just have a vision of angels telling them that he’s been resurrected, and they pass that message along to the disciples.
Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 9:1 and 15:8, Paul claims to have seen the risen Jesus firsthand. But when Acts 9:3-9 describes Paul’s encounter with Jesus, it says that he never actually sees him visually – just that he’s blinded by a bright light and hears Jesus’s voice. Acts 9:7 also says that Paul’s companions don’t see anyone either – they just hear a voice – and it adds that they remain standing when they hear it. But a few chapters later, in Acts 26:14 (recounting the same story), it claims that they fall to the ground alongside Paul when they hear the voice.
Finally, in what might be the most audacious assertion of all, 1 Corinthians 15:6 claims that the resurrected Jesus appears to more than 500 believers before finally ascending into Heaven. But according to Mark 16:9-19, Luke 24, and Acts 10:40-43, Jesus only appears to a dozen or so people before he ascends into Heaven – his 11 disciples, plus two or three other believers, depending on which book you read.
To make a long story short, then, there are a lot of problems here, to say the least. ProfMTH does a good job summing up these last few contradictions in his pair of clips below (second one starts at 6:15):
Now, granted, some of the things we’ve been discussing here might seem like relatively minor details. (Is it really that important whether Jesus’s robe was red or purple? Maybe it was a kind of burgundy/maroon color; who cares?) But just because some of these inconsistencies are easier to dismiss than others doesn’t mean that all of them can be dismissed; on the contrary, when you look at the totality of the accumulated contradictions – not just one at a time, but all at once – the sheer volume of the incongruity becomes impossible to ignore. The fact that the New Testament can’t even present a cohesive account of its single most important event – the resurrection – isn’t just embarrassing; it’s downright disqualifying. I mean, imagine how this kind of thing would look in any other context. Imagine a murder trial, for instance (to take a more extreme version of Barker’s car accident analogy), in which one of the witnesses claimed that the murder was committed in broad daylight, in the middle of downtown Baltimore, in front of a crowd of hundreds of people, by someone with blonde hair – while another witness claimed that it was committed at night, in suburban Philadelphia, in a small room with fewer than a dozen people, by someone with black hair. Do you think this testimony would hold up in court? Would you consider it reliable?
More to the point, imagine encountering some religion other than Christianity that made as many contradictory claims about one of its own prophets as the Bible makes about Jesus. Imagine if one chapter of its holy book said its prophet was born in 218 AD, while another chapter said he was born in 231 AD; imagine if one chapter said he had miraculously turned rocks into bread, while another said he had actually turned them into cantaloupes; and so on. Would you consider this religion to be especially credible?
If such a religion were true, it’s hard to imagine how it could have accumulated so many mistakes and contradictions in the first place. If someone really did witness their prophet rising from the dead, for instance, it’s hard to imagine how there could be any confusion about whether the prophet had remained on Earth for only a day before ascending to Heaven or whether he had stuck around for over a month. So how do we explain the abundance of such contradictions in the New Testament?
As it turns out, there’s actually a straightforward explanation here – which is that (as some of the video clips above have already mentioned, and as Luke 1:1-4 admits openly) the Gospels weren’t in fact written by eyewitnesses who lived alongside Jesus during his own time. They weren’t written by the disciples Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (contrary to what most Christians assume); they were written decades after Jesus’s death by unknown authors and circulated anonymously – and the titles “The Gospel According to Matthew,” “The Gospel According to Mark,” etc. were only added later on, during the second century, to give them some extra credibility. (The Gospels themselves never actually claim to have been written by the disciples – nor could they have been, since Jesus’s disciples were illiterate Aramaic-speaking fishermen, and the Gospels were written by well-educated Greek-speaking authors.) The first of them, Mark, was written around 70 AD; the next two, Matthew and Luke, were written around 85-90 AD; and the last one, John, was written 90-110 AD. So when you read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s birth, for instance – just to put the time span in perspective here – they’re as chronologically distant from the events they’re describing as Bill Gates’s birth was from the American Civil War. They’re like someone today describing events that happened during the Herbert Hoover presidency. And when you consider the fact that there weren’t any official historical records of Jesus’s life for the Gospels to refer to – they were solely getting their details from second-hand stories people had passed down over the years – it’s no wonder there are so many holes in them. The fact that there’s any agreement between the Gospels at all seems almost miraculous in itself.
Or at least, it would seem miraculous, if the Gospels were all written completely independently of one another. But the later Gospels borrowed heavily from their predecessors – Matthew and Luke in particular lifted entire sections from Mark verbatim – to such an extent that it actually makes you stop wondering how they managed to agree on so much and start wondering how they managed to disagree as much as they did. Considering that Matthew and Luke copied so much from Mark (as well as from a second shared source referred to as the “Q” document), it’s embarrassing that they still couldn’t manage to harmonize all the details. According to scholars, though, a lot of the explanation for this inconsistency seems to have just been simple carelessness or laziness on the authors’ part:
[Mark] Goodacre lists a number of occasions where it appears that Matthew or Luke begin by altering Mark, but become fatigued and lapse into copying Mark directly, even when doing so is inconsistent with the changes they have already made.
For example, Matthew is more precise than Mark in the titles he gives to rulers, and initially gives Herod Antipas the correct title of “tetrarch” [Mt 14:1], yet he lapses into calling him “king” [Mt 14:9] at a later verse, apparently because he was copying Mark [Mk 6:26] at that point.
Another example is Luke’s version of the Parable of the Sower, regarding the seed sown on rocky ground [Mk 4:5-6, 16-17; Lk 8:6, 13], where Luke omits several elements of the parable, but then follows Mark in the parable’s interpretation. Luke says merely that the seed withered for lack of moisture and does not mention the seed springing up quickly, nor the lack of roots, nor being scorched by the sun; yet these omissions remain in the interpretation as, respectively, receiving the word with joy, having no firm root, and the time of temptation.
This phenomenon, along with the lack of counterexamples of fatigue occurring in the opposite direction, supports Marcan priority.
The Gospels aren’t the only New Testament books whose authors aren’t who they’re claimed to be, either. Epistles like 1 and 2 Peter are most likely deliberate forgeries – i.e. they claim to have been written by Peter, but were actually just written by some early Christian pretending to be Peter in order to seem more credible – and the same is true for several of the Pauline epistles (Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, etc.). It should also be pointed out that the falsity of their authorship isn’t a controversial point among scholars; the consensus is so universal that, as Ehrman points out below, most ministers are taught about these books’ false authorship in seminary (if you’re looking for a good summary of the whole New Testament authorship issue, the whole clip provides a nice quick overview):
All this is just to drive home the point that, again, these New Testament books were not written by people who actually saw Jesus’s life firsthand; they were written by later Christians who would have had no direct knowledge of the events they were describing, and so would have had to fill in the details using their own imaginations. To quote the Wikipedia page on biblical inconsistency:
W. D. Davies and E. P. Sanders claim that: “on many points, especially about Jesus’ early life, the evangelists were ignorant … they simply did not know, and, guided by rumour, hope or supposition, did the best they could”. More critical scholars see the nativity stories either as completely fictional accounts, or at least constructed from traditions that predate the Gospels.
The Gospels’ reliability is compromised even further by the fact that subsequent generations of Christians kept editing and adding in more details of their own over the centuries. I’ve already mentioned a few of these – verses like John 5:4 and Acts 8:37 that were added and later removed from some (but not all) versions of the Bible. And I’ve also mentioned how even certain major defining events in Jesus’s story were actually later interpolations – like the story in John 8 where Jesus spares the adulteress with the admonition “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” or the line in Luke 23 where he’s dying on the cross and says “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Another example is Luke 22:43-44, which portrays Jesus experiencing so much agony before his arrest that he sweats blood. (It’s thought that this passage was added in order to counter the docetic belief, held by many at the time, that Jesus was not fully human and didn’t experience the full range of human sufferings.) But these verses are just the tip of the iceberg; the list of textual variants in the New Testament is staggeringly long – and although most of them are relatively minor details, there are also some that have become absolutely fundamental to Christian doctrine despite never actually existing in the original text.
Take 1 John 5:7, for instance. This verse is extremely important to Christian theology because it’s the verse that makes the concept of the Holy Trinity explicit: “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” No other verse in the Bible affirms the doctrine of the Trinity like this one does. But it wasn’t actually added to the Bible until the Middle Ages; in the original text of 1 John, it didn’t exist.
Similarly, the last section of Mark – Mark 16:9-20 – is crucial to Christian doctrine because it’s the section that actually describes Jesus coming back to life, appearing to his followers, and ascending into Heaven. Needless to say, if the original version of Mark were missing this section, it would have huge implications – especially considering that Mark was the first Gospel to have been written, and the others were largely copied from it. But as ProfMTH’s video above mentions, Mark 16:9-20 wasn’t actually in the original version of Mark – it was yet another addition by later generations of Christians. In the original text of Mark, Mary Magdalene and her companions go to Jesus’s tomb, encounter a man there who tells them that Jesus has risen, and then leave – and that’s the end of the story. They never tell anyone what they saw at the tomb, “for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8), and Jesus never appears in risen form. Obviously, this raises the question of how anyone else could have ever found out about Jesus’s resurrection if the women never told anyone about it and he never appeared to anyone – so to resolve this plot hole, later editors of the Bible simply filled in those blanks with their own ideas. But again, this tacked-on ending is something that biblical scholars (Christian and non-Christian alike) universally agree did not exist in the original text of Mark – as you can confirm for yourself if you look at the oldest physical copies of it.
To say that the biblical accounts of Jesus’s life are unreliable, then, is an understatement. None of them are eyewitness accounts, and all of them have been tainted by later revisions. The closest any biblical author ever came to actually encountering Jesus was Paul, whose earliest epistles date to around 50-60 AD. But even Paul never claims to have had any firsthand knowledge of Jesus’s life on Earth; he simply says that he was visited by Jesus’s spirit after Jesus’s death – which millions of Christians since Paul’s time have also claimed. That doesn’t exactly tell us much about what the real flesh-and-blood Jesus actually did during his life; all we have to answer that question are a bunch of flawed and contradictory second-hand accounts written decades later by people who never witnessed any of the events they describe. (And it’s worth reiterating that we don’t even have the original versions of the Gospels, either – all we have are copies. I’ve already mentioned how the Gospel of Mark, for instance, is thought to have been written around 70 AD – but the oldest surviving copy of Mark is actually from 220 AD, and the oldest complete copy is from 350 AD. What’s more, despite all the mistakes that have accumulated over the years within these various copies, there are even more mistakes the further back you go; the earliest Gospel manuscripts are actually the ones that contain the most mistakes. As Ehrman points out, it’s likely that the earliest copies of the Gospels were the most embarrassingly mistake-ridden of all, even more so than the “cleaned-up” versions we have now.)
So given these conditions, it’s not hard at all to imagine how such stories might have transformed Jesus’s biography into a larger-than-life legend that made him seem more divine than he actually was. After all, we can easily find even relatively modern historical events like (say) the John F. Kennedy assassination, which were extremely well-documented, had hundreds of eyewitnesses, produced entire libraries’ worth of reports immediately afterwards, and yet have still become the source of countless rumors and conspiracy theories. Just imagine, then, how much harder it would be to know what really happened at JFK’s assassination if the earliest documentation of it was from 40 years later (2003), and was based on nothing but the second-hand oral accounts of a small group of JFK obsessives who had a vested interest in pushing their one particular version of the story. Even more to the point, imagine all this happening in a superstitious and highly-illiterate region of Bronze Age Palestine thousands of years ago – with no mechanisms for fact-checking or empirical corroboration – and you can see why it might be hard to take the Gospels seriously in terms of historical accuracy.
Venaloid provides an even better analogy here:
As a thought experiment, imagine your friend comes up to you and says that she and three other friends of yours saw aliens flying around, and then the aliens landed their spaceship and walked around. Would you believe her? Maybe. Now imagine that your friend didn’t actually witness the event herself, and neither did your other friends; instead they read eyewitness accounts of these events in two different books – one from the 1840s and one from the 1880s. Well, not eyewitness accounts – in fact, your friends don’t really know who wrote the books, nor do the authors ever claim to be eyewitnesses. Now imagine that the aliens are said to have landed in the year 1800, which means the first book was written a full 40 years after the event, and the second book was written at least 80 years after the event. Now imagine that the part of the story where the aliens landed and walked around was added in the 1850s and was not part of the original story. Now imagine that your friends didn’t actually read the original books; instead they read copies of copies of copies of the original books, and it was well known that these copies underwent many changes throughout the years, most notably the landing of the spaceship being added later. If all this were presented to you, would you believe that aliens really did land their spaceship and walk around in the year 1800? I don’t think so. It is for these reasons that the Gospels are not good evidence of the divinity of Jesus or of the resurrection.
And Richard Carrier makes a similar point, drawing parallels between the biblical accounts of Jesus’s resurrection and the conspiracy theories surrounding the 1947 “UFO crash” in Roswell, New Mexico:
I’m going to [give] an analogy: Roswell. I’m sure you all know about Roswell.
What really happened: yeah, we all know, a guy found some sticks and tinfoil in the desert. That’s what really happened, let’s be honest.
What was said to have happened: that it was debris from an alien spacecraft. And this was said immediately […] it didn’t take 20 years or 40 years, there was no legendary development; it was immediate [that] this was the claim of what was found.
What was said to have happened within just 30 years of this event – just within 30 years (and this is in our era of mass media, universal literacy, universal education, newspapers, CFI, all of this stuff couldn’t prevent this from happening): an entire flying saucer was recovered, complete with alien bodies that were autopsied by the government.
So if this could happen in 20th century America, it would have been vastly easier for something similar to happen in 1st century Judea or Rome.
Imagine if we only had the stories now written by Roswell believers from 30 years later, and information derived from those texts, and nothing else; imagine if that were the case. We would not know about the tinfoil, right? All we would have are multiple witnesses and sources reporting a flying saucer recovery an alien body autopsy […] neither of which ever existed. […] So what I’m proposing is that that’s exactly what happened to Jesus for the origins of Christianity.
Given how unreliable the biblical accounts of Jesus’s resurrection are, then, how are we supposed to explain the parts of the story which might be likened to the tinfoil in Carrier’s analogy, like Jesus’s empty tomb? Well, of course the simplest explanation is that his tomb wasn’t actually empty – that once he was buried, he stayed buried, and that was the end of it – and that the legend of the empty tomb was developed later on. But even if we imagine for the sake of argument that his tomb really was empty, explaining how it got that way is no more difficult than explaining how any other person’s tomb back then might have gotten that way. It’s not exactly a wildly implausible notion to think that (say) someone might have simply come along and removed his body – especially considering how the Bible describes Mary Magdalene and her companions coming to the tomb for the express purpose of rolling the stone away and meddling with Jesus’s body themselves (by applying spices and so forth). Ehrman lays out a scenario in which some of Jesus’s followers could have removed his body and simply never had the chance to tell anyone else about it:
Why was the tomb supposedly empty? I say supposedly because, frankly, I don’t know that it was. Our very first reference to Jesus’s tomb being empty is in the Gospel of Mark, written forty years later by someone living in a different country who had heard it was empty. How would he know? [But] suppose […] that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea [as the Bible says he was] and then a couple of Jesus’s followers, not among the twelve, decided that night to move the body somewhere more appropriate. […] But a couple of Roman legionnaires are passing by, and catch these followers carrying the shrouded corpse through the streets. They suspect foul play and confront the followers, who pull their swords as the disciples did in Gethsemane. The soldiers, expert in swordplay, kill them on the spot. They now have three bodies, and no idea where the first one came from. Not knowing what to do with them, they commandeer a cart and take the corpses out to Gehenna, outside town, and dump them. Within three or four days the bodies have deteriorated beyond recognition. Jesus’s original tomb is empty, and no one seems to know why.
Is this scenario likely? Not at all. Am I proposing this is what really happened? Absolutely not. Is it more probable that something like this happened than that a miracle happened and Jesus left the tomb to ascend to heaven? Absolutely! From a purely historical point of view, a highly unlikely event is far more probable than a virtually impossible one.
Again though, as Ehrman mentions, the much more likely explanation here is that there was never actually an empty tomb in the first place. After all, if Jesus’s empty tomb actually had existed and his followers had known where it was, if would seem extremely odd that the site – the place where Jesus rose from the dead and accomplished his greatest miracle of all time – wasn’t venerated by early Christians and didn’t immediately become a holy site. The fact that this didn’t happen suggests either that Jesus was never buried in a tomb (as Ehrman briefly discusses here), that he was buried but his followers never found out where, or that they knew where he was buried but didn’t want to draw attention to the site because it wasn’t really empty. Either way, the evidence suggests that the tales of Jesus’s resurrection were based more on the desperate desire of his followers to believe that he wasn’t really dead than on any kind of physical indication that it actually happened.
After all, despite Jesus’s crucifixion seeming like a perfectly natural part of his story to us today, to his followers at the time it would have come as a devastating shock. The way the Jewish messiah was conceived of back then was that he would bring earthly deliverance, not just spiritual guidance; Jews believed that when the messiah came, he would actually be overthrowing the Roman oppressors and establishing a physical kingdom of God here on Earth, not just promising spiritual rewards in the afterlife. That’s the reason why the Roman authorities executed Jesus in the first place; by claiming to be the King of the Jews, he represented a direct political threat to their power. As Britannica explains:
The traditional Jewish view of the fulfillment of the history of salvation was guided by the idea that at the end of history the messiah will come from the house of David and establish the Kingdom of God – an earthly kingdom in which the Anointed of the Lord will gather the tribes of the chosen people and from Jerusalem will establish a world kingdom of peace. Accordingly, the expectation of the Kingdom had an explicitly inner-worldly character. The expectation of an earthly messiah as the founder of a Jewish kingdom became the strongest impulse for political revolutions, primarily against Hellenistic and Roman dominion. The period preceding the appearance of Jesus was filled with uprisings in which new messianic personalities appeared and claimed for themselves and their struggles for liberation the miraculous powers of the Kingdom of God. Especially in Galilee, guerrilla groups were formed in which hope for a better future blazed all the more fiercely because the present was so unpromising.
Jesus was condemned and executed by the Roman authorities as a Jewish rioter who rebelled against Roman sovereignty. The inscription on the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews,” cited the motif of political insurrection of a Jewish messianic king against the Roman government as the official reason for his condemnation and execution.
When Jesus was arrested and crucified before he could complete his mission, then – before he could overthrow the oppressors and bring about the final Kingdom of God on Earth – it would have felt like an absolute catastrophe to his followers. They’d thought he was going to save them all, but instead he’d been unceremoniously killed; how could this be? Reading through the Gospels now, of course, we know what answer they came up with to make sense of their prophet’s apparent failure. They convinced themselves that Jesus’s crucifixion must have actually been part of God’s plan all along – that it must have happened for a reason, that it must have been an intentional sacrifice, because they needed to be saved spiritually before they could be saved physically, but that there was no way Jesus could actually be done for good. No, they told themselves, Jesus wasn’t really dead at all; in fact, he had risen from the grave, more powerful than ever, and would soon be fulfilling his earthly mission once and for all. Maybe he wasn’t actually around for skeptics to see for themselves – conveniently enough, he’d temporarily returned to Heaven where no one could physically see him – but his followers had definitely seen him in risen form, and he’d personally told them that he would be returning any day now to finish what he’d started. That was the good news; Jesus wasn’t really dead, and all was not lost. The people who’d devoted their lives to following him didn’t have to accept that they might have been wrong – they could keep on believing in him more strongly than ever. Maybe they’d only seen his risen form in dreams or “visions” (i.e. imagining him hard enough to convince themselves that they’d really seen him), but that was all they needed to maintain their belief; the fact that they hadn’t technically seen him in the flesh was just an unimportant detail that could easily be glossed over (and ultimately forgotten entirely as the stories of his resurrection were passed along from person to person).
Here’s Barker again:
If the story is not true, then how did it originate? We don’t really know but we can make some good guesses, based on what happened with other legends and religious movements and what we know about human nature.
Assuming that the New Testament is somewhat reliable, Robert Price offers one sensible scenario. Peter’s state of mind is the key. The disciples had expected Jesus to set up a kingdom on earth, and this did not happen. He was killed. They then expected Jesus to return, and this did not happen. Nothing was going right and this created a cognitive dissonance. Peter, who had promised loyalty to Jesus and then denied him publicly a few hours before the crucifixion, must have been feeling horrible. (The day after “Good Friday” is called “Black Sabbath,” the day the disciples were in mourning and shock.)
Imagine you had a horrible argument with a spouse or loved one where you said some unpleasant things you later regretted, but before you had a chance to apologize and make up the person died. Picture your state of mind: grief, regret, shock, embarrassment, sadness, and a desperate wish to bring the person back and make things right. That’s how Peter must have felt.
Believing in God and the survival of the soul, Peter prays to Jesus: “I’m sorry. Forgive me.” (Or something like that.) Then Peter gets an answer: “I’m here. I forgive you.” (Or something like that.) Then Peter triumphantly tells his friends, “I talked with Jesus! He is not dead! I am forgiven!” His friends say, “Peter talked with Jesus? Peter met Jesus? He’s alive! It’s a spiritual kingdom!” (Or something like that.) Paul then lists Peter as the first person to whom Christ “appeared.”
We don’t need to know exactly what happened, only that things like this do happen. Look at the 19th-century Millerites, who evolved into the Seventh Day Adventists when the world did not end as they had predicted. Or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose church rebounded after the failed prophecies of Charles Russell and Joseph Rutherford that the world would end in 1914. Oops, they meant 1925. (They got creative and said Jesus actually returned to earth “spiritually.”) After the 21st-century death of Rulon Jeffs, the Prophet of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints church who was predicted to rise from the dead, his son Warren Jeffs declared that his father had, in fact, been resurrected “spiritually” and was now directing the church from another dimension. Warren then took his father’s many young wives, the ones that did not run off. (See Stolen Innocence by Elissa Wall.)
Robert Price elaborates: “When a group has staked everything on a religious belief, and ‘burned their bridges behind them,’ only to find this belief disconfirmed by events, they may find disillusionment too painful to endure. They soon come up with some explanatory rationalization, the plausibility of which will be reinforced by the mutual encouragement of fellow believers in the group. In order to increase further the plausibility of their threatened belief, they may engage in a massive new effort at proselytizing. The more people who can be convinced, the truer it will seem. In the final analysis, then, a radical disconfirmation of belief may be just what a religious movement needs to get off the ground.”
There have been other plausible scenarios explaining the origin of the legend, but we don’t need to describe them all. The fact that they exist shows that the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus cannot be taken as a given.
All of this ties into how the New Testament authors and other early Christians thought about the prospect of Jesus’s impending second coming. In their desperation to believe that Jesus hadn’t really left them, the New Testament writers not only developed a narrative that he’d risen from the dead, but emphasized the key point that his final return to Earth was imminent. That is, they not only believed that Jesus was going to come back soon – they believed he was going to come back within their lifetimes. In a sense, they had to believe this – not only because they needed to convince themselves and others that their liberation was still coming, but also because Jewish theology specified that the messiah could only have been born in the first place if the end of history was at hand. So if Jesus really was the messiah, then that must have meant they were living in the end times. And when you read through the New Testament, you can see this idea emphasized again and again. In passages like Matthew 23:26, Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30, and Luke 21:32, the Gospels describe Jesus promising his disciples in no uncertain terms that his second coming would happen within their generation: “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” In Matthew 16:28, Mark 9:1, and Luke 9:27, he tells them that several of them will still be alive to witness it: “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” He also repeats this in other contexts, like when he’s addressing Caiaphas (the high priest until 36 AD); he tells him, “I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:62). And likewise, when Jesus is telling his disciples to spread his word throughout Israel, he tells them that he’ll be back before they can even finish visiting each city: “Verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come” (Matthew 10:23).
The other New Testament authors repeatedly emphasize this message too. Verses like Philippians 4:5, James 5:8-9, and 1 Peter 4:7 exhort believers to be on their best behavior, for “the coming of the Lord draweth nigh” and “the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer.” The book of Hebrews opens with the declaration that “these [are the] last days” (Hebrews 1:1-2) and reiterates it in Hebrews 9:26: “Now once in the end of the world hath [Jesus] appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” 1 Peter 1:20 and 1 John 2:18 say the same thing: “The end of all things is at hand […] we know that it is the last hour.” And 1 Corinthians 7:27-31 even says that if any believers are thinking about getting married, they shouldn’t bother; if any of them already have wives, they should “be as though they had none;” and if they’re thinking about buying something, they should assume it won’t be theirs to keep – because time is so short that everything’s about to pass away anyway. The most apocalyptic book of all – Revelation – opens with the assertion that the events it describes “must shortly come to pass […] for the time is at hand” (Revelation 1:1-3); it constantly has Jesus repeating the phrase “Behold, I am coming soon” (Revelation 3:11, 22:7, 22:12, 22:20); and it even declares that the second coming will be happening so soon that the very men who crucified Jesus will be alive to witness his return (Revelation 1:7). As Loftus writes:
All of this fits nicely with Jesus’ and the early church’s radical “interim ethic” where his disciples are to sell all and give to the poor (Luke 12:33), and where Jesus said, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matt. 8:22). According to Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus “urged his followers to abandon their homes and forsake families for the sake of the kingdom that was soon to arrive. He didn’t encourage people to pursue fulfilling careers, make a good living, and work for a just society for the long haul; for him, there wasn’t going to be a long haul.” This makes perfect sense if Jesus and his followers believed and preached an imminent eschaton [i.e. an imminent coming of God’s kingdom on Earth], given that he accepted John the Baptist’s eschatological message of repentance: the kingdom is at hand because “the axe is already laid at the root” (Luke 3:9). Jesus also underwent John’s baptism of repentance – the one that many others underwent in preparation for the eschaton.
This interpretation also fits nicely with the fact that the eschatological “kingdom of God” talk and the imminent prediction was successively watered down (from Mark to Matthew to Luke), to the point where such talk of an imminent eschaton is completely removed in John’s gospel, and the language about “the kingdom of God” is replaced with noneschatological “eternal life” language. In the second-century forged epistle of 2 Peter, which almost didn’t make it into the canon of scriptures, scoffers were already questioning why Jesus didn’t return. These things were an embarrassment to the church of that day. The answer given was expressed in these words: “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief” (2 Pet. 3:3-10). But this answer falls on deaf ears. It comes across as an excuse for why the eschaton didn’t occur in the very generation Jesus said it would.
And 2 Peter isn’t the only place where we can see the New Testament authors desperately trying to reassure their congregants that Jesus would remain true to his word and return for them despite the fact that all the Church fathers had been dying off and he still hadn’t come back yet. Even as early as 1 Thessalonians (Paul’s first epistle), we can see Paul trying to ease their anxieties and imploring them to remain patient (1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:11), promising them that when Jesus comes back, “we who are still living when the Lord returns” will be reunited with loved ones who’ve died in the interim. He also expresses his hopes that God will preserve their good health and good spirits until Jesus returns for them (1 Thessalonians 5:23), and he repeats this message in 1 Corinthians 1:7-8 and Philippians 1:10 too. Likewise, Hebrews 10:35-37 implores early Christians to remain faithful and not to lose their confidence that Jesus really will return “in a very little while […] and will not delay” (i.e. he won’t wait two millennia to return).
But of course, two millennia later, we know how it turned out. Jesus didn’t return like the Bible said he would; once he was gone, all that was left of him were the legends. Subsequent generations of Christians, naturally, have managed to overlook all the Bible’s promises that Jesus’s second coming would be imminent – rationalizing that (as with so much else in the Bible) they must have just been metaphorical or something. But in truth, these prophecies were all perfectly straightforward; they just turned out to be wrong.