"Contradictions" in the Gospels
From Chapter 4 of David Limbaugh's The True Jesus: Uncovering the Divinity of Christ in the Gospels
First, a word on the alleged inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts. Just as the entire Bible’s unity is shown through its diversity, the same is true of the four Gospels. Each writer offers a different perspective on the life of Jesus Christ. Admittedly, the Gospels sometimes treat the same subject matter differently, as should be expected from different witnesses reporting on the same events. But these variations are not contradictions. In fact, they add weight to the authenticity of the writings, since if the writers aimed to produce fully synchronized narratives they could have colluded to vet any discrepancies. “It’s clear,” write Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, “that the New Testament writers didn’t get together to smooth out their testimonies. This means they certainly were not trying to pass off a lie as the truth. For if they were making up the New Testament story, they would have gotten together to make sure they were consistent in every detail. Such harmonization clearly didn’t happen, and this confirms the genuine eyewitness nature of the New Testament and the independence of each writer.”
Some critics try to undermine the Gospels’ authenticity by citing “apparently contradictory” accounts, but Geisler and Turek refute these attempts. Matthew, for example, mentions one angel at Jesus’ tomb while John mentions two. This is not a contradiction, however; Matthew doesn’t explicitly say there is only one angel there. Sometimes two reporters relating the same event emphasize different details, and this is no different. Perhaps Matthew includes only the angel who spoke (Matt. 28:5), while John relates the number of angels Mary saw (John 20:12). Such differences are common among eyewitnesses. The accounts are complementary, as are the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, in which each of the writers provides different details but all agree that Jesus rose from the dead. Homicide detective J. Warner Wallace observes that the Gospels reflect a fairly typical collection of accounts provided by multiple eyewitnesses to an event:
If it was God’s desire to provide us with an accurate and reliable account of the life of Jesus, an account we could trust and recognize as consistent with other forms of eyewitness testimony, God surely accomplished it with the four gospel accounts. Yes, the accounts are messy. They are filled with idiosyncrasies and personal perspectives along with common retellings of familiar stories. There are places where critics can argue that there appear to be contradictions, and there are places where each account focuses on something important to the author, while ignoring details of importance to other writers. But would we expect anything less from true, reliable eyewitness accounts? I certainly would not, based on what I’ve seen over the years.
Another way to approach this question is to consider the works of Plutarch, who wrote around the same time as the Gospel writers, used the same language (Greek), and provided much of the information we have about the classical world. Of Plutarch’s fifty surviving biographies, nine of them involve subjects who lived at the same time, knew one another, and participated in the same events. In his books, Plutarch thus tells the same stories multiple times. Dr. Michael Licona identifies thirty-six stories that appear in Plutarch’s Lives two or more times. Thirty of these contain differences, and the same kind of differences appear repeatedly, forming a pattern suggesting they are deliberate compositional devices—the same type of devices Plutarch’s contemporary historians were using. Licona notes that we find the same stories told in the Gospels multiple times in different ways, and that we might likewise account for these differences as compositional devices rather than contradictions.
The fourfold Gospel accounts troubled some in the Church’s early days. Marcion (75–155 AD) advocated that the Church accept only one Gospel, while Tatian (120–190 AD), in his Diatessaron, written in the latter part of the second century, urged that the four Gospels be combined into one harmonious account to eliminate all discrepancies. The Church rejected those heretical efforts and retained all four. In his Against Heresies, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons (140–202 AD), as noted earlier, writes, “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the ‘pillar and ground’ of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit.”
Bible scholars have long observed that each Gospel emphasizes particular aspects of Jesus, His life, and His work. Matthew presents Jesus primarily as the King, Mark as the Suffering Servant, Luke as a human being, and John as God. When first hearing this years ago, I thought these were artificial classifications developed by well-meaning but overeager believers with creative imaginations. After studying the writings more, I changed my mind.
These four aspects of Christ are foreshadowed in the Old Testament. The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah, among others, describe Christ (the Messiah) as the coming King of Israel. This led to the Jews’ expectation, as described earlier, that the Messiah would be an earthly king who would conquer their oppressors, contributing to their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah when He took on the entirely different mission of dying for our sins. The Old Testament, however, also foretold a suffering servant in Isaiah 53, the Genesis account of Joseph, and elsewhere. Other Old Testament prophecies alternatively portray the Messiah as a man or as God.
Ray Stedman insists that all the Old Testament prophecies and pictures of Jesus can be placed under the four Gospel depictions of Christ: king, servant, human being, and God. In four places in the Old Testament the word “behold” appears in connection with these four pictures. The use of this word is significant because it’s intended to direct the reader’s attention to the connected passage in a striking manner. “Behold” calls attention to the new and unexpected, often to rivet biblical attention upon God’s awesome intervention.
- Zechariah writes, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). Jesus fulfills this prophecy in His triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt. 21:7–11; Mark 11:7–10; Luke 19:35–40; John 12:12–19).
- Isaiah writes, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1).
- Zechariah writes, “And say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Behold, the man whose name is the Branch: for he shall branch out from his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord’’” (Zech. 6:12).
- Isaiah writes, “Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God’” (Isaiah 40:9).
These four depictions are not a fanciful construct of zealous Bible students; they have been recognized almost from the beginning. Before the third century, an identification was made between the Gospel accounts and the four living creatures of Revelation 4:7, which was largely based on the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of a four-faced cherubim. According to Ezekiel, from the midst of a stormy wind out of the north,
came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot. And they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another. Each one of them went straight forward, without turning as they went. As for the likeness of their faces, each had a human face. The four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle (Ezek. 1:5–10).
Similarly, in Revelation John describes four living creatures as “full of eyes, in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight” (4:6–7).
Although writers differed as to which Gospel should be identified with each living creature, the Church fathers and popular artists saw a connection. J. Sidlow Baxter’s interpretation rings true: “In Matthew,” he writes, “we see the Messiah-King (the lion). In Mark we see Jehovah’s Servant (the ox). In Luke we see the Son of Man (the man). In John we see the Son of God (the eagle).” Baxter explains that lions frequently symbolize kings; the ox represents lowly service; the man illustrates Christ’s humanity; and the eagle is the “greatest of all creatures in the natural heavens, solitary, transcendent, mysterious.”
Ray Stedman observes that Matthew includes abundant evidence of Christ’s kingship. The book begins with His genealogy, tracing His royal line through King David back to Abraham. In Matthew, Christ speaks authoritatively in forms such as, “Moses said this to you, but I say this.” He frequently passes judgment on the Pharisees and scribes as hypocrites and repeatedly employs the phrase “the kingdom of heaven,” as we’ll see in later chapters. Moreover, Matthew depicts Christ being born as King of the Jews and crucified as “King of the Jews.” English Bible scholar Arthur Pink thinks it’s no coincidence that Matthew is the only Gospel writer who presents Christ in an official relationship—as the Messiah and King of Israel—while “Matthew himself was the only one of the four who filled an official position [tax collector].”
Depicting Jesus as a servant, Mark provides no genealogy for Christ. This should be expected, as no one traces the lineage of a servant. While Matthew and Luke contain many parables, Mark has only four, each relating to servanthood. In Mark, Jesus isn’t called “Lord” until after His resurrection.
Luke shows in Christ the perfection of manhood—“the glory, beauty, strength, and dignity of His humanity.” He includes a genealogy of Christ, tracing the line back to Adam, the first human being. Christ is often seen in prayer in Luke’s Gospel, as “prayer is a picture of humanity’s proper relationship to God—total dependence upon the sovereign, omnipotent God.” Luke poignantly illustrates Christ’s human sympathy, as when He weeps over the city of Jerusalem.
John, from the first verse, presents Christ as God. Stedman notes that John includes a different kind of genealogy: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Just two beings are mentioned—the Father and the Son. In John’s Gospel, Christ makes seven “I am” declarations, which echo God’s assertion of deity to Moses from the burning bush: “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14).
The four Gospels fittingly emphasize different aspects of Christ, as they are written primarily for different audiences: Matthew writes mostly to the Jews, Mark to those living in and around the city of Rome, Luke to the Gentiles, and John to the Church and potential believers. I should note again that while the Gospel writers were addressing certain audiences primarily, God certainly intended their writings to be universally read.