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New Testament Contradictions

Problem: Matthew and Luke's nativities are totally different 
Verses: Matthew 1:18-2:23, Luke 2; Status: Serious

This is the nativity story according to Matthew 1:18-2:23:

  • An angel appears to Joseph to reassure him, and so he marries Mary.
  • Jesus is born in Bethlehem.
  • Perhaps two years later (or perhaps not), wise men see his star. They come and inform Herod.
  • The wise men - bringing gifts - find Jesus in Bethlehem.
  • Warned in a dream, Joseph and family flee from Bethlehem to Egypt.
  • Herod commences the massacre of the infants.
  • Herod dies. Informed in a dream of Herod's death, Joseph takes the family back.
  • But he is afraid to go to Judea, and so makes his home in Nazareth, Galilee.

This is the nativity story according to Luke 2:

  • A census requires Joseph and Mary to go from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem.
  • Jesus is born in Bethlehem.
  • There is "no room in the inn"; Mary places Jesus in a manger.
  • Nearby shepherds are told of these events by angels.
  • The shepherds visit the family.
  • After about a month or so, Jesus is taken to temple in Jerusalem.
  • There, Simeon and Anna praise Jesus.
  • Soon after, Joseph and Mary return to their home in Nazareth.

The first thing to say is that these are obviously different stories. There is just no overlap between them except for the fact that they feature the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and end up in Nazareth. Even if the two accounts had no explicit contradictions, it's decidedly odd that almost nothing that occurs in Matthew is mentioned in Luke, and vice versa.

But there are contradictions...

Where was the home of Joseph and Mary?

Before anything happened, where was the home of Joseph and Mary? Luke 2:4 and 2:39 are perfectly clear: it was in Nazareth, Galilee. On the other hand, Matthew doesn't explicitly say. But he seems to place it in Bethlehem, Judea. Firstly, he never describes any journey to Bethlehem (presumably because Joseph and Mary were there already). Secondly, when Herod dies and Joseph is taking his family back home, it seems he meant to go to Judea (where Bethlehem was), but was afraid to do so. This is Matthew 2:22-23:

But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: "He shall be called a Nazarene." (ESV)

This is not quite conclusive. Just as a matter of geography, one would generally want to pass through Judea in order to get from Egypt to Nazareth, and so when Matthew tells us they avoided Judea, he might just be discussing the route they took on their journey, rather than their intended destination.

However, I find it very telling that Joseph "withdrew" to Galilee, as if that wasn't his original destination. The Greek word is anechoresen, which does indeed carry this meaning. And these verses definitely give the impression that Nazareth was a new home for Joseph and Mary - not the place where they started. This problem I consider Serious.

How long were they in Bethlehem?

Another problem is this. Matthew's gospel tells us that the family had to flee from Bethlehem and hide in Egypt for a while. In Luke, however, once the month-old Jesus had been presented at the temple, and all legal requirements had been fulfilled (see Leviticus 12), the family simply returned to Nazareth without incident. This is Luke 2:39:

And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. (ESV)

This is hard to reconcile with Matthew, who says they did nothing of the sort, but rather fled to Egypt. Also, Matthew 2:16 seems to imply that the family was in Bethlehem for about two years before they had to make their escape, whereas Luke has them stay in Bethlehem only a short while.

The Tektonics website tries to solve both problems at once, by suggesting that the family went to live in Nazareth (as Luke says), but just happened to be visiting Bethlehem for unrelated reasons when the wise men went there looking for them. Quite a coincidence! But, there's nothing in Matthew to indicate that Joseph and Mary left Bethlehem prior to the wise men finding them (which makes a lot of sense if Matthew thought their original home was there).

Looking Unto Jesus suggests that the family did indeed go to Nazareth after about forty days, and then fled from Nazareth (not Bethlehem) to Egypt some time later. This just about works, except that it's now hard to understand why the family had to flee at all: if Herod was looking for Jesus in Bethlehem, there would be little reason to flee from Nazareth, which is quite far from Bethlehem - about 70 miles or so. However, I suppose there would be a risk that word of Jesus' location would reach Herod, so this solution has some potential.

Still, it seems to me that Matthew intends the reader to understand that Jesus was found by the wise men in Bethlehem, and then the family had to flee from Bethlehem to avoid Herod's wrath. That's the overall impression given in Matthew 2. But this part of the problem is perhaps Minor.

The "house" (is not in itself a problem)

There is one more thing I would like to quickly dismiss. Luke says there was no room at the inn, whereas Matthew 2:11 puts Joseph and Mary in a house. This is often commented on, but I just don't see the problem. Matthew doesn't appear to be talking about the very same date as Luke. Presumably Joseph and Mary were only "sleeping rough" for a short period.

So what's going on?

What was actually going on in the minds of the authors of Luke and Matthew? It seems that everyone knew that Jesus came from Nazareth, a town not mentioned in the Old Testament. However, an important Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2) placed the birth of a great King of the Jews in Bethlehem. It seems that both Luke and Matthew wanted to resolve this little problem, but did so in very different ways.



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Problem: Accounts conflict on the speed a fig tree dies 
Verses: Matthew 21:18-20, Mark 11:19-21; Status: Serious

According to both Matthew and Mark, Jesus once cursed a fig tree. The accounts differ over whether it died immediately. Here's Matthew 21:18-20:

In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, "May no fruit ever come from you again!" And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, "How did the fig tree wither at once?" (ESV)

And here's Mark 11:12-14, and 11:19-21:

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard it. (ESV)
And when evening came they went out of the city. As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered." (ESV)

The natural reading of Matthew is that the fig tree withered there and then, right in front of them. What else does "at once" mean? Yet Mark says the disciples only see that the tree has withered a day later. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Matthew is altering the story to make Jesus seem more powerful.

Failed solutions

The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry suggests (among other explanations) that the fig tree showed immediate signs of withering (which the disciples in Matthew saw), but had only completely withered by the time the disciples saw it again the next day (in Mark). Yet this ignores the context of the verses. In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus uses the withered fig tree to explain that all things are possible through faith. This makes it fairly clear that there was only one occasion on which the disciples noted the withered tree. Matthew and Mark are both talking about that occasion.

Looking Unto Jesus and Tektonics both suggest that the tree died at once but the disciples only noticed it the next day. This doesn't work at all, since the disciples in Matthew say "How did the fig tree wither at once?" indicating they saw it immediately.

The NIV strikes back

The New International Version translates Matthew 21:18-20 as follows:

Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, "May you never bear fruit again!" Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. "How did the fig tree wither so quickly?" they asked. (NIV)

You see how this opens up the possibility that the disciples saw the withered tree later, rather than immediately. However, I have looked up the actual Greek text, and the word which the ESV translates as "at once" is exactly the same in both verses: parachrema. So the NIV's translation is suspect - they translate parachrema as "immediately" the first time, but "quickly" the second time.

The Resurgence Greek Project agrees with the ESV that the correct translation is something like "on the spot, forthwith, straight away" (you can mouse-over Greek words on that website to see the translation).

(To be fair, the dubious translation isn't unique to the NIV, and might simply be an attempt by the translators to avoid the clumsy but accurate translation "How did the fig tree wither at once?" which sounds a bit odd in English.)



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Problem: A centurion or others approach Jesus 
Verses: Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10; Status: Serious

There's an incident in which a centurion's servant is healed through faith alone. But there's a discrepancy between Matthew and Luke. This is Matthew 8:5-6:

When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, "Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly." (ESV)

By contrast, this is Luke 7:2-3:

Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. (ESV)

The standard reply doesn't work

At first glance, Matthew and Luke's versions seem to contradict each other. However, many people have noted that "person X did Y" sometimes means "person X got others to do Y". John 19:1 is a classic example. And so, various inerrantists respond that "a centurion came forward to him" just means that the centurion sent messengers. This solution might have worked, but there's another problem with the passages. The story continues with Matthew 8:13:

And to the centurion Jesus said, "Go; let it be done for you as you have believed." And the servant was healed at that very moment. (ESV)

In Matthew's account, when Jesus tells the centurion to "go", this surely means the centurion was actually present. I am grateful to for this point, which I had missed. I have therefore upgraded this problem to Serious.

Other replies don't work

On a different tack, the Apologetics Press suggests that Mark and Luke are actually talking about entirely separate incidents. But that's rather unlikely: in both cases the centurion or his messengers give the same speech about authority. Compare Matthew 8:9 with Luke 7:8.

On a third tack, 101 Contradictions Refuted says:

It is also possible that he [the centurion] came personally to Jesus after he had sent the elders to Jesus.

No, it is not possible. Luke 7:6-10 does not allow anything of the sort:

And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed.

[...] And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well. (ESV)

It's clear enough that, in Luke's version, the centurion is never present himself.



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Problem: Jesus healed the blind before entering or after leaving Jericho 
Verses: Mark 10:46, Luke 18:35-19:1; Status: Serious

The three synoptics (that is: Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all tell us that, during his final journey to Jerusalem, Jesus healed a blind man (or two) near Jericho. Matthew and Mark both tell us that this occurred after he left Jericho. This is Mark 10:46:

And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. (ESV)

Matthew 20:29-30 is similar. On the other hand, this is Luke 18:35:

As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. (ESV)

For the avoidance of doubt, Luke is clearly talking about the same incident as Mark, because in both cases, the man shouts out "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" and in both cases, the crowd was irritated. (Compare Mark and Luke.) Matthew's account also contains these details, though with two blind men rather than one. So, did this happen as Jesus left Jericho, or as he approached it?

A reply that doesn't work...

Looking Unto Jesus argues that our English translations are wrong, and that the verse in Luke is only saying that Jesus was near Jericho, which could mean he had just left it. However, this response ignores what Jesus does immediately after healing the blind man. This is Luke 19:1:

He entered Jericho and was passing through. (ESV)

So Luke's account puts the healing of the blind man before, not after Jesus "entered Jericho".

The strongest reply

The NIV Study Bible states that there were two different cities called "Jericho", Old Jericho (largely abandoned) and New Jericho, and suggests that Luke was thus talking about a different "Jericho" from Mark and Matthew. I don't find this very convincing. None of these writers makes any effort to distinguish between two different cities; they all seem to assume that there's one place that is unambiguously referred to as "Jericho".

But this is probably the strongest reply open to an inerrantist.

Why the error?

Luke used Mark's gospel as a source, so why does his order not agree? I'm guessing it's just a simple mistake.



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Problem: John the Baptist both is and isn't Elijah 
Verses: Matthew 11:11-14, John 1:21; Status: Serious

The gospels of Matthew and John differ over whether John the Baptist is or is not Elijah. Here's Matthew 11:11-14:

Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijahwho is to come. (ESV)

Matthew 17:11-13 is similar. However, John 1:21 is as follows:

And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No." (ESV)

Now then. This is not a direct contradiction, as it's possible John the Baptist either doesn't know he is Elijah, or is simply lying about it. Since John is a profoundly holy figure, the former is more appealing than the latter. The ESV Study Bible says:

Jesus, understanding more about this than John, saw John as fulfilling the prophecy about Elijah

It would be remiss of me not to mention Luke 1:17:

And he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared. (ESV)

This gives a possible escape: rather than actually being Elijah, John merely "goes in the spirit of Elijah" (whatever that means). However, it's worth noting why the synoptics want John to be Elijah. The Old Testament records that Elijah never died, instead being taken up to heaven directly. It was expected that he would return some day. This is a prophecy in Malachi 4:5:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. (ESV)

It seems clear enough that this prophecy is meant literally: the actual Elijah is supposed to return. If John the Baptist isn't really Elijah, then he doesn't really fulfill the prophecy after all.



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Problem: The Last Supper was or wasn't the Passover meal 
Verses: Mark 14:12-18, John 19:14-15, others; Status: Serious

According to the synoptics, the Last Supper appears to have been the Passover meal. On the other hand, John's gospel seems to tell us that Jesus died before the Passover meal.

Synoptics: the Last Supper was the Passover meal

It's necessary to quote Mark at some length to show that, for him, the Last Supper was the Passover. This is Mark 14:12-18:

And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, "Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?" And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, "Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, 'The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us." And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.

And when it was evening, he came with the twelve. And as they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me." (ESV)

These verses certainly give the impression that the meal being eaten is the Passover meal. The disciples ask where the Passover meal is to be eaten; they go there; they prepare; later Jesus arrives; and they do indeed eat a meal. The meaning seems obvious.

Matthew 26:17-21 is almost identical. Meanwhile, Luke 22:8 is even more explicit that Jesus fully expected to eat the Passover meal:

So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, "Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it." (ESV)

It's mysterious why Jesus would say this if he was fully aware that he was going to die before the Passover meal.

John: the Passover meal was still to come

John says that, as the Last Supper was getting started, Jesus sent Judas Iscariot away. This is John 13:27-30:

Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, "What you are going to do, do quickly." Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, "Buy what we need for the feast," or that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. (ESV)

This seems to imply that the group did not yet have what they needed for the Passover feast, which would mean the feast was yet to come. Further evidence for this is provided by John 18:28, where Jesus' accusers were delivering him to Pilate:

Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor's headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor's headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. (ESV)

Finally, John seems to explicitly say that Jesus was crucified on the day of preparation for the Passover. This is Pilate handing over Jesus, at John 19:14-15:

Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, "Behold your King!" They cried out, "Away with him, away with him, crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but Caesar." (ESV)

First response: reinterpret the synoptics

Inerrantists can either say that, contrary to first appearances, the synoptics actually do not make the Last Supper the Passover meal, or they can say that John actually does make the Last Supper the Passover meal. Both views seem to have their adherents.

For those who wish to reinterpret the synoptics, there are some important verses that support their position. This is Luke 22:15-16:

And he said to them, "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." (ESV)

This seems to suggest that Jesus did not actually eat the Passover, and therefore, that the Last Supper was not the Passover. However, other manuscripts for this verse read "I will never eat it again", so the textual evidence is divided. Furthermore, it's not much of a stretch to read an implied "again" in the text. The NET Bible translates it in this way.

There are other important verses in the synoptics, which tell us that Jesus was crucified on a "day of preparation". For example, see Matthew 27:62-63. However, this does not mean preparation for the Passover, asMark 15:42-43 shows:

And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. (ESV)

From Mark's version, it's clear enough that the "day of preparation" here means preparation for the Sabbath, rather than the Passover.

Second response: reinterpret John

The other possibility is to interpret John to make his gospel consistent with the Last Supper being the Passover meal. John 19:14 is the biggest problem here. In any normal translation (see above) the verse indicates that Jesus was crucified on the day of "Preparation of the Passover". However, the 1984 NIV translates the verse as follows:

It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour. "Here is your king," Pilate said to the Jews. (NIV)

This translation implies that - although it was the day of preparation for the sabbath, and was during Passover week - it was not actually the day of preparation for the Passover. According to the NIV Study Bible:

Normally Friday was the day people prepared for the Sabbath. [Therefore] here the meaning is Friday of Passover week.

However, as far as I can tell, the original Greek does not contain the word "week". But I don't read Greek, and a number of authors have argued for this way of understanding the text: for example, J. H. Bernhard'sCritical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John and William Hendriksen's The Gospel of John both agree with the NIV.

Naturally, the other verses in John are also troublesome, though there are ingenious ways to read them that might resolve them.

Third response: have two Passovers

A reader, Patrick Foster, contacts me to note that a third resolution has been suggested. It is alleged that two groups of Jews, the Pharisees and Sadducees, celebrated the Passover on different days, at least on some occasions. Thus the synoptic gospels are correct that the Last Supper was the Passover meal, but John is correct when he says there was still a Passover meal to come in the future.

A problem with this solution is that in the synoptics, the disciples regard the Last Supper as the Passover meal, whereas in John they seem to think it is still to come, as we see by their interpretation of what Jesus said to Judas: Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, "Buy what we need for the feast." In both cases the authors have the disciples agreeing with their own view on which day the "real" Passover feast was.

In place of a conclusion

As should be clear, there are a lot of difficult issues here. However, I feel that the natural readings of the various texts are clear enough in their (contradictory) meanings for this problem to be Serious.

It's interesting that inerrantists can't agree on what the correct resolution is. Of course, that doesn't mean that all sides are wrong. It's just interesting.



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Problem: A man's ear is cut off before or after Jesus is seized 
Verses: Mark 14:45-47, Luke 22:47-54, others; Status: Serious

An anonymous reader sends me this. In Mark, after Jesus is seized by the soldiers, one of Jesus' followers attacks with a sword. This is Mark 14:45-47:

And when he [Judas] came, he went up to him at once and said, "Rabbi!" And he kissed him. And they laid hands on him and seized him. But one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. (ESV)

Matthew 26:49-51 agrees, and is even more explicit about the order. However, when Luke retells this story, he can't present things in this order, because he wants to mention that Jesus healed the man (a detail only found in Luke). Thus, he reorders events so that Jesus is still free when the man's ear is cut off. This is Luke 22:47-51:

While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus said to him, "Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?" And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, "Lord, shall we strike with the sword?" And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, "No more of this!" And he touched his ear and healed him. (ESV)

It seems clear enough that, in Luke's version, Jesus hasn't been seized yet. And indeed, Luke tells us later (verse 54) that the men seized Jesus at that point. For what it's worth, John 18:4-12 also agrees that Jesus had not yet been seized when the man's ear was cut off.

In searching for solutions, my first thought was that perhaps Jesus was seized, but broke free to heal the man, and then was seized again. However, John presents the soldiers as being unwilling to come near Jesus until after Simon Peter attacks, which seems to make this harmonisation impossible.



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Problem: Accounts differ over when Judas was paid 
Verses: Mark 14:10-11, Matthew 26:14-16; Status: Serious

Judas was famously paid 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus. But Mark and Matthew seem to differ over when he was paid. This is Mark 14:10-11:

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him. (ESV)

By contrast, this is Matthew 26:14-16:

Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, "What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?" And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him. (ESV)

The surrounding verses in Mark and Matthew are exactly the same, so this is clearly the same incident. But Mark says the priests only promised to pay him, whereas Matthew has them pay immediately. (Luke's account is ambiguous, and John doesn't mention the money.)

I can think of two inerrantist responses, neither of them very satisfying:

  1. The priests gave him some money and promised more.
  2. Matthew is describing a later payment, but mentioning it now.

But I think neither of these is too likely - the natural readings of both texts are clear enough.

Matthew, of course, based his gospel on Mark's. Why change this bit? The answer becomes clear when we get to Matthew 27:3, at which point Judas returns the silver to the elders. Obviously, to make this work Matthew has to have Judas paid before this point, hence the alteration.

Translation issues

It's been pointed out to me that the ESV's translation of Matthew 26 is slightly non-literal, and a more literal translation would look like this:

Then one of the twelve, named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, "What are you willing to give me to betray Him to you?" And they weighed out thirty pieces of silver to him. From then on he began looking for a good opportunity to betray Jesus. (NASB)

This seems to open up the possibility that Judas was merely shown the money at this point. Still, given that Matthew later mentions Judas returning the money, it seems to me that he expects his readers to infer that Judas was paid at this earlier point. Also, these events in Matthew are a strong allusion to Zechariah 11:12-13, in which a payment definitely occurs when the money is "weighed out". So Matthew's meaning seems clear.



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Problem: Accounts of Jesus' last words conflict 
Verses: Luke 23:46, John 19:30; Status: Serious

This is Luke 23:46:

Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!" And having said this he breathed his last. (ESV)

This is John 19:30:

When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, "It is finished," and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (ESV)

You might also hear people say that Mark and Matthew give Jesus last words as "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?". However, both Mark and Matthew write that, soon after this, Jesus gave anotherloud cry, so these accounts don't necessarily tell us his final utterance (though they're unclear on whether that cry contained actual words).

Anyway, the contradiction between Luke and John is bad enough on its own. Rational Christianity (link below) tries to resolve this by suggesting that he actually said both, for example:

"It is finished, Father; into your hands I commit my spirit."

But this not an honest reading of the passages. Luke and John seem to expect us to understand that we are reading the actual last words of Jesus. One more thing: there's a fairly obvious difference between the acceptance Jesus displays in Luke and John, versus the despair described in Mark and Matthew.



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Problem: James and John or their mother asked about sitting in Heaven 
Verses: Mark 10:35-37, Matthew 20:20-21; Status: Serious

In Mark's gospel, the brothers James and John asked to sit at the side of Jesus in Heaven. This is Mark 10:35-37:

And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What do you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." (ESV)

On the other hand, Matthew 20:20-21 has it that the request came from their mother:

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, "What do you want?" She said to him, "Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom." (ESV)

These two passages are definitely about the same incident: in both Mark and Matthew, it comes right after Jesus foretells his death for the third time, and right before Jesus heals the blind. This is a problem. Inerrantists must reply like this:

Is it not plausible that all three came together and made inquiry of the Lord with regard to the positions on His right and left hand in the kingdom?

It's possible. Indeed, Matthew indicates that all three were present. But the question is not who was present, but rather, who spoke?

I suppose you can say that the sons and their mother all spoke, one after another. But this is one of several occasions in the gospels where inerrancy requires you to believe that two authors gave half the story and nobody gave the whole story. This is very irritating. The more reasonable response is that Matthew, who used Mark as a source, altered the story to make the disciples look less foolish, by having someone else make the silly request.



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Problem: Accounts conflict over when Satan entered Judas 
Verses: Luke 22:3-6, John 13:23; Status: Weak

In Luke we are told that Satan entered into Judas before the Last Supper, and he went to the chief priests and agreed to betray Jesus. This is Luke 22:3:

Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them. And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. So he consented and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of a crowd. (ESV)

The last supper comes later, at Luke 22:14 onwards. The gospel of John, however, says that Satan entered Jesus at that time. This is John 13:27:

Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, "What you are going to do, do quickly." (ESV)

The solution is fairly obvious: Satan entered into Judas at least twice. There's no indication that John is speaking of the same incident as Luke. The problem is only severe if you see Satan as having a permanent and unshakeable hold on Judas from the time he first "enters" him. This certainly isn't a reading that's forced on you.



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Problem: John the Baptist forgets who Jesus is 
Verses: John 1:34, Matthew 11:2-3; Status: Weak

Early in the ministry of Jesus, John the Baptist is well aware of who Jesus is. Here's John, speaking in John 1:34:

And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God. (ESV)

Yet later on, he seems to be unsure. This is Matthew 11:2-3:

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?" (ESV)

A similar thing is found at Luke 7:18-19. But this doesn't seem to be a difficult problem. John has been thrown in prison, and is perhaps getting a bit annoyed. He may well have expected the Messiah's appearance on Earth to be more... dramatic. At any rate, he begins to experience doubts and sends a message to Jesus asking for clarification. This strikes me as very human.

Needless to say, there are other possible explanations, some of which are explicitly non-inerrantist. One could say that Matthew and Luke are both reporting a traditional story, in which John has not met Jesus. This is plausible enough, but I don't think it's proven by the texts alone.



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Problem: Jesus names Abiathar as high priest when he wasn't 
Verses: 1 Samuel 21:1, Mark 2:25-26; Status: Serious

At one point fairly early on in his ministry, the synoptics record that Jesus was questioned about an apparent breach of the sabbath. This is Mark 2:25-26:

And he said to them, 'Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.' (NRSV)

(I've used the NRSV here since it gives the problem in its most direct form, but we'll look at another way to translate it later.) Jesus is here referring to an incident described in 1 Samuel 21:1:

Then David came to Nob to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech came to meet David trembling and said to him, "Why are you alone, and no one with you?" (ESV)

It certainly seems that either Jesus or Mark has made a mistake and named the wrong priest. However, since the Old Testament verse doesn't actaully say that Ahimelech is high priest, it's possible to argue that in fact Abiathar was high priest at that time, and Jesus is merely setting the date by mentioning him, even though he's not involved in the story.

However. The standard view of Bible scholarship is that Ahimelech was indeed high priest at the time (this is the view of the NIV Study Bible, the ESV Study Bible, and the NET Bible, for example). Abiathar, son of Ahimelech, is only introduced to the reader some time after the bread incident, at 1 Samuel 22:20. Bible scholars seem to agree that, although Abiathar was one of around 85 priests at this point, he was not yet a high priest. Abiathar is never described as "high priest" in the Old Testament, but Bible scholars seem to infer that he became a high priest at 1 Chronicles 15:11-12 when he and one other priest are specially summoned to serve David and carry the Ark of the Covenant.

Still, if you want to maintain that Abiathar truly was a high priest at this time, I'm not sure you can be proven wrong. But even the ESV Study Bible says "the incident with David actually occurred when Ahimelech, not his son Abiathar, was high priest." Inerrantists normally accept this and propose a different solution...

Translation issues

The ESV (and some other Bibles) translate Jesus' words like so:

And he said to them, "Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?" (ESV)

The motive for this is to suggest that, since Abiathar had been born by the time of the bread incident, it can therefore be described as "the time of Abiathar the high priest". I would question this: it seems to me like using "the time of President Reagan" to refer to the 1960s, which you would never do. But perhaps it works better in ancient Greek. This seems to be the standard solution.

Why I think this is an error

Regardless of how the verse is translated, the fact remains that the high priest in the Old Testament story is Ahimelech. And so, if Jesus was going to mention a high priest, I'm sure it would be Ahimelech. There's very little reason for him to mention Abiathar.

Matthew and Luke, who both used Mark as a source, apparently both detected and eliminated Mark's mistake, as shown by this comparison of the three synoptic gospels. They are all basically the same, but Matthew and Luke wisely delete the clause "in the time of Abiathar the high priest".



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Problem: Matthew says Jeremiah when he means Zechariah 
Verses: Zechariah 11:13, Matthew 27:9-10; Status: Serious

Commenting on the death of Judas Iscariot, Matthew 27:9-10 reads:

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, "And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord directed me." (ESV)

There is no such verse in Jeremiah. Matthew is instead (very loosely) quoting Zechariah 11:13:

Then the LORD said to me, "Throw it to the potter" - the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the LORD, to the potter. (ESV)

There are two problems here: the difference between the quotation and the original source, and the fact that Matthew gives the wrong name of the source. This could be another scribal error, but in this case even the NIV, which is normally very eager to resolve contradictions, gives the text of Matthew as above. The notes to the NIV are pretty desperate though: they give as cross-references Jeremiah 19:1-13 and Jeremiah 32:6-9, the only connection with Matthew being that these verses contain the word "potter" and the purchase of a field, respectively.

The Apologetics Press (link below) suggests that, since the prophecy was "spoken by Jeremiah", this does not actually refer to the writings of the Old Testament at all, but simply to a spoken prophecy that Matthew is somehow aware of centuries later. Alternatively, they suggest that Matthew refers to the book of Zechariah by naming the first book in the sequence of prophetic books.

There's a much simpler explanation: Matthew made a mistake.



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Problem: Matthew's "triumphal entry" is wrong 
Verses: Zechariah 9:9, Matthew 21:1-7, others; Status: Serious

The accounts of Mark, Luke, and John of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem all say that Jesus rode in on a "colt" which John explains is a donkey. No problem. Matthew, however, writes that Jesus rides in on not one but two animals (though probably not at the same time).

Here's Matthew 21:1-3:

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, 'The Lord needs them,' and he will send them at once." (ESV)

By contrast, here's Mark 11:1-3:

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, "Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' say, 'The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.'" (ESV)

The account in Luke 19:29-31 is almost identical to Mark's, and John 12:14-15 is close enough. So why on Earth does Matthew add an animal? The answer becomes apparent when we read on; this is Matthew 21:4-5

This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, "Say to the daughter of Zion, 'Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.'" (ESV)

Matthew here is quoting Zechariah. Here is the original prophecy, Zechariah 9:9:

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. (ESV)

It's clear enough that when Zechariah 9:9 says "on a donkey, on a colt" this is simply a rhetorical repetition, rather than an indication of a second animal. But Matthew seems to have misunderstood this, and has written his version of the triumphal entry accordingly.

How do inerrantists deal with this? They tend to claim that Matthew was right and the other authors simply did not mention the second animal. But I find it suspicious that only Matthew mentions it, especially given his apparent misreading of the prophecy.



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Problem: Daniel only says "many" shall awaken 
Verses: Daniel 12:2, John 5:28-29; Status: Serious

The Old Testament has relatively little to say about the end times and the afterlife, which became major Christian themes. At several places in the Old Testament one gets the impression that death is simply the end of a person's existence, and that's all there is to it. Examples would be Genesis 3:19Psalm 104:29Ecclesiastes 3:19Ecclesiastes 9:5Isaiah 26:14et cetera. Later writers took a different view, though. This isDaniel 12:2:

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (ESV)


This passage raises the prospect of a third class of people, who will not be resurrected to a glorious afterlife, nor to an inglorious punishment, but will simply stay dead. This is not in keeping with the traditional Christian teaching on such matters, which is based on passages like John 5:28-29:

Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. (ESV)

Assuming "many" has its ordinary meaning of "not all", the passage from Daniel seems problematic, and suggests that the Biblical concepts of judgement and the afterlife evolved over time. I wish I could report what the ESV Study Bible has to say on the matter, but they gloss over the problem entirely by just ignoring the word "many". As usual, the NIV softens the problem with imaginative translating.

Anyway, those inerrantists who take the "many" seriously think that the Book of Daniel is talking about something other than the main resurrection of the dead, and that what's mentioned at Daniel 12:2 is just some sort of side-resurrection. I find it unlikely the author meant anything of the sort.



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Problem: Jesus mixes up his Zechariahs 
Verses: 2 Chronicles 24:20-21, Matthew 23:34-35; Status: Minor

2 Chronicles 24:20-21 describes the death of Zechariah the son of Jehoiada:

Then the Spirit of God clothed Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, and he stood above the people, and said to them, "Thus says God, 'Why do you break the commandments of the LORD, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the LORD, he has forsaken you.'" But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the LORD. (ESV)

It's important to note that this is not the Zechariah who wrote the Book of Zechariah. That Zechariah is instead the son of Berechiah. Furthermore, we know that the second Zechariah lived about 300 years after the first. So we have:

  • Zechariah son of Jehoiada, who lived around 800 B.C. - murdered in the temple
  • Zechariah son of Berechiah, who lived around 500 B.C. - mode of death unknown

Yet Jesus appears to mix up these Zechariahs. This is Matthew 23:34-35 where Jesus is condemning the Pharisees:

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. (ESV)

I think it's fairly obvious this is just a mistake by Jesus; or more likely, by Matthew. The corresponding verse in Luke (Luke 11:51) contains no such error. However, since there's no record of how the later Zechariah died, it's possible to claim that he also happened to be murdered in the temple, just like the other Zechariah. I don't find this very likely, but it would solve the problem.



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Problem: Somebody or nobody has ascended to heaven 
Verses: 2 Kings 2:11, John 3:13; Status: Minor

In Kings, the prophet Elijah is portrayed ascending to heaven. This is 2 Kings 2:11:

And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. (ESV)

Jesus in the gospel of John seems to say that he is the only one who ever ascended into Heaven. This is John 3:11-13:

Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. (ESV)

Various responses

There are various solutions to this problem, most of them unlikely. But I think the most plausible solution is that Jesus is just being vague. His statement that nobody has ascended to heaven has an exception, but he may simply have felt the exception was not relevant to the discussion. His primary message here is that nobody around him has more authority than he does. This is fairly close to the response Looking Unto Jesusgives, though I don't find it totally convincing.

Tektonics' solution is that Elijah was merely taken up into "the heavens" (meaning the sky) rather than Heaven with a capital H, but this makes little sense. What exactly was Elijah doing in the sky?

Dan of Israel suggests that Jesus is talking about ascent into heaven under one's own power. Thus, "he ascended into heaven" is different from "he was taken into heaven by God". But this doesn't look like what Jesus means to me.

For a non-inerrantist, of course, the most likely explanation is simple error, either on the part of Jesus or John.

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