What if what the skeptics said actually confirmed what we knew about the Bible? In today’s episode of Ultimate Questions, Jon looks at what is commonly seen as problematic or contradictory in scripture and shows us how it tells a greater story.
Hello, I’m Jon Topping, and welcome to the Ultimate Questions podcast.
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On the last episode of the Ultimate Questions Podcast, we looked at the importance of names in the Bible, and what it can tell us about the writers. For example, the names given to characters in the New Testament aren’t just random, but in fact, they follow the frequency of usage we see in that era and location, meaning, the writers were actually writing about real people during that time and in that place, which gives us further reason to think they were eyewitnesses. We also see that the writers were intimately familiar with the surrounding region, because they knew of very small and insignificant places that would not have been known to people from outside that context.
As we look further into the likelihood of the writers of the Gospels being eyewitnesses, the last piece of evidence we’ll be looking at is a bit different than the others. We’re going to be looking at the things skeptics typically bring up as being problematic to the Gospel story, and showing how they actually confirm that the Gospels are full of legitimate eyewitness accounts. Specifically, we’re going to look at the portions of the Gospels that seem to be contradictory. First of all, I don’t think we see any direct contradictions in the text, where one writer says one thing, and another writer says the exact opposite, but we do find situations where the writers seem to be saying very different things. As we’ll see, this kind of thing actually shows us that the writers weren’t inventing a story, but instead, that they were each telling the story from their own unique perspective.
As an example of what I’m talking about, a very common complaint skeptics make against the Gospel stories is the account of the resurrection. If I were to ask you right now, how many angels were at the tomb of Jesus, what would you say? Further, if I were to ask you how many women went to the tomb, what would you say? The problem is that the four Gospels give different accounts here, so skeptics see the different numbers of individuals present, and they say this is a contradiction. If it’s a contradiction about something as important as the resurrection, then that throws doubt on the whole story, and it definitely disproves the idea of divine inspiration for the text. After all, if God inspired the text, and it’s infallible or inerrant, then there can’t be a glaring contradiction within the stories!
What we find in the text of the Gospels for the story of the resurrection is this. Matthew and Mark both talk of one angel, and Luke and John speak of two angels. As for the women that visited the tomb, Matthew says Mary Magdalene and the other Mary visited the tomb, Mark says it was Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, Luke says it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women, and lastly John just says Mary Magdalene was there. Now when you first hear this, it can be quite disillusioning; you might now have doubts as to whether the text can be true, because these cases seem like quite obvious contradictions. There’s two things I want to show about these issues of how many women and angels were at the tomb. Firstly, I want to show this isn’t an explicit contradiction, and secondly, I want to show how this actually works in favour of the New Testament, as odd as that sounds.
Firstly, these are not cases of explicit contradiction. The reason I word it that way is that an explicit contradiction occurs when two statements are directly opposed to one another in a way that both cannot be true at the same time and in the same way. This is not true of these stories in the Gospels. For example, take the women at the tomb. Matthew says Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there. So when John says that Mary Magdalene was there, he isn’t lying, or contradicting Matthew, because he’s right; Mary Magdalene was there. John never said that Mary Magdalene was the “only” woman there? Now that might seem like splitting hairs, but let me give you a modern example of how we speak. Suppose for a moment I were to go out with a bunch of friends for lunch, then later, I’m telling my wife about something that happened during that meeting. I might say, “I was out for lunch with Wes and George today”, or I might say, “I had some lunch with George and the guys”, or I might say, “when I was having lunch with Wes”, and so on. I am under no obligation to mention every single person, or even allude to the fact that it was a group. All those statements I just made would be perfectly appropriate for the situation, and they don’t contradict each other. However, if I were to say, “Wes and I had a private lunch together to discuss some things”, then that would be an explicit contradiction, because I’d be saying it was “only” Wes I had lunch with. When we look at the Gospels, we find it just mentions different people, and never specifies exactly how many were there, or that there were “only” certain people present.
I’d argue the same sort of situation applies to the angels as well. Even if there were two angels present, it would still be true to say “an angel of the Lord descended”, and that the woman would have seen “a young man sitting on the right side”. Those statements can both be true, even if there were actually two angels at the event. It might seem like just playing with words, but realistically, this is how we use language, so these verses don’t really contradict each other.
Now the second point I want to focus on is the important aspect. Not only are these passages not contradictory, but they actually help us have further evidence that these are legitimate cases of eyewitness testimonies. For this idea, I’m drawing a lot from J. Warner Wallace’s book, Cold Case Christianity. I’ve mentioned him before. He was a detective who spent a good bit of time as a cold case investigator, meaning, he would work on murder cases that were never solved, and years later, he returns to them to try and finally crack the case. I should add that he did this quite successfully. What Wallace does in his book, is he uses the different methods of investigation he learned during his years as a detective, and applies those ideas to the New Testament. In his own life, he was an atheist, and as he read the New Testament through his perspective as a detective, he came to appreciate the validity of the New Testament Gospel narratives. One of the big reasons he gained an appreciation for the Gospels was actually because of the apparent contradictions and difficulties in the text, like the ones we just talked about.
During Wallace’s years as a detective, he conducted countless interviews with witnesses, including eyewitnesses to a crime. What he found is that the witnesses basically never tell the same story. There are always differences, nuances, and intricacies one witness will focus on, while the others leave that part out. At times, the witnesses would tell such incredibly different stories that Wallace would wonder if they even observed the same event! The reason for this is that each person observes events from their own subjective perspective. Human beings are not robots that record every detail with perfect clarity. We naturally pay more attention to some things, and less to others. This ends up being quite useful for detectives; if you do have witnesses that all tell the same story, the detective actually gets suspicious. It might sound weird, but for police investigations, it’s actually bad if all the stories are the exact same. This is because it seems as though the witnesses have collaborated their stories, so each of their testimonies is slightly tainted. At worst, it could be that the witnesses have deliberately tried to create a fake testimony to give to the police, and they’re trying their hardest to keep their stories straight. When an investigation is taking place, the first thing the police do is separate the witnesses. This is so that they don’t start sharing their stories with each other, because the police actually “want” the stories to have these little messy difficulties to them. As a detective, Wallace knew that he could piece together a coherent story from all the messy testimonies, but he would have difficulty finding truth if all the witnesses had gathered their stories together into one collaboration.
With the Gospels in mind, each author brings their own subjectivity to their writing as well. After all, they are telling what “they” know of Jesus’ life. Now, we do see examples of stories in the Gospels where they are word for word similar, so it does seem as though one writer had access to the other’s book. However, we also see many cases where the different Gospel authors will tell the same story, but with different details included. At times, the stories are actually quite different, not in a contradictory sense, but just in what pieces of information are given, and what aren’t. When we see this, it doesn’t cast doubt on the legitimacy of the story, in fact, the opposite is true! When we see cases where each writer gives different details, it seems like we have an obvious case where each of them was an eyewitness to the event, and they are each describing the event in the way they remember it. With Luke in mind, while he wasn’t an eyewitness himself, he deliberately went around, like a detective, gathering all the eyewitness testimonies he could. When we see little differences with his accounts of the events, it would once again seem to be that the details he got from his witnesses are different than the details the other Gospel authors remembered, so again, we’re getting entirely new eyewitness testimonies.
As strange as it might seem, if all four of the Gospels said the exact same things for every story, we would actually have less reason to think that the four Gospels are each giving their own perspective. We would actually have more reason to think they had gathered their accounts together to try and keep their stories straight, which would then give us added reason to doubt them. The fact that we find these little nuances and differences is actually a good thing!
There are many other cases in the New Testament where the accounts are “messy”. The stories don’t’ line up perfectly, they contribute different details, one account will leave important things out, some stories are entirely left out of some of the Gospels, and so on. This messiness in the Gospel accounts once again works as evidence that we’re dealing with four unique accounts of the life of Jesus, and that we’re getting legitimate eyewitness testimonies. Realistically, the Early Church could have eliminated three of the Gospels, and just stuck with one of them, so that there wouldn’t be any messiness, or complications, or apparent contradictions. Or, they could have fixed up all these little problems, adjusting the text so that all the books line up with each other better. However, they didn’t do that. They left the texts just as they are, in all their personal and subjective messiness. This shows us that these are the real testimonies of the individuals that were actually present for the events!
As a comparison, we can look to the Quran. Islam teaches that the Quran is not just a book written by Muhammad, instead, it is a book written by Allah, outside of this creation, which has possibly existed for all eternity. Therefore, there should never be any personal, subjective, or human aspects to the Quran, because it is a direct piece of writing straight from the hand of Allah. Also, Muslims will quite often talk about how there is only one Quran, and that there are no textual problems within their book. Now first of all, there are textual problems, but we’ll go into that in an episode that will come quite a bit later. For now, the important thing is to look at the process of how Islam became a religion that had only one version of their holy book. In the beginnings of Islam, the Quran had many versions. Some Qurans were longer, others were shorter. They contained different stories, or left out entire chapters, and generally there were many problems between all the different versions. There became disagreements as to which was the “true” Quran, so, Uthman, who was the caliph, or leader at the time, ordered a single copy of the Quran to be declared as the authentic Quran, and all other versions of the Quran were ordered to be destroyed. This was called the Uthmanic revision. Because of this, the text was united, with no internal problems, because there would only be one Quran. In other words, the religious leaders fixed the problems.
When we look at the New Testament, we find basically the exact opposite happened. There were issues that could have caused problems, like how many women were at the tomb, and instead of deliberately trying to fix the problem by adjusting the text, or eliminating a book or two, the Early Church just allowed the text to continue, unadulterated. It’s actually quite interesting that one of the main accusations from Muslims against the New Testament is that the text has been polluted, when the evidence shows the exact opposite. There could have been a good reason for the early Christians to pollute the text, and yet, they didn’t. This messiness actually helps us see that the books of the New Testament have not been altered, and instead, that they contain the legitimate eye witness accounts of people who really were present for the events being described.
Now the next issue that comes out of this conversation is to question the inspiration of Scripture. After all, if we find all these subjective elements in Scripture, where the writer brings their own perspective, then how can Scripture be inspired? I think this comes down to how we view the idea of the inspiration of Scripture. The Bible has never been thought of as being a book written by God. It’s not as though God possessed the authors of the Bible, and wrote out, word for word, exactly what He wanted to have in the books. Instead, Christianity teaches that the biblical authors were “inspired” by the Holy Spirit of God, so that both God and man are involved in the process. When we see the subjective aspects of a person’s individual perspective, we shouldn’t be surprised, because Christians welcome the fact that the biblical books were written by humans. While God did use humans, inspiring them to write these books, that doesn’t mean that God takes away the human aspect and takes complete control. God seems to enjoy using humans to bring about His will, as we see throughout Scripture. Time after time, God uses human individuals to bring about His plans, and He does it in a way that’s so perfect, that when we look back at the situation, it’s obvious God was a part of the process. For example, Moses leading the people out of Egypt, Samson defeating Israel’s enemies, the prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, and so on. We see many cases where God uses messy humans to accomplish His will. That never means God commands them like robots, or possesses them, or anything like that. Instead, God allows the subjectivity of the human experience to be involved in His divine providential plans. When we look at the actual texts of the Gospels, this is exactly what we see.
So far for the Ultimate Questions Podcast, we started by looking at the reliability of the New Testament. We’ve done this by looking at the manuscript evidence, historiographical methods, and lastly, we looked at reasons to think the Gospels are eyewitness testimony. Basically, I’ve hopefully given you a lot of good reasons to think the New Testament is trustworthy. Now, I have mentioned before that we will look at some of the best arguments against the New Testament, but before we do that, I think it’s a good time to look at how we can get the most out of reading Scripture. Based on all that we’ve gone through so far, I think we can safely say that the New Testament is reliable, but if we don’t know how exactly we’re supposed to approach reading the text, then it’s still not going to be too valuable to us. So, I thought we would spend a little time looking at hermeneutics, or, how we go about reading ancient texts like the Bible, so that we can get the most out of our Scripture readings.
So I hope you’ll join me next time, as we start learning more about how to read the Bible, here on the Ultimate Questions Podcast, from Power to Change Students.