Bart Ehrman: Discrepancies in the Gospels

There is no doubt that there are differences between the gospels as to where the author places each event; I’ve already discussed this in “What Kind of Literature are the Gospels?”.  There are also passages which amount to discrepancies and even contradictions between them, and these discrepancies have been seized upon by skeptics, ex-Christians, Muslims and other enemies of the Gospel as proof that the bible is in error and can’t be trusted.  Professor Ehrman has brought many of these together and concludes that they prove the Bible is not the word of God but the product of men.

One evangelical scholar, speaking on a different subject, nevertheless states a truism in the case of discrepancies between the gospels, saying, “So it is reasonable to look for realistic explanations of why the accounts vary before jumping to the conclusion that one or the other is in error” (France 2002, p 902).

It is well beyond the scope of these articles to answer all the “discrepancies” that Professor Ehrman claims, so I’ve selected some that Professor Ehrman thinks significant.  The first one is what he calls “a textbook case”, and the three following, of which he says “Here I will talk about three important differences at some length” (Ehrman 2010, p 43).

Jesus dies on different days

Professor Ehrman states “This is an illustration of discrepancies within the New Testament I frequently use with my students.  It is a ‘textbook case’ because both Mark and John give explicit indications of when Jesus dies.  And he dies at different times, depending on which Gospel you read” (Ehrman 2010, p 23 – emphasis mine).

In explaining how Mark and John differ, he shows how they both have straightforward accounts of the events leading up to Jesus’ death, and where they diverge.  Here is how he states it: in Mark’s account, he writes “After the disciples eat the Passover meal they go out to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  Judas Iscariot brings the troops and performs his act of betrayal.  Jesus is taken to stand trial before the Jewish authorities.  He spends the night in jail, and the next morning he is put on trial before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who finds him guilty and condemns him to death by crucifixion.  We are told that he is crucified that same day, at nine o’clock in the morning (Mark 15:25).  Jesus, then, dies on the day of Passover, the morning after the Passover meal was eaten” (Ehrman 2010, p 26).

Then he gives John’s version: “Here, too, Jesus goes to Jerusalem in the last week of his life to celebrate the Passover feast, and here, too, there is a last meal, a betrayal, a trial before Pilate, and the crucifixion.  But it is striking that in John, at the beginning of the account, in contrast to Mark, the disciples do not ask Jesus where they are ‘to prepare the Passover’.  Consequently, he gives them no instructions for preparing the meal.  They do eat a final supper together, but in John, Jesus says nothing about the bread being his body or the cup representing his blood.  Instead he washes the disciples’ feet, a story found in none of the other Gospels (John 13:1-20).

After the meal they go out.  Jesus is betrayed by Judas, appears before the Jewish authorities, spends the night in jail, and is put on trial before Pontius Pilate, who finds him guilty and condemns him to be crucified.  And we are told exactly when Pilate pronounces the sentence: ‘It was the Day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon’ (John 19:14).

Noon?  On the Day of Preparation for the Passover?  The day the lambs were slaughtered?  How can that be?  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus lived through that day, had his disciples prepare the Passover meal, and ate it with them before being arrested, taken to jail for the night, tried the next morning, and executed at nine o’clock A.M. on the Day of Preparation for the Passover, sometime after noon.

I do not think this is a difference that can be reconciled.  People over the years have tried, of course.  Some have pointed out that Mark also indicates that Jesus died on a day that is called ‘the Day of Preparation’ (Mark 15:42).  That is absolutely true – but what these readers fail to notice is that Mark tells us what he means by this phrase: it is the Day of Preparation ‘for the Sabbath’ (not the Day of Preparation for the Passover).  In other words, in Mark, this is not the day before the Passover meal was eaten but the day before Sabbath; it is called the day of ‘preparation’ because one had to prepare the meals for Saturday on Friday afternoon” (Ehrman 2010, p, 26-27 – emphasis his).

Response to this objection

To answer Professor Ehrman’s objections, it is important, first, to comment on his statement: “But it is striking that in John, at the beginning of the account, in contrast to Mark, the disciples do not ask Jesus where they are ‘to prepare the Passover’.  Consequently, he gives them no instructions for preparing the meal.  They do eat a final supper together, but in John, Jesus says nothing about the bread being his body or the cup representing his blood.  Instead he washes the disciples’ feet, a story found in none of the other Gospels”.

The Last Supper in the Synoptic Gospels is the same as that in John chapter 13.  Professor Ehrman acknowledges this and yet implies that John is wrong; that his Supper is different to that in the Synoptics.  But it is the same.  The differences are because, as I demonstrated in Part 2, John wrote his gospel to supplement the Synoptic Gospels.  If he kept writing the same things in his gospel as is found in the Synoptics, there would be no point in writing.  So he leaves out the details in the Synoptics which they have already covered, and adds new information, such as the washing of the disciples’ feet.  He doesn’t speak about Jesus saying the bread represented his body and the wine his blood because he had already discussed that on a different occasion and with details not covered by the Synoptics (see John chapter 6).  The duplicated details i.e. that there was a Last Supper with his disciples, that Jesus foretold his betrayal by one of them, that Peter would betray him before the cock crowed that night, all demonstrate that John has Jesus sharing his last fellowship meal with his disciples, and that it is the same event as that in the Synoptics, and therefore at the same time.

So the “Day of Preparation” in John (19:14, 31) must be the same as in the Synoptics.  Both John and the Synoptics tell us that this Day was the day before the sabbath.  John 19:31 is clear: “The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day (for that sabbath day was an high day), besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away”.  Mark 15:42 says: “And now when the even was come, because it was the preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath….”.  See Luke 23:54 for further confirmation.

The chronology in John’s gospel is:

  • Jesus has The Last Supper with his disciples; (13:1-2)
  • Washes disciples’ feet and explains its meaning (13:4-17)
  • Tells disciples that one of them will betray him (13:2-3, 18-35)
  • Tells Peter he will deny him three times before cock crows that night (13:36-38)
  • Lengthy teaching discourse to disciples (chapters 14- 16)
  • Jesus prays for the disciples in their presence (chapter 17)
  • Jesus goes to Garden of Gethsemane, arrested, and brought before Annas (18:1-14)
  • Peter denies Jesus (18:15-18, 25-27)
  • Jesus “tried” before Annas and Sanhedrin. Here John omits some details of “trial” in Synoptic Gospels and gives details they omitted; Jesus then sent to High Priest (18:24)
  • Jesus brought before Pilate early in the morning (18:28-40). “and it was early” (verse 28 KJV), means it was the fourth watch of the night i.e. 3am to 6am
  • Jesus whipped, given crown of thorns, mocked, condemned to death, crucified, and died (19:1-37)

An important point needs to be made here.  In the lengthy quote of Professor Ehrman’s quoted earlier, he mockingly (?) states: “And we are told exactly when Pilate pronounces the sentence: ‘It was the Day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon’ (John 19:14).  Noon?  On the Day of Preparation for the Passover?  The day the lambs were slaughtered?  How can that be?”.

Part of the problem comes from an incorrectly interpretive translation from John 19:14 in the NRSV.  The Greek, correctly translated by the KJV, has “about the sixth hour”, where the NRSV has “noon” (Professor Ehrman uses NRSV).  The “sixth hour” in John’s gospel refers to Roman time, 6am, and John says it was about this time.  This has John’s account of the time of Jesus’ trial and death corresponding to the Synoptics.  But the NRSV mistranslation has Jesus still before Pilate at midday, while the Synoptics have him already on the cross at 9am!  (The 1984 NIV correctly has “about the sixth hour” but the 2011 NIV has been changed to “about noon”).

So Professor Ehrman’s “textbook case” of a major discrepancy in the gospels proves rather to be a textbook case of poor scholarship on his part, and (dangerously) poor translation from the NRSV.  Yet again, Professor Ehrman is wrong.  The tragedy is that he is not only wrong for himself but, by his own admission, he uses this so-called discrepancy as part of his arsenal to teach his students that the bible is full of errors.

The trial before Pilate

Once again, Professor Ehrman compares Mark’s account with that of John.  And once again, he thinks John is wrong.  He begins with a summary of events in Mark’s gospel, and then says “If Mark’s were our only account of the event, we would have the impression that the trial was very quick; that Jesus said almost nothing (just two words); and that Pilate, the Jewish leaders accusing Jesus, the crowds, and Jesus himself were all in one place exchanging their views.  But John has a very different account….” (Ehrman 2010, p 43-44).

In relating John’s account, Professor Ehrman says that “the Jewish leaders take Jesus to Pilate early in the morning, but they refuse to enter Pilate’s headquarters because they want to ‘avoid ritual defilement’ so that they can ‘eat the Passover’ that evening (18:28; remember, though, that in Mark’s Gospel they had already eaten the Passover meal the night before)” (Ehrman 2010, p 44).  Under the previous heading, I showed how Professor Ehrman is wrong in stating that John and Mark have the Last Supper on different days, so we can consider this objection of his answered.

He then makes a dumb comment, but which is, I suppose, meant to make John’s account look dumb.  He says “We’re not told why they would be defiled by entering the headquarters.  Because it was a pagan place?  Built on a cemetery?  Something else?” (Ehrman 2010, p 44).  As a professional historian and a scholar, Professor Ehrman should realise that the bible is source material, and therefore he should read it and be more familiar with it.  If he did read it, he’d know that the Jews had no dealings with Gentiles, and wouldn’t eat with them or enter their houses.  John had earlier explained this when writing about the woman of Samaria (Jn 4:9).  And Luke writes of how Peter had received a vision from God to show him the Gentiles were no longer to be regarded as unclean because he accepted them and gave them salvation as well: “And he (Peter) said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28; 11:9-12).  Later, Paul had to rebuke Peter publicly because when he heard that some Jews were coming to Antioch from James, he withdrew from the Gentiles and stopped eating with them (Gal 2:11-14).

Professor Ehrman continues: “But the result is that the trial proceeds in a rather peculiar way.  Jesus is inside the headquarters with Pilate, the Jewish authorities who accuse him are outside the headquarters, along with the Jewish crowd, and Pilate runs back and forth between accuser and accused, talking first to one, then to the other.  Pilate enters and leaves the headquarters six times over the course of the trial and has discussions both with Jesus and with his accusers – reasoning with them, pleading with them, trying to get them to listen to sense” (Ehrman 2010, p 44).

Once again, I’ve already shown that John’s gospel supplements the Synoptic Gospels, so it should not be thought strange that John forgoes duplicating what they’ve already written, and includes information which they haven’t included.  Mark’s account is brief – his whole Gospel is brief – so no surprise that his account of the trial is brief.

As for Pilate’s running “back and forth between accuser and accused”, the commentator and theologian William Hendriksen, explains “Jesus, then, was brought before this governor.  The latter, having probably been informed by the soldiers on guard-duty that a prisoner had been brought by a Sanhedrin-delegation which refused to enter the Praetorium, went out to them.  Standing on a gallery or porch over the pavement in front of his residence (see on 19:13), he asked the Jewish rulers to present the indictment” (Hendriksen 1973, p 405).

It seems from this description that it was easy and convenient for Pilate to go back and forth between them.  He would also realise that when the Jews refused to enter because of religious scruples, it was not wise to offend them – he knew they could make serious trouble for him, having experienced this in the past, and didn’t want to cross them again.  So he obliged them by not insisting they come right into the hall of judgment.  Professor Ehrman is just nit-picking here, and there is no genuine problem, but he attempts to make an issue of it, hoping, no doubt, to present so many “unanswerable” discrepancies that the reader feels overwhelmed by their sheer number and simply accepts his conclusions because there are too many to try and check them out.  And even if there was no answer to this “discrepancy”, it makes no difference to anything.  There is no reason to doubt John’s record of events; rather, he gives us details which the Synoptics do not, and he therefore fills out the picture for us – as was his intention from the beginning.

Which is right – John or Mark….or both?

“You can find numerous other differences between the accounts if you read them horizontally.  Here I mention just three and point out their potential significance.  First, Jesus has a lot more to say in John’s account than in Mark.  In fact, he has sustained conversations with Pilate…..Second, rather than having Jesus flogged after his trial is over and the sentence has been pronounced – which, one might think, would be the sensible time to carry out the sentence – in John, Pilate has Jesus flogged in the middle of the proceedings (19:1)…..Finally, it is significant that in John’s Gospel, on three occasions, Pilate expressly declares that Jesus is innocent, does not deserve to be punished, and ought to be released (18:39; 19:6; and by implication in 19:12).  In Mark, Pilate never declares Jesus innocent.  Why this heightened emphasis in John?” (Ehrman 2010, p 44-45).

Point 1: why does Jesus have lengthier conversations with Pilate than in Mark?  I answer again, that John was supplementing the Synoptics.  Mark had an abbreviated account of the trial, so John enlarged it by giving more details.  Does Professor Ehrman really think that Mark’s account consists of the whole trial?

Point 2: The probable reason why Pilate had Jesus flogged in the middle of the proceedings was that he was still trying to prevent Jesus from being executed.  He was in a tricky situation and knew that if he appeared to release a man who was a threat to Caesar, the Jews would have pounced, and not only his governorship but his life would be under serious threat from Rome.  All through the trial he was trying to have Jesus released but the Jews were relentless and heartless.  So, in a last effort to save Jesus from death, he sent him out to be flogged, while the Jews were still outside waiting for the verdict of death.  He hoped that when Jesus returned, bloodied and weak, that the Jews, seeing him in such a weakened, bloodied, and vulnerable state, and no threat to anyone, would relent, and accept this punishment as sufficient.  But when he declared “Behold the man!”, pointing to a bleeding and lacerated Jesus, they did not relent!

Point 3: Why does John show Pilate repeatedly declaring Jesus to be innocent and undeserving of punishment, while Mark never says Jesus is innocent?

Don’t Pilate’s questions in Mark’s account demonstrate his belief that Jesus was innocent?  Mark tells us that Pilate knew that it was only for envy that the Jews wanted him dead (Mk 15:10); and Pilate asked “Why, what evil hath he done?” (Mk 15:14).  Doesn’t this tell us that Mark is saying Jesus was innocent? Does Professor Ehrman think that unless the word “innocent” is used somewhere in the account, there is no declaration of Jesus’ innocence?

In fact, Mark assumes that his readers are aware of Jesus’ innocence at his trial, and therefore he didn’t need to say the words “Jesus was innocent”.   Throughout his gospel, Mark showed that Jesus was innocent of any wrongdoing; reading his gospel you couldn’t come to any other conclusion!

Ehrman accuses John of virulent anti-Semitism

Further, in his remarks from Point 3, Professor Ehrman says of John, “Scholars have long noted that John is in many ways the most virulently anti-Jewish of our Gospels (see John 8:42-44, where Jesus declares that the Jews are not children of God but ‘children of the devil’).  In that context, why narrate the trial in such a way that the Roman governor repeatedly insists that Jesus is innocent?  Ask yourself: If the Romans are not responsible for Jesus’ death, who is?  The Jews.  And so they are, for John.  In 19:16 we are told that Pilate handed Jesus over to the Jewish chief priests so that they could have him crucified” (Ehrman 2010, p 45).

Once again, Professor Ehrman appeals to those unidentified scholars whom he produces as authorities, and they note that John is “the most virulently anti-Jewish of our Gospels”.  But what is the truth?  It is certainly not what Professor Ehrman is saying.  When Jesus told the Pharisees (Jn 8:13) they were of their father, the devil, he said this in the context of a longer conversation.  He had just proclaimed that he was the light of the world (verse 12), and they challenged him.  Each time he answered them, they came at him with more accusations, demonstrating their unbelief.  Jesus warned them they would die in their sins because they didn’t believe in him (8:24) – this is simply the first part of the Gospel message, and it applies to all humanity.

As the dialogue progresses, Jesus counters their claim that Abraham was their father, and points out the hypocrisy of such a claim, saying that if they were Abraham’s children, they would do the things that Abraham did.  But, said Jesus, they were trying to kill him – Abraham would never have done such a thing.  In the thrust and parry of the continuing dialogue, during which the Pharisees took it up a notch further, and claimed God as their father, Jesus replied “If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me.  Why do ye not understand my speech? Even because ye cannot hear my word.  Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do…..And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not” (Jn 8:42-45).

Jesus was not anti-Jewish; he was simply demonstrating to the Pharisees the implications of their claim, and that they ought to take a look at themselves and their doctrine and to see how far from God they really were.  And John was simply recording what Jesus had said – he was not anti-Jewish either.  In the chapter on the shepherd and the sheep (John chapter 10), John records Jesus as saying “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold and one shepherd” (Jn 10:16).  Here we’re told that Jesus gives his life for his sheep, both Jew and Gentile (verses 17-18).  How is this anti-Jewish?

And it wasn’t just John who blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus.  If he was the anti-Jewish bigot that Professor Ehrman suggests, it would have been him and not Matthew who came right out and blamed the Jews.  Matthew records how, when Pilate saw that the Jews were relentlessly after Jesus’ death, he publicly washed his hands, and said “I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.  Then  answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children” (Matt 27:24-25).  Here we see the Jews themselves so rabidly desperate to have Jesus killed that they invited God’s judgment, not only on themselves, but on their children, and the whole nation!

And it was Peter (a Jew) who put the responsibility and guilt of Jesus’ murder on the Jews, and that to their face.  He said “Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:22-23).  What was their response?  Did they howl Peter down and scream “That’s anti-Semitism!  You can’t say that!”  No.  The narrative goes on to tell us “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?  Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins….” (Acts 2:37-38).

These Jews to whom Peter addressed himself were convicted by their sin; they knew they were guilty and they desperately asked Peter what they could do about it.  And so great is God’s mercy, that he forgave them.  In doing so, God was answering Jesus’ prayer from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  Even Jesus knew they were guilty of his death, and he prayed for them.  Is this anti-Jewish?

In a later incident, Peter is even more emphatic in holding the Jews responsible for the murder of Christ.  In this abbreviated version of his speech to them, he says, “Ye men of Israel….The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, hath glorified his Son Jesus, whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go.  But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; And killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses….Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord…..” (Acts 3:12-19).

And Professor Ehrman thinks that John was trying to pin the blame for Jesus’ death on the Jews?

The Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death

And, contrary to modern politically correct doctrine, it is not anti-Semitism to hold the Jews responsible for the death of Christ; it is simply stating the facts.  The Bible makes it clear that the Jews murdered Jesus; and they themselves called God’s judgment down upon themselves for it; and under the preaching of the Gospel and of the resurrected and ascended Christ, confessed their crime and their sin, repented, and were received by God as his people, the new people of God – as Christians.

And at Jesus’ trial, Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent; he also knew that the Jews wanted him dead.  So when they demanded that Pilate give the order for Jesus’ crucifixion, they acknowledged that although they had tried him themselves and found him guilty, they didn’t have authority to put him to death, even though they had condemned him to death by crucifixion; they needed Pilate’s authority in order to carry out their judgment on Jesus (Jn 18:28-31).  Finally, when the Jews were clamouring for his death, and denying him as their king, it says of Pilate, “So he delivered him to them to be crucified.  So they took Jesus and led him away” (Jn 19:14-16).

But in the end, it’s irrelevant who is to blame, whether the Jews or the Romans.  The bible tells us that it was God’s plan that Jesus should die, as Peter said: “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:23).

Ehrman’s scholarship is questionable

I believe I have shown sufficiently in this final section, that Professor Ehrman is not to be believed or trusted.  I have taken some of his choicest discrepancies, one of which he regards as a textbook case, and the other three which he regards as important, and shown that he has mishandled the scriptures, taken them out of context, not bothered to read the scripture text more carefully, and misrepresented them.  Even if the reader is not convinced by what I’ve written, they will at least know that an alternate view to that of Professor Ehrman is possible.  But I believe that he is totally wrong in his claims.  He has specified several other discrepancies in his book, but to answer them all is beyond my original intention.  All I wanted was to demonstrate that if he can be proved wrong in some of his claims, then everything else he writes needs to be regarded with suspicion and scepticism.

Some of the discrepancies we find between the gospels are easily explained while others are not.  But not being able to explain something doesn’t mean it is wrong, or we are wrong; it just means we don’t have enough understanding or information to do so.  There is any number of reasons why we can’t or don’t understand the scriptures, but it is sufficient for us to understand that we are finite creatures, and the word of God contains the thoughts of God, which are beyond our capacity to understand or contain.  Nevertheless, he has given us the scriptures for our edification and blessing, and they are his revelation of himself to us.  I think it was Augustine who said something like “the scriptures are shallow enough for a child to safely wade in, and deep enough for a man to swim in”.  The apostle Paul tells us “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part…..For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I also am known” (1 Cor 13:9, 12).

Professor Ehrman acknowledges that he is no longer a Christian and claims that Christianity is a myth.  He now writes to expose Christianity as fraudulent, under the guise of a historian, and has taken old and debunked theology and given it a new lease of life.  Conservative theologians have disproved the Higher Critical theology ever since each of its new theories appeared, and continue to do so.  They have shown this heresy for what it is, the lie of Satan, far more effectively than I can; but because I read some of Professor Ehrman’s books and was challenged by them, I wanted to make my own response to him.  And I wanted to write for those whom he has deceived, that they will not fear him.  Professor Ehrman is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as he claims to not want to attack Christianity or to show it up as meaningless and absurd, yet everything he writes is devoted to that very end.  In the end, it is not Christians or Christianity who will be his judge, but the God he denies and calls a myth.

References

“Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them)” 2010, by Bart Ehrman, publ. HarperCollins Publishers, NY.

“New Bible Commentary 21st Edition: Reading the Gospels – What is a Gospel?”, 2002, by R. T. France, publ. Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England.

“New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of John”, 1973, by William Hendriksen, publ. The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh and London.

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