Bart Ehrman: Discrepancies in the Gospels

“For among my people are found wicked men: they lay wait, as he that setteth snares; they set a trap, they catch men. As a cage is full of birds, so are their houses full of deceit: therefore they are become great, and waxen rich” (Jer 5:26-27).

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 “Why is there Differences Between 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.  But surely, the first thing to do when confronted with claims such as these is to look for reasonable explanations as to why the accounts vary before jumping to wrong conclusions.

It is well beyond the scope of this article to answer all the discrepancies that Professor Ehrman claims, so I’ve selected some that he thinks significant.  The first one is what he calls “a textbook case” and the three examples following (Ehrman 2010, p 43).

Jesus dies on different days

Concerning his “textbook case”, Professor Ehrman states both Mark and John have Jesus dying at different times (Ehrman 2010, p 23).  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 Professor Ehrman states it (Ehrman 2010, p 26):

  • In Mark’s account, the disciples go to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray (Mk 14:32).  This was the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb (Mk 14:12, 16-18)
  • Judas brings the troops and betrays Jesus
  • Subsequently, Jesus is arrested and taken to stand trial before the Sanhedrin, spends the night in jail
  • The next morning he is tried by Pilate, found guilty, and condemned to death
  • Jesus is crucified that same day, at 9 o’clock in the morning, on the day of preparation for the Sabbath (Mk 15:42)

In John’s account, there are similarities to Mark, but there are also differences (Ehrman p. 26-27):

  • Jesus didn’t give any instructions to the disciples as to where he would be preparing the Passover, because they didn’t ask for them
  • They did eat a final supper together but Jesus says nothing about the bread and wine being his body and blood
  • Jesus washes the disciples’ feet (not found in Synoptic gospels)
  • Jesus is condemned to death at about noon on the day of preparation for the Passover (Jn 19:14); this day is later termed the day of preparation for the sabbath (Jn 19:31)

Professor Ehrman distinguishes between the Day of Preparation for the Passover (Mk 14:12) and the Day of Preparation for the Sabbath (Mk 15:42).  But neither Mark nor John makes this distinction.

Response to this objection

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 John wrote his gospel to supplement the Synoptic Gospels.  MacDonald writes: “Clement of Alexandria recounts that late in John’s long life, the Apostle was asked by close friends who came to him at Ephesus, to write a Gospel that would supplement the Synoptic Gospels” (MacDonald, W, 2016, p. 1415).  So if John kept writing the same things in his gospel as 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 also Luke 23:54.

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, is arrested, and brought before Annas (18:1-14)
  • Peter denies Jesus (18:15-18, 25-27)
  • Jesus’ trial before Annas and the Sanhedrin.  Here John omits some details of the 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).  “it was early morning” (18:28), 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)

The trial before Pilate

Professor Ehrman says he doesn’t know why the Jewish leaders thought they would be defiled by entering Pilate’s headquarters (Ehrman 2010, p 44).  But isn’t it obvious from Scripture 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 that the Gentiles were no longer to be regarded as unclean because he accepted them and gave them salvation as well (Acts 10:28; 11:9-12). 

Professor Ehrman also has a problem understanding why Pilate is said to be running back and forth between Jesus and the Jews, trying to change the Jews to relent and not insist that Jesus be killed (Ehrman 2010, p 44).  But the answer is that Pilate, because the Jews refused to enter the Praetorium where Jesus was, addressed them from a gallery or porch which overlooked the pavement where they stood.

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 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?

Professor Ehrman then produces three differences between the accounts of Mark and 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 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 that scholars say that John, in his gospel, is the most anti-Jewish of all the gospels, giving John 8:44 as an example, where he calls the Jewish leaders “children of the devil”; and asks why John has Pilate insisting that Jesus is innocent.  So, by making out that the Romans are not responsible for Jesus’ death, the Jews are (Ehrman 2010, p 45).

Once again, Professor Ehrman appeals to those unidentified scholars 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 you not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word.  Ye are of your father the devil” (Jn 8:42-44).

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 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 this just person: see ye to it.  Then answered all the, His blood be on us, and on our children” (Matt 27:24-25).  Here we see the Jewish leaders 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 (see also Matt 21:43 where Jesus says to the Jews, “Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof”).

And it was Peter (a Jew) who demonstrated the responsibility and guilt of Jesus’ murder by the Jews, and that to their face, by saying to them: “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, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (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.  And in doing so, God was answering Jesus’ prayer from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  See also 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

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, “Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified” (Jn 19:16).

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 not infallible

I believe I have shown sufficiently that Professor Ehrman is not to be believed or trusted in everything he says.  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 should not be taken at face value.

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.  It was Jerome who said “The Scriptures are shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for a theologian to swim in without ever touching the bottom”. 

I’m sad to say that 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, false, 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.  Professor Ehrman claims that he writes as a historian and that his intention is not to attack Christianity or to show it up as meaningless and absurd; and yet nearly everything he writes seems 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.


“Believer’s Bible Commentary 2nd edition” by William MacDonald ed. Art Farstad, Commentary on Daniel, copyright 2016, publ. Thomas Nelson, Nashville, Tennessee

“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.