Gospel contradictions? Why they don’t exist. A Little Experiment to Teach Skeptics about trying to mindlessly refute the NT

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A few years ago on an email list that is populated mainly by liberal Christians and non believers, I was challenged by an Atheist (Charles) to explain why there were so many inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts. His complaint was that for example some gospel accounts talk about Mary Magdalene going to the grave of Jesus, another has Mary M and Mary the mother of James. Another has Salome joining the two Marys. One talks about 1 angel, the other about 2 angels and so on.

Rather than waste too much effort on Charles (knowing he didn’t really care and in fact had just blindly copied and pasted the complaints from an atheist site without doing any research himself); I decided to wait a few months until it had slipped out of their collective memory and then use a indirect teaching method to show why there are actually no problems with the gospel accounts; even though they don’t always seem to match word for word.

Now note that my goal was not to “prove” that the Gospels are accurate (for that I refer you to http://reclaimingthemind.org/product/the-historical-reliability-of-the-gospels-audio-download/). My goal was simply to eliminate the silly argument that just because one Gospel report talks about 2 angels while an other only mentions 1 angel and so on, that did not mean they were pure fabrications as Charles maintained. In fact that may actually indicate that they are actual first or second hand reports.

It seems to have done its job; as no one on that email list has ever brought up this feeble excuse since then. Make sure you read through to my “explanation.”

December 2005

Neil writes:

Hi all,

I was just reading the news last night about that tragic accident in Chicago. One thing occurred to me. I don’t think there really was a crash. Because when I read the story from these 5 different sources they all seemed to disagree with each other. Just shows how the liberal media twists things.

AP – Sat Dec 10,

A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 rests in the middle of Central Ave. Saturday, Dec. 10, 2005 in Chicago. The jetliner, trying to land in heavy snow slid off the runway Thursday at Midway Airport, crashed through a boundary fence and slid out into the street, hitting one car and pinning another beneath it. A child in one of the vehicles was killed. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

– What we know from this: there were only 2 cars, 1 boundary fence and only 1 child was hurt/killed.

Radio@UPEI December 9, 2005

A snowy runway caused a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 to skid off the runway in Chicago Thursday evening. Nobody on the plane was seriously injured, but a 6-year old boy was killed as the plane skid onto the intersection of 55th Street and Central Avenue, and hit the vehicle he was traveling in.

– This one must be false because it only mentions 1 vehicle being hit (the last one had 2) and nothing about going through any fence, but we know there were fences from the first report.

AFP/Getty Images – Fri Dec 9,

Southwest Airlines jet sits on a roadway after it crashed through a security wall the evening before at Midway Airport in Chicago, Illinois. US authorities launched an investigation after the jet skidded off a Chicago airport runway and into a street where it hit two cars and killed a child (AFP/Getty Images)

– This also must be made up because it says the plane went thru a security wall, not a boundary fence like the last one said it did? If a plane went through a brick wall it would have exploded or at least caught on fire don’t you think? Ah you are thinking a boundary/security wall what’s the difference? Well one is a fence the other a wall.

Reuters – Fri Dec 9,

A Southwest Airlines plane bound from Baltimore, Maryland, sits on a road along Chicago’s Midway Airport December 9, 2005, after crashing through a safety barrier while trying to land during a snowstorm in Chicago on December 8, 2005. (Frank Polich/Reuters)

-This story doesn’t mention that someone was killed in this crash. Which is kinda important don’t you think? It talks about a safety barrier not a wall, it also doesn’t talk about any cars being hit. So were NO cars hit? This story totally contradicts ALL the others. What liars these Reuters guys are.

AP Canadian Press – Fri Dec 9,

A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 rests nose first at the intersection of W.55th Street and Central Ave. in Chicago Friday after it skidded off the runway at Midway Airport Thursday. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

– This is a second AP source that doesn’t agree even with the first source. It doesn’t say anything about any cars (forget about 2 of them), it doesn’t mention a fence of any sort, nor does it mention anybody dying. This whole situation sounds like it was made up from the start.

So folks can you help? Are we being snowed by the media? Did this event really happen? Can we trust that it really happened?

Question 1: Did any cars get hit. Two reports don’t mention it, the others do.

Question 2: How many cars did get hit? One report only says 1 car, some say 2 cars.

Question 3: Did anyone really die? Two reports don’t mention any deaths at all.

Question 4: What did the plane crash through, did it crash through anything? Some reports say it crashed through “a security wall,” another “a boundary fence,” and others “a safety fence.” Some don’t say anything about crashing through any sort of wall or fence.

So my conclusion is:

This story is a lie and made up by the liberal media.

There may be some semblance of truth to it, but on the whole it is inaccurate and should not be given any credence. Probably a superstitious myth.

Each of these news “mediums” are deliberately colluding to create a false story and they can’t even get their lies straight.

Besides we all know that if a plane crashes into a car it will explode in a big fireball, so this whole story is just unacceptable. If this was a true story every story would sound identical to the other story. That’s the ONLY way I’d believe it.

Another example of the lies put out by the liberal media. : ) It’s time we wake up.

Neil

First response to my email:

Neil

You have used the term “liberal media” 3 times as if that were something negative. In my understanding, “liberal” means being open to consider a variety of events, ideas, and opinions (it doesn’t necessarily mean acceptance of them), which any worthwhile news media should do. I certainly want to be liberal in my approach to life and to other people. The best news media are open to reporting a variety of events and ideas which have more than sensational or passing importance, mostly the NY Times and Wash Post. The best international news magazine is The Economist (don’t be misled by its title) which I read every week. Unfortunately, most US radio and TV news (even CBS now) now is just sensational and consists of sound bites without depth (except PBS), so I prefer BBC.

Further, 5 reporters under pressure to report sensational news fast are certainly going to differ in their dispatches. Don’t you think that you and I, suddenly observing something and under pressure to send a dispatch, would emphasize or neglect certain aspects?

Your emphasis on logical deduction here has caused you to deny the essence of what actually occurred.

Carl

Second Response:

Neil why don’t you ask the mother of the boy that died!!

Get a better example!! That seems to be your way!! Jesh!!

John

(looks like this guy John fell hook line and sinker for my little trap)

Third Response:

Neil, We all know that the press always contains inaccuracies, anyone who has had anything about them or their families in a local paper knows that even names come out wrong. I think Carl’s reply put it very succinctly, but I would also add that where you are raging against the so called “liberal” press, I must say that I find the right-wing press is not blame- free of inaccurate reporting, particularly that run by Rupert Murdoch.

I won’t bother listing the inaccuracies and omissions of the right wing press on the Iraq war, but I think we all understand that politicians and the press are not reliable sources, and that its always worth checking as many versions of any news story as you can.

Here in the UK we have a variety of broadcast and written media , and I find BBC radio one of the best sources of news, they had a programme about “rendition” about four months ago.

I was also surprised to discover how little the USA is reporting the kidnap of Norman Kember and Tom Fox

Kat

My Response to Kat:

Kat. So which is it? A total fabrication? One car or two? A dead boy or a dead child or none? Some truths some lies some errors? Or all lies? Or all errors? What is it? A myth? Legend?

Neil

My response to Carl and John:

Wait are you saying that despite the slightly different versions that different people gave, the stories are actually true? But don’t they contradict each other? One has 2 cars, the other only has 1 car, one has a wall the other has barrier, one has a dead boy the other has a dead child? Isn’t this contradictory?

Neil

Kat Responds:

a dead boy is a dead child, a wall is a barrier .

Kat

My response to that:

So you are saying they are telling the truth?

Neil

Another person joins in:

Neil,

I think you overrate contradiction.

Ruann

My response:

Ruann,

Are you saying the stories contradict each other? Is API right and Reuters wrong? Is API US accurate and API Canada a lie? Or are you saying there’s no real contradiction?

Neil

Response from Rebecca who has seen right through it all.

C’mon Neil, just spring that trap and get it over with! The tension is too much!

(Also smiling),

Rebecca

I finally explain:

Hi folks,

OK OK Thank you all (and Rebecca): So to summarize what we have garnered from this exercise:

  1. Multiple eye witnesses and accounts can emphasize different aspects of the story but the story can still be true (thanks Carl).
  2. Some people may say there were two items of something (e.g. two kids or two/three walls/fences), others may talk about one of the items (one kid)– but neither is contradictory unless one was to say there was ONLY one item (i.e. ONLY ONE kid). Again this does not indicate the story is a fabrication but in fact may indicate the validity of the story and the validity that multiple witnesses were at the event each noting a different portion of the entire event. Certain reporters may have come late and only seen the one kid in the stretcher while his brother was already on the way to the hospital.
  3. It is possible that there were multiple of some events sometimes given slightly differing descriptions. E.g. there actually was a wall which was both a security barrier and a noise barrier. There was an additional metal fence that it ALSO crashed through. Some witnesses talked about the metal boundary fence, others saw the bricks or also knew the layout better and talked about the security barrier wall. Again the differing witnesses add to the entirety of the account and do not invalidate the event. Note that there were multiple barriers, security fences, boundary fences, walls. They were ALL there. None of the reports were wrong in any of these details!
  4. If you go back to the actual reports and read the entire news report, some accounts gave estimates e.g. The boy was ABOUT 8 years old (I did not include this in my above snippets but was in some of the reports). Which was correct but not detailed enough. Since the boy was really 6 years old plus a few months. So 8 is “about” there and was based on what they saw. Technically saying the boy was 6 years old would be wrong too, but we realize that 6 means up to 6 years and 11 months and 29/30 days. Again it does not invalidate the account or indicate that it’s made up, but actually indicates more of an authenticity given the intensity of the event.
  5. Later accounts of the same event may add additional information e.g. Joshua had 2 siblings with him who survived, He was singing a carol at the time of impact. He was from Indiana. There were 4 other people in another vehicle who were also injured (not mentioned in these reports as I didn’t want to go on and on). Thus though earlier accounts are sparse and later accounts more full it does not indicate the accounts are false. Similarly, I also saw later accounts that were paraphrases of the earlier accounts so you can ALSO get a later summary that is less detailed but just as true.
  6. Some accounts may call something by a different name depending on their background or inclinations e.g. A wall, a barrier. (Thanks Kat). In each case however this does not mean the account is false but that the vernacular is different. A wall IS a barrier after all.
  7. [Added later] A deeper reading of each of the entire news reports still reflect various facts that were just not included. Someone was arguing that I was only reading the captions. I was not. I read the entire reports and just used these few items as examples. I can only get so much reader attention on an email list. I can’t write three volumes and expect them to follow along. Stay on task buddy.

So we all agree the event really happened. No one was lying and in fact no one was mistaken (i.e. sadly a boy actually died -Thanks John). The facts were all correct. In an event like this it’s natural for differing witnesses to focus on different facts. Had API been the only news service there, ALL the news we read would have been almost identical. The fact that we had multiple sources of the info all slightly different from each other but none contradicting each other both verified that the event probably really happened and that no collusion was taking place (that’s collusion not collision).

Sorry, the rant about the “Liberal Media” was just a red herring; yes this is NOT an example of media bias. I am not that desperate, as there’s plenty of clear examples of bias readily available (read Bernard Goldberg’s book “Bias” for a real example of media bias). As Rebecca said: Let’s spring the trap already…. Of course Bob T and Ruann of course saw right through it. And I want to thank all of you who chimed in to tell me that I was wrong for assuming the story was false thus helping me make the point I want to make now (thanks John, Kat, Chris etc etc and all those who held their tongues but were thinking it : )).

And in case anyone is confused like any rational person I DO believe the story of the SWA accident is true.

I only used it – as Ruann said as a “teaching device”.

Now my point – what was the purpose of my whole “liberal media” silliness?

Well a few months ago Charles (note: Charles is a Missionary Kid who hates the God that his parents dedicated their lives to) had argued the following:

“OK Neil, you have inspired me to search for, and examine some basic truths about the religion into which I was indoctrinated Can you explain the contradictions to the resurrection story, in the Gospels, and why there might be any differences in the telling of the story which forms the BASIS of Christian belief.

And he gave me a number of what he considered contradictions in the Gospels regarding the resurrection, for instance one angel vs. two angels. Asking how many women went to the tomb etc.

Most of these “apparent contradictions” have been answered by the kind folks on this web site for me indirectly. They aren’t contradictions anymore than the “contradictions” I pretended to make a big stink about on the SWA crash. They were all true.

The above example of multiple witnesses probably answers at least 70% of the questions. Of the remaining, Charles, please pick one or two that isn’t solved by one of the points above and I can deal with those specifically and we can go through the list till we are done. (Neils’ note: Of course Charles never did.)

Meanwhile I’ve included a chronology below that may help: Also please refer to http://www.carm.org/bible_difficulties_5.htm for more details. I’ll attempt to answer or find a new source for any questions that are not answered there.

I should also ask you Charles to read the entire Gospel account because in some places the question you asked indicates you didn’t read the passage. Why do I say that? Because you ask for something in vs. 8 of Mark 16 when it’s answered in the very next verse (vs. 9). So please make sure you read the entire passage instead of blindly copying stuff from anti-theists websites. Do consider doing your OWN research first for crying out loud. Don’t be a blind faith atheist or a mindless fan copying other people’s stuff without doing your own research.

Charles in the past I’ve written you off line, after you made similar statements and I asked you if you were really interested in real solid historical and factual answers, I said I’d be quite happy to go over them one by one with you. But in each case you’ve ignored me. So my suspicion is that you may not really care about answers at this time (either because you are too busy or perhaps indicating that you may be close minded about this despite any evidentiary proof I may provide). Can you validate that for me? But you did say: “Neil, you have inspired me to search for, and examine some basic truths about the religion into which I was indoctrinated.” So based on that with the listing of the accounts side by side from: http://www.carm.org/bible_difficulties_5.htm and let me know if you see any apparent contradictions that are not explained by the “multiple news reporters phenomenon”.

So in conclusion and summary thanks all for helping me.

To emphasize I’ll repeat my points:

  1. Multiple eye witnesses and accounts can emphasize different aspects of the story but the story can still be true.
  2. Some people may say there were 2 items, others may talk about one of the items – but neither is contradictory unless one was to say there was ONLY 1 item. In this case all the reporters got it right. None of them had 100% of the story, as we’d expect from any human agent. Again this does not indicate the story is a fabrication but in fact may indicate the validity of the story and the validity that multiple witnesses were at the event each noting a different portion of the entire event.
  3. It is possible that there were multiple of some events, like the numerous types of barriers. Again the differing witnesses add to the entirety of the account and do not invalidate the event.
  4. Some accounts gave estimates rather than exacts which do not invalidate the account or indicate that it’s made up.
  5. Later accounts of the same event may add additional information. Thus though earlier accounts are sparse and later accounts more full it does not indicate the accounts are false. In fact in some cases later accounts may be paraphrases of parts of the earlier accounts so you can get a later summary that is less detailed. And then the reporter can spend the extra space he/she has describing something they think is more important.
  6. Some accounts may call something by a different name depending on their background or inclinations. In each case however this does not mean the account is false but that the vernacular of that writer/viewer/news reporter is different.

Thanks

Neil

After that one last response came in:

So Neil, let’s grant you that you have very cleverly shown that inconsistent accounts of an event do not necessarily “invalidate the event” itself. And let’s put aside for the moment that we are talking about THE single most important event upon which a religion is based (the accounts of which one could realistically expect not to be riddled with inconsistencies). It seems to me that in your list of conclusions you fail to recognize the possibility that one or more of the writers could simply have got it wrong (e.g. 8 is not 6; one angel is not two angels). If that is a possibility, are we faced with the possibility that the Gospels contain flaws? Are you as content to live with that possibility as you are with the existence of numerous inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts? Or are you not one who believes in the inerrancy of the Gospel accounts?

Bob

Neil’s Response.

Hi Bob,

Actually let me re-repeat my self. In my example there were NO inconsistencies. If you re-read it carefully (and I suggest you do) you’ll see all the stories were correct. Let me say that again. All the facts were correct all the details were correct. Only some emphasized certain parts. For instance some accounts mentioned 2 cars, others only mentioned the car with the 6 year old that died. They said “about 8 years old” which was correct. Some mentioned his brother who was OK, yet others did not mention him. Yet all the accounts were correct. They were not inconsistent since no account says there were no OTHER cars or no brother etc or that he was exactly 8 years old. This is similar in the account of the Gospel. Nobody said there was ONLY 1 angel etc. The overriding facts in the news story were the plane and the child dying. All other events were subsequent to this and thus each witness could choose to mention it or not without any inconsistency. Similarly in the Gospel events on the resurrection for example, the overriding facts are that he died and that he rose. All other events are noted or not, similar to the newspaper accounts when noted they are correct but not necessarily the complete picture. There is no inconsistency nor are there any contradictions – only apparent ones that can be as easily resolved as the SWA flight.

So far the example you gave is not an inconsistency.

Finally let me reiterate. I am NOT I repeat NOT trying to use this to prove the Gospels are accurate. I am only saying that you cannot use that feeble excuse that they don’t match 100% to show that it is a fraud as Charles was claiming. Do not take this blog out of context. I do believe the Gospels are accurate, but I don’t use the contents in this article to prove that.  If you want prove that the Bible is accurate go get and listen to this series: http://reclaimingthemind.org/product/the-historical-reliability-of-the-gospels-audio-download/.

Then you can write a rebuttal to it, and if you leave me a comment with the rebuttal, I’d be glad to review it.

I hope that helps.

Neil

I’ve since updated this for clarity and spelling errors etc.

Names have been changed to protect those who would have egg on their faces.

After all that I had yet another blogger still misunderstand my point. 

Apparently this reader seemed to keep missing my point in this article. I think that’s because many of skeptics just skim the story without reading it carefully. They may have also gotten confused by the original title of this article. So I renamed the blog to clarify a few things and I thought I’d clarify yet again on the off chance that having 3 clarifications will somehow get noticed by those who are just skimming.

So here is the point again:

1. My point has NEVER been to show how reporters get things wrong. It has been to show rather how reporters who while getting it RIGHT, may report on a story and either only highlight what they know at the time or what they think is important at the time. In otherwords, partial facts about a story do not prove or invalidate the story or the facts. Nor do they prove that the story was fabricated later. Remember I’m trying to point out how the Gospel writers just wrote what they knew about and what they considered important.
In this argument it would be silly for me to start accusing reporters of getting the story wrong and use that as the example, because it would imply that the Gospels were wrong too. The Gospels maybe wrong, but the variation on the focus of the report is not a basis for judging accuracy. In fact it helps determine accuracy if all the reports put together never contradict each other, just like the news reports I showed, NONE contradicted each other at all. None! They all merely added and filled out the whole story.

2. And remember don’t create any strawmen.  I know the Gospels may well have been written 30 years after the events while the news reports were written hours after the events.  But recall, I clearly stated that this argument does NOT attempt to prove the Gospel records are correct. It only shows that you can’t invalidate the Gospels for this issue of alleged contradictions as the atheist Charles was trying to do. Because they are not contradictions but merely a partial but fully correct report of the events. I repeat: I am not trying to prove the Gospels are true. I am only dispensing with that feeble argument that because one Gospel does not mention one detail but the other Gospel does, that does not prove they are wrong. To prove the Gospel is accurate see the links I provided earlier.

3. Note too that all this DOES indeed reflect what the original complaint was by the Atheist Charles who originally challenged me. His point was that some accounts said that there were 2 angels, some only noted 1, others had the only Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb, vs. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James  vs both Marys and Salome. Note how there were three barriers in the SWA event, but some reports only mentioned 1 of them others mentioned only two of them. All were correct and some of them may have even known about the other barriers but felt them to be inconsequential to the event or perhaps knew that those had already been mentioned.  So John writing perhaps 60 years after the event vs 5-30 for other Gospels may have interviewed Mary Magdalene and knew that Mark and Matthew had already described the other women, so he just focused on Mary Magdalene’s story.

 So please remember I’m not using this to prove anything else BUT this point. So stay on task.

And one more time: Remember none of the reports I showed were wrong in any of the reported facts, all the facts were 100% correct, but none were 100% complete (and none will ever be complete because all accounts will be limited in space and reader’s time and interest thus every recorder/reporter/Gospel writer will have to pick and choose with items to report on).

 

Take a look at the link for a chronology of what probably happened that reconciles most of the issues. The rest we can deal with one by one.

 

 

Resurrection Chronology

from http://www.carm.org/bible_difficulties_5.htm

Also see http://carm.org/bible-difficulties/matthew-mark/resurrection-chronology specifically.

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