By Keith Thompson
Muslims claim there are irreconcilable contradictions in the New Testament documents which allegedly prove the Bible to be false.
However, such Muslims are inconsistent since they use arguments on this issue from unbelieving naturalist, materialist scholars who do not believe in the supernatural or for the possibility of harmonization. Yet, these same Muslims nevertheless believe in trying to harmonize Koranic texts non-Muslims allege to be contradictory. This is hypocritical. Also, the Koran, Sunnah and Sira literature claim the Bible is uncorrupted and in pristine form, so Muslims are running a fool’s errand on this issue (e.g. Koran 4:136; 5:46-47; 5:68; Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 38, Number 4434; Ibn Isaq, The Life of Muhammad, [Oxford University Press, 2014], pp. 102-104, 268).
Moreover, rarely do Muslims study the bulk of scholarly Christian works which address the so-called contradictions unbelievers bring up. For example Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Geisler’s and Howe’s Big Book of Bible Difficulties, Haley’s Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, Arndt’s, Hoerber’s and Roehrs’s Bible Difficulties and Seeming Contradictions, etc. In depth, conservative exegetical commentary sets also do a good job at addressing alleged contradictions (e.g. PNTC, NICNT, BECNT, EBC, etc.)
The Alleged Passion Contradictions Examined
One of the lists of alleged contradictions Muslims like to parrot comes from Bart Ehrman. He often offers the following bunch:
“Did he die on the day before the Passover meal was eaten, as John explicitly says, or did he die after it was eaten, as Mark explicitly says? Did he die at noon, as in John, or at 9 a.m., as in Mark? Did Jesus carry his cross the entire way himself or did Simon of Cyrene carry his cross? It depends which Gospel you read. Did both robbers mock Jesus on the cross or did only one of them mock him and the other come to his defense? It depends which Gospel you read. Did the curtain in the temple rip in half before Jesus died or after he died? It depends which Gospel you read. Or take the accounts of the resurrection. Who went to the tomb on the third day? Was it Mary alone or was it Mary with other women? If it was Mary with other women, how many other women were there, which ones were they, and what were their names? Was the stone rolled away before they got there or not? What did they see in the tomb? Did they see a man, did they see two men, or did they see an angel? It depends which account you read. What were they told to tell the disciples? Were the disciples supposed to stay in Jerusalem and see Jesus there or were they to go to Galilee and see Jesus there? Did the women tell anyone or not? It depends which Gospel you read. Did the disciples never leave Jerusalem or did they immediately leave Jerusalem and go to Galilee? All of these depend on which account you read” (Bart Ehrman vs. William Lane Craig Debate, Is there Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?, debate transcript http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-there-historical-evidence-for-the-resurrection-of-jesus-the-craig-ehrman).
Quickly listing these off with slight anger and lots of authority in your voice can sound convincing. But examining each one carefully yields different results. We will cover each one.
Did Jesus die the day before the Passover meal was eaten, as John explicitly says, or did he die after it was eaten, as Mark explicitly says?
Well, John does not explicitly say Jesus died the day before Passover meal was eaten. He says Jesus died on the “day of preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14) which refers not to the day of preparation for the Passover meal which was one Thursday. The phrase is paraskeue tou pascha and it instead refers to the “day of preparation of Passover week” which was indeed on Friday (D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991], pp. 603-604). Carson proves this with the following ancient references (Josephus, Ant. xvi. 163; xiv. 21; xvii. 213; Bel. Ii. 10; Lk. 22:1; Didache, viii. 1; Martyrdom of Polycarp, vii. 1). So, when Mark says Jesus died the day after Passover meal (Mark 14:21; 15:1), which was Friday, there is no contradiction because John is saying he died on the day of preparation of Passover week which was also Friday. Both agree.
Did Jesus die at noon, as in John, or at 9 a.m., as in Mark?
Well, Mark does not say Jesus died at 9 a.m. Mark 15:25 says Jesus was crucified at 9 a.m., big difference. However, Mark goes on to say in Mark 15:34-37 that at the ninth hour (or 3 p.m.) Jesus “uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.” So Jesus died at 3 p.m. according to Mark. Ehrman must not have read this text. John 19:14 says Jesus was carried away to be crucified at “about the sixth hour.” This is going by Roman time since John wrote in Ephesus, the Roman province of Asia (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.1.; Eusebius, Church History, 3.1.1.; and note Montanists in Phrygia close to Ephesus used John’s Gospel). This means Jesus was carried away to be crucified at about 6 a.m. according to John, and was actually crucified at 9 a.m. according to Mark. And again he died later that day at 3:00 p.m. according to Mark 15:34-37. Hence, the times of crucifixion in the two accounts are tight together and there is no contradiction.
Did Jesus carry his cross the entire way himself or did Simon of Cyrene carry his cross?
Well, John 19:17 does say Jesus bore his own cross to Golgotha. And the synoptics say Simon of Cyrene helped part of the way (Mark 15:21; Matthew 27:32; Luke 23:26). This is because of Jesus’ weakened state from being flogged. However, John does not say only Jesus carried the cross the whole way, or that Simon of Cyrene did not help him. That is read into the text. John just chose to omit this part of the journey to Golgotha because it was distracting from the themes of his gospel, such as God’s sovereign plan, the Son’s voluntarism, etc. (J. Ramsey Michaels, The Gospel of John, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010], p. 498; D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991], p. 609). But, as we have said, John does not deny Jesus had help. He just chose not to mention the part of the journey where he received the help. That’s not a contradiction.
Did both robbers mock Jesus on the cross or did only one of them mock him and the other come to his defense?
Well, Matthew 27:44 does say the robbers mocked Jesus. And Luke 23:39-43 says one of the robbers rebuked the other and defended Christ. However, the answer is obviously one of the robbers on his increasingly hard cross repented after reviling Jesus and then defended Him due to fearing God (Luke 23:40) and being impressed by the way Jesus bore the situation (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, [Wm B. Eerdmans, 1992], p. 719; Leon Morris, Luke, [InterVarsity Press, 1988], p. 346). Matthew records the reviling and Luke records the repentance. Luke’s early “L” material or eyewitness sources (Luke 1:1-3) he possessed likely provided him with this part of the story Matthew did not include. That is not a contradiction.
Did the curtain in the temple rip in half before Jesus died or after he died?
Well, Mark 15:37-38 and Matthew 27:50-51 affirm the veil of the temple tore at the same time Jesus died. Luke 23:45-46 appears to say the veil ripped before he died in some translations since they will say, “45. . . And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last” (Luke 23:45-46). However, when in certain translations v. 46 starts with the word “then” and proceeds to mentions Jesus’ death, although it appears to mean Jesus’ death happened after the ripping of the veil, this is false. The word for “then” here is kai in the original Greek and it’s a particle that can also mean “and” which allows for the veil ripping at the same time as Jesus’ death. Instead of “then” connecting the sentences, “and” would be. Luke would simply be mentioning different events here, not giving a chronological order to them. Such translations which use “and” here instead of “then” include the NASB, KJV, HCSB, ABPE, DRB, DBT, ERV, WBT, and YLT. Moreover, Matthew, Mark and Luke all affirm the temple was torn on the ninth hour (i.e., 3 p.m.) – (see Mark 15:34, 37-39; Matthew 27:46, 51; Luke 23:44-46). Thus, they all agree on the time the veil tore.
Who went to the tomb on the third day? Was it Mary alone or was it Mary with other women? If it was Mary with other women, how many other women were there, which ones were they, and what were their names?
The answer is Mark 16:1 shows three women went there (the two Mary’s and Salome). Luke 23:55-56 and 24:1 just say it was a group of women who entered it without naming them. No contradiction there. And Matthew chose to mention only the two Mary’s (Matthew 28:1) because it was inconvenient to mention Salome who was not essential to the story (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, [InterVarsity Press, 2007], p. 194). Matthew does not say Salome was not present, he just emphasises the two Mary’s for his own purpose. So, there is no contradiction here. Also, none of the gospels say Mary was alone, contra Ehrman. However, because John 20:1 says Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, this is why Ehrman claims John has her going alone. But, the text does not say only Mary went to it, just that she did in fact go to it. Moreover, the very next verse, John 20:2, shows Mary was not alone according to John. It says, “So she [Mary Magdalene] ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2). Who is the “we” here? They are Mary and the other women whom Mark and Matthew mention, of course. So, John does not teach Mary went alone and there is no contradiction.
Was the stone rolled away before they got there or not?
Well, Mark 16:3-4, Luke 24:1-2, and John 20:1 all clearly agree the stone was moved before they got there. It’s just that a sloppy, liberal reading of Matthew 28:1-2 confused Ehrman to think it teaches the stone was rolled after they got there. The text says, “1Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it” (Matthew 28:1-2). However, there’s nothing actually in the text indicating the stone was rolled after they got there (Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, [Regency, 1982], p. 348). All we’re told is they went to see the tomb (v. 1) and also that the stone was rolled away (v. 2). It doesn’t say after they got there it was rolled away. Ehrman has to read that into the text.
Did they see a man, did they see two men, or did they see an angel?
Well, Mark 16:5 says the women saw a young man with a white robe. Matthew 28:2-3 and John 20:12 correctly interpret this to be an angelic visitation. That Matthew and John were correct to infer Mark spoke of an angelic visitation is evidenced by the fact that, as in Mark, angels often appeared in human form in the Old Testament, and the white apparel and revelatory message in Mark indicates it was angelic as well. Moreover, the early Jewish historian Josephus shows first century Jews believed angels did appear in beautiful human form (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 5.8.2). So there is no contradiction. The evidence proves in all gospels this was an angelic visitation. How many angels did they see? The answer is Mark and Matthew mention one (Mark 16:5; Matthew 28:2), and Luke and John mention two (Luke 24:2; John 20:12). But that doesn’t mean Mark and Matthew believed only one was there. Where there are two angels there is at least one, and Mark and Matthew simply chose to mention one of them. Why? Well Blomberg notes, “It is more natural to suggest that there really were two characters present in each case, but that one . . . dominated the scene in a way that left the other easily ignored in narratives that so regularly omitted non-essential details (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, [InterVarsity Press, 2007], p. 194). Thus, there is no contradiction.
What were they told to tell the disciples?
Well in Mark 16:6-7 and Matthew 28:5-7 they’re told Jesus rose and that they must go to Galilee to tell the others. In Luke 24:5-7 they’re told Jesus rose but Luke simply omits the command to go to Galilee because he doesn’t plan on narrating any Galilean appearances in his gospel. Luke doesn’t say they were not told to go to Galilee. Thus, there is no contradiction.
Were the disciples supposed to stay in Jerusalem and see Jesus there or were they to go to Galilee and see Jesus there?
Yes, they were to go to Galilee (Mark 16:6-7; Matthew 28:5-7) as noted before. It’s just that, again, Luke simply omits the command to go to Galilee because he doesn’t plan on narrating any Galilean appearances in his gospel. No contradiction.
Did the women tell anyone or not?
Yes, Mark 16:7, Matthew 28:7-8, Luke 24:9, and John 20:18 indicate the women told the disciples. It’s just that when Mark 16:8 says “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” Ehrman takes this to mean they did not tell the disciples even though they were told to tell the disciples in Mark 16:7. However, all v. 8 means is that as they ran back to the disciples they did not tell anyone due to fear. As Robert Gundry aptly observes, “We wouldn’t know this episode if the women hadn’t told about it. . . ” (Robert Gundry, Commentary on the New Testament, [Hendrickson], 2010], p. 220).
Did the disciples never leave Jerusalem or did they immediately leave Jerusalem and go to Galilee?
Yes, again, they went to Galilee (Mark 16:6-7; Matthew 28:5-7). Luke simply omits the command to go to Galilee because he doesn’t plan on narrating any Galilean appearances in his gospel.