OST is closed for business but its spirit survives on my blog.

Contradictions in the Gospels: Problems or Opportunities?


Bart Ehrman has written another book.  It’s called, Jesus Interrupted.  You can read a short article about Ehrman and the new book, an excerpt of the book, and listen to the NPR story here.  I have not read the book; let me be clear about that.  But what I talk about in this essay has nothing to do with the content of the book.  Rather, I am interested in a working presumption that makes Ehrman’s argument possible in the first instance.  The presumption is that the words that compose the Bible are more or less accurate representations of what really happened, which makes “contradictions” and differences in the gospels to be particularly problematic.

At one point in the article, Ehrman is quoted:

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is not interested in teaching about himself. But when you read John’s Gospel, that’s virtually the only thing Jesus talks about is who he is, what his identity is, where he came from,” Ehrman says. “This is completely unlike anything that you find in Mark or in Matthew and Luke. And historically it creates all sorts of problems, because if the historical Jesus actually went around saying that he was God, it’s very hard to believe that Matthew, Mark and Luke left out that part — you know, as if that part wasn’t important to mention. But in fact, they don’t mention it. And so this view of the divinity of Jesus on his own lips is found only in our latest Gospel, the Gospel of John.

That Matthew, Mark, and Luke “left out” Jesus’ talk of his identity and origins indicates to Ehrman that aspects of the gospels (or perhaps even whole gospels) are untrue.

But I wonder: are “contradictions” in the gospels or gaps between gospel stories necessarily an indication of their falsity?  I don’t think so.  Or let me put it this way: “contradictions” between gospels are only a problem from a certain perspective. 

From another perspective, one that views language as a set of symbolic resources that humans use to make sense of their experiences and to formulate responses to them, these gaps between gospel stories indicate the points at which interpretive agency becomes important.  It is precisely here at these “contradictions” where Matthew takes one storyline and John takes another, for instance, that the contemporary reader is pushed to the point of undecidability; that is to say, the reader has come upon “a condition of choice” (Caputo 2000, 237) where a judgment is called for.  John D. Caputo says that the empty tomb and the confusion and undecidability that immediately followed offers another example where interpretive agency was called for; as a result, an interpretation was forged that accounted for the empty tomb.    

My point in all of this is that “contradictions” in and between the gospels are better treated as opportunities to creatively interpret the text in a faithful way and not, as Ehrmen might argue, to discredit the text.    

*John D. Caputo, “Undecidability and the Empty Tomb.”  In More Radical Hermeneutics.  John D. Caputo.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Your rating: None Average: 2.5 (10 votes)

Comments

Re: Contradictions in the Gospels: Problems or Opportunities?

Jacob - I guess you meant in the final line of your penultimate paragraph that ‘forged’ was as created as in a blacksmith’s forge, rather than a ‘forgery’, as in printing fake banknotes.

I took note of your comment, because I have only just come across Bart Ehrman, through a DVD series I ordered from a company based in the US called ‘The Great Courses’. Ehrman teaches a historical approach to the New Testament through 24 lectures. I was aware before ordering of his own pilgrimage of faith (or away from faith) which is described in the link you have provided. I wanted not to follow him in this pilgrimage, but to follow how academic crifical study of the New Testament works, its tools and arguments. I have found this to be immensely enriching and rewarding, but without coming to the same conclusions as Ehrman. 

I think Ehrman is unfamiliar with some of the most up to date thinking and study of the New Testament, and makes some assumptions, on which his views rest, which are questionable. His starting point though is undeniable -eg that there are huge differences between John’s gospel and the synoptic gospels. But are these differences contradictions? And are all the other many differences between NT MSS really so great as to cast doubt on their reliability? Do the scribal differences really amount to the significant differences in their meaning which he claims?

Ehrman asserts that John’s gospel is full of Jesus’s claims to divinity, while the synoptics do the opposite - he deliberately hides his divinity. Is this true? Apart from John 8, in which Jesus comes closest to making a claim to divinity, do the other ‘I am’ statements so clearly establish a claim which his original hearers would have associated with divinity? On the other hand, in the synoptics, we may not have the same kind of self-focused language made by Jesus as in John, but when you look at Jesus’s practice, it’s difficult not to see someone who was promoting, not a YHWH separate from himself, but in his own person demonstrating the fulfilment of the prophecies in Isaiah, for instance, through himself as YHWH himself. 

In the synoptics, Jesus was the new temple, the locus of the dwelling place of God, bringing Isaianic restoration of Israel, and encouraging all and sundry to come to him (‘Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden’ etc) to receive healing, forgiveness of sins, deliverance, cleansing, and occasionally raisings from the dead.

This does not mean that there are not significant  differences of emphasis and style between John and the synoptics, but from a different perspective, not so great as might be thought. Add to this a focus in John on a Judaean ministry, and in the synoptics on a Galilean ministry, and we have a difference of time and geography to take account of also.

Ehrman denies that we have eyewitness accounts in John or the synoptics, but ascribes to eyewitness accounts some of the very things that make the possibilty of the gospels containing eyewitness accounts very probable, namely: the variation of the accounts, but not to the extent that they necessarily undermine the basic credibility of the accounts themselves. Even the resurrection accounts contain enough core material to make them credible, and the subsequent history of the disciples and church makes them even more likely to be basically true accounts. The variations - well, wouldn’t it be likely that accounts of such an astounding event would vary amongst eyewitnesses?

We should also take account of how much the synoptic gospels differ amongst themselves. For instance, Mark’s gospel, although having much similar material to Matthew, contains little of Matthew’s teaching of Jesus. Does that make Mark less reliable as an account? Or does it make the teaching of Matthew less reliable, because it isn’t in Mark?

So I don’t think there are two disconnected ways of understanding the NT - that of the academics, who have access to a ‘truer’ understanding of the texts, which shows they are largely unreliable, and that of ‘believers’, who are simply unaware of what the academics know and have discovered. I think the NT is much more accurate than Ehrman concedes, despite scribal errors. I therefore don’t think we need to go back to a largely discredited dichotomy between the ‘Jesus of faith’ and the ‘Jesus of history’ which the 19th century critics were suggesting, and which Ehrman seems to want to perpetuate. I therefore don’t go down your route, Jacob, though I appreciate the integrity which inspires your suggestion.

Ehrman’s slightly old-fashioned views emerge particularly in his study of Romans, where he rests his theological interpretation on a rather dated, idealistic, reformed view of the letter describing how believers are ‘put right’ with God. He obviously has read very little of the more recent ‘new perspective’ views which are causing much discussion and reinterprtetation elsewhere - the US not excepted.

As a communicator of critical approaches to the NT, especially as demonstrated in critical historic textual research, Ehrman is outstanding. But you need not to take everything he says without some critical awareness!

Re: Contradictions in the Gospels: Problems or Opportunities?

Yeah, I mean “forged” as in built or constructed an interpretation of some set of events—I don’t mean “forged” as in a forged dollar bill.

 

Thanks for the comments

Re: Contradictions in the Gospels: Problems or Opportunities?

So I don’t think there are two disconnected ways of understanding the NT - that of the academics, who have access to a ‘truer’ understanding of the texts, which shows they are largely unreliable, and that of ‘believers’, who are simply unaware of what the academics know and have discovered. I think the NT is much more accurate than Ehrman concedes, despite scribal errors. I therefore don’t think we need to go back to a largely discredited dichotomy between the ‘Jesus of faith’ and the ‘Jesus of history’ which the 19th century critics were suggesting, and which Ehrman seems to want to perpetuate. I therefore don’t go down your route, Jacob, though I appreciate the integrity which inspires your suggestion.”

 

Just to be clear, I don’t think that academics or anybody else has a privileged position in relation to the Bible and I don’t think that believers should resurrect the dichotomy between the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history.  Rather than seeing “contradictions” as indicators of inaccuracy or as problems that some empirical data will ultimately solve, I argue that what Ehrman calls “contradictions” are better seen as opportunities for faithful interpretations to be enacted by readers.  And there are many possible faithful interpretations depending on the faith community one practices with—those interpretations may overlap with other interpretations or they may well conflict with them.  

Re: Contradictions in the Gospels: Problems or Opportunities?

I do not understand my anyone is concerned about Bart Ehrman’s opinion concerning anything as regards Christian apolegetics.  He,  of course,  is a non-believer by his own admission. 

If we understand that the biblical message was written by man,  we might expect it to have grammatical and syntactical issues.  Further, do critics such as Ehrman know all the facts tumbling around in the minds of those who authored scriptures ?  It seems to me that unless and until we share in that knowledge,  we do not have enough information to know if a contradiction has actually be found.  

Finally,  if we believe that God in Christ is sovereign to such problematic issues,  the relavancy of Ehrman’s critique escapes me. If God can use the preaching of a message delivered by imperfect men,  surely he can ordain and use the scriptures, as we know them, to accomplish his will. 

Grace to you,

J Smithson

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.