Question: I am finding inconsistencies in the Gospels that really bother me. But if it contains contradictory accounts, how can we trust what the Bible says?
Answer: I suspect that you are bothered by these things because you believe that the Bible is God’s Word, and therefore, it is true in all that it says, but you also see details, especially here in the Gospels that don’t seem to line up (at best), and sound contradictory (at worst). It is important to keep in mind that the Gospels are essentially eye-witness accounts of the events surrounding the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
- Matthew was one of Jesus’ disciples and served as an eyewitness of most, if not all that he wrote.
- Mark traveled with Peter for a time, and is believed to have written his Gospel based on Peter’s account.
- Luke traveled with Paul for a time, and attempted to put together an orderly account from various sources.
- John was also a disciple of Jesus and would serve as an eyewitness of most, if not all that he wrote.
Now, if we were to treat these 4 accounts simply as witnesses to the life and death of Jesus, we would expect each of them to convey many of the same things, but also that they might emphasize different details about what happened. This does not necessarily mean that the witnesses are wrong. For example, if 4 people witness a car accident, they will each give different details. Because of each one’s unique point of view, they likely saw some of the same things, and also some different things that were unique to their vantage point. But, where we run into problems is when the witnesses give contradictory testimony.
Let’s look at one apparent contradiction in the Gospel accounts, and see how it is possible to reconcile it. All 4 Gospels record the charge brought against Jesus that was fixed to the cross above Jesus’ head.
- Matthew 27:37 says, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” (NIV)
- Mark 15:26 says, “The King of the Jews.” (NIV)
- Luke 23:38 says, “This is the King of the Jews.” (NIV)
- John 19:19 says, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” (NIV)
Now, these are clearly 4 different versions, if you will, of what Pilate had written and placed on the cross. How can we reconcile these differences? John 19:20 says, “Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek.” So, now we have more information! The sign was not written in 1 language, it was written in 3. And so, now we have the likelihood that the translations contained slight variations, and that our eyewitness reports are, in all likelihood, accurate.
God is the only eyewitness that sees every detail. The rest of us are limited by our point of view. We believe the Bible was written by inspiration of the Holy Spirit: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, ESV). If the words of the Bible were breathed out by God, then they are true.
The New Testament was written almost 2,000 years ago. Since that time, people have been trying to resolve apparent contradictions in the Bible and between the 4 Gospel writers. You can have confidence that any apparent contradictions you find have already been discovered and that they can somehow be resolved—if not by a careful evaluation of the various accounts, then perhaps by a scholarly examination in the original languages. There is nothing new under the sun.
Now, you or I may not be able to answer every apparent contradiction we can find, but there are helpful books out there that address these sorts of things. One that has helped me is Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. I’m praying that this discussion will help strengthen your confidence in the accuracy and truthfulness of God’s Word.
Warmly in Christ,