Are There Contradictions in the Gospels?
A few weeks ago, I preached about the story of Jesus at Simon the Pharisee’s house. If you read through the Gospels, you realize Jesus was a very popular dinner guest. He spent time with religious leaders, tax-collectors, friends, and family, gathered around the table. In fact, I think you could say that many of Jesus’s most formative conversations happened around the table.
On this particular night, Jesus would have two life-changing conversations; one with his host, Simon, and the other with an unexpected dinner intruder.
In Luke 7:36-50, “a woman of the city enters.” She was not supposed to be there. As Simon’s response shows, this intruder was not the kind of person welcome at high society dinner parties. The woman pours ointment on Jesus’ feet, and she begins to weep, drying Jesus’s feet with her hair. It’s a moving event, and Jesus’s response teaches us a lot about forgiveness and love. For more on Jesus’s response to the two dinner guests, here’s the link to the sermon.
But this story invites another very common question in the Gospels. Is this the same story found in Matthew and Mark?
In both of those Gospels, a woman comes and anoints Jesus with expensive ointment. In Matthew 26:6-13, Jesus is at the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany. In the middle of the meal, a woman comes with an alabaster flask and anoints Jesus’s head with oil. The events are similar, but many of the details are different. Mark 14:3-9 tells the same story. In each case, Judas Iscariot comments that the money should have been given to the poor.
The Gospel of John also contains a similar story. Jesus is in Bethany with his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (the same Lazarus Jesus raised from the dead just one chapter earlier). Mary takes a jar of ointment, anoints Jesus’s feet, and wipes them with her hair - exactly like the woman did in Luke 7.
So what should we make of these stories? Are the Gospel writers telling the same story? Are they fuzzy on the details? Did four different women anoint Jesus?
Errors in the Gospels?
If you’ve ever wondered about the repetitive stories in the Gospels, you’re not alone. Every time I come across parallel accounts or different details, I’m reminded of reading Bart Ehrman’s work as a college student. Ehrman is a world-class Greek scholar, but he’s best known for his faith-shaking books on the unreliability of the New Testament.
I heard Daniel Wallace, another world-class Greek scholar, say once that he believed Bart Ehrman had led more people away from the faith than any other living scholar. That’s not an honor I’d wish on anyone, but I think he’s right. Ehrman’s books, Misquoting Jesus, Forged: Writing in the Name of God, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible and others are apologetics texts for unbelief masquerading as scholarship.
As a college junior, I started reading Misquoting Jesus to see about all the hype. Ehrman is smart, articulate, persuasive, and very angry. He’s the kind of person who’s never gotten over the anger he harbors over his fundamentalist upbringing. Ehrman had a model upbringing. He grew up in a Christian environment, studying the Bible, desiring to serve God. He went to Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, and continued to the graduate program at Princeton, where he studied with the greatest textual critic in modern history, Bruce Metzger. So what went wrong?
Ehrman traces his break with Christianity back to a paper he was writing over the Gospel of Mark. In Mark 2:26, Jesus references the story of David and his men eating the showbread in the temple, in the days of “Abiathar the high priest.”
In 1 Samuel 21:1-9, though, Ahimelech is listed as the high priest. When Ehrman came across this discrepancy, he was stunned. In the paper, he made several arguments explaining why Mark may have named him Abiathar instead of Ahimelech. When he received the paperback from his professor, he noticed a note in the margin; “Maybe Mark was mistaken.”
Starting at that moment, something fractured in Ehrman that’s never been healed. He started looking for contradictions everywhere. Using his academic training in textual criticism, Ehrman has made a career out of talking about all the alleged contradictions in the Bible, especially among the Synoptic Gospels. One of Ehrman’s favorite tropes is to cite the thousands of manuscript errors found in the Bible. If you know much about the Gospels, this is a clever and very misleading sleight of hand.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke comprise the “Synoptic Gospels.” They follow roughly the same chronology, include the same events, and often share the exact same wording. Most scholars believe this is because Mark was the first Gospel written, and Matthew and Luke had copies of Mark when they were writing.
The attempt to sort out the similarities and differences between these three is called the “Synoptic Problem.” Though a large percentage of Matthew and Luke draw from Mark, they often say things differently. Matthew commonly introduces OT prophecies and organizes his Gospel around five major teaching blocks. Luke uses a more sophisticated Greek style and departs from Mark’s phrasing.
Some of the early copyists were very uncomfortable with these differences in the Gospels, so they often reconciled the accounts. In Greek, it’s perfectly acceptable to change the order of a sentence and keep the meaning the same. Sometimes the scribes did this. Sometimes they added a word or changed an ending to make one of the Gospel accounts match the others.
Through hundreds of years and thousands of manuscripts, lots of these changes appeared. And here’s the sleight of hand, Ehrman counts each of these as an “error.” So of the thousands of “errors,” virtually none of them change the meaning of the text. In the New Testament, all but a select few derive from obvious copying errors - pre-computer “typos” - and attempts to make the Gospel accounts match.
That brings us back to the few places where there are substantive differences in the accounts. Who was the high priest when David ate the bread of the presence? How many women anointed Jesus with oil? How many different Simons did Jesus eat with?
Ahimelech or Abiathar?
Let’s take the issue in Mark 2:26 first.
First, 1 Samuel 22:20 tells us that Abiathar was the son of Ahimelech and may have been present for this encounter. Additionally, Abiathar was the high priest during David’s life and figures most prominently in David’s reign.
Second, Jesus does not say that Abiathar was the high priest at that time, just that he was a high priest. In the scope of the David narratives, Abiathar plays a far more significant role than his father, Ahimelech. He would be the high priest remembered of the two. Third, Ahimelech’s father may have also been named Abiathar (2 Sam. 8:17; 1 Chron. 18:16, 24:6), and Jesus could be referencing the household of high priests.
As is often the case, a little bit of study can clear up the difficulty. After all, we do not believe that Mark was writing on his own. We believe that he was guided by the Holy Spirit. These Gospels are not the work of amateur historians, then, but real authors writing about real events using their real minds and at the same time guided by the Holy Spirit so that every word God wanted in Scripture is included.
How Many Times Was Jesus Anointed?
What can we say about the women anointing Jesus?
This case, too, requires a bit of digging but may be an easier case. The bottom line, and I think the strongest argument that these two accounts are different, is that Luke does not seem to think these are the same stories.
First, he deliberately includes the detail that this Simon is a Pharisee, not a leper. Against the argument some make that Simon may have been a leper and then a Pharisee, this series of events would have been extremely unlikely in first-century Jewish culture because of the long course of training required for Pharisees. Second, he makes clear that this was not Mary, but a woman of the city and a sinner - likely a prostitute. Third, the timing is different.
This instance occurs very early in Jesus’s ministry, whereas Mark and Matthew place their stories later in Jesus’s ministry. Fourth, the dialogue and the lesson of the story are drastically different. In the other accounts, the lesson Jesus draws concerns giving to the poor. In Luke’s instance,Jesus teaches Simon, the woman, and the disciples a profound lesson on love: “The one who has been forgiven much loves much.”
With just a paragraph’s worth of explanation, we’re compelled to conclude that Simon was a popular name in the Ancient Near East and that Jesus was honored and anointed many times in his life.
The Gospels do not contradict one another, but instead, these stories remind us of something John wrote at the very end of his Gospel, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
John likely speaks for all of the Gospel writers when he says one chapter earlier, “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak and the Senior Pastor of Carlton Landing Community Church in Oklahoma.