My purpose for this blog is to comment on modernism, and one of the fruits of modernism is an increase in atheism. Since as a teenager I was an enthusiastic modernist and considered myself an atheist, the subject of atheism has continued to be on my mind since I began to follow Jesus Christ. So, I decided I will include posts dealing with atheism and their critiques of religion.
One attack that I see atheists often using is to point out contradictions in Christian beliefs, usually within the text of the Bible itself. The idea is that contradictions undermine the credibility of the Bible and the Christian faith.
One type of contradiction is when an event or series of events is described in more than one place in the Bible, but in different ways. These contradictions are most often found in the four gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each of these books presents a story of the life of Jesus, but when comparing them to each other, differences can be found.
I have several things to say in response to this critique. First of all, Christians have been aware of these problems since the beginning. There were some who wanted to only use one of the gospels, and there were some who attempted to combine the four. The conclusion was that each of the four gospel accounts had apostolic origins and presented an important perspective on who Jesus is. The fuller view presented by the four-fold gospel was worth the difficulties of discrepancies in the details.
Second, experts who deal with multiple accounts of an event, whether they be criminal investigators or historians know that multiple witnesses will not agree in all of the details. In fact, if there is too much agreement, it raises the suspicion of collaboration between the witnesses to get their story straight. If the early Christians were making up the stories of Jesus, they could have easily fixed the discrepancies. The fact that these were known by the early Christians to be four independent witnesses of the life of Christ, whether directly as in the case of Matthew and John, or indirectly as in the case of Mark and Luke, made them off-limits to any tampering.
Third, there was a period of oral tradition that elapsed between the events of Jesus' life and the writing of the gospel accounts. The cultures surrounding the life of Jesus had strong practices of accurately passing on stories orally. It is quite likely that as the first Christians began to preach about Jesus, they formed a consistent manner of telling the stories of Jesus so that they had a collection of stories memorized that could be used at various occasions. Later, when the gospel writers composed their works, they drew from this collection, arranging the various stories in ways that fit their purposes. This oral tradition is so consistent that it has led to the theory of a lost document called "Q" that served as a common source for some of the gospel accounts. However, there is no historical basis for the existence of Q, and I think a strong oral tradition is a better explanation for the consistent source.
Fourth, the four writers had different target audiences and had purposes in their writing beyond just recording a chronology of the life of Jesus. They wanted to emphasize a particular point about the identity and mission of Jesus in a way that made sense to their target audience, so they chose stories and arranged them in a setting to best make their point.
These are some things to think about when dealing with contradictions in the gospel accounts. Similar principles apply to other parts of the Bible. In my next point, I will address apparent contradictions in the beliefs of Christians.