Not long ago, Mark Woods wrote an article in Christian Today exploring the apparent contradictions between the two accounts of Judas’ death, in Matt 27.3–8 and in Act 1.18. In the first, Judas hangs himself, the priests buy the field, and it is named ‘Field of Blood’ because of the betrayal by Judas. In the second, briefer account, Judas buys the field first, falls to his death there, and it is named ‘Field of Blood’ because of Judas’ death. These differing accounts have recently become a focus for attention on whether the NT is reliable, and no wonder. Biblical scholar Richard Longenecker believes that the difficulty of reconciling these two accounts is ‘often considered the most intractable contradiction in the NT’. Yet this is hardly a new problem; Augustine was aware of the issue, and it is not much different from reconciling other differences within Acts itself, such as the three accounts of Paul’s conversation in chapters 9, 22 and 26.
Woods suggests a way of living with this. Rather than try and reconcile the two accounts artificially, we should accept the ‘blindingly obvious’ point that there are two different, contradictory stories, and that ‘one of them got it right, and the other didn’t.’
I don’t believe for one moment that the Bible is compromised by honesty about the parts where it contradicts itself or where the biblical writers, speaking spiritual truth in the context of erroneous ideas about science and nature, simply got things wrong.
But there is one rather large problem with this. If there really are two stories, and they really cannot be reconciled, the logical conclusion is not that one is right and one is wrong—but that they are both wrong since historical reliability (at least in our understanding of the idea) is not important to the NT writers. And if these two stories are not reliable, what about the rest of Acts? Or the gospels? In particular, what about the ‘contradictions’ between the accounts of Jesus’ healings? Or the whole shape of his ministry (about five months in Mark, three years in John)? Or his trial and crucifixion? Or the resurrection—was there one angel (Mark) or two (Matthew)? Two women or three? The women first to the tomb, or the men? And did they say nothing, or tell the others…? And so on. If these accounts cannot be reconciled, then the most obvious conclusion to draw is not that one of the accounts is accurate and the others are not, but that none of them are. And I don’t think it is then possible to conclude that in matters of faith the Bible is trustworthy, but in the matter of facts it is, well, a little bit hit and miss. The NT documents do not separate faith and facts in this kind of way.
In fact, Matthew and Luke tell us that they are interested in facts, in their different ways. For Matthew, the story about Judas has a particular function in his narrative. It is an odd place for him to include this episode, since it means taking events out of order—jumping ahead to Judas’ death and then jumping back to Jesus’ trial. Luke’s order in Acts is more logical. But Matthew does this because he wants us to spot three things: first, that Judas’ fate was a fulfilment of Jesus’ words in chapter 26; second, to see the contrast with Peter, and the difference between Peter’s repentance and Judas’ ‘remorse’; and thirdly that all this was a ‘fulfilment’ of the OT Scriptures. So he follows up the story of Judas with a quotation from Jeremiah. Except that the quotation incorporates elements from Zechariah as well, and doesn’t actually fit the story very well! As with Matthew’s other examples of ‘fulfilment’ (particular in the birth narratives), the fit looks rather forced. If Matthew was making the narrative up, then he could have done a much better job—and the logical conclusion from this is that he is making the ‘fulfilment’ fit the facts, rather than the other way around. The facts do matter.
Luke, in his own way, is also making this point. Having noted that others have offered their own versions, he sets out to provide his own account from eye-witness research so that his readers might be confident in what they have heard (Luke 1.1–4). In this aside about Judas (which most English versions put in brackets), he includes a puzzling little phrase (me oun) which suggests that he is filling out some detail for a story that his readers might have heard elsewhere. It looks very much like he wants to fill in some facts!
To see what is going on here, let me give you an illustration from my own experience. I was recently rather late getting to the station for a train, was very hot and bothered as I jumped on and found my seat. There was no refreshment service on the train, but the person opposite me was very kind and offered me his bottle of water. When I opened my Bible for the reading of the day I found this: ‘Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly be rewarded’ (Mark 9.41). Moral of the story? God speaks through Scripture into our situations.
Or another story. I usually cycle to the train station, but on one occasion hadn’t done so for several weeks. The night before I thought to myself ‘You really ought to check the bike.’ But I couldn’t be bothered and left it till the morning. When I got the bike out, disaster—it had a flat tyre! I pumped it up, cycled like the wind, and arrived at the station as the train pulled in! Moral of the story? Prepare ahead of time—though even if you don’t, God will provide a way.
In fact, those are two stories about the same event—but you’d be hard-pressed to tie them together, not least because the two trains mentioned were not the same, but connecting trains, and the full story wouldn’t quite agree with either. So the question might arise: what was the true story of my journey that morning? When we tell stories, we edit them and condense detail in order to draw out a particular point, and this is the way that the gospel writers use their material—often in an even more condensed way, since they use many fewer words than we would today.
This points to something essential about the nature of Scripture. To talk of Scripture as ‘inerrant’ might fit if it were just a rule book, or a car maintenance manual—but it is neither, and to that extent I agree with Mark’s view. In his Models for Scripture, John Goldingay points out the different ways that Scripture talks of itself. One of these is as ‘witnessing tradition’—a testimony to what happened passed down faithfully to others. As a ‘witness’, the accounts of what happened have been edited, to draw out a point—the main one being that in Jesus, God has come and redeemed the world. But testimony always have to have a facticity about it; it has to offer a coherent account if it is to be taken seriously as a reliable witness. This comes back to something Mark Woods says early on in his reflection: ‘It’s true that logically, there’s nothing impossible about this way of reconciling two stories.’ And for me, it is vital that this is possible, even if it not the first thing that I want to do with these texts.
If they cannot be reconciled—if they are not at some level reliable accounts of what happened—then they are not a credible witness. And if they are not, then they cannot tell me the truth about Jesus Christ.
A version of this article was published in Christian Today on 3rd October 2015
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