Does the NT contradict itself? Does it matter?

XIR146846Last month, 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.

Mark 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.

41AKNFY7JFLThis 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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23 thoughts on “Does the NT contradict itself? Does it matter?”

  1. Ian, why does your faith need this all-or-nothing approach? How did it come about?

    The Bible can be unreliable in some aspects, and still give a credible foundation for faith, just as a verdict can rest on imperfect testimony. And, of course, the Bible speaks in many voices, some more reliable than others.

    • When I posted this, I felt it had ‘James Byron’ written all over it!

      This approach comes from being consistent and thinking the issue through. If Luke and Matthew contradict each other, the most obvious conclusion is that we cannot trust either account. And if we cannot trust them, how do we know that anything in the NT happened the way it is reported?

      I think the most consistent view on this is that of non-believers, who I think correctly draw that conclusion.

      Do point out where the line of reasoning I set out doesn’t work. If the Bible speaks with many voices, some more reliable than others, how do you discern the reliable ones? In relation to ethics, it is fine to deploy one’s own moral judgement. But how do you do that in relation to events in history?

      • Biblical scholars have various methods to test reliability — criterion of embarrassment, multiple independent attestation, etc — but that’s beside the wider point: however difficult it is to assess a text’s accuracy, it’s no reason to jump to believing that God made it reliable.

        Since biblical reliability’s a faith position, why not instead have faith that the core of the Christian story is true, while allowing for unreliability in details like Judas’ death?

        • So, on what basis is even the core of the Christian story held to be reliable? And what bits of the gospel constitute the core of the Christian story?

          For instance, let’s put the scripture aside for a moment and ask: ‘on what basis did God make the apostles’ testimony about any aspect of Jesus’ earthly ministry reliable for those who were not His eye-witnesses?’

          It would be, at least, intellectually honest for those who doubt the authority of scripture to be equally dubious regarding the authority of the apostles.

          The issue of reliability is the same, whether we consider Jesus’ message as conveyed through scripture, or as transmitted by group of apostles, who claim that God chose Him and that He, in turn, chose them.

          So, what is the unmediated truth of the gospel that is deemed by the rationalists who post here to be reliable? Is Jesus’ eternal personal involvement essential to achieving its purpose?

          • David: to ask a question about the authority of scripture just doesn’t make sense to me. What on earth does that really mean? It’s like asking if Shakespeare has authority. Or does Keats have authroity. Or does the Times leader have authority. The bible is a collection of all of these sorts of writing. The bible has a unique place as one of our title deeds, and so has some authority for that reason alone, but I suspect you mean is it true? My answer is as in a post below. It bears witness to the truth. And that’s a different thing.

            Ditto the apostles – because we only know the apostles through scripture.

            We know Jesus through four things: scripture, the church, human reason, and human experience. What do you mean by unmediated?

          • Andrew,

            The question was rhetorical.

            You’ve employed the metaphor of a title deed, while resisting its implication: how would you distinguish a genuine title deed from a fraudulent one?

            So, what is it about scripture, the church, human reasoning, or human experience that reassures you that they are witnesses to objective truth?

          • Hi David

            Great question about how do you trust whether a title deed is genuine. I think the trust comes from using the thing and seeing if it rings true – and judging it against other things like reason and experience. The title deed of a house is only true until someone else comes along and shows they have a claim on the title as well……

            And you ask: what is it about scripture, the church, human reasoning, or human experience that reassures you that they are witnesses to objective truth? Well what else is there to use? I think I said that they are witnesses to truth – and you have inserted the word objective. I don’t find that word necessary and wonder what on earth you mean by it.

            And still wondering what you mean by unmediated truth…..

          • Oh and as a further thought about title deeds….if the Church is the holder of the title deeds, and the church isn’t very trustworthy, or seems to be so far removed from the experiences of people, then it isn’t surprising that people begin to lose truth in the title deeds is it?

          • Hi Andrew,

            You responded rhetorically to my question that asked what is it that reassured you about the reliability of scripture, the church, human reasoning, or human experience with ‘Well, what else is there to use?’

            The absence of viable alternatives to these doesn’t magically imbue them or your particular emphases in using them with any greater reliability.

            ‘The title deed of a house is only true until someone else comes along and shows they have a claim on the title as well’. Indeed, there are plenty of religions, including Islam and Judaism, all waving title deeds to what purports to be the same house, but all with thoroughly different wording and owner of the freehold.

            So, what was it/is it that makes Christian’s title deed and witness to truth any more valid than, say, the Muslim’s? Is it simply because they declare Jesus to be owner of eternity’s freehold?

            ‘I think the trust comes from using the thing and seeing if it rings true – and judging it against other things like reason and experience.’

            Yep, and a devout Jew or Muslim would all lay claim to doing exactly the same, only to reach a substantially different conclusion. This is why I qualified ‘truth’ with the word ‘objective’.

            It’s all very well to make pithy statements, like: ‘Truth possesses people, who then witness to the truth.’ As everyone does, you use your discretion to apply the norms and boundaries of your own reasoning and experience to the record.

            The crux of the issue is what happens when scripture describes God as expecting or prohibiting something that disagrees with the norms and boundaries of your existing framework of moral reasoning and experience (and that of your reference group on moral issues).

            According to that frame of reference, on such a point, is the scripture implausible in declaring that God would expect or prohibit such a thing and, therefore, untrue? When I speak about ‘authority’, I am specifically referring to this issue of how the church assigns moral precedence to scripture, the church, human reason and experience.

          • Hi David

            My answer ‘well what else is there?’ was not rhetorical. It is a very genuine question to you: What else is there?

            When you talk about scripture as being plausible or implausible in declaring what God would expect or prohibit then I really only have one answer: God expects love, and prohibits anything that demonstrates a lack of love. That’s the bottom line. Where scritpure seems confused about that, then that scripture isnt terrible plausible and I’d be more inclined to trust human reason and experience. Those were the two things that the people who wrote the scripture relied upon – why shouldn’t we?

            You also ask the great question ‘So, what was it/is it that makes Christian’s title deed and witness to truth any more valid than…..?’ Precisely my point. I was born in Stratford upon Avon. So the chances are that I was going to be Christian. If I’d been born in Calcutta those chances are going to be very different. There is an awful lot of chance involved with religion, wouldn’t you say? What makes it more valid is that it works for me. But the history of our dealings as Christians with other human beings will make the validity questionable for all kinds of people. We haven’t been great at looking after our ‘title’…

            And I’m still wondering what you mean by ‘unmediated truth’. Can you help me on that one?

          • Andrew,

            You say: ‘God expects love, and prohibits anything that demonstrates a lack of love. That’s the bottom line. Where scripture seems confused about that, then that scripture isn’t terrible plausible and I’d be more inclined to trust human reason and experience.’

            ‘Those were the two things that the people who wrote the scripture relied upon – why shouldn’t we?’ Well, you don’t know who wrote the scripture, so you can’t be sure.’

            The phrase ‘seems confused’ is telling. Something in scripture that is at odds with your standards of love or reasoning or experience might simply indicate the limitations of the latter and that human foresight in is limited in understanding ultimate outcomes. Or does love impart perfect foresight?

            ‘What makes it more valid is that it works for me.’ Great, but on that basis, it’s validity begins and ends with you.

            So, really, the relative validity is subjective. My point is that any and everything that witnesses to what we call truth is medium of that truth, whether scripture, the church, human reasoning or experience. Each is a lens (or, as St. Paul might say, mirror) by which we may claim to perceive truth. The fact that they might not perfectly convey everything about that truth doesn’t change the reality that we have to make the best of these imperfect witnesses.

            We follow Christ, not simply because a book tells us to, but because, at the deepest levels of our consciousness, we believe that we have experienced the sort of beneficial change that is consonant with the Person whom the writers of the Old and New Testaments described as the Anointed One.

            A person might indeed grow up in a thoroughly different religious culture, but that doesn’t matter. It’s doers of God’s will and not hearers who are vindicated by God. That is our faith, by which we perceive through a mirror darkly, but then face to face.

          • Thanks David. I think I’d value clarity on two points.
            1. How do you know what is objective truth? How do you judge it?
            2. What is unmediated truth?

          • Hi Andrew,

            In response to your queries, I’ll go back to my earlier question: ‘So, what is the unmediated truth of the gospel that is deemed by the rationalists who post here to be reliable?’

            It was a rhetorical question because everything of the reliable and unchanging assurances of the gospel is incarnational: the transcendent and divine is at work through earthly means and witnesses and they mediate our understanding of its truth, whether by scripture, the church, human reason or experience.

            There is no thoroughly unmediated truth, even if we hope, as the Pharisees and Sadducees did, for Christ to produce an incontrovertible cosmic ‘sign from heaven’.

            You said you were more inclined to trust reasoning and experience than scripture where the latter ‘seems confused’ in respect of love. By way of contrast, I would first question my understanding of what love entails for the sovereign Owner of the universe who imparts His power to grant us existence.

            My higher aspiration in writing here is to expose my own understanding to the scrutiny of those who differ. None of us may be entirely objective, but this dialogue does challenge our biases far more than engaging with only those who agree.

            When we discuss issues here, I hope that we are examining the resilience of our respective underpinning assumptions and extrapolating their logical consequences to determine which are, at least, internally consistent and not self-contradictory.

            While internal consistency and lack of apparent self-contradiction are no guarantees of objectivity, they do favour it.

            What I find startling is the ease of straining the gnat by demonstrating scripture to be unreliable through the relatively minor differences in the emphases of OT and NT writers, while swallowing the whole camel of accepting human reasoning and experience as far more trustworthy sources of moral guidance about love. Human history would tend to contradict such confidence in them as groundless.

          • Thank you David. That is a really helpful post and I fully agree that the best reason for posting here is to have one’s views subject to helpful conversation and debate (which is why I don’t appreciate Ian’s, at times, sarcastic approach).

            I think we are not so far apart as might have sometimes been inferred and I have found this last comment of yours extremely valuable. Thank you.

      • Have just seen this. I agree with James Byron above. I agree also with your statement immediately above, Ian, that if A does not agree with B, this makes both “unreliable “, but this is not the same thing at all as saying, as you do in the blog, that they are both “wrong”. If A does not agree with B, A could be right, B could be right, both could be wrong, or there could be elements of truth in both accounts but, over time, aspects of the story telling have become corrupted in transmission. I believe the last option is, very generally speaking, the most likely. I don’t believe that these minor differences make the Bible less credible. If anything, they make it more credible.

  2. Excellent piece as ever – thanks, Ian. How would you respond to the argument that the broad sweep of the Bible narrative is consistent, providing a history which is essentially accurate, and that it only contradicts itself in inessentials? Eg if John and the Synoptics have the crucifixion at different points in the Passover, that’s just interesting, but if one of them said that Jesus wasn’t crucified at all, that would be alarming.

  3. Is one of the problems that Western thinking is derived from a Greek logic e.g. A + B = C (If we know the values for B & C we can work out A) . Whereas I believe those that wrote the Bible were more interested in what the story meant from a human level: so in these examples they both show that Judas’s death is a fulfillment of prophecy and results from his betrayal of Jesus; the fact that they don’t stack up literally isn’t important to the original writers/readers (but to us it possibly is).
    To generalise if we assume America has a work ethic, The far east values honour and family, Africa is quite tribal in its politics – we could imagine that someone writing about working on a farm, in each region, would emphasis different things in the day to bring out the culture they were in.

    • I like this. We are assuming that the Bible should fit our 21st century expectations of what constitutes a ‘reliable’ document. Surely we should check back to what we know of 1st century CE writers. It might illuminate a whole load of stuff which gives us trouble because we’re making inadequate and uninformed assumptions.

  4. The problem with your analogy is that all of the “facts” in your train narratives are complementary, but those in the Matthew and Acts account are not on any obvious reading of the texts. I’m sure one can come up with an imaginative harmony, but the danger is that one may then come across as making the actual text(s) fit a prior definition of scripture, rather than making one’s definition of scripture fit the actual text(s).

  5. Thanks for this Ian. What I’d like to know is whether you pointed out your daily bible reading to the kind water-giver on the train. What an opportunity for evangelism!

  6. There is a statement on the rather ridiculous ‘Stand Firm’ website currently that says:

    “It depends on whether you see Scripture as Truth or a book of suggestions. And we have centuries of history to see what happened to those organizations who took the suggestion route. ”

    The author, of course, sets up a dichotomy and archetype that are totally wrong. Scripture is neither of those things. Scripture certainly attests to both of those things. It witnesses to the truth. It suggests what might happen if we ignore the truth. But scripture is a library of books with many varied forms of literature. Like any library, there are bound to be contradictions. But like any library, it contains testimony to a priceless truth. No person or book possesses truth. Truth possesses people, who then witness to the truth. That’s what the bible is a record of.

  7. Ian, a psychology question please. About the apparent contradiction between the two accounts of Judas’ death, or any other contradiction or apparent contradiction: my guess is that 95% of us evangelical bible-reading Christians just ignore this. We sail through life, or struggle through life, reading the bible every day, or most days, but we filter out the awkwardnesses. Do you agree with my guess, and if so why do we do it?

  8. Most internet writers who offer a reconciliation of the two accounts focus on the manner of death, and it does seem fairly easy to suppose that after Judas hanged himself, his body was left for a while, long enough for his visceral organs to swell and eventually burst.
    But that still leaves the question of the field. Matthew provides the more detailed account, so I follow that, but it does not seem inconceivable that the priests, having paid out the money and having refused to accept it back as a donation to the treasury, did not consider it to be their own and hit upon the idea of buying the field – in which Judas hanged himself – in Judas’s name. After all, the field had to belong to someone. It could not belong to the Temple because it was blood money, and they could hardly buy it jointly in their own names when it was not their money. So Judas ended up the owner of the field. It was called the Field of Blood because it had been bought with blood money – Luke does not contradict this.
    Moreover, I can’t see that Judas would have had time before the resurrection to buy the field himself (especially with Sabbaths intervening), and it makes no sense for a man in that remorseful and suicidal state (1) to have bought a field in order to have somewhere to hang himself, and (2) to have waited however long was needed to complete the transaction before hanging himself. Surely these ideas are absurd. The priests might have bought the field from whoever owned it weeks after the crucifixion.


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