Jesus and the Hidden
Contradictions of the Gospels
scholar Bart Ehrman began his studies at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.
Originally an evangelical Christian, Ehrman believed that the Bible was the
inerrant word of God. But later, as a student at Princeton Theological
Seminary, Ehrman started reading the Bible with a more historical approach and
analyzing contradictions in the Gospels.
Ehrman, the author of Jesus,
Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don't
Know About Them), tells Terry Gross that he discourages
readers from "smash[ing] the four Gospels into one big Gospel and
think[ing] that [they] get the true understanding."
"When Matthew was writing, he didn't intend for somebody
... to interpret his Gospel in light of what some other author said. He had his
own message," Ehrman says.
To illustrate the differences between the Gospels, Ehrman offers
opposing depictions of Jesus talking about himself. In the book of John, Jesus
talks about himself and proclaims who he is, saying "I am the bread of
life." Whereas in Mark, Jesus teaches principally about the coming kingdom
and hardly ever mentions himself directly. These differences offer clues into
the perspectives of the authors, and the eras in which they wrote their
respective Gospels, according to Ehrman.
Mark's Gospel, Jesus is not interested in teaching about himself. But when you
read John's Gospel, that's virtually the only thing Jesus talks about is who he
is, what his identity is, where he came from," Ehrman says. "This is
completely unlike anything that you find in Mark or in Matthew and Luke. And
historically it creates all sorts of problems, because if the historical Jesus
actually went around saying that he was God, it's very hard to believe that
Matthew, Mark and Luke left out that part — you know, as if that part wasn't
important to mention. But in fact, they don't mention it. And so this view of
the divinity of Jesus on his own lips is found only in our latest Gospel, the
Gospel of John."
Ehrman teaches religious studies at the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill. His book, Jesus,
Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible, is
now out in paperback. This
interview was originally broadcast on March 4, 2009
Students taking a college-level Bible course for the first time
often find it surprising that we don't know who wrote most of the books of the
New Testament. How could that be? Don't these books all have the authors' names
attached to them? Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the letters of Paul, 1 and 2
Peter, and 1, 2 and 3 John? How could the wrong names be attached to books of
Scripture? Isn't this the Word of God? If someone wrote a book claiming to be
Paul while knowing full well that he wasn't Paul — isn't that lying? Can
Scripture contain lies?
When I arrived at seminary I was fully armed and ready for the
onslaught on my faith by liberal biblical scholars who were going to insist on
such crazy ideas. Having been trained in conservative circles, I knew that
these views were standard fare at places like Princeton Theological Seminary.
But what did they know? Bunch of
What came as a shock to me over time was just how little actual
evidence there is for the traditional ascriptions of authorship that I had
always taken for granted, and how much real evidence there was that many of
these ascriptions are wrong. It turned out the liberals actually had something
to say and had evidence to back it up; they weren't simply involved in
destructive wishful thinking. There were some books, such as the Gospels, that
had been written anonymously, only later to be ascribed to certain authors who
probably did not write them (apostles and friends of the apostles). Other books
were written by authors who flat out claimed to be someone they weren't.
In this chapter I'd like to explain what that evidence is.
Who Wrote The Gospels?
Though it is evidently not the sort of thing pastors normally
tell their congregations, for over a century there has been a broad consensus
among scholars that many of the books of the New Testament were not written by
the people whose names are attached to them. So if that is the case, who did write them?
Preliminary Observations: The Gospels as Eyewitness
As we have just seen, the Gospels are filled with discrepancies
large and small. Why are there so many differences among the four Gospels?
These books are called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John because they were
traditionally thought to have been written by Matthew, a disciple who was a tax
collector; John, the "Beloved Disciple" mentioned in the Fourth
Gospel; Mark, the secretary of the disciple Peter; and Luke, the traveling
companion of Paul. These traditions can be traced back to about a century after
the books were written.
But if Matthew and John were both written by earthly disciples
of Jesus, why are they so very different, on all sorts of levels? Why do they
contain so many contradictions? Why do they have such fundamentally different
views of who Jesus was? In Matthew, Jesus comes into being when he is
conceived, or born, of a virgin; in John, Jesus is the incarnate Word of God
who was with God in the beginning and through whom the universe was made. In
Matthew, there is not a word about Jesus being God; in John, that's precisely
who he is. In Matthew, Jesus teaches about the coming kingdom of God and almost
never about himself (and never that he is divine); in John, Jesus teaches
almost exclusively about himself, especially his divinity. In Matthew, Jesus
refuses to perform miracles in order to prove his identity; in John, that is practically
the only reason he does miracles.
Did two of the earthly followers of Jesus really have such
radically different understandings of who he was? It is possible. Two people
who served in the administration of George W. Bush may well have radically different
views about him (although I doubt anyone would call him divine). This raises an
important methodological point that I want to stress before discussing the
evidence for the authorship of the Gospels.
Why did the tradition eventually arise that these books were
written by apostles and companions of the apostles? In part it was in order to
assure readers that they were written by eyewitnesses and companions of
eyewitnesses. An eyewitness could be trusted to relate the truth of what
actually happened in Jesus' life. But the reality is that eyewitnesses cannot
be trusted to give historically accurate accounts. They never could be trusted
and can't be trusted still. If eyewitnesses always gave historically accurate
accounts, we would have no need for law courts. If we needed to find out what
actually happened when a crime was committed, we could just ask someone.
Real-life legal cases require multiple eyewitnesses, because eyewitnesses'
testimonies differ. If two eyewitnesses in a court of law were to differ as
much as Matthew and John, imagine how hard it would be to reach a judgment.
A further reality is that all the Gospels were written
anonymously, and none of the writers claims to be an eyewitness. Names are
attached to the titles of the Gospels ("the Gospel according to
Matthew"), but these titles are later additions to the Gospels, provided
by editors and scribes to inform readers who the editors thought were the
authorities behind the different versions. That the titles are not original to
the Gospels themselves should be clear upon some simple reflection. Whoever
wrote Matthew did not call it "The Gospel according to Matthew." The
persons who gave it that title are telling you who, in their opinion, wrote it.
Authors never title their books "according to."
Moreover, Matthew's Gospel is written completely in the third
person, about what "they" — Jesus and the disciples — were doing,
never about what "we" — Jesus and the rest of us — were doing. Even
when this Gospel narrates the event of Matthew being called to become a
disciple, it talks about "him," not about "me." Read the
account for yourself (Matthew 9:9). There's not a thing in it that would make
you suspect the author is talking about himself.
With John it is even more clear. At the end of the Gospel the
author says of the "Beloved Disciple": "This is the disciple who
is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his
testimony is true" (John 21:24). Note how the author differentiates
between his source of information, "the disciple who testifies," and himself: "we know that his
testimony is true." He/we: this author is not the disciple. He claims to
have gotten some of his information from the disciple.
As for the other Gospels, Mark was said to be not a disciple but
a companion of Peter, and Luke was a companion of Paul, who also was not a
disciple. Even if they had been disciples, it would not guarantee the
objectivity or truthfulness of their stories.
in fact none of the writers was an eyewitness, and none of them claims to be.
Who, then, wrote these books?
Excerpted from Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman.
Copyright 2009 by Bart D. Ehrman. Excerpted by permission of HarperOne, a
member of HarperCollins Publishers.
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