Skeptics make much to do of differences in details between the Gospel accounts, claiming they prove the Bible is full of contradictions, and thus can’t be the Word of God. One popular example is the number of angels at the tomb of Jesus. Was there one angel (Mt 28:2; Mk 16:5) or two (Lk 24:4, 23; Jn 20:12)? Other differences include the discoverers of the tomb. Was Mary Magdalene the lone discoverer of the empty tomb (Jn 20:1) or were there others (Mt 28:1; Mk 16:1; Lk 24:1, 10)? How many others, and who were they (each account gives a different number and grouping of names)? And then there’s the demoniac of the Gadarenes. Was there one demoniac (Mk 5:1-2; Lk 8:26) or two (Mt 8:28)?


It’s important to note that none of these examples are contradictions; they are mere differences. A contradiction is to say something is both A and not A at the same time and in the same way. That’s not what’s going on here. We simply have one author providing more details than another author. Adding details someone else left out is not a contradiction. If I hit a 2 base run and a home run during a baseball game, it’s not a contradiction for sports writer A to say I hit a home run and sportwriter B to say I hit a homerun and a 2 base run. One is providing more details than the other, but neither is contradicting the other. One provides more details, but neither has conflicting details.


Other passages aren’t so easy to explain, however. Consider Jesus’ healing of the centurion’s servant. Who came to Jesus asking Him to heal the child? Was it the centurion (Mt 8:5), or elders of the Jews (Lk 7:3)? This seems to be a genuine contradiction. Or is it?


We tend to force modern writing standards on the Biblical writers. We expect them to be as concerned about including every little detail as we are. When a big news story breaks we spend hours exploring and reporting on every (almost meaningless) facet of it. Every detail must be included, and everything said must be quoted exactly as spoken/written. Not so in the ancient near eastern world. They were more interested in the big picture, not the details; the gist, not the minutae.


I was reading the Gospel of John recently when I noticed something that illustrates my point beautifully. John 3:22 says, “After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized.” Baptized is in the third person singular, the antecedent singular subject being “Jesus.” And yet in John 4:1-2 we read, “When therefore the Lord knew how the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John, (though Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples,)…. Same author. Same book. Same context. Clealry John did not see any contradiction between these two statements. Notice how similar this is to the story of the centurion. Who came to Jesus? One person: the centurion? Multiple persons: the elders of the Jews? I think the answer to who came to Jesus is the same as who was doing the baptizing. Jesus’ disciples were doing the baptizing, but John could say it was Jesus because His disciples were doing so in His behalf. Likewise, the elders of the Jews came to Jesus, but Matthew can say it was the centurion because the Jewish elders represented him.


Or consider John 20:1 again. John only mentioned Mary Magdalene as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection, and yet in the very next verse he records Mary as saying to the apostles, “We do not know where they have laid him.” While John only reports Mary as a witness, he is clearly aware of the fact that there were more present than Mary.

My point is not to try to answer every kind of apparent contradiction in Scripture, but only to point out that what we think is a contradiction in Scripture would not have been viewed as such by the authors of Scripture. We are guilty of imposing modern standards of historiography and discourse on the apostles; they are not guilty of contradictions.