One said, “If I were Satan, I would put as many barriers around the Bible as I could. I would plant thorns and hedges to frighten people off.”
The devil has been busy planting thorns (cf. Matthew 13:18–22). A Gallup poll showed that only twenty-four percent of Americans believe the Bible is the literal word of God, the lowest in Gallup’s forty-year tracking. The number who view the Bible as secular stories and history has risen to twenty-six percent.
Whole books—even libraries—are dedicated to answering critics verse by verse. This article can give only a sampling. Critics allege over one hundred errors in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. All their accusations are answerable. These examples show how to deal with such discrepancies.
Are Jesus’ lineage accounts irreconcilable?
A comparison of Jesus’ genealogies (Matthew 1:1–17; Luke 3:23–38) shows more dissimilarity than duplication. Matthew’s list descends from Abraham to Joseph (Matthew 1:2, 16) because he wrote to Jews, and Abraham was the father of the Jews. Luke’s ascends back to Adam (Luke 3:38), focusing on humanity because he wrote to the Greeks.
There is no difficulty reconciling the first two parts:
- Adam to Abraham: Luke matches Genesis.
- Abraham to David: Tables are alike.
From David to Christ, though, the lists are different, and Luke has more names. Matthew divides forty-two names into three sets of fourteen (each ending in a national event). Luke’s list has sixty ancestors.
- Matthew omitted lesser-known ancestors because Jews commonly abbreviated long lists. If giving directions when someone generally knows the way, one only has to give high points. If one does not know the way, then directions must be detailed. Jews knew their ancestry, so Matthew listed only the high points.
- The lists differ because Matthew traces Joseph’s lineage and showed that Jesus had legal right to King David’s throne (2 Samuel 7:12–16). Luke traced Mary’s line to show He was Abraham’s biological descendant (Genesis 12:1–3). Joseph and Mary both descended from David but through different wives. (David had at least seven wives.)
- Jews used “son” in four ways—immediate male offspring, son-in-law, descendant up to several generations removed, and Levirate son (Deuteronomy 25:5–10). Joseph’s father is listed as Jacob (Matthew 1:16) and Heli (Luke 3:23), showing a Levirate marriage. (Under Moses’ law, if a man died childless, his brother married his widow and fathered a son as his heir.) Jacob was his biological father; Heli, who died before his conception, was his legal father.
Did the centurion come or not?
Matthew stated a centurion came to Jesus, pleading with Him to heal his servant (8:5–10). Luke said the centurion sent Jewish elders on his behalf (7:1–10).
- It is possible the centurion asked the elders to “soften up” Jesus and followed up personally later. Not including follow-up would fit Matthew’s style. He often abbreviated records (8:14–15/Mark 1:29–31; 9:1–8/Mark 2:1–12; 9:18–26/Mark 5:21–43).
- He appealed to Jesus through the elders. A maxim of law states that what one does through a duly constituted agency, he himself legally does. It was common to ascribe an agent’s words and actions to the one who sent him (cf. 2 Samuel 14:19; 2 Kings 14:27; Esther 3:15; 8:8; Ezra 1:7–8). If a June 6, 1944, headline read, “Eisenhower invades Normandy,” would it mean he personally stormed the beach? “The President asked Congress to pass this bill” does not mean he personally addressed Congress. “Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him” (John 19:1), means Pilate ordered it. Jesus “baptized more disciples than John,” but He did it through His disciples (John 4:1–2). Whether one requests personally or through an agent makes no difference.
- Jesus drew near the house (Luke 7:6) and marveled “at him” (7:9). It seems the centurion was in his doorway, so Jesus addressed both him and the crowd.
Did Jesus make a whale of a mistake?
Since a whale is a mammal, when Jesus called Jonah’s fish a whale (Matthew 12:40 kjv), He made His “most famous scientific error.”
Answer: Neither Jonah nor Jesus spoke English and did not use the word whale or fish. Regardless of English translations, the meaning of Jonah’s Hebrew word and Jesus’ Greek word is the same (a giant sea creature).
What about those eyes and needles?
Writers used different words for “eye of the needle.” Matthew (19:24) and Mark (10:25) used the same word for needle; Luke used a surgeon’s needle (18:25). Critics say, “Someone is wrong. Jesus used one word for each.”
- The quotes might be from different sermons. Jesus preached the same ideas many times in different villages (Matthew 4:17). Politicians make the same stump speech every night for months. Preachers preach lessons in different churches and repeat phrases in the same sermon. The disciples likely heard Jesus use different words on different days.
- Jesus spoke Aramaic and His Spirit-guided biographers simply chose different words to translate into Greek.
Did you hear the one about the three blind men?
Mark said Jesus healed one blind man named Bartimaeus at Jericho (10:46–52). Luke has “a certain blind man” (18:35–43). Matthew said there were two blind men (20:29–34). Matthew and Mark said the healing occurred as Jesus left Jericho; Luke said it was as He “drew nigh.”
- Possibly three blind men were healed near Jericho. Luke mentions one; Mark another; and Matthew an additional one. No one said there was only one man. Bartimaeus may have been well-known and the others unknown.
- Edward Robinson said engizo (“drew near”) can mean “to be near.”
- There were two Jerichos. Old Testament Jericho (Joshua 6; 1 Kings 16:34), located at Elijah’s spring, was mostly ruins in Jesus’ day. Herod the Great built a new Jericho two miles south of it. This miracle may have occurred between the two.
Six hours one Friday, or was it nine?
Mark wrote Jesus was crucified the third hour (15:25); John said He was tried the sixth hour (19:14). How could His trial be after His crucifixion?
Mark used Jewish time; John, Roman time. A Jewish day began at 6:00 p.m.; Roman days began at midnight. So Jesus’ trial began at 6:00 a.m. and His execution at 9:00 a.m.
What did that centurion say?
Matthew (27:54) and Mark (15:39) said the centurion confessed Jesus was “the Son of God.” Luke has him saying “a righteous Man!” (23:47).
He likely said both. Critics assume each book is a complete biography and that any omission is a contradiction. These are not complete biographies. Each writer limited the days, events, and words he revealed of Jesus. Combined, they contain events from only about 35 of Jesus’ 1,200 ministry days.
Jeremiah never said that.
Matthew wrote, “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, ‘And they took the thirty pieces of silver’” (27:9–10). This reference is found in Zechariah 11:13.
A Jew would see nothing strange here due to their Old Testament canon. They grouped the prophets together with Jeremiah first (cf. Matthew 22:40). Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna explained: “In the Jewish way of labeling things you call a book by its first few words, and you call a collection of books by the first book in that collection” (source).
All four biographers say Jesus was crucified between thieves. Matthew (27:35–44) and Mark (15:24–32) say they reviled Jesus. Luke says one blasphemed (reviled) Him but the other asked to be remembered (23:33–43).
Doubtless, one thief had a change of heart.
Those tricky angels . . .
Was it one angel outside the tomb or two angels inside? Or two men inside? Or one man inside?
- Matthew said when Mary and Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, an angel descended to move the stone (28:2).
- Mark said, “Entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side” (16:5).
- Luke said they were perplexed and “two men stood by them in shining garments” (24:4).
- John said that after they told Peter and John of the empty tomb, Mary returned to see “two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain” (20:12).
Answer: Multiple partial reports with different details do not have to be false. Courts expect truthful witnesses to give varying details. Police say when two completely agree, the testimony is either contaminated or rehearsed.
Some assume angels have wings and look ethereal. In Scripture, sometimes they did (Exodus 25:20; Isaiah 6:2), but usually not (Hebrews 13:2). When appearing as humans, they were often called men (Genesis 18:2, 16–33; 32:24).
Put the accounts together, and an angel moved the stone and sat upon it outside the tomb (Matthew 28:2). Inside the tomb were two men (angels) (Luke 24:4; John 20:12); perhaps one was the same angel, as it seems to have been a different time. Mark never said there was only one angel. He could have referred to the one who spoke of Jesus going to Galilee.
Suppose I say I saw Eric at McDonald’s and he told me Ashley was expecting. Later Blake says he and I were at McDonald’s and saw Eric and Ashley. Would one be lying? Both could be true, though I did not mention Blake or Ashley.
The entirety of God’s Word is truth (Psalm 119:160). Parallel passages are complementary and more valuable than identical records. Piecing them together answers many supposed discrepancies in Jesus’ biographies and parallel Old Testament histories (Kings/Chronicles).
Critics often strain at gnats and use unfair methodology. Would you want such illogical people on a jury to decide your case? Still, the Bible is not hurt by criticism. Jesus’ biographies have been tried in the fire of controversy and proven accurate. Christians grow in faith by studying for answers and gain a more complete picture of Jesus’ life and teachings.
Get past the thorns.