[UPDATED July 2006: I've extensively revised this posting, primarily so that I'll have it as a ready reference.]
Most Christian theology is grounded entirely on traditionalists' insistence that certain specific events really, truly happened as they're recounted in the New Testament. But inconsistencies and other anomalies in the New Testament writings raise serious questions about just how much the documents' authors actually knew about those events — and even whether they might have been "spinning" their stories to promote some agenda, or agendas.
(The inconsistency question is independent of the questions inherently raised by the weaknesses of oral tradition, on which the Gospels are based.)
This article reviews several specific examples:
1. The disciples certainly didn't act like Jesus had foretold his resurrection [link].
2. Many of Jesus's most influential friends and followers evidently didn't "sign on" with the early church [link].
3. Wouldn't you think John the Baptist would have been more involved in his kinsman's ministry [link]?
4. If Jesus really said to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then the apostles apparently ignored his instructions [link].
5. Peter, preaching at Pentecost, seems to have baldly misrepresented his scriptural source [link].
6. Other minor discrepancies raise additional concerns about how much the New Testament authors really knew [link].
[See also: The Apostles' Teaching Didn't Seem to Include a Divine Jesus as well as Is Jesus Coming Again? The Predictors' Track Record Doesn't Inspire Confidence. Technically, these articles don't address inconsistencies or anomalies in the New Testament writings themselves, but they still raise questions about the reliability of the Christian story as told by traditionalists.]
Many traditionalists tend to dismiss these matters as mere quibbles. But they're not mere quibbles to people who feel a responsibility to think for themselves (including, not least, many of our young people).
If the trads are serious about being effective in their evangelism — as opposed to preaching what seems good to them, and letting God worry about the results — then they're going to have to come up with solid, plausible responses. So far, I haven't seen any
This may be one of the most intriguing inconsistencies in the New Testament.
According to the Gospels, Jesus explicitly and repeatedly told his disciples that he would be put to death but would be raised on the third day [Mt 16.21-23, 17.22-23, 20.17-19; Mk 8.31-32; Lk 9.21-22, 18.31-33; Jn 14.18-20, 16.16-20].
Matthew and Mark indicate that the disciples very much got the message, judging by their strong reactions to it, including Peter's saying, no way, Lord, I won't allow it! [Mt 16.22, 17.23; Mk 8.33].
And during Jesus's ministry, the disciples are said to have seen not just one, but two examples of dead people being raised to life: Jairus's daughter [Mt 9.18-25, Mk 5.21-24, 35-42], and Lazarus [Jn 11]. So it's not like the disciples would have been unfamiliar with the concept.
But then after Jesus's own death, the disciples acted as though they'd never heard of anyone being raised from the dead, let alone that (supposedly) Jesus had explicitly and repeatedly foretold his own raising:
- On Easter Sunday, a handful of disciples went to Joseph of Arimathea's new tomb after the Sabbath. They were perplexed when they found the tomb empty [Mk 16.5; Lk 24.4; Jn 20.2, 9].
- Other disciples refused to believe the first reports of resurrection sightings [Mk 16.13; Lk 24.11; Jn 20.24-25].
- Mary Magdalene initially failed to recognize Jesus when she encountered him [Jn. 20.14]; ditto with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus [Lk 24.16].
- Jesus's followers are described as being startled and terrified when they saw him, thinking they were seeing a ghost [Lk 24.5, 24.37; Mt 28.10].
You would think at least some of the Eleven would have remembered Jesus's predictions of his resurrection. It appears none of them did.
This is a huge problem for the traditionalist view. The Gospels of both Luke and John make weak attempts to explain the problem away. Luke claims that the disciples "understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said" [Lk 18.34; see also 9.45]. And the Fourth Gospel says that after John looked, and Peter went, into the empty tomb, "They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead" [Jn 20.9, emphasis added]. But they hardly needed to understand it from Scripture, because Jesus himself had supposedly told them in no uncertain terms.
The disciples might have been uneducated [Acts 4.13], but we have no reason to assume they were dumb. It's impossible to imagine how they could have failed to understand Jesus's simple, repeated prediction: They're going to kill me, but on the third day I'll be raised back to life. Luke's and John's attempts at explanation don't square at all with the other factual accounts cited above. In the words of Dr. Henry Lee, testifying as a DNA forensics expert for the defense at OJ Simpson's murder trial, "something not right here."
So what should we make of this? To me, the simplest and most plausible explanation is that the Gospels simply got it wrong: Jesus never actually did tell his disciples he was going to be raised from the dead. (He might well have predicted that he'd be executed, of course.) That would neatly account for the disciples' shock when some of them believed they'd encountered Jesus after his death.
So why do the Gospels claim that Jesus did foretell his resurrection? To me, it seems quite plausible that this part of the story was a distortion, unintentional or otherwise, of the kind that often happens when stories get retold over time. All at once or bit by bit, consciously or unconsciously, the early church likely recast the story of the crucifixion and its aftermath into a narrative that retroactively gave meaning to Jesus's death — even if it didn't quite fit the facts.
[EDIT: Copied from my comment below of October 11, 2005 at 02:29 PM: I can think of only one way out of this conundrum, and it's pure speculation: Perhaps what Jesus really predicted was that he would be raised as part of the general resurrection, presumably at the end of time, as opposed to on the third day following his execution. That would account for the disciples' grief, and for their later surprise at encountering their teacher again so soon after his death. As I say, this is pure speculation.]
The Gospels portray the twelve apostles as Jesus’s main men, the guys whom the Teacher chose to serve as the foundation of the church despite their humble origins. But the Gospel evidence shows clearly that Jesus's friends and admirers included other well-off, influential people who evidently didn't sign on with the embryonic church founded by the Eleven. If the apostles' stories about Jesus's being raised to life were so convincing, it's difficult to understand why these other F.O.J.s are so conspicuously absent from the story of the church.
Lazarus: Jesus's Close, Wealthy Friend
According to John’s Gospel, Lazarus and his family were important in Jesus’s life. Jesus loved Lazarus and his family and wept at his death; he restored Lazarus to life [Jn 11] and dined with him just before his (Jesus’s) triumphal entry into Jerusalem [Jn 12].
Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha must have been pretty well off: when Jesus dined with them, Mary just happened to have on hand a jar of perfume worth a year’s wages, which she poured on Jesus’s feet! [Jn 11.2, 12.2-5; cf. Mark 14.3]. It’s hard to imagine how anyone other than the well-to-do would (or could) have offered such an extravagant gesture.
You’d think Lazarus might well have been among the most devoted to the man who rescued him from death. We might expect Lazarus to have worked alongside the Twelve; to have shared in the Last Supper; to have been there for Jesus during his agony in the Garden. And wouldn’t Lazarus have played at least some role in the early life of the church that the Twelve founded, even if it were just to provide financial support?
Maybe Lazarus did all these things. Maybe he was right in there with the Twelve during Jesus’s ministry and in the early days of the church.
But if so, the New Testament is silent about it.
Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea: Jesus's Secret, Highly-Placed Disciples
Nicodemus is mentioned only in the Fourth Gospel, which recounts that he was a member of the Jewish ruling council who came by night to visit and talk with Jesus [Jn 3.1–21]. That Gospel also says that on one occasion Nicodemus objected when the chief priests and Pharisees berated the temple guards for not arresting Jesus [Jn 7.50–51].
Joseph of Arimathea, according to all of the Gospels, was a rich man, a member of the ruling council, a good and upright man, and also a secret disciple of Jesus [Mt 27.57–60; Mk 15.42–47; Lk 23.50–55, Jn 18.38–42].
It was these two men, not any of the Eleven, nor any of Jesus's women followers, who cared for Jesus’s body after his death. If in fact they had been secret disciples of Jesus, their actions would have been at some personal risk; you'd think they'd be minor heroes to the Eleven and would have shown up in the narratives as men of at least some influence in the early church. Moreover, there would have been little reason for them to remain closeted as secret disciples after "the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith" [Acts 6.7].
Yet not once does the New Testament ever mention either Nicodeumus or Joseph of Arimathea in the story of the early church.
One wonders whether these men gave credence to the tales told, and the claims of special authority made, by the Eleven. They might not have been followers of Jesus at all: They could easily have simply been good Jews who were not virulently hostile to Jesus (unlike many of their colleagues on the ruling council), who took charge of his body on behalf of the council to ensure that he got a decent burial. The extant evidence, I submit, is more consistent with the latter version.
Joanna, Wife of Herod's Household Manager
Joanna was one of the women who provided financial support for Jesus "out of their own means" [Lk 8.3]. Luke’s phrasing suggests Joanna was unlikely to have been poor; he also says explicitly that she was the wife of Herod's household manager.
Luke says that Joanna was one of the women who discovered the empty tomb on Easter Sunday, and who later reported to the other disciples that two men in gleaming clothes had told them Jesus had been raised [Lk 24.9-10]. That's the last we hear of Joanna in the entire New Testament.
It's possible, of course, that Joanna might have been one of the "certain women" mentioned in Acts as hanging out with the apostles after Jesus's ascension [Acts 1.14]. But it's at least equally plausible that the author of Luke / Acts didn't mention Joanna as being present on that occasion simply because she wasn't there.
Other Influential Friends and Admirers of Jesus
Other influential people make cameo appearances in the Gospels, usually because they owed big debts of gratitude to Jesus. These people included the royal official in Capernauam whose son was ill [Jn 4.46-54], as well as Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, whose twelve-year-old daughter Jesus declared was not dead but sleeping [Mt 9.18-25, Mk 5.22-23, 35-42]. None of them make any further appearance in the story of the church.
Why Weren't These Influential People Part of the Early Church?
We're left with a mystery: Why do all of these well-off or well-connected friends of Jesus simply disappear from the story? Why, for all we can tell, were they uninvolved in the early church?
My conjecture: These influential F.O.J.s simply didn't buy the claims of the Eleven about a risen Jesus and a special commission to preach his gospel. It probably occurred to them that Joseph of Arimathea — whose tomb it actually was, of course — might well move the body after the Sabbath following the crucifixion. (See "The Empty Tomb: Another Possibility," from which this section is adapted, for a more detailed discussion of this point.)
According to the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist's mother was well aware of how important her relative Mary's unborn son would be: "And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, 'Blessed are you [Mary] among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?" [Lk 1.41-43]
If this story were accurate, you'd certainly expect Elizabeth to later tell her own son John about the relative of whom such great things were expected, and for whom John himself was to prepare the way [Lk. 1.17, 76]. And mothers being what they are, you'd think Elizabeth and Mary might make sure their sons at least knew about each other as they grew up. You might also anticipate that the young kinsmen, as they began their respective missions, might keep in touch with each other and perhaps even work together; that certainly would have been a logical move under the circumstances.
But none of that seems to have happened. There's no evidence that Jesus ever asked John to help with his ministry (nor, for that matter, does he appear ever to have asked any of his own brothers or sisters, to whom their mother Mary presumably would have said at least something about Jesus's special destiny). Instead, Jesus chose as his first disciples a seemingly-random bunch of strangers to be his disciples and later his apostles.
The Gospels report no contact at all between Jesus and John until Jesus's baptism — and in the Lucan version of the story, John baptized his putative kinsman as seemingly just another face in the crowd, with no sign that he regarded him as anything special [Lk 3.21]. Later, when John's followers reported Jesus's doings to him, John sent two of his disciples to Jesus to ask, are you the one who is to come, as though John was taken by surprise by Jesus's career [Lk 7.18-23].
To be sure, the Gospel of John reports that, when Jesus approached John the Baptist, John recognized him and proclaimed him "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" [Jn 1.29]. And after further encomia, John declared that Jesus "is the Son of God" [Jn 1.34].
But these passages from John make it even more strange that John didn't seem to be one of Jesus's long-term supporters and even disciples.
Why this discrepancy? My own guess is this: John the Baptist really had little or nothing to do with Jesus, apart from happening to baptize him as part of a crowd. John probably didn't proclaim Jesus to be the Son of God. He probably wasn't even related to the Teacher.
The Gospel stories suggesting otherwise seem to be factual "embellishments" by the early church. One naturally wonders what other parts of the story might be the fruits of similar embellishments.
Many traditionalist Christians, anxious to find scriptural support for the doctrine of the Trinity, set great store by the trinitarian baptismal formula in the Great Commission. They point to the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus commands the disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit [Mt 28.19].
(Curiously, in the Gospel of Mark, which is widely accepted as having been written earlier than Matthew, the Great Commission story doesn't mention baptizing in the name of anyone in particular [Mk 14.16].)
But, contrary to Matthew, the Book of Acts records that Peter and the disciples actually baptized in the name of Jesus only, when they baptized in the name of anyone at all [Acts 2.38, 8.16, 10.48, 19.5].
Some scholars believe that Jesus's baptismal instructions were subsequently edited to justify a later-evolved doctrine of the Trinity. The inconsistency between Matthew and Acts certainly supports this conjecture.
Which raises another question (in the same category as, You never see just one cockroach): What else in Matthew, or in other New Testament documents, might have been the work of later doctrinal editors?
If we're to believe the Book of Acts, the apostle Peter anticipated a sin not uncommon to lawyers, that of mischaracterizing an authority in the hope of furthering his argument and convincing his audience.
The scene: Peter is preaching to a Jerusalem crowd, immediately after the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. According to Acts, Peter argues that in Psalm 16.8–11, David supposedly foretold God’s rescue of the Messiah from the grave — and since God had just raised Jesus from the dead, it stood to reason that Jesus must have been the one about whom David spoke:
"David said about him [i.e., Jesus]: 'I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will live in hope, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.'
"Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact."
(Acts 2.25–32, emphasis added.) This argument is an obvious fabrication. The psalm itself, entitled "A miktam of David," clearly is not a prediction that the LORD would protect David's future descendant. It begins: "Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge" (emphasis added). No, the psalm is an expression of confidence that God will protect David himself, not his descendant nor any other third party.
Either Peter mischaracterized the scriptural authority on which he purported to rely, or Acts got the story wrong. Neither possibility is good news for the traditionalist position.
• Matthew 1.2-17 and Luke 3.23-38 give two considerably-inconsistent genealogies for Jesus. The most obvious difficulty is Joseph's father: Was Joseph born of Jacob (says Matthew), or Heli (says Luke)?
• Luke describes Joseph and Mary as residents of Nazareth [Lk 1.26]. He recounts the familiar story of their journey to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, and their eventual return to Nazareth [Lk 2.1-39]. Matthew, on the other hand, presents us with a hair-raising tale of danger and narrow escapes. He is silent about Joseph and Mary's hometown, saying only that Jesus was born in Bethelem of Judea [Mt 2.1]. But then he has Joseph fleeing with the Holy Family to Egypt, to escape from Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents [Mt 2.13-18]. After Herod dies, according to Matthew, Joseph "went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth" (Mt 2.19-23]. Matthew thus implies that the Holy Family settled in Nazareth for the first time after the return from Egypt, directly contradicting the Lucan account.
• According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus and the disciples ate a Passover meal, following which Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified [Mt 26.17-21; Mk 14.12-18; Lk 22.7-15]. According to the Fourth Gospel, however, Jesus was executed on the day of Preparation for the Passover [Jn 19.31]. Some theologians speculate that the author of the Fourth Gospel wanted to portray Jesus as the Lamb sacrificed for the new Passover. Was this merely literary license? (For other possible explanations of this discrepancy and the problems associated therewith, see this Web site.)
As any lawyer can tell you, inconsistencies in documents are not uncommon. Personally, I accept that the New Testament is a reasonably reliable record of the main points of Jesus's life and death.
But the aforementioned inconsistencies in the documents — along with similarly-troubling manuscript differences — raise serious questions about many traditionalist Christian doctrines that are based entirely on the truth of the stories told in the New Testament narratives. It's completely plausible that, in any number of places, the New Testament authors didn't know the facts, and/or they tailored their stories to fit their theological agendas.
The logical conclusion is that, while the New Testament should be given serious weight, it would be a grave mistake blindly to accept the traditionalist interpretation and to put the NT writings on a pedestal, above all other potential sources of revelation.