In Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know about Them) (2010), Bible scholar Bart Ehrman explores many of the contradictions and inaccuracies found in the Bible, and then he comments on what his findings mean.
Early in this excellent book, Ehrman invites us to consider the discrepancies in the four Gospels with regard to what happened on the third day after Jesus had been crucified.
Who actually went to the tomb? Was it Mary alone (John 20:1)? Mary and another Mary (Matthew 28:1)? Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (Mark 16:1)? Or women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem–possibly Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and “other women” (Luke 24:1; see 23:55)? Had the stone already been rolled away from the tomb (as in Mark 16:4) or was it rolled away by an Angel while the women were there (Matthew 28:2)? Who or what do they see there? An Angel (Matthew 28:5)? A young man (Mark 16:5)? Two men (Luke 24:4)? Or nothing and no one (John)? And what were they told? To tell the disciples to “Go to Galilee where Jesus will meet them (Mark 16:7)? Or to remember what Jesus had told them “while he was in Galilee,” that he had to die and rise again (Luke 24:7)? Then, do the women tell the disciples what they saw and heard (Matthew 28:8), or do they not tell anyone (Mark 16:8)? If they tell someone, whom do they tell? The 11 disciples (Matthew 28:8)? The 11 disciples and other people (Luke 24:8)? Simon Peter and another unnamed disciple (John 20:2)? What do these disciples do in response? Do they have no response because Jesus himself immediately appears to them (Matthew 20:9)? Do they not believe the women because it seems to be “an idle tale” (Luke 24:11)? Or do they go to the tomb to see for themselves (John 20:3)?
Ehrman’s book contains a 40-page chapter called “A World of Contradictions,” in which he sets out hundreds of these contradictions and discrepancies. He goes to pains to remind his readers that this is simply a small sampling of the many more such issues one will find if one reads the Bible “horizontally,” making a careful effort to compare each version of a story with other versions of the same story in other books of the Bible. Although in some of these differences are insignificant, one will find others that are substantial. One of the discrepancies that Ehrman finds more significant is the debate over the date Jesus dies.
In Mark, Jesus eats the Passover meal (Thursday night) and is crucified the following morning. In John, Jesus does not eat the Passover meal but is crucified on the day before the Passover meal was to be. Moreover, in Mark, Jesus is nailed to the cross at nine in the morning: and in John, he is not condemned in till noon, and then is taken out and crucified.
After producing enough evidence to convince anyone other than the fundamentalist that there are plenty of contradictions and inaccuracies, Ehrman proposes several conclusions we can draw:
1. The Bible is not completely inerrant. There are many errors.
2. Christians “of a certain persuasion–such as many of those among whom I live, in the American South–would ever think to ask such a question”: Is it now impossible to be a Christian given these many discrepancies? Ehrman suggests that most Christian faiths will remain “unscathed” by the imperfection of the Bible.
3. It is important to let each author in the Bible “speak for himself and not pretend that he is saying the same thing as another.” Urban points out that each of the authors has his own agenda, and these become visible when we read each author separately and carefully. Erhman goes to great pains to distinguish the writings of the four Gospel authors, and this careful analysis has the effect of humanizing these authors and their writings.
4. It is impossible to read the books of the Bible as “disinterested historical accounts. None of them is that.” At this point, Ehrman offers this thought experiment: “what would you do as a judge in a court trial in which you have conflicting testimony from eyewitnesses? One thing you would certainly not do is assume that each witness is 100% correct.”
If there is an overall theme of Ehrman’s book, it is that people should stop reading the Bible with the assumption that each of the authors is basically saying the same thing. Ehrman contrasts this “harmonizing approach” to reading the Bible, which is based upon emotional reading, to the approach he recommends, the “historical-critical approach.” This latter approach assumes that the Canon of Scripture–
“[T]hat is, the collection of the books into one book considered in some sense to be authoritative for believers–was not the original form in which the biblical books up.. When Paul wrote his letters to the churches he founded, he did not think that he was writing the Bible. He thought he was writing letters . . . . These books were written in different times and places, under different circumstances, to address different issues; they were written by different authors with different perspectives, beliefs, assumptions, traditions, and sources.
[Note: I've written another short post about other points Ehrman makes in this same book].