Apparent Contradictions In Scripture

by Rick Pidcock

ImageMy brother recently asked for my thoughts about an article by an atheist who listed some apparent contradictions in Scripture surrounding the Passion week.  So I have decided to post my response to that article on my blog.

To begin, however, we need to lay out a brief understanding of the inerrancy of Scripture, and of pre-suppositions.

One of the most fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith is the inerrancy of Scripture.  Regarding inerrancy, Wayne Grudem says, “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” (Bible Doctrines, p. 42).  In other words, the Word of God is truth, and contains no errors in the original manuscripts.

The reason this doctrine is so important is that it reveals the trustworthiness and reliability of God.  If God communicates falsehood in any detail, then He loses credibility and cannot be trusted.

Titus 1:2 says, “God, who never lies.”

Psalm 12: 6 says, “The words of the Lord are words that are pure.”

Proverbs 30:5 says, “Every word of God proves true.”

The question that we must all answer is what presupposition will we approach Scripture with.  If we presuppose that the Bible contains errors, then we will look for statements throughout the Bible that seem to contradict each other.  And if we see things that seem to not fit together, we will assume that they are contradictions. However, if we presuppose that the Bible contains no errors, then we will believe that every apparent contradiction has a reasonable explanation for it.

So here are some reasonable explanations for the apparent contradictions in that article. I will post the sections of the article in quotes, and then respond to each section underneath the quotation.

“Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem with Animals:

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem had to adhere to prophecy, but which one? 

Mark 11:2-7, Luke 19:30-35 – Following Jesus’ instructions, the disciples bring him one animal 
Matthew 21:2-6 – Following Jesus’ instructions, the disciples bring him two animals 
John 12:14 – Jesus doesn’t instruct the disciples at all and gets a single animal himself 

Mark 11:7, Luke 19:35, John 12:14 – Jesus rides a single animal when entering Jerusalem 
Matthew 21:7 – Jesus rides two animals at the same time”

The accounts in Mark and Luke mention that Jesus instructed the disciples to bring a colt for him to ride on.  Matthew 21 adds an additional detail that a donkey was also present.  This is not a contradiction. It is simply one telling of the story including more detail than the other two accounts.  The John 14 account simply doesn’t give any detail at all regarding how Jesus acquired the Colt.

Regarding the ride, Jesus obviously rode the colt. To claim that Matthew 21:7 says that Jesus rode two animals at the same time is just silly. It would be humanly impossible to drape yourself over a colt and a donkey at the same time. The common sense interpretation is that they set the clothes on the animals, and then sat Jesus on top of the clothes that were on the colt.  As a result, each story is consistent.

“Jesus Cleanses the Temple:

Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple is regarded as symbolic of the overturning of Judaism, but the gospels differ on important details: Mark 11:15-17 – Jesus cleanses the Temple at the beginning of Passion week 
Matthew 21:12-13 – Jesus cleanses the Temple during the Passion week, at the end of his career 
Luke 19:45-46 – Jesus cleanses the Temple at the beginning of Passion week 
John 2:13-16 – Jesus cleanses the Temple near the beginning of his career, well before the Passion”

The simple explanation of these events are that they are talking about two separate cleansings.  The cleansing in John occurred during the Jesus’ first Passover trip to Jerusalem.  Yet, the Jews did not accept Jesus.  So Matthew, Mark, and Luke record the cleansing during Jesus’ third Passover trip to Jerusalem, two years later.  The historical and literary differences between these cleansings make it abundantly clear that they are talking about two separate cleansings.  And since the Jews did not accept Jesus during the first one, then it makes logical sense that they would have continued in their sin, and would receive another temple cleansing two Passovers later.

“Jesus and the Fig Tree:

Before entering Jerusalem, did Jesus curse a fig tree and cause it to wither because it didn’t have any fruit? Luke and John don’t mention this; Matthew and Mark do mention it, but don’t agree on the details: Mark 11:20-21 – Jesus’ disciples don’t notice that the tree has withered until the next day 
Matthew 21:19-20 – Jesus’ disciples notice that the fig tree withers immediately after being cursed and are amazed.”

This is admittedly the most difficult passage that the article mentions to reconcile.  But I believe that it can be done satisfactorily.

The key to this apparent contradiction is to understand that this section of Matthew was written thematically by location, while this section of Mark is written chronologically by day.

So on Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem. Since it was late, he left to spend the night in Bethany.

On Monday, during His walk into Jerusalem, He cursed the fig tree.  Though the tree was immediately cursed, the Greek implies that the cursing occurred at once, but took a little process, possibly between 5 to 15 minutes.  Because the disciples were travelling, they kept on walking and did not see the final result of the cursing that would not have culminated until a few minutes later.  While in town, Jesus cleansed the temple.  And then they departed back to where they were staying in Bethany.

On Tuesday, as they were traveling back into Jerusalem again, the disciples noticed for the first time the full result of the cursing from the morning before. And they were astonished.  The fact that it was the next day is hinted at in Mark 11:20-21, which says, “As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots (again pointing to the fact that the curse, while immediate, took a process to get all the way down to the roots). And Peter remembered (from the day before) and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’”

Notice that Peter’s response is one of shock, and that he hadn’t seen the full result of the cursing the previous day.

Now go back to the thematic approach of Matthew 21. Verse 20 says, “When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, ‘How did the fig tree wither at once?’”

If this Atheism article is correct, then the disciples would have seen the fig tree fully withered immediately on Monday, and were shocked, and then would have seen the fig tree fully withered again the next day, and were shocked as though they hadn’t seen it fully withered the day before.  But that makes no common sense.  Matthew 21 does not say, as this article claims, that the disciples noticed the fig tree to be withered immediately after the cursing. It simply says that when they saw it, they were shocked.  And because Matthew 21 is written thematically by location, it does not mention the time difference.  And because Mark 11 is written chronologically by day, it clears up for us when the events actually occurred.

“Location of the Anointing of Jesus:

Where was Jesus anointed with oil? Matthew and Mark agree, Luke does not. John doesn’t mention it at all: 

Mark 14:3, Matthew 26:6-13 – Jesus is anointed at the house of a leper named Simon, in Bethany 
Luke 7:36-38 – Jesus is anointed in Galilee at the house of an unnamed Pharisee”

If many people worshiped Jesus as God, then it makes logical sense that more than one person would have worshiped Him through anointing. So Matthew and Mark are describing one anointing story, while Luke describes a separate anointing story.  The fact that John doesn’t mention this anointing doesn’t prove anything. Not every book has to mention every detail of the other three books in order for the individual stories to have occurred.  Each book was written by different authors for different audiences.


“How was Jesus Anointed?:

What part of the body was Jesus anointed on? Matthew and Mark say one thing, Luke and John say another: Mark 14:3, Matthew 26:7 – Jesus is anointed with oil is poured on his head 
Luke 7:38, John 12:3 – Jesus is anointed with oil poured on his feet”

Again, these are obviously talking about separate anointings. Mark 14 and Matthew 26 is an anointing at the house of Simon the leper. Luke 7 is an anointing at a Pharisees’ house.  And John 12 is an anointing at Martha’s house.  Jesus was well known, and worshiped by many people. When He came into town, it only makes sense that multiple people would invite Him over for a meal, and that multiple people would worship Him with anointing at those gatherings.

“Who Anoints Jesus?:

Who does the anointing of Jesus? Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree, but John doesn’t: Mark 14:3, Matthew 26:7, Luke 7:37 – Jesus is anointed by an unnamed woman 
John 12:3 – Jesus is anointed by Mary”

As I mentioned above, these are obviously separate anointings by different people at different gatherings.

“Reactions to Jesus’ Anointing:

Jesus was anointed with expensive oil, so not everyone was happy about the apparent waste. Matthew, Mark, and John all describe different people as upset; Luke doesn’t mention this at all: Mark 14:4 – “Some” reproach the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus 
Matthew 26:8 – The disciples reproach the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus 
Luke 7:39 – An unnamed Pharisee thinks that this is wrong because the woman is a sinner 
John 12:4-5 – Judas Iscariot reproaches Mary for anointing Jesus”

Again, separate gatherings with separate anointings and separate responses.

The simple minded approach to these passages is to just automatically assume that the events only occurred once, that these are the same events, and thus contain contradictions.  But a meal among friends, and an anointing by a worshiper are common events.  And how many common events, such as meals, only occur once in life?  To simply jump to the conclusion that meals among friends and anointings by worshipers only happen once, and are thus contradictory accounts, is just silly and completely defies common sense.

“Overall Sequence of Events During the Passion Week:

The Passion Week plays a central role in Christian beliefs, but the gospels don’t agree on the correct sequence of events: Mark, Matthew – Triumphal Entry, Cleansing of the Temple, Anointing at Bethany 
Luke – Triumphal Entry, Cleansing the Temple, Daily Teaching in the Temple 
John – Cleansing the temple (long before Passion Week), Supper with Lazarus, Triumphal Entry, no Cleansing of the Temple”
These supposed contradictions were mostly dealt with in my above comments. The gospels are just like any other work of literature. Sometimes they deal thematically. Other times they write chronologically. Some recounts of stories include more or less details than others. Some common events happen multiple times. And not every book mentions every event that the other books mention.
There is absolutely nothing in this article that necessitates an error on the part of Scripture.  Each line of reasoning by the author of the original article is very poorly thought out and defies common sense.  And in the end, Proverbs 30:5 was correct, saying, “Every word of God proves true.”

3 thoughts on “Apparent Contradictions In Scripture

  1. Interesting article and response. Some other apparent contradictions I would enjoy hearing your take on are the accounts of Judas’ death and the different explanations of what Judad did with the 30 pieces of silver/why the field was called the field of blood.

  2. Regarding the annointing, if the event in John is separate from the one in Matthew and Mark, it is hardly likely that the woman would be reproached for the same reason both times (waste, worth a years wages, sold and given to the poor), and that Jesus would make the same defense of her both times (leave her alone, burial preparation, always have the poor, not always have me), and that these events would both happen in Bethany within a week of each other.

    A better explanation is that Luke’s event is a separate one, and the other three are the same. But that is not easy to explain either.

    Why not just let go of the doctrine of inerrancy? It is not required for salvation is it? It is, by your own admission, a presupposition.

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