Deliberate Formal Contradictions
A consequence of having four records of the same life is that there are many overlapping sections among accounts and many opportunities for narratives to differ from each other. It is actually common in normal life that multiple reports of the same events will be, or will at least seem to be, in conflict with each other. Over the years, many contradictions have been alleged between the Gospels—this at least suggests a degree of independence within each account.
However, my brief journey into this subject will focus on how the Gospel of John contains many deliberate formal contradictions within itself and with other literature (such as the First Letter of John, which shows the same authorial style). Here are some examples.
1. God loves the world versus do not love the world.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15)
2. People believed when they saw Jesus’ signs versus they did not believe.
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. (John 2:23)
Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him. (John 12:37)
3. They know Jesus and where he comes from versus they do not.
So Jesus proclaimed, as he taught in the temple, “You know me, and you know where I come from.” (John 7:28)
Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.” (John 8:14)
They said to him therefore, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” (John 8:19)
4. If Jesus bears witness of himself, his testimony is not true, versus the opposite.
If I bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true. (John 5:31, my trans.)
So the Pharisees said to him, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.” Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.” (John 8:13–14)
5. Jesus judges no one versus he has much to judge.
You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. (John 8:15)
Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. (John 8:16)
I have much to say about you and much to judge, but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him. (John 8:26)
6. Jesus did not come into the world to judge it versus he came to judge.
If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. (John 12:47)
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)
Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” (John 9:39)
Thinking Deeply on Meaning
I hope that after reading the list above and studying the subtle way the Gospel of John is written, you will agree that these formal contradictions are deliberate. They are part of the author’s way of making us reflect more deeply on the multiple meanings of the words involved.1 This sample prepares us to consider a quotation by skeptic Bart Ehrman from a book in which he explains what he thinks are the clearest contradictions within the Gospels:
One of my favorite apparent discrepancies—I read John for years without realizing how strange this one is—comes in Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse,” the last address that Jesus delivers to his disciples, at his last meal with them, which takes up all of chapters 13 to 17 in the Gospel according to John. In John 13:36, Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, where are you going?” A few verses later Thomas says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going” (John 14:5). And then, a few minutes later, at the same meal, Jesus upbraids his disciples, saying, “Now I am going to the one who sent me, yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’” (John 16:5). Either Jesus had a very short attention span or there is something strange going on with the sources for these chapters, creating an odd kind of disconnect.2