This forms part of Ehrman’s cumulative case for there being irreconcilable contradictions within the Gospels. However, it also shows a weakness in his method. In every case listed above, Jesus is portrayed as speaking one or both sides of the contradiction. But why may an outstanding teacher not use paradox? Each of the formal contradictions we have seen highlights the multiple meanings of words. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is going to the cross and then to his Father, God. The disciples are not asking about that but are only thinking in mundane terms of where he will next walk to. Ehrman has just missed the irony.
The problem seems, therefore, to be that the question of contradictions has become part of a point-scoring exercise between those who claim or deny error in the Gospels. Here the author of John’s Gospel has recorded contradictions at the superficial level of language to encourage the audience to think more deeply. It is somewhat similar to how Dickens opened his A Tale of Two Cities with a whole list of contradictions to characterize the inconsistencies of an era. He famously began, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”3
The presence of such deliberate formal contradictions does not mean that the contradictory statements are not both true in some way at a deeper level. But these formal contradictions do show that the author is more interested in encouraging people to read deeply than in satisfying those who want to find fault.
If one author may use vocabulary in more than one way, why may not two authors? If anyone wants to argue that two Gospel accounts are in such conflict that both cannot be true, he must first ensure that he has correctly understood the claims being made in each text and that he is not reading either of the accounts in a way that is not intended. For all the many contradictions that have been alleged in the Gospels, and for all the texts that remain puzzling, I do not know of any that cannot possibly be resolved.
- Oxford philosopher Thomas W. Simpson argues that the formal contradiction of John 5:31and 8:14 in fact shows “philosophical sophistication.” See his “Testimony in John’s Gospel: The Puzzle of 5:31 and 8:14,” Tyndale Bulletin 65, no. 1 (2014): 101–18, esp. 101.
- Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know about Them) (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 9.
- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (London: Chapman & Hall, 1859).
Content adapted from Can We Trust the Gospels? by Peter J. Williams. This post first appeared on Crossway.org; used with permission.