In his debate against William Lane Craig on “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?” Bart Ehrman gives a laundry list of alleged discrepancies in the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection (transcript here). Ehrman argues that the Gospels are not reliable as history because of these discrepancies. Detailed examination, however, will show that Ehrman’s alleged discrepancies are all very minor, concerning secondary details of the events. None are clear contradictions, and in no similar case would such minor differences be taken to disqualify historical sources that agree in all of the major details. This post will examine the first set of discrepancies given by Ehrman with more to come in future posts.
According to Ehrman,
The way to see differences in the Gospels is to read them horizontally. Read one story in Matthew, then the same story in Mark, and compare your two stories and see what you come up with. You come up with major differences. Just take the death of Jesus. What day did Jesus die on and what time of day? Did he die on the day before the Passover meal was eaten, as John explicitly says, or did he die after it was eaten, as Mark explicitly says? Did he die at noon, as in John, or at 9 a.m., as in Mark?
Here Ehrman alleges that John and Mark disagree on 1) the day and 2) the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. According to Ehrman, John explicitly says Jesus died on the day before the Passover meal was eaten, while Mark explicitly says it was the day after. He also says John puts the time of death as noon, while Mark gives the time of death as 9 a.m.
Two issues come to the forefront here. The first is whether there really is a contradiction between John and Mark as Ehrman claims, while the second is the purely historical question of whether these kinds of discrepancies would be a disqualifying issue in any other two historical sources. What we will see is that in fact there is no explicit contradiction, and it is actually an interpretation which pits John against the Gospels. It’s one possible interpretation, but not the only one. Second, a difference of one day and three hours between two different historical sources would never be sufficient reason to disqualify sources. Even if one of the Gospels was off by one day and three hours with respect to when Jesus died, they all agree that he died by crucifixion under Roman orders, prompted by Jewish leaders. The central facts are the same, the alleged discrepancy is with regard to secondary details.
While Ehrman claims to be arguing as a historian, in fact it appears that he is making an implied attack on the doctrine of inerrancy. But inerrancy does not have to be true for the Gospel accounts to be generally reliable history. Would Ehrman argue that no historical source which is not inerrant is therefore unreliable as history? Obviously he can’t say that as a historian, because he (presumably) should believe that there is no such thing as an inerrant work of history.
Taking a Closer Look
With this background in mind, let us examine in detail the evidence for these first two alleged discrepancies. The first is with respect to the day of the crucifixion. Does John “explicitly” say that Jesus died on the day before the Passover meal was eaten as Ehrman claims? In fact John doesn’t explicitly say that anywhere. There is a long-standing controversy among scholars about how to understand the Gospels on this point, and Ehrman’s confidence is misplaced. The reason there is a controversy is because John does not explicitly say what day Jesus was crucified on except for one thing: he says that it was the “day of preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14). Note that it doesn’t say “the day before the Passover meal was eaten” or anything like that – Ehrman infers that to be the case. In his defense, other scholars also take John to be saying that. However, it is certainly not an explicit statement as Ehrman says, rather it is an inference based on the language that John uses.
What must be noted, however, is that all four Gospels say explicitly or implicitly that Jesus was crucified on the day of preparation. In Mark we read this of the evening after the crucifixion: “When evening had already come, because it was the preparation day, that is, the day before the Sabbath . . .” (Mark 15:42). So Mark explicitly says that Jesus was crucified on the day of preparation, agreeing with John. Luke is also explicit, giving this statement about when Jesus was taken down from the cross and buried: “It was the preparation day, and the Sabbath was about to begin” (Luke 23:54). Thus Luke also agrees that Jesus was crucified on the day of preparation. Finally, Matthew directly implies the same thing in Mat. 27:62): “Now on the next day, the day after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate . . .” Matthew says that the day after the crucifixion was the day after the preparation, which means Jesus was crucified on the day of preparation just as Mark, Luke, and John also say. Mark’s Gospel includes the explanatory note that the preparation day was the day before the Sabbath, which would mean Friday. It’s also worth noting that the Greek word for preparation (paraskeue) is the modern Greek name for Friday. Thus the most likely reading is that all four Gospels say that Jesus was crucified on the Friday of Passover week. But John and the Synoptics are in full agreement on this point.
So where does Ehrman get the idea that John explicitly contradicts Mark? It is by assuming that when John says in 18:28 “But they themselves did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover,” that it refers to the Passover seder meal, which would mean that Jesus was crucified before the seder. However, the word “pascha” (Passover) can refer either to the seder meal or to the 7-day Feast of Unleavened Bread which followed the Passover meal. In fact John uses “pascha” clearly in reference to the Feast of Unleavened bread in John 2:23 where he writes, “Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover [pascha], during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing.” Obviously pascha can’t refer to the Passover seder here but the entire Feast of Unleavened Bread. So it’s entirely possible that John and the Synoptic Gospels are in agreement on this point, and many scholars have made the case that they are. It is frequently repeated (even among scholars) that John places the crucifixion on the day that the Passover lambs were slaughtered to depict Jesus as the lamb of God. It must be noted that John says nothing whatsoever about when the lambs were slaughtered, so this reading is actually just an interpretation. No matter how frequently it is repeated, John simply does not say this.
The second discrepancy has to do with the time of Jesus’ death. According to Ehrman, Mark says Jesus died at 9 a.m. while John says he died at noon. But this is completely wrong. Ehrman goofed here with respect to Mark and appears to give the time of Jesus’ crucifixion rather than his death (Mark 15:25). John, however, doesn’t give a time of death for Jesus but only mentions the time when Pilate rendered judgment on Jesus (John 19:14). Mark records that it was “the third hour” when Jesus was crucified, “the sixth hour” when darkness fell on the land (Mark 15:33), and “the ninth hour” when Jesus cried out with a loud voice and died (Mark 15:34-37). By Jewish reckoning, these times would correspond to 9 a.m. for the crucifixion, noon for the darkness, and 3 p.m. for the time of Jesus’ death. If John was also using Jewish reckoning, then it was the sixth hour (or noon) when Pilate rendered his judgment. This would be problematic not just because it differs from Mark (as well as Luke and Matthew), but also because it would hardly allow time for Jesus to be taken out, crucified, die, and then be taken down from the cross before sundown. There is actually a very simple way to reconcile the accounts, if John is taken to be using Roman rather than Jewish reckoning. In Jewish reckoning the daylight hours were counted from 6 a.m., so the third hour is 9 a.m., the sixth hour is noon, and the ninth hour is 3 p.m. The Roman system, however, was like the modern system of beginning at midnight. Thus is Roman reckoning the sixth hour is 6 a.m., which would allow time for the rest of the events that day to unfold in John’s account. But Ehrman’s objection here is simply mistaken.
With both of these alleged discrepancies we see that 1) there is no clear contradiction between John and the Synoptics, 2) the issue is a secondary one which would never disqualify historical sources which had so much agreement, and 3) the only possible objection could be against the doctrine of inerrancy. But if the concern is about historicity rather than inerrancy, Ehrman’s objections here completely miss the mark. And for the defender of inerrancy, these apparent discrepancies can be reconciled fairly easily. Far from being an example of “major differences” as Ehrman contends, this is an example of the kind of differences we might expect from independent eyewitness accounts.