Historical Contradictions?  Not So Fast

Historical Contradictions? Not So Fast

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The Huffington Post, it seems, can always be relied upon to provide fodder for sceptics looking for a stick with which to beat the Christians. They are, of course, not alone, and poking sharp sticks in our cage seems to be on the verge of becoming a national sport. But of course one can’t always be posting news items about how the Christian Neanderthals are refusing to accept gay marriage. One requires some variety in the news. This variety is now being provided by blog pieces impugning the historicity of the Gospels, and by suggesting that, well, even if Jesus did exist (grumble grumble), there are far too many contradictions in the Gospels for us to know anything substantial about Him. More much sensible then to just forget about Him and leave Him out of contemporary discussion. It is a none-too-subtle attempt at marginalizing the Christians and shutting them out of the cultural debate.

That debate, I am tempted to think, is more trouble than it is worth, and I for one would not be unhappy to be uninvited to the party and unfriended by those attending. But one needs to make some sort of reply to the accusations of historical contradictions in the Gospels, if only to defend our faith in the eyes of those who may consider one day joining us. I would therefore like to respond to some of the points presented by Mr. Chris Sosa in his HuffPost piece “Historical Jesus? Not So Fast.”

Mr. Sosa mentions four points of contradiction which he says should greatly disturb us.

The first concerns the date of Jesus’ birth. Mr. Sosa says that “according to Luke, that would be during the first census of Israel by Quirinius, governor of Syria (Luke 2:2)” which “got underway in 6 C.E…[when] Herod had been dead for a good decade” despite the fact that Matthew says that Christ was born during Herod’s reign. In other words, Luke was wrong about the date of Quirinius’ census by about a decade, since he described it as taking place during the governorship of Quirinius which began in 6 A.D., after Herod was dead. This is hardly breaking news for exegetes of St. Luke’s Gospel. Scholars have long suggested that Quirinius exercised an authority over Syria prior to his official governorship of Syria in 6 A.D., and that Luke in his Gospel refers to this quasi-official rule in his Gospel when Quirinius exercised authority in Palestine during the reign of Herod. In other words, Luke was speaking the language of ordinary men when he spoke of the census being taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:2), while his critics are reading his words with a nit-picking pedanticism.

Mr. Sosa’s second alleged contradiction concerns the account of Christ’s resurrection in Mark’s Gospel. He says that “The oldest Gospel, Mark, does not say that Jesus resurrected [sic] at all in its original form. The resurrection was added at a later date.” It is hard to believe that Mr. Sosa has actually read Mark’s Gospel at all, since prior to the account of the empty tomb in chapter 16, it contains no less than three predictions by Christ of His death and resurrection (see Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34). It is unlikely that the resurrection would come as a surprise to St. Mark, since he includes three predictions of it and concludes his Gospel with a story of women finding Christ’s tomb empty and angels there telling these women who found the empty tomb that He had risen. What were added at a later date were stories of Christ’s resurrection appearances, not the fact that He had risen. And given that Mark confines himself to relating what could be learned by public knowledge, is this surprising? Mark’s Gospel begins with the baptism of Christ and ends with the discovery of the empty tomb—that is, with events publically verifiable. This scarcely means, as Sosa says, that “Mark does not say that Jesus [was] resurrected at all”. Clearly, Mark does say that He was. In his haste to discover contradictions, Mr. Sosa simply misreads Mark’s Gospel.

Thirdly Mr. Sosa has concerns with the details regarding which person first saw Christ after He was raised from the dead. He says, “All four Gospels do reference an empty tomb. But not a single one agrees with the others on who actually saw it…Mary is either alone, with another Mary, also with Salome or maybe with Joanna too? It seems we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator.” Actually, not so much. Rather, it seems we’re dealing with a careless reader. In combining all four Gospel accounts, we see that Mary Magdalene arrives first to the tomb and finds Christ. She departs before the other women arrive, running to find Peter and John, and the other women arrive soon after. The four Gospel accounts can be easily combined, as I have done in my commentary on St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. (Note: this is not a plug.) The point here is that all four Gospels were written independently of each other, with no concern to combine and harmonize the accounts. This is to be expected if each Gospel writer wrote simply to tell his own story. If the Gospel writers were out to “cook the books,” they would’ve taken care to get their stories straight and harmonize their accounts. The fact that they didn’t suggests that it was not a put-up job, but rather a true account based on independent eye-witnesses. The differences in detail rather point to their individual veracity.

Mr. Sosa’s last unhistorical contradiction concerns the date of Christ’s ascension. He says of this “rather fantastical public display” that “in Luke, his ascension occurs in Bethany the day he resurrected (Luke 24). In Acts, a canonical book of the New Testament, he ascends from the Mount of Olives forty days after resurrecting (Acts 1). Oh, well.” Indeed. Oh, well: some people can be expected to research the New Testament, and others can be expected to simply write blogs. First of all, the ascension of Christ was hardly a “rather fantastical public display,” but was only seen by a few disciples. Secondly, the citation of Christ’s words in verses 44-49 (from which Mr. Sosa concludes that the author of Luke meant his readers to assume that Christ ascended the day He spoke those words) and the description of Christ’s ascension from the Mount of Olives “forty days after resurrecting (Acts 1)” were in fact written by the same author, namely St. Luke. It is unlikely that Luke would give us two contradictory dates for the same event. It is more likely that Mr. Sosa cannot properly read the text, perhaps given that he does not know that “Acts, a canonical book of the New Testament” was written by the same man who wrote the Gospel of Luke. No one but Mr. Sosa supposes that there is a contradiction between Luke’s Gospel and Acts, since most people know these books were penned by the same author. Oh, well.

These supposed contradictions in the Gospel accounts are less significant than Mr. Sosa’s assertion that “no coherent vision of [Jesus’] life exists.” This is an extraordinary statement. As C. S. Lewis once observed many years ago (in his essay Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,) “If anything is common to all believers, and even to many unbelievers, it is the sense that in the Gospel they have met a personality”—in other words, they find there a “coherent vision” of Jesus. One may disbelieve that vision, but it is useless to deny that the vision exists, and that a coherent and unified vision of who Jesus of Nazareth actually is may be found in the Gospels. That vision is of a man who claims divine authority. The Gospel accounts were all written within a generation of the events they purport to describe, and all present a consistent picture of Someone who claims divine authority to forgive sins such as belongs to God alone. This claimed authority may be fitly summed up by the accusation of Christ’s enemies as reported in John 10:33: “You, being a man, make yourself God.” Indeed, He did “make Himself God.” It is this personality which all readers of the Gospels have found.

All of Mr. Sosa’s criticisms concern tiny little details of the Gospel accounts: in which year did Quinirius have his census? Which woman first saw Christ raised from the dead? On which day did Christ ascend to heaven? Really? These picky little details really form the substance of his case against Christianity? That’s all you got? I would offer a more substantive question for Mr. Sosa to consider. It is this: given that Christ claimed divine authority, what are we to make of Him? There are really only three sensible options regarding a human being who claims to be God, and it presents Mr. Sosa not with a dilemma of two possible options, but with a trilemma, of three possible ones. One: either Christ was a lunatic, someone who thought he was God when he was not; or two: he was a liar, someone who was not God, and who knew he was not but claimed divinity anyway for who knows what reason; or three: He really was the Lord, Someone who was God and said that He was divine because it was the truth. Lunatic, liar, or Lord? That is the real question, and the only one really worth answering. Mucking about with details about the date of Quirinius’ census is hardly to the point. The real point and the first question to be faced is this: what are we to make of Jesus when He claims to be God?

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Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe College in Toronto, Canada in 1979 before serving Anglican parishes in central Canada. He converted to Orthodoxy in 1985 and spent two years at St. Tikhon’s Seminary in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. After ordination he traveled to Surrey, B.C. to begin a new mission under the O.C.A., St. Herman of Alaska Church.

The Church has grown from its original twelve members, and now owns a building in Langley, B.C., where they worship each Sunday. The community has planted a number of ‘daughter churches’, including parishes in Victoria, Comox and Vancouver.

Fr. Lawrence has written a number of books, published by Conciliar Press, including the Bible Study Companion Series, with verse-by-verse commentaries on the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, the Early Epistles, the Prison Epistles, the Pastoral Epistles, the Catholic Epistles, and the Book of Revelation, as well as a volume about how to read the Old Testament , entitled The Christian Old Testament. He has also written a commentary on the Divine Liturgy, entitled, Let Us Attend: A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. SVS Press has published his book on Feminism and Tradition, examining such topics as the ordination of women and deaconesses. He has also written a synaxarion (lives of Saints), published by Light and Life, entitled A Daily Calendar of Saints, recently updated and revised and available through his blog. He has also written a series of Akathists, published by Alexander Press, including Akathist to Jesus, Light to Those in Darkness, Akathist to the Most-Holy Theotokos, Daughter of Zion, A New Akathist to St. Herman of Alaska, Akathist: Glory to the God who Works Wonders (a rehearsal of the works of God from Genesis to Revelation). His articles have appeared in the Canadian Orthodox Messenger (the official diocesan publication of the Archdiocese of Canada), as well as in the Orthodox Church (the official publication of the O.C.A.), in The Handmaiden and AGAIN magazine (from Conciliar Press).

Fr. Lawrence has a podcast each weekday on Ancient Faith Radio, the Coffee Cup Commentaries. He has given a number of parish retreats in the U.S. and Canada, as well as being a guest-lecturer yearly at the local Regent College, Vancouver. He can also be found on his personal blog, Straight from the Heart.

Fr. Lawrence lives in Surrey with his wife, Donna. They have two daughters, and three grandchildren.