The Gospels: Contradictions and Improbabilities in the Descriptions
Each of the four Gospels contains a large number of descriptions of events that may be unique to one single Gospel or common to several if not all of them. When they are unique to one Gospel, they sometimes raise serious problems. Thus, in the case of an event of considerable importance, it is surprising to find the event mentioned by only one evangelist; Jesus’s Ascension into heaven on the day of Resurrection, for example. Elsewhere, numerous events are differently described-sometimes very differently indeed-by two or more evangelists. Christians are very often astonished at the existence of such contradictions between the Gospels-if they ever discover them. This is because they have been repeatedly told in tones of the greatest assurance that the New Testament authors were the eyewitnesses of the events they describe!
Some of these disturbing improbabilities and contradictions have been shown in previous chapters. It is however the later events of Jesus’s life in particular, along with the events following the Passion, that form the subject of varying or contradictory descriptions.
DESCRIPTIONS OF THE PASSION
Father Roguet himself notes that Passover is placed at different times in relation to Jesus’s Last Supper with His disciples in the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel. John places the Last Supper ‘before the Passover celebrations’ and the other three evangelists place it during the celebrations themselves. Obvious improbabilities emerge from this divergence: a certain episode becomes impossible because of the position of Passover in relation to it. When one knows the importance it had in the Jewish liturgy and the importance of the meal where Jesus bids farewell to his disciples, how is it possible to believe that the memory of one event in relation to the other could have faded to such an extent in the tradition recorded later by the evangelists?
On a more general level, the descriptions of the Passion differ from one evangelist to another, and more particularly between John and the first three Gospels. The Last Supper and the Passion in John’s Gospel are both very long, twice as long as in Mark and Luke, and roughly one and a half times as long as Matthew’s text. John records a very long speech of Jesus to His disciples which takes up four chapters (14 to 17) of his Gospel. During this crowning speech, Jesus announces that He will leave His last instructions and gives them His last spiritual testament. There is no trace of this in the other Gospels. The same process can work the other way however; Matthew, Luke and Mark all relate Jesus’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, but John does not mention it.
JOHN’S GOSPEL DOES NOT DESCRIBE
THE INSTITUTION OF THE EUCHARIST
The most important fact that strikes the reader of the Passion in John’s Gospel is that he makes absolutely no reference to the institution of the Eucharist during the Last Supper of Jesus with His Apostles.
There is not a single Christian who does not know the iconography of the Last Supper, where Jesus is for the last time seated among His Apostles at the table. The world’s greatest painters have always represented this final gathering with John sitting near Jesus, John whom we are accustomed to considering as the author of the Gospel bearing that name.
However astonishing it may appear to many, the majority of specialists do not consider John to have been the author of the fourth Gospel, nor does the latter mention the institution of the Eucharist. The consecration of the bread and wine, which become the body and blood of Jesus, is the most essential act of the Christian liturgy. The other evangelists refer to it, even if they do so in differing terms, as we have noted above. John does not say anything about it. The four evangelists’ descriptions have only two single points in common: the prediction of Peter’s denial and of the betrayal by one of the Apostles (Judas Iscariot is only actually named in Matthew and John). John’s description is the only one which refers to Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the beginning of the meal.
How can this omission in John’s Gospel be explained?
If one reasons objectively, the hypothesis that springs immediately to mind (always supposing the story as told by the other three evangelists is exact) is that a passage of John’s Gospel relating the said episode was lost. This is not the conclusion arrived at by Christian commentators.
Let us now examine some of the positions they have adopted.In his Little Dictionary of the New Testament (Petit Dictionnaire du Nouveau Testament) A. Tricot makes the following entry under Last Supper (Cène). “Last meal Jesus partook of with the Twelve Disciples during which he instituted the Eucharist. It is described in the Synoptic Gospels” (references to Matthew, Mark and Luke) . “. . . and the fourth Gospel gives us further details” (references to John). In his entry on the Eucharist (Eucharistie), the same author writes the following. “The institution of the Eucharist is briefly related in the first three Gospels: it was an extremely important part of the Apostolic system of religious instruction. Saint John has added an indispensable complement to these brief descriptions in his account of Jesus’s speech on the bread of life (6, 32-58).” The commentator consequently fails to mention that John does not describe Jesus’s intitution of the Eucharist. The author speaks of ‘complementary details’, but they are not complementary to the institution of the Eucharist (he basically describes the ceremony of the washing of the Apostles’ feet). The commentator speaks of the ‘bread of life’, but it is Jesus’s reference (quite separate from the Last Supper) to God’s daily gift of manna in the wilderness at the time of the Jews’ exodus led by Moses. John is the only one of the evangelists who records this allusion. In the following passage of his Gospel, John does, of course, mention Jesus’s reference to the Eucharist in the form of a digression on the bread, but no other evangelist speaks of this episode.
One is surprised therefore both by John’s silence on what the other three evangelists relate and their silence on what, according to John, Jesus is said to have predicted.
The commentators of the Ecumenical Translation of the Bible, New Testament, do actually acknowledge this omission in John’s Gospel. This is the explanation they come up with to account for the fact that the description of the institution of the Eucharist is missing: “In general, John is not very interested in the traditions and institutions of a bygone Israel. This may have dissuaded him from showing the establishment of the Eucharist in the Passover liturgy”. Are we seriously to believe that it was a lack of interest in the Jewish Passover liturgy that led John not to describe the institution of the most fundamental act. in the liturgy of the new religion?
The experts in exegesis are so embarrassed by the problem that theologians rack their brains to find prefigurations or equivalents of the Eucharist in episodes of Jesus’s life recorded by John. O. Culmann for example, in his book, The New Testament (Le Nouveau Testament), states that “the changing of the water into wine and the feeding of the five thousand prefigure the sacrament of the Last Supper (the ‘Eucharist’)”. It is to be remembered that the water was changed into wine because the latter had failed at a wedding in Cana. (This was Jesus’s first miracle, described by John in chapter 2, 1-12. He is the only evangelist to do so). In the case of the feeding of the five thousand, this was the number of people who were fed on 5 barley loaves that were miraculously multiplied. When describing these events, John makes no special comment, and the parallel exists only in the mind of this expert in exegesis. One can no more understand the reasoning behind the parallel he draws than his view that the curing of a paralized man and of a man born blind ‘predict the baptism’ and that ‘the water and blood issuing from Jesus’s side after his death unite in a single fact’ a reference to both baptism and the Eucharist.
Another parallel drawn by the same expert in exegesis conconcerning the Eucharist is quoted by Father Roguet in his book Initiation to the Gospel (Initiation à l’Evangile). “Some theologians, such as Oscar Culmann, see in the description of the washing of the feet before the Last Supper a symbolical equivalent to the institution of the Eucharist . . .”
It is difficult to see the cogency of all the parallels that commentators have invented to help people accept more readily the most disconcerting omission in John’s Gospel.
A prime example of imagination at work in a description has already been given in the portrayal of the abnormal phenomena said to have accompanied Jesus’s death given in Matthew’s Gospel. The events that followed the Resurrection provided material for contradictory and even absurd descriptions on the part of all the evangelists.
Father Roguet in his Initiation to the Gospel (Initiation à l’Evangile), page 182, provides examples of the confusion, disorder and contradiction reigning in these writings:
“The list of women who came to the tomb is not exactly the same in each of the three Synoptic Gospels. In John only one woman came: Mary Magdalene. She speaks in the plural however, as if she were accompanied: ‘we do not know where they have laid him.’ In Matthew the Angel predicts to the women that they will see Jesus in Galilee. A few moments later however, Jesus joins them beside the tomb. Luke probably sensed this difficulty and altered the source a little. The Angel says: “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee . . .’ In fact, Luke only actually refers to three appearances . . .”-“John places two appearances at an interval of one week in the upper room at Jerusalem and the third beside the lake, in Galilee therefore. Matthew records only one appearance in Galilee.” The commentator excludes from this examination the last section of Mark’s Gospel concerning the appearances because he believes this was ‘probably written by another hand’.
All these facts contradict the mention of Jesus’s appearances, contained in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians
(15,5-7), to more than five hundred people at once, to James, to all the Apostles and, of course, to Paul himself.
After this, it is surprising therefore to find that Father Roguet stigmatizes, in the same book, the ‘grandiloquent and puerile phantasms of certain Apocrypha’ when talking of the Resurrection. Surely these terms are perfectly appropriate to Matthew and Paul themselves: they are indeed in complete contradiction with the other Apostles on the subject of the appearances of Jesus raised from the dead.
Apart from this, there is a contradiction between Luke’s description, in the Acts of the Apostles, of Jesus’s appearance to Paul and what Paul himself succinctly tells us of it. This has led Father Kannengiesser in his book, Faith in the Resurrection, Resurrection of Faith (Foi en la Resurrection, Resurrection de la Foi), 1974, to stress that Paul, who was ‘the sole eyewitness of Christ’s resurrection, whose voice comes directly to us from his writings, never speaks of his personal encounter with Him Who was raised from the dead-‘. . . except for three extremely, ‘he refrains moreover from describing discreet references . . . it.’
The contradiction between Paul, who was the sole eyewitness but is dubious, and the Gospels is quite obvious. O. Culmann in his book, The New Testament (Le Nouveau Testament), notes the contradictions between Luke and Matthew. The first situates Jesus’s appearances in Judea, the second in Galilee.
One should also remember the Luke-John contradiction.
John (21, 1-14) relates an episode in which Jesus raised from the dead appears to the fishermen beside the Sea of Tiberias; they subsequently catch so many fish that they are unable to bring them all in. This is nothing other than a repetition of the miracle catch of fish episode which took place at the same spot and was also described by Luke
(5, 1-11), as an event of Jesus’s life.
When talking of these appearances, Father Roguet assures us in his book that ‘their disjointed, blurred and disordered character inspires confidence’ because all these facts go to show that there was no connivance between the evangelists, otherwise they would definitely have co-ordinated their stories. This is indeed a strange line of argument. In actual fact, they could all have recorded, with complete sincerity, traditions of the communities which (unknown to them) all contained elements of fantasy. This hypothesis in unavoidable when one is faced with so many contradictions and improbabilities in the description of of events.
ASCENSION OF JESUS
Contradictions are present until the very end of the descriptions because neither John nor Matthew refer to Jesus’s Ascension. Mark and Luke are the only one to speak of it.
For Mark (16, 19), Jesus was ‘taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God’ without any precise date being given in relation to His Resurrection. It must however be noted that the final passage of Mark containing this sentence is, for Father Roguet, an ‘invented’ text, although for the Church it is canonic!
There remains Luke, the only evangelist to provide an undisputed text of the Ascension episode (24, 51): ‘he parted from them and was carried up into heaven’. The evangelist places the event at the end of the description of the Resurrection and appearance to the eleven Apostles: the details of the Gospel description imply that the Ascension took place on the day of the Resurrection. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke (whom everybody believes to be their author) describes in chapter 1, 3 Jesus’s appearance to the Apostles, between the Passion and the Ascension, in the following terms:
“To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God.”
The placing of the Christian festival of the Ascension at forty days after Easter, the Festival of the Resurrection, originates from this passage in the Acts of the Apostles. The date is therefore set in contradiction to Luke’s Gospel: none of the other Gospel texts say anything to justify this in a different way.
The Christian who is aware of this situation is highly disconcerted by the obviousness of the contradiction. The Ecumenical Translation of the Bible, New Testament, acknowledges the facts but does not expand on the contradiction. It limits itself to noting the relevance the forty days may have had to Jesus’s mission.
Commentators wishing to explain everything and reconcile the irreconciliable provide some strange interpretations on this subject.
The Synopsis of the Four Gospels edited in 1972 by the Biblical School of Jerusalem (vol. 2, page 451) contains, for example, some very strange commentaries.
The very word, Ascension’ is criticized as follows: “In fact there was no ascension in the actual physical sense because God is no more ‘on high’ than he is ‘below’ ” (sic). It is difficult to grasp the sense of this comment because one wonders how Luke could otherwise have expressed himself.
Elsewhere, the author of this commentary sees a ‘literary artifice’ in the fact that “in the Acts, the Ascension is said to have taken place forty days after the resurrection”. this ‘artifice’ is “intended to stress the notion that the period of Jesus’s appearances on earth is at an end”. He adds however, in relation to the fact that in Luke’s Gospel, “the event is situated during the evening of Easter Sunday, because the evangelist does not put any breaks between the various episodes recorded following the discovery of the empty tomb on the morning of the resurrection…”-“. . . surely this is also a literary artifice, intended to allow a certain lapse of time before the appearance of Jesus raised from the dead.” (sic)
The feeling of embarrassment that surrounds these interpretations is even more obvious in Father Roguet’s book. He discerns not one, but two Ascensions!
“Whereas from Jesus’s point of view the Ascension coincides with the Resurrection, from the disciples’ point of view it does not take place until Jesus ceases definitely to present Himself to them, so that the Spirit may be given to them and the period of the Church may begin.”
To those readers who are not quite able to grasp the theological subtlety of his argument (which has absolutely no Scriptural basis whatsoever), the author issues the following general warning, which is a model of apologetical verbiage:
“Here, as in many similar cases, the problem only appears insuperable if one takes Biblical statements literally, and forgets their religious significance. It is not a matter of breaking down the factual reality into a symbolism which is inconsistent, but rather of looking for the theological intentions of those revealing these mysteries to us by providing us with facts we can apprehend with our senses and signs appropriate to our incarnate spirit.”
JESUS’S LAST DIALOGUES.
THE PARACLETE OF JOHN’S GOSPEL
John is the only evangelist to report the episode of the last dialogue with the Apostles. It takes place at the end of the Last Supper and before Jesus’s arrest. It ends in a very long speech: four chapters in John’s Gospel (14 to 17) are devoted to this narration which is not mentioned anywhere in the other Gospels. These chapters of John nevertheless deal with questions of prime importance and fundamental significance to the future outlook. They are set out with all the grandeur and solemnity that characterizes the farewell scene between the Master and His disciples.
This very touching farewell scene which contains Jesus’s spiritual testament is entirely absent from Matthew, Mark and Luke. How can the absence of this description be explained? One might ask the following. did the text initially exist in the first three Gospels? Was it subsequently suppressed? Why? It must be stated immediately that no answer can be found; the mystery surrounding this huge gap in the narrations of the first three evangelists remains as obscure as ever.
The dominating feature of this narration-seen in the crowning speech is the view of man’s future that Jesus describes, His care in addressing His disciples, and through them the whole of humanity, His recommendations and commandments and His concern to specify the guide whom man must follow after His departure. The text of John’s Gospel is the only one to designate him as Parakletos in Greek, which in English has become ‘Paraclete’. The following are the essential passages:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray for the Father, and he will give you another Paraclete.” (14, 15-16)
What does ‘Paraclete‘ mean? The present text of John’s Gospel explains its meaning as follows:
“But the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (14, 26).
“he will bear witness to me” (15, 26).
“it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convince the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment . . .” (16, 7-8).
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me . . .”
(It must be noted that the passages in John, chapters 14-17, which have not been cited here, in no way alter the general meaning of these quotations).
On a cursory reading, the text which identifies the Greek word ‘Paraclete’ with the Holy Spirit is unlikely to attract much attention. This is especially true when the subtitles of the text are generally used for translations and the terminology commentators employ in works for mass publication directs the reader towards the meaning in these passages that an exemplary orthodoxy would like them to have. Should one have the slightest difficulty in comprehension, there are many explanations available, such as those given by A. Tricot in his Little Dictionary of the New Testament (Petit Dictionnaire du Nouveau Testament) to enlighten one on this subject. In his entry on the Paraclete this commentator writes the following:
“This name or title translated from the Greek is only used in the New Testament by John: he uses it four times in his account of Jesus’s speech after the Last Supper (14, 16 and 26; 15, 26; 16, 7) and once in his First Letter (2, 1). In John’s Gospel the word is applied to the Holy Spirit; in the Letter it refers to Christ. ‘Paraclete’ was a term in current usage among the Hellenist Jews, First century A.D., meaning ‘intercessor’, ‘defender’ (. . .) Jesus predicts that the Spirit will be sent by the Father and Son. Its mission will be to take the place of the Son in the role he played during his mortal life as a helper for the benefit of his disciples. The Spirit will intervene and act as a substitute for Christ, adopting the role of Paraclete or omnipotent intercessor.”
This commentary therefore makes the Holy Spirit into the ultimate guide of man after Jesus’s departure. How does it square with John’s text?
It is a necessary question because a priori it seems strange to ascribe the last paragraph quoted above to the Holy Spirit: “for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” It seems inconceivable that one could ascribe to the Holy Spirit the ability to speak and declare whatever he hears . . . Logic demands that this question be raised, but to my knowledge, it is not usually the subject of commentaries.
To gain an exact idea of the problem, one has to go back to the basic Greek text. This is especially important because John is universally recognized to have written in Greek instead of another language. The Greek text consulted was the Novum Testamentum Graece.
Any serious textual criticism begins with a search for variations. Here it would seem that in all the known manuscripts of John’s Gospel, the only variation likely to change the meaning of the sentence Is in passage 14, 26 of the famous Palimpsest version written in Syriac. Here it is not the Holy Spirit that is mentioned, but quite simply the Spirit. Did the scribe merely miss out a word or, knowing full well that the text he was to copy claimed to make the Holy Spirit hear and speak, did he perhaps lack the audacity to write something that seemed absurd to him? Apart from this observation there is little need to labour the other variations, they are grammatical and do not change the general meaning. The important thing is that what has been demonstrated here with regard to the exact meaning of the verbs ‘to hear’ and ‘to speak’ should apply to all the other manuscripts of John’s Gospel, as is indeed the case.
The verb ‘to hear, in the translation is the Greek verb ‘akouô’ meaning to perceive sounds. It has, for example, given us the word ‘acoustics’, the science of sounds.
The verb ‘to speak’ in the translation is the Greek verb ‘laleô’ which has the general meaning of ‘to emit sounds’ and the specific meaning of ‘to speak’. This verb occurs very frequently in the Greek text of the Gospels. It designates a solemn declaration made by Jesus during His preachings. It therefore becomes clear that the communication to man which He here proclaims does not in any way consist of a statement inspired by the agency of the Holy Spirit. It has a very obvious material character moreover, which comes from the idea of the emission of sounds conveyed by the Greek word that defines it.
The two Greek verbs ‘akouô‘ and ‘laleô‘ therefore define concrete actions which can only be applied to a being with hearing and speech organs. It is consequently impossible to apply them to the Holy Spirit.
For this reason, the text of this passage from John’s Gospel, as handed down to us in Greek manuscripts, is quite incomprehensible if one takes it as a whole, including the words ‘Holy Spirit’ in passage 14, 26. “But the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name” etc. It is the only passage in John’s Gospel that identifies the Paraclete with the Holy Spirit.
If the words ‘Holy Spirit’ (to pneuma to agion) are ommitted from the passage, the complete text of John then conveys a meaning which is perfectly clear. It is confirmed moreover, by another text by the same evangelist, the First Letter, where John uses the same word ‘Paraclete’ simply to mean Jesus, the intercessor at God’s side. According to John, when Jesus says (14, 16): “And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Paraclete”, what He is saying is that ‘another’ intercessor will be sent to man, as He Himself was at God’s side on man’s behalf during His earthly life.
According to the rules of logic therefore, one is brought to see in John’s Paraclete a human being like Jesus, possessing the faculties of hearing and speech formally implied in John’s Greek text. Jesus therefore predicts that God will later send a human being to Earth to take up the role defined by John, i.e. to be a prophet who hears God’s word and repeats his message to man. This is the logical interpretation of John’s texts arrived at if one attributes to the words their proper meaning.
The presence of the term ‘Holy Spirit’ in today’s text could easily have come from a later addition made quite deliberately. It may have been intended to change the original meaning which predicted the advent of a prophet subsequent to Jesus and was therefore in contradiction with the teachings of the Christian churches at the time of their formation; these teachings maintained that Jesus was the last of the prophets.
By Dr. Maurice Bucaille
This article is borrowed from The Bible, The Qur’an and Science
39. ‘No other New Testament author can claim that distinction’, he notes.
40. It is difficult to see how there could have been!
41. i.e. the eleven Apostles; Judos, the twelfth, was already dead.
42. In fact, for John it was during the Last Supper itself that Jesus delivered the long speech that mentions the Paraclete.
43. Nestlé and Aland. Pub. United Bibles Societies, London, 1971.
44. This manuscript was written in the Fourth or Fifth century A.D. It was discovered in 1812 on Mount Sinai by Agnes S.-Lewis and is so named because the first text had been covered by a later one which, when obliterated, revealed the original.
45. Many translations and commentaries of the Gospel, especially older ones, use the word ‘Consoler’ to translate this, but it is totally inaccurate.