Do the Gospels Contradict Each Other? Studies in Mark, Pt. 13

The aim of this post is to briefly address the issue of alleged contradictions in the Gospel accounts. I am not going to get into a lot of textual, literary or theological specifics here but rather, I want to look at the stories of the baptism of Jesus in Mark's and John's accounts, and use them as springboards into a discussion on how one should read the Gospels. Let me explain.

I want to begin with the texts, so, here are the passages from Mark and John:

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: 'You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.' Immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him.” (Mk. 1.9-12)

“John testified saying, 'I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. 'I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.' 'I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.' Again the next day John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as He walked, and said, 'Behold, the Lamb of God!' The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.” (Jn. 1.32-7)

Now, if you look closely at these two accounts, you notice something: In Mark's account, after His baptism, Jesus goes immediately (euthys) into the wilderness for forty days. However, in John's account, Jesus never goes into the wilderness. In fact, the very next day, He is seen walking around town. And the day after that, He is walking around again, and he runs into Nathaniel. And the day after that Jesus heads to Cana of Galilee. In John (which I actually believe Lazarus wrote), there is no wilderness stay. In Mark's account there is no conversation with Nathanael and no trip to Cana. What we have here, are two different accounts.

Now, some have tried, throughout history to harmonize such things; they've created books with such titles as A Harmony of the Gospels, which try to fit the accounts and events together. However, such books are really unnecessary and miss the point. The Gospel accounts were never meant to be harmonized (at least not in the sense that I just mentioned). No, what makes the accounts so great are their differences. Yet, these differences are not “contradictions.” When Mark wrote, he was constructing a story and he set up his story and told his story differently than anyone else could or would have. Lazarus (the author of John) did the same thing. In other words, each of the authors had different perspectives on the story, different points to make and different agendas, that's why their stories (which share foundational similarities) differ at points.

To Mark, it was important to speak of the baptism and wilderness events, to Lazarus it was not. Why? Well, again, they both had different perspectives and agendas. So, what some people allege to be contradictions, are not contradictions at all. What we have in the Gospels are writers telling the stories from their perspectives and all the while adding their own elements or flares. Anyone who has ever tried to write or recount a true story, can easily understand this. Or just take the example of two persons seeing an event and trying to recount it. Will they use the same words, phrases, idioms, etc.? No. But does that mean their stories stand in opposition to one another? Again, No! The stories still share foundational elements. When we read the Gospels, then, this must always be remembered. And for those who may be uncomfortable with this whole notion at first, well, maybe it will comfort you to know that once you take this position, all of the supposed contradictions vanish! How's that for convincing?


  1. I agree that it is very important to read the gospels understanding that they are coming from different points of view.

    It also seems that if one were to read the fourth gospel it is very clear that John does not care to much about chronological order. I agree that this is not a contradiction, just a matter of writing style. He is willing to sacrifice it in order to express his overarching theme. Jesus is the new temple. Jesus is the presence of God on earth.

    Also, I believe the Baptist's language in John 1:32-34 is past tense. It is as if he was retelling an earlier event. Perhaps, the Baptist is recalling the day he baptized Jesus. This would make sense of why the next day Jesus wasn't in the wilderness. Maybe the "next day" shouldn't be thought of in terms of Jesus' baptism and wilderness experience. Rather, it should be thought of in terms of John telling the story. I am not fully convinced of this last point as of yet. It just appears this way from an initial observation. Good Post!

  2. Corey,

    Thanks for your comments. Your last point may have some merit to it, however, did John have a choice really to tell it anything but the past tense? It doesn't seem like it. I'll have to ponder this some more.

  3. Michael, I appreciate your openness to avoiding the pre-mature harmonizing of the varied gospel accounts. I for one, probably have a more hard reading than you about the differences found between Mark and John. But we can talk about that at another time.

    In my work with Mark, I had published as a context a brief set of principles that might articulate for me the importance of this approach in the Interfaith Age in which we find ourselves. I am attaching it hear.

    Bible Study in an Interfaith Age

    Can our Bible study methods function to form us as Christians and enable us to participate authentically in the Interfaith Age in which we live? The following guidelines attempt to reflect on how our methods might by "tuned" in ways that are congruent with the world that we, as Christians, find ourselves where we must struggle to witness to and dialogue with devotees of other great religious traditions. Below is an initial list. Your comments are always welcome.

    1) Celebrating the Textual Diversity: Resist pre-mature temptation to harmonize or smooth over textual discrepancies or disagreements.

    2) Broadening the Conversational Resources: Utilize a wide variety of commentaries and studies, but always remember that your own feelings and intuitions are an important source as well. Repeatedly return to the stubborn fact that these texts are finally stories, therefore give some priority to methods of literary analysis when reflecting on the textual depth.

    3) Avoiding the Contextual Confusion: Read these texts through Jewish Eyes. Resist the premature superimposition of later Christian understandings and theological assumptions on what are primarily Jewish texts.

    4) Acknowledging the Religio-political Frame of Reference: As you engage the texts, seek to recognize the plain meaning of terms such as empire, legion, Christ, and gospel as “proto-political” language used self-consciously by the writers. Stand in the shoes of First Century Jews experiencing “cognitive dissonance” between the promise of being a chosen people with a strong national identity and the reality of Roman rule.

    Revised: March 31, 2007 – John Montgomery

  4. John,

    Nice thoughts, for the most part I agree. I would also add to that:

    * Be familiar with the Greek language. Acknowledge word plays, poetry, parabolic descriptions, etc.

    This, of course, is an addition to your thoughts. What do you think? Oh, by the way, if you wanted to, you might develop the "ABC's" approach. Each of your entries, has A...B...C...for thier first letters (though, you have two A's). Anyways, just a thought.

    Thanks, John, for your comments, though on the surface, I must admit, they seem very "liberal" sounding to me, which gives me pause. Diversity is good but not at the cost of theological (or even textual) unity.

  5. Hey Michael,

    I would subsume your suggestion in #B about using a variety of resources - these were developed as congregational study guidlines (still a work in process - at some point form will follow content!) and while Greek is surely important, in our churches most layfolks have a short attention span for lexicons, etc.

    I am certainly more liberal than most and probably more than you would prefer - to be more accurate - I am post-modern (not necessarily in the emerging church sense which is really very new for me) but I do think I am beyond both neo-orthodoxy and liberal theology. At the normative level I am a John B. Cobb, Jr. influenced Process Theologian who probably can't teach much about it and make total sense, but I am glad that somebody can - that fact alone gives me permission to move beyond Spong and his a-theism and Tillich and his notion of Being Itself.

    On the formative level of theology, I regularly obsess about metaphors (ala Sallie McFague). I am searching for a way to talk about the divinity of Jesus without requiring him to be supernatural. Which is to say that I don't see much ontological difference between Ann Rice's picture of Jesus and her vampires! I think Cobb, who much of my graduate work at Chicago was about, gives us a clue.

    I wince when those in the Bible ask Jesus by what authority does he say and do the things he does. Which is to say that I am not a Bible scholar, but I am passionate about Bible study in congregations. I am Methodist to the core, which means that I consider my activism more important than my creeds!

  6. John,

    I do not "wince" at your orientation towards process theology, it in fact, has some good things to teach. I am not a process theologian but I lean very hard towards "open theism". In my journey, it has been the whole theodicy and Trinity issues that have led me here.

    As for Jesus being divine, I have to say that He is. Supernatural, He is. I think your surpassing of Spong is quite scary and if you associate yourself with those types of people, as Luke Johnson says, you're really associating yourself with self-promoting, second and third rate scholarship. I agree with him. At this point, I'm not so sure that you're actually there yet. Also, being "process" does not require going the route of the Jesus Seminar.

    I find it fascinating that you take my scholarship serious and that you keep returning only to wince at my statements about the divinity of Jesus. I am glad you do and I hope you continue to. It actually kind of makes me laugh. Wow.

    As for Greek and the laity, you are right. Very few will take an interest but then again, it is those who do take an interest that should also take an interest in interpretive tools as much as possible. Bible interpretation needs to be done with the utmost scrutiny and care. This is why I continue to try to develop interactive tools for the laity to use, such as Hebrew Alefbet 2.0 and Greek Alphabeta 1.0, among other things.

    I would like you, if you could, to do a post on the historical Jesus sometime or maybe I will and you can engage me. Perhaps I will do that in the next week or two.

    As far as being Methodist to the core, good for you. Yet, I would hope that at some point, your creeds and deeds won't have tension between them but will be complimentary of one another.

    Thanks for the "confession" (jk). Although I disagree with you considerably and I think that you need to really read some work on the historical Jesus, I actually see some parallels between my Christian thought life and yours. Anyways, we will continue chatting, I hope I haven't offended you or whatever, that is never my aim in any of these things, but occasionally, because "tone" cannot be judged through type as well as voice, things are taken wrongly.

  7. I think I didn't make my point about Spong clear - my point is that the Biblical idea of God requires a God who can and does act. Spong's move beyond theism leaves the Biblical God behind. I like Luke Timothy Johnson but he seems to me to be attacking a straw man with his critique of the Jesus seminar. Actually, of the members of the seminar I am most interested in Crossan - The two scholars that I read the most these days are Paula Fredriksen and Amy-Jill Levine. I'm writing my latest post on Mark this weekend - I will send you a link.

  8. I was speaking of the Baptist's language being past tense...in 32-34. The author can tell a story from the past, with the characters speaking in present tense.

  9. John,

    I get your drift better now. I would say that I agree w/Luke Johnson as well. Although, I do think his criticisms of the Jesus Seminar are very valid. Johnson's narrative "pattern" apologetic seems on target and also seems very sound. Thanks for spelling out your stance more.


    I see your point and it is well taken. Yet, there are scores and scores of things that Mark and John differ on, if you'd like, I can list those. Even if the baptism in past tense was right, the other episodes may not be as easy to circumnavigate. Anyways, good thinking, glad you're visiting and chatting, nice to have you around.

  10. I know I'm real late to the party but I just have to say:


    BW3 got to you at Asbury, didn't he? ;^D

    I agree about not needing to harmonize the Gospels... They were never meant to be harmonized because they weren't written as 'complimentary' accounts. They each had a specific author who had an intended audience, all of which audiences had specific needs and idiosyncratic beliefs.

    Corey said: "It also seems that if one were to read the fourth gospel it is very clear that John does not care to much about chronological order."

    I have to disagree here. John (not Lazarus!) appears to care more about chronology than the Synoptic writers.

  11. What do you do with the different times given for the crucifixion of Jesus in Mark and John?

  12. Scott,
    There is a good explanation for the differing times (which are actually, not different). It seems that Mk. used the traditional Jewish timing system. Notice in Mk. 13 when he talks about the watches of the night, he's not even using the Roman system but the 4 watches of the night that took place in the Temple. TW Martin's "Watch during the watches" article explains this in-depth.

    Anyway, where Mark used the Jewish timing system, the author of John's Gospel may have used the Roman timing system (and this could be one of the things, perhaps, to argue against Lazarus writing it as I argued above but then again, not necesarrily). So, if Pliny is right (from midnight to midnight = a day), and if Jewish time is marked from the sunrise (6am), then it seems as though Mark's 9am (third hour from 6am) and thus the end of the crucifixion, comports with John's 6am as the beginning of the crucifixion.

    I'm not arguing this because of some inerrancy doctrine, but if this contextual argument fits, and it seems to, in the end, there really is no contradiction. What do you think?

  13. I think that we do not need to harmonize these texts into modern conceptions of "history."

    I think Mark is probably giving the time as he knows it to have happened and John is trying to draw out the theological significance of the event (not writing history), and has Jesus "the lamb who takes away the sins of the world" crucified at noon the same time the passover lamb is slain. John mentioning that not a bone was broken is also in line with this.

    They don't contradict not because of differing timing systems, but because of different genres and purposes.

  14. Scott,
    What I did was actually not a conception of modern history. I was talking about Jewish and Roman time. That said, I think the ancients, by the first century especially, had a sense of history like ours (linear; looking backwards; this happens in the NT all the time; there was also a certain circularity to it). The harmonizing here is not philosophically undergirded, all I did was offer a plausible/possible explanation that made sense. We don't always have to resort to a theological hermeneutical approach either. The reality of the texts fall or stand on a certain amount of historical events. I also find your explanation as possible too. Still, you cannot just rule out the Jewish/Roman time factors altogether, that is, unless you can prove that they are totally wrong and out of place.

  15. My comments were not directed at you but to the maximalist scholarship that cannot accept that anything in the biblical text is written under the assumptions of modern history, i.e., writing what "really" happened.

    "What I did was actually not a conception of modern history." I'm fairly sure this is not a theory that is uniquely yours, so I am not attacking you just saying that in this particular case I prefer a different solution.

    "I think the ancients, by the first century especially, had a sense of history like ours." One word for you: intercalation. This is only one example of MANY of how ancients approached history writing in a manner that would be unacceptable to many modern writers.

    This is not a matter of "worse" or "wrong", just different.

  16. ...that should be" that anything in the biblical text is NOT written under the assumptions of modern history

  17. OK... time is covered. How about in Mark Jesus is crucified at nine the day after passover at nine a.m. and in John Jesus is crucified the day before Passover at twelve p.m.?

    Different means of telling times and calendars?

    And yes you should have a tab for your work as it is obviously very time consuming and for the most part quite well done reflecting an impressive knowledge of the issues surrounding the text.

  18. Feel free to engage past posts any time and I will readily respond...

  19. Scott,
    Sorry for the tardy response. But in your words, or wait, my words, I guess I will readily respond now.

    As for the time thing, I still think the explanation I gave offered the best answer. In dealing your more specific question here, I would simply say that it depends on how you understand the "crucifixion". Was it simply the moment He died or was it the whole event (beatings, etc.).

    If we look at it as a whole, then the entire time thing seems to disappear. Thus, the two writers can talk about the crucifixion at different points and times and still be spot on. This is especially true, I think, when we take into consideration the different uses of time by the two authors.

  20. Michael,

    You have now resorted to ad hoc argumentation that appear to have value at first glance, but upon further investigation is clearly tendentious towards a historical harmonization regardless of any information.

    First you offer no evidence that anyone viewed parts of 3 days as the same event.

    Second while First century Jewish people did conceive of time differently, so that a part of Friday evening, Saturday, and Sunday morning could be conceived as "3 days" they did not just think of events occurring over those time periods as the same event. They were very particular over which day the festivals, feasts, and Sabbath were on. You could walk a certain distance Friday morning and not Saturday. No one conceived of those events happening at the same time. In fact, one of the major disagreements we know of from Qumran is that hey felt the Temple authorities had adopted the wrong calendar thereby making the Sabbath and the Day of Atonement ON THE WRONG DAY.

    I mean can you imagine the conversation under your ad hoc misrepresentation: when should we have the Sabbath this week?: Oh I don't know Thursday, Friday, Saturday... really it's all the same.

    The Synoptics are clear: Jesus has a Passover meal with the disciples the night before he is crucified on the following day at 9 am. John on the other hand who is presenting Jesus over and over again as the "Lamb of God" (only Gospel that uses that language) the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world is crucified around noon the day BEFORE passover, clearly stated in John the day of passover preparation (John 19:14). This is also why it is important for John to mention that not a bone was broken in his body a passover regulation for lambs. In passover the lamb was prepared and slaughtered the day before passover at noon.

    Many, many scholars recognize that the times of these passages cannot be harmonized. Throwing out silly arguments is certainly not intellectually honest.

    Let us not commit heretical biblical docetism where the Bible is so divine we forget the human element. John was not consulting Mark when he wrote his Gospel. He was however presenting the theological significance of Jesus' death (I would even say inspired)and he wants to present Jesus as the passover lamb that takes away the sins of the world and so he has Jesus die on the day of preparation - perhaps that's even how he remembered it (we would be getting speculative here of course) but he did not think the day before passover and the day after passover were the same thing. Neither did Mark. let's not come up with a harmonization that finally gets so desperate that it insults the intelligence of the biblical authors as a last resort.

    Really, Michael I like you and your work but this really gets my goat. In an attempt to make the Bible true in a Cartesian sense evangelicals will say anything, "Oh it was a Roman time system and not a Jewish time system," and we miss the massive point that John is making. There is DEEP theological waters here but let's ignore those and try to harmonize this with the synoptics.

    The Bible is still true if Mark and John put Jesus death a few days apart years after his death. it wasn't important to them in the same sense it would be for modern Christians.

  21. Scott,
    Honestly, I really appreciate the apology. Thank you. I hope that I have proven on Pisteuomen (and other work of done) that I am not a schotty scholar. Because I seem to come down on one passage with those who appear to be ultra-conservative, does not at all, mean that I am in that camp. Were I, I would gladly admit it.

    As for the ad hoc argument, I still think this is a misnomer. I provided a few examples, of which you were asking, and with all due respect, I think they proved my point.

    I never said that the ancients didn't know one day from the other, couldn't tell time, were doing "modern history" (or theology), etc. But the fact remains, there were different ways (e.g. Roman and Jewish) of tellling time. This simply cannot be disproven. All I have suggested up to this point is that this may be the case with Mk & Jn.

    I have also, to mention it again, suggested that your idea may be the case or that the digamma/gamma argument may be the case. Or what about the notion, and this is certainly not off-base either because good scholars have ruminated over it, and it is in part, what I suggested two comments back, that there was a type of "estimating" going on.

    Look, the fact is, I would suggest that while I am being accused of forcing modern historical notions on the text, I could just as easily flip the script on you!!! If the truth be told, I don't think they were, neither Mk nor Jn, being as specific about "time" as you are suggesting. As in many agricultural cultures today, time just isn't measured like we measure it in civilized societies--as I assume you know. Bruce Malina has done incredible work on this idea and I may use his arguments to buttress my own theories...or...maybe not, we'll see.

    As it stands now, I don't think the "thematic" or "genre" theory you hold to is all that convincing. It has some good points but I can't subscribe yet. Not that I'm against it or have evangelical pre-dispositions to reject, that is certainly not the case, no, I just don't find it "as" compelling.

    I don't think you're giving scholars enough credit on the "time" issue. I would argue that some reconsideration needs done here. It is not as "simplistic" as you are arguing in my view. The fact is, I've suggested that there are a number of plausible views and you have not. I ask you: Doesn't this seem backwards? Again, can't the charges be turned around? Is there only 1 right answer? Have you already considered every option beyond the view you currently hold? (Genuine questions, by the way.)

    Again, I do appreciate the apologies because I would never say such things about you. There is certainly room for disagreement here, as you well know. In fact, odd as it sounds coming from an evangelical, I embrace the disagreement to a great degree.

    Let's keep the convo going. As I said, I hope I can write a post fleshing out my view in more detail, in the near future. BTW, you going to SBL?


  22. Scott, a new post on this matter will be up at "about" mid-morning on Sunday...which could actually mean, between 9 and noon or something like that--I guess it depends on how you reckon time :)