Responding to Newsweek’s Take on the Bible, Part 3 On Three Kings and Claims about Differences and Contradictions

We now turn to the third section of the Newsweek article that makes various claims about contradictions in the New Testament. 

On Three Kings and Other Differences

•On the Nativity: Yes, there are two stories of Jesus’ birth. These are not contradictions as is claimed but two perspectives on one event. Again sensitive literary reading helps. Matthew is told from Joseph’s angle, while Luke is told from Mary’s. If you ask almost any couple how they came together, each will have their own take on what took place and select their own details with some overlap and some difference in the selection. One can play the stories against each other (Eichenwald’s take) or one can ask how they complement each other (our take). Now it is true that the traditional depiction of the Christmas story where we see shepherds and magi side by side is not likely what took place. Remember that when the magi showed up, Herod slew children two years and under. It is unlikely they showed up at the manger on the same night as the shepherds. The difference in the time frame produces the difference in detail. That is no contradiction.

The genealogies are another issue long discussed, going back to the second century. Yes, they differ and there are a variety of options noted. However, none of this connects to the objection about Jesus not being in the family of David, nor does it deal with the fact that Matthew makes clear as he tells the story that only Mary is biologically connected to the birth (through a clear Greek, textually undisputed feminine relative clause), as does Luke by speaking of supposed sonship to Joseph (Matt 1:16; Luke 3:23)

Literary insensitivity reappears again when Eichenwald compares Mark and John on Jesus’ examination by Pilate. The choice by one author (John) to provide more detail is presented as if it is a contradiction versus being a simple literary choice. His claim that the Romans are let off of the hook in the presentation as time moves along ignores that in John (the latter of the two sources) a judge (Pilate) who says the defendant is innocent still executes him. What kind of favorable portrayal of justice is that? Is that a favorable portrayal of the Romans and their style of rule?

Eichenwald works with a common formula among skeptics: difference equals contradiction. The trouble is that this ignores both literary choice and the depth events possess in terms of what one can note. So the lists of who went to anoint Jesus on the day he rose differs without considering whether principal figures were named selectively in terms of the principals involved versus the option to give a fuller list.

In another example, Eichenwald asks us to choose between disciples in Galilee after the resurrection (with Matthew and John) versus their staying in Jerusalem alone (Luke). This claim ignores an important observation about the disciples’ original intent in going to Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified. It is that they had come to Jersualem only to celebrate the feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread, planning to return after the 8 days of celebration. A decision to settle in Judea, which Luke affirms, required returning to Galilee (the disciples’ home) to make the move and prepare for more than an eight day stay. Again none of this real life background to these accounts shows up in the flat, one dimensional reading Eichenwald gives to these accounts. These details, embedded in the social, cultural and historical background of the event, are the rest of the story Eichenwald’s collection of so-called contradictions ignores.

•On Jesus speaking about hating family: Here is another detail where the cultural background explains the remark. The public ministry of Jesus was dividing families pro and con. Some opposed him because they thought he was making excessive claims. If one wanted family approval, then in many instances that would lead to a decision not to follow Jesus. If one chose Jesus, he or she might lose relationships within the family. Jesus is alluding to this in his remarks, as well as making the point that ultimate loyalty lies with God. This point is made vividly and rhetorically by referring to hate. Jesus has other texts where he rebukes the Pharisees for using oaths not to care for family needs, showing his rhetorical intent in these remarks about hate.

•On the timing of the end: Once again Eichenwald builds a misleading presentation by only noting part of the evidence. Yes, Jesus did speak of this generation being involved in events tied to the end (while in part alluding to events that included the destruction of Jerusalem that did happen in 70, not forty years away). He also spoke of a tension within this hope. He taught that the time was near and yet being far enough away that some would not believe when the Son of Man returned (Luke 18:8). He also noted he did not know the time and said this timing was the Father’s business (Mark 13:32; Acts 1:6-7). So is this a contradiction as Eichenwald claims? Might it rather be a tension Jesus purposely introduces to argue the end is certain, with some things tied to it coming soon, and others long enough away that some will doubt because no one knows exactly when it will be? When difference (automatically) means contradiction then you read this in the former way. But it is not the only option. Being aware of what these other texts teach on the same theme points to a different picture, unless you throw those texts out as not counting (in which case one can argue for just about anything when I can pick and choose what counts for evidence).

On one thing in this area we agree with Eichenwald. These kinds of texts need to be discussed (and have been for a long time). Little of what he raises is new in terms of issues tied to discussion about what the Bible teaches. We also agree that pointing to these differences is not something that should make one angry with the person who raises questions about what is going on. The problem comes when only one solution is put forward when others clearly exist.  

In the area of supposed contradictions, one needs to recognize what a difference of perspective can mean. One also needs to be sure not to operate with the formula that difference equals contradiction. On a theme like the end times, one needs to work with the many references in the Scripture and the fullness of texts that address a topic, not just proof text a passage on its own. Also one should be aware many of these differences have been discussed for a long time. Appreciate rhetorical expression and how it works. When all these literary factors are put in place, the texts make sense.