Bible ‘Contradictions’ and the Goldilocks Principle

One of my first dates with Leah was a rafting trip on the Nolichucky River back in the summer of 2012. If you ran into me at church today and I was feeling talkative, I might tell you about how I enjoyed guiding our raft down the river, showing her the sights and hoping she was impressed that I kept us above water through the dangerous whitewater of Quarter-Mile rapid. Then I might talk about how I enjoyed the drive home with her afterward, talking about everything and nothing in particular.

But supposing you had rafting on your mind after talking with me and mentioned it to one of my friends from church, you might be puzzled. My friend would tell you that our whole church went on that rafting trip on the Nolichucky in summer 2012. He might casually mention that the Nolichucky is such a challenging river that we had to have professional guides; no self-guided boats allowed. And he might mention feeling sorry for me and Leah when he noticed that we ended up in different vehicles for the drive home.

Now you’d be confused, so you might ask another of my friends. He would say he remembers that trip vividly, because he enjoyed driving back home with me, Leah, and Leah’s sister, whom he ended up marrying a few years later. He might also mention how skilled his raft’s professional river guide was and how he had wished he could direct the boat, even though it wasn’t allowed.

At this point, you would have no idea what had actually happened on that trip, but you’d be pretty sure my friends and I are all either painfully confused or pathologically dishonest. Except everything we told you was actually true. We did have a church trip, but I was really only interested in one (slender, blonde) participant on that trip, so my brief account only mentioned her. And it’s true that only professional guides are allowed on the Nolichucky, but at the time I worked as a river guide in the summers so I had the necessary certification. And Leah and I did leave the outpost in different vehicles, but only until we all stopped for dinner, at which point we piled her and three other friends into my car for the rest of the ride home. Nothing in those three stories was false or contradictory, but it certainly sounded so—because you made up in assumptions for what you lacked in information, as we all tend to do.

Your difficulty fitting together the three different stories of our rafting trip is not uncommon when it comes to eyewitness testimony, and it’s worth considering because Christians base our faith on four collections of eyewitness testimony. You and I call them the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These books claim to be four distinct collections of eyewitness recollections, either of the writers themselves or of other witnesses whose accounts they compiled. If the stories they tell are true, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Jesus Christ was in fact the Son of God, the Savior of the world. If, on the other hand, their stories are untrustworthy, then Christianity is nothing more than a bunch of fables and maxims; nice, perhaps, but hardly something to base one’s life upon. There is really no more important question than whether we can trust the Gospel stories.

Entire books have been written attacking and defending the credibility of the Gospels, but I’m not going to get that specific today. Rather, I want to highlight a general characteristic of honest eyewitness testimony. If we have multiple distinct eyewitness accounts of an event, we should expect a few points of confusion or apparent contradiction, but not too many. Call it the Goldilocks principle: If we have too many contradictory details, that suggests the witnesses are confused or simply making things up as they go. On the other hand, any prosecutor knows that accounts which line up in every detail are actually a sign of dishonesty. Because we all see different details from different perspectives, and tend to remember or emphasize different things, honest, unrehearsed eyewitnesses will usually present somewhat different accounts. If everything lines up perfectly, that suggests collusion beforehand to “get the story straight.”

If we apply the Goldilocks principle to the Gospel accounts, we should be looking for stories which line up on essential details and don’t include obvious contradictions, but which include different elements and occasionally even seem contradictory at first glance. And, in fact, that’s precisely what we find in the pages of the New Testament.

Skeptics have not been able to find any differences between the Gospels which would have to be contradictory. For example, if one author stated that Judas betrayed Jesus and another said Judas was framed by Peter, there would be no way to square that circle. Given such a blatant contradiction, the Gospels would simply disagree and we’d have to throw out our confidence in their trustworthiness. But no such unanswerable disagreements exist in the actual accounts.

However, while we don’t have conclusive disagreement between the Gospels, neither do we have the polished agreement which betrays a greater concern for unanimity than truth. So, for example, did Judas kill himself by hanging (Matt 27:5), or by “falling headlong” so that “he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18, written by Luke)? At first glance, this might seem to be an outright, impossible contradiction… Or perhaps Judas hanged himself and, after a few days cooking in the hot Middle Eastern sun, fell or was cut down and suffered the dismemberment described in Acts. Matthew and Luke might simply be retelling different parts of what happened.

Some so-called contradictions are easy to resolve. Did the angel speak to Joseph (Matt 1) or to Mary (Luke 1)? This “contradiction” appears on many lists from Bible skeptics, but is easily resolved by the hypothesis that an angel appeared to both of them. Similarly, lists of Bible contradictions will solemnly point out that John 1 tells us that John the Baptist saw the Spirit descend on Jesus following his baptism, while Matthew 3 and Mark 1 record Jesus seeing the Spirit. Again, is there any reason other than obstinacy to assume they could not have both witnessed the same scene?

Other discrepancies are harder. For example, did Jesus cleanse the temple near the end of his earthly ministry, after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, as the three Synoptic Gospels indicate, or did he cleanse it near the beginning of his ministry, as John 2 implies? It’s a sticky difficulty until we consider the possibility that similar incidents happened twice. It is not implausible that Jesus began his ministry by cleansing the temple and then ended it on the same note. The temple had been, after all, the centerpiece of worship and true religion for centuries, and so was not unimportant! One might think of the first cleansing as a warning to the Jews that their religion had grown deathly ill, and the second as a sign of impending judgment as God prepared to sweep away the Jewish religious system which had rejected the Messiah.

If we had to work out such accommodations for every page of the New Testament our common sense would begin to rebel, but scattered difficulties like this, with plausible explanations, are precisely what the Goldilocks principle tells us to expect in honest eyewitness testimony. We should not feel that we are being irrational when we look for reasonable explanations to the scattered difficulties between the Gospel writers. If we are dealing with genuine eyewitness accounts, such apparent discrepancies are exactly what we should expect.

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2 thoughts on “Bible ‘Contradictions’ and the Goldilocks Principle

  1. I like the Goldilocks Principle. I am going to use that! Nice post!

    Another option for explaining Jesus’ temple cleansing is that it only happened once, but John isn’t trying to order his Gospel chronologically but thematically. Specifically he is writing so that his readers would believe in Jesus (John 20:31). So it’s not a contradiction because John isn’t trying to say that the temple cleansing happened at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

    I have found that if we realize this idea of Gospel writers not always telling stories chronologically, many other supposed contradictions fade away. Keep up the good work!

    • Yes, that’s another option too! It’s clear the Gospel writers weren’t always intending to write chronologically. Personally, I prefer the “two temple cleanings” explanation in this case because the versions in the Synoptics and John seem rather different in their details, but I agree that the “thematic rather than chronological” explanation is also possible. Either way, definitely no need to insist on a contradiction between the Synoptics and John!

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