Tag Archives: bible differences

Is the Death of Judas Iscariot a Bible Contradiction?

Critics of the Bible will often point out discrepancies between different Scriptural accounts to be evidence of contradictions in the Bible. A classic case involves differences between Matthew’s account and Luke’s account of the death of Judas Iscariot. In a 2019 debate, critical scholar Bart Ehrman presses the contradiction claim against evangelical Bible scholar, Peter Williams.

Peter Williams’ explanation of what might have happened, in reconciling these accounts, parallels the answer given by Answers in Genesis’ Georgia Purdom. While the standard Williams/Purdom explanation does have a measure of plausibility, I must admit that Bart Ehrman has a point here. Given enough range of possibilities, you can pretty much resolve just about any contradiction.

But some attempts to harmonize the text do not always convince everyone. In Matthew, Judas hangs himself before any mention of the purchase of a field. In Luke-Acts, Judas dies in the field, after he had just bought the field. It is possible that Judas acquired the field, in some manner, before hanging himself, and then afterwards, the chief priests repurchased the field. But the events still seem a bit disconnected. Furthermore, it seems strange that Luke would not have reminded his readers that Judas had hung himself.

I would not want to totally dismiss the Williams/Purdom explanation, but it does border on being ad hoc. Might there be a better resolution to this discrepancy, that has better explanatory power? I think there is, but you have to think a bit “out of the box” to get there.

New Testament scholar Michael Licona has written about the use of compositional devices, that were commonly characteristic of the Greco-Roman bios genre, typical of 1st century literature. Some of those compositional devices would not sound typical for modern readers, particularly those compositional devices that have a more metaphorical understanding behind them. But if we consider the Gospels as examples of such bios literary genre, this might resolve the Judas death discrepancy more satisfactorily. Licona’s critics have accused him of undermining biblical inerrancy, but it is ironically more likely that the supposed defenders of a more strict view of inerrancy, have made it more difficult for the Bible to be defended.

YouTube apologist Michael Jones, a.k.a. Inspiring Philosophy, brings Licona’s insights to bear on the death of Judas conundrum. In the days of King David, Ahithophel deserted David and plotted against the king, in support of Absalom. But when Ahithophel realized that the plot against David would fail, he hung himself (see 2 Samuel 17, especially verse 23). It is possible that Matthew might have used the hanging of Ahithophel as a metaphorical way of saying that Judas was yet another Ahithophel.

This would have been consistent with the practice of Greco-Roman bios to use figures of speech, that may not be obvious to the modern reader. In other words, perhaps Judas did not actually hang himself, but he could have committed suicide in a manner more like it is described by Luke, early in the Book of Acts. This idea is supported by evidence in the Gospel of John, where John alludes to Judas’ betrayal as being like the betrayal of Ahithophel (Psalm 41:9; John 13:18).

If you liked that video, you should review some of the hundred(s) of other YouTube videos at Inspiring Philosophy, that addresses supposed “Bible contradictions.” Michael Jones is one of the new brilliant “Young Apologists” (my way of saying it), that some are calling the “Apologetics Empire.”

New Testament scholar Michael Licona goes at it himself from a slightly different angle, suggesting that Matthew is actually describing a hanging here, and that it is Luke instead who is using a figure of speech, of Judas “falling headlong,” as a metaphorical way of saying that Judas’ career was “going downhill” at that point.

What I would conclude here is that there are a variety of possible resolutions to this classic Bible discrepancy, but that allowing for the use of metaphor and figure of speech, where something has been traditionally interpreted in a non-metaphorical sense, might actually be a better, more plausible and even probable way to resolve such difficulties.

Any thoughts Veracity readers?

 

 


When Did Joseph and Mary Go to Bethlehem for the Census?

Joseph and pregnant Mary at the census. But what if we got this picture wrong, and Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census, when Jesus was 10 years old? (credit: Chora Church, Istanbul/Shutterstock)

 

If this proposal turns out to be correct, it would positively throw perhaps the best argument AGAINST the historical reliability of the Bible into the dumpster…. But to get the idea, you would have to completely rethink how Luke handles chronology. Veracity readers, get out your thinking caps!

One of the thorniest apologetic challenges is trying to fit Luke’s traditional dating for Jesus’ birth to Caesar’s census, during the time when Quirinius was governor, with Matthew’s version, which has Jesus born during the latter years of Herod. The big problem is the timing. Luke’s Quirinian census is typically dated to 6 A.D., largely due to Josephus’ historical record, whereas Matthew’s description of the death of Herod is somewhere around 4-1 B.C.

That is like at least a 7-10 year discrepancy. Whoops.

Skeptics of the Bible often point to this as proof that the Bible has errors in it, and therefore, the Bible can not be trusted for history.

Over the years, Christian apologists have put forward various explanations to account for this discrepancy. Perhaps we are talking about a different census, with Luke’s census happening a few years earlier, but that we simply have no secular or other record for it. Perhaps Josephus was wrong on his dating of events. While these proposals present some thoughtful possibilities, the critics often respond with, “Meh…. There go the Christians again, overreaching for an apologetic.”

But what if the traditional reading of Luke’s story has been misinterpreted? What if it is possible, that about 10 years after Jesus’ birth, after living a few years in Nazareth, the Holy Family returned back to Bethlehem for the census? What if the story about the census is a digression, purposefully inserted by Luke, temporarily jumping ahead in the chronological narrative, before returning back to the main story about Jesus’ birth?

I argue for a similar literary technique used by Luke in Acts, regarding the number of visits Paul makes to Jerusalem, that attempts to reconcile with Paul’s own story in Galatians. Studies by New Testament scholars, such as Michael Licona, author of Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, argue that Luke uses such literary techniques more frequently than traditionally known, whether by evangelicals or skeptics!

In fact, Luke unambiguously does this very thing in Luke 3, by sandwiching verses 19-20, detailing John the Baptist’s future imprisonment, in the middle of the narrative regarding Jesus’ baptism. We know from Mark 1:9-11 that John the Baptist baptized Jesus, which must have happened prior to John’s imprisonment. Apparently, Luke is not afraid of reporting events in a non-chronological manner, to suit his own purposes, assuming that his readers would already know the exact historical chronology.

British bible teacher, Andrew Wilson, on the “Think” blog, pointed me to this new research done by David Armitage, and published in 2018, at the British evangelical think tank in Cambridge, Tyndale House. Armitage’s proposal has a number of exegetical and translation steps to make, but the more I think about it, Armitage’s idea is quite persuasive.

Jump on over to the Think blog to get the argument summary, but here below is Armitage’s proposed translation of Luke 1:80-2:7, that puts all of the pieces together. The chronological digression might be hard to pick out, so you may need to wait for the full explanation at the end of this post to get it straight. The main thing to look for is Luke 1:80 to 2:5, where the narrative jumps forward in time, following along the time period of John the Baptist’s upbringing, before resuming in verse 6, which chronologically follows after the narrative of where John the Baptist’s birth ends, described in Luke 1. It starts with the story of the young, John the Baptist, as he was growing up (notice how chapter headings, first introduced in our Bibles by, Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 13th century, can be misleading):

1:80 The child [John the Baptist] grew and was strengthened in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel. 2:1 As it happens, it was during that time that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the Roman world 2 (this was the first registration, when Quirinius was governor of Syria), 3 and everyone went – each into their own town – to be registered. 4 Joseph also went up: out of Galilee, away from the town of Nazareth, into Judea, to David’s town (which is called Bethlehem) because he was from the house and family of David; 5 he went to be registered with Mary (she who was his betrothed when she was pregnant).

6 Now, it transpired that the days were completed for her to give birth when they were in that place, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a feeding trough, because there was insufficient space for them in their lodging place.

Compare with the ESV translation, and see what you think:

80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

2:1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The most troublesome verse for me is verse 5, as the ESV follows the standard interpretation, by describing the condition Mary was in, during the Quirinian census, that of being pregnant with Jesus. But Armitage argues that the Greek allows for a different translation, with a parenthetical comment, that simply reminds the reader of who Mary was, with no immediate time reference implied. This sets us up to read verse 6 as a transition, implicitly ten years prior, back to the main narrative, emphasizing the place of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem, and not the timing. I am no Greek scholar, but this is very intriguing! Armitage paraphrases verse 5 like this:

Joseph went there to register with Mary – that same Mary, you will recall, who whilst betrothed to him was pregnant.

Objections to Armitage’s reconstruction might focus on the complex number of interpretive steps required. However, the whole solution is actually simpler, if we grant that Luke has a habit of sometimes jumping around chronologically in his narrative, for reasons clear to his original audience, that are not always intuitive to more contemporary readers. One big plus is that Armitage’s reconstruction adequately explains why Matthew’s account never mentions the Quirinian census; that is, Matthew never covers the events of Jesus’ life at age 10.

If Armitage’s proposal holds, and he admits that it is far from being certain, this is what he says his revised chronology looks like. It totally reframes one of the most well-known Bible stories, of all time, but it solves a particularly knotty, chronological problem:

  1. Towards the end of the reign of Herod the Great, Mary – who is from Nazareth – encounters an angel who foretells Jesus’ birth.
  2. Mary visits Elizabeth in the Judean hill country, then returns home.
  3. Although already found to be pregnant whilst betrothed, Mary marries Joseph – a man from Bethlehem – who initially takes Mary to his family home.
  4. Jesus is born in Bethlehem; because of space restrictions in their quarters, Mary and Joseph place the baby in a feeding trough in the main living area.
  5. The family subsequently relocate to Nazareth, establishing there a home of their own.
  6. Several years later, when Quirinius is governing Syria, an enrolment is announced, so Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem, because this remains the location of Joseph’s family home, and he needs to register in connection with property there.

Pretty cool, huh?

Additional Resources:

I wrote about the Quirinius question five years ago, but David Armitage’s new solution is by far, the most persuasive, in my view…. A couple of other twists to the birth narratives:  The traditional story of Jesus’ birth, as told in many Hollywood movies, tries to smash together the events recorded by Matthew and Luke, such that you have Luke’s shepherds together with Matthew’s wise men from the east, gathered around the newborn Jesus. It makes for a tidy story, until you start comparing Matthew and Luke together, a well-known difficulty for students of the Bible. Matthew has no shepherds, and Luke has no wise men! More than likely, the visit with Matthew’s “wise men,” or more specifically, “magi,” was a separate event, happening weeks, if not months, after Jesus’ birth. This places the trip to Egypt, as described in Matthew, at some undetermined time after the birth of Jesus, yet prior to the permanent settlement in Nazareth, an historical detail that Luke simply ignores. As another example, a growing consensus among Bible scholars has pretty much rejected the popular, traditional idea, of Joseph and a pregnant Mary going up and down the streets of Bethlehem, looking for a place to stay, only to be finally turned away at the “inn.” Contemporary scholarship makes the more modest claim that there was no available “guest room” for the family to stay in at relatives in Bethlehem, a correction made explicit in the NIV 2011 translation of Luke 2:7 (The ESV keeps the more traditional “inn,” but puts “guest room” in a footnote; see above, but according to New Testament scholar, Ian Paul, the evidence favors the “guest room” translation).

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