Apparent contradictions and inerrancy

(public domain)

By Paul Gear

I’ve been studying the Gospel of John at college this semester, and one view that i’ve encountered is the view that John’s chronology of the Passion week, in particular the day of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, contradicts that of the Synoptic Gospels. This article by Barry D. Smith explains some of the issues and argues for the view that there is no contradiction.

This got me thinking about the implications of this view for the doctrine of inerrancy. Inerrancy is a presupposition in this case (the only one that i’m prepared to bring to biblical studies), but i think it is a reasonable one based on inductive study of the Scripture. Wayne A. Grudem, “Scripture’s Self-Attestation and the Problem of Formulating a Doctrine of Scripture”, in Scripture and Truth, ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992), argues decisively that Scripture itself gives Christians no option but to accept inerrancy.

Here are some quotes from his article (emphasis in the original in all cases):

God’s words, especially God’s words as spoken and written by men … are viewed consistently by the Old Testament authors as different in character and truth status from all other human words; … In truth status they are seen as being different from all other human words, for human words invariably contain falsehood and error (Ps. 116:11), but these do not; they are spoken by God who never lies (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29). They are completely truthful (Ps. 119:160) and free from impurity or unreliability of any kind … (p. 35)

Perhaps it has not been stated emphatically enough that nowhere in the Old Testament or in the New Testament does any writer give any hint of a tendency to distrust or consider slightly unreliable any other part of Scripture. Hundreds of texts encourage God’s people to trust Scripture completely, but no text encourages any doubt or even slight mistrust of Scripture. To rely on the “inerrancy” of every historical detail affirmed in Scripture is not to adopt a “twentieth-century view” of truth or error; it is to follow the teaching and practice of the biblical authors themselves. It is to adopt a biblical view of truth and error. (p. 58-59)

To believe that all the words of the Bible are God’s words and that God cannot speak untruthfully will significantly affect the way in which one approaches a “problem text” or “alleged error” in Scripture. To seek for a harmonization of parallel accounts will be a worthy undertaking. To approach a text with the confident expectation that it will, if rightly understood, be consistent with what the rest of the Bible says, will be a proper attitude. (p. 59)

I have looked at dozens of [“problem texts”], and in every single case there are possible solutions in the commentaries. If one accepts the Bible’s claim to be God’s very words, then the real question is not how “probable” any proposed solution is in itself, but how one weighs the probability of that proposed solution against the probability that God has spoken falsely. Personally I must say that the “difficult texts” would have to become many times more difficult and many times more numerous before I would come to think that I had misunderstood the hundreds of texts about the truthfulness of God’s words in Scripture, or that God had spoken falsely. (pp. 367-368; 59n84)

The last two paragraphs quoted above are particularly relevant here. It seems to me there are a few possibilities in the particular case of John’s Passion chronology:

  1. John might or might not have been aware of the Synoptics, and was unaware that his account contradicted theirs. (This might also include such views as that John was written before the Synoptics.)
  2. John was aware of the Synoptics, was aware that his account contradicted theirs, but didn’t care because he wasn’t seeking to be historically accurate.
  3. John was aware of the Synoptics, was aware that his account contradicted theirs, and was consciously seeking to correct them.
  4. John might or might not have been aware of the Synoptics, or might or might not have been aware that his account contradicted theirs, but decided to change which night the Last Supper was on for theological, thematic, stylistic, or other reasons.
  5. Neither John nor the Synoptics was being precise about their use of Passover festival terminology, thus there is no contradiction.

Smith’s article seems to prefer solution #5. There may be other options that i haven’t considered. I’d be happy to hear about them if you have any references.

Based on the principles outlined in Grudem’s article, i would make the following conclusions about each option:

  1. John, while not specifically contradicting the Synoptics, may nonetheless be guilty of historical blunder.
  2. John is not specifically contradicting the Synoptics, but is working at a lower level of precision. This runs aground on the fact that his language is specifically locating the events in question on certain days, so it would be hard to argue that he is aiming for less precision.
  3. At least one of the two chronologies (John or the Synoptics) is historically incorrect.
  4. John, in specifically employing an unhistorical approach, is saying that these details are inconsequential, and secondary to his greater purpose, which is to engender faith. This runs aground on the same issue as #2 (his specific language about days), and also raises the question, “Why should i believe in a Jesus presented by someone who has deliberately muddied the waters about the details of the object and origin of that belief?” Or, put another way, “How does setting Jesus’ upper room discourse and crucifixion on days on which they did not really occur help to promote belief in Jesus? Rather doesn’t it diminish belief in Jesus?”
  5. This view seems to take appropriate account of the facts marshalled by Grudem, while acknowledging that the level of precision used by the Gospel writers does not meet with 21st century expectations of precision (the so-called “videotape view of history”).

Assuming i have a reasonable grasp of the available options, i can’t see any reasonable option for Evangelicals but to choose #5 (or possibly a combination of #1 & #5, although i think this is infeasible on other grounds).1

Of course, there is another alternative: that the biblical authors were incorrect (either by mistake, or by deliberate misrepresentation) in asserting that the Scriptures are without error and that God cannot lie, and that we should not require ourselves to believe what they believed. (I am discounting the possibility that Grudem’s conclusion about Scripture’s self-attestation is wrong. He brings literally hundreds of Scriptures to bear on the problem, and the evidence marshalled is overwhelming.) My question in response is: if the biblical authors were wrong hundreds of times about the trustworthiness of Scripture, what were they right about? If i am to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, but at any point he could be lying (because in this view, God can lie) about Scripture, salvation, or anything else of consequence, that is not a Jesus i am willing to believe in.


See Richard Bauckham, “John for Readers of Mark” in The Gospels for All Christians: rethinking the Gospel audiences, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998. Bauckham’s argument is that John assumed knowledge of Mark on the part of his readers, and left specific markers in the text to enable readers to calibrate his chronology with Mark’s.


Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 16 October 2015.

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