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Argument from Alleged Contradictions
By: Erick Nelson
Last Updated: December 31, 2001
Both Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan appeal to the argument that the New Testament is so full of contradictions that it cannot be relied upon to give accurate information about the life and sayings of Jesus. Then take this a step farther to conclude that the gospel writers intended to portray their material as metaphorically true, rather than as factual accounts.
Many people have listed alleged contradictions, ranging from God changing his mind to discrepancies between gospel accounts. Several of these are trivially easy to reconcile. Others require a careful look at context and grammar. Rather than try to examine every possible charge of contradiction, I think the best course to take is to find a really good example and evaluate it carefully.
Dr. Crossan, in his first offering for the Jesus 2000 email debate, presents just such an example to press home his views. He is no run-of-the-mill writer, and the J2000 forum was no trivial event. He is considered a world-class scholar, presenting his ideas to serious readers. I therefore assume he intentionally picked this example as the best illustration he could find. If he knew of better examples he surely would have used them. The techniques used in analyzing this example can be used with any other alleged contradictions that are introduced.
Here is the essential contention, in his words:
"We call it the Agony in the Garden but there is no Garden in Mark and no Agony in John. In Mark it is Jesus who is prostrate on the ground (14:33-35), who asks if the cup of suffering could be avoided although he is willing to accept it if necessary (14:35-37), and who watches his disciples abandon him and flee (14:50-52). In John it is the full 600 soldiers of Jerusalem's auxiliary cohort who are prostrate on the ground (18:4-6), while Jesus asserts his unqualified intention of accepting the cup of suffering (18:10-11), and then commands the cohort to let his disciples go (18:7-9). Two radically different interpretations of the same event. As history, they cannot both be true, even if we were ever able to tell which, if either, actually happened. But as gospel they are both true.
Mark describes the Son of God almost out of control, arrested in agony, fear, and abandonment. John describes the Son of God in total control, arrested in foreknowledge, triumph, and command. Each interpretation spoke directly to and from the experience of the writers' communities but different experiences begot different theologies of the passion's inception."
". . . Four should be enough to get the point since, at least in Indo-European tradition, a triple repetition is usually considered adequate to establish pattern. Those four are our mistress models, our master examples." (email debate)
There are two things that concern me about this example. The first is that there are serious conceptual problems with the reasoning that is presented. The second is that he employs a well-worn fallacy to allege contradiction in the accounts. I want to address the conceptual problems first. (I will give Crossan's fuller quote, and the gospel texts, as we address the charge of contradiction.)
Overall Analysis of Crossan's Argument
Let's take a look now at Crossan's total argument. He claims that the differences in the accounts constitute a contradiction. "Two radically different interpretations of the same event. As history, they cannot both be true, even if we were ever able to tell which, if either, actually happened."
He also claims that the writers intended these (false) accounts to be construed metaphorically. "But as gospel they are both true." "Four should be enough to get the point since, at least in Indo-European tradition, a triple repetition is usually considered adequate to establish pattern. Those four are our mistress models, our master examples."
This breaks out into three separate statements (which I will list in a short-hand way) which are extremely interesting:
- If Argument from Silence holds, then contradiction
- If contradiction, then both false
- If both false, then intended metaphorically
I came to a realization as I studied these arguments. Not only are the arguments invalid, the premises are - each of them - actually irrelevant to their conclusions! Nothing could be more amazing. I'll take them one by one.
Argument from Silence -> Contradiction
We will see below that the Argument from Silence is in fact a commonly recognized fallacy. In order to be truly mutually exclusive, two accounts must either (a) have statements which directly contradict each other, and/or (b) be impossible to harmonize in a valid, consistent proposition. Omissions cannot of themselves constitute a contradiction. Some other factors must be used to determine this. We will say much more about this, below. Since these factors, not the Argument from Silence, are used to decide contradiction, the Argument from Silence is actually irrelevant to the conclusion.
Contradiction -> Both False
Crossan needs this premise. If either Mark or John are true, his argument is seriously impaired, if not ruined. (He formally acknowledges the possibility that one or the other might be true, and then proceeds as if both are false.)
Let's say that accounts B and C do, in fact, contradict each other. Of course, if the contradiction is a formal logical contradiction (A and ~A), one side must be false and the other true. In this case, they could never both be false.
But this isn't the kind of contradiction that is being asserted. Crossan's charge is of mutual exclusion. Let's say that he has found two mutually exclusive accounts, not of formal contradiction. The only way we can tell from the fact of mutual exclusion that one of the accounts is false is if we already know that the other is true. Otherwise, we need further evidence to tell us whether each side is true or false.
If we had this information, we could have simply applied it to the accounts without regard for this alleged contradiction, and come up with the same answer. It is this further evidence (whatever that may be) that actually decides whether either account is false - not the fact that they are contradictory. The knowledge that there is a contradiction is actually irrelevant to the conclusion.
Both False -> Intended Metaphorically
Let's say that accounts B and C are contradictory, and we have proven that both are false. Let's say, further, that Crossan has proven all four gospels to be contradictory and false. Does it follow that the Metaphorical Gospel Theory is true?
You may remember that there are several possible Options when evaluating the New Testament accounts:
Option 1. The NT writers believed that these stories and claims were factually (as well as spiritually) true, and they were correct.
Option 2. The NT writers believed that these stories and claims were factually true (the "creative" changes having occurred earlier in the process), portrayed them as such, but were mistaken.
Option 3. The NT writers knew that these stories and claims were not factually true (they believed them to be either metaphorically true or simply false), but portrayed them as factually true in order to engender faith in their audience. Their original readers, by and large, (mistakenly) accepted the stories as factually true.
Option 4. The NT writers believed that these stories and claims were metaphorically, not factually true, and portrayed them as such. Their original audience on the whole understood that they were metaphorically, not factually, true. Later generations came to interpret these literally.
Option 5. The NT writers and their audience simply were not able to make the distinction between "metaphorically" true and "factually" true.
To show that Option 1 is false is only to remove one possibility. Let's say that we also reject Options 5 and 6, just because they are implausible. This leaves us with Option 4 (the MG theory), and Options 2 and 3.
We are still left with the problem of how to decide between these three possibilities. Options 2 and 3, no less than Option 1, say that the writers intended their material to be construed factually. Option 4 says that the writers intended their material to be construed metaphorically. How can we arbitrate between these two claims? Certainly not because we know the accounts to be false! These are all consistent with false accounts. That has no bearing on this decision at all! We must bring in further evidence to establish the intention of the writers. And if we had that evidence we could have invoked it already. To know that the accounts are false is, again, irrelevant to the total conclusion.
Dr. Crossan presents three inferences that are invalid. What is more surprising is that each inference is irrelevant.
Before we look at our example, we should take a moment to talk about what a contradiction is, and how to tell whether two accounts of an event are, in fact, contradictory.
When it comes to contradictions, intuitions often differ. Two people can look at a set of statements: to one they will seem contradictory, to the other they will seem to be in harmony. Therefore, rather than try to appeal to such general intuitions, it is better to clearly understand what we mean by "contradiction." I'll try to describe what kinds of contradictions exist, what classes of differences are found, which differences do and do not entail contradiction, and what procedure can be used to evaluate alleged contradictions.
The are several kinds of conditions which are called contradictory.
The strongest kind of contradiction is, of course, the logical contradiction between the statements A and ~A ("not-A"). A and ~A cannot both be true at the same time. Indeed, one must always be true and the other false.
Mutual Exclusion with Third Option
It may be the case that two statements cannot both be true at the same time in the same way, yet they can both be false, because there is a third alternative. For instance, the statement
(A) "Jesus said to bring a staff" and
(B) "Jesus said not to bring a staff" are mutually exclusive (assuming that they refer to the same Jesus, the same act of speaking, etc.),
yet there is a third possibility: perhaps
(C) Jesus didn't say anything about staffs at all.
In this case (if C is true, for instance), both of the statements can be false.
Mutual Exclusion with Hidden Premise
Consider the statements:
(A) "At 2:00 today I was in Seattle"
(B) "At 2:01 today I was in Los Angeles"
These can't both be true because of a certain law of nature, namely that (barring a miracle) I couldn't possibly get from Seattle to Los Angeles in one minute. There is no formal logical contradiction, but they can't both be true given the implied third statement:
(C) "No one can travel from Seattle to Los Angeles in one minute"
which is, of course, derived from more general principles, namely those of physics.
Differences in Accounts
Quite obviously, having two accounts of an event that are identical in every respect is of no more value than having one account. If they are exactly the same, they are merely two copies of the same account. In order for a second account of an event to be of any value at all, it must differ from the first in some way.
According to lawyers, the very best kind of differences in the accounts, which would establish them as independent testimony, would be superficial differences which can be harmonized at a deeper level. The worst kind are (a) no difference at all, which shows collusion, and (b) accounts that are truly contradictory.
Having two truly contradictory accounts certainly does not mean that both should be thrown out. In fact, if the contradiction is a formal logical contradiction (as defined above), it means that one of the accounts must be true. This is rarely the case, however - usually the alleged contradictions are of the "mutual exclusion" variety. In such cases, as I mentioned early, other evidence must be brought to bear in determining which one, if either, to accept, and it is this other evidence which individually determines the truth-value of each statement.
What kinds of differences can there be, and what is their value? There are three broad classes:
- Two accounts asserting the same proposition, using different words
- Two accounts asserting one or more contradictory propositions
- One account asserting something which is not asserted in the other account
It is clear that the first class of differences is excellent evidence of independent testimony, and never creates even the appearance of a contradiction. It is just as clear that the second class does create not only the appearance, but the reality, of a contradiction. This is the kind of statement we should ideally present when charging that two accounts are contradictory.
Argument from Silence
The third class is the interesting one. To charge that account A contradicts account B because B has a statement not found in A is called the "Argument from Silence", one of the age-old logical fallacies. Let's take an example to make this clearer:
(A) John was really nervous on they way to the playoff basketball game yesterday. We got there early so we could get some shooting in. Once the game got under way, though, he warmed up and eventually scored 24 points. He said he felt confident as soon as his first shot went in.
(B) John scored 24 points in the basketball game yesterday. He was pumped. I've never seen him so confident.
Now, are these contradictory? Certainly not. The first merely adds information about what happened before the game.
Why does "silence", or omission, ever appear in accounts? "Silence" will exist simply because any account of event is, by necessity, a partial, selective account. To give an exhaustive account of any non-trivial event is simply impossible. Any writer must select, both consciously and unconsciously, the "slices" of reality which he wishes to present. Does this inevitable selection mean that the account is subjective, that is, renders a false account? Certainly not. Does it mean that two independent writers will typically select somewhat different material to present? Of course.
There are two reasons why the "Argument from Silence" is such a fallacy. First, "silence" is an inevitable, and desirable, feature of independent testimony.
The second is that the Argument from Silence assumes, merely from the fact that a writer failed to mention X, that the writer disagrees with X. It is as if the writer - by silence - asserted that the X was false.
This is, however, only one of four possibilities:
(a) the writer didn't know about X
(b) the writer knew about X but simply didn't think to put X in
(c) the writer thought about X and decided it did not suit his/her purposes
(d) the write disagreed with X
Argument from Silence with Literary Dependence
The Argument from Silence is so obviously a fallacy that it's amazing people continue to commit it. This makes one wonder, is there some extenuating situation which makes it a more plausible inference?
Let's suppose that the writer of account B had read account A, and then - with the first account in front of him/her - intentionally left some parts out - either phrases or entire passages (so, this eliminates 'a' and 'b', leaving 'c' and 'd'). And perhaps we think that this indicates writer B not only did some editorial work, but actively disagreed with the deleted portions (leaving us with 'd').
This is the assumption many New Testament scholars seem to make when dealing with the gospels, especially the Synoptics. They assume that the gospel writers had other gospels in front of them as they wrote, and that they intentionally made "corrections" based upon their own views. Therefore, any omissions are thought of as disagreements - and therefore they amount to contradictions.
But, isn't it possible that the author decided ('c') that X did not suit his/her purposes? It would be a strange requirement that each gospel must incorporate every statement found in its predecessors.
I know of a contemporary example which illustrates why the Argument from Silence is unreliable, even when dealing with literary dependency. Elton John re-wrote "Candle in the Wind" (originally written about Marilyn Monroe) for Princess Diana's funeral. The original had a phrase "the press still hounded you", which obviously applied to Diana's situation even more than Marilyn's. It would have been entirely natural to have left that phrase in. However, it was replaced. I suppose that the reason it was omitted was that it was not fitting for a eulogy-centered song - it was not right for the funeral.
Using the Argument from Silence, even with direct Literary Dependence, one could plausibly conclude that a contradiction existed: that Elton John took out the phrase "the press still hounded you", therefore he disagreed with it. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Argument from Apparent Contraries
There is an entirely different fallacy which is sometimes committed when alleging contradiction, which I call the "Argument from Apparent Contraries."
Sometimes one account will assert a quality X of someone, and another assert the quality Y. These two qualities are thought of as being opposites, yet they are not exact opposites. I can best illustrate this with another contemporary example.
Michael Jordan, in the NBA playoff finals, had a bad case of the flu during one game. I remember watching the game on TV. The camera frequently zoomed in on him, sitting on the bench with his head in his hands, or bent over double during free throws, obviously in agony. The announcers continually wondered how long he would last, and speculated about how the opposing team might best capitalize on this weakness. As the game was coming to an end, Jordan had scored over 30 points, and the announcers were commenting on his "domination" of the game - he was in total control. It was truly a heroic effort as he led the Bulls to victory.
On the one hand (X), he was truly described as "sick", "wobbly", "in agony." On the other (Y), he simultaneously "dominated" the game, was "in total control." X and Y, while being generally opposites, are not true contradictories, because they do not refer to the same attribute. In this case, X is the description of one's bodily condition and perception of pain; Y is the description of one's effectiveness in pursuing a goal.
It is easy to see how one account might concentrate on X and another account concentrate on Y, and yet these accounts would not be contradictory in the least.
Evaluating Alleged Contradictions
Let us return to an example used previously. Let's say we have the following two accounts.
(B) John scored 24 points in the basketball game yesterday. He was pumped. I've never seen him so confident.
(C) I drove John to the game yesterday. He was a nervous wreck. I've never seen him so nervous.
First, I would probably agree that being "a nervous wreck" and being "confident" are descriptions of the same attribute, the first being merely a deficiency of confidence. Therefore, a true contradiction seems to be asserted.
[Now, let's say that we don't know the full description, which is the following:
(A) John was really nervous on the way to the playoff basketball game yesterday. We got there early so we could get some shooting in. Once the game got under way, he warmed up and eventually scored 24 points. He said he felt confident as soon as his first shot went in.
The truth is that John was originally nervous, yet overcame that nervousness and became confident.]
As we examine B and C, we notice that C is talking about the drive to the game, and B is talking about the game itself. Isn't it possible that John was first nervous, and then became confident? Especially in light of the fact that athletes do often develop confidence as the game progresses, this is entirely plausible. And so we construct the resolution:
(A') John was a nervous wreck while driving to the game, but scored 24 points during the game and became extremely confident.
And, in this example, A' squares perfectly with the truth of the matter, A. At first, the two accounts B and C appeared to be contradictory, but we were able to resolve them by paying attention to exactly what was, and was not, said.
Definition of Contradictory Accounts
This leads us to an important principle. Let's say we have two statements, B and C.
1. If B and C contain only statements that assert the same propositions using different words, they are not contradictory.
2. If B and C contain statements that assert propositions which are direct contradictions, they are contradictory.
3. If B contains assertions not found in C, or vice versa, the following rule should be used:
If a valid, consistent statement A' cannot be constructed which includes every proposition in B and C, the two accounts are contradictory, in the sense of "mutual exclusion." If such a valid statement A' can be formed, these accounts are not contradictory.
Such a statement is typically a superset of B and C, together perhaps with other statements not found either in B or C. Note that this does not prove that B or C are true, or that the superset A' is true. It only shows that B and C do not contradict each other.
Notice that A' must not only be consistent, but must also be a valid statement. I take this to mean that it represents a possible state of affairs in this world. A' serves as a guide, a hypothetical solution, when searching for evidence to verify/falsify B and C.
I realize that what constitutes a "possible state of affairs" may become a bit difficult to determine.. It should be more restrictive than "anything which is logically possible", even more restrictive than "anything which is 'factually' possible." There should be at least some plausibility to A'. The degree of plausibility may be linked to the "purity" of the superset A': the more additional statements that must be added to A' to harmonize B and C, the less pure the superset, and the less plausible is A'.
Let us turn to our example. I'll start just by giving you Dr. Crossan's statements. I have highlighted, in bold, the statements that specifically pertain to our alleged contradiction, but include the rest for context. (I leave out a discussion of the crucifixion account, because this discussion is already long enough, but my argument concerning the crucifixion accounts would be similar).
... Lest this discussion is too abstract, I give you concrete examples of what I have in mind by comparing the start and end of the passion narratives in Mark and John. Watch as each author goes back to the same moment in time and place and has the Jesus-of-then speak very differently as the Jesus-of-now.
We call it the Agony in the Garden but there is no Garden in Mark and no Agony in John. In Mark it is Jesus who is prostrate on the ground (14:33-35), who asks if the cup of suffering could be avoided although he is willing to accept it if necessary (14:35-37), and who watches his disciples abandon him and flee (14:50-52). In John it is the full 600 soldiers of Jerusalem's auxiliary cohort who are prostrate on the ground (18:4-6), while Jesus asserts his unqualified intention of accepting the cup of suffering (18:10-11), and then commands the cohort to let his disciples go (18:7-9). Two radically different interpretations of the same event. As history, they cannot both be true, even if we were ever able to tell which, if either, actually happened. But as gospel they are both true.
Mark describes the Son of God almost out of control, arrested in agony, fear, and abandonment. John describes the Son of God in total control, arrested in foreknowledge, triumph, and command. Each interpretation spoke directly to and from the experience of the writers' communities but different experiences begot different theologies of the passion's inception.
If we turn to the ending of the passion in Mark and John we find exactly the same process. The moment is the same in each, the last words of Jesus on the cross just before his death. In Mark 15:34-37 Jesus cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The bystanders mistake Jesus' last words by taking "My God" or "Eloi" for "Elijah" and derisively attempt to keep him alive for a few extra minutes to see if the prophet comes to his aid. The drink is their own mocking idea. In John 19:28-30, of course, there is no cry of desolation and no mockery, and the drink is Jesus' idea and brought at his command. For Mark, the passion of Jesus starts and ends in agony and desolation. For John, the passion of Jesus starts and ends in control and command. But I repeat, as gospel, both are equally but divergently true. Both speak, equally but divergently, to different times and places, situations and communities. Mark's Jesus speaks to a persecuted community and shows them how to die. John's Jesus speaks to a defeated community and shows them how to live.
My main point, however, is to note how each evangelist goes back to moments in the life of the historical Jesus, be it arrest or death, and builds a dialectical process of past/present and then/now in which those twin elements interpenetrate and interweave totally together. Those are but focal instances of how the Catholic Christian gospels consistently work and my counter challenge to Luke Johnson postulates that dialectic as normative for Catholic Christianity past, present, and future. Jesus-past acts and speaks as Jesus-present; Jesus-then acts and speaks as Jesus-now. And that is how he is Christ and Lord. We are asked, by the New Testament, to watch that process occur four times. Four should be enough to get the point since, at least in Indo-European tradition, a triple repetition is usually considered adequate to establish pattern. Those four are our mistress models, our master examples. Catholic Christian faith IS that dialectic itself, modeled in our canon, repeated again and again in our tradition, and proposed anew today wherever faith is dynamically alive. (Crossan, First email, J2000 debate)
The Gospel Accounts themselves (NIV)
If we are going to evaluate these two accounts, we should be able to see the gospel texts for ourselves. Here it is:
When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. "You will all fall away," Jesus told them, "for it is written: 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.' But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee."
Peter declared, "Even if all fall away, I will not." "I tell you the truth", Jesus answered, "today - yes, tonight - before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times." But Peter insisted emphatically, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you." And all the others said the same.
Jesus Prays at Gethsemane
They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." He took Peter, James and John along with him, and began to be deeply distressed and troubled. "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death," he said to them. "Stay here and keep watch."
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. "Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will."
Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. "Simon," he said to Peter, "are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak." Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him. Returning the third time, he said to them, "Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!"
Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, and teachers of the law, and the elders.
Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard." Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, "Rabbi!" and kissed him. The men seized Jesus and arrested him. Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.
"Am I leading a rebellion," said Jesus, "that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Everyday I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled." Then everyone deserted him and fled.
A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.
When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was an olive grove, and he and his disciples went into it.
Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. So Judas came to the grove, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons.
Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, "Who is it you want?" "Jesus of Nazareth," they replied. "I am he," Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, "I am he," they drew back and fell to the ground.
Again he asked them, "Who is it you want?" And they said, "Jesus of Nazareth." "I told you that I am he," Jesus answered. "If you are looking for me, then let these men go." This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: "I have not lost one of those you gave me."
Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant's name was Malchus.)
Jesus commanded Peter, "Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?"
Analysis of Crossan's Example
First, Crossan's claim is explicitly that these two accounts contradict each other in the sense of 'mutual exclusion' - "Two radically different interpretations of the same event. As history, they cannot both be true, even if we were ever able to tell which, if either, actually happened."
The overall contradiction is the following:
Mark describes the Son of God almost out of control, arrested in agony, fear, and abandonment.
John describes the Son of God in total control, arrested in foreknowledge, triumph, and command.
This conclusion is due to three pairs of contradictions in the accounts:
- Mark - Jesus prostrate on the ground; John - soldiers prostrate on the ground
- Mark - asks to avoid cup of suffering, but willing to accept it; John - unqualified intention of accepting the cup of suffering
- Mark - watches his disciples abandon him and flee; John - commands cohort to let disciples go
We should begin by trying to find specific individual statements in the two accounts that are contradictory. Surprisingly, there are none. The three examples to which Crossan appeals are all Arguments from Silence: account A makes a statement that account B omits. Notice this:
- Mark never says that the soldiers didn't fall down. John never says that Jesus didn't fall down to pray.
- Both Mark and John actually agree that Jesus fully resolves to accept the cup of suffering. Since John omits the entire story of Jesus praying, he naturally doesn't cover the internal struggle that took place there.
- Both Mark and John agree that Jesus' disciples fled. Mark never says that Jesus' didn't request that his disciples be spared.
In order to see what's at the heart of Crossan's argument, we should notice the sleight-of-words that Crossan uses as a literary device when introducing the topic. Few people tend to keep the gospel accounts entirely separate in their minds; instead, they tend to think of them as four partial accounts of the same events. Crossan tries to create a wedge between the accounts by giving us a surprise. "We call it the Agony in the Garden but there is no Garden in Mark and no Agony in John." A clever technique, but without true weight.
The trick is, of course, to compare the combination of two accounts in Mark (Jesus Praying in Gethsemane, and the Arrest) with only one account in John (the Arrest). If you do this, you'll (naturally) find that John omits all the features found in the Gethsemane account. It will come as no surprise that John's account has no "agony", for "agony" only pertains to the Gethsemane account. Crossan does his best to get as much mileage as possible from this trick. In fact, two of the three "contradictions" depend upon it.
Is the fact that John omits the Gethsemane account a contradiction? Obviously not. According to the principles outlined above, it fails to meet any of the requirements for a contradiction. If it did constitute a contradiction, Crossan wouldn't need the individual examples to make his point. All he would have to do is to say that John's omission is a contradiction, and leave it at that. But it is not a contradiction - therefore, it's not logically valid to present isolated portions of it as contradictions, simply by virtue of the Argument from Silence.
Constructing Account A'
According to our principle above, if a valid, consistent account A' can be constructed which includes every proposition found in Mark and John, the two accounts are not contradictory. Here is the outline of such an account.
- Jesus takes his disciples to Gethsemane, which is, or contains, an olive grove, and is located near the Kidron Valley, on or near the Mount of Olives.
- He prays three times while his disciples sleep. In agony he asks that God take "this cup" from him, and concludes by fully accepting the "cup."
- He goes forth, fully knowing that he will be betrayed, arrested, and killed .
- Judas knew that Jesus and the disciples often met at Gethsemane, and betrayed Jesus by bringing a crowd of soldiers and officials, sent by the Jewish leaders.
- Jesus went out to meet them, knowing what would happen.
- Judas pointed Jesus out by kissing him.
- Jesus asks "Who is it you want?" They say "Jesus", he says "I am he", they draw back and at least some fall down (it's no more necessary to conclude that everyone fell down than it is to think they all shouted "Jesus of Nazareth" in unison).
- Jesus says "If you are looking for me, then let these men go."
- Peter cuts off the right ear of the high priest's servant (Malchus). Jesus tells Peter to put his sword away, and "Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?"
- Jesus then asks why they've come with swords and clubs to capture him, as if he were leading a rebellion - after all, he'd been available every day in public places.
- The disciples flee. A young man runs right out of his clothes.
There is nothing implausible at all about this account. There is no contradiction.
[Oddly enough, Crossan misses his best chance at a genuine contradiction. In one account, Jesus is identified by Judas' kiss; in the other, he proactively identifies himself. If, in John's account, the dialog had been prompted by the soldiers ("Ok, which one is Jesus?"), we would have had an interesting situation. As it is, Jesus himself initiates the dialog in John, and it is perfectly conceivable that he should say "Who is it you want?" after Judas has secretly pointed him out.]
Revisiting the Alleged Contradictions
With these in mind, let's look at the three alleged contradictions again.
- Mark - Jesus prostrate on the ground; John - soldiers prostrate on the ground. There is nothing connecting these ideas except a clever play on words. The "prostration" appears in accounts of two entirely separate events. Since John doesn't talk at all about Jesus Praying in Gethsemane, it is not surprising that he doesn't have Jesus on the ground. It would, rather, have been a potential contradiction had Jesus been speaking from a reclining position during the Arrest account.
- Mark - asks to avoid cup of suffering, but willing to accept it; John - unqualified intention of accepting the cup of suffering. Once again, John doesn't mention Jesus Praying in Gethsemane, so it is not surprising that the internal struggle occurring there is not mentioned. When the accounts deal with the same event - namely, the Arrest - Jesus faces his fate with the same resolve. In Mark's account he uses different words, but words which imply the same acceptance, "the Scriptures must be fulfilled."
- Mark - watches his disciples abandon him and flee; John - commands cohort to let disciples go. This is the only alleged contradiction which is centered around the same event, the Arrest. Yet it is still an Argument from Silence. Jesus, of course, watches his disciples abandon him and flee in both accounts. In John, he requests that the cohort let the disciples go; in Mark, he confronts them with the criticism "Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?" In Mark, his position as the one "in command" is equal to that in John.
To summarize, Crossan's argument is that these three alleged contradictions lead to the conclusion that in Mark Jesus is in agony, out of control, and in John Jesus is in control, not in agony. However, since none of the three points are really contradictions, the conclusion is left without support.
We have spent a long time trying to closely analyze Crossan's contention. We have tried to explicitly define the notion of contradictory accounts and to specify what it takes to evaluate alleged contradictions. We have used these principles to evaluate the three alleged contradictions Crossan presents. But perhaps his point is somewhat different. Perhaps it is not simply the presence of three explicit contradictions that lead to his conclusion; perhaps it is simply the general impression given by Mark and John (which are illustrated by these three points) which constitutes the contradiction.
Mark describes the Son of God almost out of control, arrested in agony, fear, and abandonment.
John describes the Son of God in total control, arrested in foreknowledge, triumph, and command.
Is this a fair way to characterize the two accounts?
Agony. It is true that Mark's account contains more agony that John's. But that is because he includes Jesus' Prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane, where all the agony takes place. Perhaps this lends a general tone to Mark's account that is lacking John's. This is freely granted. However, this is far from saying that the general impressions are contradictory - that they both can't possibly be true! I have already pointed out that it is unfair to expect John to describe Jesus' agony when he doesn't talk about the event in which the agony was displayed. I have pointed out, even so, that "agony" and "total control" are not contradictory: X is the description of one's bodily condition and perception of pain; Y is the description of one's effectiveness in pursuing a goal. (I mentioned above the illustration of Michael Jordan in the NBA championships, who combined agony and domination in real life.)
Abandonment. The disciples' abandonment in Mark is just as complete as in John. There is no problem.
Total Control, Triumph, and Command. It is a bit misleading to say that Jesus is in "total control" and "triumph" in John, for - after all - he is arrested, tortured, and killed. True, he is ultimately triumphant, but that is later in the resurrection - just as it is in Mark. Yet it is true that, in John's account, Jesus is in control. Let's be clear that his "control" consists of (a) his foreknowledge, and (b) his proactive willingness to embrace his fate.
Now, in Mark's account, does Jesus lack such foreknowledge and proactive willingness? - and therefore is out of control? No, both his foreknowledge and resolve are clearly portrayed in the very passage we studied:
He knows he will be arrested, and that he will rise.
"But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee." Peter declared, "Even if all fall away, I will not." "I tell you the truth, Jesus answered, "today - yes, tonight - before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times."
"The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!"
He proactively accepts his task.
"Yet not what I will, but what you will."
"Am I leading a rebellion," said Jesus, "that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Everyday I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled."
The force of Crossan's charge of contradiction is due more to his literary and imaginative talents than to valid argument. Where there is an argument, it relies heavily on the fact that John's gospel does not contain the narrative of Jesus praying at Gethsemane. If one admits that this omission does not amount to a contradiction, the argument falls apart.