The gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke contradict each other's records of the crucifixion, even on the parts that consider to be the most important. Jesus died at different times of the day in the gospels, spoke to different people, gave different sets of final words and confusingly different accounts of the circumstances surrounding the death of Jesus. It is not simply a case that they recorded different details: the actions of Jesus in each gospel reflect general differences in opinion about what Jesus' character should be. In Mark's sombre account Jesus is silent and mocked by all around him, and cries out in despair at the end. But in Luke and John Jesus is talkative, gives advice, and is surrounded by followers even while on the cross. Despite the massive impact they would have had on entire communities, the gospel writers also record different supernatural events occurring upon Jesus' death too - Matthew 27:51-53 describes Earthquakes and the rising of the dead - things which no-one else at all noticed. Each gospel writer states their version as fact even though it is clear that some of them simply didn't know the truth.
All of the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion are actually very brief1 - half a chapter of each gospel. The best comparison of the gospels' crucifixion stories is that of Bart Ehrman in The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot where he compares them to other Christian writings of the time. He describes not only differences in details but a difference in style and emotion from the earlier accounts to the latter ones. As time progresses, Jesus becomes more and more mythologized and romanticized. Especially given that the first person to mention the event in writing, St Paul in 1 Cor 2:2, mentions no details at all and has Jesus crucified by a mythological being from the Gnostic religious tradition (an Archon, the archangelic servants of the Gnostic Demiurge)1. Given all of the problems, Robert Price asks "what are we to make of this very strange circumstance, that no memory of the central saving event of the Christian religion survived"1? Critics of Christianity delight in these significant obstacles to belief.
In the early centuries of Christianity, there were over 200 Christian gospels in circulation, all of them containing wildly varied stories and theologies2. As the Church became organized there was much worry that no-one truly knew what Jesus had said or done, so they settled upon a choice of just four Gospels: They picked the number four because "there were four winds, four points of the compass, four corners of the temple", mirroring the arguments of Irenaeus in the 2nd century - "just as the gospel of Christ has been spread by the four winds of heaven over the four corners of the earth, so there must be four and only four Gospels"3. The four canonical gospels comprise of the first three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, which give a sometimes-consistent description of Jesus, plus the fourth one, John, which is radically different to the others. None of the gospels are eye-witness accounts of Jesus' life, and, they are all written in Greek and not in the native tongues of anyone who met and followed Jesus. Many of the stories in the Gospels are copied from Greek god-man legends, especially those of Dionysus and Osiris. Although we now know them by the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, they are all originally anonymous4.
Mark is the earliest gospel, composed between 60 and 80CE, by a Roman convert who was unfamiliar with Jewish customs and who had not met Jesus - the convert probably came to Christianity after St Paul (or his followers) had begun to preach to the gentiles (non-Jews). The oldest versions of Mark all ended at Mark 16:8 with the words "according to Mark", and an unknown author at some point added Mark 16:9-20.
Matthew and Luke both used Mark very heavily as their source material (92% and 54% copied, respectively), except they corrected many of his blunders about Jewish life and added additional material from a second source document that historians call "Q"5. There is only a small amount of material in Matthew and Luke that simply looks like the insertions of their own stories and ideas. Matthew was written after 70CE and definitely before 100CE. The first two chapters of Matthew were not present in the first versions and were added later by an unknown author. Luke was written after 93CE and also uses Josephus's Jewish Antiquities as a reference. It claims to have been written by a travelling partner of Paul but the text contains too many mistakes with regards to Paul, and was written too late, for that to be true. Matthew and Luke copied such a large portion of Mark, and both used extensive text from Q, that it is clear neither were eye-witnesses, or friends-of-eyewitnesses, of Jesus or of his disciples or of Paul.
Finally, John was written last. Our earliest fragment of it dates from 125CE, and all of the times it quotes Jesus it has Jesus speak using completely different conventions, sentence structures and a different style to all of the other gospels. Most people assume that John was a symbolic and figurative writer who was not attempting to record history, but was instead set out to write interesting and meaningful stories about Jesus, who was by then, famous. John is considered the least trustworthy of all the gospels.
The above text was taken from "Who Wrote the Four Gospels of the New Testament? An Introduction to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John." by Vexen Crabtree (2015), click the link for the full page.
In Mark 15:20-21 the Romans grab a bypasser (Simon of Cyrene) and make him carry it instead. Matthew and Luke, both largely copies of Mark, also make it clear that this happens right at the start of the journey as they begin to lead him to Golgotha (Matthew 27:31-32 and Luke 23:26). But John 19:17 has Jesus carry his own cross to their destination, in accordance with John's consistent view of Jesus as confident, strong and heroic. Clearly, some (or all?) of the gospel writers do not know what actually happened and have used unreliable sources.
After Simon of Cyrene carries the cross, some stories have him go on to be crucified as he becomes mistaken for Jesus. This was recorded in the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, a gnostic text, a 3rd century copy of which was found among the Nag Hammadi scrolls.
If you wonder why some gospels call the place of the crucifixion Golgotha and one calls it Calvary, then know that these words are from Aramaic and Latin respectively, and both have the same meaning, "skull". Hence actually they are the same word.
What was inscribed on the cross? There is not much disagreement here, so the contradictions are only minor. John as usual crams in the longest text and greatest detail, presumably attempting to correct the other gospel writers' poor memories:
“According to the Synoptics, it was the day after Passover, but for John it was the Passover, since he understands Jesus as the Passover Lamb who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 19:36, referring to Exod. 12:46).”
"Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?" by Robert M. Price (2003)1
Mark 15:22-25 has the time of the crucifixion commence at "the third hour" (which means 9am)1. He was strung up on the cross by at least "the sixth hour", whereupon a three-hour period of darkness began (Mark 15:32-33).But John 19:13-14 has Jesus still infront of Pilate at "the sixth hour" - noon, having not yet even set out on the journey to Golgotha.
It is impossible to imagine John's eyewitnesses mis-remembering by so many hours, and impossible to imagine that the 3-hour period of darkness over the whole land (or whole world?) failed to make an impression to the extent that they weren't sure when it happened. Scribes all over the land would have noted this, just as they noted other less pervasive and much shorter solar eclipses. It seems that so many things are wrong with the timelines that it stands to reason that some, or all, of the gospel writers did not actually know when Jesus was crucified.
Mark 15:40, Matthew 27:55 and Luke 23:49 all describe several women who watch from afar. Nearby centurions interact with Jesus. But John's flamboyant gospel has Jesus surrounded by a talkative crowd of followers which includes Jesus' mum (John 19:25-26) even though this was not Roman custom.
Two other criminals: All four gospels record that alongside Jesus there were two criminals (Matthew 27:38, Mark 15:27-28,32, Luke 23:33, John 19:18). In two of the gospels the two thieves both mocked Jesus (Matthew 27:38-44 and Mark 15:27-32). In both of those gospels, the onlookers also taunted Jesus.
But Luke only has one criminal insult Jesus (the one on the left), and the other becomes a follower, and speaks not in the insulting and vulgar manner reported in the other gospels, but instead he speaks in a theologically accurate, respectful and elegant manner. The words of Luke's right-hand criminal are clearly not spoken by the two criminals reported in the other two synoptic gospels: someone (or two people) are making up conversations.
There are three different accounts - oddly, this time, it is Mark that stands alone amongst the synoptic gospels (hence the theory that the addition document Q was their source for this, rather than Mark). As normal John's account is utterly different to the others.
Jesus' last words according to Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34, were to quote Psalm 22, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'. It makes sense that these two gospels agree as Matthew is a re-write of Mark (directly using 92% of its text).
But in Luke 23:46, his last words were completely different: 'Father, into your hands I commend my spirit'. Luke might have heard that Jesus quoted scripture upon his death, but instead of Psalm 22:1 has him quote Psalm 31:5. Luke doesn't tell us that he's unsure which verse was quoted - he states it as a fact, just as the Mark and Matthew state their accounts as fact, even though it is clear that some of them simply didn't know the truth.
The fourth gospel gives another different set of words: 'It is finished' (John 19:28-30). These last words of Jesus are surely a very important message, and if you are willing simply to make them up, what confidence does it give us in the rest of the story as told by the same writers?
Commentators: Mark 15:39 and Matthew 27:54 both have the centurions say (in different ways) that "truly this man was the son of god". Luke 23:47 has it differently: "truly this man was innocent", with no mention at all of Jesus' divinity. Quite a thing to omit! In John however, everything is different and Jesus is surrounded by a talkative crowd of followers (including his mum) who tend to him with no centurions in sight (John 19:25-26).
Pilate is surprised when Jesus has died quickly on the cross according to Mark 15:44. This contradicts the gospel of John, where Pilate himself gives the order that Jesus' legs are broken and he be stabbed with a spear (John 19:34) in order to quicken his death. In accordance with Roman vegetative god-man stories, the death of the hero of the story is accompanied by various supernatural events, although each other picks different elements from Roman gnostic traditions:
Three hours of darkness:
“Mark 15:33 and Matt. 27:45 lower a curtain of supernatural darkness over the scene for three hours, from noon to three in the afternoon. Luke 23:45 mitigates the miraculous character somewhat, making the darkness into an eclipse, despite the impossibility of having an eclipse of the sun at the time of the full moon. John has no darkness at the crucifixion. (Seneca and Pliny the Elder both recorded eclipses and suchlike in the Mediterranean world at this time, but neither records this one.)”
"Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?" by Robert M. Price (2003)1
All four gospels have the crucifixion occur on or close to the Passover, an event which is also had on a full moon; but a full moon means that the sun is not eclipsed, hence Luke's astrological addition to the theory is erroneous.
Historian Dr Richard Carrier points out that "it was common lore of the time that the sun would be eclipsed at the death of a great king"6. His analysis of the actual evidence leads him to conclude that "the event was certainly unhistorical" (Carrier, 2016).
An Earthquake and the rising of the dead from tombs: It is Matthew that gets most carried away in making stuff up, stating in Matthew 27:51-53 that there was an Earthquake, tombs open up, and dead people rise again. If this occurred, another miracle also occurred: no-one else noticed it all and physical evidence was carefully removed across the country. The other gospel writers must be insane not to at least mention Earthquakes and the walking dead, and neither do any other historians or authors.
“The only earthquake confirmed for Palestine between 26 and 36 ce was 'not energetic enough to produce' visible effects of this magnitude, in contrast with another in 31 bce already noted by Josephus and extensively confirmed in surviving physical evidence (including cracked rocks and damaged human structures), according to Jefferson B. Williams, Markus J. Schwab and A. Brauer.”
“Mark's account, as with much of Mark's narrative otherwise, is stark and powerful. Jesus has been betrayed by one of his own followers and denied by another. All his companions have fled; none stands beside him in his hour of need. He is sent off to be crucified, and he is silent throughout the entire proceeding, almost as if in shock at what is happening. He is silent on the way to crucifixion, while being nailed to the cross, and while hanging on the cross. But others are not silent, for nearly everyone present verbally abuses and mocks him: the Jewish leaders, those passing by his cross, and even the two robbers being crucified with him. Here in Mark is a Jesus who has been betrayed, denied, condemned, rejected, mocked and abandoned, even by God himself. At the very end Jesus cries out his only words of the entire proceeding, in his pathetic cry of dereliction, 'Eloi, eloi, lema sabbachthani' - which translated (it is Aramaic) means 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' And then he dies.”
On my page The Gospel According to Saint Luke there is a full section on the contradictions of Luke against the other gospels. See each section linked below:
In the anonymous Gospel of John, Jesus is even more in control, with much more knowledge, more magical power, and is in command of it all rather than merely going along with god-above:
“Jesus knows almost from the beginning of his ministry that one of his disciples will betray him; and, he indicates that he chose the 12 and included the 'devil' on purpose. All part of the plan! Jesus tells one of his disciples that Judas is the one who will betray him (John 13:26), and tells Judas to do it quickly (John 13:27). Jesus knows 'everything that is to happen to him' (John 18:4). When Jesus identifies himself to his arresters (there is no 'kiss' in John), for some reason, all of them fall to the ground (John 18:5-6).”
What does this gradual shift in emphasis - and in details - mean? If anything, it is sure that the earliest account, of Mark, is the most accurate and trustworthy, with the others adding exaggerated and dramatic content that fits in with typical Roman son-of-god stories.
By Vexen Crabtree 2016 Sep 27
(Last Modified: 2016 Nov 04)
Parent page: Christianity
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
Carrier, Richard Dr
(2012) Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism article "Thallus and the Darkness at Christ's Death" (ref JGRChJ 8 (2011-2012) 185-91). Accessed 2016 Sep 29.
(2006) The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot. Published by Oxford University Press.
(2011) Forged. Subtitle: "Writing in the Name of God - Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are". Hardback. Published by HarperCollins, New York, USA.
(1995) The Dark Side of Christian History. Published by Morningstar & Lark, Windermere, FL, USA.
Price, Robert M.
(2003) Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?. Published by Prometheus Books, New York, USA.