A Christian response to claims that the Gospels contain conflicting accounts and other contradictions

In his book, ‘Twenty-six reasons why Jews don’t believe in Jesus’, Asher Norman attacks the integrity of the New Testament on a number of grounds. This response deals with allegations relating to the consistency and reliability of the Gospel texts.

Norman raises four objections in this regard,

  • Matthew and Luke’s Birth and Infancy accounts are contradictory
  • the Gospels do not agree about the names of the Twelve Disciples
  • the Gospel stories of the Betrayal of Jesus by Judas are not consistent
  • the Jewish trial of Jesus in the Gospel accounts lack credibility.

We consider the first three of these in this article.

General comments on parallel texts

The Gospels contain parallel accounts of the life and teachings of Messiah, written by independent witnesses. This is important in view of the Torah principle that a matter which relies on human testimony must be established “at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses” (Deuteronomy 19:15).

Many parallel texts are also found in the Hebrew Scriptures (Tanach). For example,

  • Chronicles contains parallel accounts to many events found in the books of Samuel and Kings;
  • Some of the events in Exodus are also recorded in the book of Numbers.

Differences between parallel accounts are not only inevitable, but also establish their credibility. When multiple witnesses to a motor vehicle accident give independent accounts, much will overlap, but each may provide some detail not found in the others. Certain details may even appear to contradict. Witnesses can view the same incident from different angles, or consider different elements to be important. Too much uniformity may suggest collaboration between witnesses and cause the testimony to be rejected.

As an illustration of parallel texts, the table compares the two versions of King Saul’s death contained in different books of the Tanach (Old Testament).

1 Chronicles, chapter 10 1 Samuel, chapter 31
8 The next day when the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and his sons fallen onMount Gilboa. 8 The next day when the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and his threesons fallen on Mount Gilboa.
9 They stripped him and took his head and his armor, and sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to carry the good news to their idols and to the people. They cut off his head, stripped off his armor, and sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to carry the good news to the houses of their idols and to the people.
10 They put his armor in the temple of their gods, and fastened his head in the temple of Dagon. 10 They put his armor in the temple of Astarte; and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan.
11 But when all Jabesh-gilead heard all what the Philistines had done to Saul, 11 But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul,
12 all the valiant warriors got up and took up the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons, and brought them to Jabesh. Then they buried their bones under the oak in Jabesh, and fasted seven days. 12 all the valiant men got up and traveled all night long, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan. They came to Jabesh and burned them there.

As would be the case for multiple accounts of the same car accident –

(1)    there is a significant overlap between the information contained in the two accounts;

(2)    some information is found in one account, but not in the other:

  • verse 8 of Samuel’s account states that Saul’s three sons were killed with him, while Chronicles does not mention the number of sons;
  • verse 12 of Samuel’s account records that the bodies were removed from Beth-shan, while Chronicles does not mention the location.

(3)    Some facts appear to contradict.

  • Did the Philistines tie Saul’s head to the temple of Dagon (verse 10 in the Chronicles version) or his body to the wall at Beth-shan (Samuel version)?

SOLUTION: Is it not possible that they did both?

  • Did they burn the bodies (verse 12, Samuel version) or bury the bones (Chronicles version)?

SOLUTION: They first burned the bodies, then buried the bones that remained (see 1 Samuel 31:13).

Here are three further examples of apparent contradictions from the Old Testament:

  • The reservoir in the Temple is said in 1 Kings 7:26 to hold 2000 baths of water, but in 2 Chronicles 4:5, 3000 baths.

POSSIBLE SOLUTION: The cubit of the ancient Hebrews, was about one palm longer than the Babylonian cubit. Although there is no similar evidence regarding the volume of a bath, it is significant that Chronicles was written after the Babylonian captivity and the books of Kings before. In Kings the volume of the reservoir is measured in Hebrew baths, while in Chronicles it is probably measured in Babylonian baths.

  • In 2 Chronicles 14:3 it says that Asa removed the high places (used for idol worship) while in 1 Kings 15:14 it says, ‘Asa did not remove the high places’.

POSSIBLE SOLUTION: King Asa removed some of the high places, but not all of them.

  • In 2 Chronicles 22:2 it says that Ahaziah was forty-two when he became king, compared to twenty-two in 2 Kings 8:26.

POSSIBLE SOLUTION: This was probably a transcription error. The scribe may have misread the Hebrew numeral letters מב (forty two), for כב (twenty two).

  • In Exodus 13:6 it says that Israel must eat matzah for seven days during Pesach, while in Deuteronomy 16:8 it says six days.

It is clear that the Scriptures which Jews accept as reliable contain similar “problems” to those that Asher Norman lists in respect of the New Testament. In most cases they can be easily explained or resolved. Jews who are not familiar with the precedent of parallel texts in the Tanach, and the challenges they present, are easily convinced by the type of argument used by Norman that the New Testament is flawed and unreliable.

Contradictions in the New Testament?

We now deal with each of Norman’s specific objections. As in the case with apparent contradictions in the Tanach (Old Testament), there is often a plausible explanation or resolution.

(1) Are Matthew and Luke’s birth and infancy accounts contradictory?

Norman raises the following objections: 

  • At the time of Mary’s conception, Luke reports that the couple were betrothed while Matthew speaks of Joseph as her ‘husband’.

SOLUTION:  Both Luke and Matthew say that the couple were betrothed (using the same Greek word ‘μνηστεύω’).

Luke speaks of Mary as “a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David” (Luke 1:27).

Matthew says: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this manner: When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child by the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, purposed to put her away privately” (Mat 1:18-19).

In Hebrew culture a betrothal could only be terminated by divorce. This explains why Matthew speaks of the man betrothed to Mary as her ‘husband’.

  • Asher Norman claims that Matthew and Luke differ as to the family’s dwelling place at the time of Messiah’s birth.

SOLUTION: Matthew begins his nativity account with the birth of Jesus inBethlehem and does not state were the family dwelt previously. Luke starts his account earlier and explains the circumstances that took the family fromNazareth to Bethlehem.

  • Norman asks, “How and to whom did an angel appear with the news of Jesus’ birth? A. To shepherds in the flesh (Luke 2:15) [or] B. To Joseph in a dream (Matthew 2.13)”?

SOLUTION: One angel appeared to the shepherds in the flesh and another angel appeared to Joseph in a dream.

  • Norman asks, “How long after Jesus was born did Joseph and Mary remain inBethlehem?

A. Two years … Herod gave orders ‘to kill all the boys in Bethlehem under two years, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.’ They then fled to Egypt (Matthew 2:16) [or]

B. About forty days. Joseph and Mary were living in Nazareth and they only came up to Bethlehem for the census. ‘So when they had preformed all things according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, their own city, Nazareth.’ These rituals took about forty days (Luke 2:39).”

Norman has clearly jumped to the conclusion:

      • that Herod’s order to kill all the children below the age of two years was related to the age of Messiah at the time he gave the order;
      • that the visit to the Temple for the consecration of the firstborn (Luke 2:39) occurred forty days after the birth of Messiah.

Both of these conclusions are wrong. If we read Matthew’s account carefully we see that Herod did not know the age of Jesus at the time he gave the order to kill every male child in Bethlehem. Herod based his two years on the time from which the nativity star had first appeared (Matthew 2 verse 16 read with verse 7), the only information available to him. The Wise Men met Herod before they found the new born King. It was to learn of his identity, whereabouts and age that King Herod asked the Magi to return after they discovered him. Warned of Herod’s intent to kill his infant rival, the Wise Men evaded Herod and returned to their homeland on another route (Mat. 2:12). Herod resorted to killing every male child in Bethlehem under the age of two. Shortly before this Jesus’ family fled to Egypt and escaped Herod’s slaughter. They remained in Egypt until Herod the Great died.

As their flight to Egypt probably occurred while Mary was still ceremonially unclean (a condition that lasts for 40 days by virtue of Leviticus 12), they were prevented from visiting the Temple to perform the sacrifice of purification and the consecration rites for a firstborn son (Exodus 13:2; Numbers 18:16) until they returned from Egypt. It was consequently on their way from Egypt to Nazareth that they visited the Temple in Jerusalem to offer the required sacrifice. I.e. sometime after the 40 days had transpired.

  • Norman asks whether Joseph and Mary were legally obligated to appear in person in Bethlehem for the census. Norman suggests, without citing any authority or verifiable source for his information, that they were not. Norman clearly has the wrong census in mind for he speaks of a census that occurred at the Temple in Jerusalem.
  • In what year was Jesus born? Could Jesus have been born “both at the time of King Herod [according to Matthew 2 in 4 B.C.E.],  and the census of Quirinius [according to Luke 2:2]?”

Asher Norman suggests, “No”:

“Herod died in 4 B.C.E. and the census occurred in 6 C.E., ten years later. This is a monumental and irreconcilable contradiction. Luke’s birth story is tied to a Roman census whose date is documented by the historian Josephus while Matthew’s birth story is tied to the reign of King Herod, since Matthew claimed that Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus fled Herod to Egypt.”

Our first cautionary note in response to Norman’s claim is that we do not have a complete record of historical events, particularly of those events that took place several thousand years ago. Sceptics suggest that the Jews’ exodus from Egypt is a myth, because there is no record of the exodus events in Egyptian history. What the sceptics should rather state, is that no such record has survived or has yet been discovered.

Josephus does indeed record that Quirinius (Cyrenius) came to Jerusalem “to take account of their substance” i.e. to assess the wealth of the Jews with a view to determining the amount of tax to be imposed (Jewish Antiquities, Book 18, chapter 1). There is ample evidence however, that more than one census (enrolment) of the people of Judea took place earlier – indeed the census would have been a prerequisite step in drawing up a register for taxation.

Dio Cassius (Roman History, 54:28:4) mentions that when [Marcus Vipsanius] Agrippa died (12 – 11 B.C.E.), Augustus would not look on his corpse;  on account of the superstition that such a sight would nullify the census and require it to be taken again.”  Luke speaks of ‘the first census’ under Cyrenius indicating that there were at least two that were well known in that period.

While earlier historians (Ingersoll, in particular) were only aware of one term of office of Cyrenius, being that of 6 – 9 C.E., later evidence suggests that Cyrenius had served an earlier term in that province during 6 – 4 B.C.E., i.e. before the death of Herod the Great, at the time of the census that accompanied Jesus’ birth. Studies by Zumpt, Alford and Schaff show that it was generally held by ancient Christian writers and their opponents that Jesus was born during the first term of office of Cyrenius (according to B W Johnson, ‘The People’s New Testament’, 1891).

Armenian historian Moses of Khorene (Armenian History, 2:26) says that in 3 B. C. Roman authorities came to Armenia to set up images of Caesar Augustus in the temples of the area, claiming that it was the registration mentioned in Luke’s gospel that brought them there.

We thus propose that the census that required Joseph to travel to Bethlehem was conducted shortly before the death of Herod the Great, even if the tax was only collected ten years later when Cyrenius came to Jerusalem for that purpose.

 (2) Do the Gospels disagree on the names of the Twelve Apostles?

Asher Norman alleges:“The Christian Bible is not credible … The Gospels do not agree about the names of the Twelve Disciples

The names given by each Gospel for the disciples are listed below. It is astounding that the Gospels do not provide twelve consistent names for Jesus’ disciples. The Gospels are also self-contradictory about the location and manner that Jesus found and chose his disciples.


MATTHEW AND JOHN: The Gospels of Matthew and of John claim that Jesus picked up his disciples one, two or several at a time at different places. Matthew and John state that Jesus’ followers were one or two of his brothers (Judas), several individuals from his hometown in the Galilee (fishermen), and several individuals Jesus took from John the Baptist. (Matthew 4:18, 21, 8:19, John 1:37, 40, 43)

MARK AND LUKE: Contradicting Matthew and John, the Gospels of Mark and Luke assert that Jesus’ disciples were not picked up gradually in different places but instead were all chosen together at the same time from a large number of disciples. The report, “Jesus went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer. And when it was day, he called unto him his disciples; and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles. (Luke 6:12-13; Mark 3:13-14)


The contradictions between the location and manner in which Jesus found and chose his disciples (a few at a time versus all at once; in Galilee versus near Jerusalem) raise major credibility issues.”

Twenty-six reasons why Jews don’t believe in Jesus, pp. 151 – 153.

Christian response

Disciple means ‘one who learns from’. From all four Gospels we know that Jesus had many disciples (in Luke chapter 10 he sent out 72 of them). Of these, 12 had a special significance, corresponding to the 12 patriarchs and being spiritual fathers of the spiritual Israel. These Twelve were also called ‘apostles’ – the word meaning “one sent forth ” – as they would later take the message of Messiah to the nations, and so fulfil Israel’s prophetic destiny, namely to take the light and knowledge of God to the ends of the earth.

Mark and Luke explain in their gospels that “Jesus [after he had finished praying] … called unto him his disciples; and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles” – thereby resolving Norman’s apparent problem. While the disciples were called ‘one, two or several at a time’, the ‘twelve apostles’ were then set apart from the rest of them at that particular moment.

It follows that Asher Norman’s apparent confusion as to the identity of ‘the Twelve’ is an artifice. In his list Norman includes Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, who along with Nicodemus (John 3 & 19) first believed in secret, and only later came to the fore. Though described in Matthew 27:57 as a disciple, there is no hint or suggestion in any of the gospels that Joseph of Arimathea was one of the Twelve.

In the same way, Jesus’ maternal half-brothers could not have belonged to the Twelve, as Norman conjectures, since we are clearly told in John 7:5 that ‘even his own brothers did not believe in him.’

Norman makes a meal out of Matthew the tax collector.


MATTHEW: Matthew reported that Jesus chose “Matthew sitting at the receipt of custom.” “And as Jesus passed forth from thence [where he had healed a man with the palsy], he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the receipt of custom; and he [Jesus] said to him, ‘follow me.’ And he [Matthew] arose, and followed him.” (Matthew 9:9)

MARK: Mark, contradicting Matthew, explained that Jesus chose Levi sitting at the receipt of custom. “As Jesus passed by [after the healing] he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus sitting at the receipt of custom, and called him.” (Mark 2:14)


… The fact that the Gospel of Matthew claimed that Jesus chose “Matthew” (sitting at the receipt of custom) rather than saying “he chose me” suggests that Matthew wasn’t really the author of Matthew. Mark claimed that Jesus chose Levi, son of Alphaeus, whereas Matthew claimed that Jesus chose Matthew, (sitting at the receipt of custom). This demonstrates a devastating lack of credibility. Amazingly, Mark’s Gospel contradicts Matthew’s Gospel, even as to Matthew’s own name  “

Twenty-six reasons why Jews don’t believe in Jesus, p. 152.

Norman ignores the fact that Moses is generally accepted as the author of Exodus, even though he wrote about himself in the third person: “The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up” (Exodus 19:20) – rather than “called me … so I went up”.  Does this demonstrate ‘a devastating lack of credibility’ with regard to the Torah?

Norman also neglects to mention that the prophet Isaiah wrote “the LORD spoke by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, Go and take the sackcloth off your loins, and take your shoe off your foot. And he did so, walking naked and barefoot” (Isaiah 20:1-2) – rather than saying “spoke to me, saying … and I did so, walking naked and barefoot”.

We also find many Old Testament examples of Hebrews who were known by more than one name.

  • Esau was also called Edom (Genesis 25:30)
  • Eliakim, son of Josiah, was also known as Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:34).
  • Libni, son of Gershom, was also named Laadan (Numbers 3:18; 1 Chronicles 23:7)
  • Seraiah, scribe in the court of King David, was also called Shavshah (2 Samuel 8:17; 1 Chronicles 18:16)

Asher Norman is either ignorant of these precedents, or conveniently ignores them.

The Table shows the names of the Twelve Apostles taken from the Gospels and the book of Acts.

Name also called further described as
Simon Peter, Cephas son of Jonah
Simon the zealot, the Cananean
John son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved
James son of Zebedee, brother of John
James the son of Alpheus
Andrew Simon Peter’s brother
Nathaniel Bartholomew
Matthew Levi son of Alpheus
Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon
Judas Lebbeus whose surname was Thaddeus, son of James
Thomas Didymus (the Twin)

 (3) Are the Gospel accounts of the Betrayal of Jesus by Judas inconsistent?

Norman writes:“Some of the inconsistencies in the gospel accounts [of the betrayal and death of Judas] are summarised below in question and answer format.

1   Judas was one of Jesus’ disciples. Why did Judas betray Jesus?

A. The devil made him do it. John and Luke explained Judas’ betrayal by asserting that Satan entered and corrupted Judas. (John 13:27, Luke 22:3)

B. The devil was not involved. Mark and Matthew did not attribute Judas’ betrayal to Satan. (Mark 14:10, Matthew 27: 3-10)

2   The Gospels claim that Judas accepted a bribe to betray Jesus. Who suggested the bribe?

A. Judas, who John presented as the corrupt treasurer of the disciples. (John 13:29)

B. The priests. (Mark 14:10, Matthew  27:3-10, Luke 22:3)

3    Jesus’ “last supper” purportedly took place the night before his arrest and crucifixion. Judas and the disciples were present. Did Jesus name Judas as the betrayer at the “last supper?”

A. No. (Mark 14:18 and Luke 22:21-22)

B. Yes. (John 13:26 and Matthew 26:25)

4    After Judas betrayed Jesus he supposedly died. How did Judas die?

A. According to Luke, his stomach burst open . (Acts 1:15-22)

B. According to Matthew he hanged himself. (Matthew 27:5)

5   Was Judas repentant (sorry for betraying Jesus) before he killed himself?

A. No. (Acts 1:22)

B. Yes. Matthew had Judas regret his betrayal before he killed himself. (Matthew 27:5)

6   Where did Judas die?

A. According to Luke, Judas died at “Blood Acre” (Acts 1:15-22)

B. Matthew did not know or did not reveal where Judas died. (Matthew 27:5)

7   Who bought “Blood Acre,” the place that Luke claimed that Judas died?

A. Luke claimed that Judas bought it himself. (Acts 1:18)

B. Matthew claimed that the priests bought it. (Matthew 27:7)

8   What did “Blood Acre” mean?

A. Luke said it referred to Judas’ bloody death. (Acts 1:19)

B. Matthew said it referred to the blood money used to buy the land. (Matthew 27:8)

Christian response

An unfortunate mistranslation in the New International Version of Acts 1:18 is responsible for some of the apparent contradiction. This verse reads in the NIV,

‘With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.’

The Authorised Version renders a more accurate translation of the verse:

‘Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.’

The NIV took the phrase ‘he burst asunder in the midst’ – viz. that Judas burst apart at the belly or abdomen – and applied it to the field instead, taking it to mean that Judas burst apart there, i.e. “in the midst of the field”.

A careful look at the correct translation of Acts 1:18 reveals that:

  • there is nothing that requires the conclusion that Judas died in “Blood Acre”;
  • there is nothing that precludes the bursting at the abdomen as taking place as a consequence of the hanging.

This resolves Norman’s questions 4 and 6.

Given Luke’s parenthetic and much abbreviated account of Judas’ betrayal and death in Acts, it is not necessary that we interpret the words “this man purchased a field out of the reward of unrighteousness” to mean that Judas himself concluded the transaction. We know from Matthew 27:3-5 that Judas tried to return the money, but the Priests refused to take it into the Temple treasury, since it was “blood money”. Consequently the money still belonged to Judas and whatever was bought with it was bought with the money Judas had earned for his betrayal of Messiah. In any event the Greek word κτάομαι used in Acts 1:18 may also be translated “obtained” or “provided”. Thus Acts 1:18 may also read: “this man provided a field out of the reward for unrighteousness”. This resolves Norman’s question 7.

Luke does not expressly link the name by which the field had become known, viz. Akeldama, “the field of blood”, to the manner of Judas’ death. This is inferred by Norman and takes care of question 8.

Norman’s question 3 has no apparent substance. Norman alleges a contradiction between John and the other gospels, on the basis that the John attributes the idea of a bribe to Judas while the others state that the Priests suggested the bribe. On reading the verses cited by Norman, no such contradiction appears. Matthew, on the contrary, clearly attributes the idea of a bribe to Judas:

Matthew 26:14-15:  “Then one of the Twelve – the one called Judas Iscariot – went to the chief priests and asked, ‘What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?’”

Is it of any great significance that two of the gospels mention Satan’s part in Judas betrayal, while the others don’t? (Norman’s question 1). The Tanach contains two records of King David’s decision to conduct a census of Israel. The version in 1 Chronicles 21:1 mentions Satan as instigating this decision while the version in 2 Samuel 24:1 does not.

Was Judas identified at the ‘last supper’ as the one who would betray Jesus? Two of the Gospel accounts mention that Jesus confronted Judas with his intended betrayal, yet all four Gospel accounts make it clear that the identity of the betrayer was not revealed to the rest of the disciples.


“The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, He is the one you are to fear, He is the one you are to dread, and He will be a sanctuary; but for both houses of Israel He will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.  And for the people of Jerusalem He will be a trap and a snare.” (Isaiah 8:13-14)

The claims of Jesus of Nazareth are still a cause of stumbling for Jews today, and the New Testament provides plenty of excuses – for those who seek excuses – for dismissing its claims. All of Scripture – Old and New Testaments alike – are written to strengthen the faithful, but simultaneously to confound the proud and self-seeking in their unbelief. It remains both tragic and true that many people would be sorely disappointed if an entirely incontrovertible proof were to be found – to show without any basis for doubt or refutation –  that Jesus of Nazareth was and is, indeed, the Messiah of the Jews and the Saviour of the world.