Bible Blunders & Bad Theology, Part 4

The perils of comparing the gospels 

Once upon a time four gospel writers got together at a bar in Corinth. They had all submitted their gospels to the Canon Approval Board, and had been told the time when the decision—which gospel was the winner—would be announced. These authors didn’t actually like each other, but this was a special occasion; each one looked forward to gloating, and seeing the downcast faces of the others.



Mark was annoyed that Matthew and Luke had copied most of his gospel, without saying they’d done so. How could the Board reward plagiarists? Luke was disappointed with Mark and Matthew because they hadn’t set hard enough rules for following the faith. And frankly, they all pretty much loathed John. He was just so stuck up, and had added long Jesus speeches they’d never heard of, and pulled miracles out of thin air (changing water into wine? Bacchus had done that too). The feeling was mutual; John felt the other writers got so much wrong, and he wanted to set the record straight. 


Their cell phones all pinged at the same time; they had received the same text: “Gentlemen, we are pleased to announce that we have accepted all four of the gospels submitted. We will publish them together at the beginning of our New Testament.”


They glared at each other. Nobody gloated. There were no congratulatory toasts. This was a disaster. They had written different Jesus stories, and placed side-by-side, it would be easy to spot the flaws, contradictions, and—frankly—the lies. How would anybody know what to believe? But this was long before there were Bibles in every household, long before the Gideons had placed a billion of them in hotel rooms. It would be many centuries before the New Testament was translated into the languages of the common folks. So the church got away with presenting the story of Jesus—a cautious selection of gospel stories, minus the dross—through distorting doctrinal lenses. 


But there came a time—in the wake of the Enlightenment—when serious thinkers decided to take a close look at these four versions of Greatest Story Ever Told. And, no surprise, major problems became apparent when the rigorous standards of historians were applied to the gospels. Moreover, we can now appreciate the wide gulf between our understanding of the world and the ancient superstitions and magical thinking rampant in the gospels. There is major irony here, by the way: the undoing of our confidence in the gospels is based on the work of devout New Testament scholars; their assumption from the get-go was that the gospels were “word of God.” We’ve seen a modification of that theology—outside fundamentalist circles, that is.


Some of the devout scholars, intent on analyzing every word of the “word of God,” came up with an idea that went beyond publishing the gospels side-by-side. They decided to print individual gospel stories in parallel columns for comparison. This makes it even easier to spot the differences and flaws. The version I use is Synopsis of the Four Gospels (1982), edited by Kurt Aland. 


Previous articles in this series: 


Bible Blunders & Bad Theology, Number 1 is here; a brief video about it is here.


Number 2 is here; video is here.


Number 3 is here; video is here.


Video on 4 is here.



Despite the arrangement of the gospels we’re so familiar with, it became clear that Mark was the first one written, and it had major influence on the others, whose authors were sure they could make a stronger case for Jesus. The others didn’t have more or better information; they had more robust theological imaginations. 


In Mark’s gospel, Jesus comes out of nowhere to be baptized in the Jordan River, and a voice from heaven declares that he is the son of God. Here Jesus is portrayed as an apocalyptic prophet: the Kingdom of God is almost here; he promises those at his trial that they will see him coming on the clouds of heaven. In Mark 13 we find his grim prediction of what “the end” will be like: “For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be.” (v. 19) As son of God, Jesus has high ranking in the spiritual realm, and thus his identity is known by those of lower rank in that realm, the demons; thus Mark also portrays Jesus as an exorcist. Moreover, he puts far less emphasis on Jesus’ teaching role; Mark says that people were astounded by his message, but little of the content is provided.


And there’s an urgency in Mark’s gospel. By some estimates, its story of Jesus could have taken place in just two or three weeks; the adverb “immediately” is used more than forty times. The other gospel writers felt more needed to be said, perhaps wanted to slow things down a bit. Matthew didn’t like Jesus “coming out of nowhere,” hence he provided a genealogy for his hero, tracing his ancestry back to Abraham, and through King David—which was the required pedigree for the messiah. 


Matthew, indeed, proved to be a master of invention. Other cults felt that virgin-birth was an appropriate credential for their sons of god, so Matthew decided to add that to Jesus; he goofed when he used a mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14 to slip virgin birth into his story. He really got carried away when he came up with the story of Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt with the baby Jesus, sure that Hosea 11:1 (“out of Egypt I have called my son”) should be applied to Jesus, not to the Exodus. 


The lack of ethical teaching in Mark also needed to be corrected, so Matthew added the Sermon on the Mount; careful analysis shows that it didn’t come from Jesus at all. It


“…is a well-crafted literary work that cannot have come from some illiterate Galilean. In fact, we know it originated in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic, because it relies on the Septuagint text of the Bible for all its features and allusions…these are not the words of Jesus. This famous sermon as a whole also has a complex literary structure that can only have come from a writer, not an everyday speaker.” (Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 465-466)


But Matthew added troubling Jesus-script (10: 37), unknown to Mark; how does this rank on any scale of moral teaching? “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” We can infer from this that, by Matthew’s time, cult fanaticism was trending in the Jesus sect. As we shall see, Luke made this text worse.


Matthew deserves top prize for other nonsense. Mark’s gospel ends abruptly at 16:8, “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Verses 9-20 we added later by someone else to provide a more satisfying ending, e.g., details about the resurrected Jesus. Matthew threw in his famous zombie story (27:52-53) that neither Luke nor John cared to repeat, i.e., that many dead people came alive in their tombs when Jesus died, then walked around Jerusalem on Easter morning.


When Luke got to work on his gospel, he knew that Matthew had to be corrected as much as Mark did. What a dumb idea—he must have thought—having Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Egypt, so he deleted that from his birth narrative. But he had the even dumber idea of an empire-wide census that required people to travel to the home of their ancestors to sign up. No other historian of the time mentions any such thing; major chaos would have resulted from such a decree. 


Luke was big on the virgin birth however, and expanded the tale substantially, writing two long fantasy chapters. Here he gives speaking roles to angels, and portrays the illiterate peasant teenager, Mary, reciting polished Greek poetry. Part of this fantasy he fashioned after the story of Abraham and his barren wife, which is a clue about his method. Luke positioned himself as a historian (Luke 1:1-4); readers in the first century may have been impressed, but  


“…Luke’s methods are demonstrably nonhistorical: he is not doing research, weighing facts, checking them against independent sources, and writing down what he thinks most likely happened. He is simply producing an expanded and redacted literary hybrid of a couple of previous religious novels (Matthew and Mark), each itself even more obviously constructed according to literary conventions rather than historiographical.”  (Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 470)   


Luke did include the Sermon on the Mount, but he shortened it, broke it up, altered the wording—and said it took place on a plain. Moreover, he felt that Matthew 10:37, was too mild, i.e., “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…” He changed Jesus’ words to: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (14:26) You have to hate your own life. This is classic cult fanaticism; today we recommend deprogramming for people who get suckered in. 

The devout are rightly shocked by Luke 14:26 and assume that surely it’s a misquote. But this verse provides insight into Luke’s agenda: he didn’t want people in the Jesus cult who had divided loyalties. Of course, this text has been a challenge to professional defenders of the faith: How to tone it down? The editors of the English Standard Version use the heading, “The Cost of Discipleship,” for this section, instead of, say, “Jesus the Cult Fanatic.” Most decent Christians would reject hatred of family as a “cost” of discipleship. 


Luke also appears to have built a story around Mark 16:12-13,  “After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.” In Luke’s fantasy, Jesus appears to the two—who don’t recognize him—and he gives them a Bible lesson, Luke 24:27: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Later, when they were having dinner, at the moment that Jesus broke bread, they suddenly recognized him—and he instantly vanished. Robert Conner has pointed out that this “Road to Emmaus” story, found only in Luke 24:13-35, resembles ancient ghost stories (Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story). 


The author of John’s gospel, given to theological extremes, trashed so much of what he found in the other gospels. His Jesus had been present at Creation, so he left out the virgin birth; he didn’t need it to prove Jesus’ divinity, and perhaps didn’t care for this borrowed idea. He also dropped the birth narratives, declining to focus on Jesus as a baby; instead he pronounced, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Nor is Jesus baptized in this gospel; John the Baptist simply declares, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him (1:32)—but Jesus didn’t set foot in the water. Mark had claimed that Jesus taught only in parables (4:34), but John has no parables. Instead his Jesus speaks long monologues unknown to the other authors; here he followed the custom in the ancient world of making up speeches for heroes. 


There is no Eucharist in John’s; instead he washed the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. But in his sixth chapter, after the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” (v. 35) and makes the explicit, grotesque pronouncement that his blood and flesh must be eaten to achieve eternal life (6:53-56). “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” This is the arrogant Jesus typical of John’s account, and this text is one of the supreme examples of magical thinking in the gospels: eat this, drink that and you get eternal life. 


John also left out the Sermon on the Mount, and downplayed ethical teaching in favor of his relentless pushing of eternal life as the reward for belief—more magical thinking. Many Christians would say that John 3:16 is their favorite Bible verse: “For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” But, make no mistake, John was pushing the Jesus cult, as the last verse of the chapter (3:36) makes clear: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”


With these examples, I’ve just scratched the surface. A careful study of the gospels—especially using a gospel parallels version—shows that, right from the start, the authors of the Jesus story couldn’t get the story straight, and it was a blunder to publish the four conflicting accounts side-by-side. Given this mess—so many different ideas from which to pick and choose—it’s hardly a surprise that Christians are so deeply divided. The bigger blunder, of course, was conferring “Word of God” status on these ancient novels. That’s an added layer of magical thinking.



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 400 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.