Rampant Gospel Confusion

The gospels could have been so much better

Here’s a story I’ve told before, but deeper research has revealed more details. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had submitted their gospels to the New Testament Approval Committee. They had been instructed to go to a nearby bar to await the decision on whose gospel would be chosen. So they sat there at the same table, sipping cheap booze, and there was a lot of tension: these guys didn’t like each other at all. Mark was furious that both Matthew and Luke had copied most of his gospel, without mentioning they’d done so, without giving him any credit. Mark was wondering how long it would take for plagiarism to be considered a sin. He was also annoyed they’d changed his wording whenever they saw fit.



Mark had presented Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, who would soon descend through the clouds to bring his kingdom to earth, hence he neglected to include much ethical teaching. Matthew wanted to correct this error, so he added the clumsy patchwork of Jesus-script that we now know as the Sermon on the Mount. This includes instructions that many Christians today find impossible, and simply ignore. Matthew was annoyed with Luke, who shortened the sermon, changed the wording, and said that it took place on a plain—not on a mount. Luke had added a Jesus birth story that contradicted Matthew’s birth story. Matthew said that Jesus followers had to love Jesus more than their families, but Luke thought that was too mild. He said that Jesus followers had to hate their families, and even life itself. 


John thought that Mark had messed up the story from the get-go. Mark had claimed that Jesus taught only in parables (and did so to prevent people from repenting and being forgiven), but John portrayed a Jesus who didn’t use parables at all. John included long, quite tiresome Jesus monologues that the other authors knew nothing about. John told about miracles the others had never heard of, e.g., changing water into wine, raising Lazarus from the dead. John had no use for the Eucharist at the Last Supper—instead, in his version, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. All of the events described in Mark could have happened in a matter of weeks, John stretched everything out to three years. 


The other gospel writers were turned off by John’s theological bombast. He seemed to have been drunk on theology—or was he on drugs? He added layers of theobabble unknown to the other gospel writers, even claiming that the Galilean preacher had been present at creation. Hence he was horrified that Mark reported that Jesus’ last words on the cross were, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” What blasphemy! Jesus and God were one, hence Jesus’ last words—according to John—were “It is finished.”


So these four authors sat there, glaring at each other. Then their cell phone all pinged at the same moment—and it was the same text: “Congratulations, all four of the submitted gospels have been chosen, and they will be published side by side at the opening of the New Testament.” 


A round of cursing breaks out. What a disaster. How dare they do that! “Only one of us got the story right!” How is it that no one on the selection committee could see what would happen? If these gospels are published together, there will be so much confusion. Readers will be able to see the contradictions and disagreements. Belief in Jesus will be ridiculed. 


But, not to worry. It would be many centuries before laypeople had access to the Bible, and in the meantime theologians could work out plenty of excuses. And even when laypeople did get access to the Bible, most of them wouldn’t bother to read it. Well, they wouldn’t bother to read it carefully, critically.


Serious Bible study never caught on as a favorite pastime: “We’ll trust that our clergy will tell us what we need to know/believe about the Bible.”   


Nonetheless, the four gospels published together remain an embarrassment. They are Exhibit A for anyone looking for hard evidence that the Bible could not have been divinely inspired. We have to wonder why the gospels couldn’t have been so much better. We can see the high quality of modern biographies, based on thorough research and the use of contemporaneous documentation. Is it really possible that an all-knowing god wouldn’t have foreseen this development? And that professionally trained historians would figure out that the gospels do not qualify as reliable sources of information about Jesus? 


Let’s look at a few ways in which the gospels could have been so much better.


Could Have Been So Much Better, One


So much is missing from the gospels! Why doesn’t Mark include an account of Jesus’ birth? And why would John omit one? And credibility is missing from the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, which fully qualify as fantasy literature. What about the life of Jesus before he began his ministry? Luke reports that when Jesus was twelve years old, on his family’s trip to Jerusalem, he headed to the Temple to converse with the religious leaders—and remained there for days. Mary and Joseph were well on their way home when they realized he wasn’t “among their relatives and friends.” They headed back to Jerusalem, eventually found him, and gave him a scolding. Historians don’t take this episode seriously: how would Luke know any of this? What were his sources? Who was there taking notes? Out of his imagination, Luke was portraying a holy hero at age twelve. 


Tim Sledge has identified the central issue here: 


“The temple visit at age 12 marks the start of 18 years of silence about the life of the only person who—according to Christianity—ever managed to avoid committing even one sinful thought or act. Why do we know absolutely nothing about the world’s only perfect life between the ages of 13 and 29?...I see the Bible’s silence on these years of Jesus’s life as a glaring and troubling omission.” (p. 55, Four Disturbing Questions with One Simple Answer: Breaking the Spell of Christian Belief)


“If only we had more stories of Jesus’s early years that clearly portrayed real-life examples of what doing the right thing looks like—in as many situations as possible…And what if we had the details of Jesus’s life in his twenties? How did he transition from adolescence to adulthood? How did he build strong, meaningful friendships? How did he deal with sexual temptations? ...Wouldn’t you wonder why the God empowering this perfect life failed to ensure that someone wrote about events from its every year?” (pp. 55, 56 & 57, Four Disturbing Questions with One Simple Answer)


We’ve got the gospels as they are because the authors weren’t historians. Their primary agenda was promoting the theology/mythology of the Jesus cult. 


Could Have Been So Much Better, Two


And speaking of mythology, resurrection of a dead hero fully qualifies. What an embarrassment that a major world religion remains committed to this idea. Dying/rising savior cults were a feature of the religious landscape of the time, as Richard Carrier has demonstrated so well in his 2018 essay, Dying-and-Rising Gods: It’s Pagan, Guys. Get Over It. Somehow the idea caught on that Jesus belonged to this elite group, but the gospel writers did a poor job incorporating it in their Jesus stories. Mark wrote that Jesus predicted his resurrection to his disciples three times (8:31-33, 9:30-32, 10:32-34)—but, no surprise, “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” (9:32) Even so, when Jesus was killed, how could they forget this thrice-repeated prediction? Yet they didn’t camp out near the tomb to witness the miracle, and have a welcome-back-Jesus celebration! As Robert Conner has pointed out, “Remember, in the canonical gospels nobody actually witnesses the risen Jesus leave the tomb.” (Kindle, loc 2568, Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story)


The gospels could have been so much better if the four gospel accounts of Easter morning had been consistent. The confusion becomes obvious to anyone who reads them, one after the other. Theologians, clergy, and various apologists have put considerable effort into making them look compatible, but that’s a real stretch. It’s so hard to take these accounts seriously when Matthew added the story that people who had come alive in their tombs at the moment Jesus died, walked out and toured Jerusalem on Eastern morning. Luke didn’t help either with his story of Jesus appearing, unrecognized, to disciples “on the road to Emmaus”—then poof! —vanished the moment they realized who he was. It’s very helpful to read Conner’s book referenced above: the gospel authors were influenced by ghost folklore.  


Could Have Been So Much Better, Three 


Why not be honest about what actually happened to Jesus in the end? In the first chapter of Acts we find the story of Jesus ascending above the clouds to join Yahweh in the sky. That story works only if the ancient view of the cosmos is correct. We now know a few miles overhead there is the cold and lethal radiation of space—and how to get there. 

As A. N. Wilson put it:                                                                                                          “For a modern observer, of whatever

religious beliefs, it is impossible not to know that a man ascending vertically from the Mount of Olives, by whatever means of miraculous propulsion, would pass into orbit.” (Jesus: A Life, p. 3)

Theologians now may wish to read the story symbolically—for example, “Jesus now lives and reigns with god” —but no matter, it never happened. Jesus never left planet earth, and—even if you believe that he resurrected—he died again. But the resurrection is fantasy as well, unless you’re willing to concede that the other dying/rising savior gods truly did the same thing. 


We’re stuck wondering what actually happened to Jesus. The gospels could have been so much better if they had told the truth, an accurate story, based on history, not theology.  


Could Have Been So Much Better, Four


In Mark’s gospel, 14:62, Jesus tells those attending his trial that they will see him “seated at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Mark was perhaps influenced by the apostle Paul’s assurance in I Thessalonians 4 that dead Christians will rise from their graves to join with living believers—himself included—to meet Jesus in the air, to be with him forever. I suspect that a high percentage of Christians today pay little attention to these bits of scripture, although many believers still keep an eye on the sky, hoping desperately that Jesus will arrive to rescue the world.


This is an ancient version of the Superman comic book hero, who will come flying through the air to perform good deeds. In the Christian version, based on the gospels and Paul, Jesus will do so much more: he’ll kick out the hated Roman tyrants, he’ll save the world. There is nothing whatever to disprove that this is simply more ancient superstition, a level of nonsense that deserves no respect whatever. The gospels could have been so much better had they depicted Jesus as a great moral teacher. But the gospel authors were not satisfied with that; they were promoting a cult that glorified a hero, belief in whom guaranteed eternal life. This religious gimmick has been a constant for millennia. 


A healthy embrace of reality can break the spell of this gimmick, and a healthy embrace of skepticism and critical thinking can dimmish the hold the sloppy gospels have on Christian belief. 




David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, now being reissued in several volumes, the first of which is Guessing About God (2023) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 


His YouTube channel is here. At the invitation of John Loftus, he has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here