We’ve blown past the initial promise of 20 Bible contradictions and are now at #25 (part 1 here). Let’s continue the Christmas theme and investigate a contradiction in the details surrounding Jesus’s birth.
Jesus is crazy
Too little is made of a surprising passage from Mark. Jesus was preaching in Galilee, and then:
When [Jesus’s] family heard about [Jesus being nearby], they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind” (Mark 3:21).
The point of the story contrasts his actual family, who think he’s crazy, with his disciples, who have abandoned their professions to follow him.
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” Jesus asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!” (Mark 3:33–4).
Contradiction #25: Was Jesus crazy, or was he God?
The interesting thing here is his family calling him crazy. How was that possible, when it was clear from other gospels that Jesus was divine? First, consider the evidence in Matthew.
- Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant. He planed to divorce her quietly, but an angel appeared and told him, “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20–24).
- The magi followed a magical star that (somehow) pointed them to Bethlehem. (More on the Star of Bethlehem here and here.) An expensive and time-consuming trip to worship the king of the Jews required expensive gifts: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matt. 2:11). Gifts worthy of a king would have dramatically improved this peasant family’s quality of life, though that is never evident.
And consider the clues in Luke’s very different nativity story.
- Now it’s Mary who gets the celestial visitation, and this time it’s before the conception. The angel Gabriel said, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:28–38).
- Shepherds are told by angels that the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem and “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (Luke 2:8–18).
- Mary and Joseph took baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for “purification rites.” There they met Simeon, a devout man who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would see the Messiah. As he held Jesus, he praised God and said that the promise had been fulfilled (Luke 2:25–38).
- At age 12, Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem after the Passover celebration to converse with the Jewish teachers. “Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:46–51).
- Luke makes clear that these events aren’t lost on Mary. It says that “Mary treasured up all these things” after hearing the shepherds and the angels (Luke 2:19) and after seeing Jesus with the teachers (2:51). After hearing Simeon identify Jesus as the Messiah, “The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him” (2:33).
Not only are Mary and Joseph assured that their son is divine, but this isn’t a family secret. Word has spread far. The magi informed Herod’s court, and Herod killed infant boys for fear of a rival to the throne; the shepherds tell everyone they can about the angels’ message; Simeon publicly states in the Temple that Jesus is the Messiah; and the Temple teachers see his wisdom for themselves.
Making sense of the contradiction
Let’s return to Mark, where Jesus’s mother and brothers want to take charge of him because he’s crazy. Jesus can’t be both crazy and divine. But drop the requirement that these stories must harmonize, and the resolution is easy.
Matthew and Luke copy (sometimes verbatim) from Mark. In fact, 97 percent of Mark is copied by either Matthew or Luke or both. However, the nativity stories appear only in Matthew and Luke, and the “Jesus is crazy” story appears only in Mark. Mark threw the holy family under the bus to make the point that following Jesus is a higher calling than familial loyalty, but Matthew and Luke didn’t copy that story, perhaps because, as we’ve seen here, it conflicts with the clear evidence in the nativity stories that Jesus is different because he’s divine.
Mark and the other two synoptic gospels had different agendas. Remember that each of these gospels was written decades after the death of Jesus. During this time, dynastic succession was typical. David’s son succeeded him as king, and Herod’s son succeeded him as king, so who would succeed Jesus? (Let’s ignore that the End® was to have happened within months or a few years after Jesus’s death and assume that the movement needed a new leader.) Jesus had no children, so a brother would be an obvious choice.
This created a doctrinal conflict between Paul, who hadn’t even met Jesus in real life, and the James/Peter faction, who installed James, the brother of Jesus, as a leader in the Jerusalem church. The gospel of Mark takes Paul’s viewpoint, so it’s motivated to undercut James by saying that James and the rest of Jesus’s family didn’t believe him. Matthew takes a more Jewish, pro-James view.
In this case, you must set two New Testament books against each other to find the contradiction. Another example of this is how spices were applied to the body after the crucifixion. The gospels of Mark and Luke say that women failed to apply spices on Sunday morning, while John tells us that two men were successful on Friday evening.
But then you have cases where the contradiction is in a single book. For example, John the Baptist wondered if Jesus was The One despite having seen the dove of the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus during baptism, and these stories are both in Matthew.
As usual, the puzzle neatly resolves itself with a natural explanation.
are interwoven in biblical history,
and nothing about the life of Jesus
can be theologically true that is historically false.
— Christian scholar Ben Witherington
Image from Ben White, CC license