Michael J. Alter is the author of the copiously researched, 913-page volume, The Resurrection: a Critical Inquiry (2015). I initially offered 59 “brief” replies to as many alleged New Testament contradictions (March 2021). We later engaged in amiable correspondence and decided to enter into a major ongoing dialogue about his book. He graciously sent me a PDF file of it, free of charge, for my review, and has committed himself to counter-response as well: a very rare trait these days. All of this is, I think, mightily impressive.
Mike describes himself as “of the Jewish faith” but is quick to point out that labels are often “misleading” and “divisive” (I agree to a large extent). He continues to be influenced by, for example, “Reformed, Conservative, Orthodox, and Chabad” variants of Judaism and learns “from those of other faiths, the secular, the non-theists, etc.” Fair enough. I have a great many influences, too, am very ecumenical, and am a great admirer of Judaism, as I told Michael in a combox comment on my blog.
He says his book “can be described as Jewish apologetics” and one that provides reasons for “why members of the Jewish community should not convert to Christianity.” I will be writing many critiques of the book and we’ll be engaging in ongoing discussion for likely a long time. I’m quite excited about it and eagerly enjoy the dialogue and debate. This is a rare opportunity these days and I am most grateful for Mike’s willingness to interact, minus any personal hostility.
I use RSV for all Bible verses that I cite. His words will be in blue.
CONTRADICTION #10 Significant Omissions of Luke’s Narrative in Three Gospels
The gospel narratives present significantly differing details about the thieves on the cross. At first appearance, the details in Mark, Luke, and John read virtually the same: there are two thieves being crucified along with Jesus. However, in Matthew an additional and significant fact is provided that both thieves also taunted Jesus.
Mt 27:44 In the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him. (NIV)
Mt 27:44 The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. (NRSV)
Mt 27:44 The robbers who had been crucified with Him were also insulting Him with the same words. (NASB)
Luke’s narrative reads like a completely different story: “And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?” . . .
Matthew stated categorically that both thieves taunted Jesus, whereas Luke reported that just one thief did. (p. 120)
Both things can be true. It could simply (and not implausibly) have been that both thieves reviled Jesus at first, then when one of them “upped the ante” and said to Jesus, “Save yourself and us!” (Lk 23:39), the other had a change of mind, repented, and rebuked him:
Luke 23:40-41 “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
For all we know, there could have also been further conversation not recorded. Jesus might have briefly preached the gospel to both men, with one accepting it. Once again (for the umpteenth time) this is not a contradiction. One tires of the quick recourse among biblical skeptics and atheists to the accusation of “contradiction” when the example given is far from the case. Here is what a contradiction actually is:
A contradiction is a logical incompatibility between two or more statements or propositions. It occurs when those statements or propositions, taken together, yield a falsehood. By extension, outside of logic, contradictions are also said to occur between actions for which the motives are held to be contradictory, or between beliefs or principles when their content is contradictory.
Pointing to this principle in applied logic, Aristotle’s law of noncontradiction states that “One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time.”
The simplest or classic form of contradiction is the assertion both of some statement or proposition and its negation. So, for example, the statement-pair: “All fire engines are red,” and “It is not true that all fire engines are red” is contradictory. This means that one of those statements must be false; they cannot both be true at the same time and in the same manner.
The logical form of a simple contradiction is “Statement + negation of that statement.” (New World Encyclopedia, “Contradiction”)
Alter played around with the definition of “contradiction” early in his book:
[O]missions can at times be considered contradictions when the missing material is highly relevant and significant. Thus skeptics argue that the
absence of proof can be proof, but it is acknowledged not always.
Numerous times this text will present contradictions which fall under the Christian apologists’ rubric of omission. When these contradictions are
encountered, it must be remembered that the omissions here are extremely significant and something a normal person would not expect to see. (p. 26)
This is simply not what a logical contradiction is. Omissions are not contradictions, and arguments constructed from them are fallacious arguments from silence (argumentum ex silentio). He is trying to argue that if an omission is “significant” or “relevant” enough, then it can qualify as a “contradiction.” This make the entire determination one of subjective mush. Who is to decide what is “significant” or “relevant”? That’s not how logic works (and I did take a course in it in college, just for the record, as well as several other philosophy courses).
Logic is not about relative significance of two ideas or proposition or statements of fact. It’s about the relationship between two things: whether the relation is in harmony with the laws of non-contradiction and logic or not. There are several hypothetical ways that the story of the two thieves might be considered contradictory, if only they were in the texts and not bald speculation.
Mere difference is not contradiction. For example, if Matthew had stated that “both thieves insulted Jesus the entire time and never stopped till they [or He] died”, then that would be an undeniable contradiction compared with Luke. That is what a real contradiction looks like. But of course Matthew doesn’t say such a thing.
As it is, all we have to do is speculate about is a change of mind and heart of one of the thieves. Is that a plausible possibility? Have human beings never changed their minds? How absurd will we become in our skepticism? Alter would have to maintain that the one thief who is said to have rebuked the other in Luke couldn’t possibly have changed his mind — in about six hours of unspeakable agony, nailed to a cross — from his earlier stance of mocking Jesus. That could never have happened in any possible universe?!
This is absurd. Of course it is a possibility. We also know that being on the verge of death remarkably focuses a mind and a soul on the most serious aspects of life. This would be a time for a “deathbed repentance / conversion” from a life of crime if there ever was one.
Therefore, by reductio ad absurdum, the claim of “contradiction” vanishes. It’s not established by what we know about the nature of a contradiction, and by simple deduction, we can posit a plausible scenario that explains what Alter thinks is a contradiction (but what really isn’t, by definition). One merely has to be objective and fair-minded about it, and not question the text at every turn.
That’s the thing: fairness. In a Christian discussion on this issue, one person commented:
The so-called “difficulties” with this passage are no different, in kind, from many other differences that exist in parallel accounts among the four (and, especially, the three synoptic) Gospels. They are not difficulties to those who take the gospel accounts at face value. They only create problems when we bring an a priori suspicion to the reading of them, as if we suspect that someone is trying to “put something over” on us, and we are determined to find every possible evidence that they are doing so.
Obviously, if we were listening to friends, on different occasions, relating a story that was known to all of them (rather than reading the Gospels in the Bible), we would bring no such suspicion to our listening. Nor would certain differences in detail of various reports disturb us or raise our eyebrows (unless they involved ostensible contradictions, which our present case does not). . . .
I know that Luke was not an eye-witness, but I have never disqualified a historian’s reports simply on the grounds that he was not there when the events occurred. Luke has been demonstrated to be one of the most careful historians of ancient history. The people who doubt him without a cause must approach him differently than I do.
Beyond that, Luke reported that part of verses 39 through 43 were found in neither Mark nor Matthew. Where then did Luke obtain his material? (p. 120)
It could have been from any number of sources: from Jesus’ mother, who was present at the crucifixion, Mary, mother of James and Joseph, Mary, mother of the sons of Zebedee, Salome, or Mary Clopas. All these women were present at the cross. Or he could have gotten the information from, say, a Roman centurion eyewitness and earwitness who later became a Christian, or from any number of onlookers, who were willing to talk about what they saw and heard (not necessarily all Christians).
Or he got it from an oral tradition passed down. There could even be a tradition based on things Jesus taught during His post-Resurrection appearances. His appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus alone appears to have lasted several hours: all likely in theological / spiritual conversation (Lk 24:13-31). Luke in Acts (1:3) says that these appearances of the risen Jesus lasted “forty days” and Paul says Jesus “appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time” (1 Cor 15:6). All of these things are possible. On what grounds must we be excessively skeptical? Well, it seems to often stem from groundless pre-existing hostilities.
We must also understand that oral traditions were highly (quite often, remarkably) reliable in ancient cultures where relatively few people could read or write. See, for example: “How Reliable were the Early Church’s Oral Traditions?”
On the other hand, given that the event is historical, would it have been possible for Mark, Matthew, and John to be unaware of this tradition? (p. 120).
Yes; why not?
Furthermore, it is not reasonable to expect that three authors would agree to omit such important details from their narratives assuming they knew the tradition. (p. 120)
It’s the nature of all stories about roughly the same events. Each account will omit something one or more of the others include; they might differ on, say, chronology or relative emphasis. None of this is unusual or unexpected at all. And these factors ought not be seized upon in cynical attempts to “see a contradiction under every rock” (in the New Testament).
Photo credit: Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses (c. 1660), by Rembrandt (1606-1669) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
Summary: Michael Alter claims that Luke contradicted the other Gospels with regard to the crucified thieves. His account showed one rebuking the other, rather than both taunting. Is this contradictory?
Tags: alleged Bible contradictions, alleged Resurrection contradictions, Bible “contradictions”, Bible “difficulties”, Bible Only, biblical inspiration, biblical prooftexts, biblical skeptics, biblical theology, exegesis, hermeneutics, Holy Bible, inerrancy, infallibility, Jewish anti-Christian polemics, Jewish apologetics, Jewish critique of Christianity, Jewish-Christian discussion, Michael J. Alter, New Testament, New Testament critics, New Testament skepticism, Resurrection “Contradictions”, Resurrection of Jesus, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, crucified thieves, thief on the cross