New Testament Contradictions and the "Ancient Biography" Argument

Alright, so I’ve got an interesting question here.

I watched a podcast by Trent Horn with NT scholar Mike Licona where they defend the alleged contradictions in the New Testament by saying that ancient biographers wrote in a different genre than we are used to nowadays. They say that many ancient biographers would take liberties in the details, chronology, time span etc. of a story or event if they wanted a certain aspect of it to be more clear or highlighted, but that didn’t mean that they were not communicating the truth of an event. I have no problems with this explanation; it makes sense to me.

However, in the same podcast Trent mentioned a 2nd century apocryphal gospel, the Gospel of the Ebionites, which attempted to resolve one of these alleged contradictions. At Jesus’ baptism, some of the gospels say that the Father said, “You are My beloved Son, with You I am well pleased,” while others recount that the Father said “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Well this apocryphal gospel attempted to resolve this by saying that the Father spoke TWICE, first to Jesus and then to the crowd. Trent’s point in talking about this was that we need to be careful in resolving these issues because you can do “violence to the text” if you do not understand the proper genre to understand the story and narrative differences between the gospels.

But this actually got me thinking more. Why would a 2nd century writer feel the need to resolve this “contradiction” in the gospel if it was widely understood how biographies were written at the time? Like, wouldn’t a 2nd century individual understand better than we did if this difference in the narrative was a real issue or not? If all the contradictions really aren’t a problem, as Horn and Licona assert, why does it seem like a contemporary of the time felt compelled to “fix it?”

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You’re right, this is an interesting question, and it’s very astutely observed and reasoned by yourself. One way of approaching an answer would be to acknowledge that there has always been tensions in every religious community (to include Jews and Christians) between those who are inclined to interpret the text more historically (as in, literally) and those who are more inclined to identify the moral/spiritual truths contained within the text. For the early Fathers, this conflict was brought out by the Antiochian approach to interpretation (historical/literal) and the Alexandrian (allegorical). I don’t know particularly about this 2nd century writer, but I would guess that he’d have more in common with the Antiochian approach. Hence, his desire to resolve what he viewed as a historical dilemma. Just a guess, really, but undergirded by the acknowledgment that religious communities always have competing interpretive frameworks that they work within.

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At this late date we can only offer conjectural explanations. For instance, the author of the Gospel of the Ebionites may have fully realized that he was dealing with two alternative versions of a single event, but he couldn’t make up his mind which version to cut out and which to leave in. He didn’t want to run the risk of cutting out the actual words spoken by the voice from heaven, so he opted to play it safe by leaving both in.

How does that grab you?

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Interesting, thanks for the answer! I want to find more Christian literature written around that time, maybe some of the earliest commentaries on the Gospels. I’d be interested to see what they say about NT contradictions, or if they even mention them at all. I’m pretty ignorant on the subject, but I think that could be pretty revealing.

I guess that’s possible. I was running on the assumption that this particular insertion in the apocryphal gospel had an apologetic purpose to it, because that’s what was implied by the experts who presented it in the podcast. It’s worth looking into more, though.

That’s a great idea. I’ll mention a couple of sources, if you don’t already know about them. One is Catholic Cross Reference It’s really cool. You can do a search for any scripture, like any of these baptismal narratives, and they will pull up a lot of the early fathers and their commentary on them.

Another place you could look is St Thomas Aquinas’ catena aurea. Enjoy! I’m sure this will be some pleasurable research for you.


Awesome!! These will be super helpful, thanks so much!

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The Ebionite writing tried to have it both ways. It’s like the Dire Straits song Industrial Disease, in which Mark Knopfler sings: “Two men say they’re Jesus, one of therm must be wrong”

I think I would look at it a bit differently. I agree that it’s difficult to ascribe the intent of the ‘author’, but there are a couple of dynamics in play here, aren’t there?

First, there’s no such thing as a “Gospel of the Ebionites”. Rather, we merely have Epiphanius’ description of a few fragments of their statements of Scripture. Given that this is all we have, it seems difficult to ascertain the author’s intent merely from the second-hand account of the putative ‘text.’

Second, one of the beliefs that Epiphanius was attempting to refute was the notion of adoptionism – that is, that Jesus was not the “Son of God” until after this baptism event. Therefore, we can start to think about the intent of the author in light of this dynamic (not that we can prove it conclusively, though). In fact, the ‘Ebionite Gospel’ adds the text of Psalms 2:7 here, in an attempt to assert that it was only at Jesus’ baptism that he was “begotten [as son] this day”.

Third, in the passage alluded to by Epiphanius, we see an attempt to make two assertions: God is identifying to (a previously clueless) Jesus that now he is the ‘son of God’, and next, identifying this notion to the assembled crowd.

So, how can we understand the “Ebionite Gospel” and its assertions about Jesus’ baptism? Do they negate the notion of the differences between Greco-Roman biography and modern-day biography? I think not. Rather, we see a heretical group attempting to create a Scriptural cut-and-paste eisegesis which paints Jesus in the Adoptionist mold.

So… no “2nd century genre confusion”. Instead, we have an attempt to legitimize a heretical doctrine.

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• “You are My beloved Son, with You I am well pleased.”
• “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

There is nothing “heretical” about the words spoken by the voice from heaven. Both forms are in the canonical Gospels, one form in Mark and Luke, and the other form in Matthew. The only question the OP is asking here, as I understand it, is why the author of this apocryphal gospel chose to include both forms instead of picking one or the other.

And yes, there is such a work as the Gospel of the Ebionites. That is not the name that Epiphanius himself uses, but it is the name that has long been attached to these fragments that he quotes in his Panarion.


Right. The heresy is ‘adoptionism’, which is what the ‘Ebionites’ apparently espoused. Notice the insertion of the phrase from the psalm, which none of the canonical evangelists use in their accounts.

In order to make their case for adoptionism!

Sure. Some folks gave the name ‘gospel’ to a second-hand account (which doesn’t have the status of extant gospel). That’s kinda like saying that there really is a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, isn’t it?

Irrelevant to the OP’s question

The Catholic Encyclopedia replies:

The name gospel, as designating a written account of Christ’s words and deeds, has been, and is still, applied to a large number of narratives connected with Christ’s life, which circulated both before and after the composition of our Third Gospel (cf. Luke 1:1-4). The titles of some fifty such works have come down to us, a fact which shows the intense interest which centred, at an early date, in the Person and work of Christ. It is only, however, in connexion with twenty of these “gospels” that some information has been preserved. Their names, as given by Harnack (Chronologie, I, 589 sqq.), are as follows: —

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Hmm… it doesn’t seem that way to me.

Here’s why I’m making the claim: according to the heresy, this moment (when Christ steps out of the water) would be the first time that God speaks to His son (at least, as His son). It’s important, then, to show that this occurs. Of course, they add an interpolation, putting these Scriptural words in God’s mouth at this point: “today I have begotten you.”

But, they’re not finished with their alterations to the canonical Gospel accounts. In their rendering, John asks Jesus a question. In that way, a second response from God is heard (and this time, it’s the “third person” response that’s found in the Marcan account).

Again, though, this is something that would never had been revealed until after the baptism, according to their beliefs. Therefore, in addition to making changes from the canonical accounts, they render both dialogues, in such a way to make the case for their beliefs.

In other words, the reason isn’t that a “2nd century writer [felt] the need to resolve [a] ‘contradiction’ in the gospel”, but that he was writing into the gospel in such a way as to give credence to his own heretical beliefs.

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I agree. I think it does help answer my question, or at the very least provide one possible explanation for that about which I was wondering.

I had understood this insertion in the apocryphal gospel as coming from a place of “Oh no, the gospels contradict each other about what God says at the Baptism, I should cleverly harmonize the two.” What Gorgias is saying is that he/she does not believe that was the thought process at all; rather Gorgias believes the aim of this insertion by the author was to try to assert a specific heresy by highlighting God’s spoken words at the Baptism.

If that’s true then this part of the Gospel of the Ebionites would have nothing to do with an apologetic attempt to explain away biblical contradictions, hence rendering my concern irrelevant. Hope I’m understanding this correctly.

Right. That’s the case that Epiphanius is making. He also points out that the Ebionites have modified the Gospel of Matthew in order to fit their heresy. So, that’s his answer to your question.

(And yes – Gorgias (as well as Scraps) is a boy dog. :wink: ) (H/T “Airplane II”)

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That’s found in manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke.

Which ones? I’ve looked for this in parallel translations, but haven’t found it.

Or, are you referencing the notion (put forth by Ehrman and others) that the original text read “this day I have begotten you” but was changed to “in you I am well pleased” in the sixth century or so, in response to adoptionism heresies?

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It’s controversial.

But it isn’t in parallel translations, right?

It’s just an academic theory, without physical attribution, no?

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It’s been in the footnotes of many Bibles as an alternative.

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