Difficulties, Contradictions and Problems in the Crucifixion tale (part 1)

by Ibn Anwar

“.but they killed him not, nor crucified him.“(Qur’an 4:157)

Jesus’ Crucifixion is the bedrock of mainstream Christianity. It is such an important foundation in Christianity that even sects that have departed from “Orthodoxy” such as Unitarianism and the Jehovah’s Witness have retained the crucifixion. Paul says, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). Without crucifixion there is no resurrection. Because the preaching of Christianity is based on the resurrection it goes without saying that the crucifixion is equally significant and important which is why the official symbol in mainstream Christianity is the cross.

It is often claimed in Evangelical circles and by Christian missionaries that there is a consensus among scholars and historians both conservative and liberal that Jesus certainly died on the cross. This is misleading. There are scholars who argue that because there is such a paucity in early reliable historical records attesting to Jesus’ existence  that must mean that he is a myth, a legend, a fiction. Granted that the circle of scholars of this persuasian is small in number that does not discount the fact that they exist. Tom Harpur who was professor of New Testament and New Testament Greek at Wycliffe(The Pagan Christ), Bruno Bauer (Critique of the Gospels and History of Their Origin), Earl Doherty(The Jesus Puzzle), Prof. G.A. Wells(The Historical Evidence for Jesus), Prof. Michael Martin(The Case Against Christianity) are some of the scholars who have questioned Jesus’ existence. Thus to continue claiming that all scholars both liberal and conservative agree on the crucifixion is untrue. Undoubtedly, a vast majority of scholars say the crucifixion happened, but not without  serious qualification. They do not say it as a fact, but rather as a probable occurence. Historians involved in this area of study base their judgment on probabilities rather than conclusive historical data. Using the historical method scholars comb through available  historical materials, assess them and thereafter produce what they think to be the most probable conclusion. Historians using the critical historical method do not recognise supernatural events because they are the least probable occurences which is why God cannot be in the equation hence discounting both resurrection and Jesus’ ascent to heaven as historical(at least according to the historical method). A person living 2000 years ago would be regarded as dead because it is highly improbable(or impossible) for a man to live that long.  Because Jesus lived around 2000 years ago historians conclude that he must have died.

This is of course according to the critical historical method. The real question that historians are interested in is how he died.  And for this they look at the historical records surrounding the person Jesus. According to their perspective based on their research the most probable explanation or cause for Jesus’ death is the crucifixion. Thus many modern (non-Muslim) historians have no qualms over Jesus’ death  itself not because they think that Jesus was factually and definitely crucified but because a man living 2000 years ago cannot still be alive.  In this article we will be looking closely at some of those major data and sources used to propose that Jesus died by crucifixion. God willing, we will illustrate  by proposing nine contentions(using historical and theological arguments) that the historical material employed are insufficient in  proving the crucifixion and that Jesus certainly did not die the shameful death of a crucified man.

How much do we know about Jesus? As we have mentioned before there is a paucity of material.

“However desirable it might be to have available records of Jesus’ words and deeds that were made during his lifeimte, we must acknowledge that we have none.”[1] (emphasis added)

Reliable knowledge of Jesus, his life and teaching, is limited. The years of his adolescence and young manhood are shrouded in silence, and his active ministry of not over two or three years is treated only briefly in the Gospels. There are only four short accounts of Jesus’ ministry, and these record what people though of his as well as what he did and taught. Beyond the narrative of his teachings and actions nothing is known of his personality, physical appearance, or bearing that might account for the remarkable charismatic power which he held over his disciples and the masses who at one time followed him.” [2] (emphasis added)

Contention 1: The passion narratives are inconsistent which means they cannot be trusted.

If one were to compare the four gospels analytically one will find that there are many inconsistencies between the narratives given in the gospels. However, in fairness it should be noted that there are fewer contradictions between Matthew and Mark. Some stories are found in one or two of the gospels but not in the others for example Jesus being troubled is mentioned in Matthew and Mark, but not in Luke and John. The excuse given by apologists is that the authors simply did not mention them(or were not aware of its occurence) and this does not actually give rise to contradiction. This excuse is untenable when the Gospels and external historical evidence are studied carefully. Nevertheless, they would argue that in general there are many similarities between the passion narratives in the four Gospels. That’s all fine. But what about those serious discrepencies that we do find in the Gospels? Can two conflicting stories presented in two different books be equally and simultaneously true? According to Christian apologists they can. What they will do is try to harmonise the conflicting stories by building a new story where both are included  into one story with some modifications here and there.  Is this a legitimate recourse? The eminent Bible scholar Bart D. Ehrman, the prodige of one of the greatest New Testament scholars of America Bruce Metzger in Misquoting Jesus and Jesus Interrupted says that such a course of action does injustice to the gospels. Harmonising the conflicting gospel accounts does violence to what the authors and their work intend and convey. Each author wrote with a specific intention in mind and a specific audience in sight hence mixing and mashing one author’s narrative with the other is unjustified. By doing such a thing they are in reality reconstructing a gospel that none of the gospel writers had in mind. By doing such a thing they have in reality introduced a new gospel. Let us now consider some of those contradictions.

1. When was Jesus arrested? Was it on the Passover or before it?

The four Gospels place the crucifixion on a Friday (Mark 15:42, Matthew 27:62, Luke 23:54 and John 19:31),however John departs from the synoptics(Matthew, Mark and Luke) in that the incident occured on the day of rest of the Passover, that is one day earlier. The Synoptics on the other hand asserts that the Friday on which the crucifixion happened was the first day of the Passover.  Jewish law stipulates that the lamb of the Passover should be slaughtered in the evening of the 14th of the first month of the Jewish calender, Nisan. The lamb is then eaten on the same night as mentioned in Exodus 12:1-8). Based on Genesis 1:5 the Jews measure a day as that from sunset to sunset. So that means the night of the Passover is the start of the 15th of Nisan. According to the synoptics Jesus was arrested after having the Passover meal with his disciples which was the first night of the first day of the Passover (Mark 14:12-46, Matthew 26:19-50 and Luke 22:7-54). He was then crucified in the morning of the 15th of Nisan.

John on the other hand has it that Jesus was arrested and taken to Pilate early in the morning of the day of rest of the Passover which means that he was arrested the night before (john 18:28). The crucifixion then according to John’s timeline should be placed on the 14th of Nisan some hours after the arrest. Thus according to John the day of the crucifixion was the Friday during the day of the rest of the Passover as opposed to the synoptics that place it on the first day of the feast.  In conclusion, John’s arrest and crucifixion is a day earlier than the synoptics version.  There is a reason why John has made the crucifixion coincide with the time of the slaughter of Passover lambs. John’s account is theologically motivated. He presents Jesus in the first chapter of his book as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29 and 1:36). John wishes to pass Jesus off as the true Passover lamb. He makes Jesus fulfill a prophecy (John 19:36) with a description that the Old Testament uses for the Passover lamb. Because John’s timeline corresponds intimately with his Crucifixion theology some scholars have been led to dismiss his narrative as fiction. [3]

2. How many Passovers were there? Was it one or three?

Whilst the synoptics mention only one Passover that is the one during which Jesus was crucified John deviates as mentions two extra Passovers (John 2:13, 2:23 and 6:4).

3. When was Jesus’ trial? Was it at night or in the morning?

Both Matthew and Mark agree that Jesus was arrested and put on trial before the Jewish council at night (Matthew 26:31-57 and Mark 14:30-53. John asserts the same in John 18:28. Luke on the other hand departs from them and says that the trial was in the morning in Luke 22:66.

4. Who questioned Jesus? Was it the Sanhedrin or the high priest?

According to Mark 14:53-55 and Matthew 26:57-59 it was the Sanhedrin who tried Jesus in the house of the high priest, Caiaphas. Who were the Sanhedrin? The Sanhedrin was a Jewish council that dealt with religious and Jewish legal matters consisting of 71 members. How is it that 71 people fitted in Caiaphas’ house 2000 years ago is a mystery to me. Perhaps he lived in a palatial palace? Luke 22:66 says, “At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them.” One can understand from this that Luke may very well be referring to the Sanhedrin as Matthew and Mark does. But John departing from the synoptics claims that Jesus was first brought to the house of Annas, “Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus.

They bound him and brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year.”(John 18:12-13) Only after he had been interrogated by Annas that he was then taken to Caiaphas(John 18:24). There are mutiple problems with these narratives. Firstly, the Sanhedrin is totally missing in John’s account even though he says earlier in John 11:47-53 that Caiaphas led the Sanhedrin in planning to kill Jesus. If John saw it fit to mention the Sanhedrin’s plan to kill him why not mention it also when Jesus was interrogated? The question then is was Jesus ever tried by the Sanhedrin as claimed by the synoptics? Who’s telling the truth? The second problem that we find is that two high priests(kohen gadol) are mentioned together namely, Annas and Caiaphas. Annas is addressed as the high priest repeatedly in John 18:15-22 amd in the same passage in verse 24 Caiaphas is described as the high priest. This cannot be true because the Old Testament , Josephus, Philo and Rabbinic material all agree that the position of high priest can be occupied by one person only at any one time. Further more, the eminent authority in Jewish studies, Geza Vermes says that John’s claim in John 11:49,51 and John 18:13 that the high priesthood went through annual rotations is unhistorical.[4]

5. Who sentenced Jesus to capital punishment?

Matthew 26:66, Mark 14:64, Luke 24:20 and Acts 13:27 says that the Sanhedrin passed the death penalty on Jesus implying that they have the capacity to sentence someone to die. John departs from that and makes it clear that the Sanhedrin and the Jews in general have no legal power at all to put someone to death, “Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.’ The Jews said to him, ?It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.'”(John 18:31) Looking at that verse carefully another problem arises. How is it that Pilate the Roman prefect who had been ruling the Jews for around four years and responsible for legal affairs did not even know that the Jews are not permitted to sentence anyone to death?

6. How many people tried Jesus?

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all agree that Jesus was brought before Pilate to be sentenced, but Luke deviating from the other three gospels adds something extra in that Jesus was also tried by Herod in Luke 23:6-12). In this episode Jesus gets mocked and ridiculed by Herod. Why is this event completely omitted in all the other three gospels? Could it be that it did not happen and was simply Luke’s invention to add more drama to the narrative?

7. How did Judas the traitor die?

This is quite relevant to the passion narratives because it happened during the same time and that he is charged with the responsibility of deserting and betraying Jesus to the Jewish leaders for some money(Mark 14:43-46, Matthew 26:47-50, Luke 22:47-54 and John 18:2-12).  According to Matthew the following is what happened to Judas Iscariot,

“Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders,

“Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that.

And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself. And the chief priests took the silver pieces, and said, It is not lawful for to put them into the treasury, because it is the price of blood. And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in. Wherefore that field was called, The field of blood, unto this day. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was valued, whom they of the children of Israel did value; And gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord appointed me. (Matthew 27:3-10)

The passage cites a prophecy that is attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. No such prophecy exists in Jeremiah. Christian apologists have tried to reconcile the problem by mixing together Jeremiah 18:2-3 and Zechariah 11:12-13. This is utterly disingenuous because anyone can see that the author cited Jeremiah, not Jeremiah and Zechariah. Prof. Raymond E. Brown in his volume  1 or his 2 volume work on the crucifixion says about this confusion, “That conglomeration of words cited by Matt exists nowhere in the standard OT.” [5] In the passage Judas’ manner of death is mentioned, that is,  he hanged himself. Acts 1:18-20 relates the same incident, but the details differ heavily,

“(With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For,” said Peter, “it is written in the book of Psalms,”? May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,'[d] and, “? May another take his place of leadership.” (Acts 1:18-20)

As we can see the above passage presents a totally different picture of Judas’ death. Whilst Matthew says he hanged himself, Acts on the other hand says he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. If the latter is true why did Matthew not include it? Isn’t such a dramatic and gruesome death of a traitor to one’s Lord and Master worth mentioning? We can also see that a totally different prophecy is cited for the incident if it ever happened.

One would think that the same prophecy would be applied for the same incident like the incident of Jesus going into Jerusalem on a donkey whereby the same prophecy from Zechariah 9:9 is quoted. This means that the two authors are retelling different stories. The only similitude is the person involved.

8. False promise by Jesus?

In Luke 23:43 we have Jesus making a promise to his fellow crucified victim,

“Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.””

This was during the crucifixion. According to the Creed of the Apostles which may well have been based on 1 Peter 3:18-20 Jesus went down to hell after the crucifixion, “Jesus who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, buried and descended into hell.” (Apostles’ Creed) Further more, in John 20:17 Jesus says, “Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them,? I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” Where is the father? The Father is in heaven according to Matthew 6:9-13 and Matthew 23:9. What was the promise again? The promise was that he would see Jesus in heaven today i.e. on Friday. Apostles’ Creed says Jesus went to hell after he died and John 20:17 says Jesus did not yet ascend to the Father(in heaven) on Sunday. It is clearly a contradiction.

9. Who and where were the women at the crucifixion?

Matthew 27:56 claims that Mary Magdelene, Mary the mother of James, Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee were watching at the scene. Mark 15:40 claims that Mary Magdelene, Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses and Salome were watching. Luke 23:49 says, “And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.” If Luke is correct then all the witnesses including the women were standing at a distance watching the incident. John goes against the rest and claims that Jesus’ mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdelene were standing close to the cross. It was so clase that Jesus was able to speak to mother. (John 19:25-26) Did you also notice that the women were all MARYS? Were there no other name among Jewish women other than Mary? How very coincidental that all the women mentioned are Marys. Is it easier to say it’s a coincidence or that they are inventions of the authors?

10. Who did Jesus appear to?

According to Paul, Jesus appeared to the 12:

“that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. ” (1 Corinthians 15:4-8)

From the Gospels we know that there were no 12 disciples soon after the crucifixion because Judas had gone. Some apologists might suggest that the 12 is merely an “appellation” and di not designate the actual number of disciples who were around.

This is inconsistent with the fact that the Gospels treat the disciples as 11 when Judas was no longer around. Had it been an appellation i.e. a special designation for the disciples despite their actual number the gospel authors would have retained the 12, but they did not. There were 11 left so they were called the eleven and not the twelve (e.g. Mark 16:14).

Luke 24:33- 43 tells us that Jesus appeared to the 11 and ate honeycomb and broiled fish in their midst in the upper room. However, John 20:24 tells us that Thomas was not around when Jesus appeared i.e. as related in Luke 24:33-43. That means that the number of disciples that were present should have been TEN at the most and not eleven as Luke 24:33 claims! Paul says 12, Luke says 11 and John asserts 10.

Which one is true? Scholars like Dr. William Lane Craig have tried to reconcile this conundrum by proposing a sequence of events where Jesus is suggested to have first appeared in Jerusalem then the disciples went back to Galilee and after that they return to Jerusalem for Pentecost. Is this harmonising attempt coherent? One of the most eminent Bible scholars and praised as such by Dr. William Lane Craig, Prof. Raymond E. Brown disagrees. Such a sequential harmonising according to Prof. Raymond E. Brown, “does violence to the Gospel evidence”. [6] Raymond E. Brown in the same book postulates that the several appearances recorded in the gospels are actually fictitious inventions stemming from one single appearance.

11. Jesus’ trial could not have taken place at night and concluded in the same night.

The Mishnah says about capital punishment,

“Civil suits are tried by day, and concluded at night. But capital charges must be tried by day and concluded by day. Civil suits can be concluded on the same day, whether for acquittal or condemnation; capital charges may be concluded on the same day with a favourable verdict; but only on the morrow with an unfavourable verdict. Therefore trials are not held on the eve of a sabbath or festival. In civil suits, and in cases of cleanness and uncleanness, we begin with [the opinion of] the most eminent [of the judges]; whereas in capital charges, we commence with [the opinion of] those on the side [benches]. (Sanh. 32a)

Matthew 26:31-57, Mark 14:30-53 and John 18:28 claim that Jesus’ trial took place at night. According to the Jewish law as we have read above this cannot be true unless the Jewish leaders and the high priest were altogether ignorant or perhaps they were involved in an evil conspiracy where they bent their own law? If that is true why isn’t the error of their actions exposed and rebuked in the gospels? Why did Jesus not himself question the manner in which he was tried being himself a learned Jewish teacher? As  Prof. Craig A. Evans tells us in his Context, Family and Formation in the Cambridge Companion to the Bible p. 19, “Jesus is frequently called ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Rabboni’, or its Greek equivalents ‘master’ (epistata) or ‘teacher’ (didaskalos).” So, Jesus was no doubt a Rabbi (Mark 12:29). Being a Rabbi and learned in the Jewish law he would have questioned the Jewish leaders concerning the unconstsitutional nocturnal trial. But, no such disagreement is found either from Jesus or from anyone else in the entire New Testament. Earlier we argued against the location of Jesus trial which took place at the house of the high priest. This is very unusual in Jewish tradition since the place of assembly was the hall of cut stone located within the temple as Geza Vermes notes in his The Passion and Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz mentions their The Historical Jesus.

There are many more discrepencies, contradictions and difficulties in the Gospels concerning the crucifixion and other things besides. However, the ten inconsistencies that we have contended are sufficient in proving our point. The anonymous gospels are far from consistent in their narratives. If we can’t establish which incident actually happened how can we be certain that any of them happened at all? In order to have a reasonable commentary on the events one should be able to know what truly happened first. The inconsistencies give proof to the Qur’anic declaration concerning the crucifixion that, “.those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no certain knowledge, but they only follow conjecture.” (Qur’an 4:157)

Christian apologists tend to argue that the crucifixion is true based on the multitude of independent multiple attestations. This brings us to our second contention.

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