Why did they put contradictory gospels together in the New Testament?

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by Neil Godfrey

trobisch1The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and the Gospel of John contradict each other on the date of the crucifixion of Jesus. The Synoptics tell us Jesus ate the Passover sacrificial meal with his disciples the evening before he died; the Gospel of John that Jesus was crucified at the same time of the Passover sacrifice. In the Gospel of John there is no description of a ritual meal — “take, eat, this is my body, etc” — on the eve of Jesus’ arrest.

Whoever was responsible for collecting those gospels with such a blatant contradiction and placing them side by side in a holy canon? What on earth were they thinking?

David Trobisch in The First Edition of the New Testament offers an intriguing explanation. His explanation is in fact only one small point in a small volume that raises several major new ways of understanding the evidence for the origins of the New Testament canon. The back cover blurb sums it up:

The First Edition of the New Testament is a groundbreaking book that argues that the New Testament is not the product of a centuries-long process of development. Its history, David Trobisch finds, is the history of a book — an all Greek Christian bible — published as early as the second century C.E. and intended by its editors to be read as a whole. Trobisch claims that this bible achieved wide circulation and formed the basis of all surviving manuscripts of the New Testament. 

In the first part of his book Trobisch argues that certain characteristics of the surviving manuscript trail are best explained if they all originated from a carefully edited collection. That is, from a canonical New Testament very similar to the New Testament with which we are familiar today. The traditional understanding has been that the New Testament canon was a relatively late development and many of the surviving manuscripts originated solo long before the various works were collated into the NT. Trobisch points to features in common across most of these manuscripts that indicate otherwise —

  • English: Folio 115 recto of the codex with the...
    English: Folio 115 recto of the codex with the beginning of the Gospel of John (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    the common use of the nomina sacra,

  • the adaptation for a codex form of publication,
  • the uniform order and number of writings in the manuscript tradition;
  • the common formulation of the titles,
  • and the evidence that the collection was known as the “New Testament” from the beginning.

The second part of his book is another fascinating exploration, this time of the “editorial concept” of the New Testament. Trobisch alerts us to many features many of us who have grown up with the New Testament know all too well but have tended to take for granted. I am thinking of those many little cross-references and “coincidental” positions of the books in relation to one another. The NT is collated like a little code book in some ways. There is just enough information placed strategically to allow us to discern a real historic unity behind all of the books and to see who has written what and what the historical relationship of each of the authors was with one another. (I’m talking about a naive popular reading of the NT.) So towards the end of 2 Peter and 2 Timothy we find Peter and Paul writing in ways that lead us to think all their earlier differences (e.g. in Galatians) were patched over and they ended up as spiritually affectionate brothers. There are enough references here and there to Mark to alert us to identifying the apparent author of the second gospel as the companion of Peter. Similarly Luke is given enough “incidental” references for us to identify him as a beloved physician and companion of Paul and author of Luke-Acts. In a codex form it would have been a thrill to explore back and forth to see how all of the works do relate to one another, how their authors’ histories with one another can be discerned, and above all, how all the various ideas and teachings were really from the one spirit and pointed to real underlying harmony in the church from its beginnings.

As we have seen, Trobisch believes the best explanation for the details of the manuscript evidence is that the New Testament as we know it was collated much earlier than generally thought. He places around the middle/latter half of the second century.

Now we come to our little detail of the contradiction over the date of the crucifixion.

What was the “state of the church” at that time? “Proto-orthodox” Christianity had been battling (and gradually sending into retreat) the Marcionite “heresy” in Asia Minor. There was correspondence between the Roman church and sizeable bishoprics in Asia Minor. And there was a dispute over the correct date to observe Easter/Passover. Its written up in history books as the Quartodeciman controversy. The leading bishop of the churches in Asia Minor travelled to Rome to address some of their differences. Here is the famous summing up of this dispute:

Neither could Anicetus [Bishop of Rome] persuade Polycarp [Bishop of Smyrna] not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it, as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him. [Wikipedia reference: Irenaeus, “Letter to Victor (bishop of Rome), quoted in Eusebius (chapter 24)”, in Schaff, Church History, book V, CCEL]

The Asian churches observed the day on the Passover, the 14th Nisan, and claimed the apostle John as their authority. The Roman churches observed the event on the first Sunday after the full moon of that month. But both bishops were determined not to let this difference of opinion divide the church.


Trobisch writes

Congregations in Asia Minor honored the tradition of the Gospel According to John. They celebrated the day of Jesus’ death parallel to the Jewish Passover on the fourteenth day of the moon, no matter which day of the week this happened to be. Most other churches, however, insisted on the practice of celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord on no other day but Sunday (Eusebius, h.e. 5:23). Accordingly, the death of Jesus was always commemorated on a Friday. Although the two sides repeatedly tried to find a common solution, the church did not succeed in establishing a worldwide uniform date for Easter. Consequently, Christians were not able to observe a common fasting practice during the second century. Each party maintained its custom and tried to live in peace with the other. Irenaeus puts it this way: “The disagreement in the fast confirms our agreement in the faith: (Eusebius, h.e. 5:23.1). The literary solution in the canonical Tetraeuangelion [four gospels] perfectly represents this attitude. Instead of selecting one Gospel and declaring one tradition as authoritative, four Gospels are placed next to each other, forming the canonical Gospel collection. The unity of the gospel (euangelion is based on the diversity of the four (tetra). The New Testament is spirit, not letter. (pp. 105-106, my bolding)

This is consistent with the “catholicizing” theme of the New Testament. The divisions between Peter and Paul that are so stark in Paul’s letter to the Galatians are smoothed over in Acts and some of the later letters purporting to by Peter and Paul (2 Peter and 2 Timothy). Paul and Jerusalem are in harmony in the New Testament writings. Other works (not developed by Trobisch here) have suggested that the “proto-orthodox” even co-opted and repackaged Paul in an effort to steal him from the “heretics” such as the Marcionites. And if Anicetus and Polycarp, Rome and Smyrna (Asia Minor) could live harmoniously with different traditions for Easter then so could a holy canon for all.


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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Why did they put contradictory gospels together in the New Testament?”

  1. I’m glad you’re getting to this book, as it was one of my favourite reads a few years ago.

    One thing I like about Trobisch’s idea (which I can’t remember if he mentions in the book) is that it contains an explanation to the opposite problem. Not “Why are the Gospels contradictory (and yet still together)?” but “Why are they not less contradictory?”

    As in, if the Gospels all survived a long time without being collected, I think they would have grown closer together. Each one would be edited over and over, being “fixed” by scribes with each copying, to bring the “facts” more in line between them.

    If they were collected together, and each scribe could happily find the facts they wanted somewhere in the codex (say, the correct day to celebrate Easter) they would be less likely to then change all the separate copies of individual documents. The collecting of the Gospels into a single edition put a cap on the cross-Gospel “correcting”, solidifying the different versions way earlier than otherwise.

    Now I’ll have to read Trobisch again to see if that was his idea or mine.

    Also check out this article where Trobisch finger’s Polycarp as the phantom editor (a theory I’m actually glad he left out of the book in question): http://www.trobisch.com/david/CV/Publications/20071226%20FreeInquiry%20Who%20Published%20Christian%20Bible%20BW.pdf

    1. I don’t recall that particular point by Trobisch so it may be your extrapolation from his argument. (But then again I know my memory can be a trickster.)

  2. Well I certainly will have to read Trolbisch’s work. Having just finished Ehrman’s Forged, when I read that the books of the New Testament were assembled from the start as a package deal, my mind was raising the red flag, “Interlocking forgeries! Interlocking forgeries!”

    1. Trobisch explains in his Introduction that he deliberately avoids source-critical theories of individual writings. His point is to “focus on the final form of the editio princeps and not on the history of the incorporated writings.”

      Further, “In addition, I do not intend to challenge the current consensus that none of the writings included in the New Testament originated significantly later than 150 C.E.”

      1. Trolbsch: “In addition, I do not intend to challenge the current consensus that none of the writings included in the New Testament originated significantly later than 150 C.E.”

        Well a case may be made that Canonical GLuke and Canonical Acts did not show up on the scene until 170-180 CE or so, because of their preambles addressed to “Most Excellent Theophilus,” who could very well have been Theophilus of Antioch. Now without those preambles, I don’t think I know nearly enough to challenge the post-150 CE consensus.

  3. I’ve been wondering about this recently … why the canon seems so old. After Marcion and up until Athanasius, people would argue about the fine points of what to include in the canon, but my impression is (I am very far from an expert on this matter) that there was almost no debate about the general shape of the canon in that period. So Athanasius could hardly be seen as the innovator of the canon; it’s just that he resolved some of the details.

    I suppose apologists would suppose that this lends some kind of credence to the Bible. However, it seems to me that it doesn’t necessarily change anything fundamentally about how the books of the New Testament were composed originally. They were combined at an early date; but they must have circulated independently (most of them, anyway) at some point, right? Or does Trobisch dispute that?

    The description of the way the books are bound together by strategically placed pieces of information reminds me of Parvus’ arguments about the re-editing of the Peregrinian letters into the Ignatians: someone went to the trouble of editing one of the Polycarp’s letters as an introduction to the Ignatians and crowbarred Polycarp in as a character in the Ignatians.

    I imagine that they were all composed independently between, say 50 CE and 150 CE, and then combined into the canon around the latter date. Or

    1. As I understand Trobisch he is not disputing that (many?) of the books were originally composed as independent works without thought of a canon of related works. But they were collected very early. I think he says around 120 CE.

      At the same time we know that Matthew, Luke and John were not really so independent of Mark. They are clearly written in response to Mark. What the implications of that are for the canon I am not sure. Brodie believes that the letters of Paul were written by a “school”. It is conceivable these were collected very early.

  4. I, too, am glad to see Trobisch’s book getting the Vridar treatment. It’s a provocative book with some bold ideas, something (as we all known only too well) that’s strongly discouraged within theological studies. Provocative ideas lead to doubt, after all, and the stifling of doubt is essential to the survival of theological studies.

    The traditional view has a serious problem: if all of the texts are early (before 150 at the latest, and many authorities would say 130 was the terminus), then why in the world did it take another 200+ years before a canon was agreed upon? Trobisch’s theory suggests a more believable idea: the canon actually *was* decided upon around 150-160. However, it was decided in secret, by one anonymous church elder. Because he chose to remain anonymous, the authority of the canon he had decided upon was vulnerable when other churches began to examine the texts. Thus began the debate over what was “authentic” to the New Testament. Thus, according to Trobisch, the debate was over a received canon, not
    (as conventional scholarship has maintained) over a bunch of individual texts that had not yet been organized into a canon.

    I think he makes a good argument.

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