A Historian’s Explanation for Bible Contradictions

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by Neil Godfrey

David Fitzgerald has been reading through Matthew Ferguson’s post on the Κέλσος [=Celsus] blog and has singled out this one from 2013:

Bible Contradictions: Why Are They There? What Do They Entail?

It is a refreshing read for anyone who has become mired in the sorts of apologetic nonsense too many believers who like to call themselves “historians” write. Here is a sample from his post:

The biographer Suetonius Tranquillus (Vit. 17.2) records the following [about the death of emperor Vitellius]:

“At last on the Stairs of Wailing he was tortured for a long time and then despatched and dragged off with a hook to the Tiber.”

However, the historian Cassius Dio (64.21.2-22.1) writes:

“At that the soldiers became enraged and led him to the Stairway, where they struck him down. Then they cut off his head and carried it about all over the city. His wife later saw to his burial.”

Wait! What happened to Vitellius’ body? Was his body thrown into the Tiber like a condemned criminal or did his wife have the opportunity to bury his body? 

[My own bolding follows]

This was the subject of a graduate paper that I wrote during my Classics M.A. program at the University of Arizona. The two sources clearly contradict each other. Why is this and what does it entail?

Contradictions are not odd in ancient history. Different writers have different sources, opinions, versions of the event that they favor, and they will often report two different things. In the paper I did not begin by twisting myself in pretzels attempting to harmonize this contradiction. Nevertheless, there are many ways that I could have: “Perhaps Vitellius’ wife later found the body floating down the Tiber, got it to shore, and then buried it!” “Perhaps the soldiers merely dragged it to the shore of the Tiber, but despite all ordinary practice and effort, did not throw it in!” “Perhaps she only buried the head, which in Dio’s version was carried around the city, but the body was still thrown in just as in Suetonius!”

Notice how neither author says any of these things. Suetonius says nothing about a burial. Dio says nothing about the Tiber. They both provide two versions of the event, where if I were only reading one, I would have none of the impressions given by the other. In order to harmonize the contradiction, I would have to in fact invent a third, super version of the event, which would make the event unlike what either author had written.

That approach, however, would be a highly amateur way to approach ancient history. The only reason that I would undergo such ridiculous rationalization is if I had some presupposition that Suetonius and Dio can never disagree with or contradict one another. 

I’m looking forward to taking time to look through more of Matthew’s posts. Looks like his blog should be compulsory reading for a good number of bible scholars who unfortunately think they are “historians” following normative historical methods.





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6 thoughts on “A Historian’s Explanation for Bible Contradictions”

  1. Unfortunately, Matthew makes a major error of his own by implicitly accepting the assumption that “the Bible,” any part of it, was written as history. The Bible is literature, yes, but what is the intrinsic basis for classifying it as a member of the genre of history or, more precisely, “ancient history?” Minimalists like Thompson and Lemche have done a good job in establishing that the Old Testament was not written as history, and there’s no reason to assume the historical-seeming books of the New Testament are any more “ancient history” than the historical-seeming books of the Old Testament.

    Indeed, assuming that the Gospels were written as history precludes even considering the possibility that the apparent contradictions between the various books of the Gospels were intentional and have nothing to do with the authors relying on different sources. In the “Primary History” of the Old Testament, you have several “contradictions” (usually called “doublets” or “double narratives”), and Old Testament scholars have assumed that this implies different narratives based on different oral traditions because they, too, are viewing the Old Testament as “history,” which is very much in doubt. Indeed, doublets and other “contradictions” led in large part to the Documentary Hypothesis. But there are simpler explanations for the apparent contradictions. Perhaps the simplest alternative explanation is that the contradictions existed to help identify illiterate listeners with good memories and inquistiveness, indicating somebody who might be worthy of training to be a scribe. (These books were written to be read aloud to the 95% of the population who could not read themselves. Was “ancient history” written to be read aloud to the illiterate masses, or strictly for consumption by the literate elite? Our understanding of ancient literature is based primarily on the retrojection of our understanding of modern literature.)

    1. 4 A collapsing paradigm: the Bible as history

      It is here that modern understandings of the Bible have come to grief. The voice of the tradition, only implicit in our text, has been lost to us in our efforts to make it our own. It is this voice that the present book hopes to recapture – an interesting, powerful voice. It animates the stories and songs of the past. It plays the narrator, transcending millennia, and it assumes the role of God for old Israel. Yet – and this the reader is never allowed to forget – this old Israel is lost. This voice of memory remembers a shattered past and a God forgotten. That alone makes it interesting. The voice we listen to as we read the Bible, and especially the voice that animates those first twelve books that define the origin and destiny of Israel’s twelve tribes, opening with the creation of humanity in the image and likeness of God, and ending with the destruction of a God-forsaken Israel – this is not a voice that belongs to the past of any people. The Bible does not present us with a national literature or the book of a people. Genesis begins and remains `the book of the development of humanity’ (Gen. 5: 1). Abraham is a father of many nations. The story never abandons that universalist perspective. Beginning with a God that created a world that was good … as he saw it to be good, Genesis closes with this same understanding. This is the God of Joseph. What Joseph’s brothers saw and did was evil, at least evil in so far as men can understand such things. `God meant it, however, as good, to bring it about that many should have life, as they do this day (Gen. 49: 20).’ The way of Joseph’s brothers is the way of the world. It sees what is good or evil only from within its own, human, perspective. Good and evil, however, are as God sees them. Such a deity is not merely Israel’s God, but the universal God of heaven. As the story continues into Exodus, and into the long story of Israel lost, its voice does not change. The story that recreates the past of old Israel is ever a paradigm of the way of mankind. It is the tower of Babel story in greater detail. Its voice holds to the universalist perspective, with an edge of self-identifying criticism. They were gods with clay feet, fallen angels.

      We have in the Bible some of the most beautiful poetry: pious, lyrical and erotic, and also some of the angriest. We have narratives of epic proportions, aetiologies and folktales that are at times stunningly profound and evocative, romances and adventure stories, some of them are ideologically tendentious or moralistic. There is patent racism and sexism, and some of the world’s earliest condemnations of each. One of the things the Bible almost never is, however, is intentionally historical: that is an interest of ours that it rarely shares. Here and there, the Bible uses data gleaned from ancient texts or records. It often refers to great figures and events of the past … at least as they are known to popular tradition. But it cites such `historical facts’ only where they may serve as grist for one of its various literary mills. The Bible knows nothing or nearly nothing of most of the great, transforming events of Palestine’s history. Of historical causes, it knows only one: Palestine’s ancient deity Yahweh. It knows nearly nothing of the great droughts that changed the course of Palestine’s world for centuries, and it is equally ignorant of the region’s great historical battles at Megiddo, Kadesh and Lachish. The Bible tells us nothing directly of four hundred years of Egyptian presence. Nor can it take on the role of teaching us anything about the wasteful competition for the Jezreel in the early Iron Age, or about the forced sedentarization of nomads along Palestine’s southern flank.

      The reason for this is simple. The Bible’s language is not an historical language. It is a language of high literature, of story, of sermon and of song. It is a tool of philosophy and moral instruction. To argue that the Bible has it wrong is like alleging that Herman Melville has got his whale wrong! Literarily, one might quibble about whether Jonah has it right with his big fish, but not because the story could or could not have happened. On the story’s own terms, the rescue of Jonah is but a journeyman’s device as far as plot resolutions go. But no false note is sounded in Jonah’s fig tree, in Yahweh’s speech from the whirlwind in the Book of Job, or in Isaiah 40’s song of comfort.”

      Thomas L. Thompson, The Mythic Past, p. 98-99.

    2. Hey Scot,

      I am not sure how you came to the impression that I am saying the books of the Bible were written as history. In fact, I have previously emphasized that this is not the case, and have outlined before many of the differences between texts like the Gospels and ancient historiography:


      The main point I was making in this article is that there are discrepancies between Pagan texts that are recognized as genuine contradictions among Classicists. I therefore do not think that it is methodologically inconsistent for NT scholars to recognize contradictions in Christian and biblical texts.

      “Indeed, assuming that the Gospels were written as history precludes even considering the possibility that the apparent contradictions between the various books of the Gospels were intentional and have nothing to do with the authors relying on different sources.”

      I was actually making the point in this article that many of the contradictions in the Gospels *do* result from intentional alterations. The fact that the Synoptic Gospels are so interdependent in their source material suggests that their differences are not accidental errors. Instead, I think that redaction criticism can explain the differences between the Gospels far better.

      Hence, I discussed at the end of the article Bart Ehrman’s interpretation of the contradictions in the Passion narratives between Mark, Luke, and John. I agree with Ehrman that the reasons these contradictions exist is because the authors of these different texts probably wanted to depict Jesus differently during his crucifixion. Hence, I consider these to be intentional contradictions.

  2. There are no real discrepancies here: the word “despatched” is a misleading translation; the Latin verb can also mean “slaughtered”, “chopped up”, “cut up”, i.e. it’s quite acceptable for a decapitation. Both mention the torture (Dio in the preceding paragraph), both mention the staircase. If the corpses of tyrants were thrown into the Tiber, which did happen, they were dragged through the city streets, and if one’s been decapitated you also need to parade the severed head, which is what Dio chose to mention, probably because not all of his readers would have recognized the symbolic nature of dragging a corpse through the streets to the river. And the “burial” could have been a standard Roman funus imaginarium, if the body had really vanished. (Moreover, the Greek verb can also stand for funeral rites in general, not an actual burial of an actual body.) It’s not very hard to deal with these two passages, if you’re a decent historian, which this guy doesn’t seem to be: “The two sources clearly contradict each other”? Hardly. The only discrepancy is that Suetonius has him tortured on the stairway, while Dio has him tortured close by.

      1. “It’s not very hard to deal with these two passages, if you’re a decent historian, which this guy doesn’t seem to be…”

        Decent historian David Shotter (Suetonius: Galba, Otho, & Vitellius, pg. 190):

        “Dio (LXV. 21, 2) says that Vitellius was beheaded at the Steps; his head was carried around by his murderers, whilst his wife gained custody of the body and gave it a proper burial – hardly possible if Suetonius’ version is correct.”

        Obviously, I am not the first Classicist to make this observation about Suetonius’ and Dio’s different accounts of Vitellius’ death.

        “There are no real discrepancies here: the word “despatched” is a misleading translation; the Latin verb can also mean “slaughtered”, “chopped up”, “cut up”, i.e. it’s quite acceptable for a decapitation.”

        minutissimis ictibus excarnificatus atque confectus (“slashed with the smallest cuts and despatched”) could hypothetically entail decapitation, but there is no reason to suggest that Suetonius means this without conflating Dio’s account. Suetonius elsewhere in his biographies tends to specify when the emperors are decapitated (cf. Gal. 20.2).

        It is also worth noting that Suetonius discusses the burial of every other emperor besides Vitellius in his biographies. The emphasis on dragging his body to the Tiber, in fact, emphasizes that there was no burial. I contrast the lack of burial in Suetonius’ Vitellius with the burials of all of the other emperors in Suetonius’ biographies in this academic paper:


        Likewise, a major theme in Suetonius’ Vitellius is Vitellius disrespect for the dead (Vit. 10.3), which provides a thematic reason why Suetonius would want to emphasize an account that denied Vitellius burial.

        “And the “burial” could have been a standard Roman funus imaginarium, if the body had really vanished. (Moreover, the Greek verb can also stand for funeral rites in general, not an actual burial of an actual body.)”

        Funny enough, I actually discussed this very issue with professor Thomas Scanlon (UC Riverside) a couple years ago. We both concluded that this was not the best interpretation of the passage.

        ἔθαψε could mean “she performed funeral rites in the absence of possessing the corpse,” but there is absolutely nothing in Dio’s account that would suggest this was the case. The standard meaning of the verb is to bury. For example, Dio describes Otho’s burial using the exact same verb (64.15).

        The only reason to suppose that Dio does not mean the literal burial of the body is if one conflates Suetonius’ account. However, why do so? Especially when Suetonius goes unusually out of his way to deny Vitellius burial.

        The most I can say for your interpretation is that it is “plausible.” However, I consider it to be a rather strained reading of the texts. I have, however, changed the wording in the article to read “very likely a contradict,” out of consideration of your comment.

        Likewise, you should acknowledge that this is at least potentially a contradiction. I do not think you can exclude the possibility that these authors may very well disagree with each other about the fate of Vitellius’ body.

        Furthermore, this is hardly the only contradiction between two Pagan authors in antiquity. Even ancient historians acknowledged contradictions between their sources (cf. Suet. Calig. 8). There are plenty others, and the most that your criticism would effect is that I would need to give some other examples of contradictions that are even more explicit and less plausibly reconciled.

        The greater point of the article is that Classicists recognize that there can be contradictions between Pagan authors. It is thus perfectly methodologically consistent for New Testament historians to recognize contradictions in the Gospels and other biblical texts. Even Christian scholars like James McGrath acknowledge such contradictions.

        Thus, when inerrantists are overly stubborn or speculative in insisting on interpretations of biblical texts, no matter how strained, that reconcile apparent contradictions, they are engaging in a case of special pleading. We recognize such contradictions in Pagan texts. It is thus perfectly plausible that there are also similar contradictions in Christian texts.


        Matthew Ferguson

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