Is the Bible the “Word of God?”

Gospel Discrepancies Preclude Divine Inspiration

Revised: 2018 Jan 22

Definition: redact

to select or adapt (as by obscuring or removing sensitive information) for publication or release

—Merriam-Webster Dictionary


The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) contain much duplicated material. Sometimes, a passage in one gospel is a word-for-word copy of a passage in one or both of the others. Obviously, at least two of the gospel authors were copying. Most Bible scholars believe that Matthew and Luke were copying passages from Mark. Assuming this is true, we must wonder why Matthew and Luke didn’t simply allow God to inspire them without depending on Mark. Copying implies they didn’t consider themselves inspired. Nor, apparently, did they believe Mark was inspired because they omitted some of his material, added their own, revised his wording and at times, contradicted him. If Matthew and Luke thought Mark’s gospel was inspired, why didn’t they just make faithful copies? Why presume to tamper with text authored by God? Why should any redacting be necessary? If Matthew and Luke saw themselves as scribes having the freedom to revise their sources, we must wonder whether other ancient Christian documents were “copied” under the same philosophy. The following assumes Matthew and Luke did copy from Mark. However, ultimately, whether any copying or editing took place is irrelevant because the errors and irreconcilable contradictions exposed below exist regardless of the method by which they were produced.

Mark misquotes scripture

Memory failure #1

Mark’s attempt at gospel writing gets off to a questionable start. He begins, “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,” but proceeds to quote Malachi (Mark 1:2-3, NRSV throughout). Then, he seamlessly combines Malachi’s prediction with text from Isaiah as though it were all one passage. It’s unlikely he had a copy of Isaiah before him meaning he was writing from memory. However, it appears his memory failed him. The two passages are similar in nature, so his confusion is understandable. However, this is not the way divine inspiration is supposed to work. An ancient copyist tried to conceal the error by replacing “the prophet Isaiah” with “the prophets.” (See the KJV.) However, modern translators reject this rendering. Some Christian apologists dismiss the entire issue by claiming it was a Jewish custom to quote multiple prophets while crediting only one. Your author has never seen any solid evidence of such a practice. According to John Lightfoot, there is no precedent for the case in Mark. Regardless, the argument is weak, especially given it’s clear Matthew and Luke treated the quotation as a mistake. Both authors specified “Isaiah,” not “the prophets,” and omitted the portion from Malachi. (See Matt. 3:3; Luke 3:4.) Moreover, Matthew is all but universally believed to have been a Jew writing to Jews. Surely, his readers would have been aware of the Jewish custom Christian apologists like to refer to. So, why drop the reference to Malachi? It becomes inescapable to the honest inquirer that Matthew, Luke and the ancient copyist considered it a mistake they did not want to perpetuate. It is also abundantly clear modern commentators are well aware of the problem witness their desperate attempt to explain it away.

Memory failure #2

Mark’s memory appears to fail him again in chapter two, and this time, the mistake is contained in a quotation he claims proceeded from the mouth of Jesus: “And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest…’” (Mark 2:25-26). Jesus is referring to an event recorded in 1 Sam. 21:1-6. The problem is, the priest mentioned there is Ahimelech, not Abiathar. Of course, for Christian apologists presupposing divine inspiration, this simply cannot be a mistake. James A. Brooks writes, “Such an explanation is impossible for those who embrace a concept of scriptural inerrancy.[2] Clearly, nothing inconsistent with his baseless presupposition will be considered. Brooks proceeds to offer three alternative explanations, but ultimately, concedes, “No explanation is completely satisfactory.” Then, he moves on to another topic. Filtering the text through the doctrine of divine inspiration leaves Brooks with nothing to say, so he essentially gives up and admits defeat. Notwithstanding such dumbfounded commentators, both Matthew and Luke — the only ones who really matter — clearly deem Mark’s reference to Abiathar an error and turn to their preferred solution — they delete it. They begin by closely following Mark’s wording. However, upon reaching the phrase “when Abiathar was high priest,” they simply skip it and continue on as though it never existed. Matthew and Luke were not the only copyists to censor this embarrassment. Some significant manuscripts of Mark circa 400 CE omit the phrase as well. (See codices Bezae and Washingtonianus.) Scholars today, however, are confident the original document did contain the offending reference and that Matthew, Luke and the later scribes were redacting the text. The average Christian is blissfully unaware of these behind-the-scenes shenanigans. If Mark had been truly inspired by God, he would not have suffered his memory lapse, and all this shocking damage control would have been unnecessary.

Editing the words of Jesus

As we proceed, keep in mind the Bible itself strictly forbids adding or taking away anything from words believed to be inspired by God:

You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you” (Deut. 4:2).

You must diligently observe everything that I command you; do not add to it or take anything from it” (Deut. 12:32).

Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or else he will rebuke you, and you will be found a liar” (Prov. 30:5–6).

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (Rev. 22:18–19).

Obviously, the one presented as God in scripture does not want anyone tampering with his words. However, despite all the stern warnings, Matthew and Luke were sometimes not happy with the “Word of God” as Mark wrote it and presumed to change it. Evidently, they were sometimes troubled by his depiction of Jesus and his disciples. For instance, when a storm came up as they sailed on the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus happened to be sleeping, Mark records the disciples shouting, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). His wording portrays the disciples as rather disrespectful, and Jesus as uncaring. Matthew chooses to neutralize this negative image with “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” (Matt. 8:25). This gets them all off the hook by portraying Jesus as a savior and the disciples as humble. Likewise, Luke changes Mark’s wording to “Master, Master, we are perishing!” (Luke 8:24). It doesn’t end there. Once Jesus had awakened and calmed the storm, Mark claims he asked the disciples, “Have you no faith?” Apparently, inferring the disciples had no faith was too extreme for Matthew and Luke. Matthew softens it to “…you of little faith.” Luke claims Jesus said, “Where is your faith?

In Mark, a rich man calls Jesus “Good Teacher” to which Jesus responds “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:17-18). It appears Matthew believed Jesus would never have said such a thing. Evidently, he thought, “Of course, Jesus is good.” So, Matthew says the rich man referred to Jesus only as “Teacher” and then, as most modern translations agree, he claims Jesus asked, “Why do you ask me about what is good?” (Matt. 19:16-17). This is a very disturbing redaction. Matthew has not just altered the wording, he has totally destroyed the meaning of words supposedly spoken by Jesus himself. Most Christians believe they are reading the actual words of Jesus in the gospels, but clearly, this cannot be true.

According to Mark, Jesus once said, “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark 9:1). Matthew presumes to “enhance” this prediction by inserting the returning Christ. He claims Jesus said, “…before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt. 16:28). Some may suggest Matthew is simply adding clarification. Yes, that’s exactly what he’s doing. That’s the problem. Scripture condemns those who add to the words of God. If Mark was writing under inspiration, why should his wording require clarification? Both versions are presented as direct quotations, but obviously, at least one has to be a corruption. If both Mark and Matthew were being inspired by God, we should expect their quotations to be identical. However, if that were true, we would then have to wonder why God needed to record the statement in the Bible twice. In fact, a third version was recorded by Luke, and neither is he totally content with Mark’s choice of words. He does follow Mark’s wording almost to the letter, but then, like Matthew, he drops “with power” (Luke 9:27). What Matthew and Luke had against the word “power” is something we will likely never know. Nor is it likely we will ever know what Jesus actually said.

In Mark 15:34, Jesus is hanging from the cross crying out “with a loud voice.” He quotes Ps. 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (See also Matt. 27:46.) He appears to be confused, losing faith and perhaps, even impertinent. Obviously, some might be troubled by his question. Evidently, Luke was. The quotation is nowhere to be found in his gospel. Instead, Luke replaces the image of a desperate and doubting Jesus with a far more calm and submissive Savior quoting Ps. 31:5. Jesus uses his last ounce of energy to utter the words “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” just before he “breathed his last” (Luke 23:46). None of the other gospel authors indicate knowing anything about Luke’s alleged quotation. John even contradicts him by claiming the last words of Jesus were “It is finished” as he “gave up his spirit” (John 19:30). Some suggest that combining all these quotations is the way to reconcile the apparent discrepancies. The Holy Spirit, it is argued, inspired each writer to provide a different perspective, and we must splice the various quotations together to produce a complete record of what Jesus said. We must wonder why the Holy Spirit would, at one point, “inspire” word-for-word copying to provide consistency across the gospels, but now require readers to splice together four different perspectives to arrive at the truth. As we have seen, the gospel writers were in the habit of second-guessing Mark’s gospel to the point of producing serious contradictions, and Matthew and Luke, at least, have demonstrated a clear penchant for replacing the words of Jesus when they were not to their liking. So, it should come as no surprise that the four writers offer conflicting accounts in this case. Instead of carving up the gospels to create one palatable quotation, perhaps, we should be asking why these men can’t simply agree on what Jesus said? And, why should the Holy Spirit need to inspire four accounts to record a quotation that appears to amount to no more than one sentence? Why couldn’t just one of the writers have given us the complete quotation so readers desperately wanting to believe in the doctrine of divine inspiration would not be forced to cut and paste words from four sources to create a sentence they can live with?

So, which version of the gospel should we consider accurate and reliable, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John? Given the mistakes, contradictions, cover-ups and outright lies, the only sensible answer is, we can’t trust any of them.

[1] John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, Matthew-1 Corinthians, Matthew-Mark, vol.2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 394.

[2] James A. Brooks, Mark, vol. 23, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991), 66.