Contradictions and inconsistencies: do they really matter?

More important is the meaning of the stories for today!

Matthew 21: 1 - 11 

The Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem

The Bible was not written on tablets of stone or special Bible paper so that once written it became unchallengeable and unchangeable. The Bible is a living record of the human struggle to try to understand what the Spirit was saying and doing in the events and experiences of the writers.

The Bible remains a living source for our human struggle for justice and to help us understand what the Spirit is saying and doing in the events and experiences of each one of us, the present day readers.

The Bible is not a dead text to be put on a library shelf, but it is a living experience to be read, discussed, challenged and argued over.

The Bible is the most exciting book that I have ever read. The more we struggle to hear what the Spirit is saying to us today through the living words of living Scripture, then the more we will see God in ourselves and in others.

Although the Palm Sunday story appears in all 4 of the Gospels the different accounts are just that: different and there are contradictions between them as to what really happened on that Palm Sunday. Please show me if I am wrong but things may not quite be how we may think they were on that Palm Sunday!

It is important to remind ourselves that none of the Gospels were written as accurate history. They were explaining as best they could both the oral memories and the specific sacred experiences of the writers with what they believed to be the on-going presence of Jesus who had been executed three decades before Mark, as the first Gospel in our canon, was written.

It is also important for us to know something of the geography of the area at the time of Jesus. Bethany was a small village on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives about 2 kms from Jerusalem. The meaning of the name 'Bethany' is also significant in the analysis of the writings concerning the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. 'Bethany' means the "place of unripe figs" and according to both Mark 11:11-14 and Matthew 21:17-19 it was in Bethany that Jesus cursed the fig tree. Bethany was also the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Bethphage was also a small village in the foothills of the Mount of Olives, mid-way between Bethany and Jerusalem.

Mark 11:1-11 has the Jesus entourage approaching Jerusalem and when they came to Bethphage Jesus said to two of his disciples, 'Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, "Why are you doing this?" just say this, "The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately."

Notice how Matthew 21:1-13 has a similar beginning to this part of the journey towards Jerusalem but Bethany is not mentioned and the comments about the animals and their owner are different to those that appear in Mark's earlier account.

Luke 19:28-46 follows Mark's beginning although Jesus makes no promise to return the animal to its owner at some later time. However, John's Gospel has no mention of the story of the disciples going ahead and finding the donkey.

John only says "Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it." [John 12:14]

There are further discrepancies in the events surrounding the disciples taking the animal or animals. In Mark's account the disciples found the aforementioned colt tied at a doorway on the street.

As they untied it Mark records that it was some people standing nearby who challenged them as to why they were taking the colt. Luke's account has the owners asking why they were taking the colt, but both Matthew and John ignore the actual taking of the animal or animals.

In Mark, Matthew and Luke, the disciples threw their cloaks over the colt and Jesus then sat on it.

As they went on their one kilometre journey towards Jerusalem Mark records there having been many people who spread their cloaks on the road [in what we would now call a 'red' carpet to welcome a dignitary] while others spread branches they had cut in the surrounding fields.

Matthew has similar detail but says that it was a very large crowd. In John's Gospel the incident with the palms did not involve the disciples who were travelling with Jesus but it was the action of people living in Jerusalem who went out to greet Jesus as he approached and they carried the palms with them. Luke has no mention of palms whatsoever.

It is in the shouts of adoration and welcome that there is almost complete agreement between the four Gospel writers. Mark has the crowd shouting, 'Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!'

In Matthew it is,'Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!'

Luke has the crowd shouting,'Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!'

John's version is, 'Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord - the King of Israel!'

But what happens next is where further major differences exist. In Mark, Jesus went into the Jerusalem Temple, looked around but as it was late in the day he took his twelve disciples with him back to Bethany. I wonder what happened to the rest of his entourage, or was a group of twelve men and accompanying women considered to be a large crowd?

Matthew says that Jesus stirred the interest so that the people asked, "Who is this?" and the entourage [the crowd] replied that it was Jesus the prophet who had come to them from Nazareth in Galilee - and do not miss the point that Galilee was the hot bed of rebellion against the brutality of Roman Imperial occupation! Many of the people in Jerusalem may have been expecting a war lord.

Jesus then went into the Temple area and overturned the tables of the money changers and of those who were selling sacrificial doves. Jesus then chased buyers and sellers out of the Temple area. John's Gospel however reports that the crowd was made up of those people who had been present when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.

Because these people were spreading the word, many went out from Jerusalem to meet Jesus just outside the city wall. This frightened the Pharisees so much that they agreed that something had to be done to stop Jesus, his message and his work because "the whole world has gone after him!"

But where are the turning of the tables and the cleansing of the Temple in John's Gospel? They are there but not at the end of the life of Jesus - this happened right at the beginning [John 2:12-16] of his ministry.

And they can't all be historically correct accounts, can they?

However, in his usual way, Luke was not content with the bare bones of the story but added other stories from the experiences of his community. When the Pharisees in the crowd witnessed what the coat layers were doing they said to Jesus, 'Teacher, order your disciples to stop.' He answered, 'I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.'

Luke also adds something concerning the love and compassion that Jesus had for Jerusalem and all that it represented in the history and hopes of Judaism. Jesus wept over it.

Luke then, with the glorious benefit of hindsight, offered a prophetic word from Jesus, "The days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.'

Luke was looking back at the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the defeat at Masada and the desolation caused to the people in the six year Jewish war against Rome that ended in 73CE.

Luke went further and added another reference to prophecy: Jesus went into the Temple and began to drive out all who were selling because, "It is written, "My house shall be a house of prayer"; but you have made it a den of robbers.' This is a double reference: the first to Second Isaiah 56:7 where Isaiah was looking forward to the Temple being a place of celebration and worship for all nations in which sacrifices and offerings would always be welcomed by God.

But Luke then made the second reference to Jeremiah 7:11 and attacked the Temple Judaism at the time of Jesus because it had turned the Temple into a place where the poor were overcharged by those who exchange Roman coins for Temple coins, and by those who sold the sacrificial birds and animals.

It is a disservice to the Jesus story if we simply ignore these differences and contradictions that are plainly there in the so-called infallible scriptures. However, within and beyond the differences and contradictions of history there is something else at work: the core of the story [entering Jerusalem and cleansing the Temple] was adapted and developed for a major purpose - a Midrash to fulfill ancient prophecy to give hope of a new golden age to a defeated and oppressed people.

Matthew 21:4 says that the incident with the colt was to fulfill the words of the prophet Zechariah [9:9] that the whole of Jerusalem would celebrate and shout as its king arrived in humility, "mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey."

John's Gospel quotes the same Zechariah text, "as it is written, "Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!"

John then added that the disciples of Jesus did not understand the importance of the prophecies until after he had been glorified. But to link this Zechariah statement about the king and the donkey to the Palm Sunday story was to take it out of the context of its writing and to apply it inaccurately to Jesus.

The prophecy itself in Zechariah was written immediately after the return of the exiles from Babylon, some 500 plus years before Jesus. The context of writing was that of a warrior king coming to save God's people. This was the time when the Babylonian conqueror of Judah, back in 597 BCE, was itself defeated in battle in 539 by Cyrus, King of the new rising power of Persia.

The Babylonians did not have a change of heart and suddenly decide to release their captives. It was Cyrus who allowed the Jews to leave their exile in Babylon and to return to Jerusalem, to rebuild both the city and the Temple. On the one hand Zechariah's warrior king brought peace through the way of Empire - through the victory of war, and then he committed himself and his people to war again against the Greeks.

So here are two crunch questions: are these obvious inconsistencies and contradictions in the Palm Sunday stories any reason to disturb the comforting pictures that we have of Jesus and Palm Sunday? And does it really matter?

Well, if our faith depends upon a literal interpretation of Scripture and upon the need for historical accuracy without inconsistencies and contradictions in the stories, then this matters a great deal.

But if we approach the Bible, not as a text book that has to be followed but rather written as a guide book to be interpreted within the context of both its writing and of our reading and then applied to how we live, then historical accuracy of the text is not that important.

As I always say, we have to go back as best we can to the context of the writing and then draw out the truth that can be applied to us today. Therefore, the real question that should be asked concerning the Palm Sunday stories is not "How can we reconcile the historic discrepancies and contradictions of this incident between the Gospel stories?" but more, "What was each Gospel writer trying to convey of this incident from within their on going experience of the presence of the Jesus Spirit, and even more importantly, what might it mean for each one of us today?"

What matters is that we struggle with the Scriptures with an open and questioning mind, seeking to hear what the Spirit is saying to us in this day and age. I suggest that we need to struggle with this story of Palm Sunday so that it becomes more than a remembrance and a celebration of an interpreted historic event: it becomes the Living Water of the Spirit that will speak to each one of us afresh and will refresh us for the challenges of faith that are still to come.

"When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, 'Who is this?' The crowds answered, 'This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.'"

My passion is that we find a new experience and a new expression of Jesus that will again stir the whole city so that people will ask you and me, "Who is this Jesus?"

And if any should ask that question this Eastertide, how will you or I describe our own personal rather than creedal interpretation of the Easter stories?

Copyright ©: 2014, Rev John Churcher. All rights reserved. Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Anglicised ®, Copyright © 1989 American Bible Society. All rights reserved.