Jesus, Contradicted

Why the Gospels Tell the Same Story Differently

Michael R. Licona

“Every reader of the New Testament will gain a valuable, fresh perspective from reading this book.”
—John T. Ramsey

“[An] exemplary and accessible study…”
—Christopher Pelling

“A must read for every curious Christian.”
—Lynn H. Cohick

“I highly recommend this well-written book.”
—Craig A. Evans

Hardcover · 288 pages · Available May 28, 2024

How the genre of ancient biography explains contradictions, discrepancies, and differences in the Gospels

"It depends on which Gospel you read. . ."

Assaults on the reliability of the Gospels have often used this line of attack. Did Simon of Cyrene carry Jesus's cross, or did Jesus carry it all the way? Did both crucified thieves curse Jesus, or did one repent? How many women went to the tomb on Sunday morning? To many questions like this, it depends on which Gospel you read.

In Jesus, Contradicted, New Testament scholar Michael Licona tackles the discrepancies in the Gospels head-on—showing why such differences are not a threat to their credibility and how to read them in their proper context.

This book situates the Gospels within their proper literary and cultural context and helps readers account for differences in a cohesive and historically coherent way. Licona will help you understand why the Gospels report many events differently, introducing you to the genre of ancient biography and the accepted literary techniques of the day.

At the same time, he makes a compelling case against strained efforts to resolve all the Gospels’ contradictions, arguing that this tactic has only damaged Christian credibility.

Ultimately, Licona addresses the question of whether the techniques of ancient biography are at all compatible with the doctrines of the divine inspiration and the inerrancy of Scripture, pointing us to a hermeneutics that is more respectful of the biblical text.

Table of Contents

  1. The Quest for a Better Answer
  2. Normal Variation in Reporting and the Use of Sources
  3. Who Wrote First?
  4. The Gospels as Biography
  5. Truth-Telling in Ancient Biography
  6. Compositional Textbooks
  7. Plutarch and More Compositional Devices
  8. Transferal
  9. Displacement
  10. The Outer Limits of Compositional Devices
  11. Fine-Tuning Our Doctrine of Scripture: Inspiration
  12. Fine-Tuning Our Doctrine of Scripture: Inerrancy
  13. Final Thoughts

A note from the author

How this book will help you understand the Gospels

The Gospels report what Jesus said and did, often in a manner that has some of the minor details appearing to be at odds with one another. Even ancient church leaders acknowledged this. However, the way they explained the differences differed. And this has been the case from antiquity to the present day. Attempts to harmonize differing accounts is a popular approach, but it can sometimes go too far. I am proposing another approach in this book that can shed light on why there are differences in the Gospels.

When we observe how the Gospels tell the same story, there are differences. But why are they there, and what do they mean for Bible readers? The purpose of this book is to answer these questions! And you will reap three key rewards from reading it:

  1. You will obtain a fresh confidence in the reliability of the Gospels.
  2. You will discover new insights in Scripture, both theological and historical.
  3. You will develop a refined view of the nature of Scripture.

Praise for Jesus, Contradicted

"This book provides a detailed investigation of how literary works were composed in antiquity. By comparing the Evangelists to other writers in history, Licona encourages his readers to widen their understanding and adopt a new, more nuanced approach to reading the Gospels that takes into account ancient compositional practices when investigating the concept of scriptural authority and inerrancy. Licona takes this challenging topic and makes it accessible, offering in-text definitions, summaries, and “questions for further thought” for each chapter. For those who want an informed and approachable discussion of variations in the Gospels from a faith perspective, this book is for you."
—Sean A. Adams, professor of New Testament and ancient culture, University of Glasgow

"While we disagree over the nature of Scripture, Licona and I concur 100 percent on the importance of comparing like with like. And carefully comparing the canonical gospels with Greco-Roman biographies, which they resemble in so many important ways, generates a plethora of insights. At every turn readers will experience new and improved ideas supplanting old and inferior ones."
—Dale C. Allison Jr., Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament Studies, Princeton Theological Seminary

"In this lucid and readable book addressing the similarities and differences between the Gospels, Michael Licona solves most of these biblical riddles by explaining how the Gospels were written and how they also are related to each other. When viewed in the genre of contemporary Greco-Roman biography, distinctive features are seen to be rooted in the particulars of historical memory, theological interests of the Evangelists, and the audiences for which they were writing. In explaining how and why the Gospels were written, their authority comes through for believers and skeptics alike."
—Paul N. Anderson, author of From Crisis to Christ, The Christology of the Fourth Gospel, The Fourth Gospel and the Quest for Jesus, The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel, and Following Jesus

"Michael Licona is a preeminent Christian apologist who shows us not merely that the Gospels are true but how they are true! Sceptics like to point out alleged contradictions and discrepancies among the Gospels. Licona points out that the Gospels are intended to be history, but history as the ancients understood it, which gave the storyteller a great deal of room for narrative variability and literary vision. This book will help readers make sense of how the Gospels combine fact and faith, history and hermeneutics, authenticity and artistry."
—Michael F. Bird, deputy principal, Ridley College Melbourne, Australia

"Licona takes up hard questions about differences in the Gospels’ stories and offers comprehensive answers based on extensive research and a commitment to the authority and trustworthiness of the Bible. In easy-to-understand prose, Licona lays out cogent, compelling arguments for reading the Gospels through the lens of first-century biographies. Jesus, Contradicted is a must read for every curious Christian."
—Lynn H. Cohick, distinguished professor of New Testament, director, Houston Theological Seminary, Houston Christian University

"Jesus, Contradicted will be a huge help for people who take the New Testament Gospels seriously but wonder why there are differences when two or more Gospels tell the same story or report the same sayings of Jesus. Michael Licona solves the problem by showing that writers of history in antiquity went about their task with very different assumptions and goals. Readers will find that the New Testament Gospels are reliable after all. I highly recommend this well written book."
—Craig A. Evans, John Bisagno Distinguished Professor of Christian Origins, Houston Christian University

"We need to respect the shape of the Scripture God has given us over our preconceived, humanly shaped ideas of what that should look like. Licona effectively makes the case that Gospel differences do not undermine Scripture’s authority and invites us to respect Scripture enough to let its own approach guide how we define that authority. The differences between ancient and modern biographies go a long way toward explaining many of the differences we find in our Gospels, and we approach the Gospels to our peril if we insist on conforming them to standards of a genre that did not yet exist. Patiently unfolding his argument in the clearest possible manner, Licona offers a methodologically informed work suitable not only for fellow scholars and preachers but even for undergraduates or ordinary readers."
—Craig S. Keener, F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies, Asbury Theological Seminary

"I believe the Bible is true. What the word true means must be determined by what the Bible says and what the Bible says about itself. There is no better way to determine what the Bible says than by reading it over and over, carefully and with precision. When it comes to the Gospels, which is a specialty for Michael Licona, it means underlining a synopsis of the Gospels because only by doing so does one experience the particular realities of the Gospels themselves. Underlining the Gospels can shatter expectations and disrupt one’s confirmation biases. Instead, underlining permits us to understand the truth God wants us to know. Michael Licona’s fresh approach to the nature of Scripture as revealed in the Gospels is nothing less than a godsend for those of us who specialize in the Gospels. The book clearly combines reverence for the text of Scripture and a fearless willingness to describe what is actually there."
—Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament

"Mike Licona spent twelve weeks with a group of executives from the front office of the Atlanta Braves, walking us through the contents of this book. Our group absolutely loved learning from Mike as he explained a fresh approach for understanding and even embracing the differences in the Gospels. I am elated to endorse Jesus, Contradicted because I believe your faith will be strengthened as you read it and that you will gain a new appreciation for the reliability of God’s Word."
—Jay McSwain, chaplain, Atlanta Braves

"We talk of 'gospel truth,' and yet the Gospels themselves do not always agree. How can that be if they are all divinely inspired? In an earlier book Michael Licona explored these contradictions in the light of techniques used by Greek and Latin authors and found the striking feature to be the Gospels’ consistency rather than their differences. Now he faces that question of inspiration head-on and in this exemplary and accessible study argues that inspiration can take different forms and allow for a large amount of human agency. Christians can still believe that the Gospels reveal a single harmonious truth and that it comes from God."
—Christopher Pelling, emeritus regius professor of Greek, Christ Church, Oxford

"Context is king for the evaluation of historical evidence, and what body of evidence has greater potential relevance to our relationship with God than the Gospels? In this book, New Testament scholar Michael R. Licona makes accessible the context required to take the proper measure of the various apparent contradictions in the overlapping biblical accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. Every reader of the New Testament will gain a valuable, fresh perspective from reading this book."
—John T. Ramsey, professor of classics emeritus, University of Illinois at Chicago

"In this important work, Licona expands upon his earlier work on Gospel differences by drawing out its implications with reference to the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. While most evangelical statements on inerrancy make sweeping assertions based on what they want Scripture to be, Licona calls for a definition based on the actual phenomenon of Scripture and the nature of the Gospels as Greco-Roman biographies. This groundbreaking volume deserves careful consideration in the ongoing discussions on the nature and significance of biblical authority."
—Mark L. Strauss, university professor of New Testament, Bethel Seminary of Bethel University, vice-chair, NIV Committee on Bible Translation