CONTRADICTIONS IN THE GOSPEL BOOKS? LESSONS FROM THE WORLD JUNIOR HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIPS

 ©2015, by John Tors.  All Rights Reserved.

There are a number of events in the ministry of Jesus that are documented by more than one Gospel author.  Events that are documented by two authors (Matthew and Mark, Matthew and Luke, or Mark and Luke) are called the “double tradition.”  Events that are described by three Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are called the “triple tradition.”1

One of the ways in which liberal skeptics attack the historical reliability of the Gospel books is to point out that there are differences in the double and triple tradition.  Matthew’s description of an event may differ from Mark’s description of an event, and the differences are so great, say the skeptics, that they cannot be reconciled, which shows that these books cannot be historically reliable.

This charge, however, presupposes that different witnesses to an event must give identical, or nearly identical, descriptions of that event.  An interesting real-life opportunity to assess that presupposition presented itself at the recently concluded World Junior Hockey Championships.  During a press conference following Russia’s semi-final win over Sweden, Russian defenceman Rinat Valiev spoke to the media.2  Below are reports of that event as they were published in four different media sources.

The Globe and Mail3

“We know everyone would cheer against us,” said 19-year-old forward Ivan Barbashev after Russia’s upset victory over Sweden in the semis.  “It’s pretty normal here for Canadians.  Probably they hate Russians.”

Are you scared of Canada?

“Of course not,” said defenceman Rinat Valiev, giggling.  Ahead of the second semi, he shrugged off questions about the likely final: “It’s going to be the top game.  Against Canada … (small pause for effect) … or Slovakia.”

As he said it, he looked over at Mr. Barbashev and smirked.

The National Post4

The Russians, meanwhile, didn’t sound all that worried about their chances in the final.  Defenceman Rinat Valiev was asked if he was scared of a match up against the Canadians in the gold-medal game.

“Course not,” he responded, smiling.

“It’s an excited feeling, you know,” he said in somewhat halting English.  “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life, so I’m pretty excited.”

The Toronto Sun5

Rinat Valiev barely could contain his excitement.

The Russian defenceman, a Maple Leafs prospect, is going to the gold medal game at the world junior hockey championship.

“Best experience of my life,” said Valiev after Russia dispatched Sweden 4-1 Sunday in the semifinals.  “I’ve been waiting for this all my life.  I’m pretty excited.” 

The London Free Press6

Rinat Valiev, the Leafs third-rounder who was largely overshadowed in Toronto’s William Nylander love-fest, smartly busted up a threatening Swedish 2-on-1 late in the second.

“I was waiting for this all my life,” the Kootenay Ice (OHL) defender said. “We’re playing fine right now. We play like one team. That’s the biggest thing for us – trying to play physical and support each other.”

The Swedes crumbled when it counted. They have been among the final four teams at this event nine straight years, but have only won it all once in that time.

The Russians, who haven’t made a ton of friends here, are proving hard to write off. All they know is keep those boos coming.

“Everybody’s going to cheer against us,” Barbashev said, “but it’s pretty normal here for Canadians. They probably hate Russia.”

But you can’t help admire that they’re still standing.

Bear in mind that these are all descriptions of the same event by eyewitnesses; there is no possible doubt but that they are of a real, historical event.  Now, let us take a look at differences and apparent contradictions in these four accounts.

  1. The first thing to note is that there are only two facts that are in all four accounts: the name “Rinat Valiev” and that Valiev is a defencemen.  (Instead of “defenceman,” LFP7 uses the synonym “defender.”)
  2. NP and TS speak only of Valiev, but GM and LFP both mention another Russian, Ivan Barbashev.  Of course, no one would suggest that there is a contradiction between NP and TS mentioning only one man while GM and LFP mention two.  No one would suggest that by mentioning only one man NP and TS are affirming that only one man was present, and that this therefore contradicts GM and LFP.
  3. The question to Valiev about whether he was afraid to face Canada was a direct question in GM but was part of a statement in NP.
  4. Consider the ipsissima verba of Valiev, as recorded by the four sources:
    • -GM “Of course not.”  “It’s going to be the top game.  Against Canada…or Slovakia.”
    • -NP: Course not.” “It’s an excited feeling, you know.” “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life, so I’m pretty excited.
    • -TS: “Best experience of my life.”  “I’ve been waiting for this all my life.  I’m pretty excited.
    • -LFP: “I was waiting for this all my life.” “We’re playing fine right now.  We play like one team.  That’s the biggest thing for us – trying to play physical and support each other.”

    First, we notice that there is no “quadruple tradition” here.  No statement of Valiev’s is recorded by all of the sources.

    There is one element of “triple tradition” (in red, above): “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.”  This is found in NP, TS, and LFP – yet it is not completely the same anywhere.  NP and TS have the verb in the present perfect (“I’ve been waiting”) whereas LFP has it in the imperfect (“I was waiting”).  Meanwhile, TS and LFP agree that Valiev said “all my life,” whereas NP has “my whole life.”  The meaning is the same, however.

    There are two elements of “double tradition.”  The first (in blue, above) is Valiev’s answer to the question about whether he is scared to face Canada; it is recorded in both GM and NP.  GM has “Of course not,” whereas NP has simply “Course not.”  This cannot be considered a contradiction, however, as one cannot say “Of course not” without saying “Course not.”  One writer left off the “of,” but that is not a contradiction or an error.

    The second element of “double tradition” (in green, above) is “I’m pretty excited,” found in NP and TS.  Unlike TS, NP includes the conjunction “so,” connecting this statement to “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.”  TS has the same order, though the “so” is missing.  As before, however, this cannot be considered a contradiction or an error, as one cannot say “so I’m pretty excited” without saying “I’m pretty excited.”

    Finally, each source includes statements of Valiev’s that are unique to that source. GP is the only source that includes “It’s going to be the top game.  Against Canada…or Slovakia.”  NP is the only source to record Valiev expressing his excitement twice, having “It’s an excited feeling, you know” as well as the previously mentioned “so I’m pretty excited.”  TS, meanwhile, is the only source that records Valiev testifying that this is the “Best experience of my life,” and LFP is the only source to include the “We’re playing fine right now.  We play like one team.  That’s the biggest thing for us – trying to play physical and support each other.”

  5. The ipsissima verba of Barbashev, although there is very little and only two sources include it, is nevertheless not exactly the same in the sources, showing synonym substitution and word order difference.
  6. In the narrative material supplied, there are significant differences in what, and how many, descriptive details are given.  GM is the only source that makes it clear that Valiev and Barbashev are present at the same time during the interview.  GM tells us that Valiev was “giggling”  and “smirked,” while NP tells us he was “smiling.”  GM is the only source that tells us Barbashev’s age and playing position.  NP is the only source that describes the quality of Valiev’s English (“somewhat halting”).  TS and LFP both tell us that Valiev is a Leaf prospect, but only LFP tells us that he was selected in the third round of the NHL draft.  And LFP is the only source that gives details about a specific play Valiev made in the semifinal game and that talks about Sweden’s disappointing recent results at the WJHC.
  7. Finally, there seems to be one glaring contradiction. It is obvious from GM, NP, and TS that Valiev plays for the Russian team (though only TS explicitly states that he is a Russian player), yet LFP tells us that he is a “Kootenay Ice (OHL) defender.”
  8. Additional information not in the reports themselves reveals that what this is not actually a contradiction, as Valiev’s regular season team is indeed the Kootenay Ice, while he played for Russia in the international WJHC tournament.
  9. There is one outright error in the reports.  The Kootenay Ice is a WHL (Western Hockey League) team, not – as the LFP wrongly states – an OHL (Ontario Hockey League) team.

The significance of what we have just seen cannot be overstated.  The very sort of phenomena observed in the double and triple tradition in the Gospel books, the phenomena on the basis of which liberal skeptics claim that the NT cannot be considered historically reliable, are found in the four accounts of this press conference, which are undoubtedly historically reliable.

  • -Liberal skeptics quibble about the fact that the quoted words of Jesus are not always identical in events recorded by two or more of the Gospel writers, but, as we have seen here, a witness may choose to record more or less of the total words of one speaker, and may in fact omit some from within actual sentences if they are not necessary to convey the intended meaning.
  • -Liberal skeptics cavil at the fact that one Gospel writer may include details that another Gospel writer does not, but as we have seen here actual eyewitnesses do that very thing.
  • -Liberal skeptics whine about the fact that Matthew mentions only one angel at the tomb of Jesus whereas Luke mentions two, but we have here seen that an actual eyewitness may choose to talk about only one man present even if there was another one there who is not mentioned at all.
  • -Liberal skeptics squeal about apparent contradictions without bothering to see whether additional information not in the accounts themselves may resolve these.

In sum, then, the very features in the double and triple tradition in the Gospel books that liberal skeptics claim disprove the historicity of these books do nothing of the sort, inasmuch the same features are found in multiple reports of events that are undoubtedly historical.  In fact, such attacks on the Gospel books would never have been launched if liberal scholars had bothered to check contemporary reporting of events by multiple sources, as we have herein done, to see whether the same sort of features are found in these.  Yet liberal scholars stupidly – or cynically – did not bother to do so.  At any rate, we have seen that this sort of attack is completely wrong, so let us have no more of such nonsense.

IMPORTANT NOTE: In this article we have “answered a fool according to his folly”8 by showing that even if the Gospel books have different wordings and details in parallel accounts and apparent contradictions – or even actual errors, as liberal skeptics claim – it would not thereby disprove their historicity.  Even with the liberal presuppositions, therefore, the attack fails.  However, we do affirm that there are no actual contradictions or errors in the Gospel books.

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January 5, 2015 – Canada defeats Russia 5-4 in the gold medal final to win their sixteenth World Junior Hockey Championships title.
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[1] Of course events in the Passion Week, including the arrest, trial, death, and resurrection of Jesus, are documented by all four Gospel authors.

[2] A brief video clip of the interview is available at http://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/juniors/russians-have-no-fear-of-canada/:  Off-camera voice: “Canada –  have you seen any of their games? And do they scare you or intimidate you?”  Valiev: “Of course not. Ha, ha, ha.  Yeah, I saw, I saw a couple games.  Like they, they were skilled but we played against Canada before so, like, I’m not scared to play against [them].”

[3] Kelly, Cathal. “Canada vs. Russia: The rivalry revisited.” The Globe and Mail, Monday, January 5, 2015, p.A1

[4] Stinson, Scott. “Bring on the Russians.” National Post, Monday, January 5, 2015, p.B1

[5] McGran, Kevin. “Russia, Leafs prospect shoot for gold.” Toronto Sun, January 5, 2015, p.S5

[6] Ryan Pyette, “Russians get revenge on Sweden, advance to final.” The London Free Press, January 4, 2015 http://www.torontosun.com/2015/01/04/russians-get-revenge-on-sweden-advance-to-final

[7] In reference to these article excerpts, GM = Globe and Mail; NP = National Post; TS = Toronto Sun; LFP = London Free Press

[8] See Proverbs 26:5.  Ironically, skeptics claim a contradiction in Proverbs 26:4-5 “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him.  Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”  They say there is a clear contradiction here regarding whether one should answer a fool according to his folly or not.  But they overlook the reasons given.  Should you answer a fool according to his folly?  No, if it will make you like him, and yes, if he will otherwise be wise in his own eyes.  No contradiction here.

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