Striking differences in accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion: An analysis of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

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Last Updated on 19th December 2022

Jalees Ahmad, Al Hakam
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A study of the Bible, especially the accounts of the crucifixion, reveals various inconsistencies. These contradictions question the reliability of the Bible we have today and what is mentioned within it. Just as a lawyer, on hearing differing accounts from so-said eyewitnesses that place the entire case into doubt, is compelled to question the reliability of what he has heard, so too is the case with students of religion when they read various clashing accounts in the Bible.

In most cases, the authenticity of an eyewitness is completely dropped when a story, between two people, doesn’t match. 

None of the four gospel writers was an eyewitness to the crucifixion; we only have second-hand reporting. Now, I’m no lawyer, but I know enough to know that second-hand reporting in courts, in some cases, is ruled out.

The four accounts – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – have narrated important matters; however, there seem to be stark differences in their accounts, making it difficult to understand the truth of the matters.

The ‘Cross of Christ’

The cross is the symbol of the Christian faith, representing the crucifixion. When we read the four accounts, one is compelled to ask, “who carried the cross?”

Mark states:

“And they compel one Simon, a Cyrenian, who passed by, coming out of the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to bear his cross.” (Mark 15:21)

Luke states:

“And as they led him away, they laid hold upon one Simon, a Cyrenian, coming out of the country, and on him they laid the cross, that he might bear it after Jesus.” (Luke 23:26)

Matthew states:

“And as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name: him they compelled to bear his cross.” (Matthew 27:32)

However, John states:

“Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led him away. “And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha” (John 19:16-17)

Matthew, Mark, and Luke state that Simon, a Cyrenian, shouldered the cross; however, John says it was Jesus. Such inconsistencies in accounts lead to questions: Who then actually carried it? Why are there differences in such an account?

The sign placed on Jesus

The Bible states that as Jesus was taken to be crucified, a sign was placed over his head that had a short quotation on it. The four are in disagreement as to what this short quote was. 

Matthew states:

“And set up over his head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” (Matthew, 27:37)

Mark states: 

“And the superscription of his accusation was written over, THE KING OF THE JEWS.” (Mark, 15:26)

Luke states:

“And a superscription also was written over him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” (Luke, 23:38)

John states:

“And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.” (John, 19:19)

All accounts say something different. Seeing such differences, any student of religion is compelled to seriously question the authenticity of their words. 

Vinegar or myrrh

Before Jesus was placed on the cross, the Bible states he was given something to drink.

Matthew writes:

“They gave him vinegar to drink mingled with gall: and when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink.” (Matthew 27:34)

However, Mark states:

“And they gave him to drink wine mingled with myrrh: but he received it not.” (Mark 15:23)

Luke and John are quiet regarding this matter. 

Time of the crucifixion

It is important to record the time at which an incident occurred when determining the authenticity of a story. This is, among all other evidence, a crucial point that can build the authenticity of a narration. If there seems to be a complication or mismatch between two stories of the same incident, it opens the entire case to more questions.

When we read the Bible, two different times in the accounts of the crucifixion have been recorded by Mark and John.

Mark states:

“And it was the third hour, and they crucified him.” (Mark 15:25)

“And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the sixth hour: and he saith unto the Jews, Behold your King!” (John 19:14)

Joseph of Arimathea

Who was Joseph of Arimathea? Was he a disciple or counsellor?

Matthew states that he was a disciple of Jesus:

“When the even was come, there came a rich man of Arimathaea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus’ disciple:” (Matthew 27:57)

However, Mark states:

“Joseph of Arimathaea, an honourable counsellor, which also waited for the kingdom of God, came, and went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus.” (Mark 15:43)

Luke states:

“And, behold, there was a man named Joseph, a counsellor; and he was a good man, and a just:” (Luke 23:50)

Even with these above-mentioned accounts, we are unable to identify who Joseph of Arimathea was.  

Thief or thieves?

When Jesus was put on the cross, the Bible states there were two thieves placed on the cross too. However, was it one thief who reviled and mocked Jesus or both? The Bible, again, makes it unclear.

Matthew states:

“Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, 

“He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. 

“He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God. 

“The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth.” (Matthew 41-44)

Similarly, Mark states:

“And they that were crucified with him reviled him.” (Mark 15:32)

However, Luke mentions something quite different. He states:

“And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. 

“But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?” (Luke 23:39)

Luke’s account clashed with those of Mark and Matthew. John has not even alluded to this important conversation in his accounts.

With such inconsistencies, where does one turn? How can a Holy Book have so many contradictions with an essential part of its teaching?

The tomb of Jesus

After reading the accounts of the crucifixion, we now turn to the tomb of Jesus. Who was the first person to come to the sepulchre? However, it is equally important to ask, when did they come?

Matthew states:

“In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.” (Matthew 28:1)

Mark states:

“And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. 

“And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun. (Mark 16:1-2)

Luke states:

“Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.” (Luke 24:1)

However, John states that Mary came alone:

“The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre.” (John 20:1)

As for the time of arrival, Mark says “at the rising of the sun” whereas John states, “when it was yet dark”.

When we read strikingly varying accounts of the same incident that seem to clash, one is compelled to take a step back and examine the authenticity of the Holy Bible. 

In light of the crucifixion, these differences are but a few, which pale in comparison to all the differences the Bible has to offer.

(All references are from KJV.)

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