For more posts in this series, “Evangelical (Atheist) Eisegesis.“
In The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, Steven Wells lists a total of six contradictions in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark: at Mark 1:9; 1:11; 1:12-13; 1:14-17; 1:21, 29; and 1:23-24. He also points to an example of a false prophecy (1:2), three absurdities (1:10-11a, 1:23-26, 1:39), and two additional absurdities coupled with conflicts with science and history. This post will focus on the purported contradictions which Wells offers. But before we begin, allow me to summarize the chapter.
The first chapter of the Markan Gospel is swift, introducing abruptly both John the Baptist (1:4) and Jesus (v. 9). Following the latter’s baptism by the former (vv. 9-11), the narrative moves to the wilderness for a brief interlude (vv. 12-13) before the return of Jesus to Galilee where he begins declaring the imminent reign of God (vv. 14-15). As he walks along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus calls four men, two pairs of brothers, to follow him (vv. 16-20). Together they go to Capernaum where over a twenty-four-hour period he teaches, heals the sick, and casts out demons (vv. 21-45).
The first contradiction Wells notes appears at Mark 1:9 and is listed as contradiction number 333 – “Where did John baptize?” At the end of SAB, readers will find a listing of 471 contradictions in the Bible. Number 333 reads as follows:
333. Where did John baptize?
In the Jordan River. Mt 3.6, Mk 1.9
In Bethabara, beyond the Jordan. Jn 1.28
Setting aside the textual variant in John 1:28, it isn’t obvious to me why this should be considered a contradiction. When the KJV states that John was baptizing in Bethabara “beyond Jordan,” it isn’t claiming he was baptizing in a river different than what the Synoptics claim. Rather, it is giving a specific locale – Bethabara, a town traditionally located on the Jordan River. Perhaps the confusion is over the phrase “beyond Jordan.” If so, that’s a simple matter to clear up: “beyond Jordan” means on the other side of the river, i.e. on the eastern side. There is, then, no contradiction: all of the canonical Gospels agree that John baptized in the Jordan.
The second contradiction that appears in Mark 1 has to do with God’s address to Jesus at his baptism. It is listed in the back of SAB as contradiction number 335.
335. At his baptism, did God address Jesus directly?
Yes. Mk 1.11, Lk 3.22
No. Mt 3.17
This is a contradiction and a rather interesting one at that! In Mark and Luke, it is Jesus who is addressed by the voice from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11, NRSV; cf. Luke 3:22). But in Matthew’s Gospel, the voice says something a little different: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). The differences may seem subtle, but they are profound, at least for the purposes of each narrative. I won’t discuss that here, but interested readers can listen to episodes 2 and 3 of the first season of my podcast Amateur Exegesis to learn more.
The third contradiction concerns what Jesus did following his baptism by John. It is listed as contradiction number 415.
415. What did Jesus do after his baptism?
He went immediately into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for 40 days. Mk 1.12-13
He called his disciples and attended the wedding at Cana. Jn 1.35, 43; 2.1
This is definitely a contradiction but not in the way Wells thinks. Strictly speaking, John has no baptism narrative. It is only in the Synoptics that Jesus is baptized. So, the question, at least as far as the Gospel of John is concerned, is poorly framed. The more interesting question would be, What were Andrew and Peter doing when they were called to follow Jesus? In the Gospel of Mark, they are fishers working along the Sea of Galilee (Mark 1:16-18). In the Gospel of John, Andrew is a disciple of John the Baptist and Peter is off somewhere else (John 1:38-42).
The fourth contradiction is to be found in vv. 21 and 29. It is contradiction number 416.
416. Where did Peter and Andrew live?
Capernaum. Mk 1.21, 29.
Bethsaida. Jn 1.44
This is only possibly a contradiction. It is true that in the Gospel of Mark, Peter’s and Andrew’s home is in Capernaum. But Bethsaida, a city along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, wasn’t all that far from Capernaum. It’s possible that the brothers were born in Bethsaida and grew up there but later moved to Capernaum. One reason for thinking this is that Jesus is said to have been from Nazareth (Mark 1:9; 6:1-6) but he also resided in Capernaum, making his home there (Mark 2:1). So, it is conceivable that Peter and Andrew did something similar. But, it could also be that as far as the Johannine author is concerned, Peter and Andrew were from Bethsaida and lived there all their lives.
The fifth contradiction is found at Mark 1:14-17. It is number 337.
337. Which came first: the calling of Peter and Andrew or the imprisonment of John the Baptist?
The imprisonment of John the Baptist. Mt 4.12, 18-19; Mk 1.14-17
The calling of Peter and Andrew. Jn 1.40-42, 3.24
Wells is absolutely correct that this is a contradiction. The Synoptics portray the calling of the first disciples as happening after John’s arrest, but John’s Gospel has John free and baptizing long after the first disciples have been called. There is no way to reconcile these without resorting to some ad hoc explanation like two arrests or some such reasoning.
The final contradiction, number 417, is about the status of those who know Jesus is God’s messiah.
417. Are those who believe that Jesus is the Christ born of God?
Yes. 1 Jn 4.2, 15, 5.1
No. Mk 1.23-24, 3.11-12, 5.7; Jas 2.19
Let’s begin with the low-hanging fruit: James 2:19 has no bearing whatsoever on this discussion. All it shows is that the demons are monotheists just like the Jamesian author’s audience. But what of these other texts, specifically in Mark where the demons recognize Jesus for who he is? Does this contradict statements like, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1 John 5:1)? I’m not sure that it does. For starters, that the demons in Mark’s Gospel recognize him as God’s agent does not entail that they “believe” in him. The way Wells seems to construe “believe” is that it means assent to a fact, when in reality it means something more like allegiance or faithfulness. Therefore, to believe in Jesus as messiah isn’t simply to agree that’s who he is but rather it is to be faithful to him. The Markan demons are categorically against him, representing their ruler Satan in the struggle against God’s impending reign and therefore don’t “believe” in him. There is no contradiction here.
Of the six contradictions proffered by SAB in Mark ch. 1, two do not seem to be contradictions at all and another is only a possible contradiction. Nevertheless, three out of six isn’t too terrible, I suppose.
 The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, Steve Wells, editor (SAB Books, LLC: 2013).
 For an overview of what Wells considers absurd, conflicting with science, etc., see pp. xi-xvi in SAB.
 See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 171.
 Interestingly, in the online version of SAB, this contradiction no longer appears.
 Or, at least, explicitly baptized.
 Though another issue is that John’s Gospel never mentions the temptation in the wilderness.
3 thoughts on “Evangelical (Atheist) Eisegesis: ‘The Skeptics Annotated Bible’ (#3)”
These are great notes.
I think you highlighted many good considerations when it comes to weighing what is and isn’t a contradiction, and one of the ones that comes into play is the issue with 417. When one narrative posits an event and another narrative posits that event with contradictory differences, that’s a contradiction. But doctrinal generalities posited in 1 John are only “contradictions” with the exorcism stories in Mark if we are just in the business of making some counterfactual assumptions that we’d never apply to other texts like: A) the Bible is one, continuous work as opposed to an anthology, and B) the use of universalistic language in one particular context is intended to literally apply to every case anyone could possibly come up with outside of that context.
I think your post walks the very important tightrope of “Yes, there are contradictions in the Bible” and “Let’s not be weird about creating contradictions because we want to find them.” Good stuff.
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Just noticed Mark’s John never actually commissions Jesus or recognizes him as the coming one. Gospel #4 drops the baptism (no way John didn’t know Jesus was baptized) but adds the element of recognition.
It’s also strange that the Gospel of John is relatively silent on the issue of Satan and unclean spirits. Jesus’ identity as an exorcist is bedrock. John drops the exorcisms but actually increases accusations of demon-possession against Jesus. Whereas successful (and maybe unsuccessful) exorcisms engendered such accusations in the Synoptics, Jesus’ teachings, whether malevolent (“you are sons of old scratch”) or inscrutable (“I’m a gate and you’re trying to kill me”) generate them in John.
Too many Johns.
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