The crucifixion of Jesus is central to Christianity. It is because of this that Christians believe he was the Son of God, without it they would probably not be a religion. But why is such a core belief riddled with contradictions? Each of the four Gospels tells different versions often contradicting each other. They show clear signs of extra details being added later. If a coherent story of the crucifixion cannot be complied how can the story be believed?
Huge gaps can be discovered by comparing each of the Gospels, especially the first (Mark) and the last (John). Each time the story is told; new details are added to present Jesus and the disciples in a better light until we end up with a quite different picture of Jesus’ death. There is a large contrast between the story told by Mark where Jesus and his disciples are scared and feel God has abandoned them, whereas with John they are supremely confident and know exactly what will happen.
The main cause of the contradictions probably comes from the fact the disciples did not witness many of the events. Depending on the account, only some of the disciples were at the Garden of Gethsemane (and those that were fell asleep), but none were at Jesus’ trial or actual crucifixion.
Mark paints a picture of a mortal man afraid of death, not the Son Of God (who after all, according to Christian teaching was sent to Earth in order to die for our sins). In the Garden, according to Mark, Jesus begs that the cup of suffering passes him by. Why would the Son of God do this? Surely he knew this was inevitable and the whole point of mission. Instead it sounds like a scared human, hoping to save his life. In the description given, he has no control over the events that are happening. Unlike the other Gospels, Mark does not mention the story of Barabbas or the fate of Judas. At his trial he is silent and does not answer questions. Most interestingly of all, according to Mark, Jesus’ final words were “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” These are not the words of the son of God sent to die, rather someone begging for God to save him. He sounds like a man whose beliefs are shattered. This does not square with the claim that Jesus foresaw his crucifixion, if anything it looks like it wasn’t part of his plan.
Matthew tells a very similar story with only minor differences. When arrested Jesus claims he could have asked an army of angels to save him, which seems like false bravado as moments earlier he had been begging that to avoid suffering. This time he has slightly more control over the situation. Matthew adds the story of Judas and Barabbas (including a line that was used for generations to justify ant-Semitism). Matthew does make the absurd claim that when Jesus died, there was an earthquake and the dead came back to life, but waited until the resurrection before rising and appearing before many. He doesn’t record what happens after this (nor does any other writer either in the Bible or elsewhere). You would think people would notice a zombie apocalypse and record it, but apparently not. For some reason it’s not worth mentioning what happens to the zombies afterwards. If they also rose from the dead what makes Jesus so special?
Luke tells a similar story but also adds details to make Jesus more confident and in control. In his version Jesus sweats blood and an angel appears to give him strength (you would think the other Gospel writers would have noticed this and mentioned it but apparently not). Unlike in Mark and Matthew the disciples do not flee when Jesus is arrested. Luke does not have any of the Romans mocking Jesus, even one of the criminals agrees with him.
John’s account is the most different. He does not mention Jesus praying and questioning God in Gethsemane or his disciples falling asleep. Instead he is prepared for Judas and the soldiers already knowing what they will do. He is in complete control of the situation to the point where the soldiers are afraid to arrest him. In contrast to the other three accounts (which say he was silent) John describes Jesus giving confident and assured answers at his trial.
There are more contradictions which I don’t have space to fully discuss but they include, how many times the cock was to crow before Peter denied Jesus (once or three times), who tried Jesus (was it a council, the High Priest or Pilate), what questions was he asked, who found Jesus’ tomb empty (Mary Magdalene and/or Mary mother of James alone/with others), what they found at the tomb (an angel, the guards, a young man, two men, nobody, two angels or Jesus), when and where Jesus ascended into Heaven (Bethany the day of his resurrection or Mount Olive 40 days after (strangely 3 of the Gospels do not say what happened to Jesus after his resurrection)).
There are other historical inaccuracies. If Jesus was accused of blasphemy, he would have been stoned to death not crucified. Likewise, although it is said (in Mark and Matthew) that Jesus was crucified with robbers; this crime was not punishable with crucifixion. How could his trial take place when the council was forbidden from meeting over Passover? It is said Pilate had a custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover, but this wasn’t actually a tradition, nor did Roman governors have this right, they could only postpone execution until after the holiday. It seems highly unusual that Pilate would give in to a group of protesters so easily. After all protesters have extremely little influence in a democracy and would have had even less in Roman times. Mary could not have been at the foot of the cross because Romans prevented friends and family members from getting close in case they tried to help the victim escape. Crucifixion victims were not buried; instead they were left on the cross until their bodies rotted.
Many religious people ask that we believe in the crucifixion of Jesus, I would ask which version? It is clear that later versions were changed to make Jesus and the disciples look better and to avoid offending the Romans (due to the politics of the early church). How can we know what is true and what is not? If we cannot be sure about the most central belief of Christianity, how can we believe any other part of it?