This topic doesn't appear at any one point in JI, but it's something Ehrman references multiple times in the early chapters. Many Bible contradictions involve stories where source A says event X happened, while source B says event Y happened. Apologists often try to resolve these conflicts by combining the details of the conflicting stories and saying that both events happened. After all, they argue, source A doesn't say event Y didn't happen, nor does source B deny the possibility of event X.
But at times there are major problems with this tactic. First of all, of course each source isn't going to go out of its way to talk about events that didn't happen – that would require the Bible to be written in some bizarre form of legalese. But there are many cases where source A doesn't mention event Y even though it's an integral part of the story. It often seems very strange that A doesn't mention Y... until you consider the possibility that the author of A disagrees with the author of B and doesn't think Y happened at all.*
And second, when apologists try to make the events fit by mashing them together, they often create an entirely new story that none of the original stories agree with. In the case of the four gospels, where this happens quite often, I've dubbed this messy amalgam of fragmented details the "Gospel of Nobody."
On page 7 of JI, Ehrman uses the following contradiction as an example:
"In Mark's Gospel, Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times 'before the cock crows twice.' In Matthew's Gospel, he tells him that it will be 'before the cock crows.' Well, which is it—before the cock crows once or twice? ... [Here's one apologist's] solution: Peter actually denied Jesus six times, three times before the cock crowed and three more times before it crowed twice. ... [But] to resolve the tension between the Gospels the interpreter has to write his own Gospel, which is unlike any of the Gospels found in the New Testament. And isn't it a bit absurd to say that, in effect, only "my" Gospel—the one I create from parts of the four in the New Testament—is the right one, and that the others are only partially right?"
There's no one on earth who would think Peter denied Jesus six times after reading Mark or Matthew individually, since neither gospel indicates that he made more than three denials. And if Peter had made six denials, it would surely be important enough to note, so the most likely reason that neither gospel noted six is that neither gospel intends six.
Here's another example. Which women visited the tomb on the morning of the resurrection? Was it:
- Matt.: Mary Magdelene, the other Mary
- Mark: Mary Magdelene, Mary mother of James, Salome
- Luke: Mary Magdelene, Mary mother of James, Joanna, others
- John: Mary Magdelene
Now, based on this an apologist could claim that Mary Magdelene, Mary the mother of James, the other Mary, Salome, Joanna, and possibly others all went to visit Jesus' tomb. But now we have a veritable horde of people, and some of the gospels begin to look quite misleading. What reason did Matthew, Mark and John have for giving no indication that anyone other than those mentioned visited the tomb, when it would have been as simple as adding "and other women"? John is especially dishonest: he implies that Mary Magdelene is making a lone pilgrimage to the tomb. There's no obvious explanation for this phenomenon—except that Matthew, Mark and John don't intend for there to be others tagging along.
Let's look at one last example, which Ehrman describes on page 8. When the women (or woman) visited Jesus' tomb, who did they (or she) see?:
- Matt.: one angel
- Mark: one man
- Luke: two men
- John: two angels
Now admittedly, the men in Mark and Luke are dressed in white robes, so one could plausibly argue that they are meant to be angels. But why would Matthew and Mark both mention only one person when Luke and John say there were two? What possible motive could they have for not having the accurate number? The simplest and best explanation is that Matthew and Mark don't mean for there to be two of them at all.
There are many other examples like this, both in the Gospels and elsewhere. In examining such cases, I think these are the crucial questions to ask:
- Is the omitted detail integral to the story?
- Does a "reconstructed" version of the story make the original stories look misleading?
- Could the omitted detail have been easily added?
I would argue that we should consider cases where the answers to two or all of these questions are "yes" to be contradictions – minor compared to others we can find in the Bible, but contradictions nonetheless.
*Apologists often try to spin such accounts as "complementary." They apparently forget that "the Bible" did not exist in the early church. If a congregation had one gospel and not others, they would not get a "complementary" account, but instead a highly flawed one that ignored crucial events.