Horizontal reading

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Horizontal Reading is a method of textual analysis used to compare multiple accounts of a similar event — such as the two creation stories found in Genesis, or the accounts of the life of Jesus found in the Synoptic Gospels of the New Testament. This cross-referencing is useful for finding Biblical contradictions.

Another example of horizontal reading would be the practice of reading various newspaper accounts of a single incident. Given a story of a banking scandal, The Economist may attribute the incident to lax regulation, while The Sun, a newspaper so low-brow it's practically a beard, would be more likely to blame "fat cats" and immigrants.

Advantages and disadvantages of horizontal reading[edit]

The primary advantage of horizontal reading is that it allows a comparison between multiple accounts of an event. Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar and author of several books examining the history of Christianity and the Biblical Canon, advocates horizontal reading in his book Jesus, Interrupted.[1]:21-22, He advises readers to read a gospel account, taking notes while doing so, and then repeat the process for the account of the same event found in another gospel. This leads readers to find hitherto unnoticed discrepancies and contradictions.

The most obvious disadvantage of horizontal reading is that it breaks the flow of the narrative. Most stories are written with the intention that they be read in a vertical, or linear, fashion — so horizontal reading is more intended for textual analysis than the actual reading of the stories. Horizontal reading, with its habit of revealing inconsistent accounts, is also very bad for Biblical literalists when accounts are clearly contradictory in nature — such as the differing accounts of the death of Judas Iscariot. Matthew describes Judas as hanging himself, while Acts describes him as purchasing a field and then dying from a particularly nasty fall in which he burst like a balloon — with his internal organs being more external than was otherwise normal for a healthy human. Acts is not one of the four gospels, but as part of the Biblical Canon, and an account of the activities of the apostles, it's reasonable to expect consistency if the Bible is claimed to be a reliable historical record.

Examples of horizontal reading[edit]

The four gospels of the New Testament are assumed by many to contain consistent accounts of the life of Jesus, yet a horizontal reading demonstrates discrepancies and contradictions — some are quite minor, while others are seriously divergent on very important aspects of his life, death, and subsequent comeback tour.[note 1] Focusing on arguably the most important event of his life, the four gospels provide oddly different accounts of his death. What follows is a comparison of the final words of Jesus, as relayed by the gospels. The quotes are taken from the NIV translation, although links included will refer to the King James Version.[note 2]

Jesus on the cross: Taking it like a man, or blubbering like a sissy?[edit]

Matthew 27:45 Mark 15:33 Luke 23:46 John 19:28-30
'"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" '"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" "Father, in to your hands I commit my spirit." "I am thirsty...It is finished"

This is just one example of what's known as the Synoptic Problem. It could be argued that Jesus in fact said all of the above, but the messages given are very different. Matthew and Mark, gospels that share a large amount of identical text, portray Jesus as despairing at his moment of death. This provides us with a Christ who was clearly suffering as any other human would under the same circumstances, while Luke and John present a more stoic Jesus.[note 3]

Jesus: Messiah and rodeo clown?[edit]

Bart Ehrman, in his book Jesus, Interrupted, highlighted an amusing problem with the accounts of Jesus arriving in Bethany.

Matthew 21:5 Mark 11:7 Luke 19:33-35 John 12:14-15
"Say to the Daughter of Zion, 'See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'" When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" 34They replied, "The Lord needs it." 35They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it." Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, 15"Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey's colt."

The apparent theft of a colt for Jesus is an unrelated problem, as the main issue here is that Matthew appears to be describing Jesus straddling two donkeys as he rode in to town. The issue with Matthew's account is more obvious in the original Greek, or the King James Version — the latter describing the event as "Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass." Ehrman ascribes this to Matthew using Mark as his source, but not understanding a literary device employed by Mark in which writers would repeat the previous line but slightly reworded. Whereas Mark is accepted as describing Jesus riding a single beast, Matthew interpreted Mark's repetition as describing two separate beasts — hence his portrayal of Jesus as being some kind of circus performer.

See also[edit]


  1. Arguably the most miraculous event of his comeback tour was that Ticketmaster had not managed to secure exclusive rights to sell tickets.
  2. The RationalWiki Annotated Bible is based on the King James translation because it's free and it's kind of classy, but mainly because it's free. Hey, did you know that we have a donations page?
  3. Perhaps Luke and John had Buff Jesus in mind.