“Why are there differences in each of the gospels?”

This is a question I often get asked in various contexts. If the gospels are meant to be not only historically accurate, but also the word of God – why are there contradictions in their accounts? Atheist friends point out that this shows that the gospels are not historically reliable – they can’t agree. Muslim friends would say that it shows that the Bible is not the word of God, for God would not allow any errors in his scripture.

 

My first response to such a question would be to ask the questioner what differences or contradictions they had in mind. Very often, they don’t actually know of any specific incidences of these differences. It is simply a commonly-used objection, rather than one to which they have come, from actually reading the text. However, at other times, the objection is better-informed, and the questioner has specific examples in mind. For there are, indeed, a number of incidences where there do appear to be differences between the gospels.

 

The first three of the four gospels are often called the synoptic gospels (syn = with, opsis = see.  i.e. to see together) and there is a lot of similar, if not nearly identical, content in them. This means that we can read of the same event being reported up to three times. The fourth gospel, John, contains a lot of unique material not found in the synoptics, but the accounts of the feeding of the 5,000, and the death and resurrection of Jesus are found in all four gospels. When we compare these accounts, we find that there are differences in the way the same incident, or speech, is recorded.

 

On one level such differences need not be very troubling. In any court of law you would actually be suspicious of several eye-witnesses who gave exactly the same testimony. A certain degree of difference in how an event is recorded is to be expected – and is a sign of strength of accuracy, not weakness. Those differences can be complementary, not contradictory. Just as different cameras at a football match will catch the same action from a different angle, so each account can carry its own unique perspective.

 

However, there do appear, at times, to be differences that are contradictory. For instance, the same speech of Jesus is recorded, but each contains different words. Which words did Jesus actually say? If one is true, then is the other report making up words that Jesus didn’t say? Events are recorded in different ways. For example, in one account a man comes to Jesus asking him to come to help, for his daughter is dying, but, in another, he comes asking for help because his daughter is dead. So, which is it? – was she dying? … or was she dead?!

The chronology of events can also differ in the gospels. In the synoptic gospels Jesus cleanses the temple by driving out the money changers at a point just before his death – it is an event that sparks the beginning of the end. In John’s gospel this event happens at the beginning of the gospel, well before the crucifixion.

 

Many books have been written comparing the gospel accounts and seeking to show how the stories can be synchronised, in an attempt to prove that the Bible is without error (inerrant). However, while some of the explanations seem to make good sense, others may appear to be ‘clutching at straws’. For instance – explaining the two accounts of the cleansing of the temple by saying that Jesus did it twice – once at the start, and again, at the end of his ministry.

 

A different approach to the differences in the gospels is taken by Michael Licona. In his book ‘Why are there differences in the gospels?’ he starts from the standpoint that the gospels are not a unique genre of literature. It was often assumed that the gospels stand alone with no ancient parallels, but he points out that they carry great similarities to Greco-Roman biographies from the time – both in terms of length, and also content. Ancient biographies often gave some genealogical history of the main character, before jumping directly to their public life and work, in much the same way that the gospels do.

 

If the gospels have parallels in ancient literature, this would mean that we could then study these other documents, to see if similar differences occur therein. Licona does this by studying an ancient Greek biographer called Plutarch. He wrote around the turn of the 2nd century, so just slightly later than the gospels. Licona takes nine of Plutarch’s fifty biographies (called ‘Lives’) and looks at overlapping events, and the differences between how those events are recorded.

 

He finds that, while the core of the accounts are the same, there are differences in the way they are recorded. Sometimes events are transplanted from one context to another. Two different events can be conflated into one. A more detailed account on one book can be summarised much more briefly in another. Speeches can be reported slightly differently. Questions can be changed to commands, and vice versa. In some accounts a literary spotlight is used to focus on just one individual; whereas in another account it is clear that other people were also present. The chronology of events can be changed from one account to another. However, the presence of such differences doesn’t mean that historians just discount Plutarch’s work as being of no historical value. Rather, they take into account the use of such rhetorical devices. They don’t expect ancient biography to conform to the method of a much more modern style of writing history.

 

Licona then shows how the gospels use many of the same devices in the way they record the same events. They too feel at liberty to change the chronology, simplify accounts, conflate events and so on. For example:-

 

 

  • The cleansing of the temple may have just been one single event, but John chose to place it at the start of the gospel, rather than at the end. We don’t need to assume that the order of events in the gospels reflects the order in which they all happened. The author could change the order to suit his purpose in writing.
  • The man coming to ask Jesus on behalf of his daughter is reported in Mark’s longer account as telling Jesus that she is dying. On the way, he is then told that she has died. Jesus nevertheless goes to the house and heals the girl. In Matthew’s much shorter account he is reported as saying that she is already dead, and no mention is made of the people coming to tell him that she has died. However, it is easy to see how Matthew simplified the account by omitting the need to explain how the man discovered that his daughter was dead.
  • The words of Jesus’ teaching and parables are not exactly the same. This, of course, could be because Jesus told the same stories in different places more than once (just as many preachers might today) but it may also simply be because the recording of speech should not be assumed to be verbatim. There were no recording devices, nor even shorthand, so what is recorded in ancient biography is the ‘gist’ or ‘essence’ of what was said.
  • In Mark and Luke we read of Jesus’ healing of a demon-possessed man, by sending the demons into some pigs. In Matthew’s account we read that there were two such men. It would appear that Mark and Luke shine their spotlight on just one of the two men and omit to mention the other. This would also be the case in the resurrection accounts, where different combinations of women are mentioned going to the tomb.

 

 

It is worth noting two things about these differences. Firstly, they are always in the peripheral details, not the core events.

 

Jesus did, at some point in his ministry, cleanse a temple, and, in doing so, rile the religious authorities of his day. A man did come to Jesus to ask him to help his daughter who, at some point, had died, and Jesus did go and heal her. The way a parable is told may be slightly different, but the main point is still the same. Jesus did heal a demon-possessed man. Different women may be mentioned going to the tomb, but in all the accounts women went there, and found it empty.

 

Secondly, while the gospel-writers employ the same literary devices in the way they write as found in other ancient biographies, they do it far less. In other words, there are far more differences in Plutarch’s works than we find in the gospels. The surprising thing about the gospels is not the differences, but the remarkable similarities. Therefore, if we are to treat other ancient biographies as a useful source of discovering history, then we should at least afford the gospels the same respect.

 

There is, though, one remaining issue – the claim that many Christians make of the Bible that it is not simply a useful historical source, but that it is without error. While what we have seen so far could explain that the Bible is still a useful historical source, would it not undermine the idea of inerrancy? Does it confirm what many Muslims claim – that the Bible cannot be trusted, for unlike the Quran it does contain errors?

 

The word ‘inerrant’, like so many theological terms, is not one that we find in the Bible itself. Rather, it is used to represent what the Bible teaches. Therefore we need to ask what it is meant by the word, often nuanced.

 

For example – I have not yet heard the following complaint against inerrancy:- ‘The Bible says the trees of the field ‘clap their hands’; but no trees have ever been seen doing this, nor even to possess hands; therefore the Bible is wrong’. Such an objection would be ridiculous. The above-mentioned text clearly belongs to the genre of poetry and should be understood as such. That’s the way we read the Bible – we first ask what genre of literature it belongs to, and then read it accordingly. If the gospels do indeed belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography, then it makes sense that we bear this in mind, and we shouldn’t read them as if we are reading a 20th century biography. Chronology may be important to modern biographers. It was not so to their ancient counterparts. This does not mean that we disregard that the gospels are recording history any more than we should dismiss any other ancient biography. Rather, we just take into account the type of literature they are, before we reject them for their apparent differences.

 

My appeal to my atheist friends would therefore be to read the gospels, and to take them seriously, as a way of investigating the historical Jesus – the most fascinating figure who ever lived, whose life split history in two and whom a third of the world’s population now claim to follow. To my Muslim friends I would say that we need to remember that the way the Bible is written is very different to that of the Quran, and we need to take this into account as we read it.

I’d also want to gently ask how we know that the Quran itself is without error, for there is far greater evidence to suggest that it may not be – but that will have to be a topic for a different post!

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