Invitation Part 4: Differences in the Gospels

Rick Mattson Apologetics, Bible, Uncategorized 8 Comments

Years ago when I first heard the argument from “differences,” I was quite surprised.

The argument says that certain levels of difference between the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life actually lend credibility to the overall story.

Certain levels.

Not too much; not too little.

Big differences would be bad. What’s big? If one account said Jesus rose from the dead and another disagreed, that would be a problem.

Zero differences would also be suspect. Imagine four reports on the life of a major figure — say, JFK — that were identical in every detail. We’d suspect collusion. Conspiracy. Hidden agenda.

But with the four reports of Jesus’ life — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — we find ourselves with broad agreement on the “big rocks,” such as Jesus’ family, geography, teaching, acts of healing, death and resurrection.

Let’s call it 70% agreement. Don’t quote me on that. I’m not saying it’s exactly 70%. But it’s a representative figure that indicates broad overlap with differences in detail.

What differences comprise the remaining 30%?

Authorial choices to include or exclude certain parts of the story. Scrolls had limitations. Each author chose what to include in his scroll. These choices account for many differences.

Another category of difference is vitally important — factual discrepancies: *

  • The Gospel accounts don’t agree on the names of the 12 apostles. 
  • Jesus’ genealogies in Matthew and Luke don’t harmonize. 
  • The final week of Jesus’ life as recorded in John seems off by a day. 

There are others.

But from a historical perspective, these types of discrepancies are exactly what you’d expect to find from four different authors writing about the same event from four different points of view. **

70% agreement (again, a representative figure): In my view and that of many scholars, it has the ring of truth.

* Apparent discrepancies in the gospels have been worked on for centuries and have been given plausible explanations. Still, scholars don’t always agree on these solutions. 
** For further reading on the question of differences and discrepancies in the Gospels, see Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, ch 4.

Comments 8

  1. Ask four witnesses to a car accident what they saw and you will get four different answers – none of them wrong, just different. This level of discrepancies in the Gospels is not disturbing. As you said, if one said Jesus rose again and another said He did not – THAT would be a problem.

    The fact that there are discrepancies is a boost to validity. The fact that the disciples are flawed and those flaws are paraded for all to see is another point for historicity. Whitewashing their foibles and shortcomings would be a tip-off that this document is contrived.

    Thanks for the pointer to Blomberg's book. We each need to be able to provide every man with an answer for our faith. Thank you for your work, Rick.

  2. I like the tension these discrepancies create. This tension makes me think of the suspension of belief that is required at times to be a person of faith. If we waited for precise and exact accounts of things before we could fully believe…we might end up waiting forever.

  3. Michael, nicely stated. There's a kind of “ordinariness” about the Gospels that still rattles me at times. Even the big miracles are reported in a low-key manner.

    Had I been one of the authors I'd have put everything in radiant glory — mountain-top displays of perfection. Gushing adulation. No flaws anywhere.

    Erik, as you probably know, ancient standards of precision in detail were much different than our own. This is a helpful study and can be found in any number of books on the historical Jesus and the reliability of the Gospels.

  4. R, I think it would also be useful to consider the differences in terms of the literary styles of the writers, which includes their different purposes. John and Luke have very different stated purposes for their Gospels, and that influences how and what is written. Lynn oliver

  5. Of the Gospel accounts, the one most definitively in the first person is John's account. Luke writes after interviewing people – one of whom most likely was Jesus' mother, hence the birth information found nowhere else. We really don't know who wrote Mark and Matthew beyond a shadow of a doubt, so we can't say that they were disciples who saw things first hand. But John was there from the beginning.

    People question the validity of the Gospels – and the entire Bible, for that matter – despite having thousands and thousands of copies of the Greek and Latin scrolls, each one almost identical. Yet other ancient writings are accepted as truth despite having only fragments still in existence. The playing field is definitely not level.

  6. Lynn, good point. If I didn't promise brevity to my readers I'd have included something in the direction you suggest. People probably do not know that you first taught me how to read the Gospels . . . a long time ago 🙂

    Michael, You are exercising the kind of caution that is often missing in arguments for the reliability of the Gospel accounts.

    As for the multitude of ancient manuscripts, probably the main benefit to scholars is the wealth of source material available for cross-comparisons, enabling them to recover the original wording of the authors.

  7. Many comments on my blog posts come to me via private email. Here is one I'd like to share with all readers:

    Our way of determining if something’s authentic – in science, in the classroom, in the courtroom – is a lot like stereo vision. If each eye sees the same image, there’s no sense of depth. When two paragraphs are identical, you might assume plagiarism. In science, if two experiments produce exactly the same results on the same trials, something’s too good to be true. In the courtroom if two witnesses say exactly the same thing, the jury and judge would suspect they’ve been coached. In many different fields we know something is authentic not because the reports say the same thing (if they say exactly the same thing that’s a problem) but because they both overlap and differ. In fact, we learn from repetition when we’re young but learn more from variation when we mature.

  8. When I was leading middle school bible study I wanted to teach them about the gospels so I started out our study by having them all write down what they remembered from a guest testimony the week before. As expected, they all remembered slightly different details of her story but remembered all the same major points of her story. Then I made the comparison with the gospel writers. The students really understood it after that.

    My question though, is how reliable is each WORD written in the gospels if there are some direct contradictions?

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