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.
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.