In the prior post I paused to reach out to those who’ve been put off by the church. And I talked about evaluating miracle claims, suggesting that philosopher David Hume’s “doctrine” of skepticism would blind a person to a true miracle if it occurred.
In this post: What can be said about the disagreements between the four Gospel accounts? If all claim to be inspired Scripture, how can they differ?
Years ago when I first heard the argument from “differences,” I was taken aback.
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 of difference, mind you. Not too much, not too little.
Big differences would be bad. What’s big? If one account said Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead, and another said he was not killed at all but moved to Egypt to live out his last days on earth, that would be a problem.
Zero differences would also be suspect. Imagine four reports on the life of a major figure — say, Martin Luther King — that were identical in detail. Every account exactly the same. “Too good to be true,” we’d say to ourselves. We’d suspect the authors of collusion, conspiracy, hidden agenda. Now, transfer that thinking to the Gospel accounts. People are already suspicious of religious documents and claims. Gospels written “too perfect” would, indeed, be too good. Too good for believability.
In the four reports of Jesus’ life in the New Testament (NT) — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — we find broad agreement on the “big rocks,” such as Jesus’ teaching, geography, death and resurrection. Let’s call it “70% agreement,” just as a point of reference. Don’t quote me on that figure. It’s meant to suggest broad commonality.
But we also find in the Gospel accounts divergence on many details, such as sequencing of events, and some factual matters. The explanation? Sometimes the answer is simply the act of selectivity: each author selected different parts of Jesus’ life to report. Scrolls had limitations. Not everything about Jesus could be recorded in each Gospel. And sometimes they grouped events and teachings of Jesus’ life by theme rather than telling the story chronologically, “play-by-play.”
Another category of difference is vitally important: apparent factual discrepancies.
Sometimes the differences are deeper. Sometimes the Gospels seem to outright disagree with each other. Examples:
- The four accounts don’t agree on the names of the twelve apostles.
- The genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke don’t harmonize.
- The final week of Jesus’ life as recorded in John seems off by a day.
- The number of angels at the empty tomb after Jesus’ resurrection differs in the accounts.
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 events from four different perspectives. Tension on relatively minor points thus increases the historical probability of Jesus’ life, overall.
It should be noted that textual problems (such as apparent contradictions) have been given much scholarly attention over the centuries and many have been given plausible solutions. Others remain a mystery. In a two millennium-old literary work such as the NT, we must sometimes humbly admit we don’t know all the answers.
In any case, by ancient standards of precision the Gospels were written very reliably. The main goal of the authors was to capture the essence of their chief character, Jesus Christ. Details of chronology and setting were sometimes rearranged to serve this goal. And since the disciples of Jesus observed his basic teachings and miracles repeatedly in many times and places, it’s understandable they would select and distill memories from a wide array of observations, creating four Gospel accounts that harmonize on the essentials and perhaps diverge on certain details.
Orality: Additionally, it should be remembered that the Jesus story was reproduced orally for many years before it was written down. Oral tradition was authoritative in the time period, since many people could not read or write. Oral “tradents” (performers who recited the Jesus stories to others) were skilled at their craft and possessed incredible ability to memorize lengthy narratives. Eye-witnesses to Jesus’ life were present for these performances and could correct any errors. *
Eventually, the need for written transmission caused the early church to select the four Gospel accounts as we know them, thus finalizing the church’s presentation of Jesus Christ to the world. Church leaders knew about the tension points in the accounts but chose to leave them as of secondary importance. In other words, the Gospels were never airbrushed to perfection. Slightly rough around the edges, they purport to tell the true story of the Son of God come to earth to save ordinary people.
To summarize, broad agreement in the Gospels regarding the main events and teaching of Jesus’ life help capture the essence of his identity and character, giving us assurance that he actually walked the dusty roads of Palestine, taught the ways of God, performed miracles, died on a cross and rose from the dead – all as recorded.
Differences due to selectivity, or outright tension points between the Gospels give the accounts a sense of authenticity and reliability, in an ironic way. We wouldn’t ordinarily think of “differences” as adding credibility, yet minor differences do just that. And as mentioned, major differences, if present, would reduce the credibility and believability of the Gospels.**
So the saying “major on the majors and minor on the minors” is true for ancient Gospel reading. If we take the texts on their own terms we discover an authoritative revelation of God. That’s my view, and I commend it to you. But if we force the texts anachronistically into modern categories of journalism, we’re liable to miss the Son of God hidden in plain view, right before our eyes and ears. In fact, that reminds of me one of Jesus’ pointed questions: “Do you have eyes but fail to see?”
In the next post I’ll talk about some of the embarrassing material in the Gospels and ask the question of how this affects their credibility.
* See David Wenham and Donald Hagner: From Good News to Gospels: What Did the First Christians Say About Jesus? The authors detail many of the references in the NT back to the oral tradition, and talk helpfully about the general nature of orality in the time of Jesus.
** For further reading on the question of differences and discrepancies in the Gospels, see Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, ch 4.