Differences in the Gospels, part 1

I was converted from a non-Christian background, so I didn’t grow up hearing the Gospels. The first time I read through the Gospels as a new believer, I was shocked. Matthew was great, but then Jesus got crucified again at the end of Mark. “How often is this going to happen?” I wondered.

I was shocked because, having been told that the Bible is God’s Word, I assumed that this meant that God had dictated it in the first-person. You could insist on it being like that if you want, but if you do insist on that, everyone who has read it will know that you haven’t.

I didn’t understand the Christian perspective that God inspired Scripture through different human authors, who sometimes treated the same events. I had a wrong understanding of what inspiration meant, an understanding that needed to be adjusted by reading the actual biblical text.

Playing catch-up

Although most Christians do not misunderstand the nature of the Bible this severely, especially if they grew up taking the Bible’s character for granted, many do have misunderstandings. Yet the little kids in Sunday School knew the Bible better than I did, so I had to work to catch up. I had always craved knowledge, but now, believing that the Bible was God’s Word, I began craving understanding of Scripture that could only be satisfied by immersing myself in it.

Reading forty chapters of the Bible a day, and so through the New Testament once a week (or the Bible once a month), was very helpful to me. After a number of weeks I had a good overview of the New Testament. I understood much better how it fit together as a series of different works and letters, and began to hear what passages meant in their context.

Sometimes preachers quote verses faster than one can look them up in context. I wanted to know the Bible, or at least the New Testament, well enough that if someone quoted a verse, I would immediately know the full context. Of course, some verses sound a lot alike, such as many passages in the Gospels that treat the same events. I wanted to know those passages so well that I could, after hearing a single verse, know which of the Gospels it came from, and therefore know its context. (Admittedly, sometimes the best I can do is just mention the several passages that sound alike.)

Examining differences

After I had been a Christian for about seven years I finished my first degree in biblical studies. At that time I decided to work my way through a synopsis of the Gospels, passage by passage, to see if there were any patterns in the differences in wording. I found that the wording was often less close to verbatim than I had expected, although the Gospel writers were often recounting the same events. I also noticed that they often told accounts in a different sequence.

Because I was eager to submit to the Bible itself, whatever I found there, more than any presupposed theology about the way God should have inspired it, I simply adjusted my understanding of inspiration to fit what I found there. I want to submit to whatever God’s Word says, not impose a philosophic or theological straitjacket on it. That was because I believed that the Bible, rather than any inherited theology about the Bible, should direct our beliefs.

I was excited about what I was discovering and contemplated making it a major emphasis in my teaching. As I weighed the needs of the church, though, I decided that these observations were not that important compared to crucial biblical themes that the church needed. One can mention such observations in passing, but churches need to hear the message of the text. Literary-theological approaches, served by ancient background, help us get at that message better than simply observing the mechanics of how writers wrote.

Why the differences?

Of course, I took such observations for granted in my academic work; those who know the biblical text well and revel in discussing it dialogue about such observations. In detailed commentaries, where we have good reason to believe that one source adapted another in some respects we naturally ask, “Why? What was the purpose of this adaptation?”

Sometimes it was to condense narratives: thus Matthew omits the paralytic being let down through the roof, though he tells the more theologically crucial part of the story. (Unless we suppose that Matthew omitted it to protest the destruction of private property!) Sometimes it was to contextualize; many scholars think that Luke envisions an Aegean-style roof different from the more common Galilean-style roof maybe presupposed by Mark (Mark 2:4; Luke 5:19). More certainly and obviously, compare Matthew’s usual “kingdom of heaven” with Mark’s “kingdom of God,” especially in parallel passages.

Sometimes it was for greater precision of wording; Matthew and Luke recognize Herod Antipas as more precisely labeled a tetrarch (Matt 14:1; Luke 3:19; 9:7; Acts 13:1) than a king (Mark 6:14, 22).

Quite often it was for style: trying to raise the level of Greek, Luke removes most of Mark’s historical presents.

Still, in what is probably a majority of cases, except where we find a pattern, one scholar’s guess is as good as another’s. Maybe it was for style. Maybe it was to abbreviate. Maybe it was to provide a few more vivid details the author heard elsewhere. Maybe one author adapted some wording to bring out a different emphasis. Sometimes these observations help us preach a particular Gospel’s message more faithfully, but often we just scratch our heads. (Maybe that is why I am going bald.)

Such differences are common whenever we compare different accounts of events, whether directly from eyewitnesses or from those who knew them. You can probably notice this pattern even in conversations in our daily lives, once you start taking note of it.

So what’s the big deal? Tune in next time for part 2.


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