Differences in the Gospels, part 2

There are differences among the Gospels. A Christian who wishes it to be otherwise might say, “I wish there was only one Gospel.” But God gave us four, and it is more respectful for us to hear them the way that God gave them to us, listening to the message of each on its own terms. That does not make their messages incompatible—just different (like, for example, my wife and me). By definition, they have to be at least somewhat different if we have four of them instead of four copies of the same Gospel.

There the matter might lay except that some people today have made a big issue out of the differences. Some popular speakers cognizant of some of the differences have used them to rhetorically terrorize (or at least scare the wits out of) many Christians who never read their Bibles enough to notice the differences to begin with. While some of us who have long seen these differences might be tempted to thank such speakers for pointing Christians to their Bibles, we wish that these Christians would have noticed these differences first in a friendlier setting. But scholars with high respect for Scripture now need to explain (and thus have the opportunity to explain) more about how Scripture is written, as well as its message.

Yes, there are differences

What is singularly unhelpful is when some Christians respond, “There are no differences there!” Again, had God wished us to have just one Gospel witness in the New Testament instead of four, he undoubtedly would have arranged for that. If the Gospels were precisely the same, they would not be different Gospels. While that observation is so simplistic that it should go without saying, responses vary in the degree of variation that the responders observe.

So what kinds of differences do we find? I shall offer in this series of posts only a very small number of samples. I am picking examples that are not very controversial, in hopes of pointing out to Christians who don’t read the Bible very much that there are in fact differences, and inviting them to respect the Bible that God gave us rather than one they wished he would have inspired differently.

I shall not spend much space addressing here those who think that such differences undermine Scripture (and sometimes use them to ridicule Christians) because I spend countless pages addressing those issues in my academic work. This blogsite is mostly for more popular level materials (since my publishers own my academic materials). (Still, I am borrowing these examples from a forthcoming book, because I really need most of my time to write the academic books, and it saves me time if I can borrow my own words from elsewhere.)

First example, the cursing of the fig tree:

Mark 11:12-25 Matt 21:12-13, 18-22
1. Jesus curses the fruitless fig tree (11:14) 2. Jesus challenges the temple (21:12-13)
2. Jesus challenges the temple (11:15-17) 1. Jesus curses the fruitless fig tree (21:19)
3. The next day, the disciples find the fig tree withered (11:20) 3. The fig tree withers at once (21:19)
4. The disciples are surprised (11:21) 4. The disciples are surprised (21:20)
5. Jesus gives a lesson on faith (11:23-25) 5. Jesus gives a lesson on faith (21:21-22)

Did Jesus curse two fig trees over the course of two days, though each Evangelist mentions only one, with one withering at once and the other withering later but the disciples needing precisely the same lesson on faith, in very similar words, each time?

But guess what? Ancient readers didn’t expect ancient biographies to be in chronological order, and moving material around was considered a matter of arrangement, not of accuracy.

And ancient expectations are what we need to consider: it is simply anachronistic to judge documents by standards that didn’t exist in their day, or genres that didn’t exist in their day, even when modern genres evolved from ancient ones with the same names. To ignore genre and the expectations that a writer could take for granted that his readers shared is like ignoring the language or culture in which a work is written. We can’t speak of the “historical reliability” of parables or psalms. Readers in the early Roman empire expected history-writing and biography to be reliable in substance, but not to have anything like verbatim recall of wording.

So critics who condemn biblical texts for differences are reading them anachronistically. So are defenders who pretend the differences aren’t there, unwilling to actually look honestly at the texts they claim to respect!

A couple more brief examples and a conclusion should wrap up this discussion—next time.

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