Differences in the Gospels, part 3

There are, as noted in parts 1 and 2, differences among the Gospels. So, picking up where we left off last time:

Second and third examples:

In Luke 7:3-6, after a significant sermon by Jesus, local Judean elders and the centurion’s friends intercede for and deliver messages for him; he does not come directly to Jesus. In Matt 8:5-7, shortly after Jesus’s parallel sermon, the centurion comes directly to Jesus, with no intermediaries.

Likewise, Matt 9:18 omits messengers in Mark 5; whereas in Mark messengers inform Jairus of his daughter’s death after he has asked Jesus to heal her (Mark 5:23, 35), in Matthew this synagogue official simply announces his daughter’s death to Jesus directly.

These examples fit not only ancient biographic conventions, but ordinary discourse. When we recount events to someone who may not want to hear every detail, we streamline a story down to the most essential points that we want to convey. I think that’s what Matthew’s doing here. If you disagree, that’s fine; you may in fact have better explanations. I have no personal stake in any particular way of explaining the differences. In some cases we are just guessing; in others, as in these second and third examples, a pattern appears to suggest one sort of explanation as more probable than another.

But whatever explanation you might prefer, please don’t try to deny what’s in the text, in the name of honoring it. That’s imposing your beliefs on the Bible, rather than submitting to what is actually there. That is not respectful to the biblical text. And certainly don’t deny what’s in the text in front of you while claiming that you are upholding biblical authority! Someone who denies what is in front of them in the text is not upholding biblical authority; they are denying it.

So here is my advice to those who, in the name of defending Scripture, don’t want to acknowledge differences. (Not that I meet many people like that; maybe I am preaching here to what I was right after my conversion.)

If they don’t see differences, it’s fairly obvious that they have never worked their way through a synopsis of the Gospels. Maybe it’s time that instead of hammering others with their theological or philosophical assumptions, they read the actual biblical text closely.

And here is my advice to those who, for the sake of attacking Scripture, see such differences as significant contradictions. (Not that those who do so normally consult me for advice.)

Look: if Matthew and Luke made changes in Mark, that means that they knew what Mark said and made the changes anyway. You yourself probably recognize that their audiences had probably already heard Mark. They obviously did not see a problem with this. Simply repeating their sources verbatim was not what they were trying to do. (In fact, most ancient historians paraphrased and adapted the wording of their sources more than the Gospel writers do in cases like this.) So chill out and quit making issues out of things that you know very well that your fellow scholars who are Christians do not find a problem with—especially since the Gospel writers and other writers of their milieu didn’t see a problem with it. What you accuse them of failing to do is not what they claimed to be doing.

For those of us who respect Scripture, let’s respect it enough to embrace it the way God gave it to us. He did not give Christians a Qur’an, dictated by a single prophet. He did not give us oracular utterances dictated by the Delphic priestess and put into nice Greek by Apollo’s priests. He didn’t even limit us to a single Gospel so that new converts would immediately understand that Jesus got crucified just once. He gave it to us the way that he gave it to us, and it’s our job to welcome it and then, by his grace, do our best to figure it out.

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