Religious books or sacred texts, unlike other books, are always under scrutiny. This is understandable since sacred texts make big claims and demand their readers to make some drastic adjustments to their lives. Even the word ‘adjustments’ is an understatement in some religions. Therefore, the readers would want to make sure that what they read is believable before they decide to change; and in order to do that, they want to establish whether what they read is credible, or at least, plausible.
The Bible is not immune to this. Just because Christians claim that it is the Word of God, it does not automatically make it so nor does it automatically make people believe. Furthermore, Christianity is a historical faith, which means that God acted in history through the lives of Patriarchs and finally through the life of Jesus Christ.Therefore, the historical reliability is very crucial. If the historical accuracy of the events in the Bible cannot be established, then we must question its credibility, and consequently, its truth claims.
This post will discuss narrowly about the seeming discrepancies that one may find while reading the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). The four evangelists wrote about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. However, at some points, what they wrote differ from one another. Sceptics are quick to point out that the gospels therefore are not reliable. However, is that the case? How would we respond to this issue? The following is adapted from the last RoundTable talk titled: “Dealing with Discrepancies in the Gospels”
The apparent discrepancies or differences when the Gospels are compared can be explained in a number of ways:
1. Different Sayings
On occasions, what appears to be two different versions of the one saying may actually be two separate sayings on two different occasions. Jesus was an itinerant preacher. He moved from town to town to teach and preach the Kingdom of God. Just like other itinerant preachers, Jesus might be teaching the same material in different towns. Furthermore, one gospel writer might remember one particular detail from one ‘version’ of the saying, while the other writer remember another particular detail. However, what is clear is that they do not report materials whose meanings contradict each other. As a result, naturally and expectedly, there might have been slight variations at each telling of the same material, without diminishing the essence of the material.
2. Different Emphasis by Author
Sometimes, it seems clear that the Gospel writers themselves utilise Jesus’ teaching to reflect their own concerns. For example, Matthew recorded one of the Beatitudes as “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God,” while Luke recorded it as simply “Blessed are you who are poor …”
We need to remember that the Gospels are theological histories – the story of Jesus is presented with a particular purpose in mind and this affects choices regarding what is included, the order of events, and the wording. This might not accord with our Western post-Enlightenment sensibilites regarding history writing, but it is unfair for us to judge ancient Mediterranean texts by our standards. Furthermore, as I said the other night, there is no such thing as pure history, for everone that writes history presents a particular slant on events and thus is an interpreter.
This said, the above example is readily explained by the rather wide semantic range (range of meaning) in the Hebrew /Aramaic word for “poor”. It could be used of the economically poor, the social poor, or the religious poor (i.e. the humble righteous). So both Matt and Luke each focus on one aspect of the meaning / use of this particular term, again, without contradicting the essence of the message.
3. Different Streams of Oral Tradition
We, who lives in a literary culture, might not understand the way information is transmitted during the early church time which was still heavily an oral culture. Today, we can simply pass on an information by passing an article, a news clipping, or a book. What we read is the same as what other people read, to the letters and punctuations. In oral cultures, however, communities preserve stories that are integral to its collective identity by telling the stories to the next generations. There were no set teachers. The elder males normally had the right to retell the story. There is a fixed core story within each story while the peripheral details might differ from one retelling to another. Stories that define each community have been passed down for hundreds of years this way without breaking the integrity of the core story. Therefore, it is normal to spot the peripheral differences between two retellings of the same story.
We must note, however, that this is not only applicable to Biblical material. This kind of peripheral differences can be found also in other historical documents. As long as we are not unnecessarily obsessed with peripheral differences, we can learn and appreciate historical events as recorded for us, and therefore, we can understand the biblical events without doubting its essential accuracy.
4. How does this relate to our views of an inspired text?
The compilation of the Biblical books, including the Gospels, was quite a complex phenomenon. It is both Divine authorship, which means that it is breathed by God (2 Tim 3:16), and at the same time it is genuinely human authorship as well. The authors were not ‘possessed’ by some kind of a spirit when they wrote their book. Rather, the authors were still very much pouring into his writing his personality, his cultural background, and his writing style, but all that without violating what the Holy Spirit intends to be written. In the case of the Gospels, the four authors were not possessed by the Spirit to write an exact same copy of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Rather, they wrote their Gospel with their intended purpose (aligned with God’s purpose), using their own personal style, and drawing upon whatever other oral or written sources that they could access.
This ought to leave us with a bigger view of God. It shows that God can use different person to write about His Son, using their personality and their unique individuality, without compromising on the essential truth. Some people of course would claim that other sacred text(s) that has only one version would be more credible. Interestingly, in fact, if this is the case, this might even be more suspicious because anyone can whatever he or she wants to write and claims that it is revelation from God. If there are four eyewitnesses in court saying exactly the same thing with the same words and expressions, wouldn’t they be more likely to be conspiring or colluding? On the other hand, the fact that the four Gospel writers record slightly different details does enrich the stories of the gospel.
5. The General Reliability of the Gospels
It is also worth mentioning a few other points that would help convince us about the reliability of the gospels.
Firstly, early Church issues do not appear in the synoptic gospels. The first written Gospel was written at least 30 years after Jesus’ time on earth. During this time, according to the book of Acts, there were already some issues that the early Church must grapple with, for example the issue of whether or not Gentiles must be circumcised when they believe in Jesus. If the authors of the gospels are trying to advance their own propaganda, they would have included this in their Gospel content to sway it one direction or another.
Secondly, the authors do not shy away from embarrassing contents. The apostles, who were the leaders of the church, most of the time look rather dumb. Judas betrayed Jesus. Peter, their number one guy, denied Jesus three times. Jesus was baptised by John, not the other way around. Jesus claim that He did not know when He was coming back. Surely, if the authors were writing their own agenda, they would embellish some of the above to make their writing appear more appealing. However, they didn’t, clearly because they were reporting what really happened.
Thirdly, over the years, more and more archaeological finds confirm specific accounts in the Gospels. The followings are some of them:
- Unearthing of a house in Capernaum that appears to be that of Simon Peter, with a roof structure as per that described in Mark 2:1-10
- Evacuations of Herod’s temple have shown a passageway between the stables and halls of money changers, thus confirming the details of John 2:15
- Discovery of a five-porticoed sided pool inside the sheep gate, thus confirming John 5:2
- The discovery of the remains of a crucified Jew named Jehohanan, which show a spike driven through the ankles, and broken legs (thus confirming John 19:32). Also this man clearly received a proper Jewish burial, as opposed to some who claim that Jesus wouldn’t have been buried properly after cruficixion.
- The probable site of Golgotha lies just insider the church of the Holy Sepulchure, on a rejected portion on an ancient quarry (thus giving new insights into the stone text of Psalm 118:22 quoted in Mark 12:10; 1 Peter 2:7).
So, do we have the original words of Jesus? Probably not all that were recorded are verbatim considering that the stories were transmitted orally for over 30+ years before recorded in writing in the Gospels. However, we can be sure that their meaning and intention are true to what Jesus taught and intended. We can also be sure that the fact that we have four Gospel writers give even more credibility to the integrity of the record of the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We have to admit that the above explanations might not satisfy the curiosity of some. In fact, there will always be people who will refuse to admit the truth of the gospel regardless how much evidence or explanation given. However, if we are open and humble enough, we can be sure that the Gospels do give us a window on the original impact that Jesus made on His disciples, the impact that continues until today on all His disciples in particular, and on this world in general.