Four Gospels give us the story of Jesus — four Gospels that are both similar & different. Are these differences a reason for angst or joy? Are these differences contradictions?
Reading the Gospels:
Vertical Reading = No Problem
Horizontal Reading = Problems
When we read the Gospels in the New Testament, we usually do it vertically, meaning from top to bottom. Then, once we finish one Gospel, we move on to the next. Each Gospel is internally consistent, and the overall stories of Jesus in each Gospel compliment each other.
Yet, once you grow more familiar with each Gospel, you will likely start to notice some differences. And if you believe the Bible is the Word of God, these differences will cause you some understandable discomfort.
Popular, skeptical New Testament scholar and writer, Bart Ehrman writes that it’s when we read the Gospels horizontally that we can no longer ignore that the Gospels don’t just have differences but that they actually contradict each other.
Ehrman explains, “In horizontal reading you read a story in one of the Gospels, and then read the same story as told by another Gospel, as if they were written in columns next to each other. And you compare the stories carefully, in detail.” Once you do this, Ehrman says, the number and nature of these differences become unignorable, and he believes many of these differences put the four Gospels “at odds with one another.”
Differences or Contradictions?
In this series, we will be looking at some of these differences and see that, despite what Ehrman writes, a difference doesn’t necessarily mean a contradiction. After all, logically speaking, contradictions mean at least one of the truth statements must be false. But, as will be shown, differences don’t damage our understanding of the Gospels but actually enrich our understanding of the Gospels.
This series will cover some general principles that you can use when you do come across a Gospel difference. Using these principles, many of these perceived differences can be easily explained.
In this series, we will not be addressing every difference, but by learning and applying these general principles, you’ll find that most differences between the Gospels easily substantiate that these are meaningful differences purposely and purposefully made by the individual authors and not erroneous contradictions.
I will be honest in saying there are some differences that are much more difficult to rectify. Where provable solutions may not be possible at this time, plausible solutions can be offered.
Before we even get into the principles (and so I can’t be accused of sugar-coating anything), let’s start off by looking at what I consider one of the most difficult and obvious differences in the New Testament: The Death of Judas. Now, where this series will be focusing on the four Gospels alone, this difference is actually found between the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Acts.
The Death of Judas
Matthew 27:5-8: “So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the coins and said, ‘It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.’ So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.”
Acts 1:18-19: “With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.”
Can we rectify these two accounts?
Some things to consider:
- One possible explanation is Judas hung himself on a tree and hung there festering (possibly throughout the Sabbath, the day of rest) and then fell and burst.
- This coincides with what we know about gases building up in decomposing “bloated” bodies.
- His purchase of the field mentioned in Acts simply means he indirectly purchased it since the money belonged to him. (“Selective Representation” will be covered later.)
- Judas’ manner of dying on the land would make it “unclean” by Jewish religious law; thus, it would make sense that the only thing the land could be used for is burying non-Jews.
- Deuteronomy 21:22-23: “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.”
Does this information give us a plausible explanation? We should be honest about these difficulties, and though we’d like to neatly resolve every one, we ought to be sure not to force explanations onto the text. If nothing else, we may have to, at times, simply trust God and hope a solution comes to light as we learn new information.
Further, it’s also helpful to note that these are difficulties Christians have been aware of since the early church fathers, yet they still believed the Bible was God’s divine Scripture. Though skeptics like Bart Ehrman and others may present these differences as if saying “Ah-ha! Gotcha!” to Christians, these difficulties have been known from the early days of the Christian church.
So, we have to ask: Why have four Gospels in the New Testament Canon? If the early church knew of these difficult differences, why not get rid of three of the Gospels and just keep one? Or why not edit the four Gospels to smooth out any differences that may be perceived as contradictions?
The answer is obvious: Because they understood all four Gospels to be the Word of God. And when you’re holding the Word of God, you don’t get rid of some of it or mess with it.
Joy and Angst
New Testament scholar and professor, Dr. Jonathan Pennington writes in his book Reading the Gospels Wisely that some individuals in the early church had actually tried to combine the four gospels into one unified, harmonized, super Gospel! But, despite charges by opponents that the four Gospels contradicted each other, the church rejected these efforts to create one harmonized edition of the Gospels.
Church fathers, like Irenaeus and Augustine, defended the Gospels against pagan accusers, but “this defense would not be pursued at the expense of losing the fourfold apostolic witness as such, warts and all” because it would be “too high a price to pay; it goes against what was greatly valued in the church, the testimony of the Gospels given through individual eyewitness apostles (Matthew and John) and their close associates (Mark and Luke).”
Wrestling with such passages is what Dr. Jonathan Pennington calls the joy and angst of having four Gospels. (And, yes, this is where I got the title of this series.*) This blog series is not simply to defend the Gospels, but to positively show that having four Gospels brings our understanding of the life and work of Jesus Christ deeper than any one piece of writing can do.
Two questions to ponder for now (and throughout this series):
- If the supposed “contradictions” are such an issue, why did the early church keep all four Gospels?
- What do we gain by having four Gospels?
NEXT: PART 2: BASIC PRINCIPLES
 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009), Loc 396, Kindle edition.
 Ibid., Loc 380.
 Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1066, Kindle edition.
 Ibid., Loc 1094.
 Ibid., Loc 1100.
 Ibid., Loc 1029.
*With thanks to Dr. Pennington for granting me permission to do so.
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