The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 2) Understanding Differences Between the Accounts

THE CHALLENGE OF FOUR GOSPEL ACCOUNTS

 

Women-at-tomb

READ PART 1: The Significance of the Women Witnesses.

THE PROBLEM OF 4 ACCOUNTS

To get the most out of this short blog series, I suggest taking some time to read the 4 Gospel accounts of the women and the empty tomb:

  • Matthew 28:1-10
  • Mark 16:1-8
  • Luke 24:1-12
  • John 20:1-18

When we read the accounts of the women finding the empty tomb and the events that immediately follow (including the resurrection appearances of Jesus) we run into some major challenges: All four Gospels, at first glance, seem to have major differences!

For instance, in Matthew, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” go to the tomb. In Mark, Mary Magdalene, Mary (James’ mother), and Salmone go to the tomb. In Luke, Mary Magdalene, Mary (James’ mother), Joanna, and “other women” go. And in John, only Mary Magdalene is mentioned.

Further, in Matthew, it appears that an earthquake happens, an angel in a dazzling white robe rolls back the stone in front of the tomb’s entrance and sits on it as the Roman guards pass out from fear. Then, it seems, the angel speaks to the women from atop the stone about Jesus’ resurrection. 

Yet, in Luke, the women find the stone already rolled away from the tomb’s entrance when they arrive, and once they go inside, two angels in dazzling clothes announce Jesus’ resurrection. The women go and tell Jesus’ disciples.

In Mark, the women seemingly find only one angel in the open tomb, and the angel tells them to go tell Jesus’ disciples. Yet, the women flee in fear and say “nothing to anyone”!

And in John, it seems Mary Magdalene alone finds the stone rolled away from the tomb’s entrance and Jesus’ body missing. She runs to tell Peter and John. After Peter and John race to the empty tomb, they leave, and then Mary encounters two angels and the risen Jesus. She, then, goes and tells Jesus’ disciples.

As you undoubtedly see, all four of these share similar key details but have considerable differences. What are we to make of this, and can the differences be rectified? Do we have to accept that the Gospel writers got the “big” details correct, but got the “smaller” details wrong?

 

UNDERSTANDING THE GOSPELS AS ANCIENT BIOGRAPHY

First, we need to understand some basic characteristics of ancient historical writing. The Gospels reflect the style of ancient biographies. In short, these ancient biographies sometimes used literary devices that may seem a bit odd to us today.

This has been thoroughly documented by Michael Licona in Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography as well as elsewhere. What follows is my own simplified explanation and own phraseology, some of which differs from Licona. For a more in depth look at this, along with many more examples from the Gospels, see my earlier GFTM blog 7-part series: The Joy and Angst of Four Gospels.

Once we understand these ancient literary conventions (which, in truth, most are used by modern writers as well), the chain-of-events surrounding the empty tomb will fall into place. Understanding this will not just help here in understanding the differences between these passages, but will help any time you read parallel passages across the Gospels and notice differences.

 

1. Selective Details

First, writers must leave out much more than they include in a retelling of true events. All good writers are selective in what details they include, and they select those details for a specific purpose.

Keep in mind, a difference and a contradiction aren’t the same thing. Writers may select certain details to emphasize something while totally ignoring other details another writer may include. That’s not a contradiction. Things that contradict can’t both be true. So, when we’re looking at parallel passages, we have to ask ourselves: Can the differences all be true without contradiction?

 

2. Paraphrasing

Differences in dialogue between Gospels can be understood with two simple concepts.

First of all, the authors are likely not giving us the full dialogue but only selective sections.

Second of all, the dialogue — or at least parts of it — might be a paraphrase. Though modern Bibles have quotation marks around dialogue, quotation marks didn’t exist in ancient Greek. Also, keep in mind, Jesus likely taught primarily in Aramaic, but the Gospels were written in Greek. Thus, we don’t know if what is written is supposed to be a word-for-word representation or a paraphrase or a summary. 

Even in modern times, when telling a true story, people rarely repeat the dialogue verbatim. Instead, they sum up the dialogue by paraphrasing.

 

3. Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)

Next, think of a telescope. A telescope can be extended to its full length or it can be compressed to a much smaller size. Ancient historians sometimes give a longer account with more details, but sometimes they compress the account, cut out details, and tell it in abbreviated form. To understand this better, share about a true event with your friend and take a good five minutes or more to tell it. Afterwards, tell the same story again but in 30 seconds.

To illustrate telescoping (as well as some other literary concepts covered here) let me tell you about Paterson, New Jersey and mixed martial arts fighter Jon Jones. 

Established in 1792, Paterson, NJ is the first planned industrial city in the United States, thanks to Alexander Hamilton and a 77-foot waterfall called the Great Falls on the Passaic River. The Great Falls produced a lot of energy for running mills, making Paterson a major player during the Industrial Revolution. Not only was the city known for its cotton, wool, and (later) silk mills, but the first locomotives and the first Colt revolvers where manufactured there. I taught high school English for 16 years in downtown Paterson, a short walk from the Great Falls. It’s an interesting sight: A huge waterfall in the middle of one of the most urban areas of the United States. In 2011, the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park was established thanks to President Obama.

In 2011, I had been involved in martial arts for about as long as I had been teaching in Paterson when I heard the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) was coming to Newark, NJ. On March 19, 2011, Jon “Bones” Jones would fight Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for the light heavyweight belt. I bought my tickets and was anxiously awaiting fight night when these two very different parts of my world collided.

On the day of the fight, Jon Jones had visited the Great Falls. But the really exciting news was that he had stopped a thief from stealing a woman’s purse while there. I was at work when I heard this, barely a block away from where this happened, so I got on the internet as soon as I could to find out more details. Evidently, Jon Jones had gone to the Great Falls to relax before his big fight and, instead, found himself using his martial arts skills to take down a bad guy not unlike a comic book hero.

So, here’s how all this about Paterson, Jon Jones, and the Gospels intersect: As I read various online articles about the incident — some very short, some longer — it was interesting to see how different articles gave different details. Longer articles would fill in details that the shorter articles left out. The shorter articles took shortcuts in retelling the story. It wasn’t until after reading several different articles that I felt like I had a full picture of what happened.

For example, one article only mentioned that Jones stopped a thief who stole a woman’s purse, so in my head I was picturing a purse-snatching or mugging. But another article explained that the purse was grabbed through the window of a parked car. One article only stated that Jones chased down and physically stopped the thief, where another gave the detail that a double-leg takedown (a standard wrestling move) was involved.

This is similar to the differences we find between the four Gospels. Ancient writers write differently than we’re used to and we can’t expect them to write like modern newspaper reporters, but there are shared similarities. In their articles, modern reporters select the details they will or will not share; sometimes they include direct quotes and sometimes they paraphrase or summarize what someone said; they “telescope” — sometimes they retell the events in a longer format or they compress it all into a shorter telling.

Finally, they also use “Selective Representation.”

 

4. Selective Representation

Selective Representation is when an ancient writer only focuses on one person instead of everyone involved. At other times, the writer may focus on several people to represent the larger group. This explains why Matthew and Mark mention only one angel in the empty tomb, but Luke mentions two. Matthew and Mark appear to be only focusing on one, likely the one who spoke. Let me point out this isn’t a contradiction. It would be a contradiction if one of the writers claimed that there was only one angel in the tomb, which none of the writers do. 

Likewise, this explains why Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention different women with Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb and John only mentions Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is the most known of the women, so John only focuses on her. This may seem odd to us today to not mention the other women with her at all, but even modern writers do this. When I read the articles about Jon Jones stopping the purse thief, several writers only mentioned Jon Jones being involved. It wasn’t until I read other articles that I learned that Jon Jones’ trainers were also involved in chasing and stopping the thief! Thus, some of the articles focused only on the person with the big name, the most famous person involved — Jon Jones. Likewise, John’s Gospel only focuses on the “big name” of the women, the most “famous” person involved — Mary Magdalene. Again, let me point out that this isn’t a contradiction. For it to be a contradiction, John would have had to written that only Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty.

 

5. Selective Chronology

Of these literary conventions used by ancient authors, this may be the one that is most odd to us today. Ancient writers, even when retelling true events, didn’t feel as compelled as us today to place things in chronological, linear fashion. Ancient writers used more flexibility in narrative sequence than modern writers. In other words, they were okay with moving things around to emphasize a point. Sometimes they organized things in topical or thematic groups. The overall structure of the story remains the same, but the smaller units within the bigger framework may be moved around. 

For example, in Matthew 13 we find several parables of Jesus with similar messages. Did Jesus say all of these parables one-after-another or did Matthew lump these parables with similar themes together? Either option is possible. 

Another example: When did Jesus drive the merchants out of the Temple? John has it happening at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but the other three Gospels has him doing it at the end. One possible explanation is that John is using Selective Chronology to emphasize Jesus’ zeal at the beginning of his Gospel. (Of course, another simple explanation is that Jesus drove out the merchants twice — once towards the beginning and once towards the ending of his ministry.) 

To sum up, when reading ancient biographies like the Gospels, we find:

  • Selective Details
  • Paraphrasing
  • Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)
  • Selective Representation
  • Selective Chronology

 

Next, armed with this understanding of ancient biographical writing conventions, we’ll place the events surrounding the women and the empty tomb in chronological order.

NEXT: The third (and final) article in this series: Harmonizing the empty tomb accounts.

READ PART 1: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses.

READ Part 1 of The Joy and Angst of Four Gospels.

The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE WOMEN WITNESSES 

Women-at-tomb

After Jesus’ arrest, Peter — one of Jesus closest disciples — denied association with Jesus three times and the rest of the remaining 12 “inner circle” disciples ran off, abandoning Jesus (Mark 14:50). Even if we were to take a skeptical stance when reading the Gospels, this doesn’t seem like an invented detail by the early church since it certainly doesn’t make the disciples look good; these same men would be leading the early church, especially Peter. It was the woman who stayed by Jesus to watch him die on the cross (along with John)(Matthew 27:55; Luke 23:49; John 19:25-27), and it was the women to first see him alive afterwards.

The New Testament Gospels report that at least five women, several who are named, including Mary Magdalene, were the first to find Jesus’ tomb empty, and Jesus’ first post-crucifixion appearances were to Mary Magdalene and (at least some of) these other women (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-18). Considering that in first-century Israel women’s testimony wasn’t taken seriously, even in a court of law, this is an interesting detail.

The Talmud, a written commentary on the Jewish oral law, gives us insight into attitudes towards women in first-century Israel when it puts the testimony of women as witnesses on the same level as gamblers (dice-players and pigeon-racers, to be exact) and slaves [1]. A well-known morning prayer for Jewish men thanks God that “You have not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” With this, first-century Jewish historian Josephus writes:

“But let not a single witness be credited; but three, or two at the least; and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” (Antiquities of the Jews 4.8.15)

In fact, when the women share that they witnessed Jesus alive, the disciples don’t take them seriously (Luke 24:10-11) — yet another detail not likely to be invented; it certainly makes the future leaders of the church look clueless. Even 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, an important early confession of the church, mentions numerous eyewitnesses of the resurrection by name but leaves out naming any women. (We can assume the women were numbered with the 500 unnamed witnesses it mentions.)

So, the big question is: Why would all four Gospel writers claim that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection when no one in their culture would take the testimony of women seriously? Even in the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus mocked Christianity as a religion based on the testimony of Mary Magdalene, a “half-frantic woman.” [2]

Therefore, it seems unlikely the Gospel writers would invent this detail if they were only looking to convince people of Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, this detail points towards the opposite: The Gospel writers were more concerned with reporting what they believed to be true than creating a story of mass appeal. 

The combination of the embarrassing details of Peter’s denial and the male disciples’ abandonment of Jesus; the absurdity of worshipping a crucified God-man to first-century Jews and Romans (which I wrote about before); and the first witnesses of the resurrection being women all are details very unlikely to be invented if the Gospels were mere fictions, especially if they were invented to win converts to a new religion. 

 

THE CHALLENGE OF FOUR GOSPEL ACCOUNTS

As I pointed out before, when we read the retelling of the same event in more than one Gospel, sometimes they’re told differently and this often causes confusion. (Let me point out, this is often the case when reading four independent accounts of any incident.) For instance, the two birth narratives in Matthew and Luke share key details but are also extremely different, almost seeming like two different stories. But when we read them carefully, we can figure out how they fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Much of Matthew’s account — including the visit of the magi and the flight to Egypt — occur later than many of the events recorded in Luke’s account, perhaps months or even a year or two after Jesus’ birth.

When we read the accounts of the women finding the empty tomb and the events that immediately follow (including the resurrection appearances of Jesus) we run into the same challenge but worse. All four Gospels, at first glance, seem to have major differences!

Take some time to read the 4 Gospel accounts of the women and the empty tomb:

  • Matthew 28:1-10
  • Mark 16:1-8
  • Luke 24:1-12
  • John 20:1-18

Next article, we’ll tackle how to understand these differences.

NEXT: Differences vs. Contradictions & the Gospels as Ancient Biographic Literature

[1] Rosh Hashannah 1.8

[2] Quoted by Origen in Against Celsus.

Even More Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels: Can Apologetics Get Any More Sexy?

*Are there Undesigned Coincidences between the Gospels & ancient writings outside of the Bible? How can minor details in the Gospels show the reliability of the Gospels? Are you sexy enough to handle this?*

4_Gospels_painting

Series intro: What’s an Undesigned Coincidence?

Where key, major details remain the same when two or more authors write about the same historic event, we find minor details may be added or left out. An “undesigned coincidence” is when one account provides details, but another account written about the same incident by a different author gives more insight into those details. We see “undesigned coincidences” when we have two or more independently investigated accounts of the same event, and we find undesigned coincidences throughout the Gospels of the New Testament.

It’s highly unlikely that such complimentary minor details would be deliberately falsified, and the assurance that they’re based on authentic events is extremely high. In other words, when multiple people retell a true story, they may include minor details without an explanation of those details and others telling the same story may unintentionally fill in those missing pieces. Such non-deliberate cohesion smacks of authenticity.

Read PART 1: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels: It Don’t Sound Sexy, But Oh Man It Is

Read PART 2: More Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels: Bringing Sexy Apologetics Back

Fish_nets

Yes, by now you’ve probably figured out that I’ve been shamelessly placing “sexy” in every title of this series to catch people’s attention (with a healthy dose of irony). Here are more examples of Undesigned Coincidences:

 

Fixin’ to Fix Some Fish Nets

18 Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. 19 And He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. 21 Going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him. (Matthew 4:18-22)

 

OK, one big question immediately comes to mind when reading this passage: Why were these fishermen so quick to follow Jesus? I mean, would you give up your livelihood and abandon your family simply because some dude tells you to follow him?

Well, we find the answer not in Matthew, but in the much longer account in the Gospel of Luke:

 

5 Now it happened that while the crowd was pressing around Him and listening to the word of God, He was standing by the lake of Gennesaret; 2 and He saw two boats lying at the edge of the lake; but the fishermen had gotten out of them and were washing their nets. 3 And He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little way from the land. And He sat down and began teaching the people from the boat.

4 When He had finished speaking, He said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 Simon answered and said, “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but I will do as You say and let down the nets.” 6 When they had done this, they enclosed a great quantity of fish, and their nets began to break; 7 so they signaled to their partners in the other boat for them to come and help them. And they came and filled both of the boats, so that they began to sink.

8 But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9 For amazement had seized him and all his companions because of the catch of fish which they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men.” 11 When they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him. (Luke 5:1-11)

 

So, the reason the fishermen are so quick to follow Jesus in Matthew is because this is not the first time they’ve seen him! In fact, they’d witnessed Jesus teach and perform a miracle before he told them to follow him. No wonder they followed him so quickly in Matthew’s Gospel!

Where Matthew gives us more details of the actual moment of the calling of the fishermen, Luke gives a longer account (which includes the miracle before the calling) but then he simply summarizes or condenses – shortens or telescopes – the events after the miracle by simply telling us the fishermen left everything and followed Jesus. Where Matthew chose to emphasize the actual calling, Luke chose to emphasize the miracle. (Learn more about telescoping in another GFTM article.)

 

Furthermore, notice Matthew uses the word “immediately” twice. Both pairs of brothers — Peter and Andrew and James and John — followed Jesus “immediately” when called to follow. But Luke does NOT tell us they followed Jesus “immediately” after returning to the land, meaning some time could’ve passed between the two events.

Only when we look at Matthew and Luke together can we conclude that some time had actually passed between the return to the shore after the miraculous catch and when the fishermen left with Jesus. How long exactly? We can’t say – but not a lot of time, because we’re told in Matthew’s Gospel that James and John were fixing the torn nets.

And, Yes! That is another Undesigned Coincidence between Luke’s and Matthew’s account of the calling of Peter and the other fishermen:

Matthew tells us in 4:21 that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were “mending their nets.” Why? The detail is fleshed out in Luke. Luke 5:6 tells us during the miraculous catch, “… they enclosed a great quantity of fish, and their nets began to break.”

Perhaps the sons of Zebedee would’ve been more annoyed with Jesus for damaging their nets if he hadn’t done so by performing a miracle.

Christmas_Donkey

External Undesigned Coincidences

Up to this point in this series, we’ve been looking at examples of Internal Undesigned Coincidences — “internal” meaning within the Bible.

To end this series (for now), we’ll look at External Undesigned Coincidences — meaning collaborations between details in the Gospels with information outside of the Bible.

 

Runnin’ from Archelaus

In the Gospel of Matthew, in the birth narrative of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, having been warned in a dream, flee with the newborn Jesus to Egypt from the wrath of Herod the Great. Then Matthew tells us this:

 

19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, 20 “Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.” 21 So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, 23 and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:19-23)

 

So, who is Archelaus? And why was Joseph so afraid of him? Matthew doesn’t give us one clue, nor does the rest of the Bible!

But we learn about Archelaus from outside the Bible, in another piece of ancient writing. We learn about Archelaus in the writings of Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian (37-100 AD). Archelaus is Herod Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great, who became ethnarch of Judea for a short period after the death of his father.

Due to growing tension between the Romans, the Jews, and the Jew’s Roman-appointed Herodian rulers (who were seen as half-breeds and traitors by the Jews), Josephus reports that Herod Archelaus slaughtered 3,000 Jews at the Temple during the Passover to quell a possible uprising.

So, why were Joseph and Mary afraid of Archelaus? Ancient historian Jospehus gives us the obvious answer in his work Antiquities of the Jews. Thus, Joseph and his family fled from Archelaus to Nazareth in Galilee, a place outside of the territory of Archelaus’s reign.

Herod the Great?

Herod the Great…?

Likewise, many rulers (including kings, governors, etc.) mentioned in the New Testament are also mentioned by Josephus, including Pontius Pilate, Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa, and Antonius Felix. Josephus also wrote about John the Baptist, Jesus’ brother James, and Jesus himself. (Read this GFTM article to learn more about what Josephus said about Jesus.)

In fact, 84 facts in the last 16 chapters of the Book of Acts alone have been confirmed by historical and archaeological evidence outside of the Bible, and in the Gospel of Luke, 11 historically proven leaders appear in the first 3 chapters alone. New archeological discoveries have continually supported the reliability of the biblical record, including the discovery of Jacob’s Well, a building inscription of the name Pontius Pilate, and an ossuary containing the bones of Caiaphas, the high priest who helped orchestrate the crucifixion of Jesus.

Josephus...?

Josephus…?

Related GFTM articles:

Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels: It Don’t Sound Sexy, But Oh Man It Is

More Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels: Bringing Sexy Apologetics Back

Is the Bible Any More Accurate than Other Religious Texts?

Is There Evidence of Jesus’ Existence (Outside the Bible)?

The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 4 – The Gospels as Ancient Biography & History & “Narrative Creativity”

Books by GFTM:

Searching the Bible for Mother God: Examining the Teachings of the World Mission Society Church of God

 

 

The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 3 – Dealing with Differences in Jesus’ Words

Why do we sometimes read the same teachings of Jesus with different wording in the Gospels? Did the Gospel writers mess up? Are Jesus’ words inaccurate in the Gospels? 

SERIES INTRO: Often skeptics point to differences in the four Gospels of Jesus Christ and claim they are contradictions. This series will cover some general principles that you can use when you do come across a Gospel difference. By using these principles, many of these perceived differences can be easily explained. On the other hand, this 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.

** Read Part 1 HERE: Differences or Contradictions? **

** Read Part 2 HERE: Basic Principles: Understanding the Gospels as Literature, History & Theology **

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More Basic Principles: Making Sense of Differences in Jesus’ Words

Between the Gospels, sometimes we read Jesus saying similar things but in different ways with different words. Should this concern us? Do the differences prove that the Gospel writers were getting some of Jesus’ words wrong?

 3 verbal verbs easily explain these differences:

(1) Repeating, (2) Translating, (3) Paraphrasing

Let’s briefly look at each one:

 

(1) Repeating

Jesus likely repeated teachings but worded them in different ways,[1] as most modern preachers do. We know from the Gospels that Jesus’ ministry lasted about 3 years as he traveled from place to place. Jesus would’ve repeated the same teachings many times to new audiences. It’s unlikely he would repeat the same lessons in the exact same wording each time. We can also logically assume that he adapted his teachings to audience, local situations, etc. as all good public speakers do.

Thus, different Gospel writers may be reporting a different time Jesus taught a common lesson.

 

(2) Translating

The original Gospels were written in ancient Greek, the common tongue of the ancient world (due to the conquests of Alexander the Great), but Jesus, being a Palestinian Jew, likely taught in Aramaic. Thus, even in the original language of the Gospels, we don’t have Jesus’ exact words. Should this concern us?

We can’t be sure we have Jesus’ “exact words” everywhere in the Bible, but we can be certain we have “his own voice,”[2] meaning his exact ideas. Any translating requires an amount of interpretation since many words and phrases cannot be translated word-for-word.

Translating need not concern us; accurate translating is an everyday occurrence. For example, two bilingual siblings may translate their Spanish-speaking mother’s words to their English-speaking teacher in different ways, though the same accurate idea remains.

Furthermore, all four Gospels were written by Jesus’ hand-chosen disciples or recorded by a companion of his disciples under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

 DSC05238

(3) Paraphrasing

Sometimes the Gospel writers did not quote Jesus word-for-word but paraphrased his words.[3]

For example, as a kid, you may tell a friend, “My mom said, ‘You are absolutely, without-a-doubt in deep trouble, mister, when your father gets home!’” or you may simply say, “My mom says I’m dead meat.”

Ancient Greek did not have quotation marks like we use today,[4] though your modern translation mostly likely inserted them. Direct quotes were not as valued as they are today, and paraphrasing was perfectly acceptable,[5] especially to a primarily oral culture.

Thus, when you see words with quotation marks around them in your modern translations of the Bible, it does not particularly mean it is a direct quote.

In closing, ask yourself: How does Jesus rewording a common lesson give us more insight into what he wants us to learn? How does having four Spirit-led, close disciples of Jesus paraphrasing and translating (and, thus, interpreting) Jesus’ word give us more understanding of Jesus’ teachings?

NEXT: Comparing the Gospels to other ancient biographies & their “Narrative Creativity.”

** Read Part 1 HERE: Differences or Contradictions? **

** Read Part 2 HERE: Basic Principles: Understanding the Gospels as Literature, History & Theology **

 ReadinggospelsWisely

****All books cited below are highly recommended****

[1] Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1262, Kindle edition.

[2] Pennington, Loc 1280.

[3] Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 167-169.

[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 92.

[5] Ibid.

GOD FROM THE MACHINE has published its first book! Searching the Bible for Mother God is for educating both those outside and inside the growing “Mother God cult.” Visit our page HERE.

Searching_the_Bible__Cover_for_Kindle

The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 1 – Differences or Contradictions?

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?

4Gospels_OldSchool_Animals

Reading the Gospels:

Vertical Reading = No Problem

vs.

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.[1]

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.”[2] 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.”[3]

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.

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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.

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Nothing New

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![4] 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”[5] 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).”[6]

Wrestling with such passages is what Dr. Jonathan Pennington calls the joy and angst of having four Gospels.[7] (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

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[1] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009), Loc 396, Kindle edition.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., Loc 380.

[4] Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1066, Kindle edition.

[5] Ibid., Loc 1094.

[6] Ibid., Loc 1100.

[7] Ibid., Loc 1029.

*With thanks to Dr. Pennington for granting me permission to do so.

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