The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 7 of 7 – Positive Evidence: Going on the Offensive

SERIES INTRO: Often skeptics point to differences in the four Gospels of Jesus Christ and claim they’re 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 **

**Read Part 3 HEREDealing with Differences in Jesus’ Words**

**Read Part 4 HERE: The Gospels as Ancient Biography & History & “Narrative Creativity”**

**Read Part 5 HERENarrative Creativity: Selective Representation & Chronology**

**Read Part 6 HERENarrative Creativity:Telescoping & Compressing**

4Gospels_OldSchool_Animals

Positive Evidence: Going on the Offensive

When I started this series, I didn’t want it to be just a defense of the Gospels, but also to show positively why having more than one Gospel is a blessing. Where there is certainly angst that happens when we study the Gospels closely and perceive differences, there is also joy found when he examine them closely; pondering these challenges expose us to unique perspectives of Jesus we wouldn’t otherwise perceive — similarly to how four painted portraits of the same person by different artists give us deeper understandings of that person.

My hope is that by wrestling with these challenging passages, you’ve been exposed to unique joys regarding Jesus from the different perspectives of the Spirit-inspired Gospel writers.

But, despite all I’ve said above, admittedly, yes, much of this series is a defense, so I want to offer some final observations that will not just help you defend your faith, but also go on the offensive.

We will conclude this series with 3 brief observations:

  1. Four identical Gospels would be more suspect.

  2. Differences? What about the similarities??

  3. Undesigned Coincidences.

(1) Four identical Gospels would be more suspect

The 2006 Academy Award-winning German movie The Lives of Others takes place in 1984 in East Berlin under the oppressive rule of Communism. In one scene, an instructor for the Secret Police plays for a trainee a recording of a prisoner being gruelingly interrogated. After listening to the prisoner repeat the same alibi over and over again, the instructor fast-forwards the recording to several hours later. They listen to the exhausted prisoner’s alibi one last time. Then, the instructor and trainee have the following conversation:

Instructor: “Did you notice anything about his statement?”

Trainee: “It’s the same as in the beginning.”

Instructor: “Exactly the same. Word for word. People who tell the truth can re-formulate things, and they do. A liar has prepared sentences, which he falls back on when under pressure. [Prisoner number] 227 is lying.”

Interrogators — whether they are police detectives, CIA, or KGB — know that when someone repeats a truthful story again and again, they’re able to improvise variations in the story by adding or removing details.

Think about it: What is a favorite story from your life you like to retell? Do you tell it the same exact way every time? Probably not. Sometimes you remember details; sometimes you forget details; sometimes you add or subtract details for other reasons, such as the amount of time you have to tell the story; but the key aspects of the story never change.

Do the Gospel differences we’ve looked at throughout this series show the truth from differing perspectives or do they show a carefully crafted lie?

Ironically, despite all of the time in this series spent defending Gospel differences due to accusations of fictionalization, we’d have more grounds for being skeptical of the Gospels if all four accounts were exactly the same!

If the Gospels were word-for-word identical, we’d have good reason for believing they were collaborated and simply copied from each other. Instead, the evidence suggests that we have four independently investigated accounts of the ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Former homicide detective and atheist, J. Warner Wallace in his book Cold Case Christianity says we “should expect variations among true eyewitness accounts. These expected variations are not a problem for those of us who are working as detectives, so long as we can understand the perspectives, interests, and locations from with each witness observed the event. It’s our duty, as responsible investigators, to understand how eyewitness statements can be harmonized so we can get the most robust view of the event possible.”[1]

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(2) Differences? What about the similarities??

Further, by focusing on the few differences in the Gospels, we often ignore the wealth of harmony. Little is needed to be said about this point; the Gospels plainly have vastly more in common than they don’t. Jonathan Pennington writes, the Gospels are “amazingly consistent in terms of Jesus’ character, tone, teaching, emphases, and the general course of his life and death.”[2]

 

(3) Undesigned Coincidences

In a number of interviews on radio shows and podcasts, Dr. Timothy McGrew has been spreading the word about a forgotten apologetic called Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels (based on the 1851 book of the same name by J.J. Blunt), and he has written a series of articles for the Christian Apologetics Alliance.

As we have discussed, when two or more authors write about a historic event there will be similarities and differences. Where the major events will be the same, minor details may be included or left out.

An “undesigned coincidence” is when one account provides details, but another account written about the same incident gives more insight into those details or gives other details that compliment them.[3] We see “undesigned coincidences” when we have two or more independently investigated accounts of the same event. We find undesigned coincidences throughout the Gospels.

 

Looking at an example will help clarify:

In Mark 14:55-59, Jesus is accused in front of the Sanhedrin of saying he will destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days.

Also, in Mark 15:27-30, as Jesus is on the cross, people mock him and accuse him of saying a similar statement about destroying the Temple and rebuilding it in three days. This is also reported in Matthew 27:38-40.

But where in Mark or Matthew does Jesus say this? Nowhere — A read through both Mark and Matthew provides no evidence that Jesus ever said such a thing. Yet, when we read the Gospel of John, we find that Jesus did make this statement!

 

In John 2:18-22, John reports,

So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

 

It’s highly unlikely that such complimentary details would be deliberately falsified, and the assurance that they’re based on authentic events is extremely high.

Much more can be said about Undesigned Coincidences (also called Incidental Allusions), but it’s not our focus here. I hope to write more about Undesigned Coincidences for GFTM Blog soon, so keep an eye out. [UPDATE: Here is the GFTM article: Click here for more about Undesigned Coincidences.]

 

The Joy of Four Gospels!

In conclusion, what do we gain by having four Gospels?

    • We see the complexity of Jesus, the God-man, which “no one account – or a million – could begin to describe and plumb the depths of his person, teaching, and actions.”[4]
    • They enable us to learn different theological lessons.[5]
    • They force us to look deeper and think harder because of the differences.[6]

What can we add to this list? Please share/comment below.

Overall, I hope this series has helped you gain a better understanding of the Holy Scripture, the Christian faith, and Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

Fittingly, we will end this series with the closing words of John’s Gospel:

Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25)

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

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

**Read Part 3 HEREDealing with Differences in Jesus’ Words**

**Read Part 4 HERE: The Gospels as Ancient Biography & History & “Narrative Creativity”**

**Read Part 5 HERENarrative Creativity: Selective Representation & Chronology**

**Read Part 6 HERENarrative Creativity:Telescoping & Compressing**

 

Good reading...

Good reading…

 *All books below are highly recommended*

[1] J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity, (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2013), 237.

[2] Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1214, Kindle edition.

[3] Timothy McGrew, Undesigned Coincidences: Part 1, Christian Apologetics Alliance, 09/01/13, accessed 07/12/14, http://www.christianapologeticsalliance.com/2013/09/01/undesigned-coincidences/.

[4] Pennington, Loc 1431.

[5] Ibid., Loc 1470.

[6] Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 107.

Recommended reading!

Recommended reading!

The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 6 – Narrative Creativity: Telescoping & Compressing

Can literary creativity explain differences in the Gospels? Did ancient authors present the passage of time differently than writers today?

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 **

**Read Part 3 HEREDealing with Differences in Jesus’ Words**

**Read Part 4 HERE: The Gospels as Ancient Biography & History & “Narrative Creativity”**

**Read Part 5 HERENarrative Creativity: Selective Representation & Chronology**

 the-four-gospels_writers

In previous articles, we looked at the “Narrative Creativity” of the Gospels, which means the Gospel writers used narrative freedom within a factual framework. This is seen in other ancient histories and biographies and include some shared characteristics:

  1. Selective Details
  2. Selective Representation
  3. Selective Chronology
  4. Selective Telescoping & Compressing
  5. (And Knowing some History & Culture Helps)

In this article, we will look at #4 & #5:

(4) Selective Telescoping & Compressing

Do this: Think about telling a story to a friend about something that happened to you that would take at least 5 minutes to tell. Now, imagine telling the same story if you only had 10 seconds. What details would you take out? How would you tell the story differently?

This idea helps us to understand what’s called telescoping (or compression) and why we see some variations in the same events written about by different Gospel writers. Simply, telescoping/compressing means telling a shortened version of an event with selective information.

Sometimes the Gospel writers (and other ancient writers) varied story length, shortening or lengthening the same episode like a telescope. Some of the writers give a fully extended version of the story, while other writers shortened their version, compressing it like a telescope. When compressing, the author may take “shortcuts” in telling the story by omitting information.[1]

 

EXAMPLE #1:

The Centurion’s Dying Servant[2]

Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10

Matthew — Matthew gives us the shorter version of the event. Here, the centurion appears to have come in person to Jesus.

Luke — In Luke, we have the longer account. Here, with all the details included, we see the centurion actually sent elders and friends to Jesus.

Matthew is the compressed version and cuts out the elders and friends.

This also brings us back to the last article and selective representation: In ancient writing, sometimes only the most prominent person involved is mentioned, and since a messenger or servant represents the one who sent him, the messenger or servant is often not mentioned. Frankly, including the elders and friends is not essential to the main point or action of the narrative.

In the situation with the centurion, Matthew shortened the account by cutting out the elders and friends. Admittedly, this does seem odd to us today with a nonfictional narrative, but this is similar to shortening the statement, “Jack wanted to ask his teacher for an extension on his assignment, so he asked his brother to give a message to his teacher, and later he asked his friend to pass a letter from him on to the same teacher about the same assignment” to “Jack asked his teacher for an extension on his assignment.”

 

EXAMPLE #2:

The Cursing of the Fig Tree[3]

Matthew 21:17-22; Mark 11:11-15, 19-25.

Matthew — Jesus curses the fig tree. The withering of the tree appears to happen immediately after the curing.

Mark — Jesus curses the fig tree, but the withering happens much later after Jesus and the disciples have moved on; they don’t notice it until after the cleansing of the Temple.

As we have seen throughout the examples provided in this series, Matthew regularly shortens his telling of the events. Matthew decided to tell the two parts of the story side-by-side, instead of separating the curing and withering of the fig tree with the cleansing of the Temple between them. As we have seen throughout this series, Matthew tends to group things according to thematic reasons.

Problem: Matthew says the fig tree “withered at once”! But the original Greek has variation in meaning.[4] It likely means the fig tree started to wither immediately but gradually without the disciples’ perception until they saw it again later.

Fig_Tree

(5) Knowing some History & Culture Helps.

Finally, sometimes simply knowing a little historical and cultural background solves the problem easily — as we saw how knowing the nuances of the original Greek helped with the problem immediately above.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Places and people may have been known by more than one name, especially when translated in a multi-linguistic area.[5]
  • Archeological discoveries have brought many former challenges in the Bible to light.[6]
  • The nuances of the original Greek may be lost in the English translation.
  • Numbers may be rounded up or down.[7]
  • A good study Bible will help with many of these issues.

 

EXAMPLE: Where did Jesus heal the blind man at Jericho?

Luke 18:35 – Jesus healed a blind man as he was going into Jericho.

Mark 10:46 – In telling of the same event, Mark says Jesus healed a blind man as he was leaving Jericho.

Dr. John McRay, a professor of New Testament and archeology, explains in an interview with Lee Strobel in The Case for Christ, “Jericho was in at least four different locations as much as a quarter of a mile apart in ancient times. The city was destroyed and resettled near another water supply or a new road or nearer a mountain or whatever. The point is, you can be coming out of one site where Jericho existed and be going into another one, like moving from one part of suburban Chicago to another part of suburban Chicago… Jesus could have been going out of one area of Jericho and into another at the same time.”[8]

To conclude this section on narrative creativity, it’s important to point out again that in oral cultures, even with historical material, the teller of the historical story has “flexibility in terms of the placement, order, and length” of episodes within the historical framework based upon “purpose, context, and time constraints.”[9]

As we would expect, the four Gospels have a “general uniformity” but also a “flexibility,” and “while we find the same general portrait of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, we also find remarkable variations in what each specific portrait includes and excludes, as well as in the order and specific form of the material that constitutes each portrait.”[10]

NEXTPositive evidence: Differences? What about the similarities?!

 

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

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

**Read Part 3 HEREDealing with Differences in Jesus’ Words**

**Read Part 4 HERE: The Gospels as Ancient Biography & History & “Narrative Creativity”**

**Read Part 5 HERE: Narrative Creativity: Selective Representation & Chronology**

*All books cited below are highly recommended!*

[1] Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 71.

[2] Ibid., 17-24.

[3] Ibid., 144-148.

[4] Ibid.,147.

[5] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 48.

[6] Ibid., 97-99.

[7] Poythress, 58.

[8] Strobel, 98.

[9] Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 254.

[10] Ibid.

Inerrancy*theGospels

The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 5 – Narrative Creativity: Selective Representation & Chronology

Can an author use narrative creativity when telling a true story? Can literary creativity explain Gospel differences?

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 **

**Read Part 3 HEREDealing with Differences in Jesus’ Words**

**Read Part 4 HERE: The Gospels as Ancient Biography & History & “Narrative Creativity”**

4Gospels_Wood_evangelists

Last article, we started looking at the “Narrative Creativity” of the Gospels, which means the Gospel writers used narrative freedom within a factual framework. This is seen in other ancient histories and biographies and include some shared characteristics:

  1. Selective Details
  2. Selective Representation
  3. Selective Chronology
  4. Selective Telescoping & Compressing
  5. (And Knowing some History & Culture Helps)

In this article, we will look at characteristics #2 & #3:

(2) Selective Representation

Type A

Sometimes the Gospel writers (and other ancient writers) will focus on only 1 person to represent the whole. Instead of mentioning every person involved, only 1 person is focused upon.

EXAMPLE #1:

How many demon-possessed men did Jesus encounter in Gerasenes?

Matthew 8:28 – Two men (unnamed).

Mark 5:1-20 – One man (calling himself “Legion”).

Luke 8:26-39 – One man (calling himself “Legion”).

In Gerasenes, Jesus encountered two demon-possessed men, but Mark and Luke chose to focus only on Legion, perhaps the worse of the two. Whether telling of one or both, the same purpose is accomplished. A similar idea is reflected in modern literary writing: if the same goal can be accomplished with less characters, choose to go with less characters.

EXAMPLE #2:

Who was 1st to find Jesus’ empty tomb?

Matthew 28:1: Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.”

Mark 16:1: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salmone.

Luke 24:10: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women.

John 20:1: Mary Magdalene.

 

When reporting an event with many people involved, many reports will only report the most prominent by name. All four accounts confirm that Mary Magdalene was among the first to find the empty tomb. Being the most prominent of Jesus’ female followers, John chose only to focus on her.

I came across a great example of this from modern times when I was teaching a class about Gospel differences at my church a few years ago: On March 19, 2011, UFC fighter Jon Jones helped to stop a thief in Paterson, NJ on the day before he was to fight for the light heavy-weight title in Newark, NJ.

The first articles I read about this incident only mentioned Jon Jones being involved, but other articles I read later stated that his two trainers were also involved and equally important in catching the thief. Because Jon Jones with the prominent one, some reporters decided to leave his less-renowned trainers out of the story. Nowhere did the articles that did not mention the trainers state that Jon Jones alone stopped the thief or that it was only Jon Jones who stopped the thief.

 jonJones

As we did in the last article, let’s take a quick moment to note the harmony of the four Gospels with an easy experiment: If we remove all the details that the 4 Gospels don’t all report about the first people to find the empty tomb, what are we left with? What can be known?

After Jesus’ crucifixion, some women followers of Jesus — one of them being Mary Magdalene — were the first to find the tomb empty.

What is really incredible is that because of the low status of women in First Century Palestine, a woman’s testimony was not even allowed in court. Yet, the Gospels all report that women were the first to find the tomb empty. Even skeptical historians agree that this detail, reported in all 4 Gospels, screams of authenticity.

Type B

Similar to the most prominent person involved only being mentioned, a messenger or servant represents the one who sent him, so the messenger or servant is often not mentioned.[1] This is not uncommon to see in ancient historic writing.[2]

For instance, today, instead of saying, “I sent my supervisor to ask my boss for a day off,” you may say simply (but accurately), “I asked my boss for a day off.”

EXAMPLE #1

Who scourged Jesus?

Matthew 27:26 & Mark 15:15

Both Matthew and Mark write in the original Greek that Pilate scourged Jesus.[3] Does this mean Pilate literally did the scourging himself? No. It’s understood that Roman soldiers, under the authority of Pilate, were the ones who did the literal act of whipping Jesus.[4] (Often it is translated from the original Greek into English this way because of this very reason.)

This is no different than if Don Corleone had one of his mafia hitmen kill someone. You may say, “Don Corleone had Joey Donuts killed,” but you could also accurately say instead, “Don Corleone killed Joey Donuts.”

 

EXAMPLE #2

The Centurion’s Dying Servant[5] – Who came to see Jesus?

Matthew 8:5-13 & Luke 7:1-10

Matthew – In the shorter version of the two, it appears the centurion came in person to Jesus.

Luke – In the longer version, the centurion sends elders and friends to Jesus.

As it is Matthew’s style throughout his Gospel, his version is the “compressed” — or briefer — version. (More about compression in the next article.) Thus, Matthew cuts out the elders and friends.

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(3) Selective Chronology[6]

Have you’ve ever seen a movie not told in chronological order?

I’m not a cinema expert, but it seems to me that with the 1994 release of director Quentin Tarantino’s violent crime drama Pulp Fiction, which was not told in chronological order, it became popular for directors to experiment with telling stories not from beginning to ending, but through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards.

But messing with the order of events when conveying a story is nothing new. Writers like William Faulkner did it long before Pulp Fiction in novels like The Sounds and the Fury (1929), and ancient writers did it long before that but with nonfiction.

Ancient writers used more flexibility in chronological and narrative sequence than modern writers when telling of true events[7] and often organized their material in topical or thematic groups.[8] The overall structure of the story stays the same, but the smaller units within the framework can be moved around.[9] In the 4 Gospels, we see the overall framework of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection — which does not change — but the smaller units or details within that framework may be moved around for topical or thematic purposes.

Also, keep in mind, “then” does not always mean immediately afterward.[10] Gaps in time may be between events appearing next to each other in the Gospels. Take special note of transitional words and phrases (or the absence of) as clues.

 

EXAMPLE #1

Jesus’ Parables

Matthew, Chapter 13

Often, we see parables in the Gospels with similar topics and themes grouped together. Did Jesus say these one after another or did Matthew lump these parables with similar messages together? Since Matthew appears to be the Gospel most organized by themes, it’s likely Matthew grouped these parables that were told by Jesus at different times together to hammer home a point to his readers.

 

EXAMPLE #2

Jesus’ Temptation by Satan

The attempted temptation of Jesus takes place in 3 locations, but Matthew and Luke report them in different orders:

Matthew 4:1-11 – Order: Desert, Temple, Mountain

Luke 4:1-13 – Order: Desert, Mountain, Temple

For what possible thematic reasons would Matthew or Luke rearrange the order?

Because of the use of “Then,” Matthew is the chronological account. Luke does not use any time-related transition words. In both his Gospel and the Book of Acts, Luke focuses on the city of Jerusalem. Luke’s account specifically mentions Jerusalem in 4:9 in relation to Jesus’ third temptation. Due to thematic reasons, Luke chose to end with the Temple in Jerusalem, emphasizing his focus.[11]

NEXT: Narrative Creativity continues: “Selective Telescoping & Compressing” and why knowing about some ancient history & culture helps.

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

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

**Read Part 3 HEREDealing with Differences in Jesus’ Words**

**Read Part 4 HERE: The Gospels as Ancient Biography & History & “Narrative Creativity”**

Inerrancy*theGospels

*All books cited below are highly recommended!*

[1] Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 21.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 17-24.

[6] Ibid., 130.

[7] Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1385, Kindle edition.

[8] Ibid., Loc 1391.

[9] Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 254.

[10] Poythress,129.

[11] Gregg R. Allison, “Inerrancy and the Phenomena of Scripture,” (class lecture, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, September 22, 2012).

*All books cited above are highly recommended!*

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 4 – The Gospels as Ancient Biography & History & “Narrative Creativity”

In what ways are the Gospels similar to other ancient biographies & histories? How did the Gospel writers use “Narrative Creativity” in telling about the life of Jesus? How can this help us understand differences between 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 **

**Read Part 3 HEREDealing with Differences in Jesus’ Words**

4Gospels_writers

Ancient Biography & History

Today, we often think writings that tell of actual events should be like modern newspaper articles: Just the cold, hard facts. Today, most believe historical writings should be dry, factual, neutral accounts of what happened exactly as it happened.

But have you ever written an account of something that happened to you? Try it sometime: Write an accurate depiction of a situation that happened with you and a friend. Then ask yourself:

  • How did I decide what details to put in and leave out?
  • What details did I focus on and why?
  • What was I trying to get across by including these details?
  • And finally: Am I able to tell a completely neutral account?

Truth is, the majority of nonfiction writing, though it may be giving factual information, still tells the story with a certain focus, angle, or slant.

For example, a historic writer may write about a unit of American soldiers in the Iraqi War. Perhaps the writer wants to communicate that the soldiers were brave, so he’ll include details and events that show how they risked their lives and faced dangerous odds. Or the author may be against the war and instead include details that show how horrible and terrifying war is for all involved. Maybe the author has a theme of brotherhood, so he focuses on the bond of the soldiers in the unit. On the other hand, if his theme is the value of human life, his story – though still reporting the same events – will look very different than if he was focused on glorifying the effectiveness of modern military technology.

Likewise, the writers of the Gospels, as we mentioned in earlier articles in this series, all had different audiences, themes, and messages (ATM). Further, ancient writers of history and biography did not write simple, dry accounts as modern readers expect to find in text books and news reports.[1]

Jonathan Pennington writes that ancient historians had a slightly different idea than modern Westerners of what was considered historically accurate reporting.[2] They “exercised greater freedom of composition than their modern counterparts when reporting real, historical events.”[3]

Yet, “None of this means, however, that most ancient historians felt free to simply make up events.”[4] Thus, “Note that we are not talking about whether these things really happened – on this the Gospels and the church fathers rightly are univocal, ‘Yes they did!’ – but rather, on how these things are retold. The reporting and retelling of the Gospel events necessarily follow ancient conventions, not our own.”[5]

Narrative Creativity

Today, people often expect nonfiction reports to be straightforward, text book-like accounts. But this is not even the case with modern writing. For example, many books written today are historical works, but they are written like novels, such as Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden and Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose.

There are two things we should note about this sort of writing:

(1) Because it’s not just a dry, historical report, it makes for more enjoyable reading and reaches a wider audience. I think it’s safe to say most people would rather sit down and read something that reads like a novel rather than a scholarly journal article or a text book description of historical events.

(2) The author, though working to report the true events accurately, will use story-telling devices (like metaphors, suspense, symbolism, character development) to tell the factual story.

Similarly, the Gospel writers used narrative creativity in their writing, and this would have been expected and perfectly acceptable in their time.[6] Ancient historical writers and biographers could be much more creative in their presentation of the factual material. Contra the modern idea of dry, factual accounts, the Gospel writers had much more freedom in constructing the stories of Jesus than a modern newspaper writer.

Before we look at this further, let me point out two things:

(1) Though the Gospel writers present the information in ways with more narrative creativity than a modern text book and they may omit or include details not found in the other Gospels, they still report all of the same information on the core details of the life of Jesus: his ministry, death, and resurrection.

(2) Though I am arguing here that the Gospel accounts have more “narrative creativity” than modern newspaper reports, all of the Gospels are still factual and straightforward. When compared to mythology (as skeptics often claim the Gospels are) we see an overwhelming lack of embellished and grandiose language in the Gospels, especially when compared to writings that are plainly mythological. In fact, when the Gospels report something miraculous, even the resurrection of Jesus, the frank, factual nature of the reports are unignorable.

Let’s look at how the Gospels have more “narrative creativity” than modern text books and newspaper articles, which will help us to understand why we see some variations between the Gospels:

Freedom within a Framework

Narrative freedom within a factual framework in ancient history and biography, includes:

  1. Selective Details
  2. Selective Representation
  3. Selective Chronology
  4. Selective Telescoping & Compressing
  5. (And Knowing some History & Culture Helps)

We will look at “Selective Details” below, and then the others in our following GFTM blog articles.

(1) Selective Details

  • As discussed earlier, this isn’t a characteristic unique to ancient historic writing, but all nonfiction writing. It’s simply impossible to include all information, so the author must be selective about what he or she includes and omits.
  • A good writer chooses details for a good reason. When you read, ask yourself: Why did the Gospel author include this detail? What does he want to communicate to us?
  • Thus, one Gospel writer may include a detail another author may not and vice versa.

To illustrate, let’s look at the example of Joseph of Arimathea.

Joseph of Arimathea

All 4 Gospels tell of him, but give us some different details about him:

Matthew 27:57-58:

“As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him.”

Mark 15:43:

“Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.”

Luke 23:50-52:

“Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body.”

John 19:38:

“Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away.”

 

Now, let’s ask: What details about Joseph of Arimathea are only reported in one Gospel?

  • Rich
  • Went “boldly” to Pilate
  • “Prominent” member of the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin)
  • Good and upright
  • Did not consent to Jesus’ crucifixion
  • Waiting for the Kingdom of God to come
  • Secret disciple of Jesus

Notice how all four accounts give some different details about Joseph but none of them contradict the other. In fact, they compliment each other.

Furthermore, each gives us different details, adding to our overall understanding of Joseph. By having 4 independent accounts, we receive a more comprehensive portrait of the man that is Joseph of Arimathea and a deeper understanding of what he did.

Before closing, let’s do one more thing: If we ignore all details not included in all four Gospels and take only the details included in all four, what are we left with concerning Joseph of Arimathea?

He was a man from Arimathea who asked Pilate for Jesus’ body after His crucifixion.

Differences due to narrative creativity do not lead to contradictions but to deeper understanding and to an assurance of the accuracy of these historical reports.

 NEXT: Narrative Creativity of the Gospels: Selective Representation & Chronology.

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

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

**Read Part 3 HEREDealing with Differences in Jesus’ Words**

Recommended reading!

Recommended reading!

[1]Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1362, Kindle edition.

[2] Ibid., Loc 1355.

[3] Ibid., Loc 1368.

[4] Ibid., Loc 1379.

[5] Ibid., Loc 1415.

[6] Ibid., Loc 1360.

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 2 – Basic Principles: Understanding the Gospels as Literature, History & Theology

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 really contradictions?

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. 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. **

the-four-gospels_writers

3 Basic Principles

To start, here are 3 basic principles to keep in mind when we come across a Gospel difference:

1. Different does not = contradiction.

Yes, contradictions are always logically impossible (for example, a square can’t be a circle; a bachelor can’t be married), but differences are not necessarily contradictions.

  • Ask yourself when you come across a difference: Is this a true contradiction? Is there a way to logically harmonize this?

2. Different Perspectives = Unique details.[1]

As any police officer or newspaper reporter will tell you, when you gather several witnesses to an incident, each account given will generally have the same major details, but will most likely differ in minor details. Where the overall story will match, each account will have unique details because individuals tell of events from their unique perspectives.

  • Do the Gospels differ in major details or minor details?

3. Different Focuses & Styles = Still God’s Word

Like Jesus was both God and man, the Bible is also a joining of God and man. Thus, though the Bible is God’s Word, it doesn’t mean it’s absent of human influence.[2] And though the Holy Spirit inspired the writing of Scripture, God allowed the writers of the Bible to still use their own unique abilities and personalities while writing the Gospels. This is evident in the different styles of writing seen in different books of the Bible by the different authors.

 

Much More than Newspaper Reporting

The Gospels aren’t just dry reports; they involve the theological interpretation[3] of the Spirit-led writers. Each writer is emphasizing what we should understand about these events concerning God and salvation, and what these events mean both for us individually and for humankind as a whole.

 

Each Gospel has specific ATM:

    • A – Audiences
    • T – Themes
    • M – Messages

 

Because of different focuses in audience, themes, and messages, different Gospel writers focus on different details, emphasizing different aspects of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

 

Each Gospel is also a “HLT sandwich”* — a combination of:

  • H – Historical writing,
  • L – Literary writing, &
  • T – Theological writing.[4]

(*Sorry for the cheesy pun on a BLT — bacon, lettuce, tomato — sandwich, but I find the more corny the joke, the better it is as a memory device.)

DSC05234

 

Again, the Gospels are not just dry, newspaper article-like historical reports. They are historical recordings of actual events, but they also contain creative literary, story-telling elements and theological elements, meaning the Gospel writers are teaching us specific lessons about God in a specific style of writing. Understandably, many of these theological lessons overlap between the Gospels, but one of the Gospel writers may focus on one aspect of theology more than another.

Vern Sheridan Poythress writes in his book on inerrancy and the Gospels, “…the differences between the Gospels are an integral and significant part of the Gospels. The differences are there for a purpose: they help us. All the Gospels are talking about the events in ways that help us to grasp their significance and their theological implications. We do not need to feel as if we have to ‘roll back’ the significance and the implications in order to get to ‘bare’ events.”[5]

So, when we take into account ATM (Audience, Theme, and Message) and HLT (History, Literary style, and Theology), what stands out as unique in each Gospel? Here is a brief, helpful overview of the unique focus and style of each of the 4 Gospels:

 

Matthew

“Jesus the Jewish Messiah brings salvation history to its climax, saving his people from their sins.”[6] Noteworthy for its Jewishness, its compression, and the subtle hints of significant importance.[7]

 

Mark

“Jesus the mighty Messiah and Son of God obediently suffers as the Servant of the Lord to pay the ransom price for sins, and as a model of suffering and sacrifice for his disciples to follow.”[8] Noteworthy for fast-paced action and for concentration on the main points.[9]

 

Luke

“God’s end-times salvation predicted by the prophets has arrived through the coming of Jesus the Messiah, the Savior of the world, and this salvation is now going forth to the whole world.”[10] Noteworthy for care in historical research.[11] Where Matthew focuses on Jesus being the Jewish Messiah, Luke focuses on Jesus being the savior of all mankind.

 

John

“Jesus is the divine Son of God who reveals the Father, providing eternal life to all who believe in him.”[12] Noteworthy for theological depth in interpreting the significance of events.[13]

4Gospels_Wood_evangelists

Putting ATM & HLT to Use

Can understanding the Gospels as theological and literary works help to resolve perceived historic issues?

Let’s look at an example:

In both Luke and Matthew, we find a genealogy of Jesus’ family tree. One does not have to look closely to see major differences:

 

Jesus’ genealogy: Luke 3:23– 38; Matthew 1:1–17

  • Matthew: Covers Abraham to Jesus (41 generations)
  • Luke: Covers Adam to Jesus (76 generations)
  • The lists are identical from Abraham to David.
  • But they are different from David to Jesus; only 2 names are shared after this.

 

There are a few proposed theories for this. The strongest says Matthew follows King David’s royal line to Jesus’ adopted earthly father, Joseph. (Notice Matthew focuses on Joseph in the birth narrative.) Luke follows King David’s blood line to Mary. (Notice Luke focuses on Mary in the birth narrative.) Both Mary and Joseph are distant descendants of King David, and Jesus is the inheritor of both David’s royal line and blood line, as the Messiah was predicted to be.

Much more can be said about these genealogies, but we won’t go into all of it here; we simply want to look at if literary style and theological focus can effect how a Gospel writer reports historic events.

So, understanding the focus of the Gospel of Matthew and Luke, their styles, and a little information about ancient Jewish literature will help here:

  • Matthew lists the genealogy in 3 sections of 14 names: Abraham to David, David to the Babylonian exile, the exile to Christ.
  • 14 may represent seven times two (seven is the number of completion/perfection in Jewish culture due to God creating everything in 6 days and “resting” on the 7th; 14 would be completion/perfection doubled!) or 14 is a numerical value of the Hebrew name “David.” The Hebrew language assigns certain numbers to certain letters and “David” equals 14. [14]
  • Matthew is the “most Jewish Gospel” and focuses on Jesus as the Jewish Messiah; thus, he starts with Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel.
  • Arranging Jewish genealogies in memorable structure or to emphasize certain individuals was common practice in ancient literature. Basically, not all genealogies were complete; many took acceptable literary liberties to emphasize the author’s purpose. [15]
  • Luke focuses on Jesus being the savior of the whole world, so he starts with Adam, the first man, the physical father of all of mankind.
  • Matthew regularly uses compression (basically, meaning he shortens things — more about this later) and organizes his Gospel both thematically and topically, not necessarily chronologically, more than the other Gospel writers.

Ancient Literature

The Gospels share similarities with other ancient histories and literary genres. For instance, ancient Greco-Roman biography or bios – sometimes called “lives” or “popular biographies” – did not strive to tell the whole life story from birth to death of its subject, but to highlight a certain aspects of the subject’s life or character.[16]

The Gospels also share similarities with ancient Jewish Midrash (books of scripture interpretation) because it includes religious/theological explanations of the events reported.[17] Though many scholars have concluded there is “no known parallel to [the Gospels] in the ancient world,” and the Gospels are unique in many literary and historical ways, the Gospels still have much in common with other ancient writings.[18]

Something to think about until next time: Mark Strauss has a book titled Four Portraits, One Jesus. How is having four Gospels similar to having four painted portraits of Jesus?

NEXT: Differences in Jesus’ words

 ** Read Part 1 HERE. **

*All 5 books cited below are highly recommended*

Good reading...

Good reading…

 

[1] Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1245, Kindle edition.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 50.

[3] Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 32.

[4] Ibid., 39.

[5] Ibid., 32.

[6] Mark L. Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 214.

[7] Poythress, 74.

[8] Strauss, 172.

[9] Poythress, 74.

[10] Strauss, 260.

[11] Poythress, 74.

[12] Strauss, 298.

[13] Poythress, 74.

[14] Strauss, 223.

[15] Strauss, 223.

[16] Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 312.

[17] Eddy and Boyd, 343.

[18] Ibid., 320.

*All 5 books cited above are highly recommended!*

GOD FROM THE MACHINE has published it’s 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.

ReadinggospelsWisely