All the Gospel accounts disagree with one another!

26 Mar

Sometimes when I’m speaking with people who are moderately to well-informed about the New Testament, they bring up some of the seeming discrepancies in the Gospel accounts. The objection is raised by pointing to two Gospel accounts of the same narrative and noting the differences. This is sometimes easily explainable and sometimes very difficult to make sense of. I am convinced that there are no actual contradictions in these accounts and that those who wish to invest the time studying them will come to a similar conclusion. These examples will specifically focus on the Resurrection narratives in homage to Easter – but the idea holds for all of the Gospels.

I won’t tackle every single issue that exists because that is beyond the scope of this blog. Instead I’ll cover some of the basic types of objection as well as a general response when dealing with this sort of thing.

X mentions _____ and Y doesn’t!

Someone might mention that Jesus appears to two disciples on the road then to the eleven in Luke’s account, but he appears to women at his tomb in all the other accounts. Luke records the women encountering the empty tomb just like everyone else, but choses to describe Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus instead of his appearance at the tomb. We can’t be sure why he does this, perhaps for theological reasons, but it doesn’t exclude a tomb appearance by Jesus. In the same vein, if I mention that Bobby, Joe and Suzy were at the party, that doesn’t mean LeBron and Dwyane weren’t at the party unless I also claim that my list of attendees is exhaustive.

Seriously, who saw what? And can we determine once and for all if Legos were involved?

Seriously, who saw what? And can we determine once and for all if Legos were involved?

X mentions ____ and Y mentions _____ (different thing!)

Who saw Jesus first? Mary Magdalene, the eleven, the eleven minus Thomas, and two disciples on the road are all options. This variation falls prey to the same response as our last objection. The Gospel authors focused on different aspects of the same narrative, sometimes for theological reasons and sometimes in order to communicate more effectively with their intended audience.

X and Y contradict one another clearly!

There aren’t as many objections that claim this, but generally they require a nuanced answer and specific study. A simple example would be the women’s reactions as they leave the empty tomb of Jesus. Each account records different emotions: fear, joy, grief over the stolen body, and no emotion recorded by Luke. I recommend inviting your friend to study the alleged contradiction with you, getting academic resources from both sides of the debate. Most of us will not be able to make sense of these alleged contradictions offhand, so an invitation to study is a great response: it shows commitment, interest, and humility.

At this point it would be worth reminding your friend that it would be more reasonable to be skeptical of texts that aligned 100%. Even if an event is fresh in the mind of an eyewitness, different vantage points offer different perspectives. If the accounts all read exactly the same we would be suspicious that they were not four separate accounts (as claimed and believed) but one account, possibly forged. The accounts agree on the majority of the information presented and they all harmonize perfectly concerning the major points: Jesus’ virgin birth, his divine identity, his miraculous ministry, his death and resurrection. Again, because the perspectives are different we should expect the accounts to differ – but push for investigating whether or not the accounts contradict one another or if they simply seem to.

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One Response to “All the Gospel accounts disagree with one another!”

  1. Jeremy April 4, 2013 at 10:53 pm #

    The Gospels were written in the first century AD, they originate in a different time and culture than ours and do not adhere to the narrative chronological conventions that dominate 20-21C biography. Instead they belong to what might be called Greek biography where a persons character and life is portrayed in the context of their completed life and death. Events can be pulled from the whole life to illustrate whatever points the author is making about the subject at that part of the text. Chronological order is not important, illustrating the person is, especially in light of their death. So if one gospel recounts an incident early in the text and another later this is not a contradiction as neither is necessarily making any claim about when the incident occurred. Of course some things are clearly time marked eg birth, final passover, death. Notice though, even the birth is of varied importance to the gospel writers, Mark never even mentions it and John is concerned with Christs eternal nature.

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