The story of Jesus stands or falls on the trustworthiness of the Gospels. That’s why skeptics pay so much attention to the Gospels’ apparent contradictions. Christianity’s critics cast doubt on the New Testament’s reliability by pointing out disparities in the Gospels. This puts well-meaning—but often unprepared—Christians in a difficult position of trying to reconcile these potential inconsistencies.
So how do we account for the apparent discrepancies in the Gospel accounts? A lot of the problem stems from our expectations. If we expect a level of historical precision that the Gospels didn’t intend to provide, we’re going to run into problems. The truth is that it’s completely normal for ancient (and modern) historical accounts to summarize, paraphrase, omit details, and explain events in a way that highlights their specific points and perspectives.
Why can we expect Gospel variations?
It’s important to point out right off the bat that each of the Gospel writers had a particular intention and focus. Each of them set out to accentuate a specific and unique portrait of Jesus. Through their individual gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—focused on particular elements of Christ’s ministry and message that they felt illuminate their narrative.
Despite the writers’ varied focus, the gospels exhibit a surprising cohesiveness. They all bear witness to Jesus and his ministry, but approach the story with an individual perspective. These four panoramas don’t detract from our understanding of Jesus. On the contrary, they give us a richer, deeper, and clearer glimpse at the mystery of Christ.
For more a more in-depth discussion the gospels’ unity and diversity, check out What Are the Synoptic Gospels, and Where Did They Come From?
Four unique presentations of Jesus
The gospel writers were not only interested in exploring specific points about Jesus’ ministry, but they were also focused on speaking to particular groups. Through their presentation to these audiences, various truths about Jesus and his mission were highlighted:
|The Gospel of the Messiah||The Gospel of the suffering Son of God||The Gospel of the Savior for all people||The Gospel of the divine Son who reveals the Father|
|Most structured||Most dramatic||Most thematic||Most theological|
You can get a comprehensive understanding of the gospel’s unique presentations in What Are the Synoptic Gospels, and Where Did They Come From?
Keeping the intentions of the authors in mind, it becomes easier to understand why they focus on events differently. As we look at some of the reasons for the gospels “apparent” contradictions, understanding the focus of the four gospels will give us a clearer understanding.
Let’s look at some explicit explanation for the gospels’ supposed differences.
Four reasons we find apparent contradictions in the gospels
1. Paraphrasing and interpretation
There were a number of languages spoken in first-century Palestine. Throughout the region, you’d likely hear Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and even Latin. Jesus likely spoke Aramaic. It’s thought to be the primary language spoken by most Jews throughout Palestine during this era.
When you realize that the gospels were written in Greek, the fact that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic becomes very significant. This means that most of his words had to be translated into Greek—making every quote an interpretation. Languages don’t necessarily have equivalent words or phrases to make translating one vocabulary into another a trouble-free endeavor. Each gospel writer had to interpret Jesus’ words and sayings in order to find equivalents in an entirely different language. Translation is interpretation.
This is one of the reasons that scholars have long held that we have Jesus’ “authentic voice” (ipsissima vox) rather than his “exact words” (ipsissima verba). We can trust the essential meaning of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels even though we can’t know precisely what words Jesus used.
The gospel writers’ authority as interpreters of Christ’s story meant that their translation or paraphrase of Jesus’ words would focus on the theological implications.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is quoted as saying “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20), but Matthew records him saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). Now it could be that Jesus said both of these things at different times, but it’s also likely that Matthew felt it was extremely important to clearly communicate the spiritual significance of Jesus’ words.
We can see another example of this at the foot of the cross. Both Matthew and Mark quote the centurion as saying “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54, Mk. 15:39), but that’s not how Luke records it. In Luke 23:47, the centurion says, “Surely this was a righteous man.” This translation make sense in light of each author’s focus. Both Matthew and Mark are focused on emphasizing Jesus’ position as the Son of God, but Christ’s innocence and righteousness is a recurring theme in Luke’s gospel. The two iterations of the centurion’s comment don’t contradict each other, they simply focus on different theological implications.
If we expect that each other gospel writers are going to give us Jesus’ words verbatim, we’re holding the gospels to a historical standard that no other historical document would be able to meet—classical or modern. Remember, no one was standing around Jesus with a tape recorder.
2. Abbreviation and omission
If you were to ask a husband and wife what they did last Saturday, you’re going to get different responses. Maybe the husband will tell you that they worked in the yard, went to the hardware store, and went out for lunch. The wife, on the other hand, might tell you, “We planted rosebushes, talked to our friends Jarrid and Allie (who they ran into at the store), and got into an argument (because the husband ordered a milkshake even though he’s lactose intolerant).”
These two stories don’t represent discrepancies; they highlight differences in perspective. For the wife, running into their friends was a bigger deal than going to the hardware store, so she focused on the important point and omitted the other. The husband had already forgotten about the argument, and remembered lunch as a high point. (One could argue that it’s in his best interest to forget the argument.)
This example represents the differences you expect to encounter with people describing the same event. We run into the same kind of thing with the gospel writers. They each focused on some details while ignoring others entirely. On the surface, it’s easy to assume that these omissions are contradictory, but that’s not necessarily so.
In Mark’s account of Jesus cursing the fig tree, it gets cursed one day and the disciples come back to find it withered the next (Mk. 11:12–14, 20–25). In Matthew’s version, the withering happens immediately after Jesus curses it (Matt. 21:18-22). For Matthew, the important part of this story isn’t experienced in its strict chronology, but in the miracle itself.
We see also Matthew omitting details in the story of the centurion’s servant. In Luke’s telling of the story, the centurion sends a contingent of Jewish elders to Jesus (Lk. 7:1–10), but Matthew reports it as the centurion himself coming to Jesus (Matt. 8:5–13). Is that a contradiction? From Matthew’s point of view, the centurion was speaking directly to Jesus through the elders. In the first century, there was no functional difference between a centurion telling you something face-to-face or through an emissary.
What about when one gospel mentions two individuals while another only speaks of one?
- Two demon-possessed men (Matt. 8:28) vs. one (Mk. 5:2)
- Two blind men (Matt. 20:30) vs. one (Mk. 10:46)
- Two angels at the tomb (Lk. 24:4) vs. one (Mk. 16:5)
It’s important to note that Mark never insists that there’s only one person present. He simply shines a spotlight on one individual. It’s very likely that he’s highlighting the most important player and ignoring the other. But ultimately, we should see little discrepancies like these as proof of the accounts’ veracity. After all, they didn’t get together to make sure their stories were entirely free of conflict.
3. Reordering of events and sayings
Sometimes you run into gospel events that aren’t the same chronologically. You can find this when Jesus is tempted in the desert. Matthew and Luke have the order of the last two temptations reversed (Matt. 4:1–11; Lk. 4:1–13). It makes perfect sense that Luke would make the climax of the temptations occur at the top of the temple since there’s a real focus throughout his gospel on Jerusalem and the temple. Matthew, on the other hand, ends with Jesus standing on a mountain looking at all the nations of the world. For a writer who sees mountains as places of revelation and epiphany, this is understandable, too.
What about Christ’s teachings? Was the Sermon on the Mount one long message or did Matthew—like many argue—pull Jesus’ various teachings together into one place? From reading Luke, it would be easy to make the argument that the Sermon on the Mount is a compilation of Christ’s teachings. But it’s just as likely that Jesus taught the same lessons multiple times throughout his ministry. Either way, rearranging Christ’s teaching doesn’t nullify the gospels.
4. Reporting similar events and sayings
When did Jesus clear the temple? Did it happen once or twice? If it happened once, when did it happen? The synoptic gospels place this event at the end of Jesus’ ministry (Matt. 21:12–13; Mk. 11:15–17; Lk. 19:45–46), but John puts it at the beginning (Jn. 2:13–17). It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Jesus felt the need to clear the temple multiple times, but the credibility of the gospels doesn’t rest on having to believe that. There’s a possibility that Mark moved this event to the end of the gospel to emphasize its significance as an act of judgement against Israel, or that John moved it to the beginning as a historically symbolic inauguration to his ministry.
The calling of the disciples varies a lot between the gospels:
- The Gospel of John: Andrew, a disciple of John the Baptist, brought his brother Simon to Jesus. (Jn. 1:35–42)
- The Gospels of Matthew and Mark: Jesus calls two sets of fishermen brothers—Andrew and Peter; James and John—near the Sea of Galilee. (Mk. 1:16–20; Matt. 4:18–22)
- The Gospel of Luke: Peter, James, and John experience a miraculous catch of fish and leave everything to follow him (Lk. 5:1–11)
Were these different versions of the same event? Or could they be the gradual unfolding of their experience with Jesus? Luke suggests the latter by discussing the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law before the miraculous catch of fish (Lk. 4:38–39). It’s obvious that the disciples knew Jesus prior to their decision to follow him full time.
There’s also similarities in three scenes in which Jesus is anointed with expensive perfume. Six days before Passover, John describes Mary, the sister of Lazarus who had been raised from the dead, anointing his feet (Jn. 12:1–8). Matthew and Mark tell us about the anointing of Jesus’ head by a woman at Simon the Leper’s home (Matt. 26:6–13; Mk. 14:3–9). There’s a strong likelihood that these describe the same event. Luke describes another circumstance earlier in Jesus’ ministry where he’s anointed (Lk. 7:36–50). In the case of Luke’s account, the anointing happens in the home of a Pharisee named Simon, and even though the account in Matthew and Mark’s story happens in the home of someone with the same name, it appears to be a separate occurrence. Simon is a fairly common first-century Palestinian name. Jesus displayed a tenderness and respect toward women that they were not accustomed to, and it created fierce sense of loyalty—look at the way women supported him financially (Lk. 8:1–3)—it’s not far-fetched to assume that this common sign of honor occurred multiple times.
The case of doublets
Doublets are two episodes which are typically in the same gospel that critics claim came from the same story. Examples of doublets include:
- The feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand (Mk. 6:32–44; 8:1–10; Matt. 14:13–21; 15:32–39)
- Matthew’s two accounts of the healing of a blind men (Matt. 9:27–31; 20:29–34)
- The parable of the great banquet (Matt. 22:1–14; Lk. 14:16–24)
- Matthew’s parable of the talents and Luke’s parable of the minas (Matt. 25:14 – 30; Lk. 19:11–27)
Are these all examples of cases where gospel writers treated two separate versions of a story or teaching as different events? Jesus ministered to a lot of people in a lot of different places. There’s no reason we need to believe that he couldn’t repeat a miracle or a teaching.
Differences aren’t contradictions
Consider these two sentences:
- There’s a window in my office
- There’s no window in my office
This is a true contradiction because for one of these sentences to be true the other has to be false. These are not the kinds of contradictions usually attributed to the gospels. Instead, the discussions tend to center around apparent discrepancies and contrary accounts, but when we look closely at them we find that they’re typically cleared up pretty easily.
Next time you run into what appears to be a conflict in the gospel accounts, ask yourself if you’re looking at one of these four issues:
- Paraphrasing and interpretation
- Abbreviation and omission
- Reordering of events and sayings
- Reporting similar events and sayings
Like those who came before us, we can put our full trust in the veracity of the gospel documents.
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This post is adapted from material found in Four Portraits, One Jesus, an online course on Jesus and the Gospels taught by Mark Strauss.