The Problem of 4 Gospels?

A couple of week’s back, I saw this photo below posted on the internet.

Jesus - 4 Gospels

It’s quite humorous, I think. But the reality is that, for some, this photo might seem to communicate a problem about the New Testament Gospels.

What do I mean?

You’ve got 4 different versions. Not completely different, but if we are honest, some of the details don’t line up at times.

Does Jesus heal one demoniac (Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39) or two (Matt 8:28-34)? Were there one (Matt 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8) or two angels (Luke 24:1-12) at the resurrection of Jesus?

Of course, for most, these are neither here nor there. But then you’ve got different teachings presented in different ways. One of the biggest differences is found in Matthew’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ and Luke’s ‘Sermon on the Plain’. Compare the Beatitudes in Matt 5:1-12 and Luke 6:17-26.

Many try and look past the differences, suggesting that we have a record of two different occasions, Jesus teaching a bit differently in each case. And though this could be true, if one compares the portions right before these two Beatitude accounts (Matt 4:23-35 and Luke 6:17-19), it seems that Matthew and Luke are describing a very similar situation, rather than two events.

An even more difficult account to reconcile is on what exact day Jesus died: The Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, Luke) have Jesus dying the day on or after the Passover meal, but John has him dying the day before Passover meal, on the day of Preparation?

Sounds like major challenges to the Christian Scriptures, right? Therefore, some try and get down in the nitty gritty to explain it all. And, at times, this might be a plausible activity. But it’s not always doable.

So what do we do with these challenges?

Well, the first thing we need to note is this: the Scriptures are not modern-day journalistic biographies. I believe we need to back away from our contemporary perspective that says the Scripture should fit this or that mould and allow the texts to be just what they are – ancient biographical texts.

You see, I actually believe that 4 accounts provide us a positive declaration regarding Jesus and the early Christians. Imagine if everything was written exactly the same? We’d really look at it with questions. Matter of fact, the same would happen today if two people reported the exact same details about a particular event. You’d think there had been some collaboration going on beforehand.

But the beauty of it all is that we have 4 accounts, 4 Gospels. Or really we have one Gospel attested to in four varying accounts.

I’d also suggest that we recognise that the ancient biblical authors were not concerned with exact reporting of facts, as if they were trying to give perfectly straightforward history. They shaped their accounts to teach us something. Thus, I have always appreciated this definition, from a friend of mine who is both a pastor and theologian, regarding the biblical historical narrative: A theological re-telling of history in the form of a narrative with the purpose of speaking into the present.

Again, the biblical writers were not obsessed with straightforward history. It’s not to say the biblical text is a complete farce. It only means that we need to give space for irreconcilable details and statements within varying accounts, such as in the Gospels. Well, they are reconcilable, but only when we recognise each biblical writer was shaping things in a way that served their didactic purpose. And Christians, by faith, believe the Holy Spirit was active in this process. The Scriptures are not God-dictated by voice. But they are God-breathed. The writers and speakers were not directly pressured into certain wording. Rather they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, I celebrate the fact that we have 4 Gospel accounts. I believe it adds to the beauty of the gospel message about Jesus Christ. And I encourage us all to celebrate the 4 Gospels, especially as we approach holy week next week.

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15 thoughts on “The Problem of 4 Gospels?

  1. Like this Scott. I have long been interested in the difference between ‘God breathed’ and ‘God dictated’. I think many preachers talk as if the Bible were dictated by God directly and many harsh stances emerge on topics which seem to go against the spirit of the law – ie to be loving.

    Can I ask: what do you think is meant by ‘The Word of God’ when describing the Bible – especially if you saying (which I assume you are) that it is the meaning rather than the wording that is God inspired?

    • Hey Paul –

      Thanks for commenting. 99% of Christians will argue that the inspiration of Scripture did not come by dictation, but recognise that they are God-breathed (the Greek from 2 Tim 3:16 is theopneustos, which means something like God-breathed). But I still read many formulations around the topic of Scripture’s inspiration that make me think it sounds more like dictation. I appreciate 90-95% of something like the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. But some statements are too strict. There is a big debate going on in my homeland between conservative evangelicals and moderate evangelicals. You have to prescribe to certain terms or, unfortunately, you are on the outside. It’s not good.

      What many don’t realise is that, most times in the Scripture when it refers to ‘word of God’, ‘word of the Lord’, or ‘word’, it is not speaking of the written Scriptures. The terms are used much broader. I also like to distinguish between the direct speech/word of God and the mediated speech/word of God. I believe the Scriptures fall into the latter category. I don’t believe that this has to be problematic for Christians, I just think we cannot tie the Scripture down to certain terms, e.g., inerrancy.

      I’m not sure I can give a specific comment at this time regarding whether the exact words or the meaning is inspired. There are many terms that would have to be discussed like verbal plenary inspiration (the full Scripture text), inerrancy, infallibility, etc. I’d have to think (or rethink) through it more. But if inerrancy argues that every single word is exactly and perfectly what God desires, without any error, then I think you run into problems when it comes to reconciling some of the biblical data. I don’t think there are problems here as I approach it, but I think the problem lies in holding to a particular perspective and then trying to make the Bible fit into that perspective. Many times I think Christians argue for a Bible they wish they had, rather than the one we actually have.

      This comment is already getting lengthy, so I should wrap it up. I see the Scriptures as God’s word, but not his direct speech. I believe it is trustworthy in its underlining intention, God-breathed and authoritative. But I am a little wary of arguing for too strict terms.

      Hope that explains a little more. Cheers!

  2. Scott, I too love the fact that we have 4 different accounts each from a different perspective. It does lend to the beauty of incarnation and God’s redemptive plan.

    You said;

    “And Christians, by faith, believe the Holy Spirit was active in this process. The Scriptures are not God-dictated by voice. But they are God-breathed. The writers and speakers were not directly pressured into certain wording. Rather they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

    Could it be that as the Spirit influenced each writer, they wrote down from their own perspective, words that God intended? And of course their own perspective did involve a theological treatise specific to their audience. I know that’s a bit nuanced from what you said but I don’t think the differences necessarily negate verbal plenary inspiration.

    • Lisa –

      It’s a hard one to get down to all the details. As you know, I’ve backed away from what I believe are some strict terms to describe Scripture’s inspiration. Even the idea that Scripture’s words are what ‘God intended’ (or God exactly intended) could be problematic. I would be ok to recognise certain passages that aren’t exactly what God intended, but nevertheless, they are still part of the canon of holy Scripture. Not to mention an honest assessment of how the canon of Scripture came to be what it is today. Things are much more organic than we first thought, noting that we find traces of additions, edits and a bit of reshaping at later dates. I know all this is pushed to the side when some try and focus their definitions on the originals. But I’m convinced God, Christ and the first apostles weren’t as obsessed with the originals as we can be. They were very happy to quote the non-originals, but still recognise it as theopneustos.

      In the end, I think we try too hard to nail down the details. But it’s a bit like trying to nail jello to the wall. It ain’t gonna work in some regards. And the bigger discussion for me is epistemological stances. And I don’t look to Scripture as God’s word because I can prove terms like inerrant and verbal plenary. I look to Scripture as God’s word because Christ and the gospel have revolutionised the lives of Christians, to which Scripture attests to. I don’t believe in Christ because of Scripture; I believe in Scripture because of Christ.

  3. Amen to that last statement, Scott. The scripture points us to Christ, but then it’s Christ that proves He is true through the testimony of the Spirit, who then CONFIRMS the truth of Scripture.

    I think the evangelical community does the world a disservice by demanding and defending the inerrancy of EVERY scripture verse. Because there is such a high standard assigned to the written word (higher even than what we expect from our OWN history books), it just opens it up to more finger pointing due to all the very real accuracy issues and incongruent testimony found in it. If we ALLOW that Scripture is at best a 90-95% accurate historical account while maintaining and defending it’s SPIRITUAL value in pointing to the person and work of Christ as it’s primary purpose, I think more people would be open to taking it at face value rather than choking on things that just don’t track logically within the narrative. In other words, people are missing the forest for the trees, and it’s because of our stubbornness on this issue.

    If scripture is perfectly inherent, than it really doesn’t require faith to believe in Christ. It would just be a logical decision based on facts. But it’s that it ISN’T perfect that requires that faith be exercised in the acceptance of Christ as savior. And faith is required to please God. Faith is then rewarded by the Spirit who opens our eyes to see the truth throughout Scripture (in spite of it’s inaccuracies). By demanding that people accept the Bible as inherent as a prerequisite to faith, we are putting the cart before the horse.

  4. Scott,

    The same God who precisely orchestrates and superintends His Creation to create/maintain life as we know it– can not this all-powerful God also ensure precision in the very words He inspired to be written as Scripture? Moreover, precise meaning through the vehicle of language necessitates that the words chosen are exactly fitted to the point. How can the meaning be inspired if the words used to convey that meaning are something less or other than precisely what God wanted said?

    • Sure, he COULD, but why would He? Is our faith supposed to be based on the written word? Where is the promises concerning the infallibility of the written words of ANY of the writers of the scriptures? Our faith is to be in the LIVING Word, Christ. The written word merely supports and bolsters our faith in the Living Word, and even THAT is through the power of the Spirit, not because of any promise of perfect written expression.

      As for language — all language has serious shortcomings, perhaps our own the most of all. How can we say that our language is precise when we know it is far from it? Words and languages are interpreted by MEN, and the meaning of them changes with time. Common phrases and idioms used in ancient times may be lost to us. Word meanings have changed even over the course of Biblical history, let alone when reading them today. Trusting in our interpretation of Biblical languages and saying that they are “exactly fitted to the point” seems foolish to me.

    • Alex –

      First off, I am not too interested in getting into the details of what is inspired – words or meaning. I’m happy with whatever you believe is best.

      Here is the bigger issue – I have no doubt about God’s ability. But the thing is, the beautiful thing is, that God has always been about team projects with humanity. He could do it himself – write Scripture, preach the gospel, serve the poor. But there was only one human that ever did it on behalf of God perfectly. That doesn’t include us.

      So I know who God is and I know who we are. I think we can actually tread on problematic ground if we argue that God made absolute sure that nothing of our finite & fallen nature is to be found in the projects he teams with us. It ends up pushing some kind of dictation focus.

      Also, we must consider the nature of language. Language is actually a creation of humanity. Even mathematical formulas, that some might argue are absolute equations, are a creation of humanity by which we look to grasp aspects of life and reality. We create the vehicle of language to tell about God. Again, remember that I do not negate God’s ability. But humans are finite & fallen and we have to allow for that.

      Lastly, if a particular type of Scripture (‘inerrant’) is necessary, why does God, Christ or the first apostles not seem bothered by this particular text? God never thought it necessary to preserve this original text? We’ve got the first apostles not quoting from the originals (since they quoted the Greek), and they have Jesus quoting the same. Remember, it’s the originals and the originals only that people argue are inerrant?

      In the end, all of this stuff seems such a hard attempt to argue something that I’m not sure is necessary. My faith is in God & his perfection, displayed in his Son.

  5. On another blog it was brought out the so-called difference between Ipsissima vox – “the very voice”, and Ipsissima verba. Of course these are theological constructs, but we cannot get along without some reality of the literal so-called “cognitive equivalence.” Indeed GOD has an authoritative revelation, again both the “Logos” and the “Rhema”, ‘In Christ’!

  6. Scott and Ken,

    Of course one must agree that since man is fallen, so also language as a vehicle of communication is always imperfect. Nevertheless God Himself chose to use human language to communicate life and death truth about Himself– truth of such import that it can decide one’s eternal destiny! So although sin taints our understanding of truth, God nevertheless decided that Scripture would be the best vehicle to communicate all-importantt truth about Himself. I agree that each gospel writer was inspired to emphasize certain aspects of the factual events to which they were witnesses, in accordance with the individual purposes of their gospels. But being guided and inspired in this process by the all-powerful God who is Truth incarnate, what they spoke must be true and accurate in its details. The Bible is a historical account, and its accuracy matters. Jesus time and again reveals absolute confidence in the trustworthiness of the Old Testament, using it as the foundation of His teaching ministry, quoting it as His method for resisting temptation, pointing to His own teaching/ministry as the fulfillment of that which was written before. Most of all Jesus subjected Himself to Scripture– would He have done this if there were errors in it? I cannot imagine Jesus saying that it would not matter if some of the human writers of Scripture got things wrong– He never makes any such statement and on the contrary everything He does say about Scripture reflects His confidence that it is not the the fallible word of men, but the infallible word of God. So if we have faith in the perfection of God, then we ought to have faith in the perfection of His word, as testified to by Scripture itself when it refers to the writing of inspiration and writing of Scripture as a God-breathed process. This means that though men wrote Scripture, we are getting through them God’s word and not man’s word. When Scripture quotes itself, it speaks in God’s name, as if quoting God Himself– even when the quote is not necessarily a direct utterance of God. Why is this issue so important? Because the authority and integrity of the Word of God is at stake! Yes, our faith is in Christ, but as you seem to agree, He is the One who gave Scripture His stamp of approval as to its authority and legitimacy. Nowhere does Jesus give any hint of the approach you seem to be describing– that it would not matter if there were some mistakes in it. Our faith in Jesus then should also lead to a faith that Scripture is what Jesus treated it as — the mighty and infallible word of God. “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

    • Alex –

      Let me ask a question – What version is usually ascribed to as inerrant (or perfect)?

      It’s the originals.

      Now, of course we all note that we don’t have the originals any longer – haven’t had them for a while. However, it’s interesting to ponder that God, in his sovereignty, didn’t deem it absolutely necessary to preserve these originals, the only documents that we claim are perfect. If these documents are so extremely important as the only inerrant ones, perhaps we should not make them more important than what God has actually given to us.

      Not only that, the NT continually has Jesus, the first apostles, and others quoting from the Greek OT, which means they weren’t quoting from the originals. That is also interesting to note. Remember, it’s only the originals that are inerrant. Why would they be ok to quote something that doesn’t fall within our own modern formulation of what is and should be inerrant – the originals?

      I’m very happy with 90-95% of something like what we find in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. However, when you have to continually make caveats of what is meant by the term ‘inerrancy’, then something is amiss, even if a little off. And, yes, Scripture has an historical function to it – but it’s not a straightforward historical presentation. Scripture is produced within a particular historical framework. But it is not merely history. The biblical authors & compilers shaped the narrative to ultimately teach us something of the revelation of God. Hence why certain details don’t seem to line-up at times, or why we don’t have to only prescribe to a 6-day, young earth creationism, etc.

      Listen, I believe the written Scripture is the greatest written revelation of God and his purposes. It is God-breathed, it is revelatory, it is transformative, it is authoritative. It is also faithful to its intent. And its intent as an ancient document does not seem to fit into a paradigm that became important amongst particular groups of Christians mainly within the 1900’s.

      Let’s allow the Scriptures to be what they are as the word of God coming out of its own context, not our modernist, empirically-driven context.

      • Wow! How very subjective is YOUR own “paradigmatic” position, another modernism itself! And “particular groups of Christians mainly within the 1900’s”? I would think that Pentecostals would also fit in here?

    • But being guided and inspired in this process by the all-powerful God who is Truth incarnate, what they spoke must be true and accurate in its details. The Bible is a historical account, and its accuracy matters.

      So when the Gospel accounts differ in their details vis-a-vis each other such that they can’t both/all be correct, how does one decide which one(s) is/are “accurate in its details”?

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