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