Are There Discrepancies In The Four Gospels?

Skeptics have often criticized the biblical accounts at the end of the four gospels……the details surrounding the death on the cross and resurrection morning. The gospels spend a great deal of ink describing these events, and include many details. Many of the passages do not match word-for-word, and the critics try to make a lot of hay with this. One angel at tomb or two? Who went to the tomb first, and how many were in the group? Was it before dawn or after? And there are many other questions.

First, those of us who believe in the historical accuracy of the biblcal accounts have been placed in a paradoxical box by the critics. For we have one set of critics who say the gospels are shot through with discrepancies, a regular swiss cheese of disagreements. They then cry foul, claiming that none of the documents can be trusted. Other critics do their best to point to similarities in the documents, saying that the gospel accounts are so similar that they were copied from each other, and are therefore not original and cannot be trusted. Whichever postition we take–whether we say that the accounts match exactly or whether we say that they differ a bit–some critic will say that position is proof of the falsity of the documents. Whatever is the case with the gospel accounts, these two situations cannot both be true at the same time of the same details. The four gospels cannot be mostly different and be mostly the same, and therefore false for opposite reasons. At least one of these critics’ claims is false.  

Second, the accounts read just like one would expect: four eyewitness accounts of something that happened once, and they did not have instant replay. They wrote down what they saw. Critics are not being genuine when they treat the gospel accounts with a different standard than other eyewitness accounts.

Third, most, if not all, of the problems have simple solutions. Matthew says “an angel” came and spoke, and Luke says “two men stood by in shining garments,” presumably angels. A very simple solution: if two were there, and one was silent and the other did all the talking, it is normal to say an angel was there and said such-and-so. This is no contradiction at all. The text does not say “only one angel.” Likewise with the account of the women at the tomb on Easter morning: none of the gospel writers say ‘the only people there were….” but rather they give a list of people, and the list could be an incomplete list. Further, the audiences of the gospel writers differ, and therefore the accounts mention different details because they wanted to emphasize different things.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the reasonableness of the critics is in significant doubt. For example, one gospel describes Easter morning as “when the sun had risen,” another says “began to dawn,” and another says “while it was still dark.” There are several very reasonable answers for this. It could have been dark when they left and light when they got there; it could have been light on top of the hill and dark down in the valley; it could have been cloudy that day and dark even though the sun was up. But my friends, let us say, for arguments sake, that we are willing to give this point to the critics. Is it reasonable to deny our eternal destiny because of an argument over how light is light and how dark is dark? Are you willing to risk the fires of Hell due to someone’s misinterpretation of when dawn occurs? There are vast amounts of historically accurate information contained in the bible (see here, and here, and here). Are we really willing to put our soul on the line due to arguments over how many women were at the tomb?

The four gospels present themselves as eyewitness accounts. Read them as such, give the writers the benefit of being there while you were not, and let the text speak for itself. You will find that it is accurate, reasonable, and historical.

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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9 Responses to Are There Discrepancies In The Four Gospels?

  1. Dan B says:

    Im a pastor who is struggling through these kind of issues and I must say you did a crappy job of actly like you answered the critics but not really lifting a finger off the burden. sorry but it is must more detailed and troubling than you pass it off to be. My guess is that you dont give the book of mormon or the Koran this kind of kid glove treatment. better luck next time bro.

    • humblesmith says:

      This short post did not pretend to present an answer to every critical question. For more, simply hit the ‘Bible’ category on the front page, or see the standard books that explain all these details, such as the works of Geisler & Howe, Gleason Archer, or any of the several other apologetic Q&A books.

      For the most part, the skeptics seem to do what was done here, which is toss out general criticisms without much support. As for Mormonism and Islam, you will find a bit on those also if you use the search box.

  2. DanB says:

    My point is if you are going to use the resurrection as a example at least do the critics more justice than you did. you said “Third, most, if not all, of the problems have simple solutions. Matthew says “an angel” came and spoke, and Luke says “two men stood by in shining garments,” presumably angels. A very simple solution: if two were there, and one was silent and the other did all the talking, it is normal to say an angel was there and said such-and-so. This is no contradiction at all. The text does not say “only one angel.” Likewise with the account of the women at the tomb on Easter morning: none of the gospel writers say ’the only people there were….” but rather they give a list of people, and the list could be an incomplete list. Further, the audiences of the gospel writers differ, and therefore the accounts mention different details because they wanted to emphasize different things.” Honestly this is a horrible arguement that doesnt even begin to touch some of the problms I see with the differences in the 4 accounts. The only people you will help with a blog posts like this is Christians who arent well read who don’t know their bible very well, who are looking for a Christian leader to tell them that the critics are crazy and not to worry, the bible doesnt have any errors. You presented a scarecrow aguement and then demolished it. Congratulations. My point about the book of mormon and the koran is to ask you if you examine them with the same level of scrutiny or do you give the bible lighter treatment? What I have found is the most believer’s are duplicitous in the way that they pick apart those other books as apposed to how they treat the bible.

    • humblesmith says:

      Perhaps I should have said “most of the criticisms”. The vast majority of the problems presented by critics, at least the ones I’ve encountered, are on the level of how many angels were at the tomb, which women showed up, whether it was dark or the sun was up, who Jesus spoke to first, or why one gospel writer mentions details which the others do not. These type of criticisms do indeed have rather straightforward answers that do not require straining the text.

      Whether there have been inconsistencies in handling texts is yet to be demonstrated.

  3. DanB says:

    Maybe I could start with this question…do you think that matthew is saying that the Mary’s experienced the earthquak, saw the angel descend, move the stone and the soldiers fall dead, and then sit on the stone? Is that how you read matthew?

    • humblesmith says:

      The first place to look for a question like this is the verb tenses in the original Greek. This section in Matthew 28 is almost exclusively aorist tense, which, according to Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, the aorist “describes the action in summary fashion, without focusing on the beginning or end of the action specifically. This is by far the most common use of the aorist, especially with the indicative mood.” (p.557).

      Wallace gives an example of a photo of someone studying with a caption that says ‘Horace studies.’ “The snapshot by itself cannot tell if the action was momentary, “once-for-all”, repeated, at regularly recurring intervals, or over a long period of time.”(p.555) Or, I might add, whether it was completed in the past or ongoing.

      So these verb tenses in Matthew tell us that a particular action happened, but does not give any sense of past, present, or future. The aorist gives us an indication that an action happened, but no sure indication of whether it was complete by the time the Marys showed up. This is true of the earthquake, the angel decending, and the stone rolling. The verb for ‘sat’ is an imperfect, which gives a sense that the action had started, but does not speak of it stopping.

      Bottom line, this passage of Matthew has no present indicatives, which would indicate the action beginning at the present, or perfect tense, which would indicate action completed in the past. We are therefore left with Matthew telling us the action happened, without a clear indication of sequence.

      The same passage in Luke 24:3, “they found the stone [having been rolled off]” (apokekulismenon), using a perfect tense verb, indicating action completed in the past.

      So if we compare Matthew and Luke, Matthew is simply telling a story, saying ‘this happened’ without an indication of timing or sequence, while Luke seems to indicate the stone was rolled away when they got there.

      For more on a related idea,
      http://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/unnecessary-literary-difficulties/

      Hope this was not confusing. Peace.

  4. Dan B says:

    Thank you for your response. I think that would answer my question about whether or not they saw the stone rolled away or whether it was like that when they arrived. That still leaves a problem in that not just were there one or two angels, but where did they encounter the angels and what did he/they say to the women? Matthew has the angel on top of the stone and Mark has the angel inside the tomb seated and they both more or less say the same thing to the women. Did they say the same thing twice? Matthew doesnt even recount them going in the tomb and Mark does not recount the angel on the outside. If you put all four accounts together, the angel is on the stone when they see him- he is sitting in the tomb on the right side, two of them are sitting on the bench, and to two angels appear standing next to them as they are standing in the tomb. What’s worse is all the accounts tell it as if each of these is the first and only angelic appearances they experienced that morning. If you try to put all of these accounts together it makes no sense at all.

    • humblesmith says:

      All very good questions. Several points to consider:

      1. Angels are heavenly creatures and are not required to be like humans. They do not have to move, stand, sit, talk, or act in any other way like a human, nor are they required to have arms or legs; the angels in Ezekiel are amazing creatures that fly with wings and have multiple faces. Many theologians hold angels to be bodiless spirits that can only appear when God incarnates them into a body.

      2. There were a least two angels. That Matthew only mentions one is normal; if there were two or more, and one was more prominent and did all the talking, it would be normal speech to say ‘the angel said…’.

      3. The angels were not required to be right next to each other, for none of the four gospels say they were. There very well could have been one inside and one outside the tomb.

      4. We have the complication of not knowing exactly how the tomb was arranged. We do not know how large it was, what was the shape of the rock outside or inside the tomb, whether there was a rock wall that extended that blocked part of the view, or any other clue as to the shape inside and outside the tomb. It could very well be the case that one angel was partially blocked from view until the women walked by. It could also be the case the angels could have moved around; they could have been sitting before the women got there and stood up when they arrived. We do not know because the text does not say. Again, the writers could not include every bit of detail, nor did they try. Each gospel writer had a particular point they were trying to make.

      5. The word translated “sat” in Matthew 28:2 is kathamai (Strongs 2521). The word is usually translated sit or sat, but on at least one other occasion was translated “dwell.” The lexicons allow for this meaning. The word for “upon” (strongs 1883) can also mean over or above. The word in Luke 24:4 for “stood” (ephistemi, strongs 2186) has 7 definitions in the best lexicon, BDAG. It is sometimes translated “come upon” or “stand over” or “come upon suddenly.” So with the nature of a couple of miraculous beings, whom we’re not 100% sure had legs, could presumably move, and could be on or above a stone that we’re not sure how it was arranged with the surrounding rocks…..I think we cannot be too dogmatic one way or the other about the exact arrangement of where they were physically.

      6. As for details such as Matthew not having them going in the tomb, Mark not telling of the angel outside, this is again covered with the literary point they were trying to make. Even John, at the end of his book, tells us that no one could write down everything that Jesus did.

      7. I do not believe any of the texts mention a bench.

      8. Bottom line, I think it quite possible that what Matthew was saying is that at least one of the two angels was “upon the stone” and Mark tells us another was “upon the right” inside the tomb. One of them spoke. If, when the women walked up, the angels approached and surprised them, it would fit Luke 24.4.

      As I quoted Colin Hemer in the recent post, we do not need to make unnecessary difficulties for ourselves.

  5. Dan B says:

    thank you for your generous time.

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