Distinctions in the Four Gospel Accounts

Some critics of the Bible take ammo from the distinctions made between the gospel writers. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have some passages very similar, with others having differences. These distinctions are sometimes said to be evidence of errors, so much so that critics give us the impression of the Bible being like Swiss cheese, a comedy of errors so bad that any dunce could have done better. (for a related post on numbers of errors, see here.)

For example, on the morning Jesus rose from the dead, Matthew starts this part of the story “as it began to dawn” while Mark says “when the sun had risen” and John says “while it was still dark.” Another example is the number of women who went to the tomb, with the gospel writers not giving the exact same list of names.

What strikes me as interesting is that liberal Christian denominations have attacked the Bible for exactly the opposite reason: that parts of the gospel accounts are so similar, being word-for-word copies, or almost so. These critics claim that the gospel writers have the same stories, some being so close that it would be unreasonable to conclude that the writers came to these accounts independently. These critics conclude the gospel writers were not eyewitnesses, but copied from other writers.

I’m reminded of a small statement that Jesus made in Matthew 10, where He was speaking generally about John the Baptist. He said “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (v.16-19). It seems that no matter what we do, our critics will neither dance nor mourn.

If the accounts match exactly, we’re told they cannot be true for they must be copies; if the accounts differ, they cannot be true for they must be erroneous. If the accounts match exactly, they could not have been eyewitnesses, if they differ, they could not have been eyewitnesses. The critics claim there are not enough independent, first-century accounts of Jesus, but when we collect 27 first century books from 9 eyewitnesses and collect them into the New Testament, they claim this is now a single source, so it should not be trusted.

One thing is true: the Bible cannot be both exactly the same and vastly different at the same time and in the same sense. Perhaps they mean that some sections match exactly and others are vastly different. While this is of course technically possible, it is practically absurd, for what set of writers would make such an error? This would require not one, but two or three writers to make the same gross mistake, copying one chapter exactly and making hackneyed blunders in the next. I wonder what degree of matched wording between the gospel writers would satisfy the critics.

What makes much more sense is that the writers were using their own words to describe the same event they witnessed. Further, the presuppositions of the critics seem to give away their true motives, for they do not give the gospel writers the common expectations of any four people telling the same story from different perspectives and different goals of the story.

In the example of resurrection morning given above, several scenarios could explain the account. “Dawn” was not measured with modern instruments, such that 6:21 is dark before dawn, the sunrise is at 6:23, and 6:24 has the sun up and the light switched on. Rather, it could have been dark when they left and light when they got to the tomb. In hilly countries the sun hits the top of the hill much earlier than the valley, and the eyewitnesses were likely not all in the same spot. It could be that the sun was up and it was still considered dark, which is often the case very early in the morning. It could have been cloudy that day, or other possible explanations. The critics seem to be picking apart distinctions in wording as if they were some sort of significant error, which is telling of the motives of the critics. If they do not want to agree with the Bible, they will find something to claim it is not relevant to their lives.

I would hope that people would not be so determined to avoid God, that they would pass up heaven over disagreements of how dark is dark, and at what point in the morning dawn has passed.

Most of the other alleged issues in the accounts can be easily explained when we realize none of them included the entire account, but were giving different emphasis, such as the number of women who went to the tomb, and how many trips they made that same morning. Some alleged discrepancies are nothing of the sort, and a careful reading of the text reveals clarity. There is actually unity in the accounts on the number of women who went to the tomb, but not every writer names everyone in the group.

As for more scholarly explanations of the distinctions between the gospel writers, see the books of Eta Linnemann, who did some excellently detailed work, going as far as to count words and calculate percentages of differences and similarities in the accounts.

I urge everyone to read the gospels for what they are: eyewitness accounts of an amazing thing that changed their lives forever.

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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One Response to Distinctions in the Four Gospel Accounts

  1. Hausdorff says:

    I agree with your final statement, everyone should read the gospels for themselves and decide if they think the differences are reasonable. While I agree with you that whether the sun had just risen or it was still dark is not such a huge difference, whether or not there was an earthquake seems like a bigger deal. It would seem that if the earthquake is what was responsible for the stone to be removed from the entrance to the tomb, it would be mentioned in all of the accounts.

    Of course the biggest thing along these lines is the zombies in matthew 27, that seems like something that everyone would have been talking about :)

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