This is the first installment in my series regarding the New Testament of the Christian Bible. In this edition I will be discussing what the authors of the Gospels are really saying as well as what Paul has to say. To get a better idea of what is said from each authors perspective we will be doing a "horizontal" reading of the Gospels and do some comparing with what the Pauline portion has to say.
It is well known that the Gospel writers have different stories to tell but all to often this is dismissed as saying that they are merely different perspectives of Jesus' life that merely overlap each other. This, at first, appears to be a satisfactory answer and for many the subject is never looked into in any further detail after this. However, with a little digging, it becomes apparent that these authors vary so dramatically in places that they simply cannot all be accurate. I will give various accounts of this below.
First, let me establish that there is near unanimity among biblical scholars that the Gospels were written pseudonymously. There is good reason for this belief and the first and most obvious is the date these books were written. Mark is regarded as the first to be written coming in circa 70 CE and is commonly believed to be the so-called Q document meaning that this is the common source between Matthew and Luke (hence the similarities between the three). Luke (who authored Acts as well) comes in next with the earliest dates coming in circa 59-60CE, and finally we have Matthew coming in somewhere between 70-100 CE. John was the last to be written (earliest dates come in at 80CE) and tells such a different story that it is often considered in it's own boat, it is not included in the "Synoptic Gospels."
Outside of the obvious time gaps (Mark was written about 35 years AFTER Jesus' death) the books never name an author. The names have been attributed to these books from very early on, but this is by no means a claim of authorship (only a slight hint). Why make no mention of authorship? If these books were actual eyewitness accounts, why were they written so long after Jesus' death? How could they possibly be word for word accounts and who would honestly expect them do be given the time difference?
- A Horizontal Reading
Let's examine a few stories that the gospels agree on and see how close the accounts actually are. Many people read the bible one book at a time, one chapter at a time. This is called vertical reading, and when read like this the Gospels seem to be very similar and tell practically the same story. However when we read these stories horizontally, discrepancies abound.
Let's start with the birth story which, oddly enough, is only in two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke. You would think that the story of a virgin birth would be worth mentioning if you were recording noteworthy events in someones life, so why it only appears in two books is questionable on it's own but for now we'll overlook that minor detail.
We'll start with Matthew's version which begins in Matthew 1:18 and finishes around 2:23. This account goes roughly like this. Mary and Joseph are to be married when it turns out she is already pregnant. This naturally does not sit well with Joseph who plans to divorce her but is then told in a dream by "an angel of the lord" that she bears gods child and that he should still marry her. Joseph does this and she bears the child the name Jesus. Wise men them come from the east following a star in the sky that leads them to Jerusalem. There they ask King Herod where the king of the Jews will be born, Herod (who is fearful of this prophecy) assembles his men and they conclude that Bethlehem is where he is to be born. Herod sends the wise men out and tells them to send word once they find him so that "he may too worship him." The wise men set out again and follow the star which reportedly stops over the house where Jesus and company live (how a star stops over a single house in particular is beyond me). The wise men shower him with gifts and, being warned in a dream, leave without telling Herod where he is. Joseph is warned in a dream that Herod will come to kill them so they leave and Herod proceeds to kill all male infants 2 and under (Oddly this portion is almost always left out of the nativity plays). Eventually Herod dies and his son takes over, so instead of returning Joseph and family settle in Galilee," And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene."
It's important to note here that Matthew is quite obsessed with this birth fulfilling Old Testament "prophecy." Oddly enough the scripture he is quoting regarding Jesus being born to a virgin is Isaiah 7:14. However in the Hebrew bible it actually reads a young girl (not virgin) and is more likely referring to an immanent birth and not some future happening (this is based on the Hebrew language and it's use of, or lack there of, tense in grammar). What's more likely is that Matthew misinterpreted this ancient verse.
Luke tells a much different, and longer, story of Jesus' birth. In fact, the two stories only truly agree on two points. Jesus was born to a virgin in Bethlehem. Luke first describes and angel tells Mary,not Joseph, that she is to conceive the son of god. Also in Luke's account Jesus doesn't reside in Bethlehem and is born there due to an empire wide census issued by Augustus. They're are asked to return to their ancestral homelands and for Joseph, being related to David, this means Bethlehem. When they get there though we all know what happens next. There is no room at the inn, so baby Jesus is born in a manger. Instead of wise men, shepherds are greeted by an angel in the fields and told the Messiah will be born and to go worship. After Jesus is born, he is circumcised and the new family promptly returns to Nazareth.
For brevity sake I'll stop there (you're welcome and encouraged to do independent reading from your own bible on this) with the stories. So let's look at what we have. In Matthew Joseph is visited by an angel, in Luke it's Mary who gets the good news. Matthew, obsessed with prophecy, has Jesus living in Bethlehem then fleeing, eventually, to Nazareth to fulfill prophecy. Luke says there was a census (which I will look at more closely in the historical article later) that had Jesus born in Bethlehem but in a manger. Matthew has wise men, Luke has shepherds. Matthew has mass infanticide (also to be discussed later) and a family in hiding for years before reaching Nazareth, Luke has no infanticide and a prompt return to Nazareth.
It is quite obvious that both accounts simply cannot be true. Why is Matthews account so much different? Why are virtually all of the parts different in both accounts? Clearly both authors had their own story to tell, and neither knew that their books would be put together and fact checked against one another. Both authors told the story as they saw fit with their particular audiences in mind, but both cannot be true. Churches like to combine the two stories every year for the Nativity plays but what they really do is create a new story, a new gospel. If we accept the traditional view of the birth (the one the plays have which is a hybrid of the two stories) then what we are really saying is that neither author really had it completely right. This is a subtle admittance of fallibility and thus a certain knock on the validity of our authors, and this is the first story they tell.
I will list a few other stories for independent reading here, so as to not be too drawn out. I will link some verses here, others you will have to do some digging. Clearly this is only for those interested but I do encourage it if you're interested.
- The story of Jairus in Mark 5:21-43 and Matthew 9:18-26
- How can Mark 9:40 and Matthew 12:30 both be true?
- How long did Jesus minister? (Note Mark's repeated use of "immediately".)
- Jesus' death. What time of day and what day? Mark 14-15, John 18-19
- The Resurrection stories, who met the women at the cave, where was the stone when they arrived?
These are just a few and there is plenty more to be found if you look. It's interesting that all of these stories differ so much if they were all accounts of the same man's story, not to mention they are to be divinely inspired. Why would an omnipotent, omniscient being allow such contradictions in his holy text? Is it possible that these authors were just trying to tell their own story? Perhaps they all had their own reasons for wording things how they did. This becomes quite clear in the passion narratives. Some authors make Jesus out to be strong and willing to the end while others have him asking god why he has forsaken him.
- Synoptic v. John
Why are the synoptic Gospels and John so different? Why are almost all of the stories from John not found in the Synoptic Gospels? It's clear that John tells a much different story of Jesus' life than the rest, but why? No virgin birth, no temptation in the desert, virtually no parables, and no trial before the Jewish council.
If you consider that John was the last Gospel written you can start to put together why John tells a different story. In Mark (the first Gospel written) Jesus is explicit in telling his followers that, "Truly I tell you, some of those standing here will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God having come in power." (Mark 9:1) Now John would have a hard time believing this since pretty much everyone that would have been present for that speech had already died. So John tells a different story, he modifies it slightly and instead of the kingdom coming to Earth (as in Mark), the kingdom of god is already here, but in heaven. This is how John reconciles the fact that all of those people died without the coming of the kingdom. A clever fix, but again, John had no way of knowing that his Gospel would be juxtaposed with Marks, who clearly tells it a different way.
So who do we believe here? How do we go about deciding which author is the most credible, and are any of them credible? Sure many of the differences are minor, but plenty are irreconcilable differences that must be addressed. In John Jesus performs many "signs" and is the only Gospel that hints at a preexistence of Jesus as a divine being. He also continually uses the "I am" quotes and stresses his own divinity. In Mark, Jesus rarely talks about himself and is more focused on god and the kingdom of heaven. Why do we see such different faces of Jesus in these Gospels? Again, the answer can be found in looking at the message each author was trying to purvey. John wanted it to be clear that Jesus was god and he performed "signs" to prove this in his account. In Matthew Jesus refuses to perform miracles to prove his divinity and only uses miracles to help those in need, and actually refuses to perform any miracle (except his Resurrection) for the Jewish leaders.
These are just a few differences and as I said, virtually all of the stories in John (the passion accounts being the exception here) are not found in the Synoptic Gospels. So it's clear that these authors all had their own stories to tell and they didn't have the idea of their stories being combined with others at a later date. This is why we see such differences, they weren't so worried about historical accuracy as they were with getting across their own idea of salvation and who Jesus was. There is nothing wrong with this, but it's important to keep in mind that these authors have their own voices independent of each other, and there own interpretation of Jesus' teachings.
So we come back to asking who's account, if any, is the most trustworthy and how can we know? They can't all have it right, the differences are too many. We will explore why the bible was put together the way it is at a later date (in the historical portion of this series) and who chose to include these books in the canon.
- A Quick Note on Paul
There are 27 books in the New Testament and Paul is credited with writing at least 13 of them. Interestingly, Paul was writing years before our Gospels were written, at least 10-15 years before our earliest, Mark. Paul is the man responsible for the idea that a staunch belief that Jesus died on the cross for your sins was all that is necessary for your salvation. In fact, he suggests that strict adherence to Jewish law (the 10 Commandments) is actually more harmful to your salvation because you risk trying to earn your salvation instead of accepting Jesus' gift.
This stands at direct odds with what Matthew had to say. In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus is quite explicit in saying that you must strictly obey the laws to gain entry to heaven (in addition to believing in him, of course). So who has it right? It can't be both, Paul in Galatians 2:15-16 says the opposite and hints that we are at danger of losing salvation if we try too much to fulfill the law.
It's obvious that if the Gospel writers ever read any of Paul's letters, they didn't think them divinely inspired, why else would they differ so much in opinion on salvation? Being that Paul authored nearly half of the books in the NT it would stand to reason that his accounts represent the ideas that were chosen to represent the Christian faith. But why does he differ so much on what is essentially the most important issue, the issue of salvation? Again we are left to ask, which account is true? I can not only believe in Jesus' sacrifice and not focus on the law while at the same time strictly adhering to the laws.
One more quick difference with Paul and the Gospel writers can be seen in Acts (written by Luke). In Acts Paul gives a sermon to a group of pagans and notes that god has overlooked their ignorance in worshiping idols and only wants them to repent. However, in Romans Paul tells quite the opposite story. He openly condemns them for "willfully" worshiping idols and tells them the wrath of god will come upon them. Naturally here we expect Paul to know better what his view on this was, but why does Luke's account stand at such odds with it? Again we have an instance where both accounts simply cannot coexist.
In closing, here we have seen just how different the stories in the NT are and we have demonstrated that certain points cannot be overlooked. We have seen fallibility in the bible and exposed a chink in its armor. If the bible cannot even agree with itself, how do we know what to agree with? Once again I will state that there are many other examples of these discrepancies, but I'm already getting too long winded here. I encourage you to look into this on your own time and read the verses objectively with an open mind.
Again, this isn't an attempt to lead people away from faith, only an attempt to lead people away from extremism. If the bible can be openly shown to be fallible, then it can no longer be used as an inerrant word of god that can justify any acts. When a book is as big as the bible and has as many contradicting verses, it becomes a dangerous tool for the zealot. You can find a verse within it to justify almost any act, but how do we know which ones are truly divinely inspired? How do we know if any of them are?