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Harmony of the gospels

The BibleI've been reading through the gospels and comparing the different versions of stories. It's interesting, not just for the fact that all four of these books can't be literally and totally inerrant since they contradict each other in many details. That's certainly true, but I don't know when I last believed that the Bible was inerrant. I'm pretty sure that while I was at Truman and ACC I thought it was inspired, but not word for word flawless. But even taking that moderate approach, the differences in stories are fascinating. Mark is almost always briefer, more apocalyptic and he paints Jesus as a secretive person. Either more information came to light over time, or the later writers felt free to embellish. Matthew and Luke add to and change the stores in different ways. Matthew seems to spiritualize things more. Compare his version of the beatitudes to Luke's. Is it the poor or the poor in spirit that are blessed? The hungry or those who hunger after righteousness? The evangelists certainly share a single focus and purpose, inspiring belief in Jesus. And most of their details line up, but it's interesting to think about why they don't agree in some places.

Then there's John. I never realized before that almost none of the stories in John are in the other gospels, and vice versa. John's Jesus boldly proclaims who he is, which really stands out against Mark's secretive Jesus. John adds in so many details and lengthy transcriptions of the words of Jesus. I read the Garden of Gesthemane story in John, then the other gospels. John makes the prayer go on for much longer than the others. The other gospels tell about one of Jesus' followers cutting off a soldier's ear. John goes two steps further. He names the follower (Simon Peter) and the soldier. If that was known when the earlier gospels were written, then why did they leave it out? If not, how did the author of John know about it? It seems like the kind of change that would happen as the story becomes legendary.

Mark is generally considered the earliest gospel to be written. You would think that the writing that is closest to the time of the actual events would be the most reliable account. The author of Mark was more likely to have spoken to eyewitnesses and there had been less time for the story to grow with the telling (30 years is still plenty of time for that, but much less time than John's 60 years). When Mark comes to that central event in the Christian story, the resurrection of Jesus, there is almost nothing said. Bibles today have Mark 16:9-20, an ending that was not in the earliest copies of the book. Most Bibles include a note to this effect. It's likely that this ending was tacked on by a later scribe to make up for the disappointing ending in the original writing.

So, what does the original ending of the earliest gospel have to say about the resurrection?

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?"

But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

"Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.' "

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

(Mark 1:1-8)

This brings up lots of questions. First, where is Jesus? The other stories have him appearing to various people. Why wouldn't the author of Mark mention that? Compare how the news of the resurrection is discovered in each of the gospels. Mark says that the women who found the empty tomb left and "said nothing to anyone" (Mark 16:8), but Luke says that they came back from the tomb and "told all these things to the Eleven" (Luke 24:9). Matthew agrees with Luke (Matthew 28:8). And John characteristically expands and dramatizes the event. The women tell the men and the men have a foot race then go into the empty tomb and look around.

Second, and more significantly, if verse 8 were true and the women never told anyone what happened, then how did the others find out and how did it come to be generally known that Jesus was raised? It seems to me that when Mark was written, the author assumed that it wasn't generally believed that Jesus was risen. He's revealing a secret that has been hidden for many years. This fits in with the theme of secrecy which runs throughout Mark.

If Mark was written to introduce ideas about Jesus that were unheard of at the time, then he would need a device to explain the fact that he was teaching something new. If no one had heard of Jesus or at least no one had heard of him claiming to be the Son of Man and rising from the dead, then how could Mark start teaching this 30 years after the fact? So, Mark says that when Jesus healed someone or someone proclaimed who he really was, then Jesus told them to keep quiet about it. And when Jesus rose from the dead, only 3 women knew about it and they never spoke of it.

Claiming to reveal some secret knowledge of past events is a very common device. Dan Brown used it in The Da Vinci Code. Masons, Scientologists, Mormons, Gnostics and many Greco-Roman mystery cults have all claimed to give secret knowledge to their initiates. It's easy to defend because of course there's no evidence for it, it was a secret! And if you find contradictory evidence, well, then that's just part of the coverup.

If Christian faith is based on the historical event of the resurrection, then the New Testament is the only possible historical record of that event. As I'm reading it now, it seems less like reliable historical accounts and more like legend or propaganda that was expanded and embellished over time to suit the needs of it's writers, who, after all, were compiling these stories to create and strengthen belief.

It seems clear to me that the idea of verbal inerrancy is impossible. Contradicting accounts cannot both be true. Either the women told no one or they told the disciples. But if you dismiss that idea and still believe that the gospels give the real story of the historical Jesus, then you have to deal with the changes that were introduced to the story over time. The changes between Mark and Matthew are noticeable, but mostly minor. The changes to the story in the 30 year period between Mark and John are extensive. By the time John was written, there were already at least three books about Jesus in circulation. Yet even with the possibility of being compared to he existing written accounts, John was composed with a vastly different set of stories, sayings, emphasis and even theology. How different, then, could Mark's version of the story be from what really happened? He wasn't even restricted by other written accounts. No one could check his story against the other extant versions and the with the secrecy device he preemptively answered questions like, "If Jesus was so great, why haven't we heard of him?" His changes may have been much more dramatic than John's.

If Mark was the closest to the real Jesus, then we can follow the trajectory of the changes back in time and estimate what Jesus was really like. My guess is that he was a traveling apocalyptic preacher like John the Baptist. I doubt that he ever performed a genuine miracle or claimed to be the Son of Man. He may have predicted the end of the world and the coming of a new kingdom. He probably didn't say a lot of the things attributed to him. He may have offended some powerful people and and he probably was executed. But, like every other human in history, he stayed dead. His execution happened to occur during the Passover holiday, so his followers began to associate him with the Passover lamb that dies to save the people. From there, it's not hard to imagine how the stories about him would grow as the movement grew until someone had the idea of writing the first biography.

Further reading:
The endings of Mark 16
Messianic Secret
184 NewTestamentcontradictions
More New Testament contradictions
An Easter Challenge for Christians
How is John different?

5 comments

Just a couple quickies (it is homecoming week).

Weren’t the letters written first. If you want to look at what the early church though of Jesus based on the earliest writings, it seems like this would be the place to start.

Your guess in the last paragraph seem less based on a reverse trajectory - did he do more and greater miracles in John than in Mark? maybe, I don’t know - and more on your presupposition that he was just a regular guy.

It’s these presuppositions that make discussions like this difficult. Everybody has them and we then look for evidence that supports them.


Matt [Visitor]  10/12/07 @ 06:09
dan [Member] • http://www.brendoman.com/10/12/07 @ 06:48

Good post - most people never realize or care to think about these questions. Interesting explanation of the ending of Mark. I don’t know if I buy it, but it is the best explanation given your starting points. I favor the “Mark as an extension of Paul” line of thinking to explain Mark. If you read Paul’s letters he is all about the death and resurrection. you are right in saying the Paul was not concerned with discussing Jesus’ life and deeds in his occasional letters aimed at specific churches and addressing specific problems in those churches. I see Mark as written to a gentile community to give the story of Jesus’ life. Paul keeps talking about this resurrection stuff - what about the rest? Or it could have served as a propaganda tool - ok, what happened next?

I use the beatitudes all the time with my students to demonstrate the edited nature of the gospels. The use of the mustard seed is another example - mark doesn’t know the problem, matthew tries to fix it, and luke leaves it out altogether.

Interesting stuff, never the less.


Henry Michael [Visitor]  http://hundiejo.com10/14/07 @ 14:40
dan [Member] • http://www.brendoman.com/10/14/07 @ 17:56

“Differences in the Gospels Doesn’t Negate God.” Visit the link to read the Real Liberal Christian Church’s comment on this article. God bless everyone.