On The Synoptic Gospels: There’s Enough of a Discrepancy

Parchment_Scroll_1_by_Xavietta

At times, you think you are a champion when it comes to biblical expositions until a hot question from nowhere sears your skin. Have you ever been caught off guard when you were asked to reconcile a scripture with another scripture(s)? I’ve come to realize that most of us (Christians) don’t like to read wide. Please, it’s not just about prayer, prayer, prayer. There’s also the ‘read wide’ and ‘meditate’ factor. Paul advised Timothy to study for a purpose; to lift himself up to the place where he would be able to handle correctly the Word of Truth. We can’t keep running away from the consequences of our laziness forever. They’ll soon catch up with us one of these days and question our own stance in Christ (that’s if it hasn’t already). For me, I’m beginning to learn a lot ever since I decided to stop lazing about to explore and read wide. For the purpose of this write-up, I want to talk a little bit about the synoptic gospels (Mathew, Mark and Luke). I’ve finally conceded that they aren’t too consistent just like most skeptics and other people say—and I am extremely glad!

Let’s look at the contrast between Matthew 20:20 and Mark 10:35 as an example. According to Matthew’s account, the mother of James and John asks Jesus to permit her sons to receive an enviable spot in the kingdom He was going to establish. However according to Mark, the two sons made the request themselves. Is it possible for both to be right at the same time? Yes, both can be right at the same time in the sense that it’s very likely their mother made the first request before they joined the chorus to push their hidden agenda across. Don’t we all in some way relate to this kind of incident? For instance, you want to go and see a movie so badly with your friends but here’s the problem: Daddy. You know very well that you aren’t in any way going to get his approval to leave the house at that late hour. So you throw in your trump card by asking your big bro (let’s call him Danny for now) to plead on your behalf. Okay, Danny agrees. Both of you approach dad…and both of you are put on a sweet, cool blast. Unfortunately, your two little sisters (Erica and Katie) witnessed everything right from when you devised the plan through to when it fell through. Doorbell rings. Mum’s home. As expected of their inquisitive nature, they both rush towards the door, eager to break the news to her. I want you to analyze how both of them reports to mum carefully.

Erica: Mummy, Mummy, Jake [referring to you] wanted to go to the movies tonight but dad said ‘No!’

Katie: Hmm mum, it was so sad when Jake was refused the chance to go out with his friends to the cinema even after Danny tried to convince papa on his behalf.’

Are we right to dismiss the story because the two sisters weren’t consistent in their speech? That their eyewitness testimony wasn’t word for word? Or would you say the story is fake because Katie mentioned Danny’s attempt to convince dad while Erica didn’t? Certainly not! What you see over there are two authentic testimonies that are coherent even though they were reported from two different angles. Let me come home a bit so you understand me better. I daresay that you don’t jot down the same notes (a verbatim record) as your friends when you sit in the lecture hall to listen to a talk. The obvious move is every person makes an effort to capture the central themes and with respect to their area of interest, decide to either include or omit other details. So you see, it isn’t a big deal after all. Once the centrality of the message is accurately captured, you are rest assured to have in your hands nothing but a collection of authentic historical records.

It is true that the gospels differ slightly in their record of events and this is simply because the writers had different perspectives and areas of interest. Matthew speaks of Jesus as the Messiah and King of the Jews and constantly harks to the Old Testament prophecies to support his claims. You begin to sense his inward desire to reach the hearts and minds of the Jewish audience with his message. Then Mark rather talks about Jesus as the Son of Man, the greatest servant of all times who comes to make the most outlandish statement ever: to be great in God’s kingdom is to SERVE. It’s even funny how Mark decides to omit Jesus’ genealogy. But let’s not be quick to point fingers here. According to the criteria for writing an ancient biography, the writer was free to select or omit certain things about whoever he was writing about but NOT THE CENTRAL THEMES that were to portray character and personality in the most truest possible way. If in any way, the writer tampered with those untouchable points, the people had the right to prompt him about his mistake(s) to make sure such error was corrected before it was passed down to others. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then if Mark focused heavily on Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection instead of His birth. What’s more important here is although he doesn’t focus on Jesus’ genealogy or His Messianic status, he perfectly captures Jesus’ words and deeds on great servanthood (authenticating Isaiah’s recordings in Isaiah 42:1-7) which was and is still profitable for emulation. But come to think of it, Who outlines the genealogy of a servant anyway? mmm? *just thinking aloud*

Thinking that the disciples may have been biased when recording Jesus biography, you meet this wonderful man of integrity, a great historian, an educated physician, who displays meticulous adherence to technicalities and chronology in recording the various events that took place during Jesus’ time. Have you ever read the opening statements of Luke’s gospel before? You have no idea how that physician was careful to avoid falsification of documents. So you see, Luke isn’t only interested in recording Jesus’ compassionate nature or His healing ministry, he’s bold enough to include geographical details of certain places (e.g Luke 3:1-2) and datable references to specific events (e.g Luke 2:1-2) to inform his readers that his story wasn’t a myth or fiction but was factual; and that real things happened to real people at real places. Concerning Luke’s accuracy as a historian, John McRay (professor of New Testament and Archaeology at Wheaton College) said,

“The general consensus of both liberal and conservative scholars is that Luke is very accurate as a historian…He’s erudite, he’s eloquent, his Greek approaches classical quality, he writes as an educated man, and archaeological discoveries are showing over and over again that Luke is accurate in what he has to say.”

 There are other supposed contradictory writings found in the gospels like the healing of the centurion’s servant (who came to Jesus: the centurion or his elders—Matt 8:5-13 vs Luke 7:2-11), Jesus casting out demons into pigs (did it occur in Gadara or Gerasa?—Matt 8:28-34 vs Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-39), the order of Christ’s temptation (Matt 4:5-10 vs Luke 4:5-12) and many others which have been dealt with successfully over the years. If we fail to research on these overwhelming issues, what happens is we just take a superficial glance at what is before us and easily mark them as ‘fake’. The piece that we often overlook is the fact that once you take painstaking efforts to plunge deeper into what each writer intends to communicate to us, you begin to marvel at how beautiful the accounts fit together in such magnificence and genuineness. You begin to understand that each writer writes from a unique perspective by laying special emphasis on a particular interest in his recordings. It’s as though the synoptic gospels operate on the same principles as that behind panoramic photography—multiple images of an event are taken and fitted together to give us a single wide comprehensible image of that  event.

Last thing I want to say is inspiration (Biblical inspiration to be precise) doesn’t necessarily mean recording exact words, phrases or statement. The essence of inspiration is to piece together evidence accurately for the preservation of truth in unity (not necessarily uniformity). In the case of the Bible, men are specially influenced by the Holy Spirit (style of writing and natural abilities are still intact) to make an infallible record of the Word of Truth. That’s why some of the writers are poetic, others are straightforward in their language and so on. Once you are able to carefully delve deep into the gospels, the historicity of Jesus and His claims and by extension the authenticity of the Bible, you just open yourself to a new atmosphere where you sink to the knees and say just like Paul, ‘THAT I MAY KNOW HIM…’. I tell you, the evidence for the credibility of the synoptic gospels, the New Testament and the entire Bible is so amazing and mind-blowing! It’s been proved time and again (from history and archaeology) how accurate the biblical references are. If you’re in doubt, I’ll kindly ask that you visit the works of prominent scholars such as Paul Barnett, Gleason Archer, Craig Blomberg, Norman Geisler, Bruce Metzger, Edwin Yamauchi, John McRay…and reach your own verdict. These esteemed people (not an exhaustive list by the way) have published articles that speak volumes on the authenticity of the New Testament. Honestly, I never knew there were such compelling evidence out there. And yes, I said earlier that I was extremely glad for the less consistent nature of the synoptic gospels because if the records had appeared all too consistent, we may have probably  accused them of being involved in a conspiracy. On the contrary, the beauty emanates from the harmonization of their ‘supposed discrepancies’.

May I say with all respect that having this intellectual knowledge is nowhere close to basking in the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. The facts about the Bible is just to inform us that what is written isn’t a toy story but truth itself. It is intended to make you think (if you’re a believer) and to make you believe (if you’re a thinker). The Apostle Paul in spite of his great knowledge in history and languages moved beyond facts and evidence to embrace the experiential knowledge that came from acting on what he believed based on all the credible facts and evidence he had at his disposal. That is my prayer for us all. That even as we continue to search to know more about the truth, we will take it a step further to desire an experiential knowledge of our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ who sustains the whole universe by the power of His Word. God bless you.

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