“Why Are There So Many Differences in the Gospels?”

Poor Ancient Historians

How is this to be explained? Should these discrepancies be regarded as errors? Were the Gospel writers poor historians? Have they told the truth about Jesus?
Such is the strange and mysterious world of New Testament scholarship. How can we explain these bizarre questions?

According to some of today’s most prolific writers in biblical scholarship, the evangelists — the authors of the canonical gospels — were historians and writers of Greco-Roman biographies. They reach these conclusions via embarrassingly obvious cherry-picking, which leaves them with a pile of incongruous evidence, which they feel compelled to explain away.

If the Gospel writers were historians (as scholars desperately want them to be), then the evidence would indicate that they were pretty bad at it. And if they were writing Greco-Roman biographies (despite all the clear indications to the contrary), their works are missing nearly all of their defining characteristics. At the same time, all of the canonical gospels share these same peculiarities.

Consider the following examples. None of the New Testament gospels provides the name of its author. At least two of them copy another gospel, practically word for word, with no indication that the author is quoting a source. The typical Greco-Roman biographer will openly evaluate sources and decide which is more likely to be true. That never happens in the gospels. The material they present is not “probably true”; it is the very embodiment of truth.

Poor Historians of Ancient History

Even the time-honored tradition of sucking all the oxygen out of the room by churning out enormous books that say essentially the same thing in various combinations is, at its heart, a form of misdirection. For if we ever caught our breath and thought calmly for a moment, we would realize that the question is not, “Why do the gospels differ?” but “Why are they alike in so many ways?”

Seen from the perspective of believers, the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are disconcertingly different. On the other hand, if we clear our minds of the anxiety of historicity, we see that Mark and John resemble one another much more than they do any “other” Greco-Roman biography.

Notice that both gospels don’t begin with the birth of the subject (Jesus) or even vignettes from his childhood. Instead, they start with John the Baptist. In fact, both John and Mark have the Baptist utter the very first words of direct speech.

Poor Structures Built on a Poor Foundation

I knew once the “gospel == βίος” idea took root in New Testament studies, we would see a rash of awful books built on a rotten foundation. What I failed to see was just how willing nearly all New Testament scholars would be to embrace it. It most certainly has become a consensus view — to the point where scholars will mention it in passing as a fundamental truism, without wasting their valuable time discussing or defending it.

Only by the clumsiest cherry-picking can we have arrived at this point. Calling attention to a difference and writing it off as a compositional device is scholastic malpractice. Insisting that the evangelists were just employing ancient literary techniques when they changed their sources is a lazy cop-out.