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  • Writer's pictureM.B. Christiansen

Differences in the Gospels: Are they a problem?

Anyone who is familiar with God’s Word knows that among the books of the Bible, four are dedicated simply to giving a biographical account of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Most New Testaments have these four gospel accounts arranged in the following order: Matthew, followed by Mark, followed by Luke, with John coming fourth.



Why Can’t the Gospels Seem to Agree?


Anyone who reads all four Gospels side by side carefully will recognize that there are certain events described in multiple gospel accounts which are obviously recollections of the same event, in which the big details are the same but the small details differ slightly, sometimes even creating contradictions.


The favorite question of the skeptic is to point this out and ask smugly “if these are real events why can’t the authors get their story straight?”


It is true that there are differences in the gospel accounts. This is not a new realization, and to deny that variations exist is to be dishonest in our handling of the text.


One example is to consider the four different accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, paying close attention to who each Gospel writer says was present.


Matthew tells us that “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” went to the tomb (Matthew 28:1). Mark claims that it was “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome” who went to anoint Jesus’ body (Mark 16:1). Luke says it was “Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them” (Luke 24:10). John recalls what seems like an entirely different story. He posits that it was Mary Magdalene (presumably alone) discovered the empty tomb, ran to inform Peter and John (the author) who promptly ran to the tomb, apparently ahead of Mary, found it empty, left, and when Mary returned to the empty tomb and met the resurrected Jesus (John 20:1-17).


So who was there? Nobody seems to agree on how the morning unfolded.

As with all questions in theology, there is an answer. But before we arrive there, let us consider the insight of somebody who is used to piecing together clues from cases which have long grown cold.

 

Insight from a Forensic Detective


J. Warner Wallace, the author of Cold Case Christianity and Person of Interest, is a former cold case detective in southern California. I have seen him speak multiple times. J. Warner Wallace has a knack for taking principles that he has learned in his profession and applying them to Scripture, which often yields some interesting insights.


As someone who investigates cold cases (cases which happened in the past and were abandoned because they were deemed unsolvable), Wallace is uniquely situated to get to the bottom of the four “eyewitness testimonies” in the Gospels.


One of the trends that detectives recognize when gathering statements and discerning the truth of what actually happened is that different witnesses will have different accounts of what happened based on their proximity and relationship to the crime.


They expect there to be differences in the testimonies. In fact, if the witnesses all give the exact same testimony, most detectives would be suspicious; they must have collaborated beforehand and fabricated the same story.


The reason for this is simple: different people have different interests and perspectives.


For example, if my family went to Walmart over the weekend and my wife and I were both questioned about the outing, we would likely share very different details. My wife might express frustration that the produce wasn’t very good and that inflation has made grocery shopping painfully expensive, while I might talk about how crowded the store was and how bacon was on sale.


The differences in our testimonies would not mean that one of us was lying or that we didn’t really go to Walmart. The differences in our stories are easily explained when we recognize that I have no interest in produce and Melissa isn’t anxious in crowds the way I am. We’re telling truthful versions of the same event, from our different perspectives.


The story of how J. Warner Wallace came to faith is a fascinating one. He was an apathetic atheist, but decided to investigate for himself whether, from a cold case investigator’s perspective, there could possibly be any validity to the four gospel accounts. When he began to read them, the differences in the small details actually gave him confidence that the events they all seemed to be recalling were real events that actually happened.


If the Gospels really did record the actual events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, he would have expected to see exactly what we see in Scripture. The small differences are not contradictory, but actually lend themselves to the historical reliability of their witness.

 

A Much Smaller Problem Than It Seems


With this insight, let us return to the problem identified above about who was there to find the empty tomb. Matthew says that it was Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary”; Mark says it was Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome; Luke says it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other unnamed women; and John only attributes Mary Magdalene with the discovery of the empty tomb (but also insists that he and Peter were also involved in the morning’s events).


As is often the case, a little critical thought goes a long way in discerning the truth of the combined passages. Mary Magdalene is attested by all four accounts. We know that John’s Gospel was the last to be written, and the general understanding is that John assumed his readers already had access to Matthew, Mark, and Luke (together called the Synoptic Gospels) because they were already in circulation. For this reason John functions largely to supplement the Synoptics, and fill in the blanks. He doesn’t simply repeat the same thing the other three had said, he sometimes emphasizes certain aspects of the already familiar stories to make a theological point.


John, knowing that his readers already knew well the story of Jesus’ resurrection, singles out Mary Magdalene as the most significant, but he does not specify that she was the only woman present. In fact, it is highly unlikely that a woman would have been travelling alone so early in the morning in that day. Most likely, Mary was not the only one who went to the tomb. By reading all four accounts, we can safely assume that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, Joanna, and potentially other women had all travelled together to anoint Jesus’ body. None of the Gospels profess to give an exhaustive list of the women present.


Nothing in John’s narrative necessitates that Mary was alone when she ran to tell Peter and John about the empty tomb, and in fact his additions to the story add to our understanding of how the events really unfolded.


Based on all four accounts, we can piece together what really happened:


Mary Magdalene and the other women discover the empty tomb and promptly run to tell Peter and John. Upon hearing the news, Peter and John take off running to see for themselves. Presumably, the women turn and follow them back to the tomb at a leisurely pace (they don’t need to hurry because they know what they have seen). Peter and John arrive at the tomb and find it empty, just as the women had said. They leave, and the women arrive back at the tomb, where they meet the risen Jesus.


By combining the four accounts, we see that often the perceived “problems” turn out not to be problems at all. An important principle when dealing with difficulties in the biblical text is that the issues and disagreements are the exception, not the rule.


The vast majority of Scripture fits together and interlocks with each other like a glove. So when we find a discrepancy (more aptly called a difficulty in biblical scholarship) that seems not to make sense, history has shown us time and time again we can trust that there is a logical solution which has simply not occurred to us yet, rather than dismissing the whole witness of Scripture as incorrect.


Another example of this comes from Matthew and Luke’s accounts of the Sermon on the Mount.

 

Which to Give: Our Cloak or Our Tunic?


The Sermon on the Mount is one of Jesus’ most famous discourses. From it we get a great sample of Jesus’ teaching. Luke has a much more abbreviated version of what is obviously the same sermon because they contain many parallel teachings similarly grouped together and presented as one event. Of particular interest is Jesus’ famous directive to love our enemies.


Here is Matthew’s account of the teaching:


You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.


Matthew 5:38-42 ESV


Here is Luke’s:

 

To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.


Luke 6:29-31 ESV


The teaching is profound and is worth examining in more detail, but of interest to us in particular is Jesus’ teaching about giving one’s tunic and cloak. These are foreign articles of clothing to us, but perhaps a modern equivalent would be to a tunic to a light shirt and a cloak to a heavier outer coat.


Can you spot the difference between Matthew and Luke’s version of what Jesus said?


Matthew says that if someone takes your tunic (shirt), you should give them your cloak (coat) as well. But Luke reverses the saying, so that if someone takes your cloak (coat), you should give them your tunic (shirt). It is a small difference, but a difference nonetheless. One might reasonably ask, which way did Jesus say it? If Matthew and Luke have it in reverse order, surely one must be right and the other must be in error. What does this do to our doctrine of inerrancy?


To rightly understand the differences, it is helpful to remember the nature of Jesus’ public ministry. It is a blessing that we have four independent accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry because it gives us a relatively fleshed out picture of Jesus’ teachings. But as John notes at the conclusion of his Gospel:


Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.


John 21:25 ESV


Jesus did and said far more than what we have recorded in Scripture. What we have in the four gospel accounts are a representative sampling of what Jesus did and said. There is no reason to assume the Sermon on the Mount was not a real historical event that actually happened, but it would also be naive to assume that Jesus, an itinerant preacher, would not have repeated himself to different crowds on different occasions. Any preacher or teacher will tell you that they often recycle material and it is almost certain that Jesus would have told his parables and taught identical things to more than one crowd.


This is a simple way of potentially explaining the flip flopping in Matthew and Luke of the tunic and the cloak. But a closer look reveals that the change is not random.

 

The Subtle Beauty of the Holy Spirit’s Inspiration


Each gospel account is written for a specific audience. Matthew, we know, is writing to a largely Jewish audience. Matthew’s readers would have had an intimate knowledge of Jewish law, culture, and history, and we see Matthew injecting details that continually appeal to the Old Testament because this would have been especially persuasive for the Jewish people.


In Matthew, when Jesus is delivering his Sermon on the Mount, he is speaking to a largely Jewish audience. When he tells them to give not only their shirt but their coat also, he is referring to an obscure Jewish law which allowed someone to literally sue somebody else for the shirt off their back. This was petty, but permissible in court.


What was not legal was taking someone’s coat in addition to their shirt. Unlike a shirt, a person’s coat (cloak) was considered a necessity for keeping warm at night and was therefore unable to be seized legally against someone’s will.


So when Jesus’ original audience heard this, they understood what Jesus was proposing: rather than begrudgingly conceding when someone is petty, overwhelm them with love and give more than they ask.


When we read Luke, it is obvious that he is writing for a largely Greek/Gentile audience who would be relatively ignorant and uninterested in the Jewish laws and customs. It was Christ and the gospel message that was the point of interest for them, and Jesus’ reference to this obscure Jewish law would have gone unrecognized.


Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Luke makes a subtle but brilliant shift. By flip flopping the order of the cloak and the tunic, he describes a situation where someone is robbed of their outer layer of clothing; something likely to occur if one was assailed while travelling on a missionary journey, which would have been familiar to Luke’s audience. Stated this way, the Gentile audience would have envisioned a hostile mugger, and their response to such an aggressor would be to shower them with unexpected kindness, offering even the shirt off of their back.


This is a brilliantly subtle switch because it maintains Jesus’ main point to both audiences: Christians are called to love even those who are enemies and who are undeserving in our estimation. We are to go above and beyond, going out of our way to benefit others at great personal cost. The Jews hear it in a way that makes sense to them, and the Gentiles hear it in a way that makes sense to them, while the integrity of Jesus’ original teaching is preserved.


Far from being a irreconcilable difference, the discrepancy between Matthew and Luke on this point actually turns out to be a beautifully subtle shift in order to deliver the authentic original message of Christ to diverse recipients.


The inerrancy of Scripture is thus not undermined, but is in fact shows to be strikingly plausible.

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