Finally(!) getting back to Mark Roberts’ Can We Trust the Gospels?, we come to the question of the nature of the Gospels.
What are the New Testament Gospels?
Knowing the genre of the Gospels helps us interpret them correctly. They are not contemporary anythings – whether history, biography, or novel. We must use ancient categories or nothing at all.
Modern scholarship, Roberts says, has tended to view them as “Hellenistic biographies” – i.e., short biographies that focus on a particular part of the subject’s life that is deemed to exemplify certain virtues. They are not pure Hellenistic biographies, but that is the closest genre we know.
One characteristic of the Hellenistic biography that is useful to our discussion is the freedom of the biographer. Living in a time before tape recorders, no one expected a “quote” to be a perfect quotation. In fact, whole speeches could be manufactured based on a general outline of what the speaker actually covered. It’s said that ancient Greek had no quotation mark and saw no distinction between a quote (in the modern sense) and a paraphrase. This is something that should be considered when discussing the small variations in detail between the Gospels.
Roberts suggests the proof of this is that the early church took both Matthew and Mark to be authoritative even though they differed.
The Gospels, he tells us, give us the ipsissima vox (“his own voice”) rather than the ipsissima verba (“his own words”) of Jesus. His message can be communicated without using the exact words He used. We can consider the Gospels as reliable “sources of genuine knowledge of Jesus,” but we have to consider the intent and process of the Gospel writers in the endeavor.
“Naysayers who deride the reliability of the Gospels because of such things as verbal inconsistencies between the Gospels are making an error of anachronism. Their negativity is almost as silly as criticizing the Gospels for failing to include digital photographs of Jesus” (p92).Of course this does raise questions about how we should approach ideas like “inspiration” and “inerrancy.” But we don’t need to do that now.
What Difference Does It Make That There are Four Gospels?
It is important that we have not one but four of these Hellenistic biographies.
In interpretation, the four help us get a fuller picture of the Christ they describe, but they serve an apologetic purpose too.
Even if Matthew and Luke truly are dependent on Mark, they do not contradict him. If they are not distinct sources, they certainly “second” his description. Though they do not agree on every detail, they paint the same picture. They did not take the opportunity to “correct the record,” so they at least support his story.
John, however, is certainly independent of Mark. For all the differences between John and the Synoptics, they tell essentially the same story. Roberts lists two pages of details that are common to all four Gospels (here available online); among them:
Jesus ministered during the time Pontius Pilate governed Judea. He was connected with, and His ministry superseded, John the Baptist who saw the Spirit descend on Jesus.This is the basic story to which four authors of the earliest church attest.
Jesus gathered students around him (as opposed to being sought out like normal Rabbis), and His followers included women (again, unlike normal Rabbis). He taught in the synagogues and was popular with the masses but often left the crowds for solitude.
Jesus had conflict with supernatural evil, used the title Son of Man, and saw His mission as leading to His death. He did many miracles of various sorts including nature miracles, multiplication of food, and raising the dead.
Jesus implied that He had a unique connection to God and referred to God as Father. He was misunderstood by almost everyone, including His disciples who abandoned or denied Him during His crucifixion in Jerusalem at Passover under Pilate with the cooperation of some Jewish leaders.
Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week, and some of His women followers were the first witnesses.
Are There Contradictions in the Gospels?
But beside that basic story, aren’t there lots of contradictory details in the different Gospels? There are certainly variations among the Gospels, but do those constitute contradictions?
Roberts deals with some of the different kinds of variations in the book, among them:
Chronology – Though we tend to arrange events chronologically, in an ancient Hellenistic biography, thematic arrangements were perfectly acceptable. Thus, one author could use a chronological arrangement and another thematic or both could use different thematic arrangements. Objecting to this is nothing more than expecting ancient writers to conform to our standards.
Conflicting theology – The differing theological emphases of the various Gospel writers cause them to highlight or even include different details. This does not necessarily constitute a contradiction.
Ancient quotations – In ancient literature, paraphrases and composite speeches (i.e., speeches manufactured from various quotes) were perfectly acceptable.
Roberts points the reader to Craig Blomberg’s Historical Reliability of the Gospels for a fuller treatment of this issue.
I would like to mention one thing Roberts does not bring up: Translation. The Gospels “happened” in Aramaic and were written in Greek. The problems of translating and transliterating between languages were the same then as they are now, and different authors may have handled various issues differently.
Roberts says, “Many of the apparent contradictions turn out to depend on superficial or rigid readings of the text” (p108) – a problem that can afflict both conservatives and liberals.
In light of all of this, the supposed contradictions either melt away or are revealed to be trivialities that were unimportant to ancient audiences.
Roberts suggests we think of the Gospels as paintings as opposed to photographs. Paintings may not be “’literal’ in the photographic sense,” but they can “capture a slice of reality that eludes the photographer” conveying “mood, feeling, and insight.” They can be “profoundly ‘true’ without being literalistic” (p111). In that light,
“If you had access to only one of the four Gospels, you would have a trustworthy picture of Jesus. It wouldn’t be as detailed or literal as a photograph. But you could trust it to reveal the truth about Jesus. With four Gospels, you’re able to see different things in Jesus and to know with greater accuracy what he was like” (p112).Finally, Roberts points out that these difficulties with the Gospels are hardly new. They have been recognized from the beginning, and the early church chose to keep the Gospels messy with all the variations rather than trying to turn them into one picture.
“[T]here was no conspiracy in the early church to clean up the Gospels. The truth needed to be protected and preserved, even if it was messy” (p114).
Next time: Can the Gospels be theology and history?