Who to Believe— When Gospels Contradict One Another?

Are you saying the Gospels contradict one another?

Not everywhere, but there are places in the New Testament describing the same events, but their descriptions are sometimes contradictory. For instance, at the Last Supper, neither Mathew nor Mark say whether Jesus institutes the Lord's Supper before or after Judas leaves, whereas John skips the Lord's Supper altogether, as if it did not happen. Also, Luke says Jesus took a cup, blessed it and gave it to Apostles and then broke bread, whereas in Matthew and Mark, the sequence is reversed.

One might care about the exact sequence, and say that it is irrelevant to one's faith. The fact remains, however, that there are contradictions even among the four Gospels.



Why do contradictions occur even in the Gospels?

Contradictions occur even when different people observe the same event simultaneously. Every eyewitness of the same event views it from a different angle, because of their different upbringing and culture. Thus, their descriptions will slight differ one another, except when the writers collude or one copies another's story. Thus,

a written story = true event being described+ α,

where α is the writer's bias, which is individual-specific. It can be either positive or negative. Alternatively, the bias may be expressed in terms of additions or ommissions. This is a scientific fact that can be repeatedly proven by experiments. Two people observing a sequence of, say ten events, or statements made by several people cannot accurately report them in the same sequence as occurred. The probability of making at least one error is almost one.

A second factor that contributes to increased discrepancy is the time delay between events and human records. In general, records made sooner than later tend to be more accurate.

The presence of errors or contradictions in two statements by two different writers does not imply the events did not take place. A sequence of events did take place, but human memories are frail.


Who to believe when Gospel writers and Paul contract one another?

Biblical scholars generally believe that the first three gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke have similar views on the life and teachings of Jesus, and hence they are called the "synoptic" gospels. The Gospel according to John was written circa 100, and the writer had access to the other gospels.

Since we were not there at the scene where the events took place, we cannot be absolutely certain what actually took place. However, three principles may be adopted to enhance the image of Jesus and his teachings from the New Testament. This will also increase the probability that a reconstructed event will be more accurate.

1. Supremacy of Jesus' Teachings

First, if there is a discrepancy between sayings of Jesus and teachings of Paul (or any other teachers), attention should be paid to the former and the latter should be ignored even though it is included in the Bible.

What is the difference between Paul's and Jesus' teachings?

2. First-hand Eyewitness Account is Better

Second, a first-hand eyewitness account is more accurate than a second-hand account of the same event. True, there may be instances where a second-hand account may be clearer than than the description of a first hand account of an inarticulate writer. However, in general, a copy of an original is better than a second-generation copy. Each time a story is recounted by a hearer, he invariably adds or subtracts something from what he received. Subtraction generally occurs due to limited understanding of the hearer. Imagination or creativity embellishes and fills the perceived gap.

For instance, Mark wrote mostly a second-hand account of the life and teachings of Jesus which he heard from Apostle Peter, except where he describes the arrest of Jesus. (Most scholars believe Mark was at Gethesemane.)

Luke compiles stories from eyewitness and other ministers of word (Luke 1:1-4).

If there is a discrepancy between Mark and Luke, we cannot be sure whose story is more accurate, because they were not eyewitness of the events described.

1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first,a to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

3. Harmonization of Internal Inconsistencies

Third, internal inconsistencies should be eliminated in order to glean a true image of Jesus.

Even within a Gospel or Paul's epistles, logical internal inconsistencies should not be interpreted litearlly or given much weight. It is possible for one to make contradicting statements because of changed circumstances.

Two different images of Jesus
Matthew 15:24 He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." 26He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." 27She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Luke 17:15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus'f feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" 19Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."
Mark 7:26-28 also desribes a similar story of Jesus who discriminates against a Syrophoenician woman. Such a saying of Jesus who likens a gentile to a dog is so out of Jesus' character. Most likely, one of the Apostles, rather than Jesus, might have said it. Mark was not present at the scene. In Luke 17, Jesus does not discriminate against foreigners. Also, his parable of good Samaritans reinforces this image.
Raising of Jairus' daughter (1878), Gabriel Max, Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal.