Composition of the Gospels and “Discrepancies” Between Them
Summary: Even if the following article has been initially triggered by various difficulties regarding the Gospels, in order to address them it has to answer fundamental questions like: “What is the meaning and purpose of the Gospels?” In this sense this article has deep width and breadth, offering, in a refreshing way, explanations that all of us Christians need to know in order to adjust our vision and understanding of the Gospels and their message.
Question: How do we account for apparent discrepancies in the Gospel accounts? Some people struggle with or question the reliability of the New Testament because of these disparities. What is the best way to reconcile these potential inconsistencies?
Answer: With reference to the Gospels, they are four in number. The four of them talk to us about Jesus’ life, message and his passion-death-resurrection. Matthew, Mark and Luke follow the same structure, though of these three I would single out Matthew and Mark as doing so in particular. John, by contrast, seems to have a different structure. The three gospels which follow the same structure are called the “Synoptic Gospels”.
Some authors thought it would be a good idea to place together the three or even four Gospels in parallel in order to compare the accounts. Books such as these abound. Therein we can follow with ease the same narratives, the same stories, parables and sayings. With this method, however, what immediately stares us right in the face is the fact that they do not literally give the same accounts. In fact it is very easy to find many differences.
What is the reason for these differences, what is the goal of having them?
The Sacred Text does lend itself to many questions and objections, it has to be said, as follows:
1- Why four Gospels and not only one?
2- Why four and not another figure: two or three or five or more?
3- Why didn’t Jesus himself sit down and dictate his Gospel to one of his Apostles? It would have been easier and more straightforward. We wouldn’t have had to struggle with such a number and variety of manuscripts, versions, languages.
4- How many Gospels do we have?
5- How many are accepted?
6- Why have others been rejected?
7- Why are there discrepancies in the actual synoptic gospels?
8- Are the manuscripts reliable? Is there a homogeneity between them?
9- Are translations reliable? Do we have to learn original languages i.e. Greek in the case of the New Testament?
10- What does the “inspiration” of the Bible mean?
All these questions are legitimate and can occur to us, and many of them need an answer. Or, better said, having an idea of the possible answers will help strengthen the launching pad of our Act of Faith in the book of the Bible as Word of the Living God. In order to believe, we need to have given truths, or words coming from God. By the grace of God, we lean on them in order to make our Act of Faith. We need some presentation of a truth as a starting point, in order to lean on it, and say: I believe in it. Thereby we are taken by the grace of God into a deeper level of penetration of this truth, going from the outer skin of the words to tasting the very pulp of the fruit.
Why Do We Have Four Gospels and Not Only One?
This is a good question, logical, simple. Why complicate our life with having four accounts, three of them saying more or less the same thing? The goal of the Gospel is to tell us about Jesus and his message, therefore, why have four books and not one unified one?
Many Christian authors have asked themselves this question and have even made a huge effort to blend the four accounts into one. Their choices and the results of their efforts vary. Some created a synopsis of the Gospels, where one can still see each Gospel in a separate column, but the four are put in parallel, so one can easily note what is common and what is different. Others went further and totally blended the four accounts into one account of the story of Jesus. These are seriously respectable choices and methods. But do they answer the question? Aren’t they just moved by one purpose: merely to create one account of the Life of Jesus?
In order to really answer this question in a deeper way we will need to pose another question, voiced by the third question above: “3- Why didn’t Jesus himself sit down and dictate his Gospel to one of his Apostles? It would have been easier and more straightforward. We wouldn’t have to struggle with such number and variety of manuscripts, versions, languages.”
Again, the implicit hypothesis these two questions – and many others (question 2 for example) – work on is the following: the necessary goal at the end is to have an accurate objective historical account of the facts: what Jesus did and said. Understood in this way the Gospels are being viewed as a collective history book. Their purpose, as we have said, is to give us a fair objective account of events that occurred. Significantly, however, in our minds we are mixing, on one hand, facts and events and, on the other hand, the purpose of the Gospel. Indubitably History is important but recounting, as objectively as possible, the narrative of facts that occur is not the main purpose of the Gospels. They are not first and foremost history books. They are certainly based on true facts and deeds, but this is not their purpose.
Their truth is slightly different. If it had been Jesus’ intention, God’s intention, to give this type of account, yes, we would be within our rights to ask all these questions and object to the number of the Gospels and the method used to compose them. Better to have one unique Gospel, and have it written or at least supervised by Jesus himself! In this way it becomes simple and safe.
The Gospels, by contrast, are a combination of two risky choices that the Lord took: 1- He wanted the writers of the Gospels (two are Apostles (Matthew and John) and two are only disciples (Mark and Luke)) to write them personally. “Them”, not “Him” should be emphasised. By doing so they would be able to write from their own experience.
2- He wanted them to commit to writing their own catechesis, which would reflect their own personal way of understanding Jesus’ Message and Revelation.
God Revealed Himself to Us in and Through His Son
In Christianity, we often use an important expression, “Revelation,” to allude to the major act God accomplished in Christ and through Him. God revealed himself to us in and through his Son Incarnate. “1 God, having spoken long ago to our fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, 2 in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the ages, 3 who, being the radiance of His glory and the exact expression of His substance, and upholding all things by the power of His word, through having made the purification of sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become by so much superior to the angels, as much as He has inherited a name more excellent beyond theirs.” (He 1:1-4)
God’s act –“God has spoken to us in His Son” – is called “Revelation”. To reveal something is to lift the veil from it, to show it, to communicate it.
St. John reiterates this statement and adds to it this beautiful verse: “No one has ever yet seen God. The only begotten God, the One being in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.” (John 1:18) Being in a unique, privileged position, being one of the Trinity, the Eternal Son is “in the bosom of the Father”, turned toward Him. He knows the Father and the Father knows Him (see Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32). Now that He has taken on human nature, and having this privileged position, knowledge and experience, He can share it with us. “all things that I heard from My Father, I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)
We must suppose that the Apostles and Disciples had an experience of this Revelation and wished to transmit it to us. Here we see St. Paul, for instance, talking about this: “He made known to me the mystery by revelation, just as I have written before in brief, 4 which, by reading, you are able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as now it has been revealed in the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets, […]” (Ephesians 3:3-5)
St. Peter also talks about the Revelation: “For we have not made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ having followed out cleverly devised fables, but having been eyewitnesses of His majesty. […] 19 And we have the more certain prophetic word, to which you do well taking heed, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until this day shall have dawned and the morning star shall have arisen in your hearts, 20 knowing this first, that any prophecy of Scripture is not of its own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy at any time was brought by the will of man, but men spoke from God, being carried by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:18…21)
In this last quotation we see the connection between three things:
1- The spiritual experience of the Apostles and the New Testament Prophets,
2- The experience becoming a Teaching, a Prophetic Word,
3- This Teaching having a clear finality: to allow, in turn, its hearers to have the same experience: “until this day shall have dawned and the morning Star shall have arisen in your hearts” i.e. the direct personal and fuller experience of God.
These three steps show us the real meaning of the Karozouta of the Apostles, their Evangelisation: i.e. “making disciples” (or discipling) by doing two things, baptising and teaching to observe the Word of Jesus: “Therefore having gone, disciple all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things, whatever I commanded you. And behold, I am with you all the days, until the completion of the age.”” (Matthew 28:19-20)
“Discipling” is the fundamental act of whoever is sent by the Lord. To make disciples. To Evangelise. “As the Father has sent Me forth, I also send you.” (John 20:21) This can only happen, however, by the Power of the Holy Spirit: “and having said this, He breathed on them and He said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22)
From “Historical Narration” to “Discipling”
In order to understand what the Gospels are, what the New Testament is, and what the Bible has become after the main Event i.e. the continuum Incarnation-Passion-Death-Resurrection-Ascension-Pentecost, we need to bring about in our spirit a shift in the paradigm: to go from conceiving the Gospel as a “Historical Narration” of events to an account of the “Discipling”.
When we think of Christianity, we think mainly of Christ who 2000 years ago came and after thirty-three years ascended into heaven. We understand Christianity rather as having an absent Head. Even – Christ is not here anymore. We think of the Bible as something that is giving us an account of a person who is not here anymore, who has gone, and to deal with this emptiness and compensate for it, we have the said Bible. There is nothing more wrong than this! Christ himself is still present but in a hidden form. Furthermore, He sent us his promise, the Holy Spirit, who is the Consoler (“Consoler” for Jesus’ apparent absence). Without these two actual presences there is categorically no Christianity.
The Holy Spirit is invisible, People who don’t know Him, who don’t have experience of Him will not know from whence He comes and where He is going! They hear His voice in the Scriptures, and through the living witnesses of Jesus today, but they don’t know more; yet! The Holy Spirit is a divine Wind: “The Wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know from where it comes and where it goes.” (John 3:8)
The logic that Jesus wanted to follow is very different from simply recounting to others a “Historical Narration”: “26 When the Advocate/Comforter comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes forth from the Father, He will bear witness concerning Me. 27 And you also bear witness, because you are with Me from the beginning.” (John 15:26-27) The new “logic” is to “bear witness”, and not just to recount what has happened.
In this sense, each Gospel becomes this combined action between the spiritual personal experience of the writer, his Teaching (Catechesis), and the action of the Holy Spirit in him. We can’t separate the two parts: “He [the Holy Spirit] will bear witness” and “you also bear witness”. They go together. In fact, in the mind of God, Jesus’ Disciples, his Apostles, are part of His Mystical Body, united to Him, like a real extension of his being and of his mission here on earth. They are not exterior to what they transmit, for it comes from their spiritual experience, their own understanding of Jesus’ Teaching, all this being under the constant action and supervision of the Holy Spirit. To a certain extent, as Jesus himself is the object of his own teaching (He revealed God, but He is God) the disciples’ experience is also the object of their teaching.
In this sense, inherent in each page of the New Testament is one of the greatest victories of Jesus on earth. He chose on purpose not to write the New Testament by himself, or dictate it, because He wanted his disciples to live on his Teaching, so that his teaching would become alive in them; they would have a deep spiritual and direct experience of Him, and this would become the contents of the New Testament. The New Testament is the treasure chest that contains their experience, Jesus’ victory and above all the realisation of the most profound desire of Jesus: that they be united to Him.
Jesus’ words, “Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Since I live, you also will live.” (John 14:19), sum up the moment when the veil was uplifted for the disciples. First, however, just to show us that there is a real personal, invisible but true experience of Jesus, John showed us how the disciples, before having it, marvelled when Jesus was telling them about it: “Lord, why are You going to reveal Yourself to us and not to the world?” (John 14:22) Yes, amazingly, Jesus will come to us in a hidden way and with the Holy Spirit.
This is the main purpose of the Gospels. This is why Jesus didn’t write them by himself, and why it was necessary for them to be written as accounts of the personal experience of Catechesis that each one of them was giving.
Why do we Have Four and not Two or Three or Five Gospels?
Each Gospel has a specific purpose. We often put them all on the same level, as equals, while in fact they are witnesses of different stages in the formation of the Understanding of Jesus’ Message.
The Gospels of St. Matthew and Mark are the foundation of any Catechesis of the Apostles. Why these two? On the one hand, Matthew was writing to Jews who became Christians. Today we hardly have any idea of how difficult it was to move on from Moses to Jesus, from the Pentateuch to Jesus’ Teaching (the Gospel), from the First Covenant to the Second one. We have great difficulty today to understand the exact journey from one to the other. It is Matthew’s work that focuses on this huge shift, for he needed to demonstrate the Messiah’s Message to Jews newly converted to Jesus. He had to show Jesus as the New Moses, the Real Moses, the realisation of all the Old Testament Prophecies, especially the Promise of Deuteronomy 18 where God said to Moses, “I will send another Prophet like you.” He had to explain the deep Christian meaning of “circumcision of the heart”, which is Baptism and all the teaching that allows Baptism to be a true Trinitarian experience, i.e. how to be held in the two hands of the Father (Chapter 5 and Chapter 7) and be face to face with Him all the time (Chapter 6).
On the other hand, Mark’s account is the account of Peter’s Catechesis to the Gentiles; therefore, it is simpler and to the point. He tries to lead us to the amazing profession of faith of the Centurion before Jesus Crucified: “When the centurion standing there in front of Jesus saw how He had breathed His last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”” (Mark 15:39) What did it mean to the early generations, the apostolic age, to confess that Jesus is “Son of God”, or simply “God”? In fact, for them it is not as it is today, namely, part of an affirmation in a Creed that one recites, sings or prays. It was in fact much more than that: it was the exterior affirmation of a deep experience of union with Christ. For them, to say that Jesus is Christ, is preceded by the experience of reaching his divinity, of a sharing of his divine nature. As we have seen above in the words of Peter: one needs to retain the words of the teaching, put them into practice, until the Star shines in our heart, i.e. when we have the experience of meeting the Risen Lord, as stated also by St. John.
Luke, despite having the appearance of having the same structure as the first two gospels, is in fact very different. He certainly had a Gospel, an account of the teaching, to which he added the narrative of the early spiritual experience of the Church, how Jesus, the Word of God was active in the life of the Church. However, by considering the different trials the early Church had to face, we find another dimension in Luke’s Gospel which is different from the other two Gospels. What were the different trials the Church had to face? He mentions at least two crises of growth:
- The one that led to the first Council of Jerusalem: how should we behave? Should we abide by the Law of Moses? Should we impose it on Christians (regardless of their origin: Jewish or Gentile)?
- What should we do with those followers of Jesus who didn’t receive the Holy Spirit (see Acts 18 and 19)? How can we make the experience of Pentecost an experience for each Christian and not only of the Twelve with Mary?
His Gospel, written certainly many years after Paul’s martyrdom (67), is the final redaction of the Catechesis which, then, in fact becomes the answer to the second Crisis. He offers in it a secure and personal experience of Pentecost, a journey of transformation as well as a deep experience of the Mercy of God.
According to early tradition John lived at a time of harsh persecution for the Church; he underwent Martyrdom, having the amazing experience of giving his life to God, like his master (all the disciples and apostles died as martyrs), namely, he witnessed something very powerful (see Stephen’s spiritual experience of Jesus in Acts while dying Acts 7:54-60) but was miraculously saved by God, and was subsequently sent by the Roman Emperor in exile to a Greek island called Patmos. Here he continued to have amazing revelations and visions regarding the deep spiritual experience of God each Christian is called to have. His writings leave us a message of huge consolation, to the point that they show us the way through various stages of purification and trials to union with Christ. This is described in the initial central vision of Christ, at the beginning of his book, Revelation, and also in the last two chapters of this book. His Gospel, written at least ten to fifteen years after Luke, in the year 96, is the more human form of the Vision he received on the Island. In fact, after the end of the persecution, in 96 he returned to Ephesus and dictated his Gospel. He was in a way a very different person, in the sense that his ongoing powerful experience of Jesus, added to his long one previously – remember he was the closest to Jesus during Jesus’ life on earth, led him to offer us a fourth version of his now renewed teaching. In this sense his Gospel is the more approachable version of his visions entrusted to the Book of Revelation. In sum, his Gospel achieves various goals that go very deep.
It is true that early traditions say that through his Gospel he wanted to show Jesus’ divinity. In fact, the truer meaning of his Gospel is to pave the way to a clear journey toward the experience of Jesus’ Divinity, and from this experience all disciples and followers could draw Divine Life. In a way, this goal is exactly the same goal of the other Gospels, but here it encompasses the maturity, clarity and power of the years, plus the power of the spiritual experience he had endured during his martyrdom and then further on at Patmos.
There is another Goal in St. John’s Gospel, too, which is to show to each disciple of Jesus that becoming like his Master he is called to go, now united to Jesus, through the entire journey of extending Jesus’ life here on earth, living his life here on earth and accomplishing in Him and through Him his Mission.
This makes four gospels.
Document wise, we have many other “gospels” written after the death of the last Apostle, John. They bear the names of the different apostles and they certainly have many truths in them. But they are not written by any of the witnesses of Jesus. They already belong to the next generations. By the instinct of the Holy Spirit in her, the Church didn’t consider them as part of the Corpus of the New Testament. Plus, since they belong to another time and generation, they also contain the imprint of deviations like Gnosticism and other deviations. This is why, instinctively, the Church throughout the early centuries tended to exclude them.
We have many manuscripts of the early Gospels, full or partial manuscripts. We have also many authors who, even from the first Century AD quoted the writings of the New Testament. When we compare all the manuscripts we have and the quotations from early authors, spread over time and space (different languages and traditions), we find that there is enough coherence and harmony. It is in a way a miracle to see how this coherence and harmony persists and emerges. The odds for so many traces and lack in many places were rather on the side of a total disintegration. Miraculously, the coherence remained despite differences in geographic areas and traditions, languages and means.
Plus, it is important to say that the structure of the Gospels is unique.
On one hand they follow the structure of Jesus’ life: John the Baptist, Jesus’ Preaching, Jesus Passion Death and Resurrection, Mission (sending the Apostles in Mission). But also, they follow what immediately became what we call the Mass, or Eucharist, or Divine Liturgy. In fact, and we can see it in the writings of the New Testament (Acts, St Paul’s letters), the first generation, as Jesus asked them to, had not only to pray at different times during the day, like the Jews did in the Temple, but also they had to follow the order laid down by Him at the Last Supper to celebrate his Sacrifice, and partake of the Bread. They were instinctively guided by the Holy Spirit to take each week, on Sunday, the Liturgy of the Sabbath, adding to it the New Teaching of Jesus and Repeating the Lord’s Celebration during the Last Supper when He gave us his body and blood in the appearances of bread and wine. The structure of this Celebration funnily enough is the same as the structure of the Gospel, to the point where we can say that the Gospels are not only witnesses of the Catechesis of the Apostles and Disciples but also, they are the early “Missals” (Mass books). All the Mass is included in the Gospels and vice versa, the Gospels are included in the Mass.
We have four gospels, but our Gospel is Jesus himself! He is the same in each Gospel. He is the Messenger and the Message itself. The Gospels help us find Him and be united to Him, and live through his words, his body and blood.
Having said all the above, let us go through the questions that are left.
Why there are discrepancies in the actual Synoptic Gospels?
Thank God there are discrepancies. Otherwise we would be tempted to remain with the initial paradigm, i.e. consider the Gospels as purely a historic narration and nothing more. St. Paul says that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Co 3:6). This advice or spiritual rule applies in all Christian life and first and foremost when we read the Bible. We believe that the Holy Spirit is the main Author of the Scriptures, guiding and inspiring the human authors to choose the specific words He wants them to and to craft the text the way He wants them to – of course, in relation to the experience of the human author. The Holy Spirit inspired all the books of the Bible. This means that there can’t be any contradiction between one book and another. This means also that when we find an apparent discrepancy between two or more texts, this is an invitation to go deeper to find the common meaning meant by the Holy Spirit. In a way we need to say “Thank God that there are apparent discrepancies” because they urge us not to fall into a materialistic way of reading the Bible and applying what it says. It pushes us out of our comfort zone to find the deep meaning meant by the Holy Spirit, a meaning that shows the deeper unity of the whole books. St. Augustine, through his spiritual experience used to say: the entire Bible sings God’s love for us! Of course, a normal reader would find it difficult to see this in all the pages of the Bible! In fact, the Bible alone, without the Holy Spirit, without understanding the true purpose of it, can lead to a disappointment. We need the experience of the Holy Spirit through the Church to hand over to us the Bible in its true meaning.
Are translations reliable? Do we have to learn original languages? i.e. Greek in the case of the New Testament?
There are three important events and facts in Christianity that are transcendent and help us understand the answer to this question. The first one is the Incarnation of God in our world, in a specific culture and at a specific time in history. In this sense, the Divine Eternal Uncreated Light took on human nature, a language, a culture and used them to speak to us. This means that the Uncreated God can be expressed in human words, through human language. Even if the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, even if Jesus-God knew Hebrew, He daily spoke another language: Aramaic. This tells us that God is not bound by one language only. His light is altogether beyond languages, but also expressible in different languages because his light is rational and can be expressed by human language, even if in itself it is divine.
The second fact that helps us understand the following possibility of translation without losing anything of its essence is the simplicity of Jesus’ language, parables and images. Depths go with simplicity. Simplicity implies ease in translation.
The third event is what happened at Pentecost: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” (Acts 2:4) “7 Astounded and amazed, they asked, “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8 How is it then that each of us hears them in his own native language?” (Acts 2:7-8) This shows us that the Holy Spirit is capable of translating Jesus’ words and message. In short, we can conclude that translating is perfectly possible, accurate, secure and complete.
Text and Word
In more recent theology there is a distinction between the Bible and the Word of God. In a way the Bible is absolutely the Word of God, but the distinction helps us understand that the Bible is a written text, certainly sacred because totally inspired by the Holy Spirit. But it remains a text (and the letter can kill) until, with our Act of Faith in Jesus present among us who wants to talk to us through the text, the latter becomes the Living Word of God. Therefore, because of our openness to the Text as inspired by God, we go from experiencing a mere text to experiencing the Living Word of God.
Even if the order of the questions has not been followed, by this exposition we have followed the meaning of the Gospels and the Bible, which will have hopefully allowed us, along the way, to find answers to our initial questions.
This article it is hoped will also have helped – and for this purpose it deserves to be read more than once in order to grasp its many riches – adjust our act of trust and faith in the Bible as Word of God.