The Christian faith is a historical faith. It rests upon real and verifiable events of the past through which God has accomplished the salvation of his people. The most spectacular of these are connected with the life of Jesus Christ, whose saving mission is recounted for us in the Gospels.
Given the importance of these books as witnesses to the sayings and doings of Jesus, it is no surprise that pious readers can become distracted or even disturbed when they stumble across apparent inconsistencies in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Some have tried to comfort unsettled readers by proposing an enlightened view of the Bible -- one that simply accepts factual errors and discrepancies as part of the "human dimension" of Scripture.
At first glance, this popular approach seems reasonable enough; after all, the four Gospels were composed by different human authors having different opinions, perspectives and experiences. However, this has never been the Church's stated approach to the matter of perceived tensions. On the contrary, popes and councils alike have consistently proclaimed the historical trustworthiness of the Gospels as witnesses to "the honest truth about Jesus" (Dei Verbum, No.19).
This proclamation from the Second Vatican Council has important implications for reading the Bible as Catholics. For example, one might think of the approach of St. Augustine, who thought it important to devise a practical strategy for dealing with problematic passages in Scripture.
He proposed that alleged discrepancies in the Bible could be explained in one of three ways: problematic texts either were miscopied, mistranslated, or simply misunderstood by the reader. So the possibility of human error is admitted as real, but only in connection with the transmission and interpretation of the biblical books, not in connection with their original composition by the inspired authors.
In many ways this approach remains valid today, not least because Pope Leo XIII praised the wisdom of Augustine's words in his 1893 encyclical on the study of Sacred Scripture (Providentissimus Deus, No. 41).
Some of the classical "contradictions" encountered by readers and Bible scholars fall into a couple of main categories: differences in chronology of events, variations in Jesus' wording in parallel passages and, perhaps most challengingly, differences in descriptions of similar events.
In what follows, we offer some considerations to keep in mind while reading the Gospels. Perhaps one could think of it as practical advice for developing spiritual and intellectual habits of mind. The aim is not to offer solutions to individual problems -- though we walk through some examples -- so much as to propose a general approach to negotiating difficult passages in thoughtful and informed ways.
A final word should be said about the disposition of the Catholic reader. Humility and patience are called for when dealing with problematic passages in Scripture. Being humble is essential when handling the Word of God. It is, after all, an inspired witness to God's love for us and the revealed record of his will for our lives. It is not our business to stand in judgment over the Word; it is rather the Word that stands in judgment over us.
So, too, we need patience when wrestling with interpretive challenges and working toward solutions. Difficulties are not in the Bible by some oversight of God's providence. We should look at them as invitations to engage in a deeper reading of Scripture. They are opportunities to submit our minds to the mystery of God's ways and to trust that all things find their answer in him.
Why do the Gospels relate the same events differently?
In some ways the most challenging difficulties that confront us in the Gospels are the alleged contradictions between parallel accounts. Skeptics take delight in pointing out these differences to the faithful, believing them to be irreconcilable, and even some of the world's most learned scholars have been known to throw up their hands in despair after failed attempts to harmonize discordant Gospel reports. What, then, is the average Catholic to make of the apparent discrepancies in the biblical stories about Jesus?
First of all, one must distinguish between contrary and contradictory testimony. If a lawyer cross-examines two witnesses and listens to two conflicting accounts concerning the whereabouts of the defendant at a particular time and place, he is faced with contradictory testimony. Because the same person cannot be in two places at once, either one or both of the witnesses is presumed to be lying or mistaken.
But if the lawyer asks what the defendant was doing on a particular day between 4 and 5 p.m., and one witness answers "cooking" while the other replies "talking on the phone," the situation is more complex. Neither activity makes the other impossible or even unlikely. The individual could have been doing both at the same time, alternating between one activity and the other, or some combination of the two. Being contrary rather than contradictory, the reports of both can be a true description of historical reality. The challenge is to piece together a coherent picture of what actually happened.
A second point to keep in mind is that virtually all historical writing is necessarily selective and incomplete. No one can record everything that takes place at any given moment in time. An author is forced to record only what he or she wishes to be remembered; all other contemporaneous events have to be left unmentioned. In this sense, a complete history of any event is strictly impossible, given the constrictions of the spatial and temporal world in which we live. By the same token, a partial history of any given event is not thereby a falsification of the facts.
An incomplete report, limited to certain details while omitting others, is not the same as an inaccurate report.
Both considerations -- contrary testimony and selective reporting -- can assist us in our assessment of the Gospels. There are plenty of examples where one Evangelist gives us a report that differs from another's, either by describing the action differently, or by the addition or subtraction of details not paralleled in the other Gospels. Provided we are not itching to find fault with the Bible, we should be open to finding ways of reconciling such disparate accounts.
A classic example of contrary and selective reporting is the story of James and John requesting seats of honor on either side of Jesus. In Matthew 20:20-28, it is the mother of the sons of Zebedee who approaches Jesus and petitions him for the favor. However, in the parallel account in Mark 10:35-45, it is James and John who ask this of the Lord, and no mention at all is made of their mother. The question is whether we are faced with irreconcilable testimony, or whether there is some way to fit the two reports together into a coherent whole?
In all probability, Matthew provides us with a fuller historical picture of the situation, whereas Mark has abbreviated his description by omitting mention of the mother. The two accounts would be contradictory if Mark told us that the mother of James and John did not make the request of Jesus, and Matthew said just the opposite. But, in fact, what we have is contrary testimony that indicates that all three individuals -- James, John and their mother -- were involved in bringing the request to Christ.
Confirmation of this is twofold. First, when we examine both accounts side by side, certain tendencies are evident. Matthew tends to give us a more detailed description of the event and a less detailed account of the dialogue. Mark, however, tends to give us a shorter and more streamlined description of the action alongside a fuller report of the dialogue. Mentioning the mother of the sons of Zebedee is thus consistent with Matthew's approach to this account, just as omitting mention of her involvement is consistent with Mark's approach.
Second, it is clear from Matthew's version that James and John were very much involved in the request to sit at the right and left of Jesus. For one thing, the other disciples were indignant at the ambition of James and John when they heard what was being asked of the Master (see Mt 20:24). For another, Jesus responds with the words: "You do not know what you are asking" (Mt 20:22). This is significant because, in the Greek text, the verbs are both plural. In other words, the "you" in question addresses not only the mother but also her sons. So Mark has not contradicted the historical event when he indicates that James and John came to Jesus with a request. Apparently they had their mother do their bidding for them!
Why do the Gospels record Jesus' words differently?
Anyone who takes the time to examine parallel passages will discover that the four Gospels frequently present the sayings of Jesus in different ways. This should not surprise us. For one thing, Jesus delivered much of his teaching in Aramaic, and yet the Gospels record his words in Greek. No doubt some variations in wording were bound to arise in the process of translation from one language to another. So, too, it appears the Evangelists at times offer interpretive paraphrases of Jesus' sayings in order to highlight a particular theme or spiritual truth that they deemed especially relevant to their readers. The author can thus place a certain emphasis on this detail or that, all the while preserving the gist of what was said on the occasion.
This may strike us as an odd or even questionable practice, given our modern-day preference for exact quotations. However, the best historians of the ancient world typically allowed a measure of freedom in recording spoken discourse, so long as the original sense of the words was faithfully conveyed. The liberty to paraphrase, abbreviate, or bring out the intended meaning of a person's speech thus operated within narrow limits. Then as now, historical narrative was not to be confused with historical fiction.
The implications of this can be summed up in a sentence: The Gospels preserve the authentic voice of Jesus, but they are not always verbatim transcripts of his exact words (with a few exceptions, such as, Mk 5:41; 7:34; 15:34). The Church acknowledges this fact quite openly. According to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, in its 1964 instruction on the historical truth of the Gospels, the Evangelists employed "different words to express what [Jesus] said, not keeping to the very letter, but nevertheless preserving the sense" (Sancta Mater Ecclesia, No. 9). So the meaning of Jesus' message is accurately expressed in the Gospels even amid the variations in how it was written down.
In Mark, Luke and, to a lesser extent, John, Jesus makes regular reference to "the kingdom of God." Hardly a chapter in the synoptic Gospels goes by without reference to this keynote expression.
Matthew's Gospel, however, only uses the phrase four times (12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43). Instead, Matthew prefers to have Jesus proclaiming "the kingdom of heaven" (32 times). Now it may be that Jesus used both expressions at different times in his preaching. But this is insufficient to account for the phenomena. For often we find the variant formulas "kingdom of God" and "kingdom of heaven" spoken in parallel passages (compare Mt 13:31-33 and Lk 13:18-21).
What does this mean? It means that Matthew and his fellow evangelists employed different words to express the oral discourse of Jesus.
Some interpreters claim that Matthew's "kingdom of heaven" is the more primitive expression of the two, since Jewish tradition often used the word "heaven" as a metonym, a indirect reference to God by means of something to which he is closely related (for other examples, see 1 Mc 4:25 and Lk 15:18).
It is conceivable that Mark, Luke and John translated the phrase into "kingdom of God" because this would be more readily understandable to their Gentile readers.
Others have attempted to reverse this scheme and to argue that "kingdom of God" is the more original phrase and that Matthew adapted it in order to reinforce the theological emphasis on heaven that runs throughout his Gospel.
Either way, the point is that the Evangelists have used slightly different expression to communicate the same message. One can detect a slightly different emphasis in "kingdom of heaven" as distinct from "kingdom of God," but the meaning is essentially the same.
Why does the timeline of events differ among some Gospels?
Faithful churchgoers are often surprised to learn that the Gospels do not always present the story of Jesus in strict chronological order. Of course, the main outline of his life, ministry and finals days is kept intact. At this level, the story line is broadly chronological. But many of the short episodes within this framework are rearranged according to the purposes of the individual Evangelist. Oftentimes, for example, an Evangelist will group stories together that share a common theme or highlight a common feature of Jesus' ministry.
The freedom to move and reposition material in this way does not mean that the essential historicity of the Gospels is compromised. Not at all. One must keep in mind that the Gospel writers, in addition to preserving the memory of Christ's actions and teachings, were also preachers of the Good News. Their interests as authors were evangelical and catechetical as well as historical. The result is that chronology is sometimes subordinate to theology in the narrative presentation of Jesus' life.
The synoptic Gospels have Jesus storming through the outer court of the sanctuary, overturning tables and driving out the merchants and their animals at the beginning of Holy Week (see Mt 21:12-17; Mk 11:15-19; Lk 19:45-46). This dramatic episode is one of his last public actions before the start of the Passion. In fact, many scholars regard the Temple action of Jesus as the last straw, so to speak. It is the final outrage that moves the Jerusalem authorities to take the decisive step of eliminating him once and for all.
The Gospel of John, however, has Jesus cleansing the Temple at the very beginning of his ministry (2:13-17). Now, strictly speaking, it is possible that Christ engaged in such a demonstration twice, once at the start of his career and then again at its closing. But most scholars, pointing out the similar details of the two events, regard them as one and the same historical episode. It is broadly agreed that Matthew, Mark and Luke have given us its correct chronological placement, whereas John has moved the account forward to an earlier point in the story line. He has dischronologized the Temple action to serve a particular purpose.
So what is the reason for removing the Temple cleansing from the events of Passion Week? Most likely, John wants to draw attention to an additional motive that fueled the plot to eliminate Jesus.
Without denying the link between Christ's death and his disruptive tirade in the Temple, John wishes to highlight an earlier turning point in the conspiracy that developed against him -- namely, the raising of Lazarus (see 11:1-44). Though an act of mercy and miraculous power, this event became an occasion for rousing the ire of Jesus' enemies (11:45-52). In the eyes of the religious leaders, bringing Lazarus back to life was having an unsettling effect: News of the feat was attracting too much attention and Jesus was winning too many disciples to his cause. From the perspective of the Jerusalem elites, excitement over the Galilean wonderworker was a growing danger to the future of the Judean state; authorities feared that his actions would spark punitive action from their Roman overlords. So, in order to head off a political and military disaster, Caiaphas and company resolved to put Jesus to death (11:53). They even made plans to do away with Lazarus because of the stir caused by his return to life (12:10-11). It would seem, then, that John has rearranged the historical sequence of events in order to shed additional light on the historical motives that led to Christ's crucifixion.
Unsolved mystery: Differences in Jesus' family tree
Most scholars agree that harmonizing the genealogies of Jesus that appear in Matthew and Luke has yet to be achieved in a satisfactory way. It remains one of the unsolved mysteries of the New Testament. Some have given up the attempt to reconcile the two lists altogether, whereas others continue to pursue some type of plausible solution. Clearly, this is a case where humility and patience are called for in large measure.
That said, a few observations and suggestions can be made in the hopes of moving toward a solution. Perhaps it is best to begin by taking note of the general differences between the genealogies. First, one notices that Matthew's genealogy moves forward in time from the patriarch Abraham to the person of Jesus (see 1:2-16), whereas Luke's genealogy moves backward in time from the person of Jesus to the primordial man, Adam (3:23-38).
Second, the scope of the registry is different in both cases, with Matthew's version stretching across 42 generations and Luke's version stretching across 77 generations.
Third, it is commonly held that Matthew's genealogy qualifies Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah, whereas Luke's qualifies Jesus to be the redeemer of the whole human race.
Finally, the line of ancestors is basically the same from Abraham to David, allowing for a few alternative spellings of the Hebrew names and a few unparalleled names that merely indicate that the lists are representative and selective rather than exhaustive.
The real difficulty lies in the list of names that extend from David to Jesus -- a historical period covering roughly 1,000 years. It is here that the genealogies diverge considerably. How can it be possible for one person to have two family trees?
At the risk of sounding simplistic, let us recall that everyone has two family trees inasmuch as everyone has a mother and a father. Perhaps that is the case here. Though not without some difficulties, it is plausible that Matthew gives us Jesus' legal ancestry through Joseph, while Luke gives us his biological ancestry through Mary. Such a hypothesis dovetails with the fact that Joseph's role in the infancy narratives is highlighted by Matthew, while Mary's role in the story is highlighted by Luke.
More importantly, it is crucial to point out that Matthew and Luke trace the family line of Jesus through two different sons of David. Matthew, who wishes to show that Jesus inherits the prerogative of Davidic kingship, gives us the royal line of David that passes through Solomon (see 1:6). Luke, however, traces a nonroyal line of David through his son Nathan (3:31; see 2 Sm 5:14). On this reading, Joseph and Mary descend from two different Davidic families, thus giving Jesus two different Davidic genealogies.
Admittedly, the hypothesis of a paternal (Matthew) and maternal genealogy (Luke) is unproven. It does not explain, for instance, why Joseph is named in both registries while Mary is mentioned in Matthew but not in Luke. Still, when all is said and done, this simple solution may prove to be the best solution. In the meantime, the effort to find a complete resolution goes on.
How Catholics read and interpret Holy Scripture
In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.
In order to discover the sacred authors' intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. "For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression."
Be especially attentive "to the content and unity of the whole Scripture." Different as the books which compose it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God's plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since his Passover. Read the Scripture within "the living Tradition of the whole Church."Be attentive to the analogy of faith. By "analogy of faith" we mean the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 109-110, 112-114
Curtis Mitch, a research fellow at The St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology in Steubenville, Ohio, is co-author with Scott Hahn of the Ignatius Study Bible.