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Inerrancy? What Do the Differences in the Gospels Really Prove?

Two nights ago I got pulled over. When I saw the police lights turn on behind me, I knew exactly why he was pulling me over. I was with my twelve-year-old daughter, Katelynn, and had just left the Credo House after teaching a session on the development of orthodoxy. Feelings of embarrassment were released from whatever part of the brain they come from. I don’t like my daughter to see me get pulled over. But hold on…it gets worse.

When the police officer approached my window, I had my driver’s license in hand in hopes that he would not ask me for my insurance card. Yes, I have insurance, but I did not know where the card was. What I did know was that I was getting pulled over for my tag, which had expired in August of last year.

“Do you know why I am pulling you over?” the police officer asked.

“Yeah, my tag has been expired for a while,” I responded in a whining voice that tried to convey a strong hint of self-abasement. “As a matter of fact,” I continued, “I just got pulled over and got a warning a few days ago for this same thing and was going to get a tag when I get paid next.”

“Do you have that warning?” he asked.

Both my daughter and I looked and looked for the warning, but could not find it. Now, here is what you must know: I had just lied and was attempting to manipulate the officer just a slight bit. While it was true I got a warning for my expired tag, it was not just “a few days ago,” but about three weeks ago. Basically, I wanted the officer to say, “Oh, you just got a warning? Okay, well make sure you get this taken care of.”

After a few minutes of sitting in his car and doing whatever officers do between the period of window confrontation ending with “I’ll be right back” and the revelation of whether or not you are going to get a ticket, he returned. Yep, I got a ticket. And to my shame he said, “All I could find as far as a warning was one three weeks ago.” Busted. Implied in his statement was, “You had plenty of time between now and then to get your tag renewed.”

After this, I drove home and confessed to my daughter the wrong things I had done, both the lie and the reason for the ticket itself.

That is my version of the story. It has certain intentions and a certain angle. Many things I could have included that I left out and many “summaries” of conversations and events were preferred. However, if my daughter told the story it may be a bit different.  For example, she may put it this way:

“My dad got pulled over last night. His tag expired. I was scared. When the cop came up, we looked for a warning that he had gotten on June 4th. I looked and looked for it and finally found it! It was so hard to find. But it was really weird. My dad just put it under his leg and did not show the police officer, even though he acted like he wanted to find it before. Anyway, my dad got a ticket for having an expired tag.

As you read these two accounts, some of you recognize that they are both saying the same basic things. I got pulled over and got a ticket for an expired tag. However, others will notice some significant differences. Among those of you to whom the differences stand out, there are those who find the differences to be contradictory, and those of you who see the differences as rounding out the narrative through differing perspectives, both true. Finally, among those who see contradictions, I seriously doubt that any of you disbelieve the main points are true: I got pulled over and got a ticket for an expired tag.

When it comes to the Scripture, many of these same issues come into play. This is especially the case with the Gospel accounts (but is not limited to them). There are four Gospels, all telling the same story, albeit from different perspectives. Some of these differences are slight, like those in the “synoptic” Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who all used the same sources), while some are much more dramatic (John is 92% original).

Just like with the story I told above, there are various approaches on how to handle the differences.

Group one neither recognizes nor cares about the differences, but immediately sees that it’s the same story from differing perspectives.

Group two recognizes the differences and appreciates what they add to the entire story.

Group three recognizes the differences, sees them as contradictions that cannot be reconciled, but still believes the main points of the Gospels (among other things, that Jesus, the Son of God, became incarnate, performed miracles, died on the cross, and rose from the grave).

However, unlike with my illustration concerning my encounter with the police officer, we have a fourth group when it comes to the story of Christ:

Group four recognizes the differences, sees them as contradictions that cannot be reconciled and, because of these differences, rejects everything in the Gospels, even the main points about which all the Gospels agree. In other words, if one thing is wrong, it’s all wrong.

Why? Why do we have a “group four” when it comes to the Christ story, but we would not expect to have a (sane) group four when it comes to my ticket story?

Concerning my ticket story, most certainly group four would see the elements of historicity in the account:

-Elements of embarrassment: I, a Christian minister, got a ticket; I lied to the officer about the warning. (Why would I lie about this?)

-Irrelevant details: I described in detail much of the conversation between the officer and me; I told about how embarrassed I was to get pulled over; I said it happened right after I taught on the history of orthodoxy.

-Collaborative evidence: My daughter’s testimony, which confirms the main points.

But what if group four looked at my account of how I could not find the warning ticket, compared it to Katelynn’s telling that the warning was located, and rejected the entire story because of this? What if they said that Katelynn’s version said I got the warning June 4th, but mine said “three weeks ago,” and concluded that the entire thing was made up? What if they said that in my version, the policeman came up “to the window,” whereas in Katelynn’s version, there is no mention of a window, therefore the whole thing was a fabrication? What if they said that Katelynn’s version was evidently based upon later traditions, since it has the “leg variant” (you know, where I put the warning under my leg), but there is no mention of the warning being placed under my leg in the “earlier” (my) tradition?

Of course we would be right to look at this and say that all those in group four need a bit of counseling, as they are reading the differences in a hyper-skeptical way. At the very least, group fourers are not the type of people to whom we would like to be married.

Interestingly enough, there are quite a few of the group four types in biblical studies. Unfortunately, people are often persuaded that their methodology is legitimate when it comes to the Christ story, even though they would never entertain such hyper-skepticism in real life.

Why are there so many group four types when it comes to the Bible? What do the differences in the Gospels really prove?

39 Responses to “Inerrancy? What Do the Differences in the Gospels Really Prove?”

  1. I think the story really does prove your point with regard to the Scripture, but there is quite another story here. Forgive me but close to this scenario has happened to me. Lying to cover up one
    mistake just adds to the problem. Still sin. Aren’t you glad by God’s grace that you weren’t caught in some immoral affair?
    There go we and how easy to succomb.

  2. Wenham covers this in his Christ and the Bible. He argues that even if you are somewhat sceptical about the complete authenticity of the Bible; granted that–a reasonable approach to the Bible as literature leaves one convinced that Jesus rose from the dead.

  3. I have real difficulty separating inerrancy and inspiration. They are so interconnected that I’m not sure how well they can be separated. I think if there are differences in the accounts of the gospels it is because God wanted it to be expressed in this way and that there is a reason for it, if not many reasons. I am always aware of the human author and his writing and eyewitness etc but I am by far more acutely aware of what is God expressing or it is my desire when I come to scripture to know what is God saying to us through these authors and their vantage point. It is very closely connected. IMO

  4. Group 3

    Dont affirm inerrancy, but still affirm crucifixion and resurrection, miracles etc…)

  5. George Jenkins July 1, 2011 at 5:38 am

    Give me two examples of unreconcilable apparent contradictions, please

  6. The differences in the gospels prove that some of the details are untrue. For example, either the pharisees bought the “feild of blood” (Matthew) or it was judas (Acts). One of theses accounts is untrue. The contradictions don’t make the entire jesus story untrue, but they do show god is content to inspire lies.

  7. There seem to me to be three basic problems that gospel contradictions raise. 1.) They make it very difficult to use the word “inerrant” with regard to them since two contradictory accounts cannot both be without error. 2.) They raise questions about the reliability of the reporting or the reliability of the information available to the reporters, but the most troubling is probably 3.) Where there are parallel accounts that are obviously dependent upon one another, but which have not been copied faithful from their source, but have been altered to fit the kind of story that the author wants to tell (see for example Luke’s version of the story of the woman anointing Jesus with oil, or better yet, John’s). Are these a problem for someone who wants to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, rose from the dead, etc.? Not necessarily. But they are a problem for someone who wants to see the gospels as a reliable record for what Jesus said and did.

  8. I can see “Group 4″….I can give you a reasonable benefit of the doubt, since you and your daughter were actually at the events in question. In addition, the story matches what an observer would expect – there is nothing out of the ordinary there.

    However, to make the parallel to the gospels, I’d have relate the story to my grandson (if I had one) and then he would have to repost it on his blog 60 years from now, with the addition that the policeman pulled his sidearm on you, pulled the trigger, but the bullet was miraculously deflected by an angel (and so on).

    In my grandson’s story, he probably wouldn’t get the color of the car correct, or he might misspell your daughter’s name. If there was no bullet or no angel in his story, those details might not make a difference – but since there he added supernatural events, the inaccurate details lead me to distrust the entire narrative. Maybe not dismiss entirely…but certainly enough to look for more validation.

  9. Truth Unites... and Divides July 1, 2011 at 10:51 am

    August 2010 was a long time ago Mike!

  10. Does the genre of the gospels mean it is supposed to read like a police report? I don’t think so.

    The writers were not just writing about what happened, they were trying to make some theological statements as well. Keep that in mind when looking at the “contradictions”.

  11. I’ll grant that the gospels don’t have to read like a policce report in order to be accepted as true.

    However, when I come across ‘contradictions’ (like chaz posted) or stories like the Massacre of Innocents (which just isn’t true), it gets harder to know which parts to believe and which to discard. If they took theological liberties with these parts of their story, why would I not assume that the same thing happened with the resurrection?

  12. good post. we are never going be perfect , not in this side of heaven,, long time ago i heard above subject explained, as,, 4 wee boys are at the zoo for the day on a school outing, they see this very large elephant,, taking notes for classroom talks later, each descibes the elephant in very different manner,,yet all were honest ,,in content as could be in looking from this side of their eyesballs,, hope this makes some sense,,, god bless from scotland ,, pray i get job soon,,,shes calling me a HOUSEHUSBAND,,,, george.

  13. George Jenkins July 2, 2011 at 4:46 am

    For Chaz,

    http://www.jba.gr/Articles/nkjv_jbaother3.htm

    ” For most people the two pieces of land referred in the above two passages are identical and the “wages of iniquity” of Acts 1:18 are the thirty pieces of silver of Matthew 27:3-5. However, we have the following reasons to believe that none of these happens:”

  14. Every jot and tittle in each of the accounts does not have to jive exactly for us to get the jist of the story.

    The story (that you received a ticket the other night) is true.

    The Bible contains God’s Word, His message of forgiveness for sinners is in there. It would still be true and be in there if a short story on Babe Ruth was also in there.

    This is freedom. We are not held captive by the Book…but by the Word.

  15. Many are in group four because they do not want to believe. Rom 1:18 says that many suppress the truth.

  16. Give me two examples of unreconcilable apparent contradictions, please

    Not necessarily a contradiction, but possibly a problem:

    Matthew 26:6-13
    Mark 14:3-9
    Luke 7:36-50
    John 12:1-8

    So, what happened here?

    Were there two or possibly three different anointings?

    Did John somehow wrongly transfer or apply details of an incident at a “Simon’s” house involving an unnamed woman to one at Lazarus’/Martha’s/Mary’s house involving “Mary” (presumably Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus – John 11:1)?

    Or what?

    It seems to me that Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts don’t need much in the way of harmonization, as they’re pretty much identical.

    But when Luke’s and John’s accounts are added, difficulties arise if one assumes these are all the same incident.

  17. Phil McCheddar July 4, 2011 at 9:21 am

    @ Dan (post # 7) and @ Fred (post # 8)

    I think you have both made a very valid point. In CMP’s scenario both himself and his daughter were eyewitnesses. But the synoptic Gospels were substantially based on common oral tradition and/or document Q, and so many of the contradictions must be due to the spin that the Gospel writer himself wanted to impart to his story. I find it disconcerting that they felt at liberty to change historical details in order to make subjective theological statements. Where did they draw the line? I can accept the fact that the Gospels were not written as fly-on-the-wall documentaries about the life of Jesus, but how much of the Jesus they portray is how he really was as opposed to a caricature?

    I would like to hear someone address this point who doesn’t feel their faith is shaken by it. I’m here to learn, not to attack.

  18. Steve in Toronto July 4, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    I think that the problem that most representatives of my generation (those of us on the wrong side of 40) were taught to understand biblical inspiration in way that precludes a lot of the strategies contemporary apologist use to resolve the kinds of “tensions” in the narratives that men like Bart Ehrman exploits to so much effect. We just don’t expect a divinely inspired text to be quite so human (that is to say full of things that look a lot likes errors). The issue gets even more complex when we move further back into the Old Testament and confront the conflicts between what I had been thought to believe was reliable proven biblical historical narratives and the modern secular consensus among archeologist of the ancient Middle East (not to mention the sciences of geology and genetics). I recently heard a lecture on “Current Trends in Old Testament Studies” by a freshly minted M.Div from Westminster California who basically said that if you wanted to continue to read the story of t

  19. Steve in Toronto July 4, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    (part 2) sorry to many words
    I recently heard a lecture on “Current Trends in Old Testament Studies” by a freshly minted M.Div from Westminster California who basically said that if you wanted to continue to read the story of the conquest of Canaan as conventional history you had to believe that the modern archeologists studying the Holy Land realy had no idea what they were talking about. This did not seem to trouble him but it sure bugs me.

  20. This is really off the wall, and I am just trying out this thought, not really ready to stand behind it. What if God inspired the different authors to give two different accounts (like regarding why the land was called the field/estate of blood) to point out to the reader that on this particular point the writer was basing the story on hearsay instead of on a single factual version. If God had only given us one account, we would have taken that particular version for settled fact, but by God giving us two differing accounts, we can know not to make too much of this one particular point. I am still open to multiple reasons for calling the place “of blood”, like a Pharisee calling it that because it was bought with blood money, and then cousin Betty hearing the term used, and only repeating it because she finds it a fitting term to describe the place where all that blood was spilt. It’s called that by the Pharisee for one reason, and by Betty’s family for another reason.

  21. Reading more about the “field of blood” passages … Acts mentions that it is a translation from Aramaic, so no surprise that two different writers would translate it to Greek differently, unless you expect God to give the one and only “inspired” Greek word translation, which is not the way language works. As to who made the purchase, if the Pharisees bought it with Judas’ money, is that akin to Judas buying it? (He gave us this money so we could buy a field for him?)

    Matthew uses the “they” in a special way to tie it into Jeremiah/Zechariah. xenos.org has an interesting articleby Lee Campbell on Matthew’s use of the Old Testament.

    I think a lot of the inerrancy questions come down to what we mean by “inspired”. Is God telling us what He knows, or using human knowledge to communicate with us, or doing different things in different parts of the Bible? I am glad God uses human language and human authors. Has anyone read Clark Pinnock’s book The Scripture…

  22. I thought this was very good concerning inerrancy and inspiration:

    http://www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/gre6.htm

    Some excellent quotes in it.

  23. George Jenkins July 6, 2011 at 6:39 am

    Let me present my bias up front:

    I believe the Bible is true at whatever level you apply it. When Jesus speaks of the lillies of the field and Solomon, what He said is true visually, scientifically, intellectually, and even emotionally. Not only are the lillies arrayed in such a way that they outdo Solomon in affecting our emotions and visual reactions, but the genomes in the lillies which cause them to be arrayed as they are contain 10 to 30 times the number of base pairs of the human genome. No wonder Jesus says “consider” (“observe fully” in Greek)not just “look at”.

    In my opinion, the field of blood issue is well explained by

    http://www.jba.gr/Articles/nkjv_jbaother3.htm

    Thanks, EricW, for the annointing example. I do not know how there can be anything but three different annointings. Did the writers know the difference between Mary and a street prostitute, the house of Mary and a Pharisee, feet and head of Jesus? Judas must have been beside himself. What a…

  24. George Jenkins,

    That is the article I was responding to in my above posts. I made a few points regarding both how in some ways errors alluded to in the article are not really bona fide errors, but how there is still a question about how Matthew is using the idea of “they purchased”.

    The article cited makes a sizable oversight in overlooking the Aramaic term that is being translated, when the writer only points out the differences in the Greek names. In Acts 1:19 the place is not called by any Greek name but rather Akel Dama. It is not fair to contrast the Greek in Acts with the Greek in Matthew; you’d have to contrast the Aramaic in Acts with the Greek in Matthew.

  25. I have three problems with inerrancy, two of which I’ve written about on my own site (I’ll link if you care to read).

    1. Biblical inerrancy is not probable – it is probably false, even if we grant each of your proposed resolutions a very high probability.

    http://foxholeatheism.com/biblical-inerrancy-is-not-probable/

    2. Biblical inerrancy runs into philosophical trouble with the traditional conception of God’s morality.

    http://foxholeatheism.com/is-everything-in-the-bible-true/

    3. Biblical inerrancy runs into trouble with modern science. One example is that findings in genetics indicates we cannot link back to a literal Adam and Eve.

    So, you have a problem on the fronts of probability, philosophy, and science.

  26. George Jenkins July 18, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    Did not realize there was a response coming about five days after the last previous, hence the late resonse.

    WRT to probability: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:” Hence my resonse to your first link is:
    1. We will say there are only 40 alleged inconsistencies in the whole Bible*(Your words)

    2. We will grant an extremely high probability to each inconsistency and say that there is a 100% probability that a resolution is correct
    What is the collective probability, given (1) and (2) above? It is 100%. Conversely, there is over a 0% chance that the position of inerrancy is incorrect.

    You see it is all in your bias and your belief systems. There is no reason to assume that any biblical passage has only a 95% chance of being right. The error is in the assumptions, not the Bible.

    continued…….

  27. George Jenkins July 18, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    WRT you second link, the problem exists with your “idea” and the straw man that you have constructed. You wrote “How can the word of God contain all these atrocities?”

    I ask “If these atrocities happened, how can the word of God be faulted for reporting them?” If David had Uriah killed after committing adultery with his wife, How can the Bible be wrong to record it? If all but 8 people were killed by a rain that God sent after He closed the door of the ark would that make it more inerrant? They happened. They are recorded. The Bible is true.

    Don’t know where you get your science from but even Wikipedia says “All humans alive today share a surprisingly recent common ancestor, perhaps even within the last 5,000 years, even for people born on different continents.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitochondrial_Eve

    Sounds like Genesis 3:20 to me. Tough one for evolutionists and Old Earth guys. Science supports the Bible and vice versa. TTFN

  28. Hi George, thanks for the comment.

    As I said on my own blog, your first response simply begs the question. It’s a hard truth that we are bound to probability thanks to our epistemic limitations and the imperfect information given to us from the past. I was very generous in my treatment of the problem.

    Your next comment seems to misunderstand my argument. You are basically saying the atrocities can be true. I agree they can be true, but my argument is that this runs counter to the idea of a being whose every action should by definition be morally praiseworthy. Something’s gotta give.

    Finally, that is just one of many examples of science and the Bible having some tension, to say the least. I won’t bash Wikipedia because I think it’s often very helpful. However, for this specific case, my information is from Francis Collins, the country’s leading geneticist (oh, and he’s an evangelical).

    http://www.christianpost

  29. I don’t think you have to even go to Francis Collins for disproving George’s 5000 yr old Eve assertion. From the wiki link provided:

    “Mitochondrial Eve is generally estimated to have lived around 200,000 years ago,[2] most likely in East Africa,[3] when Homo sapiens sapiens (“anatomically modern humans”) were developing as a population distinct from other human sub-species.”

    George was referencing the “most recent common ancestor date”, which might be as early as 5000 years. But, then, that lady was most certainly not the first woman, created from Adam….correct?

  30. George Jenkins July 19, 2011 at 5:14 am

    Who says that lady was not the first? Any proof for that not based on some fanciful interpretation of the hard data? See the problem that evolutionists have is, “Why idd the children of ALL the other women die off?” If you want to believe in evolution, thta is your choice. Don’t claim it is based on fact. The DNA analysis can be determined as a matter of hard data. What one does with that data is subject it to interpretation which is to a large extent is based on one’s basic world view and bias.

    As one person said to me, “Perhaps that was Eve’s granddaughter.” Well, Duh, then by definition the grandmother was Eve, eh? And, if she were she would be someone I could give a blood transfusion to.

  31. George Jenkins July 19, 2011 at 5:24 am

    It really is an assumption. It can be nothing else and no amount of words can make it other. There is no reason to assume anything in the Bible is not 100% correct, unless one is predisposed to errancy in the Bible. If the purity of a Biblical pasage is equal to that of Ivory soap, the probability of Biblical inerrancy becomes 79.88%. Arguments like this come down to who sets the assumptions and defines the terms in the debate. My position: the Bible is 100% true in every passage. All you have to do prove me wrong is find a passage that is not true.

    God defines “morally praiseworthy” not our philosophy.

    The info in Wikipedia came from Nature, not relly a pro Chsistian journal and is referenced in the Wiki article. I did not expect anyone with a science background to take Wiki as reviewed…..but its references are true.

  32. George…maybe I don’t understand the theory that you are stating here.

    I heard you say “Sounds like Genesis 3:20 to me. Tough one for evolutionists and Old Earth guys”, which, to me, says that you believe Eve to be the first woman, and do not subscribe to evolution or an old Earth.

    But, you linked an article that says we have people that lived 200,000 years ago. But, you also say the 5000 year old Eve was indeed the first woman, and “Why idd the children of ALL the other women die off?”

    So, was the 5000 year old Eve the first, or was 200,000 year old Eve first? If you pick the latter, then you are going against your young Earth statement, if you pick the former, then clearly, Eve was not the *first*.

    You are asking for hard data…but you aren’t presenting a coherent argument. I did like hard data on exactly when “all the other women died off”.

  33. George Jenkins July 19, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Hi Fred,
    One has to pick out the data from the interpretation. The data is that the mitochondrial DNA indicates that everyone on earth is descended from one woman. This obviously does not suit the world view of one who believes in evolution so the Nature authors must postulate, without any DNA evidence to back it up, that that another Eve lived earlier.

    There is no DNA evidence to support anyone being alive more than 5,000 years ago. I am not certain, but I believe that the DNA in question may be more properly related to Noah’s wife than Eve.

    Bottom line: I recently retired from a position as a research scientist at the University of New Brunswick. One thing I learned early on was to separate the data from the interpretation, and hope the scientists who reported the data were not like Haeckel or the guy who more recently reported that autism could be related to vaccinations.

  34. In response to Eric on the anointing “problem”.

    Matthew 26:6-13
    Mark 14:3-9
    Luke 7:36-50
    John 12:1-8

    I have never concluded Luke & the sinful woman was a parallel. I do believe Matt, Mark, and John are all telling the same event, but they’re easily reconcilable. John says while they were in Bethany (he never says “at the home of Lazarus”), and he fills in the detail of who the woman was as well as which disciple started the criticism (and why he did it). Matthew gives the extra detail of who’s home they were in.

    Simon the leper throws a party (presumably celebrating the resurrection of Lazarus), so he and his sisters are there. Of course Martha has to serve, b/c that’s how she rolls. Mary then anoints Jesus with oil, Judas gets mad and stirs up the rest of the disciples, then Jesus rebukes them and blesses Mary.

    This is a prime example of the “traffic ticket” story above, & I don’t believe I’m stretching in my interpretation of the events at all.

  35. 2 Tim 3:16

    All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:

    If we believe in the Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth is capable of doing all that he has done… where do we lack faith in believing he was capable of inspiring his Word perfectly as he intended?

    As was mentioned somewhere up the thread, if more than one person witnessed an event they would see it from different points of view. I don’t believe that accounts are contradictory but give a vantage point for a reason.

    The “contradictions” noted merely prove the perfection of God’s ability in that if you completely trust him and who he says he is there’s no contradiction at all. For the skeptics, if the Bible was a fraud, every account would be exactly the same.

    I believe the Word was written and preserved for us by the Almighty Creator and translated and printed by the blood of martyrs ever after.

  36. I don’t think the original post regarding the traffic ticket supports the author’s thesis.

    The ‘apparent’ contradictions in the two stories are the result of lies being told. The author lied directly in stating that the warning was given only a few days before, and lied by omission in not stating that the warning was found.

    In the same way, apparent contradictions in the Bible are also the result of lies being told. You can attempt to rationalize the contradictory statements all you wish, but the lies that cause the contradictions are still plainly lies.

    There is an old adage to the effect that, if you tell the truth in the first place, you don’t have to explain the lies that you told instead. In the same vein, if the Bible told the truth in the first place, you wouldn’t need apologetics to explain the contradictions.

    I feel that the author fails in his attempt to justify the existence of contradictions because his example is based on lies, not truth.

  37. George Jenkins August 9, 2011 at 8:57 am

    Faith,

    I really like, ” For the skeptics, if the Bible was a fraud, every account would be exactly the same. “

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