The fallibility of the Gospels (1)

A chapter from Ian Wilson’s
Jesus: The Evidence

It is perhaps a reflection of today’s emphasis on a Jesus of faith that most modern Christians, practising and non-practising, are quite unaware of the sort of conflicts that have riven the world of gospel studies during the last century or so.

Few realize, for instance, that despite the fact that the canonical gospels bear the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, these names are mere attributions, and not necessarily those of their real authors. The earliest writers who referred to the gospels significantly failed to mention names of authors, it being apparent that each gospel, both those surviving and those that have failed to survive, was originally designed as the gospel for a particular community. A canon of the four ‘recognized’ gospels only gradually came into general usage, at the same time acquiring associations with specific names from Christianity’s earliest years, though the connection was not necessarily legitimate. It should also be borne in mind that the earliest texts had none of the easy identification features that they bear now. Everything, without exception, was written in capital letters. There were no headings, chapter divisions or verse divisions, refinements which were not to appear until the Middle Ages. To make matters difficult even for the modern scholar, there was practically no punctuation or space between words.

Given such considerations it does not need anyone with a Ph.D. in theology to recognize that the Christian gospels can scarcely be the infallible works fundamentalists would have us believe. Examples of one gospel’s inconsistency with another are easy enough to find. While according to the Mark and Luke gospels Jesus stayed in Peter’s house, and afterwards healed the leper (Mark I: 29-45; Luke 4: 38 ff; Luke 5: 12 ff), according to Matthew (8: 1-4 and 14 ff) Jesus healed the leper first. While according to Matthew the Capernaum centurion spoke man-to-man with Jesus (Matthew 8: 5 ff), according to Luke (7: I ff) he sent ‘some Jewish elders’ and friends to speak on his behalf. Although according to Acts Judas Iscariot died from an accidental fall after betraying Jesus (Acts I: 18), according to Matthew he ‘went and hanged himself’ (Matthew 27: 5).

Disconcerting though such inconsistencies are, the fair-minded sceptic might be disposed to regard them as no worse than the sort of reporting errors which occur daily in modern newspapers. But New Testament criticism has gone much deeper than pointing out flaws of this order, there having been, in some quarters at least, a fashion for each new critic to be bent on outdoing his predecessors in casting doubt on the gospels’ authenticity.

The parallel passage technique

The first forays into understanding the men and facts behind the gospels began harmlessly enough. Many incidents concerning Jesus are related in two or more of the gospels, and an early research technique, still extremely valuable, was to study the corresponding passages side by side, the so-called ‘parallel passage’ technique.

Careful comparison of the three gospel passages above reveals a fundamental common ground the time of morning, the day of the week, the rolling away of the stone, the visit to the tomb by women. But it also discloses some equally fundamental differences which serve to tell us something about the gospel writers. The Mark author, for instance, speaks merely of ‘a young man in a white robe’, with no suggestion that this individual was anything other than an ordinary human being. In the Luke version we find ‘two men in brilliant clothes’ who appear ‘suddenly’. Although not absolutely explicit, there is already a strong hint of the supernatural. But for the Matthew writer, all restraints are abandoned. A violent earthquake has been introduced into the story, Mark’s mere ‘young man’ has become a dazzling ‘angel of the Lord… from heaven’, and this explicitly extra-terrestrial visitor is accredited with the rolling away of the stone.

(To be continued…)