It is both a blessing and a burden to us that we have 4 separate and recognized accounts of the life of Jesus – the Gospels. This is a blessing in that we have all the more detail of the single most important event in history (and collaboration for its historicity), and a burden because critics have something against which to compare the testimony for consistency and credibility.
Inerrant or not, 4 separate accounts of any event will necessarily differ in perspective, detail, and intent. This is no different with the Gospels, which were written for different audiences and for different purposes. For example, Matthew seems to be targeting the Jewish community, while Mark is aimed at the Gentiles. Such unique perspectives will naturally lead to variations that can easily be perceived as discrepancies by casual (or hostile) observers.
Contributing to this confusion are such things as the arrangement of events sometimes being topical vs. sequential, different persons, dialog, or details being emphasized, and the original documents being composed in Greek vs. Hebrew or Aramaic, which can result in cultural variations in names and measures. Additionally, the claim is not that any one translation is inerrant, but it is the originally authored manuscripts (the "autographs") that are being esteemed. While we do not have these in our possession, we do have a large enough and ancient enough body of descendant materials that we have reason for great confidence in our modern translations. For more information on this, see this article: "Are the Biblical Documents Reliable?"
While it is well beyond the scope of this article to address all the related Gospel difficulties, let's look at a sampling in order to demonstrate how some of these may be answered.
1) The genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke differ, particularly in the later lineage. Matthew seems to start from Joseph and go back through his father, Jacob, while Luke also appears to trace through Joseph yet names Heli as the next ancestor. How can this be? The answer is plain when we understand Luke to be actually tracing the ancestry through Mary (who provides the true, human bloodline). This is both hinted at by Luke's comment, "[Jesus] was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph", and explicit in the fact that the Jerusalem Talmud records that Mary was the daughter of Heli. This can even further be reconciled when we understand that Joseph was the son-in-law of Heli. Luke could rightfully call Joseph the "son of Heli" because this was in compliance with use of the word "son" at that time.
2) Mark states that Jesus was crucified at the "third" hour on Good Friday, and John indicates that the trial of Jesus was still going on at the "sixth" hour, indicating that the time of His crucifixion was later still. There are a several responses to this, but the most probable is as follows.
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) used a different method to number the hours of the day than John. Matthew, Mark, and Luke used the traditional Hebrew system, in which the hours of the day were numbered from sunrise (approximately 6:00 AM), which places the crucifixion at about 9:00 AM, or the third hour by this system. John, did not employ the Hebrew system, he used the Roman civil day. The Roman system defined a day from midnight to midnight, as we do today. Pliny the Elder (in Natural History 2.77) and Macrobius (Saturnalia 1.3) provide historical confirmation of this fact. Therefore, using the Roman system, which was used by John, the trial of Jesus ended around the sixth hour (6:00 AM), which was the first hour of the Hebrew system used by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Between this time and the time of crucifixion, Jesus was flogged, mocked, and beaten by the Roman soldiers in the Praetorium (Mark 15:16-20). The crucifixion itself occurred at the third hour in the Hebrew system, which is the ninth in the Roman system, or 9:00 AM to us.
Why did John use a different numbering system? The Gospel of John was written after the other three (as late as 90 AD) while he resided in Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia. John, by this time, was probably most comfortable with the Roman system. John used the Roman system in John 21:19: "On the evening of that first day of the week." This was Sunday evening, which in the Hebrew system was actually the second day, because each day began at sunset.
Now, while I am not suggesting the need to surrender inerrancy, as an interesting thought experiment let's assume for the moment that the Gospels do contain irreconcilable discrepancies. What conclusions might be drawn from this?
Many skeptics seem to argue as though the existence of contradictions invalidates the Scriptures as a whole. But this conclusion doesn't follow; at best, all this would do is defeat our common understanding of Biblical inerrancy. Isolated errors would not automatically turn the essential claims of Christianity into mythology.
At minimum, we can view the Gospels as a case of 4 independent testimonies, much like we do with witnesses at the scene of a crime. Accounts may vary in detail, but the general events are easily discerned if the testimonies are genuine. For example, the precise time, colors of clothing, or exact sequence of events may vary, but the crucial details may be gleaned, such as that it was Tuesday, the location was the library, Mr. White was the aggressor, and a knife was used. It is in the foundational details that variation is lethal to the credibility of a witness. Now, if witness B says the murder was on Monday, that Mr. Green was the aggressor, and the weapon was a pipe, then we know that somebody, or possibly all parties, are not giving credible testimony.
Even if it could be proved that there were irreconcilable contradictions in Scripture, we still have to account for the vast consistencies. It should be noted that none of the passages in question happen to relate to anything such as claims that Jesus was just a man, or did not do miracles, or did not rise from the dead, or exhibited questionable moral character – nothing that affects any of the fundamental doctrines of classical Christianity. It is presumptuous to simply dismiss the uniform portrait of Jesus and his earthly ministry that is painted by the four distinct brushes of the Gospels.
Many of those who attack Scripture also advocate the idea that it is just mythology or deception authored by the early church, and that these founding fathers made a practice of enhancing, expanding, or adapting the manuscripts as needed. But if this were the case then we'd expect all these "issues" to be long since worked out of the text. Surely those so intimate with the Scriptures would not perpetually overlook such "obvious" discrepancies. The existence of these "issues" surely tells us something about the early church's unwillingness to meddle with these texts.
We should also not be so naïve as to imagine that the lack of inconsistencies would be taken as proof for the events in the Gospels. In fact, it would surely be looked on as evidence of complicity. As it turns out, discrepancies (or at least notable differences) disaffirm collusion; it is what one would expect to find in independent testimonies. In the criminal justice system, witness testimonies that parallel too closely are held in suspicion, while radical divergence is a sign of fraud. There must be an appropriate balance between independence and collaboration. Could it be that God's sovereign hand is found even in a permissive use of diversity?
In the end, it is probably fruitless to attempt to defend inerrancy against those who do not even take Scripture to be generally reliable. While there is certainly much to say in defense of inerrancy, it is more productive to begin the dialog with such things as the historical, textual, archaeological, and prophetic evidences for the overall veracity of the Bible. It is only when one is first surrendered to the authority of Scripture that one would be genuinely inclined to entertain explanations for the alleged discrepancies.
For anyone truly interested in hearing out the various Christian responses, ample resources are available to address all of the scriptural difficulties. Some of the more approachable treatments include the following.
- Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, by Gleason Archer
- The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, by Craig Blomberg
- When Critics Ask, by Norm Geisler
- Hard Sayings of the Bible, by Walter Kaiser & F.F. Bruce