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Differences in the Gospels, A Closer Look

I got to know Bob Stein when we served on faculty together. Bob is a remarkably warm and gracious man. His love for his wife is obvious and charming. In addition to being a kind and wonderful person, he happens to be one of the world’s leading voices in New Testament studies and biblical hermeneutics. Here is his article from the HCSB Study Bible.

As I’m doing all year long, I am giving away a free HCSB study Bible to a reader. To be entered, tell us which difference you have noticed the most in your reading.

Serious readers of the Gospels notice various differences between them. One difference involves geographical arrangement. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus visits Jerusalem only once during His entire ministry. For instance, all of the events in Mark 1:1-11:10 take place either in Galilee (1:1-8:21) or on the way to Jerusalem (8:22-11:10). Only from 11:11 forward is Jesus recorded as entering Jerusalem.

The Gospel of John takes a different approach. John records Jesus visiting Jerusalem several times throughout His ministry (2:13-4:45; 5:1-47; 7:1-10:40; and 12:12-20:31), including an early temple cleansing (John 2:13-22). The Synoptics say nothing about an early temple cleansing, and John in turn says nothing about the later cleansing that the Synoptics recount (Mt 21:12-13; Mk 11:15-18; Lk 19:45- 48). It seems the authors chose different ways of using geography as a tool for arranging their accounts of Jesus’ life.

Mark, whose Gospel likely predated and influenced Matthew and Luke, chose not to discuss any of Jesus’ doings in Jerusalem until the climactic events beginning in 11:11. This literary approach builds a steady tension that finally explodes with Jesus’ crucifixion in the sacred city. John, writing years after the Synoptics, took a different approach, sprinkling Jerusalem throughout his account.

Another literary consideration that helps account for differences among the Gospels is how the authors chose to group Jesus’ teachings. Matthew is organized around alternating blocks of Stories of Jesus and Teachings of Jesus. Here is the arrangement: chapters 1-4 (S); 5-7 (T); 8-9 (S); 10 (T); 11-12 (S); 13 (T); 14-17 (S); 18 (T); 19-22 (S); 23-25 (T); 26-28 (S). Luke, on the other hand, places the teachings of Jesus in two large sections: 6:20-8:3; and 9:51-18:14. Different approaches such as this explain why the Gospel authors often place sayings of Jesus in different contexts, as for instance when Matthew records the Lord’s Prayer early in Jesus’ ministry (6:9-13) while Luke places it later (11:1-4).

The Gospel writers arranged much of their material on topical and logical grounds rather than chronological. The earliest reference to any Gospel was made by Papias, a church father who in the first decade of the second century stated that Mark wrote accurately but not in chronological order the traditions he learned from Peter. Thus early readers noticed the differences between the Gospels, understood some of the basic causes of the differences, and did not regard them as problematic.

Another reason for differences involves the literary style of individual evangelists. In Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 we have two accounts of Jesus healing a centurion’s servant. In Luke the conversation takes place between Jesus and Jewish elders who speak on behalf of the centurion. In Matthew the conversation is directly between Jesus and the centurion. There is no conflict in these accounts when we realize that Matthew has abbreviated the story (103 words compared to 186 words in Luke). Matthew omitted material unessential to the story, and the elders (serving as go-betweens) are the least important element in the story. Thus, just as modern-day journalists report on meetings between heads of state without mentioning the go-betweens, Matthew makes no mention of the elders.

Furthermore, the evangelists understood themselves to be inspired interpreters, not mere stenographers of Jesus’ acts and teachings. They felt free to clarify and add explanatory comments to the traditions they were recording. For example, whereas Matthew in 7:11 records Jesus as saying God the Father gives “good things” to those who ask, Luke has Jesus saying God gives “the Holy Spirit.” In this case, Luke has done some interpretive extension: of all the good things God gives, the Holy Spirit is the best of them. Other examples of inspired editorial work include:

The Baptism of Jesus

• In Matthew 3:17 the voice from heaven states, “This is My beloved Son.”
• In Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22 the voice states, “You are My beloved Son.”
Explanation: In Mark and Luke, God’s voice addresses Jesus. Matthew shifts the audience to the bystanders in order to make clear to his readers that God would have them know that Jesus is His Son. The overall meaning is unchanged.

The Beatitudes

• In Matthew 5:3 the first beatitude reads, “The poor in spirit are blessed . . .”
Luke 6:20 has, “You who are poor are blessed . . .”
Explanation: Matthew gives a “thought for thought” rather than “word for word” translation of the original. He adds “in spirit” to help his readers understand that in this context “poor” refers to spiritual humility. A similar usage of “poor” occurs in Psalm 86:1, where King David (who was financially wealthy) speaks of being “poor and needy.”

Hour of the Crucifixion

• In Mark 15:25 Jesus is crucified at “nine in the morning” (the third hour).
• In John 19:14 Jesus is crucified at “about six in the morning.”
Explanation: There are twenty-three time designations in the New Testament referring to a particular hour. Twenty of them refer to the third, sixth, or ninth hour. Only three designate other hours (the seventh, tenth, and eleventh). In an era when timekeeping was imprecise, a mid-morning crucifixion (occurring at, say, 10:30 a.m.) could very reasonably have been referred to as taking place at either the third or sixth hours since it fell between these times.

Peter’s Denial of Christ

• Mark tells his readers of Peter’s denial in Mk 14:53-54 and 14:66-72. Wedged between this two-part account is the story of Jesus’ trial.
• Luke completes the entire account of Peter’s denial before telling of Jesus’ trial.
Explanation: Rather than a chronological discrepancy, these are two different ways of telling two separate stories. Mark follows one of his favored stylistic techniques and “sandwiches” Jesus’ trial between the two halves of the story of Peter’s denial. Luke chooses to treat them separately.

We have avoided such terms as “discrepancy” and “contradiction” when discussing differences among the Gospels. When we seek to understand what the evangelists are doing as interpreters of Jesus’ life, we often find that their different approaches help clarify and draw out implications from Jesus’ acts and teachings. This often entails sharing the stories of Jesus’ life in a topical or logical order, not chronological. In this light, alleged “discrepancies” and “contradictions” are seen as mere “differences.”

Robert H. Stein
Ph.D., Princeton University

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is a professor and dean at Wheaton College where he also serves as Executive Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, has earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates, and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America, is the editor-in-chief of Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited in, interviewed by, and writes for news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He is the Founding Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum used by more than 1.7 million individuals each week for bible story. His national radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates. He serves as interim teaching pastor of Calvary Church in New York City and serves as teaching pastor at Highpoint Church.