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Differences or Contradictions? Part 3 Dealing with Differences in Jesus’ Words

Why do we sometimes read the same teachings of Jesus with different wording in the Gospels? Did the Gospel writers mess up? Are Jesus’ words inaccurate in the Gospels?

SERIES INTRO: Often skeptics point to differences in the four Gospels of the New Testament and claim they are contradictions. This series will cover some general principles that you can use when you do come across a Gospel difference. By using these principles, many of these perceived differences can be easily explained. On the other hand, this series is not simply to defend the Gospels, but to positively show that having four Gospels brings our understanding of the life and work of Jesus Christ deeper than any one piece of writing can do. More Basic Principles: Making Sense of Differences in Jesus’ Words

In the Gospels, sometimes we read Jesus saying similar things but in different ways with different words. Should this concern us? Do the differences prove that the Gospel writers were getting some of Jesus’ words wrong?

3 verbal verbs easily explain these differences:

(1) Repeating, (2) Translating, (3) Paraphrasing

Let’s briefly look at each one: (1) Repeating

Jesus likely repeated teachings but worded them in different ways,[1] as most modern preachers do. We know from the Gospels that Jesus’ ministry lasted about 3 years as he traveled from place to place. Jesus would’ve repeated the same teachings many times to new audiences. It’s unlikely he would repeat the same lessons in the exact same wording each time. We can also logically assume that he adapted his teachings to audience, local situations, etc. as all good public speakers do.

Thus, different Gospel writers may be reporting a different time Jesus taught a common lesson. (2) Translating

The original Gospels were written in ancient Greek, the common tongue of the ancient world (due to the conquests of Alexander the Great), but Jesus, being a Jew from Galilee, likely taught in Aramaic. Thus, even in the original language of the Gospels, we don’t have Jesus’ exact words. Should this concern us?

We can’t be sure we have Jesus’ “exact words” everywhere in the Bible, but we can be certain we have “his own voice,”[2] meaning his exact ideas. Any translating requires an amount of interpretation since many words and phrases cannot be translated word-for-word. Translating need not concern us; accurate translating is an everyday occurrence. For example, two bilingual siblings may translate their Spanish-speaking mother’s words to their English-speaking teacher in different ways, though the same accurate idea remains.

Furthermore, all four Gospels were written by Jesus’ hand-chosen disciples or recorded by a companion of his disciples under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. (3) Paraphrasing

Sometimes the Gospel writers did not quote Jesus word-for-word but paraphrased his words.[3]

For example, as a kid, you may tell a friend, “My mom said, ‘You are absolutely, without-a-doubt in deep trouble, mister, when your father gets home!’” or you may simply say, “My mom says I’m dead meat.”

Ancient Greek did not have quotation marks like we use today,[4] though your modern translation mostly likely inserted them. Direct quotes were not as valued as they are today, and paraphrasing was perfectly acceptable,[5] especially to a primarily oral culture. Thus, when you see words with quotation marks around them in your modern translations of the Bible, it does not particularly mean it is a direct quote.

In closing, ask yourself: How does Jesus rewording a common lesson give us more insight into what he wants us to learn? How does having four Spirit-led, close disciples of Jesus paraphrasing and translating (and, thus, interpreting) Jesus’ word give us more understanding of Jesus’ teachings?

[1] Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1262, Kindle edition. [2] Pennington, Loc 1280. [3] Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 167-169. [4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 92. [5] Ibid.


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