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Differences or Contradictions? Part 6 Narrative Creativity: Telescoping & Compressing

Can literary creativity explain differences in the Gospels? Did ancient authors present the passage of time differently than writers today?

SERIES INTRO: Often skeptics point to differences in the four Gospels of Jesus Christ 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.


In previous articles, we looked at the “Narrative Creativity” of the Gospels, which means the Gospel writers used narrative freedom within a factual framework. This is seen in other ancient histories and biographies and include some shared characteristics:

  1. Selective Details

  2. Selective Representation

  3. Selective Chronology

  4. Selective Telescoping & Compressing

  5. (And Knowing some History & Culture Helps)

In this article, we will look at #4 & #5:

(4) Selective Telescoping & Compressing

Do this: Think about telling a story to a friend about something that happened to you that would take at least 5 minutes to tell. Now, imagine telling the same story if you only had 10 seconds. What details would you take out? How would you tell the story differently?

This idea helps us to understand what’s called telescoping and compression and why we see some variations in the same events written about by different Gospel writers. Simply, telescoping/compressing means telling a shortened or lengthened version of an event with selective information.

Sometimes the Gospel writers (and other ancient writers) varied story length, shortening or lengthening the same episode like a telescope. Some of the writers give a fully extended version of the story, while other writers shortened their version, compressing it. When compressing, the author may take “shortcuts” in telling the story by omitting information [1]. EXAMPLE #1: The Centurion’s Dying Servant [2] Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10

Matthew — Matthew gives us the shorter version of the event. Here, the centurion appears to have come in person to Jesus.

Luke — In Luke, we have the longer account. Here, with all the details included, we see that the centurion actually sent elders and friends to Jesus.

Matthew is the compressed version and cuts out the elders and friends.

This also brings us back to the last article and selective representation: In ancient writing, sometimes only the most prominent person involved is mentioned, and since a messenger or servant represents the one who sent him, the messenger or servant is often not mentioned. Frankly, including the elders and friends is not essential to the main point or action of the narrative.

In the situation with the centurion, Matthew shortened the account by cutting out the elders and friends. Admittedly, this does seem odd to us today with a nonfictional narrative, but this is similar to shortening the statement, “Jack wanted to ask his teacher for an extension on his assignment, so he asked his brother to give a message to his teacher, and later he asked his friend to pass a letter from him on to the same teacher about the same assignment” to “Jack asked his teacher for an extension on his assignment.” EXAMPLE #2: The Cursing of the Fig Tree [3] Matthew 21:17-22; Mark 11:11-15, 19-25.

Matthew — Jesus curses the fig tree. The withering of the tree appears to happen immediately after the curing.

Mark — Jesus curses the fig tree, but the withering happens much later after Jesus and the disciples have moved on; they don’t notice it until after the cleansing of the temple.

As we have seen throughout the examples provided in this series, Matthew regularly shortens his telling of the events and takes "shortcuts." Matthew decided to tell the two parts of the story side-by-side, instead of separating the curing and withering of the fig tree with the cleansing of the temple between them. As we have seen throughout this series, Matthew tends to group things according to thematic reasons.

Problem: Matthew says the fig tree “withered at once”! But the original Greek has variation in meaning [4]. It likely means the fig tree started to wither immediately but gradually without the disciples’ perception until they saw it again later.

(5) Knowing some History & Culture Helps.

Finally, sometimes simply knowing a little historical and cultural background solves the problem easily just as knowing the nuances of the original Greek helped with the problem immediately above.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Places and people may have been known by more than one name, especially when translated in a multi-linguistic area [5].

  • Archeological discoveries have brought many former challenges in the Bible to light [6].

  • The nuances of the original Greek may be lost in the English translation.

  • Numbers may be rounded up or down [7].

  • A good study Bible will help with many of these issues.

EXAMPLE: Where did Jesus heal the blind man at Jericho? Luke 18:35 – Jesus healed a blind man as he was going into Jericho. Mark 10:46 – In telling of the same event, Mark says Jesus healed a blind man as he was leaving Jericho.

Dr. John McRay, a professor of New Testament and archeology, explains in an interview with Lee Strobel in The Case for Christ, “Jericho was in at least four different locations as much as a quarter of a mile apart in ancient times. The city was destroyed and resettled near another water supply or a new road or nearer a mountain or whatever. The point is, you can be coming out of one site where Jericho existed and be going into another one, like moving from one part of suburban Chicago to another part of suburban Chicago… Jesus could have been going out of one area of Jericho and into another at the same time.”[8]

To conclude this section on narrative creativity, it’s important to point out again that in oral cultures, even with historical material, the teller of the historical story has “flexibility in terms of the placement, order, and length” of episodes within the historical framework based upon “purpose, context, and time constraints” [9]. Keep in mind, this doesn't mean the author had the liberty to invent fictional material though.

As we would expect, the four Gospels have a “general uniformity” but also a “flexibility,” and “while we find the same general portrait of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, we also find remarkable variations in what each specific portrait includes and excludes, as well as in the order and specific form of the material that constitutes each portrait” [10].

NEXT: Positive evidence: Differences? What about the similarities?!

[1] Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 71. [2] Ibid., 17-24. [3] Ibid., 144-148. [4] Ibid.,147. [5] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 48. [6] Ibid., 97-99. [7] Poythress, 58. [8] Strobel, 98. [9] Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 254. [10] Ibid.


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