What's the positive side of having four different Gospels? We've worked to understand and rectify Gospel differences and "contradictions"; now, let's look at how four different Gospels strengthen the authenticity of the Gospel accounts.
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.
Positive Evidence: Going on the Offensive
When I started this series, I didn’t want it to be just a defense of the Gospels, but also to show positively why having more than one Gospel is a blessing. Where there is certainly angst that happens when we study the Gospels closely and perceive differences, there is also joy found when he examine them closely. Pondering these challenges expose us to unique perspectives of Jesus we wouldn’t otherwise perceive — similarly to how four painted portraits of the same person by different artists give us deeper understandings of that person.
My hope is that by wrestling with these challenging passages, you’ve been exposed to unique joys regarding Jesus from the different perspectives of the Spirit-inspired Gospel writers.
But, despite all I’ve said above, admittedly, yes, much of this series is a defense, so I want to offer some final observations that will not just help you defend your faith, but also go on the offensive.
We will conclude this series with 3 brief observations:
Four identical Gospels would be more suspect.
Differences? What about the similarities??
(1) Four Identical Gospels Would Be More Suspect
The 2006 Academy Award-winning German movie The Lives of Others takes place in 1984 in East Berlin under the oppressive rule of Communism. In one scene, an instructor for the Secret Police plays for a trainee a recording of a prisoner being gruelingly interrogated. After listening to the prisoner repeat the same alibi over and over again, the instructor fast-forwards the recording to several hours later. They listen to the exhausted prisoner’s alibi one last time. Then, the instructor and trainee have the following conversation:
Instructor: “Did you notice anything about his statement?” Trainee: “It’s the same as in the beginning.” Instructor: “Exactly the same. Word for word. People who tell the truth can re-formulate things, and they do. A liar has prepared sentences, which he falls back on when under pressure. [Prisoner number] 227 is lying.”
Interrogators — whether they are police detectives, CIA, or KGB — know that when someone repeats a truthful story again and again, they’re able to improvise variations in the story by adding or removing details.
Think about it: What is a favorite story from your life you like to retell? Do you tell it the same exact way every time? Probably not. Sometimes you remember details; sometimes you forget details; sometimes you add or subtract details for other reasons, such as the amount of time you have to tell the story. But the key aspects of the story never change.
Do the Gospel differences we’ve looked at throughout this series show the truth from differing perspectives or do they show a carefully crafted lie?
Ironically, despite all of the time in this series spent defending Gospel differences due to accusations of fictionalization, we’d have more grounds for being skeptical of the Gospels if all four accounts were exactly the same!
If the Gospels were word-for-word identical, we’d have good reason for believing they were collaborated and simply copied from each other. Instead, the evidence suggests that we have four independently investigated accounts of the ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
Homicide detective and former atheist, J. Warner Wallace in his book Cold Case Christianity says we “should expect variations among true eyewitness accounts. These expected variations are not a problem for those of us who are working as detectives, so long as we can understand the perspectives, interests, and locations from with each witness observed the event. It’s our duty, as responsible investigators, to understand how eyewitness statements can be harmonized so we can get the most robust view of the event possible.”
(2) Differences? What about the similarities??
Further, by focusing on the few differences in the Gospels, we often ignore the wealth of harmony. Little is needed to be said about this point; the four Gospels plainly have vastly more in common than they don’t. Jonathan Pennington writes the Gospels are “amazingly consistent in terms of Jesus’ character, tone, teaching, emphases, and the general course of his life and death”.
(3) Undesigned Coincidences
As we have discussed, when two or more authors write about a historic event, there will be similarities and differences. Where the major events will be the same, minor details may be included or left out. An “undesigned coincidence” is when one account provides details, but another account written about the same incident gives more insight into those details or gives other details that compliment them . We see “undesigned coincidences” when we have two or more independently investigated accounts of the same event. We find undesigned coincidences throughout the Gospels. Looking at an example will help clarify:
In Mark 14:55-59, Jesus is accused in front of the Sanhedrin of saying he will destroy the Jerusalem temple and rebuild it in three days.
Also, in Mark 15:27-30, as Jesus is on the cross, people mock him and accuse him of saying a similar statement about destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days. This is also reported in Matthew 27:38-40.
But where in Mark or Matthew does Jesus say this? Nowhere! A careful read through both Mark and Matthew provides no evidence that Jesus ever said such a thing! Yet, when we read the Gospel of John, we find that Jesus did make this statement! In John 2:18-22, John reports,
So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. It’s highly unlikely that such complimentary details would be deliberately falsified, and the assurance that they’re based on authentic events is extremely high.
Much more can be said about Undesigned Coincidences. I recommend Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts by Lydia McGrew and reading our series on Undesigned Coincidences on ConfidenceInChrist.org:
The Joy of Four Gospels!
In conclusion, what do we gain by having four Gospels?
We see the complexity of Jesus, the God-man, which “no one account – or a million – could begin to describe and plumb the depths of his person, teaching, and actions”.
They enable us to learn different theological lessons .
They force us to look deeper and think harder because of the differences .
Overall, I hope this series has helped you gain a better understanding of the Holy Scripture, the Christian faith, and Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.
Fittingly, we will end this series with the closing words of John’s Gospel:
Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25)
 J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity, (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2013), 237.  Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1214, Kindle edition.  Timothy McGrew, Undesigned Coincidences: Part 1, Christian Apologetics Alliance, 09/01/13, accessed 07/12/14, http://www.christianapologeticsalliance.com/2013/09/01/undesigned-coincidences/.  Pennington, Loc 1431.  Ibid., Loc 1470.  Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 107.