In an earlier blog entry, “Differences in the Gospels,” I examined some supposed contradictions in the Gospels. I argued that these are not contradictions, but differences in what and how each author chose to portray the events in question, and that the only reason we find these texts problematic is because we fail to understand how ancient writers wrote. Unlike modern folks, they were not concerned with the minutiae. They were concerned with the big picture: the gist. They even felt free to report the historical facts in such a way so as to fit their literary purpose.
I gave a couple of examples to illustrate my point. In one place, John says Jesus was baptizing in Judea. A little later, however, he says it was Jesus’ disciples who were doing the baptizing, not Jesus Himself. Since both statements were penned by the same author, in the same work, in close proximity, it is clear that there is no contradiction here (interestingly, if they appeared in different gospels skeptics would cite this as a contradiction). This demonstrates for us the flexibility with which the Biblical authors reported historical events. John felt free to say Jesus was baptizing in one place, even though He knew it was not Jesus Himself who was doing so. He was not lying; he was not trying to deceive; he was not mistaken. Both reports were true, even though one was more specific than the other. For John, since Jesus’ disciples were baptizing on His behalf, it was entirely legitimate to say Jesus was baptizing (we might call this “projection”). The problem is not with John, but modern readers who demand that ancient writers conform to the standards common to modern writing.
I also gave the example of John’s account of the discovery of the empty tomb. John only mentions Mary Magdalene as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection (John 20:1), while the Synoptics report a plurality of women. Some point to this as a contradiction, and yet in John 20:2 John records Mary as saying to the apostles, “We do not know where they have laid him.” While John only names Mary as a witness, he is clearly aware of the fact that there were more present than just Mary.
I have stumbled on a third example I would like to bring to your attention as well. According to Luke, when the women returned from Jesus’ tomb to report it empty, Peter ran to the tomb to investigate it (Luke 24:12). According to John, however, Peter and the beloved disciple both ran to investigate the tomb (John 20:3). Many skeptics point to this as a contradiction. Of course, it is obviously not a contradiction. There is nothing contradictory about Luke choosing to report only Peter’s presence, and John choosing to report Peter and the beloved disciple’s presence. One is simply an expanded, more detailed account.
What I find interesting, however, is that upon closer inspection of Luke’s gospel, it becomes clear that Luke is fully aware that Peter was not the only one who ran to Jesus’ tomb. In Luke 24:24, Luke reports the two disciples on the road to Emmaus as saying to Jesus, “And some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just exactly as the women also had said; but Him they did not see” (NASB). While Luke knew Peter did not go to the tomb alone, he chose only to report Peter’s involvement for His own literary purposes.
This is an example of telescoping, in which an author focuses in on certain details of the story while leaving out others. This was common for historical writers. We do ourselves a disservice if we fail to understand this, and skeptics demonstrate their ignorance of ancient writing when they use examples like this to try to undermine the reliability of the Bible. We need to guard against the temptation to impose our modern standards of historiography on ancient writers. They were not entirely concerned about quoting someone word-for-word, but sense-for-sense. They were not always concerned with reporting events in sequence, but felt free to mix them up to fit their literary purpose. They took liberties with the facts that we might not take today, but such liberties were not due to ignorance, or motivated by an intent to deceive. For them, telescoping, generalizing, extrapolating, and projecting were par for the historical and literary course. They should not be faulted for not being 21st century Westerners. And besides, who says our literary and historiographical and literary standards are the best? Something to think about.