Christian Scholar Explains Differences In Gospel Accounts

Joe Raedle Getty

Every spring, as Christians celebrate Easter, the validity of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ becomes a trending topic that continues beyond the holiday.

Christians and non-believers alike often ask why the Gospels–the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John–vary in their telling of how Christ was born, lived, died and was resurrected.

In his latest book, Christian scholar Michael Licona offers a fresh answer. Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? does not broach a new topic, as Christians have been discussing it for years. What the book does offer is a modern refresher to an age-old query.

According to the author, the Gospels were written as news stories of sorts– accounts of events surrounding the life Jesus Christ from each writer’s perspective. Commonly called an example of Greco-Roman biography, the four books of the New Testament tell the same story by four different authors who attended some of the same events.

“We read Scripture and we base our view of Scripture on what we observe,” Licona told Christianity Today. “In contrast, a ‘top-down’ approach begins with a certain view of Scripture, then reads Scripture with that assumed view in mind. I take the ‘bottom-up’ approach because I think if I am truly to have a high view of Scripture, then I must submit to Scripture, love Scripture, and accept Scripture as God has given it to us rather than forcing it into a mold.”

That mold, he said, is often rooted in a static theory that each Gospel account should follow the same sequence, sparing no details. That is not the case in the Bible’s account of Christ. Details in one book are missing in another.

“Imagine you’re viewing a theatrical performance,” Licona said. “You’ve got multiple actors on the stage. All of a sudden, the lights go out and a spotlight shines on one of the actors, who starts to give a monologue. You know other actors are there on stage but you can’t see them because the spotlight is focused on that one character. ‘Literary spotlighting’ is when an author mentions only one person performing an action, even when he is aware of several characters who are involved.”

The empty tomb of Jesus Christ with the entrance open and the crosses in the background.
Christians believe Jesus raised from the dead three days after his crucifixion. [Image by Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock]

One example he notes is Christ’s resurrection. Matthew and Mark mention one angel near the tomb. Luke and John mention two angels. Licona focuses on the question whether Mark, then Matthew, was shining their “literary spotlights” on one angel for one reason or another, including that they did not realize a second heavenly being was present.

Of course, Licona notes that Matthew and Mark, as some have argued, could have invented the story just as he claims that Luke and John added the second angel for effect.

“Embellishment is certainly not a tendency of Luke,” Licona said. “Spotlighting was a common practice and explains the difference better, in my opinion.”

The Gospels have also drawn harsh criticism as they are drastic departures from Old Testament writing even though their writers relied heavily on the Old Testament for background information and prophesy. This has led experts to believe the books are simply four different biographies of Christ.

But, that still hasn’t deterred nonbelievers from claiming that the Gospels clash and that the writers contradict each other. In reality, Licona notes, is that the obvious lack of parallel detail and collusion lends to the validity of the writings as being objective third-party accounts.

Michael Licona has written a total of six books. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach(2010) resulted from his doctoral research.

He has also drawn criticism from other Christian scholars because Licona questioned the teaching of biblical inerrancy. In response, Licona maintains that the gospels are true, regardless if other accounts in the Bible are inaccurate.

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