Do the Gospels Disagree with One Another?

In Dr. Ehrman’s book, Jesus, Interrupted, he spends a lot of time trying to show that the New Testament documents – particularly the Gospels – disagree with each other at various points. What is remarkable about this discussion though is that Dr. Ehrman spends very little time explaining what the Gospel documents actually are – as ancient historiography. In other words, what should we expect the Gospels to do as ancient biographies? Should we expect them to be like a modern biography – where everything is in strict chronological order, and whenever you quote someone’s words you quote them as if you had a microphone and recorder as they spoke so everything is exactly Verbatim?

Dr. Ehrman knows, as do other historians, that when biographies were written in the ancient world those types of restrictions were not in place. It was common in the ancient world that things would be in different chronological orders. It was common to paraphrase and condense the sayings of a particular teacher or speech. This is for one simple and obvious reason – you cannot say everything in a historical document. You have limited space. You have limited access to materials to write on. You have to have a way to take a long speech and paraphrase it down. Dr. Ehrman spends a lot of time in Jesus, Interrupted explaining where there are discrepancies in what Jesus says in one account compared to what he says in another account. The problem with his argument is that once you understand the way ancient historiographies worked, you realize those discrepancies are in fact not discrepancies at all, but the normal way things were done back in the ancient world.

One example is the account of Jesus cleansing the temple. It is well known that in the synoptic Gospels Jesus cleanses the temple at the end of his life during the Passion Week. But John takes that very same event and shares it at the beginning of his Gospel. The question is “Is John telling something that is contradictory to the Gospels because he has Jesus cleansing the temple at the beginning of his ministry, and the Synoptics have Jesus cleansing the temple at the end of his ministry?” Again, when you understand ancient historiography, often authors take a story from a particular individual’s life and do not put it in chronological order; but for thematic reasons, topical reasons, and other various reasons, put it in different places. That seems to be exactly what John is doing. He wants to tell the story of Jesus cleansing the temple a the very beginning of his Gospel for his own reasons – one particular reason being that John has a great emphasis on the temple, and on Jesus being the new temple and the one who would replace the temple. So there is no doubt that John has rearranged things outside their strict chronological order for thematic reasons. Does that mean it is unhistorical? No, it just means you have to understand the way ancient biographies actually worked.