How do we Handle the Problem Texts in the New Testament?

Because there are some problems in scripture, let us look at a text Dr. Ehrman refers to that we might find troubling – the centurion standing at the foot of the cross. According to Matthew and Mark the centurion says “Surely this is the Son of God,” and according to Luke he says “Surely this is a righteous man.” Which is it? One explanation that Dr. Ehrman would call an artful dodge is that the centurion said both, and Luke recorded one and Matthew and Mark recorded the other. The problem is that in all three of the synoptic gospels he only says one thing; there is only a one-liner.

Here is how I would approach this. First of all, I am not going to ask a 20th century question. Rather, I am going to ask a 1st century question. “What degree of freedom did 1st century biographers and historians have to edit their materials in ways that they thought would be meaningful for their audiences?” My answer to that is, if you study other ancient works of historiography and ancient biographies, they had a certain amount of freedom. I think that the centurion probably said something like, “Surely this was a son of god.” What did he mean by that? What he would have meant was that this man is not railing against the people who have put him on the cross; he is not cursing God; he must be a noble person; this must be a death that is a noble death. We are not thinking that the Roman centurion was converted just by watching Jesus bleed. How would a Roman pagan have viewed this? “Surely this is a son of the gods. This man must not have deserved to die.” That is what the centurion would have meant. I expect that is more closely in its original historical context.

When it is put into a gospel like Matthew or Mark, obviously they have an agenda to say this is the Son of God. So they use that which really happened in a more theologically loaded way. I do not have any problems with that. But what is going on with Luke when he says “Surely this is a righteous man”? I would go back to the historical moment itself, and ask what “Surely this is a son of the gods” would mean. “Surely this is a righteous person who did not deserve to die.” So what has Luke done? He has interpreted the meaning of the original historical moment for a Gentile God-fearer like Theophilus so he would understand the significance of the moment. The issue is not if this is verbatim? The issue is whether this is a true interpretation of the historical moment. And they both are. Matthew and Mark are more literally a historical rendering of what was probably said at the occasion. Luke has interpreted the meaning of it, so it makes sense to a Greco-Roman person. There is not a contradiction here because they are actually doing two different things. One is more of a sound bite and the other is more of a theological interpretation of the significance of what was said. We have a lot of that going on in the gospels.

Ok, so that makes maybe a modern, conservative, post-enlightenment Christian uncomfortable. But it is scripture, so deal with it. It is in there. This is what God wanted us to have in the gospels. In Mark, we hear about Jesus addressing the disciples “why do you have no faith?” But in the same stories in Matthew, it is always “O ye of little faith.” Is the appropriate question to ask about this “which one is right?” No. The important question to ask is “why are they presenting the stories these ways – for what theological and ethical purposes that conform to the conventions of ancient historiography and ancient biography?” That is the right question to ask, not the modern question of “why do these look different?” That is an anachronistic question. It is an unfair question to ask when none of these gospels were trying to give us a verbatim of all of this material. Remember, they did not have tape recorders.