It is important to recognise that the Gospels are neither biographies of Jesus nor histories, in the common understanding of these terms, although they do necessarily contain biographical material and historical information. It’s when we read them as histories that we run into problems, because the Gospel writers freely change their material around to suit their purpose. Thus, we see events in the narrative of each of the Gospels that are in different places or times to each other, but which are relocated in this way in order for the author to get his message across to us, and to elicit our response to it.
A new type of literature
The Gospels were a new kind of book when they first appeared. When they first made their appearance, the four Gospels were known simply as “The Gospel”, as there was only one Gospel as far as the early Christians were concerned, i.e. “the gospel of God, (Which he promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures,) Concerning his Son” (Rom 1:1-3), and variously recorded “according to Matthew”, “according to Mark” etc.
R.T. France (2002, p 896) suggests that it was probably Mark who was responsible for this term, who began his book with the words “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1). The term “gospel” simply means “good news”; and the good news refers to the subject-matter of the book, not its literary type. But it soon became a literary type as the other three canonical gospels and the various apocryphal gospels followed, and became established as such by the second century. Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) for example, writes “For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them” (First Apology Chap 66).
So the Gospels are not biographies as we understand that concept; neither are they objective histories. Instead, the gospels as “The Gospel”, proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and that forgiveness of sin and eternal life for all believers have been secured by his death on the cross. They focus on the last year(s) of Jesus’ life and then his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Much of their content consists of his teaching, sermons, and miracles; indeed, the Gospels themselves might be seen to be sermonic. This style of writing would have been familiar to readers in the ancient world as lives of various political and military leaders, philosophers, and national histories etc. were written, often urging their readers to emulate the examples and ideals of those about whom they write; and yet they were very different because of their subject matter.
Livy intentionally writes history to bring about reform
The Roman historian Livy is a good example of this ancient-world-familiarity. In the preface to his multi-volume “History of Rome”, he reveals one of his hopes for his readers: “The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these – the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies” (Preface to the “History of Rome” by Livy, Acheron Press). While Livy’s is a well-researched history, written as accurately as he was able, he nevertheless considers it legitimate to write noble and rousing speeches to put into the mouths of generals before leading their troops into battle; or of senators to rouse the people against some threat or crisis, etc. They were meant to evoke a response in his readers which would cause them to become aware of Rome’s strong and vigorous beginning and growth into a powerful and invincible empire, and its ensuing plunge into decadence; and that this awareness would motivate his readers to turn back the clock by returning to Rome’s earlier ideals.
Evangelists write gospels to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God and to bring new birth
The Gospel writers take a similar approach to their books, using historical events, sermons of Jesus, etc., to reveal and portray him as the only begotten Son of God by nature and by mission. While Livy wanted to make Rome stronger by returning to its ancient morality and ideals, the Gospel writers wanted people to know the risen Lord Jesus and to commit their lives to him. Livy’s answer to the ills of his society was a restored morality resulting in greater national strength; the Gospel’s answer to the ills, not only of society, but the deepest level of humanity itself, was new birth and a relationship with the Son of God, Jesus Christ. That this title, Son of God, meant more than Messiah (although it did mean that) is evidenced by the exception to which the Pharisees took to it. In response to Jesus saying that God was his Father, we’re told: “Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God” (Jn 5:18).
The Apostle John, as an example of the aim of the Gospel writers, clearly states: “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (Jn 20:30-31). John tells us what he wants from his readers, and that he has selected the material for his Gospel which will be the most effective in bringing his readers to that commitment – how could such literature be an objective history, a mere narration of events?
It is obvious, as we compare the Gospels with each other, that the order and details of events is not important to their authors; they produce them in the way that best suits their individual purposes, marshalling them as a general does his troops before a battle. It is evident that “Each writer has his own distinctive way of arranging the material. There is a basic development from the early preaching in Galilee to the final climax in Jerusalem, but within this framework the individual incidents and teaching are collected more in the manner of an anthology than of a consecutive diary” (France 2002, 897). And they each write under the direction of the Holy Spirit, so that while they each have a different plan, structure, and purpose for their Gospel, and the work is their own, it is still inerrant and authoritative scripture, “For prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet 1:21).
Bart Ehrman asks the wrong question
So, in answer to Professor Ehrman’s questions, i.e. “Why are there so many differences among the four Gospels?…..why are they so very different, on all sorts of levels? Why do they contain so many contradictions? Why do they have such fundamentally different views of who Jesus was?” (Ehrman 2009, 102), it is, as I’ve just shown, that the Gospel writers were not concerned with the kind of questions Professor Ehrman is asking. If the Gospels were simply historical accounts, Professor Ehrman’s questions would be valid; but they’re not and they’re not. Professor Ehrman is asking the wrong questions. And the reason he stopped believing that the Bible is the infallible word of God, and adopted the liberal view of the Bible and what the Bible is, is because he was arguing for the wrong view. Professor Ehrman is aiming his criticisms/questions at a view of scripture which regards the gospels as literal historical accounts. This is not to say that the Bible cannot and should not be taken literally, and that it is merely allegorical, as some of the early church leaders taught e.g. Clement of Alexandria and Origen. The Bible is true; the Gospels are true; but they are not histories or biographies, as I’ve said; they are gospels, and the Gospel writers were not trying to write histories or biographies. It is like comparing apples with oranges, and asking why apples don’t have citric acid in the skins when both fruits are spherical and have seeds inside them. So he hasn’t disproved the Gospels, he has only shown the inadequacies of his earlier understanding of what the gospels are. Those who recognise that the Gospels are not histories or biographies are not troubled by Professor Ehrman’s claims; they still have a Bible which they trust implicitly, and upon which they base their life and stake their eternity.
And it does not make the gospels wrong or fraudulent. Despite the discrepancies found between them, they still tell the truth about Jesus and about what he achieved for fallen humanity on his cross. As with all scripture, the gospels were God-breathed, and are therefore true. It is not contradictory to make this claim, that the gospels have discrepancies and yet are stating the truth. God allowed these human authors to conceive and construct their gospels in their own unique ways and for their own God-guided purposes; and God kept them from doctrinal error. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners; that was his purpose and that is what he achieved. If there are discrepancies between the gospels (and there are), no matter. The parables that Jesus told, for example, are claimed by his critics to have errors e.g. the mustard seed is not the smallest of seeds, neither does it grow to be the greatest of trees; but Jesus used it as an illustration and we get his point – we don’t argue about the size of the mustard seed or the tree, because that is asking the wrong question. The lesson of the parable is about what is achievable by faith; the absolute accuracy of the details of the parable is not important. And so it is with the Gospels – we are being shown by the Gospel writers that Jesus is the Son of God, that he was sent by God, that he suffered and died on behalf of sinners, and that all who put their trust in him will be delivered from hell to spend eternity with him, without sin, suffering, death, sorrow, and all the other evils that entered creation when Adam and Eve fell.
The history of the Church demonstrates for us that the gospels succeeded in their aims. The Christian Church grew rapidly, despite the ferocious persecutions against it until, in the 4th century, the Roman emperor Constantine became a Christian and legalised Christianity. He gave it equal status throughout the empire with paganism, thus enabling Christians to worship freely. And the gospels continue to this day to affect people by changing their lives and bringing them to know Jesus as their Saviour, and committing themselves to serve him all their days.
“New Bible Commentary 21st Edition: Reading the Gospels – What is a Gospel?”, 2002, p 896, 897, by R. T. France, publ. Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England.
“Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them)” 2010, p 111-112, 102, by Bart Ehrman, publ., HarperCollins Publishers, NY