“The Differences in the Four Gospels”
The Differences in the Four Gospel Accounts
By Jeff Curtis
When one begins to fashion the harmony of the Gospel, it soon becomes apparent that variation exist between accounts of the same event. How can the differences be explained? As was noted in an earlier writing, in the book of Acts Luke gave three accounts of the conversion of Saul (Acts 9; 22; 26). John Stott commented on this: “Our study of how a single author (Luke) tells the same story differently will help us understand how three synoptic evangelists (Matthew, Mark and Luke) could also tell their same story differently.”
In most cases, one account simply supplements another account. Consider the story of the anointing of Jesus at Bethany. In Matthew’s account (Matt. 26:6-13), Jesus was in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper when an unnamed woman came with a container of precious perfume and anointed Jesus, which resulted in Jesus’ disciples expressing their disapproval. Mark’s account (Mark 14:3-9) is much the same, but some details are added: The perfume was pure nard, the woman broke the container, and the perfume was worth three hundred denarii. (“Denarii” is the plural form of “denarius.” Which was equivalent to one day’s wages for the common laborer.) John’s account (John 12:1-8) gives other details, including: Jesus was at a banquet held in honor; Martha was serving the meal; Lazarus was also a guest of honor; the woman who anointed Jesus was Mary, sister of Martha; and the one who started the criticism was Judas Iscariot. These details are obviously not in contradiction, but rather are supplementary.
It has been noted that when witnesses give supplementary details this does not discredit their testimony but rather establishes their honesty. Dr. Henry Van Dyke said,
If four witnesses should appear before a judge to give an account of a certain
even, and each one tell exactly the same story in the same words, the judge
would probably conclude, not that their testimony was exceptionally valuable,
but that the only event which was certain beyond a doubt was that they had
agreed to tell the same story. But each man had told what he had seen, as he had
seen it, the evidence would be credible. And when we read the four Gospels, is
it not that exactly what we find? The four men tell the same story each in his
In some cases, however, the details are not simply supplemental; instead, they are different. The order of events may not be the same, different personnel may be mentioned, or numbers may vary. For instance, notice the story of Jesus healing one or more blind men near Jericho. In Matthew’s account (Matt. 20:29-34), Jesus was leaving Jericho and two men healed. In Luke’s account (Lk. 18:35-43), Jesus was approaching Jericho and one blind man is mentioned. In Mark’s account (Mk. 10:46-52), only one blind man is healed (Bartemaeus). How do we explain differences such as these? Let’s lists a few possibilities:
- Some differences in details exist because of differences in the writers’ emphases.
- Differences in details may exist because writers were recording similar events, but not the same event.
- Contradictions may seem to exist when we don’t possess all the facts of the case. So, the incident could have taken place as Jesus left one and entered the other. Those who assert that contradictions exist are admitting a lack of knowledge.
- Contradictions may seem to exist because we don’t understand something about the original text. For years, skeptics claimed that a contradiction existed in the OT regarding a payment that was made: One account referred to the payment as a certain amount while another account gave a different figure. Later, archaeologists discovered that two systems of appraising the value of precious metals existed at that time; probably one writer referred to one system of appraisal while the other referred to the second. From time to time, archaeology sheds new light on the text.
As we continue through the story of Jesus, some of the more publicized “differences” between accounts will be noted and possible ways to reconcile the differences can be discussed.