Do The Gospels Disagree About Jesus?

Posted by Clark Bates
April 21, 2017

A standard method of attack against the New Testament inerrancy is to pit one or two books against each other.  While this approach has been used with the epistles, it is most often used with the Gospels.  A clear example of this is found in the work of Bart Ehrman.  Both on his blog[1] and in interviews[2], Ehrman insists that Gospels such as Mark and Luke present different, even contradictory depictions of Jesus.  During an interview on the famous show, The Colbert Report, he stated,

“In Mark’s Gospel, for example, Jesus goes to His death in deep agony, over what’s happening to him, and doesn’t seem to understand why it’s happening to Him.”

Conversely, says Ehrman,

“When you read Luke’s Gospel, He’s not in agony at all.”

 

Now, it must be remembered that much of Ehrman’s popularity comes from his dynamic personality and his ability to speak convincingly about his positions.  He is a very educated, very informed scholar, and much of what he says passes, without question, from those who hear him.  This is especially true when his audience already doubts the New Testament.  Unfortunately, many young believers also hear these statements and, presuming he would not blatantly speak a lie, accept that he must have a point, and do not investigate the claim.  The result?  Many young Christians abandon their faith, or at least the Bible, as hopeless and irrelevant.

But here’s the rub: It doesn’t take much to bring down Ehrman’s claim!  Let’s take a short investigation into the Gospels of Mark and Luke and see for ourselves if what the professor says really matches what the Gospels depict.  Regarding Mark, the professor claims that Jesus is not only in agony, but that he seems to be completely unaware of why he’s being put to death.

Did Christ not Understand Why He was Executed in Mark?

Clearly, Dr. Ehrman bases this position on two points from the close of the Gospel according to Mark: Mark 14:36, in which Jesus begs the Father to take the cup of wrath from him, and Mark 15:34, in which Jesus cries out the famous line, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  If this were all the evidence available, perhaps the good doctor would have some reason to come to his conclusion, but this is not all that is available.  Here is a brief rundown of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark regarding his death:

Early on in his ministry Jesus alludes to a coming time when His disciples will no longer have him with them (2:18-20).  On multiple occasions, he states very clearly that he must suffer and die (8:31-32a; 9:12; 9:30-32; 10:32-34).  In various places Jesus makes this reference of impending death as applied to the “Son of Man”.  So that there be no confusion or space for challenge that this does not refer to Jesus, it has been a self-designation of his from the beginning of his ministry as recorded by Mark (2:10).

Apart from these explicit statements of Christ regarding his coming death, there are multiple implicit references as well.  The Lord speaks of those who desire to follow him needing to “take up their cross” (8:34-35).  There is no conclusion to carrying one’s cross that does not lead to death.  Again, while this might not be as clear as other statements of the Lord, it is clear that believers are called to take up their cross and “follow him”, meaning he goes to his death first.  In speaking to his disciples about the humility which they are to emulate in leadership, Jesus tells his followers that he has come, “not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45 emphasis mine).

Further on, Mark records a parable of Jesus about the owner of a vineyard who hired tenants to work it.  The owner sent his servants to collect the fruit of the vineyard, but the tenants repeatedly beat the servants.  In response, the vineyard owner sends his son, whom the tenants beat and kill (12:1-12).  This parable, in context, is an implicit reference to the Old Testament prophets of Yahweh (the servants) and Jesus (the son), and speaks of his coming to die.  Beyond this, Jesus declares, when an anonymous woman anoints him before others, that he has been anointed for “his burial” (14:6-8).  At the Last Supper, Jesus is aware that he will be betrayed before Judas brings the guards (14:22-24), and Jesus tells Peter that he will be “struck down” and “raised up” (14:26-28).

With all of these statements, explicit and implicit, can it really be said, as Ehrman argues, that Jesus did not understand why he was being crucified?  There seems to be little doubt in the mind of the author that Jesus saw his death from the very outset of his ministry, even if he desired, in his humanity, to have it taken from him.  There is no argument that Ehrman’s second point, that Jesus was in agony on the cross, is true, however.  Clearly, no one could be put to death by means of Roman crucifixion without suffering agony.  The agreement notwithstanding, there is the second half of Ehrman’s claim that requires examination, that Christ in Luke’s Gospel, “is not in agony at all.”

Did Jesus Suffer on the Cross in Luke?

Very little can be determined in relation to Jesus’ demeanor in the crucifixion account of Luke.  Certainly, there are more sayings of Christ in this account than in others, but this cannot adequately depict experience.  What we do find in reference to the Lord’s demeanor is found in the sections leading up to the cross.

During the Last Supper, Luke records that Jesus tells his disciples of his earnest desire to eat this meal with them before he suffers (22:15 emphasis mine), suggesting that he is aware of and expecting to experience pain and agony.  Late, in the same section, Jesus carries out the communion service of which Christians have become all-too-familiar.  He breaks the bread signifying his body and pours out the wine signifying his blood (22:19-20).  This imagery is of no significance if the Lord did not suffer on the cross.  Just as we find implicit suggestions in Mark that Jesus knew of his coming crucifixion, so too here in Luke do we see the implicit acknowledgment that our Lord will suffer.

Lastly, and possibly most explicitly, is the account of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It is only in Luke’s account do we read that Jesus “sweat drops of blood” (22:44).  This is fascinating in light of Dr. Ehrman’s accusation that Luke depicts an emotionless, stoic Christ.  To sweat drops of blood is a recognized medical condition known as hematidrosis, in which the capillaries in one’s sweat glands rupture, mixing blood with the sweat.[3]  The resulting fragility of the skin can be brought on by extremely high levels of stress, much like our Lord’s “great anguish” recorded in Luke.

Ehrman seems to draw his conclusion from the number of statements made by the Lord during the crucifixion process, but, as was said above, there is no way to know in what manner these statements are being made. Even Dr. Ehrman seems to be programmed by the many Jesus films over the last several decades which depict him as impassive in the face of suffering.  In fact, the only evidence available to the reader that could inform them of Jesus’ demeanor during his trial and crucifixion, are those texts just prior to, which depict him in great anguish.  It follows then, that the unflappable, non-suffering Jesus of Dr. Ehrman, bears very little resemblance to the deeply distressed, Jesus of Dr. Luke.

Conclusion

The greatest moment of irony in the Professor’s interview comes from one of his final points that,

“. . .what people have done, is they’ve taken Mark’s Gospel and Luke’s Gospel and combined them together to one big Gospel, which is unlike either Mark or Luke.”

To begin with, Dr. Ehrman’s approach to the literature of the Gospels is to identify specific “pericopes” (small sections of passages) within the text that represent earlier tradition regarding Jesus.  He then uses these pericopes to deny that the Jesus of the Gospels is an accurate portrayal of Jesus.  Of course, he comes to this conclusion by combing these pericopes together to form an image of Jesus.  Which is the very thing he condemns those who harmonize the Gospels of doing!  What’s more, harmonization, while not always acceptable, is a common way personal profiles are developed in all forms of investigation.  There is nothing invalid about this practice.  However, we need not even harmonize the Gospel of Mark with Luke to see that Dr. Ehrman’s representation of them is inaccurate.  As it turns out, it is Dr. Ehrman who has actually created a Jesus unlike Mark or Luke.

Why would Professor Ehrman’s depiction even matter?  Many like Bart Ehrman who approach the Gospels from the historical-literary perspective seek to explain the early teaching of Christ as evolutionary.  That is to say, Dr. Ehrman believes that Mark is the earliest Gospel and clearly depicts Jesus in more human terms, whereas Luke follows several years, even decades, later, at which time the authors sought to defend a more divine Jesus.  Based on this reasoning, Jesus was nothing more than a man, clearly not divine, and was never originally thought of as such.  The end result is that the human characteristics of suffering and lack of understanding are removed in favor of a Christ in full control of all that surrounds him.  This would be an interesting perspective if the conclusion could be demonstrated from the premises, but as we’ve just demonstrated, neither Dr. Ehrman’s depiction of Jesus in Mark, nor his depiction of Jesus in Luke are accurate to the text.  Therefore, if the premises are not accurate, the conclusion cannot follow, and Dr. Ehrman’s perspective is false.

Neither Dr. Ehrman’s depiction of Jesus in Mark, nor his depiction of Jesus in Luke are accurate to the text.  Therefore, if the premises are not accurate, the conclusion cannot follow, and Dr. Ehrman’s perspective is false.

 

[1] https://ehrmanblog.org/jesus-death-resurrection-mark-members/

https://ehrmanblog.org/jesus-death-in-mark-and-luke-for-members/

[2] http://www.cc.com/video-clips/lywaay/the-colbert-report-bart-ehrman

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IPAKsGbqcg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbLm_Xiqih8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SdSievHrris

[3] C. Truman Davis, “The Crucifixion of Jesus: The Passion of Christ from a Medial Point of View,” Arizona Medicine (March 1965): 183-187; and William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On The Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” The Journal of the American Medical Association  (21 March 1986): 1455-63.

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