Errors in the New Testament? A Matter of Chronology and Purpose

Errors in the New Testament? A Matter of Chronology and Purpose

Posted by Clark Bates
January 10, 2016

Mark 8:26-29 / Matthew 16:13-16 / Luke 9:37-42

Having completed the three introductory articles to the claim that there are errors in the New Testament, especially the Gospels, we will finally turn our gaze to actual accusations of error and the verses in question.    Something that occurs quite frequently in these claims, particularly against the Gospels, is an accusation related to chronology.  It’s often argued that since gospel “X” places Jesus in “this” place at “this” time, saying “this” thing, and gospel “Y” places Jesus at “this” place at “that” time, saying an altered form of “this,” they are in error and contradict each other.  Where this accusation fails in general, is that it fails to take into account the genre of the Gospels and their relationship to ancient historiography.

Our first example of potential error is found in Matthew 16:13-16, paralleled in Mark 8:26-29 and Luke 9:37-42.  Here we find Peter’s famous confession of Jesus as Christ.  This particular example does not address a chronological difficulty per se, but does fail to take into account the genre of the Gospels. Below is an example of each passage with the differences in bold:

Mark 8:29

29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”

Matthew 16:15-16

15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Luke 9:20

20 Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”

Seeing these examples side by side, the accusation often follows that we have three separate accounts of Jesus speaking but with Peter replying in three different ways.  If inerrancy can truly be applied to the text how could the authors of the Gospels mistake Peter’s response?  For that matter, which response is the correct one?

The reasons why we find different subtleties in this passage are many, but I’d like to focus on those that are primary.  First, we have to acknowledge the gap of time between the culture in which this was written and the culture from which we are reading.  For those with a critical eye, the need for exactness when recording a supposedly historical occasion is paramount.  Certainly, we can acknowledge this in cases such as obtaining witness testimony or even in recording current events, but to assume that what is considered paramount to a modern audience in the 21st century is, or even should be, paramount to an agrarian audience in the 1st century would be a type of temporal elitism and would not comport with what is known of all ancient biography.

It is widely acknowledged that the culture from which the Gospels arose utilized an oral transmission method of communicating important stories.  That being said, it should be acknowledged that there are several reasons to believe that the Gospels themselves were written with the intent of being read aloud which suggests that the culture was not exclusively oral.[1]  But, in keeping with a culture that transmits important information orally, including biographical narrative, it is the primary focus of the author or speaker to emphasize main features or main points rather than word-for-word exactness.  Paraphrasing a speaker’s dialogue while retaining the intent was often sufficient.

A common practice that can be seen in the Synoptic Gospels is one of Condense, Summarize, and Paraphrase.[2]  There are pragmatic benefits to such a practice to be sure, but this was primarily used to direct the narrative along the course of the authors intended message to a particular audience.  For instance, Matthew contains more Old Testament references than the other Synoptic Gospels and spends considerable time comparing the message of Christ with the Law.  His audience seems to have been primarily Jewish and, as such, the purpose of Matthew would be the affirmation that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Jewish Messiah.[3]  Note that in Matthew we find the decidedly Jewish phrase “the Living God”, used throughout the Hebrew prophets to separate belief in Yahweh from belief in the various pagan deities.[4]

In the Gospel of Mark, we find a rapid movement through the major moments of Jesus’ ministry.  It is the shortest of the Gospels and centers much of its purpose on the crucifixion and an apologetic toward non-Christians that Jesus was in fact the Son of God in spite of the cross.  You’ll notice that in Mark’s narration of the above event, Peter’s answer is brief and to the point.  It is in keeping with the intention and pace the author has set for his writing.

Lastly, the Gospel of Luke is expressly written as a defense of Christianity to a specific individual (Theophilus).  The audience is presumably not Jewish but familiar with the basic message of Christ.  While Luke is arguably the most detail-oriented of the gospel writers, his need to emphasize the Messiahship of Jesus to a gentile would be greatly diminished, thus you read merely, “The Christ of God.”

While much is made of this apparent error or contradiction, very little is ever acknowledged from the critic regarding the area of agreement.  Even a quick, cursory reading of each text reveals a confession that Jesus is the Christ.  Each Gospel cited confirms that Jesus of Nazareth was proclaimed to be the Christ or Messiah by the apostle Peter in the presence of witnesses.  Can this really be considered an error with such a large agreement?  Certainly, this might be considered a “variant” in the sense that the answer varies slightly from one text to the next, but as a challenge to inerrancy, at least as inerrancy has been explained in the introduction, it certainly is not.

The Three Temptations of Christ

Matthew 4:1-11 / Luke 4:1-13

Another quick example of a perceived error due to an uninformed focus on chronology over intent is the three temptations of Christ in the wilderness found in Matt. 4:1-11 and mirrored in Luke 4:1-13.  For those concerned with proper chronology, this passage presents a problem.  While Matthew orders the temptations of Christ as “Stones to Bread,” “Leap from the temple,” then “Taken to a high mountain,” Luke presents an order that reverses the final two temptations:

 

 

 

Matthew 4

1.    And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

2.   Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down,

3.   the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.

 

 

Luke 4

1.         The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”

2.       And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time,

3.       And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,

 

If chronology is paramount, the question of course becomes, “Which one has the correct order?” but it has already been demonstrated that the authors of the Gospels were not focused on presenting a chronological narrative, but a narrative that emphasizes those aspects of Jesus’ ministry that best suit the purpose of the individual gospel and the intended audience for which it was written.

When we read Luke, an often-overlooked theme in the gospel is one of Jesus as the high priest.  The author opens his gospel with the high priest Zechariah being struck deaf and mute by the angel of the Lord for doubting his message.  As a result, the high priest was unable to perform the closing function of lifting his hands to heaven before the people and giving the blessing.  At the close of Luke’s gospel, we read that just prior to Jesus’ ascension He lifts His hands to the heavens and blesses His people (Lk. 24:50), fulfilling the high priestly function left open by Zechariah at the opening.  Because of this, it would be understandable that Luke would seek to place the temptation at the temple last and most memorable in his account.

This is not an issue of whether either gospel is speaking truth, for both contain the same information.  It is a debate of timing with the misconception that order overrules intent.  We will continue to identify and examine other variations found within the gospel narratives in the coming articles, but for now may it be said that no error has been found here.

 

[1] Justin Martyr (100-165 AD), writing in the early to mid-2nd century, wrote in his First Apology, 67, “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.” Suggesting that the practice of Christian worship, as far back as the early 2nd century was to have the Scriptures read aloud. This assertion by Justin Martyr is supported even further by the existence of markings on various papyrii (P66 particularly) that contains specific markings and spacing that would aide someone who would be reading the document aloud.

[2] Lest anyone really believes that Jesus’ sermon on the mount really only took 10 minutes or less (the time it would take to read what is written) to recite, or that the words of Jesus are limited to what is contained within the Gospels, contrary to the testimony of John 21:25.

[3] It would be unfair to the Gospel of Matthew to limit his purpose to just this, but many of the other sub-themes can be gathered under this central tenet.  See various New Testament Surveys for more information, including Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, or Andreas Kostenberger et al., The Cross, the Cradle, and the Crown.

[4] See Isaiah 37 ,Jeremiah 10, and Daniel 6 for examples.

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