Many discrepancies between the gospels cannot be reconciled, as for instance their distinct stories of the Jesus’s resurrection. Who all went to the tomb? How many angels were there? What were the angels doing? Who saw Jesus first? When did Jesus first appear to his disciples? Where did Jesus first appear to his disciples? Where did Jesus ascend into heaven? All the information is different in the four gospels.
If I were to take each question as it’s presented to the gospels themselves, without a doubt, one could come up with a satisfying answer for each. But let’s take the summary objection, “All the information is different in the four gospels,” and respond to it.
Yes. They’re different. Why are they different? They are different because four different people wrote them and that means that each author had a point that they wanted to make and crafted their narrative to that end.
The last point often bothers people because, even though we naturally do this ourselves, we accuse others of lying or manipulating the “facts” when they do so themselves. But, if you’ve ever read two biographies on a famous person, you instantly realize that those authors are doing the same thing.
I often reflect on two biographies of legendary actor John Wayne that I read in high school. In one biography, which was short, focused upon his rise to stardom and his film career and how spent very little time on his personal life other than touching on his turbulent marriages that punctuated it. It was very short, 200 pages at the most. The second was one written by his daughter that was very personal, spending a whole series of chapters discussing her father’s personal struggles with his failed marriages and his intense love for his children. One would almost think that those were written about two different people, but reading the shorter one made me want to know more about the man that essentially characterized the way a man was supposed to be: loud, proud, courageous, and caring for friends, family, and the underdog, a man of few words, and with a carefully honed moral compass.
While those were different, I could harmonize them and make sense of both. Seeing the personal side of John Wayne made me see why his career was so strong and varied across the years: he let his dissatisfaction with life drive him to do bigger and different things, and he didn’t let his failures define him. The difference made the difference.
If there’s one thing my experience as a detective has revealed, however, it’s that witnesses often make conflicting and inconsistent statements when describing what they saw at a crime scene. They frequently disagree with one another and either fail to see something obvious or describe the same event in a number of conflicting ways. The more witnesses involved in a case, the more likely there will be points of disagreement. (p.74)
The fact that the four gospels were written by four different people naturally means that there were four different perspectives brought to bear on the life of Jesus. These four different perspectives means that they are going to have different priorities and are going to pick and choose different things that they want to discuss.
Wallace continues, speaking on his experience as a detective,
I learned many years ago the importance of separating witnesses. If eyewitnesses are quickly separated from one another, they are far more likely to provide an uninfluenced, pure account of what they saw. Yes, their accounts will inevitably differ from the accounts of others who witnessed the same event, but that is the natural result of a witness’s past experience, perspective, and worldview. I can deal with the inconsistencies; I expect them….I would far rather have three messy, apparently contradictory versions of the event than one harmonized version that has eliminated some important detail. I know in the end I’ll be able to determine the truth of the matter by examining all three stories. The apparent contradictions are usually easy to explain once I learn something about the witnesses and their perspectives (both visually and personally) at the time of the crime.(p.75)
Growing up as a skeptic, I never thought of the biblical narrative as an eyewitness account. Instead, I saw it as something more akin to religious mythology—a series of stories designed to make a point. But when I read through the Gospels (and then the letters that followed them), it appeared clear that the writers of Scripture identified themselves as eyewitnesses and viewed their writings as testimony. Peter identified himself as a “witness of the sufferings of Christ” (1 Pet. 5:1) and as one of many “eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16–17). The apostle John claimed that he was writing as an eyewitness when he described the life and death of Jesus. He identified himself as “the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things” (John 21:24), and said that he was reporting “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1). (p.78)
Wallace’s ultimate conclusion, speaking as a former atheist and a trained police detective, is that he was forced to conclude that the gospels were truly eyewitness statements and that they, in spite of any differences, could be meaningfully harmonized by carefully reading the individual texts and allowing the authors to present the facts that they chose to include or not include. This is something that we do naturally and regularly in any other situation, so why should we treat the gospels any differently? I’m guessing that it’s because of a desire to not believe, rather than to be reasonable.
Such objections/questions are often leveled against Christian doctrines of Scripture such as inspiration and inerrancy. Skeptics cannot wrap their brains around the fact that God can work through human beings, giving them freedom to express themselves, using their own experiences and vocabulary and forms of expression. I would argue that it’s the power of God to authorize their work to express his truth. Truly it demonstrates that the foolishness of God is wiser than man would ever hope to be.
(Note: All quotes from J. Warner Wallace’s book are from the Kindle edition.)