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Parallel Gospel Passages Problems

In the following e-mail exchange, the e-mailer's comments are in black and enclosed in "greater than" and "lesser than" signs. My comments are in red.

Exchange One

>Hi, Gary,

I've received a question I don't know how to answer. A person has stated to me that if verbal, plenary inspiration is true, Mark and Luke cannot be word-for-word inspired because:

a) He believes Matthew is word-for-word inspired; while Matthew uses the words, "kingdom of heaven," Mark and Luke use, "kingdom of God." He does not believe God could have given an inspired account that puts different words into Jesus' mouth.

b) He believes Mark is especially bad because Matthew and Luke have one cock crowing once, while Mark has, "before the cock crows twice, you will deny me thrice." I have commented that most scholars believe Mark got his material from Peter, and Peter could have gone into more detail than Matthew or Luke. This argument is rejected on the basis that if verbal plenary inspiration is true, Mark got his material from God. God would have to deliberate insert an error into Mark's gospel on this point.

Difficult one to answer, eh? It's not much wonder my friend can't find an agreeable church; he'd have a hard time finding one that says the Scripture is inerrant except for this or that book. Actually, one of the early heretics claimed only Luke and Paul were inspired; but I can't remember his name right now!

Any thoughts on how to answer this concern would be appreciated!<


First, the heretic's names was Marcion (died c. 160 AD). His reason for rejecting most of the Bible had to do with his belief that the God of the Old Testament (OT) was a different God from the God of Jesus. So he rejected the entire OT, along with parts of the New Testament (NT) that had "too much" OT in them. So he decide to only accept a truncated Luke (with all references to the OT eliminated), along with some, but not all, of Paul's epistles (again, with all OT references eliminated).

But his beliefs were actually "good" for the Church. It forced the Church to establish an "official" canon. This was not done by any type of council (until one much later that simply ratified what the early Church had already done).

But what they did in the second century was to look at what books were "well known" and accepted in churches throughout the world. Plus, they had other standards like the book had to be written by an Apostle or a direct associate of an Apostle. And it had to agree theologically with already accepted materials, including the OT.

So 20 of the 27 books of the NT were accepted universally and without disagreement. Out of the remaining seven, the majority of them were the "shorter" books in the NT (such as 2,3 John and Jude), so they were not well known. Or there were questions about the apostolic backing, such as for Hebrews and the Revelation.

But after much study and debate, these problems were worked out and the 27 books as we have them today were universally accepted.

That said, the situation your friend brings up is rather different but still a little complicated. First, let me say as I have been working on Mark for the Analytical-Literal Translation (ALT) I have been also working some on parallel passages in Matthew and Luke (hence why translating Mark has been is so slow going!).

In any case, as I have been working on the parallel passages there are many times when they are word-for-word identical in the Greek. So I can just "copy and paste" a verse I've finished in Mark into Matthew and/ or Luke. But I have to be careful as many times the Greek is not identical.

In most cases, the difference is not that significant. For instance, Mark 13:15 will end in the ALT with Jesus saying, "the ones in Judea, let them be fleeing into the mountains." Meanwhile, Matthew will have, "the ones in Judea, let them be fleeing to the mountains" (24:16). The difference is simply between the preposition "into" (Gr., eis) in Mark and "to" (Gr., epi) in Luke.

How to account for such a simple difference is easy: Jesus was speaking in Aramaic. So in the Gospels what we have is a translation of Jesus' words from Aramaic into Greek. And as any translator will tell you, there is often more than one way to legitimately translate a word into another language (hence the "alternative translations" included in the ALT).

So what this would mean is neither Matthew nor Mark would be "wrong." Either eis or epi would have been legitimate translations of whatever Aramaic word Jesus used. And for whatever reason, God inspired them to translate it differently.

Other times, the differences are greater. For instance, compare the following verses (quoting from the New King James Version now):

[Malt 24:15] "Therefore when you see the 'abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place" (whoever reads, let him understand),"

[Mk 13:14] "So when you see the 'abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not" (let the reader understand),"

The difference between "Therefore" vs. "So" can again be attribute to translation differences. Interestingly, notice the difference between the material in parentheses: "whoever reads, let him understand" vs. "let the reader understand." These translations make it look like there is a difference between the original texts. However, the Greek texts are identical!

So what this is in the NKJV is an example of how the same original text can legitimately be translated in two different ways. Although, since translators today are not being inspired by the Holy Spirit, I would say it would be best to translate identical texts identically. So the parenthetical material is translated identically, and literally, in the ALT in both Matthew and Mark as "the one reading, let him be understanding."

But what about "standing in the holy place" vs. "standing where it ought not?" There would be two possibilities:

First, maybe Jesus originally said, "where it ought not" as Mark records it; but Matthew, rather than just translating Jesus words, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is interpreting Jesus' words. So "where it ought not" means "in the holy place." Such a possibility is even more apparent when comparing Luke's version:

[Luke 21:20] "But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near."

Now, instead of the well-known "abomination of desolation" Luke has "Jerusalem surrounded by armies." So it is possible Luke is interpreting the "abomination of desolation" as being the destruction of Jerusalem, including "the holy place."

The second possibility to explain such differences is simply that Jesus gave the same sermon on more than one occasion. This is a distinct possibility given that Jesus was a traveling preacher. As with any such preacher, He would have given the same sermon, with the same message, many times but using slightly different words each time.

It is also possible in certain circumstances that the evangelists have combined different parts of different sermons into one. The Gospels do not necessarily present Jesus' actions and especially sermons in chronological order.

Moreover, each evangelist might choose to record parts of a sermon that another might omit. Remember, in no case do we have the full sermons that Jesus preached. He spoke to crowds of thousands. But the longest sermon He gave as recorded in the Gospels is the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7).

But if you read this sermon out loud it would probably take all of five to ten minutes at best. It is highly doubtful that thousand of people would have repeatedly gathered to hear someone speak for a few minutes! Moreover, the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 indicates Jesus must have been speaking all day (see Mark 6:34-45).

So what we have in the Gospels is a summary of Jesus' sermons, not word for word transcripts. We are told as much by Luke when he records Peter's Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:40). So differences between how the evangelist summarize Jesus' sermons is to be expected.

Now that covers minor differences between the words of Jesus. None of the above in any way would affect inerrancy. It is simply God working through the evangelists in expected ways. But what of the more significant differences you mention?

First, there is "kingdom of heaven" vs. "kingdom of God" (compare, for instance, Matt 3:2 with Mark 1:15). The difference between "heaven" and God" cannot be attributed to translation or summarizing differences. So which did Jesus actually say?

Consider this: Matthew is the only one who uses "kingdom of heaven." However, Mark, Luke, and even Paul uses "kingdom of God." And most interestingly, even Matthew uses "kingdom of God" on three occasions (6:33; 12:28; 19:24).

My hypothesis is this: Jesus originally said ""kingdom of God." This would account for why both Mark and Luke use it consistently, and even Matthew on three occasions. And more importantly, why Paul uses it. Paul's practice would most likely have been picked up from the "original" words since he spoke Aramaic himself. So my view is basically opposite to that of your friend's. Mark is more accurate in this regard than Matthew.

So that would mean Matthew changed "God" to "heaven" most of the time the phrase was used. But why? The answer is pretty simple.

The Jews of the time, due to a superstitious fear of breaking the commandment against using the Lord's name in vain, avoided using any form of the word "God." So they would be offended at reading "kingdom of God" repeatedly.

Now, Matthew's Gospel was written mainly for Jews whereas Mark and Luke were written for Gentiles. This can be seen from the fact that Matthew has far more OT quotations than Mark and Luke do (hence why Marcion accepted Luke rather than Matthew). Also Matthew opens with what, to Jews. would be the very important genealogy. Meanwhile, Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles.

So Mark, Luke, and Paul would not have to worry about offending Jews as much as Matthew did. So they could retain "kingdom of God" without problems. But Matthew knew his audience would be offended by its repeated use. So he substituted, as was often done by Jews, "heaven" for "God."

For an example of this practice, see the prodigal son's words, " I have sinned against heaven" (Luke 15:21). "I have sinned against God" would seem more natural. But the prodigal son, being a Jew in a repentant state, did not want to risk offending God; so he used "heaven" instead of God.

So what does Matthew's substituting "heaven" for "God" have to say about the inspiration and inerrancy of His Gospel? First, note that he has not done anything that was out of place for his times and his "target audience." Some might consider such a change today to be wrong; but in his cultural situation it was perfectly acceptable. So it was not an "error."

Second, if it is believed Matthew was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and if the Holy Spirit and Jesus are both God, then it would be perfectly acceptable for God to change His own words. So I personally have no problems with such a change and it in no way affects my view of the inspiration or inerrancy of Matthew.

Such a substitution does have some implications for us today. In ministry to others we should avoid using terms that would unnecessarily offend someone. However, by no means should we change the Gospel message. In changing "God" to "heaven" Matthew did not alter the Gospel message in any way. In fact, his target audience perfectly understood what the term meant.

Even as a translator this practice has implications. For instance, many today are offended by "masculine" language being used when "inclusive" language can be substituted. It is for this reason I am making the ALT as inclusive as the original texts allows.

For instance, I am translating substatival participles (using "believe" as an example) as "the one believing" instead of the traditional "he who believes." Either is grammatically correct; but the former avoids the unnecessary masculine language.

However, since I do not claim to be directly inspired by the Holy Spirit as Matthew was, I do not believe I have the right to alter God's words. So I will not, as is being done in some translations today, alter the text in order to change a masculine term into an inclusive one, such as changing the singular pronoun "he" to the plural pronoun "them."

Next, in regards to the cock crowing once (Matt 26:34; Luke 22:34; John 13:38) or twice (Mark 14:30); this situation is similar to others seen in the Gospels. For instance, in Mark and Luke Jesus heals one blind man (Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43) whereas in Matthew Jesus heals two blind men (20:29-34). And for His "Triumphal Entry" in Matthew, Jesus tells His disciples to get a donkey and a colt (21:2) whereas in Mark 11:2 and Luke 19:30, the disciples are told to get just a colt.

What to make of these differences? First off, note there is no logical contradiction between such passages. Matthew, Luke, and John do NOT say the cock will crow ONLY once. Mark and Luke do NOT say there was ONLY one blind man. And Mark and Luke do NOT say Jesus said to go find and get ONLY a colt.

To put it another way, lets say there's a robbery. As the police question witnesses, some witnesses mention one suspect but others mention two. How to explain this difference? It could be that only one of the robbers had a gun and that's the only one some of them really noticed! In other words, only the more "prominent" suspect was mentioned by some.

So in the case of the one vs. two blind men, it could be that Mark and Luke only mention the more prominent one (or the most vocal one in his shouting - Mark 10:47). As for the donkey and/ or colt, it could be that Jesus only actually rode on the colt, while the donkey was used to carry supplies; so only the colt was mentioned as being the more important of the two by Mark and Luke.

And finally, as for the roaster crowing, this one is admittedly a little more difficult. But the simple answer is that Mark is more specific than the other three evangelists. So I would say Mark, in fact, is the most accurate. The other three have simplified the narrative (again going opposite of your friend's view).

Now, does this constitute an "error" on the others' part? I personally don't think so. Just as with Jesus' sermons, the narratives throughout the Gospels are simplified. We are not given every detail for every event that transpired. So God simply inspired the evangelists to include as much detail as would be necessary or interesting to each of their respective audiences.

So in regards to the blind men and the animals for the Triumphal Entry, it would appear Matthew provides the most details whereas for the roaster crowing Mark does. And Matthew appears to be the one who is less accurate when it comes to "kingdom of heaven" vs. "kingdom of God."

As such, there is no reason for your friend to single out Mark and say it is not inspired when the same kind of "problems" can be seen in the other Gospels. Each provides more details in some cases but less details in others.

So the bottom line is, to get the "full picture" one needs to compare all four Gospels. Some include details which others omit. And maybe that is why God gave us four Gospels to begin with.

And finally, the four Gospels were among the 20 NT books the early church "accepted universally and without disagreement" (as mentioned at the beginning of this e-mail). So the early Christians, who were all fluent in Greek and so could easily see the differences between the Gospels, had no problems whatsoever with the differences. It was only heretics like Marcion who rejected any of the four. But, as indicated, even his reason were not due to their differences but due to his faulty view of God.

Lastly, I spent a little extra time on this one as the "Gospels Problem" is a common question that comes up and something I've been thinking of as I've been working on the ALT. So I am planning on posting the above on my site. I'm sure you won't mind : ) [Note, Reese is a long-time Internet friend.]

Exchange Two

>Hi, Gary,

Thank you very much for your detailed response. I was very interested as always to hear your explanation and frankly impressed with the logic and the detail. I hope that the response is of value to your readers.

I hadn't thought of myself as being affected much by my friend's concerns; but the past three mornings I have woken up aware that I was not only praying but even dreaming about the issue, I was so concerned about finding some way to give him more confidence in the overall Bible text.

I had indicated to him in my last conversation that the time differences in the Gospels might be a lesson to us about the interpretation of God's Word. We perhaps shouldn't panic over trivial differences in any part of our Christian walk. After reading your response, I thought of another lesson God may be trying to teach: the fact that the Gospels can't necessarily be thought of chronologically could well be a preparatory lesson from God about our interpretation of Revelation as well.

Thank you again for your insights; I pray they're helpful both to my friend and those others who will read them. While I love the fact that I'm even *dreaming* about God's Word, I hope that your argumentation enables me to stop worrying so much about his concerns!

Your friend in Christ,

Note: Reese's comments about the Revelation are in reference to the a-millennia interpretation of this difficult book. I mention this idea briefly in my Scripture Study on End-Time Prophecy. It is discussed in detail in a book I am currently reading: John Gilmore. Probing Heaven: Key Questions on the Hereafter (Baker Book House, 1989). I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in this subject.

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