BITE-SIZE THEOLOGY (8) – Why are there differences in the accounts of the Gospels?

– Rev José Mario O Mandía


If we have read the Gospels many times, we will notice some discrepancies in the accounts of the four Evangelists. This can be seen, for example, in the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (cf Matthew 14:15-21; Mark 6:35-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:5-13). Why the differences in the accounts?

To answer this question, we need to remember how the Gospels were formed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) no 126 explains that we can distinguish three stages in the formation of the Gospels:

“1. The life and teaching of Jesus. The Church holds firmly that the four Gospels, ‘whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation, until the day when he was taken up.’ (Dei Verbum 19)

“2. The oral tradition. ‘For, after the ascension of the Lord, the apostles handed on to their hearers what he had said and done, but with that fuller understanding which they, instructed by the glorious events of Christ and enlightened by the Spirit of truth, now enjoyed.’ (DV 19)

“3. The written Gospels. ‘The sacred authors, in writing the four Gospels, selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or already in written form; others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches, the while sustaining the form of preaching, but always in such a fashion that they have told us the honest truth about Jesus’ (DV 19).”

In the first stage, when Jesus preached, He taught like the rabbis of Israel. He would repeat the same thing in different occasions, maybe using different words, to help the disciples remember. Hence, there would be differences in different accounts of the same parable.

Regarding the second stage (oral tradition), the different apostles would have different ways of narrating or explaining the events.

With regard to the third stage, we know that two of the four Gospel-writers were eyewitnesses: Matthew and John. John writes, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24). In composing the Gospel, however, each one would remember things according to his mentality and his way of understanding and write accordingly.

The other two – Mark and Luke – drew their material from different eye-witnesses and those witnesses would narrate things in different ways. As we have seen, Mark draws from Saint Peter’s preaching in Rome. Luke, on the other hand, follows Saint Paul. Saint Luke writes, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed” (Luke 1:1-4).

Moreover, because the Evangelists were addressing different groups with a specific purpose, they selected, synthesized or explained (see no 3 above) what they thought suited more their readers.

It was important to select, because “there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

For the same reason that John cites, they also needed to synthesize and combine some sayings and events of the life of Jesus because some of them would be too long to put in writing or were too similar to each other. As Luke says, it was necessary “to write an orderly account” for his reader.

It was also necessary to explain: for the Jewish converts, Matthew shows how the Messiah fulfills the Old Testament prophecies that they were familiar with. But Mark, writing for the converts in Rome, sees the need to explain Jewish customs (7:2–4; 14:12; 15:42) and the meaning of Aramaic words (3:17; 5:41; 7:11,34; 15:22,34).





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