My agnostic son is taking a religious study class at UT Austin with a professor by the name of Brent Landau. Mind you, my son is an extremely intelligent young man. Mr. Landau’s current study focuses on the discrepencies in the Gospels. How does our Catholic church answer these discrepencies? The book they are studying is “Jesus, Interrupted” by Bart D. Ehrman.
Let me quote the section of the Ignatius Study Bible concerning this. It’s part of the introduction to the Gospels.
Since the Bible is inspired by God, it can never be said that its human authors assert as true anything that is untrue, whether the affirmation be made about doctrine, morals, or the events of history. Of course, careful study is needed to ascertain the intention of the author, lest we mistake a non-historical narrative such as a parable for a historical one. And even historical narratives have a theological relevance and purpose behind them. But where an author’s intent to record history can be established, the factual accuracy of the account is guaranteed as part of the mystery of divine inspiration.
The Pontifical Biblical Commission reaffirmed this point in 1964, when it said that the four Gospels were written under the inspiration of the Spirit, who “preserved their authors immune from all error” (Sancta Mater Ecclesia 11). By implication, this is also the meaning of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation when it states that “everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held as asserted by the Holy Spirit” (Dei Verbum 11).
What, then, are we to make of the apparent mistakes and contradictions that appear in the Gospels? It can hardly be denied that numerous difficulties face the interpreter who would try to reconcile the four Gospels in detail. There are several places where a story in one Gospel seems to conflict with the same story as told in another. Sometimes the words of Jesus recorded in one Gospel seem to disagree with his words recorded in another. And occasionally the evangelists make historical claims that contradict the testimony of secular sources regarding the events and circumstances of the period.
The Church’s approach to resolving such discrepancies has never been to compromise her belief in the divine inspiration and the historical truthfulness of the Gospels. Her faith is firmly maintained in spite of the difficulties that confront us. In practical terms, this means that interpretation proceeds with the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture in mind, and it falls to the Church’s scholars to find ways to alleviate tensions and to reconcile discordant accounts to the best of their ability (see Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus 45; Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu 46).
The attempt to harmonize the Gospels will not always produce satisfactory results. Nevertheless, it is good to remember that numerous difficult passages of the Bible have been clarified over time thanks to the efforts of scholars toiling to vindicate the truthfulness of Scripture. As for those problematic passages still in need of a solution, there are several considerations to keep in mind when one stumbles across apparent contradictions and inconsistencies in the Gospels.
(1) Biblical scholars have long recognized that the Gospels do not always present the story of Jesus in strict chronological order. Certainly the main outline of his life, ministry, and final days is kept intact. In this sense, the story line is broadly chronological. But some of the short episodes within this larger framework are moved around and repositioned according to the aim of each evangelist. Thus, one notices that episodes sharing a common theme are sometimes grouped together, as are sayings that touch upon a related topic of discussion.
The freedom to rearrange sayings and stories in a non-chronological sequence does not mean that the essential historicity of the Gospels is compromised. This is something that ancient biographers and historians were accustomed to doing in their writings. Besides, it is important to remember that the evangelists, in addition to preserving the memory of Jesus’ words and deeds, were also preachers of the good news.
Their aims and interests as authors were evangelical and catechetical as well as historiographical. One result is that chronology is sometimes subordinate to theology in the narrative depiction of Jesus’ life. Such adaptations of chronology can be explained by the Gospel writers’ use of the literary techniques of their age to communicate the historical truth about Jesus.
(2) An examination of parallel passages shows that the four Gospels frequently record the words of Jesus in different ways. This is not surprising, since Jesus delivered much of his teaching in Aramaic, whereas the Gospels record his sayings in Greek. No doubt some variations in wording were bound to arise in the process of translation from one language to another.
Also, it sometimes appears that the evangelists offer an interpretive paraphrase of Jesus’ sayings in order to highlight a particular theme or teaching they deem especially relevant to their readers. The Gospel authors can thus clarify the meaning of a saying, or even place a certain emphasis on this detail or that, all the while preserving the substance of what Jesus said on the occasion.
Although this procedure may strike us as questionable, given our modern preference for exact quotation, the best historians of the ancient world typically allowed a measure of freedom in recording spoken discourse. They permitted an author to paraphrase, abbreviate, or even bring out the meaning of a person’s words, so long as the original sense of the words was faithfully conveyed. Still, this was a liberty that operated within strict limits. The historian’s aim was not always to preserve the exact words of a saying but rather the speaker’s intended meaning.
With respect to the Gospels, it can be said that the evangelists preserved the authentic voice of Jesus, even though their reports are not always verbatim transcripts of his exact words. The Pontifical Biblical Commission has acknowledged this by saying that the authors of the Gospels employed “different words to express what he said, not keeping to the very letter, but nevertheless preserving the sense” (Sancta Mater Ecclesia 9). So the essence of Jesus’ message is accurately expressed in the Gospels even though there are variations in the way each evangelist wrote it down.
(3) When it comes to reconciling Gospel accounts of the same event, it is important to distinguish between contradictory testimony and complementary testimony. One is dealing with contradictory testimony when two reports of a single occurrence are in direct conflict and cannot be reconciled. For example, if one author places an individual at a specific time and location, and another author places the same individual at a different location but at the exact same time, then it must be presumed that at least one of the witnesses is either lying or mistaken. Both cannot be true at the same time.
On the other hand, complementary testimony is non-contradictory. If two authors describe an individual engaged in two different activities at the same time and place, we need not conclude that either is lying or mistaken, for the situation may be more complex. Suppose one witness says that Jesus was “teaching” at sunrise, while another witness claims that he was “walking” to Jerusalem at that time.
Neither of these activities makes the other impossible or even unlikely, for Jesus could have been doing both at the same time. Being complementary rather than contradictory testimony, both reports can be taken as an accurate description of reality. The challenge is to piece together a coherent picture of what took place in all its complexity.
(4) Attempts to reconcile disparate Gospel accounts must reckon with the fact that all historical writing is necessarily selective and incomplete. No one can record everything that takes place at a given moment in time, so a complete history of any event is strictly impossible. By the same token, a partial history of any given event is not thereby a falsification of the facts. An nonexhaustive report, mentioning certain details while omitting others, is not at all the same as an inaccurate report. Of course, it is sometimes the case that excluding facts can lead to a distorted or misleading account of events. But this is not always or necessarily so. Some facts may not be pertinent to the purposes of a particular author’s account of an event, so excluding those facts does not falsify the account.
(5) Measuring the truth of the Gospels against other historical records of antiquity is a delicate and difficult matter. Whether from new archeological finds or from literary monuments long possessed, historical data sometimes present biblical interpreters with conflicting testimony about the past. These are the difficulties that often make headlines, with skeptics claiming that the story of the Bible (or the Catholic Church’s interpretation of it) has been disproved by the facts of history.
Sensationalists who make such claims tend to overlook two important points. First, the facts of a given case are always bound up with one’s interpretation of those facts. The objective evidence of historical and archeological study requires a subjective assessment of that evidence. The same is true with biblical interpretation. As a result, some of the contradictions said to exist between the Gospels and other ancient sources are, on closer inspection, more apparent than real. That is because some (or all) of the relevant evidence may have been given a faulty interpretation. Second, many interpreters are guilty of a methodological bias against the veracity of Scripture.
Thus, when a contradiction is found between a Gospel passage and another historical document, the latter is often given the benefit of the doubt while the biblical testimony is declared erroneous. At the very least, it should be kept in mind that ancient writers, being fallible human beings, were prone to make mistakes and to experience slips of the memory, just as we are today. Only the Scriptures can be treated as absolutely reliable when properly interpreted.
(6) Finally, it must be said that humility and patience are called for when dealing with problematic passages in the Gospels. Humility is always essential when handling Scripture, for it is the inspired witness to God’s love for us and the revealed record of his will for our lives. It is not our business to stand in judgment over the written word; rather, it is the word that stands in judgment over us. Likewise, patience is needed when wrestling with interpretive challenges and working toward solutions. Difficulties are not in the Bible by some oversight of God’s Providence. They are opportunities to submit our minds to the mystery of his revelation and to trust that all things find their answer in him.
I’ve taken several courses myself - As your son knows, the books were written at different times by different people, based on oral transmission of accounts and stories. There are bound to be discrepancies, but that should not affect our faith in the basics.
Even if inspired by God, and written in good faith, every word is not necessarily literally accurate.
This book compares every single parallel passage in the Gospels and tackles every so-called discrepancy with a pro-Catholic approach. All parallel passages are lined up side by side in an easy-to-use manner. amazon.com/gp/aw/d/1511608129/ref=mp_s_a_1_8?qid=1441392828&sr=8-8&pi=AC_SX110_SY165_QL70&keywords=John+Litteral&dpPl=1&dpID=51imXWcXzHL&ref=plSrch
How the Holy Spirit worked in the Gospel writers, we don’t know the answer to that. The authors didn’t take dictation from the Spirit, word for word. There was a human element involved, it wasn’t totally spiritual, and being human they all saw things a little differently for the most part. There were extreme similarities between some of the authors in certain parts of their Gospels, leading us to believe that some may have copied almost word for word from one of the others. I’m pretty sure most all discrepencies can be accounted for by taking the human element into consideration. One thing for sure, it is an interesting mystery on how the Spirit worked not only through the NT writers, but the OT as well.
It appears that the course he chose and the “text” being used is perfect for an agnostic. I find it difficult to understand how the Ehrman book (which I have read) could be THE text for a religious study course. At best it could be used along with several other texts, but on its own it is giving a very one-sided view of scripture. Balance is needed here. Unless this is just one part of the course and other topics will be covered, and other source materials used.
Thank you all for your information and suggested readings. They are most appreciated and helpful. God bless you
I checked out the courses that Brent Landau teaches and the only one listing the Ehrman book as a text or resource is titled “Debating the Bible in the 21st Century.” The course description lists seven texts, plus additional resource material, so “Jesus, Interrupted” is one of those seven. Based on the title and description, the course focuses on current debates about scripture and related topics, especially “hot topics” like bible inerrancy, evolution vs. creation, etc. If this is the course your son is taking, It is definitely not an introductory course about scripture, Christianity, or religion in general.
But it could be a quite interesting and challenging course.
As a conservative (at least in the liturgical sense) Catholic, I have to say I am a big fan of Bart Ehrman. I’ve read 4-5 of his books, though not the one you mention. But he basically says the same thing different ways, so I don’t think that’s a problem.
Bart presents evidence of things like textual differences, additions, subtractions, etc. and also contradictions (different genealogies for Jesus, different accounts of the events on Easter Sunday, etc.). Bart (and apparently you and your son) gets all upset by all this, and it’s one of the main reasons Bart became an atheist.
I think the correct response to all this is what Garry Wills says (“What the Gospels Meant”). The response? “So what?” If you’ve read Bart, you realize he’s constantly quoting and referring to Raymond Brown (Catholic priest and Biblical scholar) and Walter Ong (Jesuit). Bart does this so much that I personally think Bart would make a good Catholic. The point is that Bart, Raymond Brown, me, your son, the professor in Austin, etc. see the exact same evidence. We agree on the evidence. But our conclusions are different. If you believe that the Bible must be the word-for-word literal “Word of God” than you have a problem. If you believe–as Catholics should–that, as Dei Verbum says, the Bible is “the truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake our our salvation,” you don’t have a problem at all. In other words, for example, what “truth” were the four Gospels trying to convey about Easter morning? Who arrived at the tomb first? Who appeared to the first to arrive? What these people had for breakfast or what clothes they were wearing? Nope. All irrelevant. The “truth” is simply that Jesus rose from the dead, and not just symbolically or spiritually, but bodily. The other stuff fills out a nice story, but as with any account of a traffic accident, different witnesses remember different details and they remember things differently. That doesn’t mean the accident didn’t take place. And, as a matter of fact, if police find that four different witnesses are telling the exact same story, they assume those witnesses are colluding. It’s when they differ in the details that the police assume they’re telling the truth. Likewise with the Gospels. So the details are different–so what?
As far as textual errors, additions, subtractions, etc. you have to look at the bigger picture. Which came first, the Church or the New Testament? Clearly, the Church–at Pentecost. The first books of the NT were the epistles of Paul, about 20 years later. So it’s the Church that validates and interprets the NT, not the other way around. And one key principle is that there is a coherent overall message in the NT; so any book that contradicts that message can’t be true revelation (so much for the Gnostic Gospels). So if the early Church accepted a certain verse that turns out to be a copyists addition or gloss, it’s accepted. If we were editing texts today we might leave that verse out–as Protestant scholars have done with many verses. But that misses the point: What is “the truth”? Are we restricted to a strict textual definition? No.
I think if your son understands all that, he will be just fine.
I would say that the Bible is a very difficult to understand book and was never meant to be read by most people. Because most people won’t put in the effort to read inspired commentators on the Bible (such as the Church Fathers and Doctors) to understand what the Bible (OT/NT/Gospels/Etc) is really saying.
But if he’s going to read the Bible, instead of reading a commentary written by some random atheist/agnostic he should read the appropriate section of the Catena Aurea. It is online.
When a crime is committed or an accident takes place, a number of witnesses or suspects are questioned while a detective listens to their stories.
If they all tell the same exact story, same exact conclusions and same exact view point the detective will know that they huddled together to get their “story” straight. The detective will know that they are lying.
Jesus spoke to many different people in many different places. The writers of the Gospels who wrote and spoke about him told the truth from their perspective. I would be far more skeptical of the truth of the Gospels if each person told the story of Christ exactly the same way with no discrepancies. I would know they got together to get their story straight.
When I teach about the differences in the Gospels I bring in four different art works on the same biblical passage. Same subject , but different views by different people. I never had trouble reconciling these differences. I’ve been to many family dinners where each relative has a completely different view of an event.
Different art about the same subject never occurred to me! Great idea, and one everyone can immediately understand.
It only matters for those who hold to the doctrine of sola scriptura, not for Catholics. Because the faith is known and understood apart from Sacred Scripture for the ancient churches, via Sacred Tradition. As important as Scripture is to us, the catechism teaches:
**108 Still, the Christian faith is not a “religion of the book.” Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living”. If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, “open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures.”
It’s the role of the Church to interpret Scripture, to understand and teach on the nature and will of God for man via the revelation He’s entrusted her with.