And three different ways
Looking at the books of the Gospel named Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, I have to say there seem to be a lot of differences among them (some I’ve noted in earlier posts), and some differences are very small, found in corresponding texts, seemingly intentionally made, change-making just for the purpose of making a change.
Usually people say these are differences of opinion among the different authors. (But I’m not sure there are different authors.) Or people say texts have been edited. Or errors crept in. I don’t know of anyone who has suggested as I have that the differences are there to catch the attention of the reader and propel the reader into some sort of spiritual experience, perhaps a sense of otherworldliness. Perhaps reading the Gospel is supposed to be an exercise to increase awareness in the reader.
I believe the four books of the Gospel were designed to be read together and yes, Mark is the first book of the Gospel because it says it is the first in Mark 1:1, and that is why I have listed it first above. John is obviously quite different from the other three books, perhaps written by the same author at a later stage of life, and so may really be the last book of the Gospel.
It’s hard to get around the argument that the four books differ just because they are four different opinions of four different individuals, but what if the same apparent change-making for the sake of making change happens within the same book? It seems to in the book of Acts and that tends to reinforce my theory (based only on my own very subjective impressions) that the change-making is rather a style of writing, and is intentional, not just various differences of opinion.
Check out Acts, where Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is described three times, three different ways. Are these differences intentional on the part of the original author or were changes introduced by editors, perhaps malicious editors, during the centuries?
Compare Acts 9:3-9, Acts 22:6-11, Acts 26:12-18 (NRSV) one click:
9:7 “The men who were traveling with him stood speechless”
26:14 “When we had all fallen to the ground”
That wouldn’t be a contradiction if the men stood up after falling down. But what about the following?
9:7 “The men . . . . heard the voice but saw no one.”
22:9 “Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me”
Does your version show you this difference? The NIV does not, smoothing out the text to read “sound” rather than “voice” in 9:7, and “understand the voice” rather than “hear the voice” in 22:9, eliminating the contradiction:
9:7 “The men . . . . heard the sound but did not see anyone.”
22:9 “My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.”-a-
Many of the translations at Biblegateway opt for “did not understand” rather than the contradictory “did not hear.”-b- I would prefer that translators translate rather than harmonize the texts. However, I don’t know Greek and maybe both meanings are acceptable in this case?? Is “did not understand” a literal translation, a paraphrase, an interpretation, or wishful thinking?
I was just about to move on, when I read this in the Analysis1 about the chapter 22 passage, “For the differences between this account and 9:4ff. there is no grammatical explanation.” Whoa! I want to insert here that I never thought I would find an admission of “differences” in the orthodox Analysis. But they don’t specify what the differences are.
For what it’s worth, the Google translator (modern Greek) tells me that the verb form in question in 22:9, “ηκουσαν” (WHNU), means “heard.” I tried wading through some more Greek in my dictionaries but Greek verbs are really Greek to me. If I found the correct verb, then Thayer’s dictionary does allow both meanings – “hear” and “understand.” But it seems to me that dictionaries give whatever meanings that the context and tradition will support.
Doesn’t it just raise another question to say that Paul heard the sound or voice and understood it and everyone there heard it, but everyone other than Paul didn’t understand it? Why couldn’t they understand? This might be only a very slight improvement over a contradiction. Whether there is a contradiction or not, the differences discussed above qualify as change-making in my opinion.
Change-making does not need to result in a contradiction and may be inconsequential; for example, from “noon” (22:6) to “midday” (26:13), or a change in verb structure, or these slight alterations (NRSV):
9:5 “The reply came, ‘I am Jesus’”
22:8 “Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth’” (footnote “the Nazorean”)
9:3 “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him”
22:6 “a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me”
26:13 “a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions”
Many people will not object to having their Bible texts translated to give the texts a smooth consistency, as easy to read as the local newspaper. These people just want to be soothed and get a warm-fuzzy feeling from reading or listening to the texts, not be jolted into greater awareness.
Personally, I think all three road-to-Damascus passages in Acts are distasteful, making Jesus seem to cruelly blind Paul temporarily, something that would be completely out of character for Jesus – exemplar of divine goodness in humanness in the Gospel narratives. He wouldn’t do it. Charitably, perhaps we can interpret the passages in Acts as the author’s way of saying Paul realized his inner lack of vision?? Or the biblical author writes something questionable about Jesus as a way of signaling the reader that there is something in the passage and in the corresponding passages in the trilogy that awaits a deeper examination – an exercise for the reader??
Odd that all saw the bright light (22:9) but only Paul was harmed by it. These passages do not soothe, just raise issues.
Interestingly, Paul himself in his letters does make reference to his receiving a revelation (Galations 1:12 and perhaps 2Corinthians 12:1-7, latter may also be Paul’s revelation??), but he goes first to Arabia, then returns to Damascus (Galatians 1:17), so unknown why the author of Acts has Paul go straight to Damascus.
If there are contradictions among the three accounts in Acts (stood/fell, heard/not) these could be edits or errors of some sort, but one would normally expect that three accounts of the same event in the same book would be consistent. If they are not consistent, maybe it is intentional. Maybe it is a writing style designed to challenge you. It is at least a challenge to find a way to make them consistent.
Any deliberate change-making in the Gospel or Acts, forming inconsistencies or not, may be a way of the author(s) signaling the alert reader (as from one mind to another) that the work is a construction. And we know it is a construction because of the numerous references to verses from the Hebrew Bible. (Is nearly every phrase in the Gospel borrowed or adapted from somewhere in the Hebrew Bible or non-canonical texts from the pre-Christian era??) Such an elaborate construction is a metaphor for some truth, only partly perceived, “in a mirror dimly.” The purpose of the construction, I guess, was to reform the practices and beliefs of those in the Pagan world by substituting a new Savior for the one they had.
By the way, that was a quote from 1Corinthians 13:12, “in a mirror dimly,” (“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”), and a NRSV footnote lets me know the Greek really says “in a riddle” instead of “dimly.” Yes, life is a riddle.
I am fortunate to have a received a gift of a Synopsis2 of the Gospel so that, if I want to, I can compare corresponding verses taken from among the four books, all on the same page. Doing this, and being impressed by the pervasive change-making, is probably how I came to question if the Gospel is in its essence, at least in part, a riddle.
I will add that when you are able to imagine a scene three different ways or more, then you will be able to appreciate how each moment is pregnant, incarnated with infinite possibilities.
In our riddle-existence we have at least the illusion of this freedom.
I decided that this post could benefit from an example of change-making in the Gospel and resolved that if I could find an example immediately and easily just by flipping open my Synopsis, 2 randomly, then I would include it, otherwise, I wouldn’t exert myself and just end the post here.
This is what I found:
Compare Mark 5:21-43, Matthew 9:18-26, Luke 8:40-56 (RSV).
Mark: “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”
Matthew: “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.”
Luke: “He besought him to come to his house for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying”
Obviously contradictory. There are many other differences among these passages, not all contradictory. Differences of opinion, inadvertent changes, or making changes for the sake of making change?
Mark: “the child is not dead but sleeping” . . . . “Little girl, I say to you, arise”
Matthew: “the girl is not dead but sleeping” . . . . “and the girl arose”
Luke: “she is not dead but sleeping” . . . . “Child, arise” (RSV)
Did Jesus tell a lie when he said “she is not dead but sleeping”? Maybe not. Maybe Jesus was teaching some spiritual truth or maybe he knew how to look at any given situation three different ways or more.
Upon reflection, I realize that the Gospel does not tell us if the girl actually died prior to her “arising;” only that various story characters thought it was so – the mourners, the messenger(s), and presumably her parents. The Gospel writer(s) do not try to force us to a conclusion, only take us through a process of discovery. Various interpretations are possible. It’s not dogma – just the feeling of freedom.
Can we ever have true freedom? Isn’t the future limited by the unchangeable and static past? The biblical stories of Paul’s revelation and the girl’s arising would seem to indicate otherwise with their shifting story lines. Maybe the past is just as fluid and filled with potential as the future?? Who could prove it’s not? Too much like science fiction?
The Analysis1 tells me that the Greek verb form that Jesus is made to speak is “be sleeping” (Mark 5:39, Matthew 9:24). Jesus does not say “she sleeps;” but rather, he uses a verb form that denotes her state of being, a state which is not just in that moment but also ongoing, extending into the past and presumably into at least the near future, and he says what has been for some time up until that moment – “she is sleeping.” Jesus wades into the stream of being and shifts its course by “believing,” that is, he re-defines the present moment and also the past moments that lead up to it. He can choose from among an infinitude of pasts and futures to select a past and future to accompany his definition of the present moment. And so, “she is sleeping” becomes the absolute literal truth, not an allegory. Too much like science fiction? Of course I’m not sure that this is what the biblical author is trying to convey, only sure that I have been invited to feast on the words.
Is the change from Mark’s “do not fear, only believe” to Luke’s “do not fear; only believe, and she shall be well” (RSV) an example of change-making or is it a clarification?
And how could the girl’s wellness depend on the believing of others?? Unless all are one in some way??
If we all believed in peace and lived what we believed, would peace come to this world and would we be able to make this world a place fit to live in that had always been peaceful? Is it worth a try?
Or maybe constant bliss generated by a shifting reality is what we have escaped from, and we get to experience the “relief” of having no control whatsoever over the relentless appearance of new problems to solve, of having only a single life per person at a time, of not knowing everything, of being mortal, and of being an individual person – not subject to the “believing” of other facets of the same entity. Maybe a time-bound ark with a fixed past and an uncertain, limited future would be the best of all possible worlds for us, and to be saved from such would be the last thing we’d want??
However, I think I could tolerate constant bliss.
Perhaps we are not allowed to know the purpose of life or the nature of reality because if we knew, any sense of freedom that we had would be gone. And so what is the point of me trying to write about something I can’t know?
Well, enough of that.
I still think it is possible that the differences among corresponding accounts in the Gospel are not the testimonies of four different writers with varying opinions, but like Acts’ “Road to Damascus” triad, perhaps a literary device to challenge and get certain reactions from the reader.
The King James and Confraternity versions have page headers on their Gospel books to show they were written by “St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John.” Of course no such authorship is known with any certainty by scholars. (If you grow up with such headings can you maybe not notice how inappropriate it is until many decades later?) I suspect that Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Jude, Peter, and James are just convenient titles for various books/letters.
Paul, I suppose, is the name of an actual author in the New Testament. Silvanus is named as someone “helping” Peter to write (1Peter 5:12, see also 2Peter 3:1 “my second letter”) and Silvanus may be the actual author of both books named Peter. Since there are obvious similarities between 2Peter 2 and Jude, perhaps Silvanus wrote Jude also. Silvanus may be the same person as “Silas” as the names are related (TNIV footnote for 1Peter 5:12). A person named Tertius wrote Romans (Romans 16:22) even though the letter is supposedly from Paul (1:1) – which is the real author? People who link a Luke author to Acts because both books address a person named “Theophilus” (meaning god-love), ignore that Romans is addressed “to all in Rome who are loved by God” (Romans 1:7, see also 1Thessalonians 1:4, “brothers and sisters loved by God” (TNIV)). So “Theophilus” doesn’t prove anything. I would not be surprised to find out that large portions of the New Testament were written by Paul, Silvanus, and/or Tertius.
Because of the enmity between Paul and Peter, it does not seem too likely that Peter or any persons close to him (such as John or other apostles who had actually known Jesus), wrote something that was valued and retained by the Pauline Christians from whom all modern Christian churches, and their sacred texts, are derived; except perhaps in the case of Silas (aka “Silvanus”??) or others who switched to Paul. I have to admit that Luke could possibly have been an actual author in the New Testament, because Luke is named as a follower of Paul. But Luke is not named as an author so maybe he’s not an author. I would not be surprised to find out that Silas or Tertius (Paul’s friends) or someone else close to Paul wrote the Gospel and Acts. After all, Paul says it is “my Gospel” and “our Gospel” (Romans 2:16, 16:25, 2Corinthians 4:3 (NRSV)). I wouldn’t think Paul himself wrote the Gospel and Acts, at least not without major help, because his writing style (in those works attributed to him) is meandering by comparison.
Hebrews would seem to be too sophisticated to be Paul’s and Revelation seems to be very different from any other book of the New Testament. The deutero-Paul epistles came later from the Pauline group?? But again, not likely much, if any, of the New Testament was written by the original group that actually knew Jesus, although the Pauline writers may have had original materials from that group they used for reference, but likely would not have preserved something they were superseding. But did Silas (writing as “Silvanus”??) ever meet Jesus? – unknown.
The point of all this is that there is not going to be much written for the purpose of expressing “differences of opinion” coming out of the same organization – Paul’s organization. There are differences, yes, but these don’t appear to me, for the most part, to be actual differences of opinion.
One thing these Pauline authors all agree on is how they feel about Peter – he is disrespected each time there is an account about him, or at least I have yet to find something positive written about him. That kind of carping could hardly be the position of Peter’s followers!
The current fad of saying that each book of the Gospel was a product of a particular church community, whether founded by a “John,” “Mark,” “Matthew,” or “Luke” is not very appealing to me, although I did buy into it briefly. The Gospel books seem to me to be the product of an individual writing, or a few individuals writing together at the direction of one person and doing intentional change-making over extensive areas of text, not several community committees writing independently. You know what sort of documents come out of committees – the US Constitution, for example. The Gospel is not like that.
Much can be missed by not reading corresponding New Testament passages side-by-side. I suspect much can be learned from cross-references that point to the Hebrew Bible. Does the Hebrew Bible set the stage in any way for “change-making” or engage in riddles?
Why didn’t the biblical authors write up the story of Jesus like a 21st century newspaper reporter? Well, they weren’t 21st century people. And they wanted to express something ineffable, mysterious, and sacred – so wove in riddles and shifting narratives. They wanted readers to have an experience, not a history lesson.
1 ‘Analysis’ – An Analysis Of The Greek New Testament; A Grammatical Analysis Of The Greek New Testament, Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor, unabridged revised edition in one volume, Biblical Institute Press, Rome, 1981.
2 ‘Synopsis’ – Synopsis of the Four Gospels [there is only one Gospel, four books], edited by Kurt Aland, third edition, United Bible Societies, printed in Stuttgart, Germany by Biblia Druck, 1979.