From the perspective of faith, the four Gospels—like all books of the Bible—are divinely inspired, and this has implications for their truth and reliability. According to the Second Vatican Council:
To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.
Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred scriptures (Dei Verbum 11).
Since, under divine inspiration, the Evangelists wrote “whatever [God] wanted written, and no more,” whatever the Gospels affirm is “affirmed by the Holy Spirit” and so teaches the truth “without error.” The Gospels are thus completely reliable.
This doesn’t mean that what the Evangelist is affirming is always obvious, but it does mean that if we have properly understood what the Evangelist is saying, God guarantees that it’s true.
Not everyone shares the faith perspective, so we should consider how far the reliability of the Gospels also can be shown from the perspective of reason, which can lead us to faith.
In the wave of skeptical scholarship that began a little more than two hundred years ago, everything was questioned and challenged. Skeptics came to hold that the Gospels were written by anonymous individuals, long after the events they portray, and that the stories and sayings of Jesus were the product of long periods of oral transmission in an unreliable game of “telephone.”
There are reasons to reject each of these claims. The Gospels were written by the men whose names are on them, they were written quite early, and they are based on eyewitness or near-eyewitness testimony. But we have additional ways of showing the reliability of the Gospels from the reason perspective.
The synoptic problem helps, because it shows us how the Evangelists treated their sources. When Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel, they didn’t radically alter the substance of individual sayings or stories. They polished the language, but they carefully preserved the substance. The fact that there are so many passages with near word-for-word agreement shows how careful they were with Mark. And if they were careful with this source, that gives us evidence that they were careful with other sources they would have used.
We also have evidence that Mark was careful. In the first century, one of the great controversies in the Church was whether Christians had to obey the Mosaic Law, which would mean that certain foods were unclean to eat, as some early Christians claimed (Rom. 14:1, Col. 2:16).
It would have been convenient to have a saying from Jesus that settled the matter, and if the Evangelists had felt free to make up sayings of Jesus, they would have done so. But we find Mark doing something very different. In a discussion with the Pharisees over whether it is necessary to eat with clean hands, Mark records Jesus as saying:
“Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean) (7:18-19).
The parenthetical statement is an inference Mark draws from what Jesus said. If nothing that enters a man makes him unclean, then that applies to food as well as dirt that might be on his hands. But Mark doesn’t put this inference on Jesus’ lips. He preserves Jesus’ saying intact and draws an inference from it rather than modifying what Jesus said.
The Book of Acts is another boon in assessing the reliability of the Evangelists. Acts covers a much wider span of time (about thirty years) and ranges all over the Greco-Roman world, meaning it gives us many more claims that can be checked. When this is done, we find that Luke was extraordinarily accurate.
British scholar William Ramsay did a study of Acts—expecting it to be unreliable—only to conclude that “Acts may justly be quoted as a trustworthy historical authority” and “Luke is a historian of the first rank. . . . In short, this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians” (222).
But what about all those “contradictions” skeptics claim are in the Gospels? It is important to know how to address these claims.
In the first place, the alleged contradictions are never about major matters. Skeptics are not able to point to passages saying Jesus was a Greek rather than a Jew, that Joseph was his biological father, or that he was stoned rather than crucified. Invariably, the alleged contradictions are minor. Thus, even if there were discrepancies among the Gospels, they would be on lesser matters, and their substance would still be correct.
However, it turns out that the alleged, minor discrepancies are not contradictions. They might appear so to skeptics reading the Gospels as if they were written according to modern conventions. But when we examine the way ancient literature was written, we find they are not.
The Second Vatican Council points out the need to study the way ancient authors wrote:
Seeing that, in Sacred Scripture, God speaks through men in human fashion, it follows that the interpreter of sacred scriptures, if he is to ascertain what God has wished to communicate to us, should carefully search out the meaning which the sacred writers really had in mind, that meaning which God had thought well to manifest through the medium of their words (Dei Verbum 12).
Here we will look at three ancient writing practices that can trip up modern readers: selection, paraphrase, and sequencing.
Selection deals with what material an author chooses to include. Because books were fantastically expensive and the Evangelists wanted to keep their works small enough to fit on a single scroll, they had to choose which details to include and which to omit. John even alludes to the fact that he knew much more than he was able to write (21:25).
The Evangelists make choices about what details to mention and omit, and sometimes skeptics portray these as contradictions. For example, Mark 10:46-52 records how Jesus healed blind Bartimaeus at Jericho, although Matthew 9:27-31 indicates that he healed two blind men on that occasion.
This is not a contradiction. Mark simply focuses on Bartimaeus, whereas Matthew mentions the other blind man. This has been compared to how witnesses to a car crash may report different details without contradicting each other.
Paraphrase is using different words to convey the same meaning. We do this constantly in everyday speech. We communicate the gist of what someone said to us without using his exact words. But in written works, we don’t expect to see paraphrases put between quotation marks. This is partly due to the fact that we live in a world of recording devices, and it’s much easier to check what someone said and give his words exactly.
But they didn’t have recorders in the ancient world. They also didn’t have quotation marks (those are added by Bible translators), and so ancient audiences didn’t expect authors to always give exact wording. They expected authors to accurately give the gist of what someone would have said on an occasion, but not the precise wording.
For example, Matthew gives the opening of the Lord’s Prayer like this: “Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (6:9-10), whereas Luke gives it in a shorter form: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come” (11:2).
Ancient audiences would regard this not as a contradiction, but as the kind of paraphrase they would normally expect. Both authors preserve the same meaning; it’s just that the wording of the prayer is slightly different.
Sequencing deals with the order in which an author presents his material. This can be done different ways. Sometimes an author may present material in a strict chronological sequence, but other times, he may arrange it by topic.
This can trip up modern readers because we live in an age in which records are often kept about precisely when things occurred. In the ancient world, this usually wasn’t the case. People would remember what happened, but not the exact date. As a result, ancient audiences didn’t expect an author to keep things in strictly chronological order unless he said that is what he was doing.
Thus, when Matthew collects different sayings of Jesus and arranges them into speeches by topic, such as in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), the original audience would not have understood him as claiming that Jesus literally delivered all these sayings, in this order, on a single occasion. For them, the important thing would have been that Jesus said them, not when he said them.
An awareness that the Evangelists—like other ancient authors—may use topical rather than chronological sequencing thus resolves alleged discrepancies regarding chronology in the Gospels.
Ultimately, there are no contradictions in the Gospels, but showing this requires us to understand what the Evangelists were and weren’t affirming, which requires a knowledge of how ancient literature worked.