When we read the four gospels, often we find that the words of Jesus are different across the gospels even when they are reporting the same event. How can this be, if the Bible is God’s Word?
Does divine inspiration mean that all the sayings of Jesus are reproduced by each author in exactly the same wording? As we look at the Synoptic Gospels ( Matthew, Mark, and Luke), we see that many times the words of Jesus are different for the same event or parable.
First of all, in that time period the use of paraphrase, even for memorization of sayings, was considered acceptable in recounting an event. Rather than the exact quotations required today, they could vary the wording and detail level, as long as the essence of the account was preserved. In the Greek and Hebrew, quotation marks did not even exist. As long as the “gist” of the saying was preserved, the saying was considered preserved according to first century custom. It just isn’t fair to hold first century text to twenty first century standards.
Another possible reason for word variation is what bible scholar Craig Blomberg calls a “representational change”. An example of this is found in the parable of the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31, Mark 4:3, Luke 13:19). Luke’s account has the mustard plant growing in a garden, rather than a field. Believe it or not, some jump to the conclusion that this means that historical details didn’t matter to the writers and they were playing fast and loose with the facts, and so not writing about a real event. But this conclusion is quite unwarranted. First of all, for the main message of the parable it would not seem that this discrepancy would be important at all. Historians sure wouldn’t discount it on that basis. But there may be something else going on.
Of the three writers, Luke is most likely writing to a non-Jewish audience in several instances including this one. As Blomberg points out, Jewish law did not allow mustard seeds to be sown in a garden, but Greeks and Romans commonly grew mustard in their gardens. Luke used a representation of the mustard plant that a non-Jewish audience could better relate to, without losing the main point of the parable. And so we learn a little bit more about the way the Holy Spirit inspires the writers to tailor the message to the specific audience. We also see that this inspiration does not work like an office copier, nor does it need to.
Stay tuned for more posts on “contradictions”, as we clear up more misconceptions about the biblical text.