In a number of places, the Bible contains different accounts of the same event that seem to contradict each other. However, if you are willing to assume that these contradictions are not actually contradictions, it is usually possible to figure out an explanation that reconciles them. And sometimes these reconciliations reveal a richer story with deeper lessons than we could have got from the individual stories. But can we rely on these stories?
Consider the case of the thief on the cross that I talked about yesterday. The traditional story would be that this thief began by mocking Jesus, and was so wonderfully changed by what he saw of Jesus’ patient suffering on the cross that he recognised Jesus’ power and innocence, repented, and was saved. I’m sure plenty of powerful sermons have been preached on this. I’ve even seen a 96 page novella about the thief’s experience, entitled Heaven, How I Got Here (Amazon).
Unfortunately, there is nowhere in the Bible that says this. Not one place. This message comes solely from the reconciliation of otherwise conflicting records in Matthew/Mark and Luke. These two separate stories are taken to be two halves of a greater, unified story. And, as I pointed out yesterday, this isn’t the only possible reconciliation, and I think it has textual issues. Should we put confidence in such an uncertain story?
I’m not usually a fan of arguments from silence, but this seems a good place for one. If Matthew, Mark, or Luke were aware of this unified story, why didn’t they tell it? Consider Luke in particular: Surely the full story would make the death-bed repentance much more powerful, and Luke’s forgiving Lord much more forgiving? Which is the better story? That Jesus was able to forgive and save someone who only hours before was mocking him? Or that Jesus was able to forgive and save someone whose only recorded action was to recognise Jesus’ authority when no-one else did?
Today, we are used to living in a world where the complete Biblical text is readily available in paper and online. We expect to be able to compare the different books, reference specific verses, and link texts from different books without any trouble. But this is not the context the Bible grew in.
Luke couldn’t reasonably expect that all his readers would have Matthew and Mark sitting in front of them ready to weave a compelling message. He had to expect that many would read his gospel and only his gospel. It had to stand alone. So if there was an important message about the thief on the cross, he would have to tell it, not just leave readers to deduce it.
This applies to other methods of reconciliation as well. For example, a couple of techniques I know of are:
- Put a gap inside one story, big enough to fit the second story. This is what happens with the birth of Christ.
- Assume that stories with some similarities and some differences are actually different events. For example, how many times was Jesus anointed by women? How many times did he clear the temple?
And here are a few conclusions we might draw from other Biblical reconciliations:
I’ve heard plenty of speculation on what caused Mary and Joseph to stay on in Bethlehem and move from the stable to their own house. Why not just return to Nazareth? Maybe they saw God’s hand at work and expected the prophecies to be fulfilled in Bethlehem? But all this comes from the reconciliation. It is much clearer to read Matthew as stating they had always lived in Bethlehem, and Luke as stating they returned to Nazareth early.
It is said the seven last sayings of Jesus makes the perfect number. But that list of sayings only comes from the reconciliation. No gospel record has more than three of those sayings.
If Jesus was anointed by women three times, as some state, it could show how popular his message was with women. But the argument can only be made from the reconciliation. Each of the gospels records only one anointing, and it seems at least as likely that they were different records of the same story, placed for whatever reason at different points in Jesus’ ministry.
I think this is an instance of what I call Deep Bible Study: searching through the Bible for deep connections that a novice wouldn’t see, and then drawing important conclusions from the connections rather than from the texts. In Christadelphian parlance, it was “Letting Scripture interpret Scripture”. The process even has its own theme verse, drawn from the ever-reliable quote mine that is Proverbs:
It is the glory of God to conceal things,
but the glory of kings is to search things out.
(Proverbs 25:2, ESV)
It can be exciting finding connections and seeing insights that no-one else has seen. But I think I was always a little more skeptical of this process than many, because it was never clear how confident I could be in the conclusions I drew. I saw plenty of conclusions which looked like they were a house of cards tottering on uncertain foundations, and I didn’t want to join them.
Taken to its full extreme, the approach relies on a version of inspiration that is very much word-for-word: every word and every connection in the Bible is there for a reason, and we just have to keep searching till we find that reason. But I don’t think this matches what we see of the Bible.
Even if you believe the Bible was inspired by God, it seems clear that that inspiration allowed each author to write in a different style and with a different vocabulary for a different purpose. This means connecting different authors is more difficult than just spotting a word or a similarity or a harmonisation and speculating based on the assumption you guessed right.
It also seems clear that originally the texts were written independently and read independently. I’m not sure the original authors could have expected their readers to have access to other books to build a composite picture from them (in fact, the group of accepted books wasn’t even finalised then).
So, whether it’s a subtle reconciliation of conflicting accounts or an interesting connection between different parts of scripture, I think it’s worth considering a few questions:
- How much does your new interpretation rely on the texts themselves, and how much does it rely on the connections you draw being correct?
- Are there other interpretations of these passages? How will you determine which interpretation is correct?
- How much do you want to take the risk of making wrong connections and thus drawing an important message that never actually existed?
- If it is an important point, why did none of the original authors make it? Were they unaware of it? Did they think it unimportant? Was it left deliberately hidden for you to find it?