I was in a band in college. I’d played with a couple friends near the end of high school, but when I was living in San Diego, I met two guys who needed a bass player. I was clearly under-skilled to be playing with them, but I learned my parts. I had a steep learning curve, however, and I often was the one throwing off the song by either playing out of tune or in the wrong key. I garnered a few dirty looks—when everyone else is pulling his weight, it’s a drag for to be the guy throwing everything off.
In my defense, I wasn’t doing it on purpose, although that didn’t matter: the song was sounding different than intended, as in I was playing some different version. To most people this sounded bad. As in wrong.
The Gospel also provides its share of seemingly “off” notes. Specifically, elements that offer different or skewed accounts of events. And these differences are significant. I don’t know that anyone should say the Gospels presented incorrectly moments of Jesus’ life, but what I will say is that how they depict his final hour is VERY revealing, in part because of how different these versions are.
Whereas Matthew and Mark report that Jesus expressed doubt in his ninth hour (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34), Luke has Jesus offer his body to God (23:46). John provides yet a different take of this moment. Jesus acknowledges that he is about to die, and since he accepts that the prophesy is about to be fulfilled with his death, he says he’s thirsty. Somebody soaks a sponge and wets his lips, and then, satisfied, he says “it is finished” and dies (19:30).
Why the difference?
Matthew and Mark offer the most drama (and interesting that these two share the same account). Perhaps it shows that even Jesus had his doubts but then changes his mind by being resurrected? Luke seems the most commanding—Jesus is in control, offering his spirit to God. This would instill trust in his followers? John, however, offers a mere acceptance, a relinquishing of his body, as if, after an exhausting journey he can now rest.
I don’t know how to mesh these three versions, as they differ too widely to complement one another.
The first three Gospels also don’t paint a favorable impression of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. These are the guys who were so threatened by and jealous of Jesus that they plotted to have him crucified. Evil, right? But is there a bit more to the story? The Gospel of John contains a detail that allows for a slightly different read on their actions: they were just helping fulfill the prophecy and thereby allowing Jesus to attain his true place in heaven. This feels problematic for a number of reasons, which I’ll get to in a minute.
At a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the chief priests and Pharisees plot to kill Jesus. Among them, Caiaphas, speaks up: “You do not realize that it is better that one man die for the people than the whole nation perish” (11:50). He had prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation as well as all children of God (11:51-2). This is included to justify why they plotted to take Jesus’ life.
On one hand, according to the first three Gospels, we are supposed to see the wrong in their decision to push for Jesus’ crucifixion. They were jealous, worried they would be marginalized, etc. It’s not a stretch to see what happened to this great leader as terrible, etc. But John offers an element that it was supposed to happen. Although all the Gospels contain Jesus’ prophesy, here we learn that the people in power had one as well. If so, should these priests be blamed or congratulated for bringing about the events that lead to Jesus’ death and resurrection? After all, without these events, Jesus would not have been able to die for man’s sins. This feels problematic—this makes it clear that this was the ONLY way people would get the message and could be “saved”? What would have happened to Christianity if Jesus hadn’t been crucified?
The priests are not the only figures whose depiction changes. Matthew and Mark offer a consistent portrait of Judas—he was greedy. Luke changes this to suggest that he was possessed by Satan. This softens the greed a bit—it wasn’t his fault, Satan made him do it. Is this meant to strike a sympathetic chord with the audience then? John perhaps anticipates this depiction. Although John echoes Satan’s role, this Gospel goes a step further: Judas was a thief. When questioning the use of expensive perfume on Jesus—it could have been sold and the money given to the poor—he is shown as shifty: “as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put in it” (12:6).
Perhaps being possessed would excuse his actions and so this new detail confirms, no, this guy was always bad news. He doesn’t just sell Jesus out, but is completely morally bankrupt. Being a thief speaks to a character flaw, not a momentary bad lapse in judgment.
So what picture of the life of Jesus do these four Gospels paint? They show a man called to undertake a monumental task and did so—for the most part—without complaint. Even if you choose not to believe the miracles—the healing by touch, resurrecting people, etc.—you can still see why people gravitated towards this man. In an age (then and perhaps now) when reason and common sense were not so abundant, he arrived to correct some outdated ways of thinking, challenging authority, and attempting to leave the world a better place than when he found it. For the people who choose to hold this image, they will probably discount a number of the variations that may seem to contradict one another. Still others will embrace these contradictions and write his life off completely.
I would say that the contradictions—in the grand scheme of things—shouldn’t detract from at least appreciating what one man can accomplish with words and deeds. If nothing else, the greatest insight he provided was reason and common sense. As demonstrated in Luke, he had little use for tradition (such as Old Testament laws against working on the Sabbath) if they impeded helping the needy (6:10). He understood that rules change and that they need to. The people who use him to defend gay bigotry would be well served to review his teachings.
Perhaps this is why the new Catholic Pope has stated that the Church needs to stop condemning homosexuals. Specifically, he added: “We have to find a new balance. Otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.” (http://nbcnews.to/1eUYBEZ)
It seems he is pointing to these four books and all the work that Jesus accomplished. I applaud his understanding of these Bible sections.