Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why does Jesus sound different in different Gospels?

I have had people (believers and non-believers alike) ask me before, “If the Bible is true, why does God seem different in different places?” This can be asked a number of ways, of course – the harsh “Old Testament God” is contrasted to the loving New Testament God; the Christology of Paul is compared to James; the different tellings of Jesus’ life in the Gospels are said to somehow indicate unreliability.

It is a common concern, though to be fair it generally held by those who have not studied the Scripture in much depth and much more rarely held by those who study it in detail. Still, I thought of this concern the other day when reading Dr. Kaufmann Kohler’s Jewish Theology. (My wife has banned me downloading Kindle books any more, since my habit is costing us a lot of money and we end up with early 20th century theologies of the Jewish religion.)

In this work, Kohler discusses at much length the different views that Jews have held regarding the divine inspiration of the Scriptures, concluding by describing the influence of the Holy Spirit on the Biblical authors, according to the ancient rabbis:

“Where [divine inspiration] is felt, it bursts forth as from a higher world, creating for itself its proper organs and forms. The rabbis portray God as saying to Israel, ‘Not I in My higher realm, but you with your human needs fix the form, the measure, the time, and the mode of expression for that which is divine.”

In the ancient Jewish view, you see, the divine spirit of God communicates unalterable Truth to the prophet, who with his own personality records the inspired statements of God. The message is God’s, and God protects its veracity; but the cultural context, the literary style, and the language and personality are reflective of the human author as well. Just as Jesus Christ took human form, so too does the Word of God express itself humanly, though without losing its divine nature or truth.

This ancient Jewish belief agrees quite well with Scriptural accounts of inspiration. Daniel heard the word of God but did not understand them (Dan 12:8-9); and Peter tells us that the writers were often unaware of what God was prophesying through them (1 Pet 1:10-11; 2 Pet 1:20-21). The Spirit of God comes upon the prophet (2 Chr 15:1, Matt 22:43) and catches them up in divine inspiration, but they remain in their senses, able to respond, question, observe, and (ultimately) to record the experience in their own unique voice.

This is why Matthew, being a serious-minded educated Jew, spends so much of his Gospel focused upon Messianic prophesy fulfillment and Jesus’ teachings on the Mosaic Law. This is why Luke, being a physician and a Gentile, spends so much of his two-volume work (Luke/Acts) trying to get a chronological narrative of the universality of Jesus as savior. This is why Paul, highly educated in both Greek and Jewish philosophy, develops such deep theological descriptions. This is why John, raised on the apocalyptic prophesies of Daniel and Ezekiel, uses the same literary form to describe his Revelation. This is why Jeremiah’s prophesies and Isaiah’s prophesies and Hosea’s prophesies all tell God’s same Story but through different voices. This is why the musician David writes songs and wise Solomon writes proverbs.

It has always been a mystery why God loves us so much. Why does He choose to work through us to evangelize each other? Why does He choose such humble vessels to share His words? Why does He choose the Biblical authors with their distinct personalities to serve as prophetic vessels of His holy word?

I don’t know why God chose to do it that way. Heck, I don’t know why He loves us (me) at all, so certainly I can’t see why He would trust such unreliable servants with His holy word. But He did.

And that is why the same Jesus can be discussed in the different books of the Bible and—though they all agree inerrantly on what He did and said—you get a slightly different tone or feeling from the different authors. Because they are different people seeing the same events. If I and my wife both witness my son’s karate lessons tonight and then write about it, there will be no disagreement between our statements; but likely she will mention things that I didn’t find noteworthy, or I will say something slightly differently than she would, or she would overhear something I did not and mention it, etc.

Of course, the irony in this discussion is that either way it goes, non-believers would have argued against the veracity of the Scripture. As Harvard law professor Simon Greenleaf, in his 1874 book The Testimony of the Evangelists Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice pointed out, if each of these different witnesses viewing the different events had said precisely the same words, then non-believers would have written them off as merely parroting someone and not having been there.

So either way you go, non-believers will find a reason to doubt Scripture. If Scripture tells the same events in different voices, they will say that the accounts do not match; if it tells them exactly the same way, then they will claim that there was collusion and untruth. Why? Because they reject Scripture not after some open-minded and logical textual investigation, but rather they reject the Scripture first, and then seek out a reason to do so afterward. Any reason will do for them at that point, and no matter how the Scripture turned out, they would have argued against it.

The reality is, as Paul noted in 2 Tim 3:16-17: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

Paul is clear here both about the divine inspiration of Scripture, and also in Scripture’s purpose: to teach us about God, correct us of our sinfulness, and train us to live righteously. And Paul says that all Scripture carries such weight. (Which is of interest, because many Jews at the time only gave such weight to Torah; Jesus and Paul give it to the entire Old Testament, cf. Mt 22:40 as well).

What Paul does not say — nor does anyone in the Bible — is that God removes the unique human voices of the individual authors and controls how they say things. No ancient Jew or Christian that I can find at least says so either. God was the author of the message, but He gave the message through humans with unique voices. Just as the same presidential address sounds slightly differently whether heard through your car radio or satellite television, so too does the content of the Scripture remain God-controlled even while its voice carries with it the cultural, linguistic, literary, and personality contexts of its authors.

Whenever I hear someone say question the different voices of the Bible, I ask them to try and imagine what they think God should have done differently? What would a better system have been? Do you say He should have come down from heaven and written in stone the most important part of His message? He did that (Exo 20). Do you say He should have appeared physically on Earth, performing great signs and miracles in order to show us the truth of His statements? Um, He did that too (see: the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). Should He have predicted things that have not yet happened and shown that they will come to pass? He did so throughout the Old Testament and also predicted the fall of the Temple in the Olivet Discourse (Mt 24), which happened in 70 AD. Put something inside each of us to tell us right from wrong? Yep, He did that, too (Deut 30:14, our consciences).

So what exactly else could He have done to share His word with you?

He gave us a conscience that tells us the difference between right and wrong… we ignore it.

He gave us His divinely inspired word in book form…we don’t read it.

He wrote His ten key laws in stone and gave them to His special people…they lost it.

He came down in human form and did miracles to prove Himself to us…we executed Him for it.

What else could He have done to share His word to you? At what point do you stop complaining that the Bible is not written the way that you personally wish He had written it, and instead realize that it is HIS story, not yours; He doesn’t need your agreement on how He should write it.

He has done everything we could possibly ask to invite us to join in His Story. So what do you say—let’s stop pretending that anyone is rejecting His story because Matthew speaks like a Jew and Luke like a Greek, eh?


  1. Hi Michael, I'm extremely blessed by your blog. Your analysis has helped answer and address many of the questions and doubts I have towards how modern churches operate and the teachings they give. Keep writing!

    1. Ming Xi, thank you so much for this feedback. You have no idea how encouraging it is to hear things like this. Often it is hard to keep writing when the busy-ness of life is going on, and reading encouragement like this helps dramatically.