Are the Gospels too human?

by John Wijngaards, Mission Today, Autumn 1993

THE TELUGUS among whom I worked in India are fond of wrestling. At the end of a match, I talked to some keen youngsters who boasted of past triumphs, “We defeated ten neighbouring villages”. A bystander chipped in with a Telugu proverb: “Honour to the hunter who has caught a rabbit with five legs!” All laughed.

Enthusiasm is a marvellous thing. When people really believe in something they can achieve the impossible. But enthusiasm can be blind. In their joy and total commitment, enthusiastic people may focus so exclusively on an achievement that details are overlooked.

I often think about this when people ask me about factual contradictions in the Gospels. They can understand how two texts may seem to conflict because each stresses a different aspect of a truth, but they are worried about the facts of one passage contradicting the facts in another.

For example, in Matthew we are told that Jesus cured two blind men when Jesus left Jericho (Matt. 20:29). Luke tells us Jesus cured one blind man when he entered Jericho (Luke 18:35). There seems to be a clear contradiction here. Surely both versions cannot be true at the same time? A little reflection and a dose of common sense suggest the answer. During my student days at Mill Hill I used to watch soccer matches in Wembley Stadium and on one occasion saw the legendary Stanley Matthews.

One incident I recall vividly. Stan dribbled with the ball and stood face to face before a midfield opponent. He side-stepped to the left then with lightning speed passed him on the right. To the delight of the crowd Stan turned round to face the bewildered player again, then performed the same feat of incredibly nimble footwork a second time.

Now I remember this like yesterday and I know it really happened. However, I am not sure whether he side-stepped to the left, then passed on the right, or the other way about. And it does not matter. It is a detail. It is not relevant. The point of my story is that Stanley had an unsurpassed control over the ball.

The same applies to many miracle stories. In their oral traditions the early Christians would recount with glowing admiration how Jesus cured the blind, like Bar Timaeus near Jericho. In the enthusiasm of the retelling it did not matter whether he did so when entering the town or leaving it. In fact, we find the full version in Mark where both the entering and the leaving of Jericho are mentioned.

“They came to Jericho, and as Jesus was leaving … a blind beggar named Bar Timaeus was sitting by the road…” (Mark 10:46)

The Gospels contain similar contradictions which are entirely due to abbreviation of detail. We read in Luke that the Roman officer spoke to Jesus through messengers (Luke 7:1 – 10). According to Matthew he spoke to Jesus himself (Matt. 8:5-13). When Jesus cursed the fig tree, it was found withered the next day according to Mark (Mark 11: 12 – 24); Matthew says it withered immediately (Matt. 21:18-22).

Matthew does not claim he timed it with a stop watch. If a tree withers in one day it is for him as good as withering at once. An exaggeration of detail, perhaps, but not a distortion of the main event.

We must remember that whoever reports on an event, can never give a complete description of all particulars. Of necessity one has to highlight some details and omit others. Journalists know this only too well. Because of their interest in a particular aspect of the story, they will stress that particular side of it. This is known to newspaper people as a “focus” or a “slant”.

Some of the seeming contradictions between the Gospels are due to the particular interest, the “focus”, of one or the other evangelist… John tells us that Jesus himself carried his cross (John 19:17). Luke records that the soldiers forced a bystander, Simon from Cyrene, to carry the cross (Luke 23:26). Cyrene is the ancient name for Libya, and since Luke wrote his Gospel for new Christians who lived in countries outside Palestine, he was naturally happy to emphasise the point that a Libyan helped Jesus to carry the cross (Luke 23:26).

Though John and Luke seem to contradict each other, their accounts can easily be reconciled. Probably Jesus carried the cross himself part of the way. When he collapsed in exhaustion, the Romans pressed Simon of Cyrene to shoulder the cross for him.

When God chose witnesses to pass on the Good News about Jesus, he chose people like you and me: fishermen, farmers and merchants. He chose them because they had those indispensable qualities religious witnesses should have: honesty and enthusiasm. God wanted them to use ordinary language with all the idiosyncrasies of ordinary speech.

The early Christians loved Jesus passionately, to a fault. When we read their Gospel witness may we feel the glow of their commitment even when their words have frayed edges. And then let us match their enthusiasm in proclaiming what we believe.