I get a little nervous when the Bible seems to contradict itself, and I know I’m not alone in this. But I’ve learned to accept that what seem to be troublesome contradictions sometimes say more about my expectations as a reader than about the truth or accuracy of the text.
Consider our four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. As suggested in part 1 of this post, John is quite different from the other three, known collectively as the “Synoptics” because of their shared way of looking at things. John has a very different way of telling the story.
Here’s a famous example. In the Synoptics, Jesus’ ministry is centered in Galilee. Only near the end of the story does he set foot in Jerusalem, in the days leading up to the Passover, to endure the suffering he knew awaited him there. Once in the city, Jesus noisily clears the money-changers out of the temple (Matt 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-48). This brazen act earns him the hatred of the religious establishment, who begin looking for a way to kill him.
In John, the incident also occurs as Passover approaches — but at the beginning of John’s story, not the end (2:13-22), and at that point, no one wanted to kill him for it. (In John, the act that sets the murder conspiracy in motion is the raising of Lazarus.)
So…does that mean that Jesus cleansed the temple twice? Or did someone just get the story wrong?
Many scholars argue that the Synoptics are right, and propose reasons for why John would move the event to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Some argue for two cleansings. But that creates another puzzle: why would none of the gospel writers make note of this fact?
Moreover, not even the Synoptics are in perfect agreement. In Matthew, Jesus enters Jerusalem and cleanses the temple; the following day, he curses a fig tree. In Mark, however, Jesus enters Jerusalem, looks around the temple, and leaves; the following day, he curses the fig tree first and then cleanses the temple.
Who’s right? John’s story rings truer in at least one sense: surely Jesus and his disciples went back and forth from Galilee to Jerusalem, even if Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t tell us this. If so, there may well have been two or more cleansings, with the last being the final straw. Why don’t the Synoptics say so? Possibly because they want to tell the story in a way that makes Jesus’ clash with Jerusalem the climactic event.
In the end, however, there’s no “proving” the matter one way or the other. People will probably always disagree about what to make of such puzzles.
But to me, the question is this: what do these puzzles tell us, if anything, about the trustworthiness of the text? As modern readers, we want biographical accounts to tell us as accurately as possible what a person said and did, with events in the right chronological order. We get suspicious when our expectations are violated.
Yet not even modern biographers tell everything a person said or did. Writers have to choose which episodes to include, according to how they want to tell the story. And the gospels can’t be verbatim accounts, either. Remember, Jesus almost certainly spoke and taught in Aramaic, but our gospels are written in Greek. The authors may choose different words to render what Jesus said, just as they choose which of his words to include in the first place.
The gospel writers thus exercise flexibility in the selection and arrangement of their materials. That’s important to recognize when arguing about whether the gospels are “historical.” The gospel stories are historical in the sense of being based on real events involving real people in a particular place and time. But that doesn’t mean that the gospels will be written according to our expectations of history-writing.
The Evangelists (the collective name for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, from the word “evangel,” or “good news”) write with purpose. Some scholars, for example, have noted John’s emphasis on the ongoing conflict between Jesus and “the Jews,” including the threat of Jewish believers being kicked out of the synagogue (e.g., 9:22; 12:42; 16:2), and suggest that John is writing to address this situation.
(Side note: against the occasional charge that John is anti-Semitic, remember that Jesus and his disciples are all Jewish, and John’s phrase “the Jews” could be translated as “the Judeans,” making a geographical rather than purely ethnic distinction.)
Whatever the case may be, John is keen to present his readers with a distinctive portrait of Jesus. Throughout John’s story, Jesus is large and in charge. What did you expect? John seems to say. This man is God in the flesh. More on that in part 3 of this post.