Are the Gospels Incoherent?

*NOTE: When I originally wrote these words, I was of the opinion of Markan priority for the Gospels. At the present moment, due to stumbling on the work of William R. Farmer and his book The Synoptic Problem, I am reconsidering Matthean priority.*

The scholarly consensus dates Mark as the earliest canonical Gospel to be written after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. The latest to be written was the Gospel of John around the year 90 A.D. The most common reason for picking Mark as being the earliest is its shorter length in comparison to the other three canonical Gospels. Of course, this allows the scholars to attempt to limit the number of words that are seen as the “authentic” teachings of Jesus Christ. In a shorter Gospel, one can argue that Jesus does not make claims to be God – an argument that scholar Bart Ehrman has used to make a living. Of course, actually reading the Gospel of Mark with the proper understanding of first-century Judaism and the contemporary understanding of God’s power and the use of it by Jesus, it is difficult to interpret the Gospel of Mark as anything other than Jesus claiming to be God.

Matthew Ramage gives a good overview of the overall position of Erhman’s theological and historical views of the gospels. Ehrman’s position serves well as a good center point for the skeptical approach towards the gospel narratives to counter commonly held skepticism. One of the points that Ehrman has tried to make is that the Gospels were anonymous; however, this claim has been thoroughly refuted by the work of Brant Pitre’s literary analysis. Pitre notes that because the gospels have no case of mistaken identity, then this claim has no historical evidence, it is nothing more than an unfounded supposition.

The best critique by Ehrman in his overall thesis is found in his work Misquoting Jesus with the gospels having many errors in the substance of the text that could hinge on the actual interpretation of the gospels. Ramage makes the point that Ehrman, and others, challenge the idea of Biblical inerrancy as absurd, “We are not actually in possession of the original words of the Gospels which purport to give us Jesus’ words.” An example that Ramage gives is the reported words of Jesus on the cross recorded by both Mark and Luke. In Mark’s Gospel, Mark records Jesus uttering a loud cry after saying, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” The account of that Luke gives omits the loud cry from Jesus found in the Gospel of Mark. Ehrman argues, “The point is that Luke changed the tradition he inherited.” Honestly, the claim is a bit of stretch because, if we hold to the idea that the Gospel of Mark is the first written record of the canonical Gospels, one of the points to make this argument is that the later Synoptic Gospels attempted to clean up Mark’s sometimes clunky narrative.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission refutes the objections given by skeptics like Erhman who challenge the different narratives recorded by the gospel authors for their particular audience with the proper assessment of historicism: “We must, therefore, bear in mind that the gospels are not merely chronicles of the events in the life of Jesus, since the evangelists also intend to express in narrative form the theological significance of these events.” Ramage explains, “The Gospels certainly convey history, but no exactly in the way many moderns think of history.” The sentiment is the correct view of historicism and realization that peoples of different eras and cultures recorded their history far different from how modernity records it.

In particular, to the early traditions themselves, Ehrman gets into the trouble as explained by one of his critics, theologian Michael Bird, who writes, “What Ehrman says about the New Testament manuscripts makes his inquiry about Jesus methodologically impossible. If the New Testament was so heavily corrupted, then how can you use it as your primary source to reconstruct Jesus’ life?…Approaches like Ehrman’s which begin casting doubt on the historical value of the Gospels for reconstructing the life of Jesus, but then proceed to formulate a hypothesis about the historical Jesus anyway, are essentially creating a vacuum and then filling it with scholarly fiction.”

Modern biblical scholarship now points toward the Gospel of Mark, which both Ehrman and Pope Benedict XVI agree on, being the first written account; however, many Church Fathers believed Matthew to be the first written. Modern biblical scholarship, however, makes a reasonably convincing claim that if Mark was a shortened version of the Gospel of Matthew, it wouldn’t make sense that Mark includes stories that are not found in Matthew. It was common for authors to make shorter renditions of works in antiquity, but it was not characteristic for them to add any additions. Naturally, if examining the Gospel of Mark, which is agreed upon to be an early tradition of Jesus, it should be asked what does the Gospel of Mark tells us about the divinity of Jesus Christ? What did he do that would point toward him claiming to be God?

One of the first main instances of Mark’s account portraying Jesus as God is the healing of the paralytic. After the paralytic’s friends lower him to Jesus, Jesus first tells the paralytic his sins are forgiven to which the response from the scribes is blasphemy, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this man speak like this? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” For all practical purposes, what Mark is attempting to illustrate in this part of his narrative is a witness testimony from the enemies of Jesus that he is claiming to be God. For Ehrman and others, to deny these points is looking at the text and reading something that is not found in it. Naturally, there are other instances such as Christ acting as God by controlling the forces of nature, as well again the pronouncement of blasphemy during his trial.