Why are there differences in the four gospels?

02.10.2019 | The Maxwell Institute

Why are there differences in the four gospels?

As Latter-day Saints focus on the New Testament this year we’re bringing you insights to ponder from past episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. This MIPodcast Moment is from James Martin, SJ. He wrote a book about the seven phrases Jesus uttered while hanging on the cross. Strikingly, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John don’t all record the same sayings.

MARTIN: You would think the things Jesus said from the cross would be recorded and treasured and be in every Gospel, but they’re not. Why is that? I start off my book with a little description of how the New Testament, how the Gospels, were compiled. I remind people that it took place in several stages.

So the first stage is Jesus’s actual public ministry. He’s there and he’s preaching and he’s healing, and people are around to witness that. Not just the twelve apostles or the seventy disciples or the followers, hundreds of people, but crowds. So that’s the actual living out of his life and death and resurrection.

Then came the oral tradition. So after his resurrection and his ascension people were passing around these stories orally. We have to remember a lot of people thought Jesus was going to come again soon so they wouldn’t have written down those things anyway.

But then as it becomes clear that some of the original witnesses are dying and Jesus would not, as it was expected, return soon, the next stage began, which was the actual putting together of the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We have to remember each Evangelist wrote for a different audience and would stress different parts of the story. They might leave out something. I always remind people, you know, if you read four different books about whomever, I’m reading a book about Theodore Roosevelt. If you read four different books about Theodore Roosevelt by four different contemporaries, you’re going to get four different stories. They’re going to leave some things out. They’re going to put stuff in. They’re going to emphasize different things. That doesn’t mean each of them are wrong, but taken together they give us a fuller portrait.

So some of the Gospel writers would have left things out and left out some of the last words, but also their communities might have known them. So they might not have been passed along the same way. Taken together the gospels give us a sense of Jesus’s emotions and experiences on the cross through the various sayings they record.

I had a hard time with this in theology studies, but my theology professor was a great scripture scholar and was really helpful. He said, “we can’t think of the Gospel writers as reporters on the scene taking down notes. They simply weren’t. Some of them may have been there, but they weren’t taking notes.”

HODGES: They didn’t have like the fedora with the card sticking out.

MARTIN: Right? And they didn’t have a tape recorder to stick up to Jesus’s mouth. Even in some of the most beloved passages like what are called the “infancy narratives” when Jesus is born, they’re different. Even some of the things he says in the Sermon on the Mount—which scripture scholars think he would have said many times—it wouldn’t have been just one time, is it “blessed are the poor” or “blessed are the poor in spirit”? You would think they’d get that right, but it’s like four people telling the story four different ways. So this is a long way of saying the seven last words of Jesus are not in each of the Gospels.

HODGES: One of my favorite things you write there, I have a quote here on page seven, you say, “These phrases represent not only some of Jesus’s final thoughts on the cross (at least as recorded in the gospels), but also what the original communities for which the evangelists wrote considered to be the most important sayings.” So the seven last words are important for understanding not only Jesus, but also what was important to the early church.


“MIPodcast Moments” are interesting extracts from the Maxwell Institute Podcast. See our growing list of transcripts here.