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Differences in the Gospels and Redaction Criticism

In my previous two posts I stressed that knowing that there are differences, even discrepancies, among the Gospels does not need to be considered in a purely negative light. There are very serious positive pay-offs. These differences/discrepancies open up possibilities for interpretation, because they (in theory) prevent a person from importing a meaning into a text that is difficult to sustain from the words of the text itself. When John says that Jesus died on the day before the Passover meal was eaten, but Mark says that Jesus died on the day *after* the meal was eaten (both are quite explicit), then the interpreter’s energy really should not be taken up with showing that they both are saying the same thing. They are saying different things, and not recognizing this means failing to recognize what each Gospel is trying to say. In this particular case, John almost certainly is the one who changed the historical datum (although, OK, this is debated). It allows John to portray Jesus as the “lamb of God” who is killed, in this version, on the same day, at the same hour, and by the same people (the priests) as the ones who kill the Passover lamb. This is not Mark’s message. It’s John’s message. And without admitting there’s a difference between the accounts, you can’t see it.


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How To Study the Gospels
Similarities and Differences: The Synoptic Problem



  1. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  February 14, 2014

    Given the fact that both Matthew and Luke used Mark independently as a source and the accounts they took from Mark and inserted in their gospels are indeed similar, is it fair to say that Mark maintained a stable text through the years?

    “And without admitting there’s a difference between the accounts, you can’t see it.” was a fantastic line.

    Great post, thank you.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 15, 2014

      Ah, great question! As it turns out, it is a highly complicated question. Some scholars have argued that the form of Mark known to Matthew was different from the form known to Luke. That makes it all very interesting! I have a PhD student now who is writing a dissertation called “The Gospel according to Mark according to Matthew.” That is, he is trying to figure out what *form* of Mark (word for word) was availalbe to Matthew (on the asssumption that it was not just like our Mark). Very tricky business indeed!

      • Avatar
        gabilaranjeira  February 15, 2014

        Oh, wow! Very interesting indeed. Maybe when your PhD student is done, if possible, you can post a sample of his work. I’m trying to picture in my brain how someone gets to the words that Mark wrote but Matthew redacted and is not in our Mark and, by now, I’m assuming is not in Luke either!
        Thank you, as always.

      • Avatar
        willow  February 15, 2014

        With the permission of your student, Bart, I hope you will post this dissertation, as it’s bound to be a most interesting, if not informative, read!

  2. Avatar
    RecoveringCalvinist  February 14, 2014

    If King David had many, many wives, wouldn’t thousands of people centuries later have claimed to be descended from David? Is there evidence that this pedigree was important to first-century Jews?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 15, 2014

      Yes indeed! I suppose it was important in the way it seems to be important to members of my family to say that we had an ancestor on the Mayflower. In fact, probably a lot more important!

      • Avatar
        Rosekeister  February 15, 2014

        I used to trace my family history and one of the things I learned was you’ve got an exponential factor going from any given person. Think of King David and all his chlldren, then all David’s children and all of their children, then all of David’s children’s children and all the children they had. When you add in 1000 years (now 3000 years), it is likely that all people of Jewish descent are related to King David (as well as being cousins of Jesus).

        It is like European royalty. Everyone of European descent is related in one way or the other to some European royalty and if you’re related to one, you’re related to all due to the intermarriage of royal families. The difference is some can actually prove the descent whereas others have lost track.

  3. Avatar
    AmenRa  February 14, 2014

    I just want to thank your for this article on how to let the gospel writers message speak on its own terms rather than attempting to harmonize the synoptics and John creating your own gospel. This suggest that even though one can hold to errancy of the biblical text, the interpreter of the text can still see value in the bible for spiritual and psychological purposes. This is critical because many people after learning of discrepancies in the gospels tend to think that it means the bible should be thrown into the garbage can. ( I have actually heard this).

    To some extent your approach kind of connects with Dominic Crossan’s view that the gospel not only use parables, but are a parable. For me this allows one to use the Synoptics and John as archetypal material for seeing the portraits of Jesus as an psychological developmental lens for the story of our own soul development. I see Jesus as a prototype of the hero archtype in all people. So each gospel’s theme is an aspect of human potential that can be development. For example, Matthew presents Jesus as King, so I can develop Leadership potential in me. (see King, Warrior, Magician and Lover by Moore and Gillette).

    In my opinion, paradoxically you Dr. Ehrman by leaving the fundamentalist camp have actually given fundamentalist Christianity a way out of its own theological trap of becoming irrelevant to the modern world.. As you have said, “knowing that there are differences, even discrepancies, among the Gospels does not need to be considered in a purely negative light. There are very serious positive pay-offs.” I have witness this positive pay-off among the student whom I teach NT Introduction at the collegiate level. Thank you.

  4. Avatar
    hwl  February 14, 2014

    “Once you try to reconcile these differences, so that Jesus says and does everything in both Gospels (as well as everything in Luke and John), then you may have allowed for the “seven last words of the dying Jesus,” but you have also created your own Gospel in which the emphasis of each one is irretrievably lost. Surely that’s not the best way to read the Gospels.”
    Do you see inherent tension in systematic theology as taught in seminaries (e.g. Princeton) and biblical scholarship? The former tries to produce a coherent unified theological system, often with heavy reliance on the Bible as source, whereas the latter emphasises treating each biblical author speaking with his own voice. It seems systematic theology will tend to iron out differences as matters of perspectives getting at the same truth. Presumably some eminent biblical scholars are also theologians. I wonder do they switch between putting on their biblical scholar hat, and their theologian hat?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 15, 2014

      There is indeed a tension, and a real problem, with how seminary curricula are normally devised. Students learn all about biblical criticism in their biblical courses, but their theology courses are taught by other professors who do not take into account what they are learning in their Bible courses. The result is that the student is faced with an impossible task of trying to synthesize everything learned from this, that, or the other perspective. This is the thesis of my friend Dale Martin’s book, Pedagogy of the Bible.

  5. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  February 14, 2014

    Regarding Matthew’s genealogy, is it possible that the author of the autograph intended a descent through Joseph because, at the time of its writing, there was no idea of a virgin birth ? That at some later time, in some redaction (albeit an early one) the virginal conception came in ? Alternatively, is it possible that the original genealogy developed pre-Matthew, again at a time before anyone conceived of a virgin birth (sorry 😉 and the author of the autograph incorporated it without fully appreciating the contradiction?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 15, 2014

      Interesting idea. The problem is that at the end of the genealogy (still in the genealogy) it is clear that hte author knows that Joseph was not actually Jesus’ father.

  6. Avatar
    fishician  February 14, 2014

    I love that the genealogy was supposedly written by Matthew who was supposedly a tax-collector, who you would think would be good with numbers, but he can’t even count to 14 properly in the last of his three sets of 14 generations!

  7. Avatar
    bobnaumann  February 14, 2014

    If I recall, Matthew’s genealogy traces Joseph’s lineage through four women. I thought at the time it was believed that the female womb was simply an incubator for the male seed and contributed nothing in the way of genetic material. So how could a lineage be passed through a female?

  8. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  February 14, 2014

    I think the best “redaction criticism” is when Matthew adds and deletes Jewish notations from Mark. Deleting all foods are clean from Mark’s writing. Or, adding as to the reference to desolating sacrilege, pray that our flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath. The new Moses!

    But, the best part of the Synoptic problem is that Mark getting details wrong, Matthew/Luke correcting or leaving out Mark’s wrong details. Also, copying fatigue by Matthew and Luke. Funny how you never notice the fatigue until a scholar shows it to you. Amazing.

    As to why there are no Q manuscripts, Daniel Wallace said it wasn’t copied, like Mark, because Matthew and Luke’s were better and included their material.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 15, 2014

      Ah, you’ve read Goodacre! As to Wallace’s explanation, one would think that hte same would apply to Mark! (Though not for Wallace, since he thinks Mark is the inspired Word of God…)

      • Avatar
        veryrarelystable  February 18, 2014

        I’d love you to do a critique of Goodacre’s (Farrer’s/Goulder’s) Q-less hypothesis – a future post perhaps?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  February 18, 2014

          It would take a series of posts — and would make me reread his book again! So it seems unlikely just now, as I have a lot else on my plate….

  9. Avatar
    Jim  February 14, 2014

    Back in the good ol’ days, I suppose the notion was that begetting occurred solely via a male progenitor (mom was just an incubator). Matt’s final 14 begetting roster was one man short, or was Matt intentional? In the final “fourteen begetters”, Jacob is #11, Joseph #12 and Jesus #14, with lucky #13 missing (since Joseph didn’t beget Jesus from Mary). Jesus was begotten by an unnamed begetter who is later identified in verse 20. No doubt Matt was making a theological statement.

    So, was Matthew poor at arithmetic, or is it possible that he was a bit worried that a pious Jewish audience might be turned off to see the name “God” inserted into the empty slot?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 15, 2014

      I don’t think the idea that 13 was unlucky was around back then. My guess is that Matthew just mis-added. Not much of a figures guy after all….

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  February 15, 2014

        Unless you buy the idea that “unlucky 13” originated with the Last Supper (13 attendees including Judas Iscariot) all other stories for the origin come from the Middle Ages (like the Knights Templar being betrayed on Friday the 13th or 13 witches in a coven, etc.) as far as I can recall.

        The Jews were/are big on numerology. Could there be some significance in the number 13 that would make Matthew intentionally only have 13 generations in the last group of his genealogy?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  February 17, 2014

          It’s usually thought that if any numerology is involved, it deals with 14 (since Matthew *says* there were 14 generations) — possibly as double 7 (so doubly perfect) or as the numerical total of the name of David when spelled in Hebrew (as it turns out).

  10. Avatar
    donmax  February 14, 2014

    I guess the point I want to get across is that one man’s virtue is someone else’s vice. For example, when you say, “John almost certainly is the one who changed the historical datum,” I’m reminded of how ALL GOSPEL WRITERS CHANGED HISTORICAL DATA. And when you say, “redaction criticism makes a virtue of the differences between [gospel] accounts for providing a key to interpretation,” I think of it as another REVISIONIST TOOL for altering, or otherwise reinventing, what was originally written. I also see it as a convenient way of ignoring or downplaying, the thematic/religious/anti-Semitic messages of the Christian scriptures.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 15, 2014

      I don’t see how I’ve ever ignored or downplayed the anti-Semitic messages of the New Testament!!!

      • Avatar
        donmax  February 15, 2014

        Well, I’ve not read everything you’ve written, but I was under the impression you have yet to write a book on that subject. Thought it was on your “to do” list. Where can I find a good summary of your take on it?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  February 17, 2014

          Sorry — I don’t know what you’re referring to!

          • Avatar
            donmax  February 17, 2014

            I’m not sure which of my comments you have in mind either. From what I recollect you once mentioned that you were planning to write a book about Christian Anti-Semitism. Thought you might have a synopsis, or in lieu of that, something else you’ve written on the subject. It’s a topic that interests me, more so than dissecting books of the New Testament.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  February 17, 2014

            Yes, that will be my next trade book (for a popular audience). I hope to write it next year, to come out, gods willing, Spring 2016.

      • Avatar
        donmax  February 15, 2014

        Hope you will reconsider my comments, not as a criticism of you in particular, but the redaction criterion (among other methods and tools) that may or may not be a scholarly virtue. In any case, I do apologize for implying something personal and undeserved. Sometimes I’m just flat out wrong or in too big a hurry. 🙁

  11. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 14, 2014

    But how could Matthew’s readers believe he’d gotten this genealogy from a credible source, with Joseph having been just a village carpenter? I can’t trace my family history back further than the names of one set of great-great-grandparents!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 15, 2014

      Matthew was inspired!

      • Avatar
        FrankJay71  February 15, 2014

        I’ve wondered myself, where did Matthew and Luke get their genealogies? They seem pretty detailed to have been passed around orally. I can see how stories and parables could be preserved orally as they are were passed across the Roman world to the gospel writers, or to whom ever first preserved them in writing. The genealogies on the other hand would seem difficult to preserve orally, as for one they would seem to have no context for someone who didn’t live in Jesus’ immediate area and wouldn’t know the people in them, except the ones who are known from the old testament. Seems like it would be like trying to preserve a grocery list orally.
        Anyways, where did the genealogies likely come from? Did Luke or Matthew just make them up?

      • cheito
        cheito  February 15, 2014

        Inspired by whom DR Ehrman? By Matthew’s own imagination? Matthew is a mixture of myths and distorted truths. It’s not reliable. I don’t consider this story inspired by God. I don’t trust anything recorded in this book. Matthew along with Mark are like the apocryphal books to me. As for Luke, I suspect that if we had his original work, there wouldn’t be a genealogy in it, and many other stories that are in the copies of Luke we have today would not be found in his original work.


        Would Joseph’s DNA be present in Jesus genetic information?
        Paul says that Jesus was a descendant of David according to the flesh and leaves it at that. (Romans 1:2)
        Whose flesh was Jesus a descendant of? Mary’s or Joseph?

        NOTE: I believe we do have the inspired word of God but it has been distorted. I believe the words spoken by Moses, the prophets of the Old Testament, The apostles Paul, Peter and John are all inspired by God. To me inspired by God means that the words written by these men came directly from God’s mouth literally.
        When I read Jeremiah Romans and 1 peter I believe I’m reading the message of God not the message of Jeremiah Paul or Peter. God has given us His Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth. Interpolations in the inspired words of God stand out like a sour thumb to a spiritual man.

  12. Avatar
    gavriel  February 15, 2014

    The real date of Jesus execution has always puzzled me. When you say that the story of John is motivated by his theology, couldn’t you also say that Mark’s date was motivated by his theology. It looks as if Mark wants to supplant the Jewish passover ritual with the story of the Last Supper. If this is true, one has to look for other explanations than the author’s theological motives. And their are many in favor of John’s version.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 17, 2014

      Yes, that could be as well. But you’d have to say that the Gospel that was written 25 years later, with a dating of Jesus’ death that happens to coincide with his theology (and with *only* his own theology) is in fact the older one; so it seems a bit less likely.

  13. Avatar
    dikelmm  February 16, 2014

    2 questions. Are M and Q mentioned or alluded to in any ancient sources? If M and Q lasted long enough to be used by Gospel writers, why do you think such obviously precious documents did not survive (as far as we know) yet derivative documents did survive?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 17, 2014

      No, they are never mentioned. And I wish we knew why no one preserved them! Maybe the communities that had them also had Matthew, so saw no need to preserve his sources?

  14. Avatar
    luigi  February 16, 2014

    I believe some scholars think Matthew may originally have been written in Hebrew. Do you think this is a possibility, and it so how would that affect redaction criticism?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 17, 2014

      I don’t think it could have been. It agrees word-for-word with Mark. That means it must be copying Mark. And since Mark was written in Greek, Matthew had to be as well.

  15. Avatar
    Ori  February 16, 2014

    I am new to the blog and enjoy reading it.
    With respect to the date of the crucifixion you wrote that: “When John says that Jesus died on the day before the Passover meal was eaten, but Mark says that Jesus died on the day *after* the meal was eaten (both are quite explicit), then the interpreter’s energy really should not be taken up with showing that they both are saying the same thing.”
    If I understand correctly, John says that Jesus was crucified on the day of the Passover meal and not the day before. The Jewish custom was to slaughter the Passover lamb at dusk (Exodus 12, 6), cook it and then eat it in the evening (the Passover meal). Since the Passover of that year was on a Friday, the Passover lamb was slaughtered in the temple early afternoon and cooked before the evening in order not to violate the laws of the Sabbath (a custom observed to this day by the Samaritans). So according to John the crucifixion occurred just a few hours prior to the Passover meal, and not the day before.
    One way to settle the discrepancy between the synoptics and John regarding the date of the crucifixion is to consider that they are using different calendars. We know that the Jews in Jesus time used more than one calendar. The “standard” calendar was the pharisaic while the Essenes used their own calendar (just like the western and eastern-orthodox churches use the Gregorian and Julian calendars respectively). Given some similarities between John and the Essene theology (Qumran scrolls), it could be that John was using the Essene calendar while the synoptics used the pharisaic one. This way nobody is “bluffing”, just using different systems.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 17, 2014

      The day begins, in Jewish reckoning, when it gets dark. So the day of preparation takes place when it is light (say it is a Friday); when it gets dark, it is the next day — when the meal is eaten. In John Jesus dies the afternoon before the meal is eaten. In Mark he dies the morning after it is eaten (and therefore the next day).

      Yes, the Essenes used a different calendar. But Jesus was not an Essene (either was John). In Jerusalem, the passover lambs were killed on one day, not two. In John, Jesus was killed the day the lambs were killed. In Mark he was killed the next day.

  16. Avatar
    luke0468  March 17, 2014

    Mr. Ehrman, I believe they mentioned Joseph’s lineage to show Jesus’ inheritance. I’m sure you know this.
    Even though he wasn’t blood related to Joseph, Christians claim he is related to King David on both sides, that is, Joseph and Mary. If I’m not mistaken. This is to fulfill prophecy. He doesn’t have to be blood “related”, just the same as a king can adopt a son, and he will still inherit the throne.
    Traditional Christian scholars have put forward various theories that seek to explain why the lineages are so different between Matthew and Luke, such as that Matthew’s account follows the lineage of Joseph, while Luke’s follows the lineage of Mary.
    I commented since you asked why at the end of this post. And if you have already answered this specific subject directly, please don’t waste your time. 🙂 Direct me to it.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 17, 2014

      The problem is that *both* accounts claim to be tracing the lineage of Joseph, not Mary.

      My sense is that probably every Jew on the planet is genealogically related to David in one way or another. Maybe a modern genealogist on the list can comment for us.

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