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Why Discrepancies Matter for Interpretation

In the last post I pointed out that Mark and Luke have very (very!) different portrayals of Jesus going to his death.  In this post I want to explain why that ultimately matters for understanding each of the Gospels: without understanding this difference, you will misunderstand *both* Gospels.

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I have argued that the two portrayals of Jesus going to his death in Mark and Luke are radically different, and that recognizing this radical difference is of utmost importance for understanding what each author is trying to say.   The in-shock, silent Jesus of Mark, who is betrayed, denied, abandoned, and mocked by everyone, who wonders at the very end why God himself has forsaken him, simply is not the same as the calm confident Jesus of Luke, who knows God is on his side, who understands what is happening to him, and who knows what will happen to him after it happens to him: he will wake up in paradise.

A deeper understanding of each Gospel seeks to understand the portrayal of Jesus found in each and every one of the Gospels, but also asks what each account is actually trying to *teach* by making that kind of portrayal.  This is where matters get more speculative, and this is where both theology and preaching start getting interesting.  I realize (oh so well) that I am no longer theologically driven or involved with preaching, but to conclude this hiatus-of-a-thread, I do have to say what I think each account is trying to say.

Let’s imagine – it’s not much of a stretch of the imagination, actually, even though there is not concrete evidence behind it – let’s imagine that each of these Gospels is written to Christians who are experiencing real suffering in their lives.  Possibly it is a difficult persecution.  Possibly it is the animosity of friends and family and neighbors and co-workers and everyone else who is opposed to their new-found faith in Jesus.   Or possibly it is hardship in the world that seems unbearable.   Suppose both Mark and Luke, writing at different times (say 15 years apart) in different parts of the world, are both confronted with some such situations.   Why would they portray Jesus going to his death the way they do?

Here’s what I think.  You’re welcome to think something else!

Mark’s Jesus does not seem to understand…

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[/private]Mark’s Jesus does not seem to understand why he has to suffer the agonies of the cross and why it seems that God has abandoned him to his suffering, so that he receives no palpable comfort from God, only the torture and agony of crucifixion as one who has been forsaken by everyone.   But the thing about Mark’s Gospel is that the reader – as opposed to Jesus – has a different view of why Jesus is suffering.  Because when Jesus cries out and dies his miserable death, the reader learns that two things happen at once.  The curtain in the temple is ripped in half, and the centurion who has just crucified Jesus confesses “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

The temple curtain was what separated the Holy of Holies, where God was believed to dwell, from the rest of the temple and, in fact, the rest of the world.  No one had direct access to God’s presence, except once a year, when the High Priest would go behind the curtain on the Day of Atonement, and make a sacrifice in God’s presence for the forgiveness of sins.   When Jesus died, the curtain was ripped in half.  Now, because of his death, *everyone* has access to God.  And they don’t need the Jewish sacrificial system to have it.  It is in Jesus’ death that people can come into the presence of God – all people, Jew and gentile.  And that is shown by the fact that the centurion – a gentile/pagan – recognizes it.  Jesus’ divine sonship is not negated by his death.  On the contrary, it is precisely in his death that he is manifest as the Son of God who brings salvation to the world.

Why then does Jesus seem to suffer as one who is abandoned by God?  Mark, in my opinion, is trying to say something.  Sometimes suffering is more than one can bear.  Sometimes suffering does not seem to make sense.  Sometimes one’s seemingly random and pointless suffering appears to show that God is nowhere to be found, that a person has in fact been abandoned by God.   But according to Mark, God is working behind the scenes.  He is in fact bringing good out of evil.  He is in fact making suffering redemptive.  It may not seem like it, and a person may not be able to see it at the time (like Jesus in this account).  But in fact that’s what’s happening.   God is one who brings salvation out of suffering.  And so even when one feels completely abandoned, it is possible to know that God is at work to make right all that is wrong.

Luke has a different approach to suffering.  His Jesus does not feel abandoned, forgotten, and forsaken (which is why Jesus does not cry out “My God my God why have you forsaken me” in Luke, and why the curtain does not tear in half right after he dies).  Here Jesus is calm and in control because he *knows* God is on his side (just the opposite view of Mark).   And why?  Luke is telling his suffering readers that Jesus sets the example for them.  Like Jesus, Luke’s community can know that no matter what happens, however bad it gets, however miserable life becomes, God is with them.  And they can feel his palpable presence.  In their sufferings, they should be like Jesus – confident that God is on his side, concerned more for others than himself, praying for those who are inflicting his pain, comforting others who are also suffering.  Because the suffering will end soon, and then those who are on the side of God will wake up in Paradise.

These are two very different portrayals of Jesus, with two very different understandings of what it means to suffer, and two very difference views of how God is involved in suffering.  From my perspective one is not necessarily better than the other.   But both are important – and both completely evaporate into thin air when the story of Mark is smashed together with the story of Luke by readers who insist that they are not saying different things but the same thing.  When people read Mark and Luke in that way, reconciling their differences, they rob both accounts of their meaning and their message, and completely impoverish both texts, destroying an understanding that can be achieved only by taking a historical critical approach to their interpretation.[/private]

 


The Increasing Innocence of Pilate in the Death of Jesus
Why Differences and Discrepancies Matter Theologically/Religiously

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Todd  February 18, 2018

    You should have been a preacher. That’s what our churches should be hearing!

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  2. Avatar
    Rita Gomes  February 18, 2018

    Thank you so much for having this unique opportunity to be a member of the blog.
    And thus, to clarify all the doubts that had tormented my faith since always.
    In my religion classes my doubts were always criticized and not restrained.
    They always said that I wanted to face GOD, I remember doing a job where I placed the order of the books of the new testament in chronological order, at the age of fourteen. And my daring, even my arguments having concrete foundation took me to the director’s room, a nun and with that an hour of sermon.

    Just as I have always believed that Judas did not betray Jesus, as everyone believes.
    If I knew you 32 years ago, my religion classes would be a lot more fun.

    1
  3. Telling
    Telling  February 18, 2018

    The actual Jewish temple is destroyed at about the time Mark’s gospel is written, isn’t it? Your interpretation of Mark seems to fit with that event. Do you think Mark was influenced by the temple’s destruction, and have historians determined the timeline between the writing of Mark and this event?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2018

      Yes, I think (now) that Mark 13 presupposes the destruction of the temple.

      1
      • Telling
        Telling  February 18, 2018

        You are saying you believe Mark foresaw the coming destruction of the temple, not that it had been destroyed already and Mark was backdating it (“prophesying” what had already happened)?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 19, 2018

          No, I”m saying that Mark was written after 70 CE and knew that the temple was destroyed.

          3
  4. Avatar
    godspell  February 18, 2018

    Mark’s Jesus is certainly very concerned for other people, right up to the end.

    But that’s a lot to ask of somebody being slowly tortured to death.

    Luke’s Jesus isn’t a human being. He’s an ideal, and you’re right–those can be powerful.

    Mark’s Jesus is more of an enigma–even to Mark. He has, after all, worked wonders, miracles worthy of the greatest OT prophets.

    But the puzzle for early Christians–which must have been a puzzle for Jesus as well–is that while the OT prophets faced many trials and persecutions, none of them were done to death by their enemies.

    But that had happened twice in a short timeframe–first to John the Baptist–then to Jesus, his disciple.

    For whatever reason, the OT authors tended to portray prophets as invariably triumphant–is it likely that all the people who inspired those stories were? I don’t think so. But the timespan between the actual events and the writing of the stories mean that those stories are mainly myth.

    What we’re seeing in the NT is the process of myth-making going on while there is still a living memory of these people. So it’s harder to smooth everything over. There are more contradictions to puzzle over, mysteries to solve. Mark and Luke have different solutions. As did Matthew. John is basically pure myth. The completed process. His Jesus is feeling no pain, no doubt, because he’s The Word in bodily form.

    None of which answers the question of what Jesus actually experienced on the cross, and whether he said those words, or something like them–and I continue to think that he did. If there wasn’t a memory of Jesus despairing on the cross, Mark wouldn’t have to look for some way to justify that. But I agree–his justification is that Jesus’ pain was a necessary thing. His suffering changed the world.

    Well–didn’t it?

  5. Rick
    Rick  February 18, 2018

    Among the various things that always sounded a bit to “pat” to me in the gospels was a centurion (leader of a century or some 80 to 120 men [depending on when in roman history]) overseeing a crucifixion….

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 19, 2018

    I’m wondering, would the people who first read “Mark’s” Gospel (or *heard* it read) have understood what the author meant to imply about the Temple veil?

    Of course, it was probably *first* read aloud by the author himself. Can one assume he would have made changes if members of the community had spoken up and asked him what it meant?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2018

      He is referring to the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  February 20, 2018

        Yes. But what I was wondering is whether the average Jew in that time period would have realized what the Gospel author intended it to *symbolize*.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 22, 2018

          I’m afraid there is no way to know. Usually authors who use symbolism expect *some* of their readers to understand.

  7. Avatar
    royerd  February 19, 2018

    I hope it’s OK to leave this comment here. I wasn’t sure where else it might go. In today’s Washington Post there is an article titled, “A rare copy of the Declaration of Independence survived the Civil War hidden behind wallpaper. Later it was tossed in a box.”

    I’m reading through several of your books Prof. Ehrman’s including right now your textbook on the New Testament. I was really struck by the history of this manuscript (this rare copy of the Declaration and how it survived and how copies of this manuscript were made), the variants introduced, and the scribe and printer made alterations. The story would make an excellent anecdote for one of your books or discussions regarding how a ms even as recent as 1776, with all its cultural importance, could undergo such changes. I’ve been reading your work since we met on an airplane a few years ago. I’m also from your original neck of the woods in Lawrence.

    Best,

    Dan Royer
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/02/19/a-rare-copy-of-the-declaration-of-independence-survived-the-civil-war-hidden-behind-wallpaper-later-it-was-tossed-in-a-box/?utm_term=.e22ffc63cee3

    1
  8. Avatar
    Duke12  February 20, 2018

    Somewhat related to the topic at hand: I can’t remember where I read this :-), but is there any plausible evidence supported by scholars for dating the Gospels of Mark and Matthew at 49 AD or earlier?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 22, 2018

      Not really. Mark is usually dated about 70 CE and Matthew about 10-15 years later.

      1
  9. Avatar
    madmargie  February 23, 2018

    I would be amazed if anyone stayed at the cross to watch the crucifixion. And if they did, if any witness could either read or write.. By the time these accounts were written, it would have been second or third person accounts shared. I doubt that any of the accounts are accurate.

  10. Avatar
    JSTMaria  February 27, 2018

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,
    What I find more compelling is the consistency of all four gospels to tell the story of Jesus being put to shame on the cross and mocked. In the Garden of Eden story, the first Adam was “naked and ashamed” and hid when the rupture of communion occurred in partaking of the worldly tree. Fast forward to the cross where the second Adam is made naked and ashamed by the world in being put to death in an extremely humiliating way on the tree–completely unable to hide his shame. This is as soul crushing as it gets when you really think about it, thus opening the way to reconciliation with God by bearing shame and perhaps the shame of the world by “taking up his cross” and advising us to follow in the same manner without blaming others for our decisions as the first couple did. How we manage our shame along the way seems to be what the differing accounts help us out with–to your point in valuing their importance as individual accounts!

  11. Avatar
    ftbond  March 3, 2018

    If one is reading each of the gospels *without* a presumption of “inerrance”, and without the presumption that each one is supposed to be inherently “historically accurate”, then one is hard-put to label *anything* between the books as “discrepancies”. One would not, after all, even concern themselves with discrepancies between the books entitled “Abe” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer” – yet, each book has, as it’s central character, an actual and historical character.

    Do the gospels all tell a story of the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus? Yes, they do. And three of them have such similarities that it very much appears the writers “borrowed” stuff from one (or perhaps more?) earlier versions of the story. So, there are some core elements to all of them, such as Jesus’ “sayings” and his performing miracles, Jesus tried before Pilate “at the suggestion of the principle men among us” (as per Josephus), Jesus crucified, buried (and I utterly *beg* readers to study what “burial” meant, both in Hebrew and in Greek), and then his Resurrection.

    The *rest* of the stories in the synoptics? Different matter. Were there two angels or only one at the tomb? Did the Centurion really say “This was the son of God” or not? If the gospels were/are actually a form of (what we’d call today) “historical fiction” – an imagined reconstruction of events involving real-life characters and un-imagined real-life events – and if they were actually *understood* as such, by readers, then differences in details between the various “gospels” are not particularly relevant. If one is reading two different historical fictions about Lincoln (during his Presidential years), one would expect to read of a Lincoln who was from a certain place, got elected, presided over a Civil War, and in the end, was assassinated. One would not expect to see private conversations between Lincoln and his wife as “matching up” between the two books, nor would one expect to see any kind of account of Lincoln’s own feelings about a given situation in one book, matching the other books account.

    It is *us*, in *this* century, that come to the gospels with our own truckloads of baggage about the books, oftentimes even before reading them. We’ve seen movies, we’ve heard others talk about the gospels, we’ve heard preachers and skeptics, and by the time we get around to actually reading the gospels, we’ve already got such pre-conceived ideas (of one type or another) – including ideas that somehow they’re *supposed* to be inerrant, they’re *supposed* to be actual historical books – that we cannot read them without already having an attitude toward them that must somehow be “protected”.

    I’m getting lengthy, so I’ll cut off. But, I really question whether there really *are* things in the gospels that even rise to the level of being called a “discrepancy”, if none of them were intended as historic accounts in the first place. (OK – maybe Luke’s gospel is supposed to be an attempt at an historical account, but even then, it’s only because it *claims* to be. But, that claim may be nothing more than what you see in some movies: “This is based on true events”)

    ok… that’s more than enough

    1
  12. Avatar
    ajh22  March 13, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, one of the discrepancies between the gospels you mention in Jesus Interrupted is between the endings of Matthew and Luke.

    “If Matthew is right, that the disciples immediately go to Galilee and see Jesus ascend from there, how can Luke be right that the disciples stay in Jerusalem the whole time, see Jesus ascend from there, and stay on until the day of Pentecost?”

    There is no ascension in the Gospel of Matthew. Do you still consider this a discrepancy? Thank you!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 13, 2018

      Yes, I think it’s a discrepancy. The discrepancy is not over where/when Jesus ascended, but whether his disciples ever went to Galilee and saw Jesus there. In Luke they clearly do not. In Matthew they clearly do.

      1
      • Avatar
        ajh22  March 13, 2018

        Thank you for responding! Looking forward to your new book after I finish with How Jesus Became God. This blog is a great resource for your readers and it’s highly admirable of you to answer our questions directly and interact with us through the blog, thanks again!

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