The four Gospels in the Bible are central to the Christian faith. But they don’t always agree on the facts. So which is right? Which is most important? And does it even matter if certain stories are told differently from Gospel to Gospel?
Some who feel the need to interpret the Bible literally have to do some pretty interesting literary juggling to reconcile some of the differences among the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And for others, it still raises questions about why the differences exist and what to do about them.
We took on one of these questions in Banned Questions About Jesus. Check out the question below, followed by the responses from several contributors.
In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus drives the money changers out of the temple just before he died, but in John, this happens at the beginning of his ministry. Why are these accounts different?
Pablo A. Jiménez: Matthew, Mark and Luke are very similar. Experts think that Mark was the main source used by Matthew and Luke to write their Gospels. These documents are so similar that experts in biblical studies have given them a particular name: the “Synoptic” Gospels. The word “Synoptic” derives from two Greek words: “syn”, which means “with” and “ophtalmos”, which means “eye”. Therefore, they can be read together, “with a single eye”.
In the Synoptic Gospels the disturbance at the Temple is one of the main reasons for Jesus’ execution. The Temple courtyard was visible from the watchtowers of the Antonia Fortress, from where Roman soldiers monitored activities. According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus was arrested few days as after this event, which surely labeled him as an enemy of the state.
John, written later than the others, follows his own path. For theological reasons, John places the account of the disturbance at the Temple at the very beginning of his story. It serves as an indictment of the Jewish status quo.
Sadly, John refers to Jesus’ adversaries as “the Jews”, which some people mistakenly understand in ethnic terms. In reality, John’s term refers to the established Jewish political and religious leadership, particularly those in collusion with the Roman occupation army.
In historical terms, though, the disturbance did occur in Jesus’ last week, triggering his persecution, arrest, torture, sentence and execution.
Christian Piatt: It’s always interesting when stories differ from one gospel to another. For some, this may present a problem to reconcile, particularly if they require the Bible to be perfect not only in truth, but also in fact.
Another perspective actually can tell us a lot about what was going on within the culture at the time the texts were written. Take this story in the gospels, for example. In The People’s New Testament Commentary, Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock note that the temple referred to in the stories in Matthew, Mark and Luke no longer exists by the time John was written, having been destroyed by war.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that John’s gospel couldn’t have the story happening at the same time as the so-called synoptic gospels. But the destruction of the temple, foretold by Jesus in scripture, serves too as a metaphor for the understanding within Christianity of where God dwells.
In the Jewish tradition, the temple is a holier place than others, which means that Jesus was, in a sense, protecting “God’s house” in the synoptic gospels. But in John, which was written decades later in the life of the early Christian movement, Jesus is establishing himself as the new focus of God’s power, carried out into the world by the “body of Christ,” i.e., his followers.
So the difference comes down to a matter of priorities. In the synoptics, Jesus’ appearance at the temple is one of the final challenges to the powers that be, leading to his death. In John, however, the story is establishing Jesus’ divinity, and that he – not the physical church – is now endowed with God’s authority.
David Lose: The writers of the four gospels were not writing history as we know it. They were confessing their faith through historical story. Their goal is not neutral objectivity; indeed, their hope is to persuade us to come to faith in Jesus (see John 20:30-31). So whenever you encounter different versions of what looks like the same event, the question isn’t, “Which one is right?” but rather, “What does this difference tell me about the distinct confession of faith the author is making?” The intentional choices the evangelists make provide clues to their literary and theological aims.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple by driving out the money changers portrays the rising tension between Jesus and the religious authorities. In fact, Jesus’ attack on their sacrificial system is one of the last straws that provokes his opponents to determine to put Jesus to death.
In John, however, the action serves an entirely different literary and theological purpose. At the outset of the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptizer declared that Jesus is “the lamb that takes away the sin of the world.” (1:29) Further, in John’s gospel the day on which Jesus is crucified is the Day of Preparation for the Passover (in the other three accounts that Friday is Passover), which means that Jesus dies at the time when the priests are sacrificing the Passover lambs (19:31). Jesus, according to John, is the new Passover lamb. The very first thing Jesus does in his public ministry, therefore, is to drive out the money changers from the Temple. Why? Because now that God’s own Passover lamb is among us, there simply is no more need for any more sacrifice.