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Unless one holds (as some Skeptics even do) to a wooden, robotic idea of inspiration, it will be reckoned that difference in the same stories told by the Synoptic Gospel writers (hereafter SGWs) ought to and will reflect their own personalities and experiences. Even at present it is obvious that we may tell the truth about events after our own fashion without compromising accuracy. A person who speaks of seeing a "large" plane, if he has seen only Cessnas, cannot be faulted for error in balance to a person who describes the same plane as "small" having previously seen only jumbo jets. Perspective makes a great deal of difference in reportage, and we will show how this applies to certain Gospel texts.
Let us begin with a very simple example involving word choices. Here is a classic case I have noted elsewhere:
Acts 9:25 Then the disciples took him by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket.
2 Cor. 11:33 And through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped his hands.
It isn't obvious in English, but Luke and Paul use different words for "basket" -- Luke uses spuris, while Paul uses sargane. The latter word comes from a root word that refers to intertwining; we might specify a woven basket. The word spuris is used, however, to refer to a hamper or lunch receptacle. It is used by Matthew and Mark to refer to the baskets used to pick up the leftovers from the loaves and fishes incidents, the first time -- whereas Luke (and John) use the word kophinos, as do Matthew and Mark for the second feeding.
What's the difference here, and why? Only the worst sort of critic might claim an error here. But the difference in words does not constitute error at all; they do show a difference in focus. Paul's word expresses the construction of his basket; Luke's word refers to the utility aspect of the basket.
It is like saying, "I was let down in a wicker basket" versus "I was let down in a laundry basket." Are those statements contradictory? Not by themselves.
Similarly, kophinos stresses size (it is connected with small baskets) versus the utility of spuris. (We might have had an issue had Luke put Paul in a kophinos; Paul would have had to be a very short man.)
We can ask here, Why would the SGWs choose different words?
Why would Paul use his word? It isn't possible to do more than speculate. One might suggest that Paul remembered very well that the basket was woven, because he either was peeking through the seams or else wasn't sitting very comfortably.
The stress on the utility function in the SGWs was most likely because the baskets were used as receptacles as the word's meaning implies -- though kophinos was chosen for the second feeding. (Interestingly, in Matthew and Mark, there was pickup of only seven of the likely larger spuris, but twelve of the likely smaller kophinos.) Luke's singular use of kophinos where Matthew and Mark used spuris may have been an effort to choose a more sophisticated, classical word. Speculation may abound, but in any event it is clear that the SGWs (indeed any writer) made conscious word choices among options.
Here is another minor example:
Matthew 8:25 And his disciples came to him, and awoke him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish.
Mark 4:38 And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish?
Did the disicples address Jesus as "Lord" (kurios) or as "master" (didaskalos)? In Aramaic, there may have been no difference, nor in Greek. Both Greek words can carry the sense of master. The use of kurios as a divine title in the church may have led Matthew to select kurios here, though he does have others (mostly non-believers) call Jesus didaskalos, and Mark does have people call Jesus kurios (9:24).
We can speculate endlessly about the choice of words, but the SGWs certainly had some freedom of choice from the Greek language to differ in vocabulary.
Now let's move to a larger example, which I have used in another context as well, in which we can expand this principle of selection:
Matthew 3:7-10 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
Luke 3:7-9 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire."
I used this example elsewhere to refute contentions of those who supposes that these passages are evidence for a "Q" document used by Matthew and Luke. Critics ask "why (Luke) removed the polemic against the Pharisees and Sadducees" and answer that we are shown thereby the "motives" of each writer. We suppose motives as well, but they are much simpler ones than offered by the critics.
Here and in Luke 23:27, our Luke offers charges to take in the whole crowd, not just the Pharisees and Sadducees. The critics think that Matthew inserted the P & S gang for his own polemical purposes, i.e., because he hated the P & S crowd.
Well, if I may plagiarize myself and repeat: It is no big shock that Matthew disliked the P & S gang, but to suppose that the story was originally only concerned with a general-identity "crowd" just doesn't work. Matthew (3:5-6) and Luke (3:3-4) both indicate, albeit in different ways, that people as a whole were coming to John for baptism, and the warning that follows doesn't make a whole lot of sense unless there was already a mixed group coming for baptism in the first place, because we hardly expect John to go to all the trouble of offering baptism and then insulting everyone who shows up. If everyone who came was a viper, then why is John even bothering to offer baptism? How does John know that everyone in the crowd is a viper? Does he have intimate knowledge of their personal lives?
The warning, in fact, makes a whole lot more sense as something said to a select group with known beliefs and practices that suggest that they are coming to be baptized for the wrong reasons. And in fact, one might argue that Luke betrays knowledge of the original identity of the "crowd" when he quotes Johnny B. about these folks bragging that they are part of Abraham's family (3:8). Every Jew could say this, but it would only be a self-righteous sort of group like the P & S crowd that would suppose that it would mean anything in relation to John's baptism. The average "crowd" member wouldn't have the theological or religious sophistication to make such an appeal.
But we argue that Luke has de-identified the P & S crowd and generalized them, and for his own reasons -- perhaps as one who is more inclined to stress the universal nature of the Christian faith (this would also explain why Luke turns Matthew's "scribe" and "disciple" in Matt. 8:19-22 into anonymous persons); perhaps also as one who knows Pharisaic Christians in the Jerusalem church and does not want to open up old wounds. This is another reason why we would see differences in emphasis and verbiage in the Gospels: the writers each had themes to follow, and would report accordingly.
A further example of thematic differences can be seen in the respective conclusions of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which I recently discussed here. Luke has ended his Gospel in Jerusalem, because throughout his Gospel he has emphasized Jerusalem as Jesus' destination, and in Acts, as the center for the spreading of the Gospel (Acts follows a pattern in which the Gospel is spread from Jerusalem in ever-wider geographical circles, even as people return to that city; cf. Acts 11:2, 12:15, 15:2, 18:21, 19:1 and 21, 20:16). Matthew has had Jesus begin his ministry coming from Galilee (3:13/4:12, 15) and therefore rounds off his account by ending in Galilee (28:16).
Such "artistry" seems quite strange to us as moderns; yet we do much the same thing, as we select from an account which highlights our concern, our experience, and our attention. The auto mechanic will recall and tell more about the damage done to vehicles in an accident; the physician will tell more about the injuries.
Let it never be said, at any rate, that differences among the Gospels are a matter of "error" or "contradiction".