Discrepancies in the Gospels in Light of Greco-Roman Education
To be a disciple of Jesus the Christ is in essence to be his follower: that is, to walk with him, to learn from him and to be conformed to his very likeness. All of this is very difficult, nay impossible if one cannot trust what the Gospels say concerning him. For this reason and so many more, the question of the reliability of the Gospels and furthermore the reliability of the entire canon of Scripture is essential to Christianity.
Because of its grand scope, consider today just one aspect of this subject, the synoptic discrepancies. The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) contain numerous parallel episodes, however many of these episodes contain differences. Sometimes one author uses different wording than another to record the same story. Other times one author spreads Jesus’ teachings out over many chapters, whereas another author keeps the teachings together in a tight chronological unit. Still other times the episodes vary in essential details, such as how many blind men were healed or who reported the news of the resurrection.
Now what is one to do with such differences? Can they be explained, or do they in fact reveal that the synoptic gospels are at odds with one another and are therefore unreliable?
Before answering that question, consider the world in which the Gospel authors lived.
Ancient Greco-Roman education was primarily focused on forming rhetoricians: those who could write, argue and persuade with excellence. 1D. B. Gowler, “The Chreia,” in A.-J. Levine, D. C. Allison Jr., and J. D. Crossan (eds.), The Historical Jesus in Context (Princeton Readings in Religion; Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), 134. To reach this end students were constantly working with rhetorical exercises, one of which was called the chreia (pl. chreiai).
Chreiai were brief sayings, or anecdotes, in which the subject said something or performed an action that made an important point. 2George A. Kennedy, Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric (Writings from the Greco-Roman World 10; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 19. They were often short and simple and yet were one of the essential parts of a young person’s education. At every stage – primary, secondary and tertiary – students interacted with chreiai. Primary students went from learning basic letter skills to learning to read chreiai. Secondary students developed grammar skills and began reading and interpreting longer chreiai. Finally, tertiary level students reached the point of inputting one or more chreia into their own written and spoken compositions. 3Gowler, 138.
What is important to note is that by the time a student reached the tertiary stage of their education they were now freely editing and adapting the chreiai. Students were both instructed and encouraged to edit wording and slight details, and to make expansions or contractions for the purpose of bringing greater clarity and persuasiveness to the point they wanted to make. 4Craig, A. Evans, Can We Trust what the New Testament says about the Historical Jesus (Nova Scotia: Acadia Divinity College), 24. Clearly, then, chreiai were never static narratives, but were meant to be adapted as long as the original meaning stayed intact. As Jewish scholar Martin Jaffee states, they were to a certain extent “malleable.” 5Martin S. Jaffee, Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism, 200 BCE–400 CE (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 131.
Now again, consider the world in which the Gospel authors lived. By the time of the 1st century Greek education had long been a part of Jewish circles. As early as the 3rd century BC Greek tutors were working among various Jewish groups, such as the Tobiads. By 175 BC a Greek gymnasium (a place of athletics and education) had been built inside the walls of Jerusalem.
Undoubtedly, during this time the Jewish people were being influenced by Greek culture, not least in the area of education. In light of this it is not surprising that many examples of chreiai have been identified in the synoptic Gospels. And as should be expected with any employment of chreiai, these examples contain variations. For example, while Luke 6.1-5 and Matthew 12.1-8 contain a parallel account of Jesus’ Sabbath teaching, Luke’s account is much smaller. Why is this? Well, in keeping with the very nature of chreiai both authors exercise the freedom to adapt the episode for the sake of the clarity. While Luke chooses to contract the episode, Matthew expands.
The authors of the synoptic Gospels were products of the ancient Greco-Roman world. As such, they were not trained in the art of faultless memorization and mechanical dictation. They were trained to be dynamic: to be discovering new ways of applying Jesus’ teachings; to be editing His teachings for the sake of the clarity of the point. They were trained in – among other things – the art of chreiai.
This basic understanding of chreiai serves to make sense of many of the variations between Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the end these alleged discrepancies do not hinder our ability to know what Jesus actually said and did, nor do they prove the synoptic gospels to be unreliable and at odds with each other. They simply give evidence to the way in which ancient history was recorded.
In other words, we can be confident on yet another level that within the synoptic Gospels we have the words and actions of Jesus the Christ.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||D. B. Gowler, “The Chreia,” in A.-J. Levine, D. C. Allison Jr., and J. D. Crossan (eds.), The Historical Jesus in Context (Princeton Readings in Religion; Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), 134.|
|2.||↑||George A. Kennedy, Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric (Writings from the Greco-Roman World 10; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 19.|
|4.||↑||Craig, A. Evans, Can We Trust what the New Testament says about the Historical Jesus (Nova Scotia: Acadia Divinity College), 24.|
|5.||↑||Martin S. Jaffee, Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism, 200 BCE–400 CE (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 131.|