Have you ever read a book on harmonizing the gospels? The author puts all four gospel accounts into one book in one consistent timeline. Other books seek to resolve “contradictions” between accounts to uphold the integrity of the accounts of the life of Jesus. I think this work is noble and has its place, but I don’t think it is as necessary as we might think.
Because if God wanted to give us a perfectly harmonized account of the life of Jesus, then we wouldn’t have four separate accounts that do not attempt to harmonize themselves.
Case in point: the temptations of Jesus.
In Matthew’s account of the gospel, the temptations are (1) turning stones to bread, (2) throwing Himself off the temple, and (3) receiving the kingdoms of the earth (Matthew 4).
In Luke’s account, which is written in “consecutive order” after Luke “investigated everything carefully,” Jesus was first tempted to turn stones into bread, then to receive the kingdoms of the earth, and finally to cast Himself off the temple (Luke 4).
Which one is right? Which one is true? Which one is correct?
So, either the gospel writers were terrible at covering up a conspiracy, they were unaware of each other and made a mistake, the Holy Spirit who inspired them was wrong, OR they weren’t attempting to provide us with a step-by-step account of the life of Jesus as if they were following Him around with a video camera.
So why the difference? Why the disharmony?
The writers had no qualms with rearranging certain elements of the life of Jesus to make a point. These categories of right, true, or correct weren’t on their mind when they recorded these things because the Truth of the story is deeper than surface level “contradictions.” They are only contradictions if the authors make any claims or attempts of abstaining from contradictions, but that is not the design or intention of the gospel writers.
For example, the last temptation Jesus rejects in Matthew is the reception of the kingdoms of the earth. All He would have to do is bow down before Satan. Why would Matthew order his account of the temptations differently from Luke (or vice versa)?
I think an overview of Matthew reveals the answer.
Jesus mentions the kingdom often in Matthew, and there is a tension throughout the book between Jesus and His various audiences (His disciples, critics, etc.) concerning the nature of the kingdom. Matthew includes this detail to show that Jesus Himself felt that struggle. Finally, towards the end of His life, Jesus admits what had been on His mind since the beginning, “Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53).
The point is when we see disharmony, we shouldn’t seek to “fix” it, but we should ask why it was intentionally included. Why have these accounts been preserved in these ways for two thousand years? What is the greater Truth just below the surface?
I’ll make one more point about the disharmony in the gospel accounts.
Do you remember when you were a kid and you and a friend did something wrong? Maybe at school, a babysitters, or at home? Perhaps you broke a lamp or “forgot” to do chores or whatever.
What did you do?
You and your friend got together and came up with the perfect story. You rehearsed every detail to make sure the account was air tight.
And the authority figures saw right through it.
It turns out, having a story that was a little “sloppy” was more authentic and expected from two kids attempting to retell a series of chaotic, energized events.
So when we come to the accounts of the resurrection, for example, we see some people left out of some accounts that are included in others. Jesus is walking through walls, appearing among crowds, and masking His appearance. The accounts are electric, full of energy, life, and tension, which is exactly what you would expect from four different accounts of an event as wonderful, fascinating, and chaotic as the resurrection with people running from town to town, house to house, falling on their face, full of disbelief and belief all at the same time.
Again, if God wanted us to have a “harmonized” account of the life of Jesus, we wouldn’t have four books!
Which one is true? Which one is correct? Which one is right?
They all are. Their truthfulness is not contained in the timelines, details, and other areas; they are true, right, and correct because they contain the Word of God.