Q. In reading the Bible, I’m surprised how much books disagree, especially the Gospels. They have different ancestors of Jesus and even different words for Jesus spoken at the Last Supper. How can this be if the Gospels are supposed to give us a true life of our Lord? (California)
A. I often receive questions similar to yours. Is it perhaps one aspect of the feeling many Catholics and other Christians have that religious matters should be black and white, without ambiguity? Any evidence that this is not always so is met with disbelief or, as in your case, confusion.
When we first read the Gospels, we might easily assume we are reading a life of Christ, much like any modern biography. We believe the first job of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John was to get their information correct or at least correlate their accounts to get to the "true story."
The Gospels were never intended to be that kind of writing, however. First of all, the scientific "get the facts right" kind of history with which we are familiar is a relatively modern invention. Beyond that, the truth is that the sorts of details we like to look for in the Gospels were of no critical concern to the four evangelists.
Their intention was rather to convey the message of Jesus, to proclaim the Gospel, the "Good News" of the Father’s kingdom present among us in his Son Jesus Christ. Since that is what the evangelists set out to do, we’re disappointed if we expect something else.
Evidence for the truth of what I’m saying abounds in the New Testament. Take one of your examples. We know the Eucharist already held a high place in the lives of early Christians. Surely at least here the Gospel writers would get their facts straight. What did Jesus really say at the Last Supper?
Yet, the quoted words of our Lord in the institution of the Eucharist are different in all three synoptic Gospels, and all differ as well from the eucharistic institution formula we use at Mass. John does not refer to the Eucharist at all in his narrative of the Last Supper, at least in this direct way.
These differing readings probably reflected variations in the liturgy from one place to another in those days. Whatever the reasons, each Gospel writer added, changed or subtracted ideas he thought necessary to express what he wanted to say about Jesus.
The 1964 Pontifical Biblical Commission Instruction on the biblical truth of the Gospels reflects the nearly universal position of major scholars today. From the many things handed down to them, said the commission, the Gospel writers "selected some things, reduced others to a synthesis" and explained yet others "as they kept in mind the (different) situation(s) of the churches. …
"The truth of the story is not at all affected by the fact that the evangelists relate the words and deeds of the Lord in a different order and express his sayings not literally but differently, while preserving (their) sense."
The differences between Jesus’ genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 are explained the same way.
As Pope Pius XII said in his historic 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (No. 34), always the critical question to ask is: What did the Scripture writer intend to say?
While the authors were sometimes acquainted with each others’ writings, as Luke and Matthew seem certainly to have known the earlier Gospel of Mark, they obviously had other concerns than meshing their facts. The message for their readers was much bigger, much different and much deeper than that.
A longtime columnist with Catholic News Service, Father Dietzen died March 27, 2011.