Dr. David F. Watson recently published an article for Firebrand in which he presents several objections to biblical inerrancy (or "verbal inerrancy"), a doctrine articulated in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and affirmed by every member of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). This is the second in a series of short posts responding to the objections presented by Watson. In this post, I consider Watson’s assertion concerning Gospel differences:
In cases in which the Gospels relate what seems to be the same story in two slightly different ways, proponents of verbal inerrancy must conclude that these are actually accounts of two separate events. Otherwise, one would have to admit errors in the text.
On the contrary, the Chicago Statement explicitly rejects such a conclusion. The Statement insists that it is not "proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose." Thus the Statement denies that "inerrancy is negated" by "lack of modern technical precision" or "variant selections of material in parallel accounts" (p. 5). The Statement further insists that we must pay careful attention to "differences between literary conventions in Bible times and in ours." Thus, since
non-chronological narration and imprecise citation were conventional and acceptable and violated no expectations in those days, we must not regard these things as faults when we find them in Bible writers. When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it. Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed. (p. 9)
Ironically, the two New Testament historians who have done the finest recent work expounding the differences in the Gospels are both inerrantists! Mike Licona, who is a member of ETS, published an important study in 2017 analyzing the differences in Plutarch’s biographies (Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography, Oxford University Press). Plutarch composed biographies of important Greeks and Romans such as Caesar and Cicero. Some of these men lived at the same time and participated in the same events. Licona demonstrates that when we compare Plutarch's record of the same event in different biographies, we find the same types of discrepancies that we find when we compare parallel accounts in the Gospels. Licona concludes,
During the age when the Gospels were written, the finest historians and biographers did not practice writing with the same commitment to precision as us moderns. They wanted to tell a story in a manner that entertained, provided moral guidance, emphasized points they regarded as important, and paint a portrait of important people. If they had to adapt some details on occasion, it was permissible. Such adapting was not intended to distort the truth but to communicate it more effectively. (198)
Licona then applies this insight to the problem of Gospel discrepancies:
[Many] devout believers have been troubled by the differences in the Gospels. They have often responded with harmonization efforts, some of which have bordered on subjecting the Gospel texts to a sort of hermeneutical waterboarding until they tell the exegete what he or she wants to hear. Doing such violence to the texts is unnecessary, since a large majority of the differences can quite easily and rightly be appreciated and/or resolved in light of the literary conventions of ancient biography and history writing. (200-1)
Likewise, Craig Keener, who recently served as the president of ETS, published a study in 2019 demonstrating that the literary conventions described by Licona "extend well beyond Plutarch to many other ancient biographers" (Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels, Eerdmans, 303). Keener concludes,
Audiences from the Gospels’ era did not expect biographers to freely invent events, but they did allow them to flesh out scenes and discourse for the purpose of what they considered narrative verisimilitude. Biographers were not supposed to invent a teacher’s message, but they could interpret and communicate it from their own perspectives. (499-500)
In conclusion, inerrantists are of course well aware of the many differences in the Gospels. The Chicago Statement provides a nuanced account of inerrancy that explicitly allows for such differences. Furthermore, the Statement's important qualification concerning literary conventions has been developed with great sophistication and rigor by Licona and Keener.