Some people have a hard time believing the Bible because of some discrepancies. I’m just the opposite. I think the little variations in the details of the stories makes it all even more believable.
The other night, five of my children were sprawled out across the living room reminiscing, telling stories about when they were younger. When they tell stories, it often happens that one will start a story and another will interrupt, Wait! Wasn’t I there too? or Were we playing PlayMobil in our hallway or LEGOS over on the other side of the apartment building? or No, that wasn’t you and Regan; that was you and Judah!
Doesn’t your family do this? One person’s story ends up being corrected or filled in with details from another family member’s memory. That time the dog peed on the carpet wasn’t at Aunt Nellie’s house at Christmas, it was at Aunt Judy’s house at Thanksgiving. Remember? It was in the corner behind that recliner while Uncle Billy was watching the football game. And everyone nods and oh yeah’s and then tries to remember what hilarious thing did happen at Aunt Nellie’s house at Christmas because there was for sure a story about that.
The story about Jesus’ resurrection in the four Gospels is like this. The details don’t exactly match up. Each author tells the story from his memory, so the details vary a little bit.
John writes that it was still dark, but Matthew says it was at dawn, and Mark more specifically writes that it was just after sunrise. Mark writes that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome were bringing spices to anoint Jesus. Matthew mentions Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.” John writes as if it was Mary Magdalene alone. Luke at first simply calls them “the women,” but then he goes on to name them – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and “the others.” Luke says two angels appeared, but Mark writes that it was one angel. Matthew describes the angel rolling the stone away, but John doesn’t tell about an angel at all. Matthew is the only one who mentions a violent earthquake. John is the only one who mentions the folded cloth in the tomb. The sequence of events isn’t clear if you read all four of the Gospel accounts – When did Peter run to the tomb? When was Mary crying and when did she see Jesus? After she told the disciples or before? Was she alone? Or were the other women with her? It isn’t really clear. And it probably doesn’t really matter.
I imagine that if the disciples were sitting around a campfire retelling this story years later, Mark would start off telling about Mary Magdalene going to anoint Jesus’ body then Matthew would chime in, “Don’t forget the other Mary. James’s mom was there too.” Then Mark would say, “And Salome. She was with them. Who else was there?” Then Luke would answer, “Joanna. I remember Joanna. And it seems there were some others, but I can’t remember which ones.” Matthew would mention that the women were going at dawn, then Mark would interrupt, “Yeah, just after sunrise. They got to tomb just after the sun came up, Mary said.” And John might counter, “I think Joanna told me that they left the house while it was still dark, but maybe it was dark when they started walking and they got there when the sun was coming up.” And so the story would go – each one remembering details from his own perspective, from his memory of what the women had said.
That’s how eyewitness accounts work.
When mayhem breaks out and I ask my kids what happened, I get a little skeptical if they all have the exact same story with the exact same words. Every parent knows perfectly-rehearsed stories recited nearly word-perfect by multiple children probably aren’t the truth. Often, it requires a few different versions of a story to flesh out what really happened. If they’re being honest, the big strokes of the story match up while the details vary from kid to kid.
And that’s how the stories in the Gospels go. What some may see as discrepancies or errors or reasons to doubt, I find as reassurance that these are real stories told by real people from their own human perspective and human memory. And reading the Gospels makes me imagine what Heaven will be like, all of us sprawled out in a big family room listening to stories, one disciple interrupting another to clarify or fill in some details. “You didn’t even mention the earthquake! How could you forget that part?” “Oh yeah, there was an earthquake that morning. You always remember the earthquakes, Matthew. Why do I forget to mention that every time?”