Understand the Gospels and inerrancy

So how do we understand and read the gospels? For ages skeptics have said there are many accounts in the four gospels that are either exaggerated or just plain myth (for instance Palm Sunday, virgin birth, pigs off a cliff). So does the Bible allow this? Can the Gospels still be understood and trusted if everything in there about Jesus isn’t 100% accurate? How do I reconcile this?

What jumps to mind immediately is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s take:

Eyewitnesses of an event naturally disagree on some details but agree on the major points, so minor discrepancies among authors of the gospels personally don’t bother me (I think the bible is inspired and authoritative but not “inerrant” in that sense). The bible never claims perfection for itself. I’m reassured about the general accuracy of the reported events because the gospel authors wrote during the first century–when many of the people who had directly experienced Jesus’s miracles and hung around listening to him talk would have still been alive. Hence, skeptics (or prospective converts) at that time had the ability to do their own “fact-checking” when presented with the gospel texts to test the accuracy of the reports. And since the early Christians suffered persecution for their beliefs about Jesus, one would think there would be strong motivation not to gullibly swallow (or pass on) a bunch of known lies, myths, and exaggerations, but indeed to determine whether the messages in the gospels were reliably accurate.

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Understand them as written by unknown authors at least forty years after their setting, as records of what the Church, intriguingly thriving since that time in the NE Roman empire, had orally promulgated from Jerusalem.

That God had walked the Earth as a man. What a claim!

I agree with klw: gospels are eyewitness reports. One report might not be enough to act as a witness of what happened, as the OT legal system demanded at least 2-3 witnesses. We have four witnesses.

Luke describes his methodology at the start of his gospel: “having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in an orderly sequence”. He had not walked with Jesus personally but collected information from eyewitnesses and probably writings that were originally eyewitness reports, like the gospel of Mark or comparable sources (the speculative Q source with written records about the life and talks of Jesus).

The end of the gospel by John claims “this is the disciple who is testifying about these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things which Jesus did, which, if they were written in detail, I expect that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:24-25).

The gospels are selective history in the sense that they do not report everything that was known about the life of Jesus and they are not following the temporal order of events in the same way as modern history books would write. Yet, the gospels tell about the life of Jesus in a way that shows how Jesus talked and acted.

Earlier liberal theologians assumed that gospels were written much after the death of Jesus and apostles. Today a large part of theologians agree that at least the first gospels were written at a time when there were still many eyewitnesses alive and many who had listened to the eyewitnesses. They would have protested if the gospels were a collection of invented stories. That did not happen. Instead, the four gospels were accepted as reliable sources by the majority of the Christians living at that time. As a sign of it, the four gospels were later acknowledged as part of the library that formed the canon.

Later, there were many other ‘gospels’ circulating in the world. These other writings were written much later and include details that are in conflict with the teachings of the four gospels and the letters of Paul etc. These other writings have not been generally accepted, except as examples of forgery.

Today, we believe that the four gospels are writings inspired by the Holy Spirit, as they are now included in the canon. Inspired, not dictated by the Holy Spirit word by word.

Luke was not an eye witness. John intersects with the other two synoptics to a minor extent.

Your title says “understand the gospels and inerrancy”.

TL;DR summary: The concept of “biblical inerrancy” is not biblical. And it is errant. (And I say that as a Bible-believing Christian.)

The very first thing to do, before all else, is to ditch that word “inerrancy”. If you really cannot tear yourself away from it, then question very closely and forensically what you mean by it. Not “how does someone else define it”. Not even “how does the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy" attempt to define it”. Neither of those.

Ask, rather, “how do I define it and understand this ‘inerrancy’”. Ask also “why am I so keen to clutch to this man-made word ‘inerrancy’ when nowhere in the Bible claims this ‘inerrancy’ for itself”. (Oh, by the way, we all know 2.Tim.3:16 “all scripture is inspired by God…”. We get it. We know it. But that is not inerrancy.)

You ask about the gospels. OK. Two little exercises in the gospels.

  1. Across the gospels, find the occurrences of Jesus debating with the teachers of the law about the greatest commandment. Compare them, writing the results in a table. Firstly, who asks the question and who provides the answer? Secondly, what are the precise lists of “love the Lord your God with…”. Are those lists the same or different? And how do the lists stack up against the original in the Old Testament which all these Bible experts (Jesus and the teachers) are discussing?

  2. Across the gospels, check the resurrection accounts at the tomb, and tabulate your findings. Who are the additional beings that are there? Are they men? Or angels? How many are there? Are they inside? Or outside?

You see the tabulated differences you have discovered? Ask, then, “how does my concept of ‘inerrancy’ interact with these findings (i.e. differences)?” If you want to hold on to this modernist man-made concept of “inerrancy”, then that word needs to be understood in a way that can accommodate your findings.

As Bible-honouring Christians we need to hold scripture in the highest regard. That means not inflicting upon it our well-intentioned idealism that it has to conform to our view of “inerrancy”. We should avoid the temptation of telling scripture, like a small child, how it ought to behave. We don’t instruct it; it should instruct us.

(P.S. All the above also applies for its near-twin, ‘infallibility’.)

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I think it’s important to remember that the Gospels are according to different people and addressed to different people; naturally, they would have different highlights or takeaways, which we even see with eyewitness accounts to this day. With all that being said, The Gospels are still quite trustworthy.

I don’t think we know whether Luke was an eyewitness to any events or not? He certainly was not one of the 12, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he was never among the “crowd” that followed Jesus around.

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A Greek doctor following a Jewish rabbi? He wasn’t one of the 70 either.

Luke was certainly Greek-trained and probably a gentile, but there were such people in Israel in the first century so I don’t see it as inherently implausible that he witnessed some events directly. I don’t think we can be dogmatic one way of the other. In any case, the point still stands that he wrote during the time of other eyewitnesses of the events, so his claims could still be fact-checked by his audience.

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I don’t think Luke was there based off of his statements in the opening of Luke.

1 Since many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 it seemed fitting to me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in an orderly sequence, most excellent Theophilus; 4 so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.

I get the impression that he was not part of the “ them” which is why he investigated it and compiled the letter.

With that said just because I don’t believe in inerrancy does not mean I think the Bible is full of lies. I don’t hVe any reason personally to reject the virgin birth , pig story and ect…

Most unlikely. He witnessed nothing up to 26 AD. He’d only have witnessed major public events if that, like the Crucifixion. Not any other candidates really are there? If he was in Jerusalem at that time. And not decades later.

Yes, so you agree that he might have witnessed some public events. That’s all I’m saying. And anyways, my main point was that he wrote during the time of other eyewitnesses that could have been questioned directly by a skeptical audience.

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It’s highly unlikely that Luke knew any eye witnesses in the 70s, let alone 80s-90s.

Luke was probably not an eyewitness but he wrote a report about what eyewitnesses told. In this sense, it is an eyewitness report.

When John wrote his gospel, there were already other gospels. No need to repeat the same things. The lack of overlap was probably a conscious decision. John wanted to focus on matters that were not covered well by the earlier gospels.

If Luke was a follower of Paul and waited 20 years before writing Luke-Acts then he would have known Peter, James, those of the Jerusalem Church, even Mary.

One might debate the probability (with very little data one way or the other to go on), but we both agree the probability is not zero, which is all I’m saying…

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Aye, the seven consensus Pauline epistles testifying to the thriving Church validate the gospels greatly.

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I don’t know when Luke wrote his gospel but I agree that he probably knew many of the persons included in the gospel-Acts. I have sometimes speculated that Luke, as a physician, could get a possibility to interview Mary when consulting health problems of Mary. Just speculation but could explain why Luke wrote much about what happened to Mary before the birth of Jesus.

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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