Were the Gospel Writers Reporting or Creating the Words of Christ?

Were the Gospel Writers Reporting or Creating the Words of Christ?

Photo Model or Portrait Model


By Norman L. Geisler


Imagery can be helpful or dangerous.  Until relatively recent times most New Testament scholars believed the Gospel writers were giving something like snap shot images of the words and deeds of Christ.  However, contemporary literary criticism rejects the “Photo” model and has replaced it with a “Portrait” model.  This, they think, fits better with data and the creativity of the Gospel writers who, they believe, were not strictly reporting but were interpreting, even creating, the words and deeds of Christ.


The Difficulties of the Photo Model

Several lines of evidence have been used to support this change of images from the snap shot to the portrait image.  Together, they are used to reject the strict reporting model for a more flexible model which they believe fits the biblical evidence better.

First, there is the obvious fact that the various Gospels do not present the same material (words and deeds) about Christ.  There are many significant differences.  With the exception of some main events like the death and resurrection narratives, there are few events mentioned in all four Gospels and many events are recorded only in one Gospel.

Second, there are known conflicts between the different Gospel presentations.  Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is presented at different times in his ministry, one early (Jn. 2:13-17) and one late (Mt. 21:12-13).  The order of the three temptations of Christ are different between Matthew 4 and Luke 4.  How Judas died is presented as by hanging in Matthew 27:5, but by falling and bursting open in Acts 1:18.  The number of angels at the tomb is one in Matthew (27:5) but two in John (20:12).  Different words come from the thieves on the cross, one railing at him (Mt. 27:44) and the other defending him (Lk. 24:4-42).

Third, the actual quotations of Jesus on the same occasion are often listed differently in different Gospels.  This includes important events like the inscription on the Cross which is reported four different ways in the four Gospels.  Also, the confession of Peter which is stated three different ways.  So, it is argued that if the Gospel writers were giving us photographs of the events, then these would all be the same, but they are not.

Some words appear to be added to Jesus’ sayings.  For example, John uses “verily, verily” (e.g., 1:51; 3:3, 5, 11 [KJV] or “truly, truly” [ESV] or many sayings of Jesus which are not found in the first three Gospels.  Since it is widely believed that John wrote last, it is argued that Jesus never used this phrase (or these sayings) but that John put it into Jesus’ mouth.

The Dangers of the Portrait Model

            Problems like these have led many scholars to think that the Gospel writers were painting a portrait, rather than giving snaps shots.  However, when the “portrait” model is examined closely, it has some serious difficulties of its own.

First, the portrait image does not account well for the many parts of the Gospel that are virtually identical.  This is true, not only of the order and nature of many events, but also of the actual words that Jesus and others used.  Many scholars point to the similarities of the first three Gospels (called Synoptic Gospels).  For example of the 1068 verses in Matthew about 500 overlap with Mark’s 661 verses.  Of Luke’s 1149 verses about 320 overlap with Mark.  In fact, there are only 50-55 verses unique to Mark (W.G. Scroggie, A Guide to the Gospels, 86).  Why would different portraits have so many overlaps that are the same?

Second, the Gospel writers were careful to distinguish their own words from the words of Jesus.  This is what makes it relatively easy to produce a red letter edition of the Gospels (with Jesus’ words in red).  The distinction is clear enough that almost all red-letter editions of the Gospels are the same with only minor exceptions.

Third, the portrait image leaves room for contradictions in the Gospel (which many NT scholars believe) since different portraits done by different persons do not always complement each other in every detail.  But if the Gospels are the divinely inspired Word of God, then how can they have contradictions and errors in them?  God cannot err (Heb. 6:18), and if the Gospels are the Word of God, then they cannot err either. So, the portrait model is in conflict with the inerrancy of Scripture.

Fourth, the portrait image lends to the view that the Gospel writers were not really reporting but rather were creating Jesus’ words and deeds.  But if this is so, then how can we know what Jesus really said and did?

  Ipsissima Verba (Same Words) vs. Ipsissima Vox (Same Meaning)?

If the Gospels are neither snap shots nor portraits, then what are they?  And how accurately do they portray the real Jesus and his actual words and deeds?  Before we attempt to answer this specifically, we need to speak to the matter of the Gospel’s reliability.  Several lines of evidence lead us to believe that the Gospels are historically reliable:

(1) We have some early records by eye-witnesses of the events.  John and Peter were eyewitnesses of events in Jesus’ life.  John said: “The man who saw it [the crucifixion] has given testimony, and his testimony is true” (Jn. 19:35). “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true” (Jn. 21:24).  “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1John 1:1). This is about as clear an eye-witness testimony as one can give.

Peter reported: “We did not follow cleverly invented stories [myths] when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). “We did not follow cleverly invented stories [myths] when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).  “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s suffering and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed” (1 Peter 5:1). Peter and John said, “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact” (Acts 2:32).Peter and John replied…. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and Jerusalem.  They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen” (Acts 10:39-40).

Paul, an apostle and eye witness of the resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8) wrote many New Testament books, including four that even most Bible critics accept as authentic (1and 2 Corinthians, Romans, and Galatians).  He declared:  For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,  that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Cor. 15:3-8).  Even critical scholars believe this was written by A.D. 55-57 when almost all the apostles and chief eyewitness were still alive who could verify the main events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  Given this fact, this text is a powerful testimony to the fact that Paul was reporting, not creating, the events of which he spoke.

(2) Further, there were multiple eye-witnesses for many of the events, including the most crucial ones like the death and resurrection of Christ.  Indeed, there are 27 New Testament books which have traditionally been ascribed to nine different authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and the writer of Hebrews (though some believe Paul wrote it). Jesus’ death, for example, is listed in every Gospel (Mt. 27; Mk. 15; Luke 23; John 19) and in most of the NT books, as is his resurrection (e.g., Mt. 28; Mk. 16; Lk. 24; John 20-21; 1 Cor. 15).  But having two or more reliable witnesses of the same discourse or event is accepted in court as sufficient evidence to convict the accused of the crime.  Indeed, the Law of Moses records that at the mouth of two or three witnesses one can be sentenced to death (Deut. 17:6).

(3) We have other NT books that were written by contemporaries of the eyewitnesses.  Luke wrote: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Lk. 1:1-4). Clearly Luke claimed to be reporting actual history.  

The writer of Hebrews said, “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard [him],  while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (Heb. 2:3-4 cf.  13:23, emphasis added).

(4) Numerous persons mentioned in the New Testament are known to have lived during that time period.  Luke provided historical crosshairs for a first-century eye-witness setting when he wrote:   “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert” (Luke 3:1-2). It is noteworthy that: 1) An exact date is given–A. D. 29.  2)  All eight people are known from history.  3)  All were known to live at this exact time. 4) Clearly this is not a “once-upon-a-time” legend but real history based on contemporary eye-witness testimony.  All together there are some 30 persons mentioned in the NT that are known from extra-biblical sources to have lived at that time (see Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels).

(5) Many legal authorities have supported the credibility of the Gospel writers.  After applying the principles for testing the validity of a witness testimony to the New Testament, one of the greatest attorney’s in early America, Simon Greenleaf, Professor of Law at Harvard University, wrote:“The narratives of the evangelists are now submitted to the reader’s perusal and examination, upon the principles and by the rules already stated…. If they had thus testified on oath, in a court of justice, they would be entitled to credit; and whether their narratives, as we now have them, would be received as ancient documents, coming from the proper custody.  If so, then it is believed that every honest and impartial man will act consistently with that result, by receiving their testimony in all the extent of its import” (see Simon Greenleaf, The Testimony of the Evangelists, 53-54).

Many other attorneys have had similar experiences, including Thomas Sherlock, The Tryal of the Witnesses of the Resurrection; Frank Morrison,Who Moved the Stone? John Montgomery, Christianity and History; Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ; J.W. Wallace, Cold-Case Christianty.

(6) Early non-Christian writers have confirmed the historicity of many of the main events mentioned in the Gospels such as:  (1)  Jesus was from Nazareth;  (2)  He lived a virtuous life; (3)  He performed unusual feats;  (4)  He introduced new teaching contrary to Judaism;  (5)  He was crucified under Pontius Pilate;  (6)  His disciples believed He rose from the dead; (7)  His disciples denied polytheism; (8)  His disciples worshiped Him; (9)  His teachings and disciples spread rapidly; (10)  His followers believed they were immortal; (11)  His followers had contempt for death; (12)  His followers renounced material goods (see F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament).

The following chart summarizes the non-Christian source and the events of Jesus’ life that were confirmed:

Non-Christian Sources within 150 Years of Jesus











Existed Virtuous Worship Disciples Teacher Crucified Empty Tomb Disciples’

Belief in Resurrection

Spread Persecution
Tacitus 115 X X X X X X
Suetonius 117-138 X X X X X X
Josephus 90-95 X X X X X X X X X
Thallus 52 X X*
Pliny 112 X X X X X* X X
Trajan 112? X* X X X X
Hadrian 117-138 X* X X X
Talmud 70-200 X X X
Toledoth Jesu 5thCentury X X
Lucian 2ndCentury X X X X X X
Mara Bar-Scrapion 1st – 3rdCenturies X X X X X X*
Phlegon 80? X X X X

* implied


7)  Roman historians, who are experts in first century events, have confirmed the reliability of the Gospels.  Noted Roman historian, A. N. Sherwin-White, wrote: “So it is astonishing that while Greco-Roman historians have been growing confidence, the twentieth-century study of the gospel narratives, starting from no less promising material, have taken so gloomy a turn in the development of form-criticism…that the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written. This seems very curious.”  He calls the mythological view “unbelievable” (A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the NT, 187, 189).

Another first century scholar, Colin Hemer, demonstrated the accuracy of Luke on nearly 100 details of history and geography in his book, Acts in the Setting of Hellenic History (1990).  These included (1) Minute geographical details known to the readers; (2) Specialized details known only to special groups; (3) Specifics of not widely known routes, places, and officials; (4)  Correlation of dates in Acts with general history; ( 5) Details appropriate to that period but not others; (6)  Events which reflects a sense of “immediacy”; (7) Idioms and culture that bespeak of a first-hand awareness; (8) Verification of numerous details of times, people, and  events of that period best known by contemporaries.  This same author (Luke), known for his historical accuracy, also wrote the Gospel of Luke (cf. Luke 1:1 and Acts 1:1).

(8) Archaeology has supported many New Testament events (see Joe Holden,The  Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible, 2013).  Noted biblical archaeologist, Nelson Glueck wrote: “As a matter of fact, however, it may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference.  Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible” (Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert, 31). Some of the NT places or events confirmed by archaeology include: (1) Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus; (2) A coin of Caesar Augustus, during whose reign Jesus was born; (3) Tomb of King Herod who attempted to kill baby Jesus; (4) Pool of Siloam where Jesus performed a miracle; (5) Foundation wall of outer court of the temple where Jesus taught; (6) A bone of a crucifixion victim (with a nail in it) who died like Jesus did; (7) Inscription of Pontius Pilate who condemned Jesus to death; (8) Ossuary of Caiaphas the high priest who tried Jesus; (9) Ossuary box of  “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”;[1] (10) Arch of Titus who destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70 showing the Jewish minora being carried away.

Reviewing the archaeological evidence for the Bible, even a secular magazine wrote:  “In extraordinary ways, modern archaeology has affirmed the historical core of the Old and New Testaments—corroborating key portions of the stories of Israel’s patriarchs, the Exodus, the Davidic monarchy, and the life and times of Jesus” (Jeffery Sheler “Is the Bible True,” US News & World Report, October 25, 1999, p. 52).

The Accuracy of the Gospel Records

Now some of these testimonies speak only to the credibility of the overall history of the main events in the New Testament (namely, points 5-9 above).  However, some of them speak directly to the accuracy of the words of Jesus (namely, points 1-4).  But even here the question remains as to whether we have the exact words of Jesus?  Before we can answer this specifically, we must remember that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic (cf. Mt. 27:46 cf. Mk. 7:34) and the New Testament was penned in Greek.  So, at best we have only a translation of most of the words of Jesus.  So, the question boils down to this: Do we have a good translation of the words of Jesus in the Gospels?   

Many Reasons the Records are Accurate.—Admittedly, while we do not in most cases have the exact words of Jesus (ipsissima verba), there is good reason to believe that we do have the true meaning of them (ipsissima vox) for several reasons: 1) the NT documents were based on eye-witness accounts by persons who knew both Aramaic and Greek  so they would know if they were translated correctly; 2) we have multiple accounts of many of the same discourses to cross-check their accuracy; 3) Luke claims to be giving an accurate account of the events (Lk. 1:1-4), and his account in Acts has been confirmed to be accurate in multiple details (see Colin Hemer, ibid.); 4) Many of the accounts were written within the memories of the eyewitnesses (c. A.D. 55-70); 5) Some of the New Testament writers were trained in keeping records (Matthew was a tax collector; Luke was a physician; Paul was highly educated);  6) Many in the non-literary New Testament culture had well developed memories (see Richard Bauckham,Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, chaps. 11-13);  7) Jesus’ words and deeds were impact events that would have been etched on the memories of those who heard him. 8) Jesus promised he would guide the memories of his disciples in recalling what he said to them: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).  This cumulative evidence strongly supports the conclusion that the New Testament provides an accurate report of what Jesus actually said and did.

What About Different Words for the Same Events?–  As for cases where the Gospel records the same event in slightly different words, the differences are accounted for by (a) selection of material, (b) partial reports, (c) abbreviations, (d) paraphrase, or (e) collation in the text.  But in no case are there demonstrated distortions present. A few examples will illustrate the points.  For instance, the words on the Cross are reported four different ways, but merged together they give a harmonious message:

Matthew-   THIS IS JESUS                           THE KING OF THE JEWS.

Mark –                                                            THE KING OF THE JEWS.

Luke –          THIS IS                                       THE KING OF THE JEWS.

John –                      JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.



Another example of differences is Peter’s confession which is given in three different sets of words:

Mt. 16:16:  “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Mark 8:29:  “You are the Christ.”

Luke 9:20:   “[You are] the Christ of God

Here Matthew gives the whole statement and Mark and Luke only the main part of it. But there is no distortion of the message, each one presented the part that he wanted to emphasize.

What About Phrases and Sayings Found only in John. As noted above, John uses phrases like “verily, verily” [or “truly, truly”] that are not found in the other three Gospels. But this posed no real problem since: 1) there are no parallels in the other Gospels; 2) Jesus used the term “verily” in other Gospels (e.g., Mt.5:18, 26; 6:2, 5, 16). 3) He may have used the doubling effect on these other occasions for emphasis; 4) when there is a direct parallel between what Jesus said in John and in another Gospels the words of Jesus are identical.  For example, Jesus said, “Take up your bed and walk” in Mark 2:11 and John 5:8).  He said, “It is I.  Do not be afraid” in both Mark 6:50 and Jn. 6:20).  And in both Luke and John Jesus said to the disciples, “Peace be with you” (Lk. 24:36 cf. Jn. 20:19).  5) Final, if phases and saying must e rejected because they do not appear in two or more Gospels, then whole stories must be rejected because they are mentioned only in one Gospel (e.g., Turning water to wine—Jn. 2; Nicodemus—Jn. 3; the Samaritan woman—Jn. 4; the raising of Lazarus—Jn. 11; Zacchaeus—Lk. 19; the visit of the Wise men—Mt. 2; the resurrection of the saints–Mt. 27, and many others.

So What is It: Photos or Portraits?

Strictly speaking it is neither one since neither photos nor portraits since the New Testament is a written record and not a visual one.  However, granted the differences in these two types of representations, the Gospel record is more like a series of snap shots than it is like different portraits.   However, on occasion the snap shots are at different angles with different lighting or through different lenses.

(1) For example, an eye witness of Jesus’ tomb standing at one place may have seen only one angel (Mt. 24:5), namely, the one angel who was at the head of corpse, but another eyewitness standing farther into the tomb was able to see both of them (Jn. 20:12). To be sure, the snap shots are from different angles and reveal different perspectives, but they are still accurate pictures of what Jesus actually said and did and what the witnesses saw.  They are not interpretive creations of different writers (artists) who are creating the “Christ” they want the audience to see.  Rather, by selective photographs at different angles, each Gospel writer reported (not created) the real Christ in a manner that emphasizes a different aspect of his multi-faceted mission.

In the case of Judas, the snap shots were at different times.  The first snap shot was when he hanged himself (Mt. 27:5), and the second snap shot was later after his body had fallen from the place of hanging to the rocky ground and burst open (Acts 1:18).

The different words came from the thieves on the cross at different times. At first both thieves were railing at Christ (Mt. 27:44).  However, later on, after seeing how Jesus forgave those who were crucifying him (“Father forgive them…,”—Lk. 23:34), one thieves repented and defended Christ (Lk. 23:40-42).  His request to be remembered when Jesus came into Jesus’ kingdom was granted to him that very day (Lk. 23:43).

(2) Sometimes a different lens is used.  For example, from a Jewish time perspective (lens), Jesus was crucified on the “third hour” (Mark 15:25) which was 9 a.m. Roman time.  But John mentions that Jesus was still before Pilate at the “sixth hour” (Jn. 19:14) which twelve noon Jewish time but was 6 a.m. Roman time (see A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the NT: The Fourth Gospel, vol. 5, p. 299) before the crucifixion started.  A conflict occurs only when one is looking through the wrong time-lens.  In reality there is no conflict.

(3) In Matthew 9:18 Jairus told Jesus that “My daughter has just died.” But in Mark and Luke Jairus told Jesus she was only “at the point of death” (Mk 5:23) but not yet dead.  Luke said she was only “dying” but not yet dead (Lk. 8:42). Then, “while he [Jairus] was still speaking, someone from the ruler’s house came and said, ‘Your daughter is dead’” (Lk. 8:49). The fact is that they were all right but were speaking about different times.  Matthew just combines the snap shots given by Mark and Luke in one frame, but what he said was literally true.

(4) Sometimes there is a topical rearrangement of the snapshots in order to fit the theme of the Gospel writer.  For example, Luke gives a different order of the temptation events than is found in Matthew. Matthew lists them as the temptation (1) to turn stones into bread, (2) to jump from the pinnacle of the temple, and (3) to worship Satan.  But Luke reverses the last two.  This fits both the grammar of the text and the purpose of Luke.  Matthew uses the words “then” and “again” (4:5, 8) which indicate a chronological order, while Luke uses only “and” (Lk. 4:5, 9) to connect the events.  So, Matthew lists them chronologically but Luke puts them climactically or topically, possibly to end on the high note of Jesus’ victory over Satan.

(5) Sometimes there are repeated events like the cleansing of the temple.  One occurred at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Jn. 2), and the other happened nearer to the end of his ministry (Mt. 21) several years later.  The fact that different reasons are given for Jesus’ action may indicate that they are two different events.  In John (2:16) it is because they made his Father’s house “a house of trade.”  But in Matthew (21:13) it was because they made it “a den of robbers.”  And in each case a different verse is quoted.  Matthew speaks of it being “a house of prayer” (21:13), but John cites the verse, “The zeal for your House will consume me” (2:17).  As one commentator pointed out, it is not unlikely that a similar condition and response of the Lord of the temple should have occurred again several years later (See Elliott’s Commentary on the Bible, vol. 6, p. 129).  Other noted commentators have lent support to this view of two cleansings of the temple (see Henderickson, Morris, and D. A. Carson).  So, there is no reason to believe that John created a second cleansing, as opposed to reported it.


  A Fatal Flaw—Genre Criticism

It is common today, even among many evangelical scholars, to accept that the Gospels were written in a Greco-Roman literary genre.  One such scholar argues that “the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography (bios)” and that “Bioi offered the ancient biographer great flexibility for rearranging material and inventing speeches…, and they often include legend.”  But, he adds “because bios was a flexible genre, it is often difficult to determine where history ends and legend begins” (M. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 34, emphasis added). This led him to deny the historicity of the story of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27:51-53 (ibid.,527-528; 548; 552-553), and to doubt the authenticity of other events (ibid., 185-186, 306).

Later, in a debate with Bart Ehrman (at Southern Evangelical Seminary in the Spring 2009), Licona claimed there was a contradiction in the Gospels as to the day of Jesus’ crucifixion.  He said, “I think that John probably altered the day [of Jesus’ crucifixion] in order for a theological—to make a theological point here.”   Then in a professional transcription of a YouTube video on November 23, 2012 (see http://youtu.be/TJ8rZukh_Bc), Mike Licona affirmed the following:  “So um this didn’t really bother me in terms of if there were contradictions in the Gospels.  I mean I believe in biblical inerrancy but I also realized that biblical inerrancy is not one [of the] fundamental doctrines of Christianity. The resurrection is.  So if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is still true even if it turned out that some things in the Bible weren’t. So um it didn’t really bother me a whole lot even if some contradictions existed” (emphasis added).  More recently in a paper at The Evangelical Theological Society (November, 2013) Licona claimed that“intentionally altering an account” is not an error but is allowed by the Greco-Roman genre into which he categorizes the Gospels, insisting that the CSBI view cannot account for all the data (MP3 recording of his ETS lecture 2013, emphasis added).

This popular Greco-Roman genre theory adopted by Licona and others is directly contrary to the standard view on inerrancy as clearly stated by The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) and signed by nearly 300 scholars (in 1978).  Also, it was later adopted by the CSBI statement by the Evangelical Theological Society, the largest group of evangelical scholars in the world (with over 3000 members).  It reads (in Article 18): “We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claim to authorship” (Art. 18, emphasis added).  But this is exactly what many non-inerrantists, do with some Gospel events.  The official ICBI commentary on this Article adds, “It is never legitimate, however, to run counter to express biblical affirmations” (Article 18, emphasis added).   It adds,“We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture” (emphasis added).  But many NT scholars rejects the strict “grammatico-historical exegesis” where “Scripture is to interpret Scripture” for an extra-biblical system where Greco-Roman genre is used to interpret Scripture (seeExplaining Biblical Inerrancy, www.BastionBooks.com).

Of course, “Taking account” of different genres within Scripture, like poetry, history, parables, and even allegory (Gal. 4:24), is legitimate, but this is not what the use of extra-biblical Greco-Roman genre claims to do.  Rather, it uses extra-biblical stories to determine what the Bible means, even when using this extra-biblical literature means denying the historicity of the biblical text.  Indeed, the CSBI commentary on its1982 Hermeneutics Statement (Article 13) on inerrancy adds, “We deny that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual. Some, for instance, take Adam to be a myth, whereas in Scripture he is presented as a real person.  Others take Jonah to be an allegory when he is presented as a historical person and [is] so referred to by Christ” (emphasis added).  Its adds in the next article (Article 14), “We deny that any event, discourse or saying reported in Scripture was invented by the biblical writers or by the traditions they incorporated” (emphasis added).  Clearly, the CSBI standard view on inerrancy reject the Portrait view that the Gospel writers were creating, rather than reporting the words of Jesus.



Admittedly, it is not easy to explain all the biblical phenomena on the snap shot analogy, but two things should be kept in mind. First, it is only an analogy, and no analogy is perfect.   Second, it is closer to the truth than the portrait analogy.  Third, the most important thing to keep in mind is that, while we do not always have the exact words of Jesus, nonetheless, the evidences shows that we have an accurate representation of them.  For this there is strong and multiple evidence.

Many of the differences in the Gospels flow from the author’s selection of material to fit his theme.  Following the traditional understanding, Matthew presents Christ as King to the Jews; Mark as servant to the Romans; Luke as man to the Greeks, and John as the Son of God to the whole world.  But when their different thematic emphases are covering the same event, it does so in a compatible way with the other Gospels.  And when the same discourse is given in different Gospels, the words are often the same.  The bottom line is that the Gospels are a reliable, non-contradictory presentation of the words and deeds of Jesus.  This has been the standard view down through the centuries of the Christian Church, and there is no good reason to give it up now.

[1]   According to the Biblical Archeological Review, the inscription on the James Ossuary has been shown to be authentic. Some had challenged that the words “brother of Jesus” were not in the original inscription, but Yuval Goren, former chairman of Tel Aviv University’s institute of archaeology, was forced to admit on cross-examination that the phrase was in the original inscription on the Ossuary (Oct 2008).  Professor Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University determined that there we not even two chances (actually 1.7) that these three names would be mentioned together. Further, of thousands of ossuaries examined he knew of only one that had the name of a brother on it.  This indicates that such a reference must have been of a very important person.