It is often objected that the gospels contain variations, that every variation is a “contradiction”, and that such “contradictions” mean the gospels are historically worthless. Some people even say Jesus never existed.
Here’s the thing: eyewitnesses of extraordinary events tend to give varying accounts of those events. When not engaged in the special project of trying to disprove the gospel, we recognize this as both true and unremarkable. Did the Titanic pop its rivets or tear a hole in her side? Did she split in two at the surface as some witnesses said or did it happen just as she sank? What about the “mystery ship” that was nearby? Was Mr. Ismay a coward for getting in a lifeboat? Why did nearby ships not come to the rescue? The list of curiosities and “discrepancies” in the record surrounding the Titanic is a much-loved pastime for disaster buffs.
But only a fool would conclude from this, even after 2000 years, that there was no Titanic and that she did not strike an iceberg and sink on April 15, 1912. These are the main lines of the story on which everybody agrees. In the same way, what impresses anybody who reads the New Testament without a set determination to look for loopholes is how the whole body of witnesses to the story of Christ all agree on the main lines of their story. Indeed, what is truly remarkable is that one does not even need the gospels to reconstruct the essential events to which the community bears witness. It’s all there in the epistles long before the gospels are written.
Consider: Paul quotes and alludes to historical sayings of Christ (Acts 20:35), as well as basic facts about his life, trial, death, resurrection and ascension. Paul knows Jesus is a Jew of David’s line (Romans 1:3); that John the Baptist was His forerunner and had disavowed any claim to his own Messiahship (Acts 13:24-25); that Jesus’ chief disciples were Peter, James and John (Gal 2:9); that He had predicted His return “like a thief” (1 Thessalonians 5:4); that He had instituted the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:23-25); that He had been rejected by the Jewish leaders (1 Thessalonians 2:15), tried under Pontius Pilate (1 Timothy 5:13), crucified for us (Galatians 3:1); laid in a tomb (Acts 13:29); raised from the dead and seen by many witnesses (1 Corinthians 15:3-8); and that He had ascended to Heaven (Ephesians 4:9-10).
Indeed, it is worth noting that the earliest account of the Last Supper we possess is from Paul, not the gospels. And Paul is obviously speaking to people who already know that story and are not waiting around for the gospels (or even him) to tell it to them. Paul’s Last Supper narrative is, in all the essentials, the same thing the gospels report, despite the fact that Paul, Matthew, Mark and Luke are writing at different times, in widely diverse places for radically different audiences of Palestinian Jews, educated Greeks, and Romans. Why the extreme similarity between such widely diverse writers and readers? Because all four writers are quoting a liturgical source that antedates the whole New Testament.
The point is this: Paul is writing his Last Supper account in the early 50s. This means the memories of the community he is drawing on have been set in liturgical concrete very quickly after the events they commemorate (barely 20 years prior). That’s the same amount of time that separates us from the Challenger Disaster, Iran-Contra, Back to the Future, Max Headroom, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the second term of Ronald Reagan. Are these impossible to recall accurately?
Even if we double or triple this and say the gospels were written forty to sixty years after the events they describe, we are still talking about an event as near in time as the assassination of JFK or the Truman’s election is to us. If the witnesses to these events went on to lives of persecution, poverty, exile, wandering, opprobrium and martyrdom for their testimony, normal people would not object, “Well, the record is unclear if there were two shots or three at Dealey Plaza. And newspapers of the period clearly said Dewey won. So clearly ‘JFK’ and ‘Truman’ never existed.” If I was going to be a skeptic I would try a stronger argument than “Witnesses are not in mathematically perfect agreement” as my escape hatch.
Bottom line: the same standards we apply to any other testimony apply to the gospels. If witnesses substantially agree that the Titanic sank, or JFK was shot, or that we landed on the moon, or that Jesus existed, then discrepancies between them only serve to show that people are people, not that the whole thing never happened.