Two nights ago I got pulled over. When I saw the police lights turn on behind me, I knew exactly why he was pulling me over. I was with my twelve-year-old daughter, Katelynn, and had just left the Credo House after teaching a session on the development of orthodoxy. Feelings of embarrassment were released from whatever part of the brain they come from. I don’t like my daughter to see me get pulled over. But hold on…it gets worse.
When the police officer approached my window, I had my driver’s license in hand in hopes that he would not ask me for my insurance card. Yes, I have insurance, but I did not know where the card was. What I did know was that I was getting pulled over for my tag, which had expired in August of last year.
“Do you know why I am pulling you over?” the police officer asked.
“Yeah, my tag has been expired for a while,” I responded in a whining voice that tried to convey a strong hint of self-abasement. “As a matter of fact,” I continued, “I just got pulled over and got a warning a few days ago for this same thing and was going to get a tag when I get paid next.”
“Do you have that warning?” he asked.
Both my daughter and I looked and looked for the warning, but could not find it. Now, here is what you must know: I had just lied and was attempting to manipulate the officer just a slight bit. While it was true I got a warning for my expired tag, it was not just “a few days ago,” but about three weeks ago. Basically, I wanted the officer to say, “Oh, you just got a warning? Okay, well make sure you get this taken care of.”
After a few minutes of sitting in his car and doing whatever officers do between the period of window confrontation ending with “I’ll be right back” and the revelation of whether or not you are going to get a ticket, he returned. Yep, I got a ticket. And to my shame he said, “All I could find as far as a warning was one three weeks ago.” Busted. Implied in his statement was, “You had plenty of time between now and then to get your tag renewed.”
After this, I drove home and confessed to my daughter the wrong things I had done, both the lie and the reason for the ticket itself.
That is my version of the story. It has certain intentions and a certain angle. Many things I could have included that I left out and many “summaries” of conversations and events were preferred. However, if my daughter told the story it may be a bit different. For example, she may put it this way:
“My dad got pulled over last night. His tag expired. I was scared. When the cop came up, we looked for a warning that he had gotten on June 4th. I looked and looked for it and finally found it! It was so hard to find. But it was really weird. My dad just put it under his leg and did not show the police officer, even though he acted like he wanted to find it before. Anyway, my dad got a ticket for having an expired tag.
As you read these two accounts, some of you recognize that they are both saying the same basic things. I got pulled over and got a ticket for an expired tag. However, others will notice some significant differences. Among those of you to whom the differences stand out, there are those who find the differences to be contradictory, and those of you who see the differences as rounding out the narrative through differing perspectives, both true. Finally, among those who see contradictions, I seriously doubt that any of you disbelieve the main points are true: I got pulled over and got a ticket for an expired tag.
When it comes to the Scripture, many of these same issues come into play. This is especially the case with the Gospel accounts (but is not limited to them). There are four Gospels, all telling the same story, albeit from different perspectives. Some of these differences are slight, like those in the “synoptic” Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who all used the same sources), while some are much more dramatic (John is 92% original).
Just like with the story I told above, there are various approaches on how to handle the differences.
Group one neither recognizes nor cares about the differences, but immediately sees that it’s the same story from differing perspectives.
Group two recognizes the differences and appreciates what they add to the entire story.
Group three recognizes the differences, sees them as contradictions that cannot be reconciled, but still believes the main points of the Gospels (among other things, that Jesus, the Son of God, became incarnate, performed miracles, died on the cross, and rose from the grave).
However, unlike with my illustration concerning my encounter with the police officer, we have a fourth group when it comes to the story of Christ:
Group four recognizes the differences, sees them as contradictions that cannot be reconciled and, because of these differences, rejects everything in the Gospels, even the main points about which all the Gospels agree. In other words, if one thing is wrong, it’s all wrong.
Why? Why do we have a “group four” when it comes to the Christ story, but we would not expect to have a (sane) group four when it comes to my ticket story?
Concerning my ticket story, most certainly group four would see the elements of historicity in the account:
-Elements of embarrassment: I, a Christian minister, got a ticket; I lied to the officer about the warning. (Why would I lie about this?)
-Irrelevant details: I described in detail much of the conversation between the officer and me; I told about how embarrassed I was to get pulled over; I said it happened right after I taught on the history of orthodoxy.
-Collaborative evidence: My daughter’s testimony, which confirms the main points.
But what if group four looked at my account of how I could not find the warning ticket, compared it to Katelynn’s telling that the warning was located, and rejected the entire story because of this? What if they said that Katelynn’s version said I got the warning June 4th, but mine said “three weeks ago,” and concluded that the entire thing was made up? What if they said that in my version, the policeman came up “to the window,” whereas in Katelynn’s version, there is no mention of a window, therefore the whole thing was a fabrication? What if they said that Katelynn’s version was evidently based upon later traditions, since it has the “leg variant” (you know, where I put the warning under my leg), but there is no mention of the warning being placed under my leg in the “earlier” (my) tradition?
Of course we would be right to look at this and say that all those in group four need a bit of counseling, as they are reading the differences in a hyper-skeptical way. At the very least, group fourers are not the type of people to whom we would like to be married.
Interestingly enough, there are quite a few of the group four types in biblical studies. Unfortunately, people are often persuaded that their methodology is legitimate when it comes to the Christ story, even though they would never entertain such hyper-skepticism in real life.
Why are there so many group four types when it comes to the Bible? What do the differences in the Gospels really prove?