Review: ‘Inerrancy and the Gospels’

Do the gospels contradict themselves?

It’s not a topic I’ve thought much of in recent years, in part because my interest in apologetics has dwindled and because I no longer view inerrancy as something that’s essential to the Christian faith. (That is, I don’t think the Bible needs to be perfect in order to be trustworthy or authoritative.) That said, there are still challenges we must address, such as why the gospels sometimes give conflicting information about what appear to be the same events.

Or is it really conflicting?

Vern Polythress would argue no, and in his book Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization, he seeks to prove it. Published by Crossway, Inerrancy and the Gospels spends a good deal of its time addressing supposed contradictions in the gospel accounts, as well as providing readers with information on, among other things, the importance of genre; how our mental images formed by a text might be incomplete; the use of language; and more.

All of these discussions come into play when Polythress tackles some of the more well-known (apparent) contradictions in the gospel accounts. You can probably list some of them: the cursing of the fig tree; the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter from the dead; the calming of the storm; and the centurion’s request for Jesus to heal his daughter.

Polythress makes use of historical Christian thought (though his resources are limited to within the Protestant tradition) when discussing these matters. For example, in his chapter on the fig tree, Polythress quotes John Calvin, who, writing on the matter, stated that Mark does not contradict Matthew by being more distinct on the timing of events. (For those readers who are unaware of this seeming problem, the question is whether Matthew and Mark differ in when the fig tree withered as a result of being cursed by Jesus.)

Polythress argues that Matthew compressed the events in his account:

“I believe it is likely that we have here another case where Matthew has employed compression. Matthew has given us a minimal account, taking up two verses (21:19-20) for the heart of the action. Mark takes our verses for the same actions (Mark 11:3-14, 20-21). Moreover, Mark has made the whole account more complex by separating the two stages of the action into two distinct days, with the cleansing of the temple in between. Matthew, by comparison, gives the whole history of the interaction with the fig tree ‘in one blow’, so to speak, and lets us quickly grasp the curse and its consequence. There is clearly something to be gained by this compressed approach” (146).

Anyone who’s read the text knows that Matthew states the fig tree withered “at once”; again, this is where the apparent contradiction is made between Matthew and Mark. Regarding this matter, Polythress argues that the Greek expression from which we get “at once” in English has some variation in its meaning.

“The rapid withering of the fig tree contrasts with many common withering processes, which would typically take several days or several weeks. The fig tree withered with unusual rapidity. Matthew is not precise about just how long it took” (147).

Polythress’ point, then, is that Matthew’s use of the phrase “at once” (in Greek) does not automatically contradict what Mark wrote.

What I Liked

The discussion topics I just mentioned were probably my favorite part of this book. I had anticipated a book in which the author just tackles every single (apparent) contradiction among the four gospels. What I read was something better. Not only does Polythress address those issues, but he also tries to establish a new foundation for the reader. That’s a good thing, especially when you consider that the reader is going to continue to face arguments against the gospels and can’t always rely on another writer to debunk them. To borrow the oft-repeated phrase, Polythress didn’t try to catch a fish to give to a hungry person; he’s trying to teach a hungry person how to fish.

That the entire book isn’t entirely devoted to examples of apparent contradictions is a good thing, because the author is not only looking to debunk misunderstandings but also equip his readers with a new way of reading the Bible. That is, in my opinion, the main strength of the book.

The other strength is that, for the most part, Polythress presents common-sense, informed responses to people who insist that the Bible contradicts itself—and, by extension, cannot be inspired by God as Christians claim it is. Some of these arguments have been repeated elsewhere, but for newcomers, this book should be helpful in countering the claims of hostile skeptics and honest inquirers.

What I Didn’t Like

The book isn’t without its weaknesses, and I spotted one on the very first page. The opening paragraph of the book has a footnote stating that the books of the Bible had been decided upon by the Jews. The problem is, there wasn’t a uniform understanding among Jewish communities as to what should be meant by “Scripture”. The Sadduccees and Pharisees differed on which books belonged in the biblical canon, with the former only accepting the first five books of our Old Testament. (This is the reason Jesus refers to Exodus and not, say, the more obvious choice of Daniel when debating the Sadduccess on the matter of the resurrection.) Instead of acknowledging the rather complicated history of the development of the Bible, Polythress takes for granted that everyone back then knew what the Bible was supposed to be—and so there’s no need for us to question it.

Of course, this statement is flawed. Not only was there not a single view among the Jewish communities of Jesus’ day, but even the church in its first few centuries wasn’t totally united behind a canon list. That makes the first two sentences of the book suspect:

“In the centuries after the Bible was written, the church recognized that it was the word of God and treated its contents as trustworthy. But in modern times some people have come to question that conviction” (13).

The problem is that it took Christians a few centuries to decide upon the 27 books that make up the New Testament. Most books were agreed upon, but a handful were considered suspect. I don’t know how Polythress can argue that the early church saw all the books as trustworthy when they weren’t in full agreement as to which books were to be considered Scripture in the first place. This idea that no one in the church questioned the trustworthiness of the books that comprise our Bible is simply incorrect.

Another weakness relates to Polythress’ discussion on the fig tree. As noted above, he states that the Greek expression for “at once” leaves some variation as to the amount of time to which it is referring. Polythress then argues that this variation means that Matthew isn’t necessarily contradicting Mark on the matter. And the two authors might not contradict themselves on this at all. But then, if the phrase contains that much variation in its meaning, then we can’t be certain that Polythress is correct in stating that the two gospel writers don’t contradict. If there’s that much variation in the phrase, then how can we be sure as to how Matthew was using the term? Maybe he really was arguing that the fig tree withered immediately. I’m not an expert in Greek so I could very well be wrong, but it seems to me that this amount of variation means that, in the question of whether Matthew and Mark contradict each other here, we have a draw, not a definitive answer.

Should You Buy This?

It depends on how much you’re wrestling with the question of harmonization among the gospels. If you don’t think that the Bible needs to be inerrant in order to carry the authority of God, then you probably don’t need to read this. If you feel that inerrancy is an essential of the Christian faith (and on this, we can disagree), then you might benefit from Polythress’ work.

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