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Beyond mere facts

30 November, 1999

Edmond Grace SJ responds to a question about the confusions in the Gospels and why sometimes the stories in them seem to be telling different things.

The Gospels seem to disagree about a lot of things. For instance, Matthew tells us that both of the thieves who were crucified with Jesus mocked him, whereas Luke says that only one did and the other rebuked him. Another example is the Ascension. According to Matthew it happened on a mountain in Galilee and according to Luke it happened just outside Jerusalem in Bethany. Which versions are right and why all the confusion?


You’re right. There are many items in which the Gospels appear to contradict each other, and perhaps the best way to understand how this can happen is to look at how people tell others about real events which have a deep effect on their lives.

Telling true stories
If, like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, they decide to write about their experience, they will be trying to inspire those who read what they have to say. They will try to do more than give people bare historical facts. They will not be like historians who set out to be impartial, sifting like detectives through the evidence. It is only in recent times, however, that historians have become sticklers for detail.

At about the time of Christ one of the greatest historians was a man called Livy. When he wrote about events in the past he put entire speeches into the mouths of historical figures without a shred of evidence for it. This would not have been regarded as a lie, but as a useful technique to bring the past alive. This was, after all, his primary reason for writing.

Of course, no historian today would get away with such a freewheeling approach, but there are those who do get away with it and nobody thinks any the less of them! Let me give you two examples of enthusiastic story tellers in our time.

The first was a Jewish refugee who found himself in Lourdes in 1940 as he tried to escape from the Nazis. He was deeply impressed by what he saw and promised God that if he survived he would write a book about what happened there. In due course he studied the many versions by Bernadette’s contemporaries and he wrote an inspiring and sympathetic account of how Lourdes became a place of pilgrimage.

Some of the events in Werfel’s novel are at variance with the historical records, but his concern was to construct from a welter of detail a powerful story which would enable people to enter into the experience of Bernadette as she met the Lady at the grotto and had to deal with the reactions of many diverse people. At this level – perhaps the most significant level in dealing with a place like Lourdes – he probably gets much closer to the truth than your average stickler for historical detail.

Another example of latter-day storytelling is to be found in the film Schindler’s List, which tells of how a group of Jewish people in Poland escaped death during the Second World War.
Many of the more brutal scenes in the film took place in a work camp which was situated in a deep quarry just outside the city of Krakow.

The quarry which features in the film is indeed just outside that city, but that is not where the actual events depicted in the film took place. If you ever go to where the real work camp was, it looks very ordinary and not at all like the dramatic and sinister looking place where the film was made. But the film makers decided that the horror of this true story would be more effectively conveyed in the pretend camp.

Telling their stories well
Both Werfel and the makers of Schindler’s List had a passion for their stories. They wanted people to have a heartfelt sense of what it must have been like for Bernadette in Lourdes and for Schindler and the people in the camp near Krakow.

The writers of the Gospels would have taken this kind of approach, and therefore they were more eager to convey the power of the story than to record every detail accurately. Furthermore, like Livy in his time and Werfel in his, they would have had no difficulty in adjusting the details to make the telling of the story more focused and effective.

Thus Luke might have been quite happy to make up the story of the good thief, thereby sacrificing historical accuracy in the interests of highlighting the forgiving nature of Jesus. On the other hand he may have relied on someone who was closer to the Cross at the crucial moment than the source used by Matthew.

With respect to reports of the Ascension happening in different places, scripture scholars point out that Matthew was a Jew writing for his fellow Jewish converts, whereas Luke was a gentile writing for people who would have known little about Judaism.

Galilee or Jerusalem?
When Matthew described Jesus’s Ascension as taking place in Galilee, he would have been confident that this would have meant something to his readers. Luke’s readers, on the other hand, would have had a much more limited knowledge of Israel. They might not have known much more than the name of its capital city.

Imagine if Jesus were from Kerry and had been crucified on a hill overlooking Dublin. If you were writing an account of these events for Irish Americans, you might well mention his Kerry background in order to give the story some local flavour.

If your readers were Korean, however, and quite unfamiliar with Ireland, you might simplify things and omit local details. In order to help your readers form an image of Jesus as a living figure in a particular place, you might be advised to emphasise Dublin. If there is one place name in Ireland that might be familiar to Koreans it would most likely be the capital city. If you have any doubts about that, ask yourself how many Korean place names you know in addition to Seoul.

That might explain why, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is said to have ascended to heaven from just outside Jerusalem!

This article first appeared in the Messenger, a publication of the Irish Jesuits.