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October 3, 2013 / BTM

Why Aren’t the Gospel Accounts Identical to Each Other?

I think all kids, and adults, have a curiosity about where the Bible came from, how it was put together, and how it was passed down.  That is why my husband and I wanted to teach our kids some of the basics about this topic early on in their lives.  We have found our kids to be really receptive to this material.

For instance, today we’ll look at how the gospels are eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  Eyewitnesses to an event are the best sources of information about that event.  However, you have undoubtedly noticed that when you read the New Testament gospel accounts, they are not all identical to each other.  Some contain identical accounts of a specific event (e.g. Matt 23:37 and Luke 13: 34), some contain different details about the same event (compare the details of the crucifixion accounts in Matt 27: 45 – 28:20 and Mark 15:33 – 16:20 and you’ll note some differences in details), some recount completely different events from the other gospels (e.g. the account in John 6: 22-71 is only in John).

Why is this the case?

Concept being taught:

Do these differences in the gospel accounts mean that the disciples made up the story about Jesus, or that they are at least unreliable eyewitnesses, as some conclude?  If the eyewitnesses to the gospel accounts can’t get their story straight, should we believe their testimony at all?

Eyewitness accounts should differ from each other.

There are many reasons for the differences in the gospels, but one of them is because the disciples were eyewitnesses and eyewitnesses never experience an event exactly the same as each other.

Detectives, police officers, lawyers and others involved in investigating crimes and interviewing witnesses know that eyewitnesses will not all have identical accounts of an incident that they have observed.  In fact, if an eyewitness has an identical account to a second eyewitness, it will be concluded that the two eyewitnesses collaborated.

Activity:

The gist of this activity is to set up a scenario where your kids act as eyewitnesses to an event, and then help them to discover that they each will remember and report on different aspects of that event.

There are many ways to do this activity.  I chose to create my own scenario, which I detail below.  You could alternatively have your kids, or one child and a different adult, watch a video clip together on YouTube or on a DVD.  Just make sure to watch the clip on your own in advance so you that have the details straight in your own head first.  Then ask similar pointed questions to the ones listed in the activity outlined below.

How I did the activity with my then 5 and 7 year olds:

I arranged for our kids to meet me in the living room at an appointed time.  I told them that I had something special to show them.  I didn’t give them any further preparation.

Then I dressed up in a strange and elaborate costume.  I put on various pieces of my kid’s dress up costumes (a hat, a mask, ponytails in my hair, a cape, a shirt with a picture on it, gloves, a scarf, and various things sticking out of my front and back pockets, and I had a stuffed animal tucked in somewhere to boot).

At the appointed time, I came into the room where my kids were seated and announced with a strange accent:  “Welcome everyone.  I am Mommy the Magnificent and I have a magic show to perform for you!”

I then explained how I was going to make something disappear in my magic hat.  I put a small toy in my hat; I waved a fancy cloth over top of it that I had taken out of one of my pockets, turned around a bunch of times (mainly so they could see the back of my costume), and said some magic sounding words.  I did some fancy dancing moves and made the toy disappear (by concealing it in my hand).  I then bowed and left the room.

The kids were amused, but also confused.

I told the kids to stay where they were, and quickly took off all of my costume and hid it out of sight.  I re-entered the room where my kids were bouncing off the walls, re-gathered them onto the couch and told them that that they were just eyewitnesses to what I had performed for them.

Then I asked: What is an eyewitness?  (Answer: Someone who sees something with their own eyes.  As they also heard something, our kids coined the term ‘earwitness’ as well!)

I told them that I was going to interview each of them to find out what they saw in my performance.  I took them one by one into a different room where our conversation could not be overheard by their brother, and interviewed them individually.  I told the one waiting to be interviewed to think hard about what he had just seen in preparation for his interview.

I found I had to guide our kids through this exercise a bit.  However, it’s actually useful to ask similar questions, because then you can better compare their answers.  I gave them prompts in several categories:

What did I say?  What was my name?  What did I tell you I was going to do?  Did I talk with an accent?

What did I look like?  (You may have to ask more questions like: what was I wearing?  Did I have anything in my hands?  Anything in my pockets?  On my head?  Etc.)

What happened?  How did I move?  What side of the room did I come in from and what side did I leave from?

I wrote down their answers and then repeated the process with the other child.

After I had interviewed the two boys, I got them together again in the living room and said, in a very serious tone: “I don’t think you boys both watched the magic show because you both told me different things about it.”

This confused them a bit and I teased them about this (they are used to this from us!) by asking : “Which one of you wasn’t really here?” and “Are you just making this up?”

I finally asked: “How can both of you tell me different things if you both watched the same magic show?”  I gave them some examples of how they had answered differently.  I also showed them some of the parts of my costume that neither of them had remembered to tell me about (for example, I was wearing a bright green eye mask, but neither of them had remembered it!).

Again, they couldn’t explain why.  They couldn’t think of any reasons why they had both remembered different things about the magic show.

I then explained that it was completely normal for two eyewitnesses to remember different things from the same event.  In fact, I told them that if they had each remembered exactly the same things about the magic show, I would have known that they had talked together about it, and planned a story to tell me.  Our brains all work slightly differently.  Each eyewitness will notice different things, or remember different things about something he or she saw.

In fact, police men and lawyers know that eye witnesses will remember different parts of a story, or see it differently.  If they get the exact same story from two eyewitnesses of a car accident, they will know that the witnesses talked together and came up with the same story.  This makes them bad eyewitnesses and the police may not believe their story.  If stories are a little bit different, but mostly the same, police men and lawyers know that the eyewitnesses are telling the truth.

Now for the teaching point:

I always like to throw in the question: “What does this have to do with the Bible?” at this point, because they can almost never make the connection.

I made this link to the magic show and the Bible for our kids: “Just like you were eye witnesses to my magic show, the disciples who wrote the gospels in the New Testament were eyewitnesses of everything that Jesus did and said (in the case of Matthew and John) or they spoke to the eyewitnesses and wrote down what they said (in the case of Mark and Luke).  Most of what we know about Jesus came from eyewitness testimonies.  The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John give some stories about Jesus that are the same, and some things that are a bit different.”

“Why do you think the gospels don’t all say the same stories about Jesus?” (If they get stuck, remind them that the gospel writers were eyewitnesses.  What did we just learn about being eyewitnesses?  Answer: eyewitnesses will not all remember the same things about an event.  They will emphasize things that stood out or were important to them at the time.)

Just because people give slightly different accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection does not mean that they do not know what they are talking about.  In fact, it shows that they really did see and hear the things they claim to have.

More on eyewitnesses in my next blog!

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2 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. andrew / Oct 8 2013 12:36 pm

    Wow. This is great and FUN for kids. It also shows how if the gospel accounts were identical then they would be suspect, because people don’t write identical accounts of the same event. As it is, the gospel accounts support each other but are clearly written by different individuals.

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