Distributed Mind


Apparent discrepancies (I say "apparent" since there is no "apparent discrpenacy" that is not a subject of dispute) in the gospel accounts are an interesting problem - and I don't just mean in an apologetic sense, but also a literary sense. I mean, on the one hand they have become a source of contention about the accuracy of the gospel accounts, but on the other hand they can be used to extract more information from the rather terse literary form of the gospels.

Take, for example, the dying words of Jesus. Matthew and Mark merely record that Jesus "cried out in a loud voice" when dying (though they make a point to note that Jesus said "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" earlier). Luke reports that "Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!' Having said this, he breathed his last." And John says that "When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, 'It is finished.' He bowed his head, and gave up his spirit."

This is what I thought of when I was reading an article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, "Angels and Ages" pointed to by Language Hat. Gopnik deals with two interesting examples of this sort of problem. The main part of the article is concerned with whether Edwin Stanton at Lincoln's death said that he belonged to the "ages" or to the "angels." But there is also the interesting case of what John Wilkes Booth said when he shot Lincoln. Gopnik, explicitly referencing the problem with the gospels, writes,

It is not hard to see, in this exegetical exactitude, something that recalls the attention that scholars give to fine-point disputes about the words and tales of Jesus and his apostles. This attention to verbal minutiae extends to the secondary figures in the Lincoln gospel, not least his assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Booth either did or did not say, just as, right before, or shortly after he murdered the President, “Sic semper tyrannis,” the motto on the state flag of Virginia. Possibly, he cried “The South is avenged!” or “Revenge for the South,” and he cried this in the box, or on the stage, or paired with another cry. Of the forty or so reliable witnesses to the assassination whose accounts are collected in Timothy S. Good’s “We Saw Lincoln Shot,” some sixteen heard the Latin or the English, only four heard both, and many say that they didn’t hear the assassin say anything at all. Two witnesses heard Booth say, “I have done it!” Well, which was it? It is possible that he said only Sic semper tyrannis, onstage or off, and that the words were easily misheard by a stunned audience: “The South is avenged.” On the other hand, he may have cried out both, and then added the gloating remark as he fled. But then why didn’t more people hear him?

Booth himself, for whom the assassination was, Swanson says, a kind of diabolical work of performance art, insisted on the “right” reading. “I shouted Sic semper before I fired,” he wrote a few days later, in his own note, which he intended to be sent to the newspapers.

Mind you, Gopnik is talking about eyewitness accounts - no one is disputing that these people saw the event, but only whether their accounts are accurate.

At the end of the article, Gopnik makes the point that even had we been at Lincoln's death bed there's no guarantee we would have known exactly what Stanton said - certainly the eyewitnesses at the Ford's Theatre didn't know exactly what Booth said. And things are no different today - there are often arguments about recorded comments and speeches.

I think there has to be a lesson here - or more than one. On the one hand, one might be inclined to say that naysayers who take minor discrepances in the gospels to be indicative of fundamental contradictions that show the gospels are either majorly inaccurate or, worse, complete fiction should lighten up a little. Probably true. But there is a problem for those practicing a conservative hermeneutic too, because usually of how much weight is often placed upon exact phrasing in the gospels. I understand all the theology that has been built up around that practice - not all of it sound, I'd be inclined to say - but still, I think it ought to give people pause. Now, no credible scholar would ever buy into "proof-texting" as they call it (though they might disagree about what constitutes proof-texting), but people still do it all the time, even people who say we shouldn't do it (I plead guilty, your Honor).

posted at 22:55:30 on 05/25/07 by ben - Category: Religion


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