Why did the writers of the Gospels sometimes quote Jesus differently? Should not their quotations agree with one another? This troubles me.

This is a good question but the alleged problem is not of serious import. Let us consider the following factors.

General Principles

First, it has long been recognized that in referring to another’s audible use of language, or his written words, it is not necessary to quote verbatim in order to accurately represent his thoughts. This principle has been recognized from the very earliest times of human communication, in connection with both the spoken word and the written message.

For example, a witness, testifying in a court of law, may be asked to repeat the substance of a conversation that he overheard. It is expected that he will provide a correct representation of what was said, but it is not required that every “and,” “the,” and “a” be recited precisely. In fact, ordinarily if one were to recite a conversation word-for-word that he overheard at some point in the past, it likely would suggest a lack of spontaneity; rather, it might well indicate a prepared response that could be perceived as suspect.

Let me provide an illustration. During his speech on Mars Hill in Athens, Paul declared,

“‘in him we live, and move, and have our being’ as certain even of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring’” (Acts 17:28).

Note the plural form “poets.” The apostle has cited two Greek authors. The first citation is from Epimenides (c. 600 B.C.), and the second is from Aratus (315-240 B.C.). Neither of these poets is quoted with word-for-word precision, but the sense is quite true to the original authors’ thoughts (Bruce, 339). It is significant to note that Paul was not accused of misrepresenting the earlier writers.

Use of the Old Testament

The citations from the Old Testament, as employed by the writers of the New Testament, constitute another example of variety in language presentation without the sacrifice of truth. A conservative estimate suggests there are some 295 references from the Old Testament in the New Testament. If one adds allusions as well, the estimates escalate from slightly over 600 to somewhat over 4,000 (depending upon the scholar)! About 10% of the New Testament, in some form, is taken from the Old Testament (Roger, 137-138).

But the quotations vary considerably in form; some are from the Hebrew Old Testament, while others (the majority) are from the Greek translation (the Septuagint). Some are fairly complete; others are abbreviated. Some represent a whole text; others only a phrase or so. In some passages a single writer is quoted, in other texts multiple citations from different sources are blended together. In some of the quotations the verbiage is fairly precise; in others the wording has been paraphrased or deliberately changed. These facts are indisputable.

In view of the fact that the Holy Spirit guided the New Testament writers in the manner in which they referenced the Old Testament, it should be easy to conclude that the principle of providing accurate substance, instead of slavish word-for-word rendition, has divine authorization. Such surely should nullify any criticism of the Gospel writers in terms of how they represented the sayings of Jesus. In summation, let us focus on several points.

Some Conclusions

Minor alterations do not sacrifice substance. A paraphrase or the emendation of an original author or speaker does not impair the sense of the primary source if the citation is accurately conveyed. In fact, as one relatively modern journalistic authority expressed it, “A careful paraphrase that does complete justice to the source is preferable to a long quotation” (Campbell, 15).

All Bible writers were under the influence of the Holy Spirit. It is possible, therefore, that a writer, under the guidance of the Spirit (cf. Acts 1:16; 28:25), could purposely alter an earlier writer or speaker’s language in order to supplement the former by providing valuable, additional information. Such might well be necessary in a later historical context.

Isaiah foretold that a Redeemer (the Messiah would come “to Zion” bringing manifold blessings (Isaiah 59:20). When Paul quoted the passage in his letter to the Romans, he declared that this Deliverer would come “out of Zion” (11:26), thus identifying the Messiah’s ancestry, i.e., he would be of Jewish extraction. The change from “to,” to “out of,” is deliberate and expansive. Jesus himself modified the text of the Old Testament at times when he quoted from it (cf. Isaiah 6:9-10 with Matthew 13:15).

It should be borne in mind that the writers of the New Testament knew they were producing their documents under the guidance of the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:10, 13). The manner in which they presented their narratives, therefore, was pursued conscientiously. Differences in descriptions (not contradictions) were of divine design — not as a result of the haphazard carelessness.

No Contradictions

When the Gospel writers referred to Jesus’ sayings with slight variations, there may have been supplementations (for specific reasons), but there are no contradictions. This is a crucial point to remember. For instance, in his parable of “the Sower,” Christ spoke of a “thorny soil” that choked out the kingdom seed’s productivity. The thorns represented distractions to godly living.

Matthew identified the thorns as “the cares of the world” and “the deceitfulness of riches” (13:22), Mark mentions the “lust of things” that hinder (4:19), while Luke rounds it out with “the pleasures of this life” (8:14). Each adds his unique, supplementary record, without conflicting with the others.

No Collusion

The variations with reference to citations are not compromises of the integrity of the narratives. In fact, quite to the contrary, they demonstrate the independence of each writer. These different, though complementary, accounts are powerful arguments against the relatively modern, pseudo-scientific theories of “form criticism,” in which it is assumed that some of the Gospel writers merely copied from other documents.

A popular theory suggests that Mark wrote first, and Matthew and Luke copied from him. Thus from Mark’s Gospel, and miscellaneous other sources, Matthew and Luke produced their works.

If Matthew and Luke (both of whom were meticulous craftsmen — the one a tax collector, adept at keeping records, the other a physician and first-rate historian) were mere copyists, they certainly were shoddy in their work, for the differences are clearly manifest. But the variations were not accidental — whether we understand their particular designs or not.

When all factors are considered, the reality that the Gospel writers represented the words of Christ in slightly variant forms is of no negative consequence.