I recently caught part of the March 31 debate between Bart Erhman and Craig Evans on the reliability of the Gospels. While listening to Dr. Ehrman drone on in his typical, dated, liberal textual criticism of the Bible, something struck me: Dr. Erhman has completely ignored the Rashomon effect.
Dr. Ehrman’s argument is basic (and more than a little sophomoric): that the Gospel writers contradict each other in some of the things they record Jesus saying and doing, and so these discrepancies mean that none of the events recorded in the Gospels can be trusted. But Ehrman was apparently never exposed to Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 cinematic masterpiece, Rashomon, or he would understand exactly why those discrepancies exist.
In Rashomon, a concrete event is recorded through the eyes of four different eyewitnesses (see the connection already?). The event that occurs is a crime: the murder of a man and the rape of his wife in a forest grove. As the story unfolds, each witness gives a different account of what occurred because each is drawing from his or her own human perspective.
This idea was so powerfully portrayed in Kurosawa’s film that the experience of this phenomenon in criminal investigation has come to be named for the movie. Investigators call this the “Rashomon effect”, which describes the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection, by which observers of an event often produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts. The point for investigators is that the truth is in the amalgam of the individual accounts.
Applying the Rashomon effect to the Gospel accounts, it’s easy to understand why Mathew, Mark, Luke and John tell the story differently. This is merely the effect of the subjectivity of perception on the individual recollections. This does not mean that the event they record is not absolutely and concretely true. It simply means that the truth is in the amalgam of the accounts, in which all seek (in spite of human limitations) to record one concrete event: that of God himself coming down from heaven to die in our place for our sins and thereby defeat death and reconcile us to God.
So the little differences in the Gospel accounts merely highlight our own human limitations in recording an event so overwhelming that 2,000 years later we still struggle to fully grasp its wonder. If we simply apply the basic investigative principal taught to every criminal investigator in their most basic course studies, we find that the amalgam of the accounts yields the brilliant and unavoidable truth of a very concrete event.