Tuesday, June 05, 2018

The Gospels and the Gettysburg Address

Bart Ehrman harps on how we should read the Gospels horizontally as well as vertically. We should compare parallel accounts. When we do, we notice differences. Of course, that's hardly a novel observation.

Redaction criticism typically attributes variations to theologically motivated editorial changes. That may occasionally be true, but that's a problem when it's treated as the default explanation.

To take a comparison, the Gettysburg Address is one of the most famous speeches in American history. And it's multiply-attested in contemporary sources. We have copies in Lincoln's own hand, as well as transcriptions by newspaper stenographers who heard the speech live. Yet there are variations in our sources:

Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address at a public cemetery dedication 151 years ago today. But was the mention of God really taken out of the famous speech by the president himself?
No one will really know for sure, since audio of the event wasn’t recorded. That technology was another two score years away in the future.

But there are at least nine versions of the Gettysburg Address from the time period, with some in Lincoln’s handwriting. All are slightly different, and not all accounts agree that Lincoln mentioned God during the 270-word, two-minute speech.
Lincoln was invited as guest speaker at the Gettysburg cemetery event as a courtesy, and it wasn’t entirely expected he would attend. The famed orator Edward Everett was the featured speaker.
Lincoln and his staff arrived on the day before the event, and Lincoln compared notes with Everett. The president also worked on his speech that night.
The Gettysburg Address itself is not in question. The Associated Press and three newspapers transcribed the remarks for publication. Lincoln gave his draft copy and a copy written right after the speech to his secretaries.
In later days, Lincoln wrote out three other copies as mementos, giving us a total of nine versions of the speech. All nine are different.
The gist of all the versions is the same, and all the versions contain the quotes widely taught in history class.
However, the first two versions, in Lincoln’s own handwriting, omit the mention of God in the conclusion.
“The nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” Lincoln wrote in his first two versions. Later versions added the word “under God” so that the sentence reads, “the nation, under God, shall …”
The inclusion of God in the speech is perhaps the most significant difference among the versions. The fifth version of the speech, which was signed and dated by Lincoln, was considered the “final” version and included “under God” in its last sentence.
But is that what Lincoln actually said on the battlefield?
In “The Collected Works Of Abraham Lincoln: Volume 7,” the dispute seems to be settled.
The Associated Press report of the speech, written by Joseph Gilbert, along with reports from newspapers in Philadelphia and Chicago, all agree that Lincoln said “under God” as his speech concluded.
In that book’s footnotes, it’s explained that the Philadelphia Inquirer and Chicago Tribune had the words in its independent accounts.
“These papers corroborate Gilbert's version, however, in having the phrase ‘under God,’ which Lincoln must have used for the first time as he spoke,” the book says.
It also appears that Lincoln used the Associated Press version as a reference point when he wrote out the third, fourth, and fifth versions.
A fourth printed version, from the Boston Advertiser, shows that Lincoln used the words “under God” as the address concluded.
How is that possible? One explanation is the difference between the spoken word and the written word. Some speakers write out their speech in advance. That's their script. 

But when they speak before a live audience, they may depart from their prepared remarks. In addition, if they make copies from memory, they may introduce further variations, in part because they don't recall exactly how they worded it the first time, and because they're not even attempting to reproduce the original wording verbatim. They reserve the right to paraphrase their own statements. What matters isn't the precise phraseology, but communicating the same ideas. 
In principle, all the variant accounts of Lincoln's speech could be authentic. They could all be his own words. He casually reworded what he said, when he delivered the speech and when he made copies of his own speech. 


  1. For even more fun on this theme, start here:


  2. Great topic. Judges often make Judgments, ex tempore, ie there and then on the spot at the conclusion of a case. If one one of the parties wants a written Judgment, the Judge will look at the transcript and make changes. Sometimes simple grammar. Sometimes to amplify a certain point.

  3. very helpful.

    It is easy to imagine the preaching and events of Jesus ministry being written down from 30-45/50 AD in smaller forms and because Jesus repeated Himself in teachings and sermons, no doubt - then it is easy to imagine a bunch of those being written out that are no longer extant today, that became the final forms of Matthew, Mark, and Luke written from around 45 to 62 AD. (Assuming Luke is last, based on the way Acts ends.)

  4. Thinking about this more and interacting with Muslims more (see :


    caused me to think this way about the comparison:

    The comparison is not with content of the writing (Lincoln editing his speech) vs. inspiration of NT; the comparison is between extant artifacts of history – the fact that there are 9 copies of what Lincoln actually did (write, change wording, but basically the same meaning) is parallel with Jesus in history repeating His content of preaching a lot in 3 and 1/2 years, and different people writing different accounts of those events, some the same event, some the same basic content of teachings, sermons, but said in different words at different times. What we have extant (in existence today in the 4 gospels) – the reason why some stuff is repeated and uses different words or leaves out some detail, but is not contradictory, is because sermons and lessons have lots of repeated ideas and principles, but a human is not a robot and does not say his teaching in the exact words every time. The Synoptics are similar to the 9 copies of the Gettysburg address, with some differences, additions, things left out, etc. but basically the same content; whereas the Gospel of John would be compared to writing another book on Lincoln’s other events with his family and friends (real history), without having the Gettysburg Address in it; and then publishing something later with 10 chapters, (9 of the Gettysburg address; one of the other events with friends and family).

    3 Synoptics Gospels as records of historical events of Jesus’ life and minister —– with Lincoln’s 9 extant copies of Gettysbury Address.

    1 Gospel of John as historical record of Jesus’ more private ministry with John, Peter, James, Mary and Martha, Lazarus, etc. —- compared to publishing other events in Lincoln’s life and not having Gettysburg Address in the book.

    Later combining them into one volume. 10 chapters about Lincoln in one book, compared to 4 Gospels.