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The Gospel Truth: Sometimes A Little Hazy

What is the story of Jesus' birth? How did Judas die? What did Jesus say when he was crucified?

The answers to those questions vary depending on which Gospel you read, says Bible scholar Bart Ehrman.

Ehrman is the author of Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don't Know About Them). He says that each Gospel writer had a different message — and that readers should not "smash the four Gospels into one big Gospel and think that [they] get the true understanding."

"When Matthew was writing, he didn't intend for somebody ... to interpret his Gospel in light of what some other author said. He had his own message," Ehrman tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

In the Gospel of Mark, for instance, Jesus dies in agony, unsure of the reason he must die and asking why God has forsaken him. But in the book of Luke, Jesus prays for forgiveness for his killers. The two stories offer very different accounts, says Ehrman, yet many people tend to merge them.

"They put the two accounts into one big account," says Ehrman. "So Jesus says all the things that he says in Mark and in Luke, and thereby robbing each account of what it's trying to say about Jesus in the face of death. ... What people do is, by combining these Gospels in their head into one Gospel, they, in effect, have written their own Gospel, which is completely unlike any of the Gospels of the New Testament."

Now a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ehrman began his studies at the Moody Bible Institute. He was initially an evangelical Christian who believed the Bible was the inerrant word of God. But later, as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, Ehrman started reading the Bible with a more historical approach and analyzing the contradictions among the Gospels. Eventually, he lost faith in the Bible as the literal word of God. He now describes himself as an agnostic.

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