At the ‘Jesus on Trial’ event that I attended the other night, two expert witnesses gave completely contrasting answers to this question. The pro-resurrection witness (ancient historian Edwin Judge) said that differences in the Gospel accounts, along with their unwillingness to shed light on intriguing details (such as the actual event of resurrection itself) were signs of authenticity. In other words, differences and inconsistencies are to be expected in real witness reports. The anti-resurrection expert witness (philosopher of science Peter Slezak) scoffed at this, and said that this would have to be the only situation in which differences and inconsistencies were viewed in a positive light – and that, rather, they were reason for suspicion.
Well unfortunately I had reason today to be reading through a court report (from a real court case, rather than the mock trial mentioned above). And I found it interesting that the judge made the comment about the witnesses’ accounts of the events in question:
There are some differences in their accounts and recollections. That is to be expected.
The judge then worked through the different witness statements, giving the benefit of the doubt to each of their remembrances, and being content to allow a degree of ambiguity about how things precisely happened, so long as he could determine the ‘substance’ of the events in question.
To me, this seems to support Edwin Judge’s point: in a real situation, with genuine witnesses, it is to be expected that there will be differences in the various accounts. Thus the specific sorts of differences that we find in the Gospel accounts might be argued to be reflective of a real situation, rather than colluded fiction. (See here for my sense of the raw data, and see here for my example of apparently conflicting witness reports.)