Reading the Gospels—Part 1

When it comes to the life of Jesus the Bible has four excellent books which cover his time on earth.  You might ask why we need four written biographies about Jesus.  Wouldn’t it be simpler to have one official account that includes everything?  This would be similar to asking why we need so many biographies on Abraham Lincoln.  Besides being a source of income for starving history majors each person who writes a book about Abraham Lincoln has a slightly different perspective of the former president.  One thinks that Lincoln was a great wartime president and focuses his biography on that aspect of Lincoln’s life.  Another biographer might focus on Lincoln as a man of integrity and morals.  Neither biography needs to be factual incorrect just because the author has an agenda nor do does one have to be right and the other wrong because their perspectives are different.  Lincoln can be a great wartime president and a man of integrity and morals.

So to with the writers of the gospels each has a specific purpose in writing.  This will cause them to include certain stories from the life of Jesus and leave others out.  None of them considered Jesus’ childhood to be important enough to include, except Luke’s brief mention of Jesus at the temple when he was twelve.  Instead they carefully selected stories from the life of Jesus which would serve the point of their individual biographies.  The stories and words of Jesus that they did include were chosen very carefully for this reason.  Even the order of the stories and which ones were grouped together are important.  Back then chronological order was not as important as it is today.  For this reason Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John felt free to change the written order of some events if it served the purpose of their writing.

Just because they did this doesn’t mean that the gospels are somehow incorrect any more than different biographies on Abraham Lincoln mean they are incorrect.  Rather each gospel presents Jesus from a slightly different angle or vantage point.  Instead of a monocular view of the life of Jesus we have a quad-ocular one.  We have the depth that comes with diversity in perspectives.  It was also a savvy bit of editing over a thousand years before the invention of the printing press, a device which has enabled the writing of books that are entirely too long, just as the internet has allowed millions to write and broadcast volumes about subjects that no one cares about.  The four gospels were concise gems written in a time when books needed to be copied by hand.  Their length allowed for rapid reproduction.

In each biography of Jesus we get the flavor of the writer and the audience to which he was writing.  It may come as a shock, but you don’t even need to know Greek to see this.  All that is needed is an ability to read the Bible in one of the languages it has been translated into, Modern English I suspect if you are reading this blog.  Matthew, the former IRS agent, is writing to Jews to prove that Jesus is the Messiah, the king promised to them in the Old Testament.  He particularly enjoys showing all the ways that Jesus fills Old Testament prophecy and includes frequent quotations of it.  Mark is writing to a Roman audience and frequently explains Jewish customs and words to them.  His purpose is simply to tell his audience the good news about Jesus who is the Son of God.  His biography is the shortest and most fast paced, jumping from event to event in the life of Jesus, as seen by his favorite word “immediately.”  Reading it you might think he had ADHD but it is probably that he is just excited.  Luke is an educated Greek doctor.  He begins his gospel like a historian explaining that he careful researched what he has recorded.  The book is a little more layered and I haven’t studied it as much so I will pass over it.  Last we get to the book of John.  It is quickly obvious that John is different from the other biographies, both in its style and the stories it contains.  John was probably an old man when writing this biography.  He has had time to reflect on his time with Jesus.  The other three gospels have been out for a while and people are familiar with the stories in them.  As a member of Jesus’ closest inner circle he shares previously unreleased stories about Jesus’ life along with a couple of familiar ones, mixed with a lifetime of reflection on the life of Jesus.  When he nears the end of the book he tells people the exact purpose of the book, with the confidence you would expect from such a follower of Jesus, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

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