Thinking About the Gospels

Sometimes the gospels of the New Testament are referred to as biographies. While I don’t think this is a bad practice, I think it is somewhat misleading. Modern readers have expectations for what a biography looks like. These expectations are not always accurate for 1st century biographies. Contemporary biographies usually take a chronological approach to a person’s life. They begin at birth and proceed towards a certain point in the person’s life. The 1st century gospel writers approach Jesus’ life in a more thematic way.

Events in Jesus’ life are included or excluded from the gospels depending on how they fit the theme or larger framework of the text. This is one of the reasons why we are told disappointingly little about Jesus’ childhood. Though we are interested in it, the gospel writers considered most of it superfluous to their theme. Jesus’ main ministry probably lasted three years. Though we know far more about this part of his life than his childhood, one can read a gospel out loud in a few hours. The last 24 hours before Jesus’ death on the cross, in turn, contain more detail than the previous years of his ministry. Much is excluded. Furthermore, comparison of different gospels shows that their writers didn’t necessarily record events in chronological order. Certain writers chose to arrange events, miracles, and sermons thematically rather, than chronologically. This approach is as narrative as it is historical, though not out of place for a 1st century biography.

When I became aware of these things I had a mini-crisis of faith. How am I supposed to believe in Christianity when the evidence is less than historical? The fact is that we don’t even have the actually words of Jesus. Jesus taught in Aramaic. His words and deeds were exchanged orally before being written down in Greek. When we read the red letter words of Jesus in our English Bibles, we are reading something that is two languages removed from what Jesus actually said.

Before it looks like I am questioning the veracity of Christianity, I want to make a few points. History often comes to us in just the form I am describing. Video cameras are a relatively new invention. Even they may give a distorted picture of reality. The discerning consumer of news knows better than to simply trust something because an organization has video footage and claims to be fair and unbiased. Compare the documentary history of Jesus’ life and the manuscript tradition of the gospels with what exists for other historical events and you will find that they stand up fairly well.

Should we dismiss the gospels because the writers didn’t record the events of Jesus’ live from an objective perspective? If that were true we would have to throw out all of what we know of history. There is no such thing as a completely objective historical source, or a completely objective historian for that matter. A careful historian looks at what motivated a chronicler to write from his or her perspective. The gospel writers had an agenda, but they make no attempt to hide this. They were familiar with the stories of Jesus. Matthew and John were insiders, a part of Jesus’ inner circle. Mark was in the extended sphere of people following Jesus. Luke, coming on the scene after Jesus’ ascension, writes in the manner of someone who has personally investigated the life of Jesus. Through what they saw and heard, they became convinced that Jesus was the Son of God and that salvation was found in him. In the gospels then, we have a collection of the events which led them to this conclusion.

Each gospel might be prefaced by the author with the words, “These are the events that I found reliable and convincing enough to stake my life on.” Their accounts may not be as complete as a modern historian, but these writers were risking more than a reputation or book sales. The first generation of Christians faced intense persecution for their beliefs, many being executed. If I were to write something which might get me killed, I would keep what I had to say to a minimum, only that which was necessary and defensible.

All this brings up the issue of what happens when the gospels appear to differ. Think about a controversial play during a football game. Fans on either side often have different perspectives on what actually happened. What we don’t do is to say that because people disagree about a play, it must never have happened. Rather the controversy lets us know that the event actually occurred because it was witnessed by real people, because real people view events from different perspectives. Our task is to look at the varying accounts and try to find a way to harmonize them.

A lot has been made about the way that John’s gospel differs from the first three gospels, (which are also called the synoptic gospels.) Dorothy Sayers wrote an excellent piece on this subject called “A Vote of Thanks to Cyrus.” In it she pretended that the gospel was a modern biography and wrote an appropriate book review for it. The gist of her argument is that their were already three well known biographies in circulation about the life of Jesus when John set down to write his gospel. Rather than rehash familiar stories, John includes events not previously put into print. He provides the unique perspective of someone who was in Jesus’ inner-inner circle. Writing later than the others, John also takes the time to reflect on the meaning and significance of things that Jesus said and did.

The nature of the gospels present us with difficulties that may be uncomfortable for people who like a simple faith. However, the difficulties that exist are characteristic of all real history. Thankfully, most of them have been recognized throughout the history of Christianity. If you noticed that there are two different genealogies for Jesus or that Judas’ is described as dying in two different ways, you are not the first. Someone has probably dealt with it. Whether or not their solution is satisfying is another matter, but it’s a place to start.


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