The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 2 – Basic Principles: Understanding the Gospels as Literature, History & Theology

Four Gospels give us the story of Jesus — four Gospels that are both similar & different. Are these differences a reason for angst or joy? Are these differences really contradictions?

SERIES INTRO: Often skeptics point to differences in the four Gospels of Jesus Christ and claim they are contradictions.This series will cover some general principles that you can use when you do come across a Gospel difference. Using these principles, many of these perceived differences can be easily explained. On the other hand, this series is not simply to defend the Gospels, but to positively show that having four Gospels brings our understanding of the life and work of Jesus Christ deeper than any one piece of writing can do.

 ** Read Part 1 HERE. **

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3 Basic Principles

To start, here are 3 basic principles to keep in mind when we come across a Gospel difference:

1. Different does not = contradiction.

Yes, contradictions are always logically impossible (for example, a square can’t be a circle; a bachelor can’t be married), but differences are not necessarily contradictions.

  • Ask yourself when you come across a difference: Is this a true contradiction? Is there a way to logically harmonize this?

2. Different Perspectives = Unique details.[1]

As any police officer or newspaper reporter will tell you, when you gather several witnesses to an incident, each account given will generally have the same major details, but will most likely differ in minor details. Where the overall story will match, each account will have unique details because individuals tell of events from their unique perspectives.

  • Do the Gospels differ in major details or minor details?

3. Different Focuses & Styles = Still God’s Word

Like Jesus was both God and man, the Bible is also a joining of God and man. Thus, though the Bible is God’s Word, it doesn’t mean it’s absent of human influence.[2] And though the Holy Spirit inspired the writing of Scripture, God allowed the writers of the Bible to still use their own unique abilities and personalities while writing the Gospels. This is evident in the different styles of writing seen in different books of the Bible by the different authors.

 

Much More than Newspaper Reporting

The Gospels aren’t just dry reports; they involve the theological interpretation[3] of the Spirit-led writers. Each writer is emphasizing what we should understand about these events concerning God and salvation, and what these events mean both for us individually and for humankind as a whole.

 

Each Gospel has specific ATM:

    • A – Audiences
    • T – Themes
    • M – Messages

 

Because of different focuses in audience, themes, and messages, different Gospel writers focus on different details, emphasizing different aspects of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

 

Each Gospel is also a “HLT sandwich”* — a combination of:

  • H – Historical writing,
  • L – Literary writing, &
  • T – Theological writing.[4]

(*Sorry for the cheesy pun on a BLT — bacon, lettuce, tomato — sandwich, but I find the more corny the joke, the better it is as a memory device.)

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Again, the Gospels are not just dry, newspaper article-like historical reports. They are historical recordings of actual events, but they also contain creative literary, story-telling elements and theological elements, meaning the Gospel writers are teaching us specific lessons about God in a specific style of writing. Understandably, many of these theological lessons overlap between the Gospels, but one of the Gospel writers may focus on one aspect of theology more than another.

Vern Sheridan Poythress writes in his book on inerrancy and the Gospels, “…the differences between the Gospels are an integral and significant part of the Gospels. The differences are there for a purpose: they help us. All the Gospels are talking about the events in ways that help us to grasp their significance and their theological implications. We do not need to feel as if we have to ‘roll back’ the significance and the implications in order to get to ‘bare’ events.”[5]

So, when we take into account ATM (Audience, Theme, and Message) and HLT (History, Literary style, and Theology), what stands out as unique in each Gospel? Here is a brief, helpful overview of the unique focus and style of each of the 4 Gospels:

 

Matthew

“Jesus the Jewish Messiah brings salvation history to its climax, saving his people from their sins.”[6] Noteworthy for its Jewishness, its compression, and the subtle hints of significant importance.[7]

 

Mark

“Jesus the mighty Messiah and Son of God obediently suffers as the Servant of the Lord to pay the ransom price for sins, and as a model of suffering and sacrifice for his disciples to follow.”[8] Noteworthy for fast-paced action and for concentration on the main points.[9]

 

Luke

“God’s end-times salvation predicted by the prophets has arrived through the coming of Jesus the Messiah, the Savior of the world, and this salvation is now going forth to the whole world.”[10] Noteworthy for care in historical research.[11] Where Matthew focuses on Jesus being the Jewish Messiah, Luke focuses on Jesus being the savior of all mankind.

 

John

“Jesus is the divine Son of God who reveals the Father, providing eternal life to all who believe in him.”[12] Noteworthy for theological depth in interpreting the significance of events.[13]

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Putting ATM & HLT to Use

Can understanding the Gospels as theological and literary works help to resolve perceived historic issues?

Let’s look at an example:

In both Luke and Matthew, we find a genealogy of Jesus’ family tree. One does not have to look closely to see major differences:

 

Jesus’ genealogy: Luke 3:23– 38; Matthew 1:1–17

  • Matthew: Covers Abraham to Jesus (41 generations)
  • Luke: Covers Adam to Jesus (76 generations)
  • The lists are identical from Abraham to David.
  • But they are different from David to Jesus; only 2 names are shared after this.

 

There are a few proposed theories for this. The strongest says Matthew follows King David’s royal line to Jesus’ adopted earthly father, Joseph. (Notice Matthew focuses on Joseph in the birth narrative.) Luke follows King David’s blood line to Mary. (Notice Luke focuses on Mary in the birth narrative.) Both Mary and Joseph are distant descendants of King David, and Jesus is the inheritor of both David’s royal line and blood line, as the Messiah was predicted to be.

Much more can be said about these genealogies, but we won’t go into all of it here; we simply want to look at if literary style and theological focus can effect how a Gospel writer reports historic events.

So, understanding the focus of the Gospel of Matthew and Luke, their styles, and a little information about ancient Jewish literature will help here:

  • Matthew lists the genealogy in 3 sections of 14 names: Abraham to David, David to the Babylonian exile, the exile to Christ.
  • 14 may represent seven times two (seven is the number of completion/perfection in Jewish culture due to God creating everything in 6 days and “resting” on the 7th; 14 would be completion/perfection doubled!) or 14 is a numerical value of the Hebrew name “David.” The Hebrew language assigns certain numbers to certain letters and “David” equals 14. [14]
  • Matthew is the “most Jewish Gospel” and focuses on Jesus as the Jewish Messiah; thus, he starts with Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel.
  • Arranging Jewish genealogies in memorable structure or to emphasize certain individuals was common practice in ancient literature. Basically, not all genealogies were complete; many took acceptable literary liberties to emphasize the author’s purpose. [15]
  • Luke focuses on Jesus being the savior of the whole world, so he starts with Adam, the first man, the physical father of all of mankind.
  • Matthew regularly uses compression (basically, meaning he shortens things — more about this later) and organizes his Gospel both thematically and topically, not necessarily chronologically, more than the other Gospel writers.

Ancient Literature

The Gospels share similarities with other ancient histories and literary genres. For instance, ancient Greco-Roman biography or bios – sometimes called “lives” or “popular biographies” – did not strive to tell the whole life story from birth to death of its subject, but to highlight a certain aspects of the subject’s life or character.[16]

The Gospels also share similarities with ancient Jewish Midrash (books of scripture interpretation) because it includes religious/theological explanations of the events reported.[17] Though many scholars have concluded there is “no known parallel to [the Gospels] in the ancient world,” and the Gospels are unique in many literary and historical ways, the Gospels still have much in common with other ancient writings.[18]

Something to think about until next time: Mark Strauss has a book titled Four Portraits, One Jesus. How is having four Gospels similar to having four painted portraits of Jesus?

NEXT: Differences in Jesus’ words

 ** Read Part 1 HERE. **

*All 5 books cited below are highly recommended*

Good reading...

Good reading…

 

[1] Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1245, Kindle edition.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 50.

[3] Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 32.

[4] Ibid., 39.

[5] Ibid., 32.

[6] Mark L. Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 214.

[7] Poythress, 74.

[8] Strauss, 172.

[9] Poythress, 74.

[10] Strauss, 260.

[11] Poythress, 74.

[12] Strauss, 298.

[13] Poythress, 74.

[14] Strauss, 223.

[15] Strauss, 223.

[16] Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 312.

[17] Eddy and Boyd, 343.

[18] Ibid., 320.

*All 5 books cited above are highly recommended!*

GOD FROM THE MACHINE has published it’s first book! Searching the Bible for Mother God is for educating both those outside and inside the growing “Mother God cult.” Visit our page HERE.

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The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 1 – Differences or Contradictions?

Four Gospels give us the story of Jesus — four Gospels that are both similar & different. Are these differences a reason for angst or joy? Are these differences contradictions?

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Reading the Gospels:

Vertical Reading = No Problem

vs.

Horizontal Reading = Problems

When we read the Gospels in the New Testament, we usually do it vertically, meaning from top to bottom. Then, once we finish one Gospel, we move on to the next. Each Gospel is internally consistent, and the overall stories of Jesus in each Gospel compliment each other.

Yet, once you grow more familiar with each Gospel, you will likely start to notice some differences. And if you believe the Bible is the Word of God, these differences will cause you some understandable discomfort.

Popular, skeptical New Testament scholar and writer, Bart Ehrman writes that it’s when we read the Gospels horizontally that we can no longer ignore that the Gospels don’t just have differences but that they actually contradict each other.[1]

Ehrman explains, “In horizontal reading you read a story in one of the Gospels, and then read the same story as told by another Gospel, as if they were written in columns next to each other. And you compare the stories carefully, in detail.”[2] Once you do this, Ehrman says, the number and nature of these differences become unignorable, and he believes many of these differences put the four Gospels “at odds with one another.”[3]

Differences or Contradictions?

In this series, we will be looking at some of these differences and see that, despite what Ehrman writes, a difference doesn’t necessarily mean a contradiction. After all, logically speaking, contradictions mean at least one of the truth statements must be false. But, as will be shown, differences don’t damage our understanding of the Gospels but actually enrich our understanding of the Gospels.

This series will cover some general principles that you can use when you do come across a Gospel difference. Using these principles, many of these perceived differences can be easily explained.

In this series, we will not be addressing every difference, but by learning and applying these general principles, you’ll find that most differences between the Gospels easily substantiate that these are meaningful differences purposely and purposefully made by the individual authors and not erroneous contradictions.

I will be honest in saying there are some differences that are much more difficult to rectify. Where provable solutions may not be possible at this time, plausible solutions can be offered.

Before we even get into the principles (and so I can’t be accused of sugar-coating anything), let’s start off by looking at what I consider one of the most difficult and obvious differences in the New Testament: The Death of Judas. Now, where this series will be focusing on the four Gospels alone, this difference is actually found between the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Acts.

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The Death of Judas

Matthew 27:5-8: “So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the coins and said, ‘It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.’ So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.”

 Acts 1:18-19: “With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.”

 

Can we rectify these two accounts?

Some things to consider:

  • One possible explanation is Judas hung himself on a tree and hung there festering (possibly throughout the Sabbath, the day of rest) and then fell and burst.
  • This coincides with what we know about gases building up in decomposing “bloated” bodies.
  • His purchase of the field mentioned in Acts simply means he indirectly purchased it since the money belonged to him. (“Selective Representation” will be covered later.)
  • Judas’ manner of dying on the land would make it “unclean” by Jewish religious law; thus, it would make sense that the only thing the land could be used for is burying non-Jews.
  • Deuteronomy 21:22-23: “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.”

Does this information give us a plausible explanation? We should be honest about these difficulties, and though we’d like to neatly resolve every one, we ought to be sure not to force explanations onto the text. If nothing else, we may have to, at times, simply trust God and hope a solution comes to light as we learn new information.

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Nothing New

Further, it’s also helpful to note that these are difficulties Christians have been aware of since the early church fathers, yet they still believed the Bible was God’s divine Scripture. Though skeptics like Bart Ehrman and others may present these differences as if saying “Ah-ha! Gotcha!” to Christians, these difficulties have been known from the early days of the Christian church.

So, we have to ask: Why have four Gospels in the New Testament Canon? If the early church knew of these difficult differences, why not get rid of three of the Gospels and just keep one? Or why not edit the four Gospels to smooth out any differences that may be perceived as contradictions?

The answer is obvious: Because they understood all four Gospels to be the Word of God. And when you’re holding the Word of God, you don’t get rid of some of it or mess with it.

Joy and Angst

New Testament scholar and professor, Dr. Jonathan Pennington writes in his book Reading the Gospels Wisely that some individuals in the early church had actually tried to combine the four gospels into one unified, harmonized, super Gospel![4] But, despite charges by opponents that the four Gospels contradicted each other, the church rejected these efforts to create one harmonized edition of the Gospels.

Church fathers, like Irenaeus and Augustine, defended the Gospels against pagan accusers, but “this defense would not be pursued at the expense of losing the fourfold apostolic witness as such, warts and all”[5] because it would be “too high a price to pay; it goes against what was greatly valued in the church, the testimony of the Gospels given through individual eyewitness apostles (Matthew and John) and their close associates (Mark and Luke).”[6]

Wrestling with such passages is what Dr. Jonathan Pennington calls the joy and angst of having four Gospels.[7] (And, yes, this is where I got the title of this series.*) This blog series is not simply to defend the Gospels, but to positively show that having four Gospels brings our understanding of the life and work of Jesus Christ deeper than any one piece of writing can do.

Two questions to ponder for now (and throughout this series):

  • If the supposed “contradictions” are such an issue, why did the early church keep all four Gospels?
  • What do we gain by having four Gospels?

NEXT:  PART 2:  BASIC PRINCIPLES

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[1] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009), Loc 396, Kindle edition.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., Loc 380.

[4] Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1066, Kindle edition.

[5] Ibid., Loc 1094.

[6] Ibid., Loc 1100.

[7] Ibid., Loc 1029.

*With thanks to Dr. Pennington for granting me permission to do so.

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GOD FROM THE MACHINE has published it’s first book! Searching the Bible for Mother God is for educating both those outside and inside the growing “Mother God cult.” Visit our page HERE.