The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 5 – Narrative Creativity: Selective Representation & Chronology

Can an author use narrative creativity when telling a true story? Can literary creativity explain Gospel differences?

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. By 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: Differences or Contradictions? **

** Read Part 2 HERE: Basic Principles: Understanding the Gospels as Literature, History & Theology **

**Read Part 3 HEREDealing with Differences in Jesus’ Words**

**Read Part 4 HERE: The Gospels as Ancient Biography & History & “Narrative Creativity”**

4Gospels_Wood_evangelists

Last article, we started looking at the “Narrative Creativity” of the Gospels, which means the Gospel writers used narrative freedom within a factual framework. This is seen in other ancient histories and biographies and include some shared characteristics:

  1. Selective Details
  2. Selective Representation
  3. Selective Chronology
  4. Selective Telescoping & Compressing
  5. (And Knowing some History & Culture Helps)

In this article, we will look at characteristics #2 & #3:

(2) Selective Representation

Type A

Sometimes the Gospel writers (and other ancient writers) will focus on only 1 person to represent the whole. Instead of mentioning every person involved, only 1 person is focused upon.

EXAMPLE #1:

How many demon-possessed men did Jesus encounter in Gerasenes?

Matthew 8:28 – Two men (unnamed).

Mark 5:1-20 – One man (calling himself “Legion”).

Luke 8:26-39 – One man (calling himself “Legion”).

In Gerasenes, Jesus encountered two demon-possessed men, but Mark and Luke chose to focus only on Legion, perhaps the worse of the two. Whether telling of one or both, the same purpose is accomplished. A similar idea is reflected in modern literary writing: if the same goal can be accomplished with less characters, choose to go with less characters.

EXAMPLE #2:

Who was 1st to find Jesus’ empty tomb?

Matthew 28:1: Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.”

Mark 16:1: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salmone.

Luke 24:10: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women.

John 20:1: Mary Magdalene.

 

When reporting an event with many people involved, many reports will only report the most prominent by name. All four accounts confirm that Mary Magdalene was among the first to find the empty tomb. Being the most prominent of Jesus’ female followers, John chose only to focus on her.

I came across a great example of this from modern times when I was teaching a class about Gospel differences at my church a few years ago: On March 19, 2011, UFC fighter Jon Jones helped to stop a thief in Paterson, NJ on the day before he was to fight for the light heavy-weight title in Newark, NJ.

The first articles I read about this incident only mentioned Jon Jones being involved, but other articles I read later stated that his two trainers were also involved and equally important in catching the thief. Because Jon Jones with the prominent one, some reporters decided to leave his less-renowned trainers out of the story. Nowhere did the articles that did not mention the trainers state that Jon Jones alone stopped the thief or that it was only Jon Jones who stopped the thief.

 jonJones

As we did in the last article, let’s take a quick moment to note the harmony of the four Gospels with an easy experiment: If we remove all the details that the 4 Gospels don’t all report about the first people to find the empty tomb, what are we left with? What can be known?

After Jesus’ crucifixion, some women followers of Jesus — one of them being Mary Magdalene — were the first to find the tomb empty.

What is really incredible is that because of the low status of women in First Century Palestine, a woman’s testimony was not even allowed in court. Yet, the Gospels all report that women were the first to find the tomb empty. Even skeptical historians agree that this detail, reported in all 4 Gospels, screams of authenticity.

Type B

Similar to the most prominent person involved only being mentioned, a messenger or servant represents the one who sent him, so the messenger or servant is often not mentioned.[1] This is not uncommon to see in ancient historic writing.[2]

For instance, today, instead of saying, “I sent my supervisor to ask my boss for a day off,” you may say simply (but accurately), “I asked my boss for a day off.”

EXAMPLE #1

Who scourged Jesus?

Matthew 27:26 & Mark 15:15

Both Matthew and Mark write in the original Greek that Pilate scourged Jesus.[3] Does this mean Pilate literally did the scourging himself? No. It’s understood that Roman soldiers, under the authority of Pilate, were the ones who did the literal act of whipping Jesus.[4] (Often it is translated from the original Greek into English this way because of this very reason.)

This is no different than if Don Corleone had one of his mafia hitmen kill someone. You may say, “Don Corleone had Joey Donuts killed,” but you could also accurately say instead, “Don Corleone killed Joey Donuts.”

 

EXAMPLE #2

The Centurion’s Dying Servant[5] – Who came to see Jesus?

Matthew 8:5-13 & Luke 7:1-10

Matthew – In the shorter version of the two, it appears the centurion came in person to Jesus.

Luke – In the longer version, the centurion sends elders and friends to Jesus.

As it is Matthew’s style throughout his Gospel, his version is the “compressed” — or briefer — version. (More about compression in the next article.) Thus, Matthew cuts out the elders and friends.

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(3) Selective Chronology[6]

Have you’ve ever seen a movie not told in chronological order?

I’m not a cinema expert, but it seems to me that with the 1994 release of director Quentin Tarantino’s violent crime drama Pulp Fiction, which was not told in chronological order, it became popular for directors to experiment with telling stories not from beginning to ending, but through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards.

But messing with the order of events when conveying a story is nothing new. Writers like William Faulkner did it long before Pulp Fiction in novels like The Sounds and the Fury (1929), and ancient writers did it long before that but with nonfiction.

Ancient writers used more flexibility in chronological and narrative sequence than modern writers when telling of true events[7] and often organized their material in topical or thematic groups.[8] The overall structure of the story stays the same, but the smaller units within the framework can be moved around.[9] In the 4 Gospels, we see the overall framework of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection — which does not change — but the smaller units or details within that framework may be moved around for topical or thematic purposes.

Also, keep in mind, “then” does not always mean immediately afterward.[10] Gaps in time may be between events appearing next to each other in the Gospels. Take special note of transitional words and phrases (or the absence of) as clues.

 

EXAMPLE #1

Jesus’ Parables

Matthew, Chapter 13

Often, we see parables in the Gospels with similar topics and themes grouped together. Did Jesus say these one after another or did Matthew lump these parables with similar messages together? Since Matthew appears to be the Gospel most organized by themes, it’s likely Matthew grouped these parables that were told by Jesus at different times together to hammer home a point to his readers.

 

EXAMPLE #2

Jesus’ Temptation by Satan

The attempted temptation of Jesus takes place in 3 locations, but Matthew and Luke report them in different orders:

Matthew 4:1-11 – Order: Desert, Temple, Mountain

Luke 4:1-13 – Order: Desert, Mountain, Temple

For what possible thematic reasons would Matthew or Luke rearrange the order?

Because of the use of “Then,” Matthew is the chronological account. Luke does not use any time-related transition words. In both his Gospel and the Book of Acts, Luke focuses on the city of Jerusalem. Luke’s account specifically mentions Jerusalem in 4:9 in relation to Jesus’ third temptation. Due to thematic reasons, Luke chose to end with the Temple in Jerusalem, emphasizing his focus.[11]

NEXT: Narrative Creativity continues: “Selective Telescoping & Compressing” and why knowing about some ancient history & culture helps.

** Read Part 1 HERE: Differences or Contradictions? **

** Read Part 2 HERE: Basic Principles: Understanding the Gospels as Literature, History & Theology **

**Read Part 3 HEREDealing with Differences in Jesus’ Words**

**Read Part 4 HERE: The Gospels as Ancient Biography & History & “Narrative Creativity”**

Inerrancy*theGospels

*All books cited below are highly recommended!*

[1] Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 21.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 17-24.

[6] Ibid., 130.

[7] Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1385, Kindle edition.

[8] Ibid., Loc 1391.

[9] Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 254.

[10] Poythress,129.

[11] Gregg R. Allison, “Inerrancy and the Phenomena of Scripture,” (class lecture, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, September 22, 2012).

*All books cited above are highly recommended!*

GOD FROM THE MACHINE has published its 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 4 – The Gospels as Ancient Biography & History & “Narrative Creativity”

In what ways are the Gospels similar to other ancient biographies & histories? How did the Gospel writers use “Narrative Creativity” in telling about the life of Jesus? How can this help us understand differences between the Gospels?

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. By 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: Differences or Contradictions? **

** Read Part 2 HERE: Basic Principles: Understanding the Gospels as Literature, History & Theology **

**Read Part 3 HEREDealing with Differences in Jesus’ Words**

4Gospels_writers

Ancient Biography & History

Today, we often think writings that tell of actual events should be like modern newspaper articles: Just the cold, hard facts. Today, most believe historical writings should be dry, factual, neutral accounts of what happened exactly as it happened.

But have you ever written an account of something that happened to you? Try it sometime: Write an accurate depiction of a situation that happened with you and a friend. Then ask yourself:

  • How did I decide what details to put in and leave out?
  • What details did I focus on and why?
  • What was I trying to get across by including these details?
  • And finally: Am I able to tell a completely neutral account?

Truth is, the majority of nonfiction writing, though it may be giving factual information, still tells the story with a certain focus, angle, or slant.

For example, a historic writer may write about a unit of American soldiers in the Iraqi War. Perhaps the writer wants to communicate that the soldiers were brave, so he’ll include details and events that show how they risked their lives and faced dangerous odds. Or the author may be against the war and instead include details that show how horrible and terrifying war is for all involved. Maybe the author has a theme of brotherhood, so he focuses on the bond of the soldiers in the unit. On the other hand, if his theme is the value of human life, his story – though still reporting the same events – will look very different than if he was focused on glorifying the effectiveness of modern military technology.

Likewise, the writers of the Gospels, as we mentioned in earlier articles in this series, all had different audiences, themes, and messages (ATM). Further, ancient writers of history and biography did not write simple, dry accounts as modern readers expect to find in text books and news reports.[1]

Jonathan Pennington writes that ancient historians had a slightly different idea than modern Westerners of what was considered historically accurate reporting.[2] They “exercised greater freedom of composition than their modern counterparts when reporting real, historical events.”[3]

Yet, “None of this means, however, that most ancient historians felt free to simply make up events.”[4] Thus, “Note that we are not talking about whether these things really happened – on this the Gospels and the church fathers rightly are univocal, ‘Yes they did!’ – but rather, on how these things are retold. The reporting and retelling of the Gospel events necessarily follow ancient conventions, not our own.”[5]

Narrative Creativity

Today, people often expect nonfiction reports to be straightforward, text book-like accounts. But this is not even the case with modern writing. For example, many books written today are historical works, but they are written like novels, such as Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden and Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose.

There are two things we should note about this sort of writing:

(1) Because it’s not just a dry, historical report, it makes for more enjoyable reading and reaches a wider audience. I think it’s safe to say most people would rather sit down and read something that reads like a novel rather than a scholarly journal article or a text book description of historical events.

(2) The author, though working to report the true events accurately, will use story-telling devices (like metaphors, suspense, symbolism, character development) to tell the factual story.

Similarly, the Gospel writers used narrative creativity in their writing, and this would have been expected and perfectly acceptable in their time.[6] Ancient historical writers and biographers could be much more creative in their presentation of the factual material. Contra the modern idea of dry, factual accounts, the Gospel writers had much more freedom in constructing the stories of Jesus than a modern newspaper writer.

Before we look at this further, let me point out two things:

(1) Though the Gospel writers present the information in ways with more narrative creativity than a modern text book and they may omit or include details not found in the other Gospels, they still report all of the same information on the core details of the life of Jesus: his ministry, death, and resurrection.

(2) Though I am arguing here that the Gospel accounts have more “narrative creativity” than modern newspaper reports, all of the Gospels are still factual and straightforward. When compared to mythology (as skeptics often claim the Gospels are) we see an overwhelming lack of embellished and grandiose language in the Gospels, especially when compared to writings that are plainly mythological. In fact, when the Gospels report something miraculous, even the resurrection of Jesus, the frank, factual nature of the reports are unignorable.

Let’s look at how the Gospels have more “narrative creativity” than modern text books and newspaper articles, which will help us to understand why we see some variations between the Gospels:

Freedom within a Framework

Narrative freedom within a factual framework in ancient history and biography, includes:

  1. Selective Details
  2. Selective Representation
  3. Selective Chronology
  4. Selective Telescoping & Compressing
  5. (And Knowing some History & Culture Helps)

We will look at “Selective Details” below, and then the others in our following GFTM blog articles.

(1) Selective Details

  • As discussed earlier, this isn’t a characteristic unique to ancient historic writing, but all nonfiction writing. It’s simply impossible to include all information, so the author must be selective about what he or she includes and omits.
  • A good writer chooses details for a good reason. When you read, ask yourself: Why did the Gospel author include this detail? What does he want to communicate to us?
  • Thus, one Gospel writer may include a detail another author may not and vice versa.

To illustrate, let’s look at the example of Joseph of Arimathea.

Joseph of Arimathea

All 4 Gospels tell of him, but give us some different details about him:

Matthew 27:57-58:

“As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him.”

Mark 15:43:

“Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.”

Luke 23:50-52:

“Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body.”

John 19:38:

“Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away.”

 

Now, let’s ask: What details about Joseph of Arimathea are only reported in one Gospel?

  • Rich
  • Went “boldly” to Pilate
  • “Prominent” member of the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin)
  • Good and upright
  • Did not consent to Jesus’ crucifixion
  • Waiting for the Kingdom of God to come
  • Secret disciple of Jesus

Notice how all four accounts give some different details about Joseph but none of them contradict the other. In fact, they compliment each other.

Furthermore, each gives us different details, adding to our overall understanding of Joseph. By having 4 independent accounts, we receive a more comprehensive portrait of the man that is Joseph of Arimathea and a deeper understanding of what he did.

Before closing, let’s do one more thing: If we ignore all details not included in all four Gospels and take only the details included in all four, what are we left with concerning Joseph of Arimathea?

He was a man from Arimathea who asked Pilate for Jesus’ body after His crucifixion.

Differences due to narrative creativity do not lead to contradictions but to deeper understanding and to an assurance of the accuracy of these historical reports.

 NEXT: Narrative Creativity of the Gospels: Selective Representation & Chronology.

** Read Part 1 HERE: Differences or Contradictions? **

** Read Part 2 HERE: Basic Principles: Understanding the Gospels as Literature, History & Theology **

**Read Part 3 HEREDealing with Differences in Jesus’ Words**

Recommended reading!

Recommended reading!

[1]Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1362, Kindle edition.

[2] Ibid., Loc 1355.

[3] Ibid., Loc 1368.

[4] Ibid., Loc 1379.

[5] Ibid., Loc 1415.

[6] Ibid., Loc 1360.

GOD FROM THE MACHINE has published its 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 3 – Dealing with Differences in Jesus’ Words

Why do we sometimes read the same teachings of Jesus with different wording in the Gospels? Did the Gospel writers mess up? Are Jesus’ words inaccurate in the Gospels? 

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. By 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: Differences or Contradictions? **

** Read Part 2 HERE: Basic Principles: Understanding the Gospels as Literature, History & Theology **

 4Gospels_Wood_evangelists

More Basic Principles: Making Sense of Differences in Jesus’ Words

Between the Gospels, sometimes we read Jesus saying similar things but in different ways with different words. Should this concern us? Do the differences prove that the Gospel writers were getting some of Jesus’ words wrong?

 3 verbal verbs easily explain these differences:

(1) Repeating, (2) Translating, (3) Paraphrasing

Let’s briefly look at each one:

 

(1) Repeating

Jesus likely repeated teachings but worded them in different ways,[1] as most modern preachers do. We know from the Gospels that Jesus’ ministry lasted about 3 years as he traveled from place to place. Jesus would’ve repeated the same teachings many times to new audiences. It’s unlikely he would repeat the same lessons in the exact same wording each time. We can also logically assume that he adapted his teachings to audience, local situations, etc. as all good public speakers do.

Thus, different Gospel writers may be reporting a different time Jesus taught a common lesson.

 

(2) Translating

The original Gospels were written in ancient Greek, the common tongue of the ancient world (due to the conquests of Alexander the Great), but Jesus, being a Palestinian Jew, likely taught in Aramaic. Thus, even in the original language of the Gospels, we don’t have Jesus’ exact words. Should this concern us?

We can’t be sure we have Jesus’ “exact words” everywhere in the Bible, but we can be certain we have “his own voice,”[2] meaning his exact ideas. Any translating requires an amount of interpretation since many words and phrases cannot be translated word-for-word.

Translating need not concern us; accurate translating is an everyday occurrence. For example, two bilingual siblings may translate their Spanish-speaking mother’s words to their English-speaking teacher in different ways, though the same accurate idea remains.

Furthermore, all four Gospels were written by Jesus’ hand-chosen disciples or recorded by a companion of his disciples under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

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(3) Paraphrasing

Sometimes the Gospel writers did not quote Jesus word-for-word but paraphrased his words.[3]

For example, as a kid, you may tell a friend, “My mom said, ‘You are absolutely, without-a-doubt in deep trouble, mister, when your father gets home!’” or you may simply say, “My mom says I’m dead meat.”

Ancient Greek did not have quotation marks like we use today,[4] though your modern translation mostly likely inserted them. Direct quotes were not as valued as they are today, and paraphrasing was perfectly acceptable,[5] especially to a primarily oral culture.

Thus, when you see words with quotation marks around them in your modern translations of the Bible, it does not particularly mean it is a direct quote.

In closing, ask yourself: How does Jesus rewording a common lesson give us more insight into what he wants us to learn? How does having four Spirit-led, close disciples of Jesus paraphrasing and translating (and, thus, interpreting) Jesus’ word give us more understanding of Jesus’ teachings?

NEXT: Comparing the Gospels to other ancient biographies & their “Narrative Creativity.”

** Read Part 1 HERE: Differences or Contradictions? **

** Read Part 2 HERE: Basic Principles: Understanding the Gospels as Literature, History & Theology **

 ReadinggospelsWisely

****All books cited below are highly recommended****

[1] Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1262, Kindle edition.

[2] Pennington, Loc 1280.

[3] Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 167-169.

[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 92.

[5] Ibid.

GOD FROM THE MACHINE has published its 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.

Searching_the_Bible__Cover_for_Kindle