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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Christmas in the Old (Yes, Old) Testament

What can we learn about Christmas from the Old Testament? Are the passages Matthew cites really about Jesus? What is typology?

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What can we learn about Christmas from the Old Testament?

Since it’s Christmas time, it’s a good time to read through the birth narrative of Jesus as told by Matthew, comprising of only two short chapters of his Gospel. (Go ahead and do it right now. I’ll wait!)

In Matthew 1:1, Matthew calls Jesus “the son of David, the son of Abraham” and then goes on to give us Jesus’ genealogy. This is important for Matthew’s readers to know because all Jews knew the Messiah would be a descendent of Abraham and King David. Matthew is often called the “most Jewish” Gospel because Matthew is clearly concerned with showing that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and the fulfillment of the Jewish Scripture.

Thus, to truly understand Jesus, we need to understand the Old Testament (OT), and this is exactly why the writers of the New Testament (NT) constantly refer back to the OT. In fact, Matthew does this more than any other Gospel writer.

When reading the Christmas story in Matthew 1-2, you’ll notice that Matthew references the OT four different times in this short narrative – four references to four different OT prophets: Isaiah, Micah, Hosea, and Jeremiah. But when we turn to the OT to read these passages, we run into some problems: It’s not so clear they’re about Jesus!

So, let’s look at these passages more closely and see what the Old Testament tells us about the first Christmas.

Bethlehem Christmas. Star in night sky above Mary and Joseph

Matthew 2:15 / Hosea 11:1

After Jesus’ birth, Joseph, Mary, and the newborn Jesus flee to Egypt to escape the persecution of Herod, and they would not return until after Herod’s death. Matthew tells us this was to fulfill what the LORD had spoken in Hosea 11:1:

“Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Now, when we turn to Hosea 11:1 and read the context of the passage, we run in to a problem: this passage is not a prediction about Jesus! In fact, it’s not about the Messiah at all! Hosea is clearly speaking about the nation of Israel, and the line “Out of Egypt I called my son” is clearly referring to the Exodus, when God liberated Israel from slavery under Pharaoh.

What’s going on here? How does Jesus “fulfill” something not even about him?

Often, when we think of prophets and “fulfillment,” we think of prophets making specific Nostradamus-like predictions about the future and those predictions coming true. Though these types of predictions do occur in the Bible, often this is not the type of “fulfillment” the NT writers have in mind. What they have in mind is something called typology.

What is typology? Events, persons, or institutions that become patterns – that “echo” throughout God’s redemptive history as recorded in Scripture – are called types. These types or patterns are seen throughout Scripture and foreshadow a future, ultimate fulfillment, called an antitype.

For example, the Passover lamb and the Jewish sacrificial system are types that point forward to Jesus’ sacrificial death for the sins of the world. Jesus’ death (the antitype) fulfills the purpose of the Passover lamb and the OT sacrifices (the types).

When Matthew refers to OT verses like Hosea 11:1 and says they were “fulfilled,” he is speaking of typology. Here, he isn’t saying Jesus fulfilled specific predictions about the Messiah, but that Jesus is the fulfillment of a pattern seen throughout God’s redemptive plan. After all, Jesus says in Matthew 5:17,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

To illustrate, Israel is often referred to as “God’s son,” but Jesus is considered the true Israel because he is God’s true Son. Just like God liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt, Matthew is telling us that Jesus is the new Exodus, because through Jesus, God will liberate us from our slavery to sin. Scholar R.T. France writes in his commentary on Matthew that the Exodus is a powerful symbol of “the even greater work of deliverance” which God will accomplish through Jesus Christ.

What Matthew is doing by using these OT passages is pointing us to the prophets’ larger message. This connection to the larger story of the Bible would not have been lost on his original Jewish audience as it is often lost on us today. Usually, we’re only looking at the little details; we want to know how this one NT verse fulfills this one OT verse, yet we miss the big picture Matthew is painting.

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Matthew 2:18 / Jeremiah 31:15

Now, let’s keep in mind what was just said about typology and fulfillment as we look at Matthew’s use ofJeremiah 31:15:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Matthew uses this OT reference after he reports that Herod killed all of the male children age two-years-old and younger in Bethlehem. Again, we run into a similar problem as before: This section of Jeremiah is about the Babylonian exile; it has nothing to do with the Messiah! The Babylonian Empire had conquered Jerusalem and destroyed their Temple, and now the Jews were being deported to Babylon.

This is a catastrophic event for the Jewish people. What’s worse is that they brought it upon themselves. Since their rebellion against God had become so great, God withdrew his protection and allowed this to happen to Israel.

Typologically, we can say the suffering of children due to evil is certainly a pattern we see in Scripture. But is Matthew pointing us to Jeremiah to make a bigger point? I certainly think so.

Despite the messages of God’s judgment and wrath, this section of Jeremiah is not one of gloom and punishment, but one of hope and restoration. I recommend you read the whole chapter of Jeremiah 31 to see.

If nothing else, take note that shortly after the verse Matthew quotes, we’re told of the coming “new covenant” (31:31) where God “…will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people… For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (31:33-34)

Clip Art Illustration of a Silhouette of the Three Wise Men Foll

Matthew 2:6 / Micah 5:2

Matthew Chapter 2 begins with the story of the magi, who come looking for the new king of the Jews. When they inquire in Jerusalem, Herod goes to the chief priests and scribes and asks where this new king will be born. Matthew tells us:

They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’” (2:5-6)

Finally, we have an undeniable prediction about the future Messiah (and one written approximately 700 years before Christ)! This passage, Micah 5:2, clearly speaks of a future leader coming from Bethlehem, and Jews have always understood Micah 5:2 to be about the Messiah. But is there even more to this passage than that?

It’s safe to say that when most of us think of the prophets, we think of messages of doom and gloom for Israel, but often – maybe even more than we realize – during their tirades we find messages of a future hope. Often these messages of hope include God’s future restoration of his people, his protection of his faithful remnant, and sometimes even words about a mysterious future leader.

Micah 5 speaks of this new ruler and a new peace. He will be born in Bethlehem (like Jesus) and from the tribe of Judah (like Jesus) and he will come from “of old, from ancient days,” a reference to the covenant God made with King David in 2 Samuel 7:12-13:

“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”

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Matthew 1:23 / Isaiah 7:14

To end, we come to perhaps the most hotly debated prophecy in the Bible. Matthew tells us Mary, an unwed virgin, finds herself “to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (1:18), and Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14, telling us:

“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel’

(which means, God with us).”

Some of the controversy concerning Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 has to do with the word “virgin.” In the ancient Hebrew of Isaiah, the word could be translated “young woman.” A young woman is not particularly a virgin, some argue; yet, it’s a weak argument since the word is understood to refer to an unmarried, sexually chaste maiden.

Moreover, why would Isaiah not write the much more commonly-used Hebrew words for “woman” or “wife” if there was nothing unique about his woman? Instead, he chose to use a word scholar R.T. France describes as “unusual” and rarely used in the OT. (Furthermore, Matthew, under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, used the Greek word that undeniably means “virgin”!)

But there is another problem with Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14. This passage doesn’t seem to be about the far future; the “son” which is to come seems to be coming during the time period of Isaiah’s writing. Frankly, the passage is perplexing. Yet, again, our understanding of typology helps us here: If this passage does, in fact, refer to a child other than the Messiah, this child is a foreshadow of the coming Christ.

If this is not a satisfying answer for you, then we only have to ask again, Why does Matthew point us to this particular Scripture? We only have to read a little farther in Isaiah to Chapter 9 to find out. Here, we again come across a child born, and this time it is clear whom this child is:

“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (9:6)

Amen! Grace and Peace and Merry Christmas!

This post appears in longer form in the GFTM-published book Who Jesus Ain’t, available on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle.

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Here are some other Christmas-related articles on GFTM blog:

Christmas According to History

Christmas According to an English Teacher

Jesus Ain’t Born on December 25th

Jesus Ain’t Born to Privilege

Christmas Comics!

More Christmas Comics!

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