Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Reading the Gospels as preaching rather than technical history

A careful study of the Gospels exposes some surprising features about them that may throw us temporarily off balance. That is, they shaped their sources (written, eyewitness and traditional) into a kind of Gospel sermon. Each writer had a different agenda and that agenda affected the way he reported events in his Gospel account. The end result is that there are events in the four Gospels that do not harmonize. As long as we realize that the writers are not trying to report technical history, we can appreciate the lessons behind the Gospel accounts. It is our task, as Bible readers, to try to appreciate the message behind each Gospel individually.

As for being thrown off balance, we are comfortable assuming what the four Gospels harmonize in their reported events. In many cases, they do not. What are we, the readers, supposed to do with these inconsistencies? I offer only a couple examples, although a list of examples could easily get quite large. A small sampling should be sufficient to make the point.

Calling the first apostles:
Mark 1:16-20 || Matthew 4:18-22 Jesus called Simon and Andrew while they were fishing. Then, he called James and John from mending their nets.

Luke 5:1-11 Jesus preaches to the crowd from Simon's boat. After his preaching, he has Simon take the boat out into the deep water. Jesus has Simon lower his nets and he catches a large amount of fish. James and John join Simon to help with the catch. Andrew is not mentioned.

In each synoptic case with the fishermen, Jesus calls them to follow him and they will catch men from now on.

In John 1:35-50 John the Baptist is teaching and Jesus walked by in visual eye-shot of John. John indicates Jesus to the two disciples who were with him and he says, "Behold the Lamb of God" (John 1:36). One of the disciples was Andrew who tracked down his brother Simon. He did not ask these three disciples to follow him. They just started following. The next day, Jesus found Philip and indeed called him. Philip found Nathaniel who joined up.

John's account mentioned no business about fishing or leaving nets. The scene is not even at the Sea of Galilee. It is down around the Jordan River (John 1:28, 3:22-23).

The different accounts cannot be reconciled. Matthew and Luke based their accounts on Mark and Luke integrated other traditional material. Luke's account is the most believable of the three because there was an incident that was persuasive to the disciples that Jesus was a worthy rabbi to be followed. John's information came from a different source. In John, Jesus' resumé was based upon what John the Baptist had taught about him.

All four Gospels agree that Jesus died by crucifixion, was buried in a sepulcher and was raised from the dead three days later. The accounts of what happened after the resurrection diverge.

Post-resurrection events:
Matthew, following Mark, receive orders from an angel (or "angels") to meet up with Jesus in Galilee (Mark 16:7; Matthew 28:7). Neither Mark nor Matthew mention an ascension. They just kind of end abruptly, leaving the reader to wonder what Jesus did after the last verse. The longer, textually dubious, ending of Mark briefly mentions an ascension (Mark 16:19); but in this longer ending in Mark, the ascension takes place in Jerusalem and the disciples disobeyed the order in Mark 16:7 to meet Jesus in Galilee. Really, Mark ends abruptly with Mark 16:8. Everyone is terrified about the angel's report and the empty tomb. The End. No after-resurrection appearance. No Great Commission.

Luke goes his own way after the resurrection. The angel at the tomb does not mention a trip to Galilee but only announces that Jesus has risen. Nobody goes to Galilee. Jesus makes a few appearances in and around Jerusalem. Luke gives a detailed account of the Lord's ascension from Jerusalem, not Galilee. The ascension seems to take place about 24 hours after the resurrection; but according to Luke's own account in Acts, the ascension happened around 40 days after the resurrection (Acts 1:3); so the details in Luke 24 are compressed in their details.

In John, Jesus has a few post-resurrection appearances and then the Gospel ends. It is like Jesus just fades away.

The point here is that the Gospel writers were evangelists. They were preaching. They were making Christological points. That was their primary goal. They wanted to teach something that affected people's Christian lives and their relationships with Jesus. Presenting a technically accurate account of the events described was not a major goal.

One important lesson for the Bible reader is that each Gospel account should be read and analyzed in its own context. Attempts to harmonize one Gospel to another only distracts the reader from the point of each Gospel writer. In order to appreciate Luke's doctrinal teaching, read Luke as a unit. Instead of trying to find harmonies, more can be learned by noting how the various accounts differ. Why did Luke leave out this detail? Why did Matthew add this detail. Why did Matthew change the order of these stories? That kind of analysis helps us to see Christ through the eyes of the writer. The Bible has four Gospels, not one.

The writers were not being dishonest. Each writer shaped the material he had into a sermon. The reader should be interested in each Gospel's meaning behind the stories as the writer brought them together into a coherent message.

A case example:
Matthew and Luke drew from Mark in their account of Jesus' rejection in his hometown.

Mark 6:1-6 (NRSV)
6 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6 And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching.

Matthew locates this account much later in his Gospel. He tightenned up the Greek (evident even in translation) and omitted some details that would have been obvious to a Jewish reader without explanation.

Matthew 13:54-58 (NRSV)
54 He came to his hometown and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? 55 Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” 57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.” 58 And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.

Luke specifies that the place where the Marcan event took place was in Nazareth. As Mark reads, the synagogue sermon was in Jesus' hometown of Capernaum, not Nazareth; but Mark is not specific in what he means by "hometown," so we can talk about it on some another day.

Luke adds a lot of information of his own or from other traditional sources. He gives some of the content of Jesus' sermon.

Luke 4:14-30 (NRSV)
14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

This passage in Luke shows how Luke shaped his own account from traditional material. The quote from Isaiah is not exact. It is cobbled (artistically) together from several places (Isaiah 61:1-2; 58:6). It is also a blend of the Hebrew and Septuagint. Luke omitted the part of Isaiah 61:2 about "the day of vengeance of our God." As we read Luke, it is clear that Luke's Jesus was tender, forgiving and compassionate to people. He was not going to fulfil the harsh Messianic expectations of some people―either of the Roman-hating Jews or of the Jerusalem-judging John (Luke 3:16-17).

The passage read by Jesus agrees with Jesus' message to John in Luke 7:18-23.
18 The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples 19 and sent them to the Lord to ask, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" 20 When the men had come to him, they said, "John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?' " 21 Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. 22 And he answered them, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
In Jesus' response to John's messengers he quotes Isaiah 35:5; 61:1. Jesus' point is that he is fulfilling Messianic expectations but not necessarily the ones John expects.

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