Reading the Gospels Together
Some Conclusion – Part 3
As we begin to think of the creation of the gospels as taking place in some fashion like I have described above we can come to another important conclusion. While the gospels all reflect upon real historical events surrounding the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the storyline of each gospel is the creation of that author and does not reflect the order in which all of those historical events actually happened – and in fact, at times the gospel writers have taken liberty with those historical events shaping them to fit their needs. For example, I think Mark, Matthew, and Luke reflect the historical fact that Jesus celebrated Passover on the night in which he was betrayed. John probably knew that too, but he took liberty with the story because he decided it was more powerful to tell his readers that Jesus was slaughtered with the Passover lambs since he was the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. When we begin to think that each gospel writer is responsible for creating their own storyline a whole world of possibilities opens for us to hear their message more clearly. And we are less likely to get hung up on all the differences we encounter. And we are less likely to be bothered by the fact that John’s storyline is vastly different from the storylines of the three synoptic gospels. None were reflecting the order in which the historical events really happened! And even when we look at the three synoptic gospels we see changes. To be sure, because they chose to make Mark the backbone of their own gospels, Matthew and Luke were in some ways bound by Mark’s storyline. But each did not hesitate to make changes at times. And each were did not hesitate to add new things into Mark’s storyline.
And, if we are able to accept the thought that each gospel writer is the one who is really responsible for their own storyline which does not necessarily reflect the actual order in which things happened we are then able to ponder how that very storyline becomes a tool for each gospel writer to tell their particular story. They did not organize things haphazardly but with great intention. And it is fascinating to discover why they did what they did. For example it is fascinating to track Mark’s creation of the part of his gospel where Jesus is attempting to teach his disciples that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, be handed over by the religious leaders and be killed and on the third day rise. Mark begins with a strange story of a blind man who needs to be healed twice, tipping his hand that the disciples who see partially need to see further. Then he constructs a series of three predictions by Jesus of his coming betrayal, death, and resurrection – all of which are misunderstood by his disciples. And finally Mark finishes with the story of anther blind man, Bartimeaus, who sees and follows. All of that is purely the construction of Mark, the brilliant storyteller and gospel proclaimer! There are many other examples like that and it is indeed fascinating to attempt to follow the logic of each gospel writer as they spin forth their storyline. But that discovery is only possible if we accept the conclusion that they are the ones who created the storyline in the first place.
And once we begin to realize that each gospel writer is the creator of their own storyline a further conclusion becomes available – especially as we begin to read all four gospels together. Of course it is also in reading all four gospels together that we run into the differences which have been the focus of this study. Sometimes when we run into these differences we may be able to get a clearer picture on the historical reality that finally evades us. As I have said above we will never be able to get back to “what really happened.” But, especially when we listen to John and the synoptic gospels together we might be able to see a bit clearer. For example, Mark tells his readers that Jesus came to Jerusalem once at the end of his ministry and spent one day or at most two arguing with the religious leaders before he was arrested, crucified, and rose from the dead. Matthew and Luke, because they have been following Mark’s storyline tell their readers essentially the same thing – though they both seem a bit uneasy about it, especially Luke. And in fact in the arrest scene Mark even lets slip the words from Jesus, “Day after day I have been with you in the Temple teaching.” Something begins to not add up. And then we hear John tell his readers that Jesus arrived in Jerusalem in the fall of the year for the Feast of Booths and never really left the confines of Jerusalem until Passover five months later when he was crucified and rose from the dead. During that time in John’s gospel there is a continual argument between Jesus and the religious leaders that builds to the arrest. Perhaps this time John reflects actual reality better than Mark. We can’t say that for sure but reading the gospels together does hint at that possibility. And we begin to wonder if Mark has not invested something in bringing Jesus to Jerusalem for one powerful week to highlight the death of the Crucified Messiah. And thinking in this way only adds to the power of Mark’s story!
There is one more important question that needs to be addressed. If we begin to think of the gospels in the way we have been speaking of them in this study, how are we to think of them as the Word of God? And how are we to understand the inspiration of scripture? Those are huge questions that deserve more reflection than I can provide here. But let me attempt to address them. How are the gospels the Word of God if they contain irreconcilable differences and do not all say the same thing? I would say that are the Word of God because of what they do to us as their readers. God is happy to embrace the creative skills of their writers even if those skills lead them to say different things. The gospels are not God’s Word because of their consistency but because God speaks through them. And that’s what God’s Word always does. The whole of the Bible is like that. Mark created his gospel and did it rather brilliantly in my opinion – but it is God who speaks through Mark’s creation to create and sustain faith. What then about inspiration? Certainly any serious reading of the four gospels leads to the honesty that God did not dictate to each writer what they have written – the inspiration of scripture cannot be that given what we read in the Bible. On the other hand each gospel writer writes as a believer. And if we believe their story that God’s Spirit is present in the world then we can also rejoice that God has inspired them to write – to use the creative skills God has given them to proclaim God’s message. God puts great faith in their ability! God is a part of their lives and God moves them to proclaim. I think that’s what the inspiration of scripture is really about – God working in the lives of people to proclaim God’s Word and yet God trusting in their efforts. And the inspiration of scripture does not stop back then – it continues as God’s Spirit lives within us. God is still working in and through the writings of those first gospel writers. God speaks through them to create and sustain faith within us. Thanks be to God!