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Understanding the Gospels: Part 1

Introduction to the Series

While we believe the Scriptures are divinely inspired, God communicated through individual human writers who lived during a particular time in history, who were immersed in a particular culture, and who were addressing a particular audience. The human authors were inspired by God to communicate, usually to God’s people, a specific message to a specific audience for a specific purpose.  To come to the Bible unaware of this reality leads to a number of interpretive problems. Further, to come to the Bible unaware of how our own culture, language, and historical setting influences our perspective can also be problematic. I want to address some of the historical, cultural, and contextual realities that exist in the gospels in hopes of helping others better understand the biblical text.

In addition to the historical/cultural context of a passage, the genre of a passage and the literary devices used in a passage are also important to observe. Often people proudly assert that they “take God at His Word” and “interpret the Bible literally.” The problem with this notion is that a parable, figure of speech, or poem are not necessarily intended to be taken literally. The poetic books are to be read differently from the historical books. The epistles are to be read differently from the apocryphal writings. Jesus’ parables are to be read differently from the historical accounts of an event.

The goal in interpreting the Scriptures is to understand what the original authors and audience would have thought it meant. After understanding, as best we can, the original meaning of a text, we can then begin to draw parallels and applications to our context today. I believe the Scriptures are living and active (Heb. 4:12) and I believe the Holy Spirit can reveal truths that apply to our lives without us consulting ten commentaries. However, I also believe we have a responsibility to approach the Bible thoughtfully and interpret it responsibly.

Genre

The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are unique in that they are a genre all to their own. In many ways, the Gospels reflect typical Greco-Roman biographies in that they are a written account of the teachings and actions of Jesus of Nazareth.[1] However, the Gospels are unique in that their goal is not to simply give an account of the life and teachings of Jesus, but rather their aim is to present Jesus as the Messiah. In this way, they are very Jewish. One author describes the genre this way:

The gospel genre could be described as a literature of fulfillment. Contained in the Old Testament is the promise of eschatological salvation, often associated with the appearance of an idealized Davidic king. The central premise of the gospels—and the New Testament generally—is that Jesus is this promised Davidic king and that through him is mediated the Kingdom of God; the gospels, in other words, are the literary by-product of the eschatological salvation of God.[2]

In other words, the Gospels as a genre are focused on persuading listeners that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Which is why we will spend a portion of the next post on the Jewish concept of the Messiah. We cannot understand the Gospels apart from their Jewish setting and background.

Oral Tradition

The Gospels are often read and studied as if the authors intended for them to be received as simply a piece of literature. Before the Gospel authors recorded the stories, they first told the stories orally.  Rhoads, Dewey, and Michie affirm:

Recent New Testament research has recognized that first-century Mediterranean societies were predominantly oral/aural cultures in which probably no more than three to five percent of the people were able to read or write. So, for the people of the time, the Gospel [of Mark] was the oral performance they experienced….Ancient storytellers brought out the dynamics of the story in their telling, putting their stamp on the story, and shaping it to each particular audience. The performer used voice, volume, pace, gestures, facial expressions, and bodily movement to express an interpretation of the story and to engender certain impacts on different audiences. [3]

Could you imagine what it would be like to have been in the presence of one of the disciples hearing and listening to them share the stories of their experiences with Jesus?

For us today, I think it is important to recognize how the Gospels were intended to be delivered. Most times, I find that I read the Scriptures quietly, as I would any other book. However, reading the text out loud or internalizing it for an oral performance has impacted how I experienced the dynamics of the biblical story.

Authorship

Lastly, I want to briefly address authorship and purpose. Matthew is believed to have been written by Matthew or Levi the tax collector who was called to be one of Jesus’ disciples (Matt. 9:9-13, 10:3). Matthew’s Gospel seems to have been written to a mostly Jewish audience as he focuses on Jesus fulfillment of OT prophecies.

The Gospel of Mark is traditioned to have been written by John Mark, the son of a Christian family in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12). Mark was a helper and understudy of Paul, Barnabas, and Peter (Acts 13:5, 1 Peter 5:13). Mark’s Gospel is believed to have been the collection of the eyewitness accounts of the Apostle Peter. The purpose of the book seems to be in part to preserve the apostolic tradition, to encourage the believers to persevere in the face of persecution, and provide an accurate account of the life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ (Messiah).

Luke’s Gospel is the longest Gospel and is believed to be the first of a two volume work—the book of Acts being the sequel. In some scholarly writings Luke and Acts are treated as a unit (Luke-Acts). Luke-Acts is believed to have been authored by Luke the physician (Colossians 4:14). One author notes, “[he] may have been an Antiochian Gentile, converted in Antioch not more than fifteen years after Pentecost. He became a friend and associate of Paul and traveled with him on the second journey after meeting him at Troas (Acts 16:10).” Luke was fluent in Greek, and as a physician it can be deduced that he was well educated. His writing places a significant emphasis on the implications of the Gospel for the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.

John is the most theological of the four Gospels. John’s Gospel is believed to have been written by the Apostle John—John the son of Zebedee. The author identifies himself as being an eyewitness to the things recorded, but only identifies himself as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:20-24). “The designation is not to be taken in an exclusive fashion, as though Jesus loved do one else, but as a descriptive title used of one who had enjoyed the special privilege of an unusually close relationship to his Lord.” [4] John was a Palestinian Jew who exhibits familiarity with the geography, language, customs, and traditions of the Israelite people. However, John is sensitive to the reality that his purpose in writing is to reach a larger audience than just the Jews so he frequently explains references to Jewish culture for the benefit of his Gentile audience.

Questions

  1. How might understanding the genre of the Gospels influence how you would read and interpret the text?

  2. How might reading the text out loud or experiencing the text performed affect the way you would understand a passage?

  3. Which Gospel is your favorite and why?

[3] Rhoades, D., Dewey, J., & Michie, D. (2012). Mark As Story: An  Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel. Fortress Press. Minneapolis, MN.

[4] Longman, T. & Garland, D. E. (2007). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke – Acts. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI.

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