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‘Four Gospels, one Jesus.’

‘Four Gospels, one Jesus.’

This short essay discusses the variations in the unique biographies of Jesus as written by the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

John described Jesus in his gospel as, “…the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  If this Jesus Christ of Nazareth is the one and only Son of God and the four canonical gospels document His story, then it can be posited that one may possess significant information and understanding concerning who Jesus was, the events of His life, and the content of His spoken message. The four gospels can therefore be understood as four accounts or biographies of Jesus’ good news message according to differing preachers.  After many decades of spreading Jesus’ gospel message through the world, the four authors recorded their gospels between approximately 45CE and 95CE.  Like any biographer, the evangelists each selected certain facts to include in their writings while intentionally omitting others.  Each author seeks to portray his point in such a way that it best captures and reflects Jesus and the message of the good news, resulting not in an incomplete gospel but a deliberately tailored narrative of Jesus’ life.[1]

This paper will discuss that a key reason for the differences between the four gospels is that each of the evangelists intended to record their own unique “gospel”.  In Romans 16:25, Paul describes his dedication to disseminating the message of Jesus, referring to it as “my gospel”.  Similarly, the evangelists took the responsibility to report the life of Jesus and his key message from four different vantage points.[2] Subsequently, their perspectives on Jesus and his message varied because they each knew their teacher differently.[3]  This paper will also show how the Greco-Roman biographical genre of the time contributed to the differences between the gospels and that concern regarding the historical accuracy of the gospels should be considered not alarming or limiting to the message of their central character, Jesus.  Finally, this paper will also show how the Synoptic Problem, which is the uncertainty concerning which source each gospel was dependent may not be a problem at all utilising Streeter’s four-source hypothesis, which promotes the uniqueness of each of the synoptics apart from the self-evident uniqueness of the Gospel of John.

 

My Gospel: Taking responsibility to record the person of Jesus Christ and his message.

The gospel can be defined as the good news or the good message and is derived from the Greek word euaggelion, which is used in the first verse of the gospel of Mark. Euaggelion is one of three words underpinning the English word evangelism.  The additional two words include euaggelizo, meaning the ministry of announcing the good news, and euanggelistes, meaning the messenger.  Jesus, the Great Evangelist, spent more than three years of ministry as the messenger of the message, which is the good news of salvation for all through faith.  He then died on the cross as the atoning sacrifice and final instalment of the gospel.  The four evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are evangelists who are modelled on the Great Evangelist, their saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ.

There is only one Jesus and one gospel message, the principia evangelii[4] found in the four gospels.[5]  Understanding the gospels as the principia evangelii however does not satisfy complaints concerning the gospel differences.  This is found in the “my gospel” intention of the four evangelists and their use of “spotlighting”[6] or utilising emphasis as a tool to highlight in their gospel account what they believed to be most important in revealing the messenger and his message. When being interview Licona explains spotlighting in the resurrection narratives,  

In Matthew and Mark, there is one angel who is mentioned at the tomb. In Luke and John, you have two. Could it be that Mark, followed by Matthew, is shining his literary spotlight on the angel who’s announcing that Jesus has been raised, even though they know of another angel who was present? Some scholars would say that Luke and John embellished the story by adding a second angel. But embellishment is certainly not a tendency of Luke. Spotlighting was a common practice and explains the difference better, in my opinion.[7]

Mark’s “my gospel” commences as an overtly evangelistic heralding of Jesus as the messenger and the good news of salvation.  His gospel follows a fast-paced, action packed expose of Jesus miraculous powers.  It was written in common language as his message for all people to meet the common man Jesus who is the Son of God.  Matthew and Luke in recording their own “my gospel”, correct much of the spelling and grammar when utilising Mark as a source.

Matthew’s “my gospel” approach is very Jewish.  He therefore opens his book with the Jewish genealogy from Abraham to Jesus, an addition to Mark’s gospel. Matthew structures his gospel in five long discourses, possibly corresponding to the five books of Moses’ Pentateuch.[8] To fully prove Jesus as the fulfilment of the law and the prophets (Matt 5:17) he constantly quotes Old Testament prophecy throughout his gospel.  An example that is only found in Matthew’s gospel is Judas’ acceptance of 30 pieces of silver (Matt 27:9) fulfilling the Zechariah’s prophesy (although he mistakenly attributes this to Jeremiah), “So they paid me thirty pieces of silver” (Zech 11:12).

Luke’s “my gospel” is clearly outlined in verses one to four of the first chapter.  He describes his gospels as an, “orderly account” of the tradition passed onto him.  Luke’s “my gospel” is positioned to appeal universally to all Gentiles.  An example of this is the Greco-Roman literary styled formal dedication of the book to Theophilus, also found in his other book, Acts.[9]  Luke’s “spotlighting” is slanted to the Gentiles throughout his writings. His genealogy, unlike Matthew’s, goes all the way back to Adam, the father of all humankind.  In Luke 2:32 where he acknowledges Jesus as, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles…”, Luke is the only evangelist to highlight Jesus statements of Elijah and the widow in Zarephath as well as the cleansing of Naaman the Syrian’s leprosy, both miracles which were performed on non-Jews.[10]

John’s “my gospel” account is fantastically different from the other three, while remaining completely agreeable with the truth concerning Jesus and his message.  John begins with a cosmological sermon introducing Jesus as the logos and undoubtedly stating that Jesus is in fact God.  His intention for writing is found in John 20:31, which states “…these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name”.  John does not depend on the other three gospels as a source but is intent on supplementing the synoptics by accentuating his own key theological themes, such as Jesus as the “logos,” the “I am” statements, and the Father-Son relationship between God and Jesus. [11]  John includes none of Jesus’ parables in his gospel; he appears satisfied with their recording in the Synoptics, however, he is not satisfied with the seemingly short length of Jesus ministry found in the synoptics and in turn mentions three Passovers in his own gospel, showing the reader that Jesus ministry occurred over at least three years.

 

Greco-Roman biography encourages the Evangelists to reveal Jesus and promote his message.

The aim of Greco-Roman biography was to reveal the central character by weaving the persons words and actions into the narrative.[12] Licona says, “In the middle of the twentieth century, most New Testament scholars regarded the Gospels as sui generis.[13] Then in 1977, Charles Talbert proposed that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography, and others made similar proposals in the years that followed… Today, a growing majority of scholars regard the Gospels as Greco-Roman biography”.[14]

Licona explores the writing of Plutarch, a biographer who wrote around the same times as the gospels were being authored. He notes that Plutarch in his own writings explains his desire to portray the life of the character while leaving the detailed description of the characters surrounds to others.[15] Licona states, “Greco-Roman biography was a broad and flexible genre. The biographies often differ from one another so much that scholars often divide the genre into various subsets”.[16] The four evangelists wrote four biographies with the intent of revealing the Jesus Christ. The differences in their biographies can be attributed to this broad and flexible genre. The elasticity of the gospel narratives is not a forgetting of the facts or a reinterpretation of what happened but an embracing of the mode of biography of the day and using it to highlight and promote Jesus’ good news of salvation. The mode fits perfectly with the authors motive spread the message of Jesus. It allowed the four evangelists the freedom to use some of the facts as they saw best to promote the message of the gospel with concern to the Jesus, Gods own Son not concern to recording history perfectly. This can be difficult for us in the modern era with our concern for accurate historical facts.

 

The concern for the historical Jesus

Prior to the eighteen century Christians understood the gospels to be an accurate historical account of the life of Jesus. The obvious problem however was the lack of harmonisation in the four gospel accounts.[17] Some early church fathers like Augustine have gone to great lengths to harmonise these textual inconsistencies. The age of enlightenment brought about a wave of questioning of the historical accuracy of the gospels built on the evidence of their inconsistencies to one another. Crossan uses a research method for interpreting the historicity of the gospels to obtain an accurate historical Jesus. Crossan uses anthropological and sociological methods for interpreting the times of Jesus to explain the Jesus but in so doing leaves little weight in the Jewish traditions of the time as well as leaning on non-canonical sources like the Gospel of Thomas.[18] The intent of scholars like Crossan is to apply an objective method of research to the earliest manuscripts of Christian writings to construct a picture of Jesus that is historically accurate. This construction is to protect the purity of the interpretation in defence of an oft subjective creation of whoever one would like Jesus to be.[19]

A huge proportion of gospel research has focused its energies on revealing this historical Jesus.[20]This approach however is some conflict with the evangelist’s intention to reveal the person and the message of Jesus therefore is to an extent limited in its ability to explain the differences in the gospel narratives. The gospels contain many facts concerning Jesus but are not intended to be historically accurate and the sequence of biography was not meant to produce a detailed work on the life of Jesus.[21] Therefore the Greco-Roman biographical genre empowered the biographer to reveal the personage of the central character, Jesus without the limitations a detailed historical account. In the four evangelist’s writings, we see the freedom to fully embrace “their gospel” and tailor the message for their intended audience in line with their perspective of Jesus.

 

The Synoptic Problem could be a help

The synoptic problem is the challenge of understanding the literary relationships between the three synoptic gospels. In understanding the differences in the intentions of the authors the synoptic problem could a help rather than a problem in understanding the evangelist’s intention to make their gospel message their own. Many hypotheses have been posed for the synoptic problem, one of the earliest being Augustine’s Matthean priority. In the late 18th century Griesbach put forth a “two-gospel hypothesis” stating Mark as dependent on both Matthew and Luke. [22] In more recent times and now and commonly accepted the “two-source hypothesis” asserts Matthew and Luke’s dependence on Mark, which therefore is assumed first authored as well as dependence on “Hypothetical-Q,” suggested to be a source lost in history.

 

All four evangelists are special

In 1924 Streeter outlined a four-source hypothesis to solve the synoptic problem. Streeter builds on the two-source hypothesis adding in “special-Matthew” and “special-Luke” as independent personal sources that these two evangelists drew on in addition to the Gospel of Mark and Hypothetical Q.[23] Streeter’s hypothesis illuminates the unique portion of each gospel, further supporting the idea that each Evangelist took responsibility for their own gospel and did not merely mimic their sources.

Mark as the first biographer of Jesus ministry and miracles relies only on the oral tradition he is privy to as his source and sets out to herald the beginning of the good news. He owns his gospel by the fact he produces it. His concern is to simply produce a ground-breaking text of the good news, it is special because it has become the first written account of the gospel. This said Streeter’s hypothesis assuming Markan priority makes sense as only 3% of Mark’s gospel is unique to Matthew and Luke and proves its writing as the first and source to the next two.    

Matthew and Luke’s gospel are special because they do only redact Mark’s gospel as their key building block but they also ensure their own unique contribution to Jesus and the good news message taken from their own unique encounters with Jesus, perspectives on the gospel message and personal preferences from the oral sources they chose to draw on for their gospel account. The gospel of Matthew contains 20% unique material (special-Matthew or M) and Luke 35% special-Luke or L. We know well that John’s gospel is almost completely unique and therefore very special.

 

Conclusion

Jesus Christ is the one and only Son who came from the Father.  The four gospels are the first books of the New Testament and are the only canonical biographies of the person of Jesus and are some of the earliest written outlines of the good news message.  The four gospels, however, differ in their biographical sequence, accounts of Jesus, and in the details describing the same events.  This paper has attributed the differences in gospel accounts to the respective evangelist’s passion to take responsibility for, “my gospel,” which was their own writing of the good news. In committing to author, the good news each evangelist has taken a unique vantage point on Jesus, highlighting their personal perspective of the gospel message.  The Greco-Roman biography of the time with its flexible narrative, empowered the evangelists to fully reveal their central character.  This subsequently weakened the historical accuracy of the writings.  The paper challenges the concern of those seeking the historical Jesus by the gospel writers embracing of the Greco-Roman genre of the time to tell their unique account.  The historical Jesus vein of theological research has much value and should be explored further to limit the readers risk of creating their own Jesus from the gospels.  The synoptic problem when seen through the lens of the “my gospel” intention of the authors becomes a help to explain the gospel differences.  Although some gospels were dependent on others as sources, each gospel contains significant unique content.  Further exploration should be undertaken to include John’s gospel in this argument, as the Synoptic problem only concerns three gospels. There is and was and will only be one central character to the good news message, Jesus. The four unique gospels provide the understanding to this one Jesus, their differences are what makes each account unique and in turn valuable in shinning more light on the messenger of the message, Jesus, the Son of God.     

 

Footnotes

[1] Andrew Jukes, [The Characteristic Differences of The Four Gospels.] The Differences of The Four Gospels. Considered as Revealing Various Relations of The Lord Jesus Christ (Pickering & Inglis: London, 1965), 3.

[2] Michael Licona, Why Are There Differences in The Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford University Press, 2017), 2

[3] William Franke, “Gospel as Personal Knowing: Theological Reflections on Not Just a Literary Genre”, Theology Today 68, no. 4 (2012): 413-423, accessed September 28, 2017, http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.divinity.idm.oclc.org/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=a6bdda64-dae4-4fb9-b944-04a18290b035%40sessionmgr4008.

[4] The basic teachings of the gospel of salvation.

[5] Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and The One Gospel of Jesus Christ (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2000), 10.

[6] Caleb Lindgren, “Why Don’t the Gospel Writers Tell the Same Story?”, Christianity Today, 2017, accessed September 20, 2017, 46. http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.divinity.idm.oclc.org/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=8e2d887c-4111-4e44-9ca9-3e6d8df75047%40sessionmgr4010.

[7] Caleb Lindgren, “Why Don’t the Gospel Writers Tell the Same Story?”, Christianity Today, 2017, accessed September 20, 2017, 46. http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.divinity.idm.oclc.org/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=8e2d887c-4111-4e44-9ca9-3e6d8df75047%40sessionmgr4010.

[8] Robert H Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Michigan: Zondervan, 1994), 161.

[9] Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, 206.

[10] Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, 207.

[11] The Gospel of John chapters 14-17.

[12] Licona, Why Are There Differences in The Gospels? 4.

[13] The idea that the gospels are their own unique literary genre.

[14] Licona, Why Are There Differences in The Gospels? 3.

[15] Licona, Why Are There Differences in The Gospels? 4.

[16] Licona, Why Are There Differences in The Gospels? 5.

[17] D. A Carson and Douglas J Moo, An Introduction to The New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992), 50.

[18] A. E. Harvey, The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant by John Dominic Crossan, The Journal of Theological Studies. Vol. 44, No. 1 (APRIL 1993), 226-228, http://www.jstor.org.divinity.idm.oclc.org/stable/23967105 (accessed 24 September 2017).

[19] John Crossan, “The life of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant, The Christian Century 108, no. 37 (1991) 1194-1200. http://www.christiancentury.org (accessed 26 September 2017).

[20] William, “Gospel as Personal Knowing: Theological Reflections on Not Just a Literary Genre”, 413-423.

[21] Carson and Moo, An Introduction to The New Testament, 53.

[22] Carson and Moo, An Introduction to The New Testament, 31.

[23] B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (London: Macmillian, 1924) https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/4gospels_streeter/complete.pdf (accessed 1 October 2017).

 

Bibliography

Carson, D. A, and Douglas J Moo. An Introduction to The New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992.

Crossan, John. D. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1991.

Crossan, John. D. The life of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant, The Christian Century 108, no. 37 (1991) 1194-1200. http://www.christiancentury.org (accessed 26 September 2017).

Franke, William. “Gospel as Personal Knowing: Theological Reflections on Not Just a Literary Genre”. Theology Today 68, no. 4 (2012): 413-423. Accessed September 28, 2017. http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.divinity.idm.oclc.org/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=a6bdda64-dae4-4fb9-b944-04a18290b035%40sessionmgr4008.

Gundry, Robert H. A Survey of The New Testament. 3rd ed. Michigan: Zondervan, 1994.

Harvey, A. E. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant by John

Dominic, Crossan. The Journal of Theological Studies, 1993. Accessed 24 September 2017.

Hengel, Martin. The Four Gospels and The One Gospel of Jesus Christ. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2000.

http://www.jstor.org.divinity.idm.oclc.org/stable/23967105

Jukes, Andrew. [The Characteristic Differences of The Four Gospels.] The Differences of The Four Gospels. Considered as Revealing Various Relations of The Lord Jesus Christ. Pickering & Inglis: London, 1965.

Licona, Michael. Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography.Oxford University Press, 2017.

Lindgren, Caleb. “Why Don’t the Gospel Writers Tell the Same Story?”. Christianity Today, 2017. Accessed September 20, 2017. http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.divinity.idm.oclc.org/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=8e2d887c-4111-4e44-9ca9-3e6d8df75047%40sessionmgr4010.

Streeter, B. H., The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins. London: Macmillian, 1924. https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/4gospels_streeter/complete.pdf (accessed 1 October 2017).