One of the most peculiar characteristics of the Christian Scriptures is the quadruple testimony of the gospels. The presence of these four similar and yet very distinct books which seem to cover the same territory bring up a lot of questions. Among them:
- Why are there four versions of the same story?
- And why do they sometimes appear to have different versions of the same event? Why do things sometimes happen in different orders?
- Do we need to read all four to get the complete story? Why isn’t there just one, combined gospel?
These are all good questions; and they should not just be pushed away. If we believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, then we should not be afraid to ask good questions and expect there to be a reasonable (if not always immediately obvious) solution.
I have previously written about the genre of gospel. It is important to remember that the gospels are not primarily history, although they are firmly rooted in it. Gospels are also not biography, although they are biographical. Despite the efforts of some scholars to see the gospel genre in Roman literature, the analogies are overly simplified and best and sometimes just flat out incorrect. In reality, the term gospel (ὁ εὐαγγέλιον in Greek) appears in Greek literature as early as Homer’s Odyssey (Od.14.152), and the term gets used in a multitude of ways throughout pre-Christian history.
The genre of gospel is, as nearly as I can tell, a uniquely Christian but quite broad literary style. It has aspects of historical and biographical narrative, but contrary to what many commentators would say, I believe that the genre of gospel is primarily doctrinal and polemical. The gospels are written after the fact, recording and repeating the message of Jesus Christ. They function within the Christian theological framework, which itself has been transformed by the events the gospels report. There is a sort of feedback loop which informs the gospels’ style and presentation.
What I am about to write about the gospels goes against a lot of mainstream theology and commentary. I am willing to admit that right up front. But here are the doctrinal and polemical characteristics of the gospels that I believe illuminate how they are written and how we should read them:
- All four gospels begin with the presupposition that Jesus is the Son of God and God the Son. Contrary to modern interpretational views, the gospels present Jesus as divine in every way. He is both implicitly and explicitly stated to be one and the same with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The gospel writers come to the table with this matter already settled; and they are not trying to convince people of it. It is taken as fact. Each of the gospels expresses a robust christology, an unswerving devotion to Jesus as the sole, living expression of Yahweh.
I can already hear the protests: then what do you do with John 20:31? Personally, I think it is a mistake to read John’s gospel as if it is an apologetic argument to the unbeliever, an attempt to convince them of Christ’s divinity. The gospel is written to the Church, to the second and third generations of believers. John is not calling to a belief that initiates one’s faith journey but rather belief as a continuing discipline for those already disciples.
- The gospels are meant as a subversive literature. We are so used to Christianity being the dominant worldview of our Eurocentric society that we forget that the Church was once considered a dangerous problem that would destabilize the whole empire. In the Gospels, there are overt and not so overt attacks on the Roman way of life and government. The Kingdom of God stands in stark and direct conflict with the Kingdom of Man.
The nature of this subversiveness is difficult for us to comprehend. Allegiance to God over money (Lk 6:13)? Let Caesar keep his money (Lk 20:26)? Don’t give those in power over you the pleasure of your rebellion (Mt 5:38-42)? All of these are meant to be rejections of the sovereignty of Caesar and Rome over the Kingdom of God. Jesus’s silence before his accusers (Mt 24:57-68) is a monolithic testament to his unwillingness to submit to the authority of man over God.
Make no mistake about it. The gospels are meant as an attack on the world system – a rejection and condemnation of a world which ignores the revelation of God, even when it is incarnated in Christ (Jn 1:9-13). They are meant to be divisive and a paradox incomprehensible for those with mixed allegiances (Mt 19:16-30, Lk 12:41-53).
- The different perspectives speak to polemic message, not contradictions. The gospels vary because the message about Christ’s subversion of the world system varies. They come at the topic from different perspectives because they are each a systematic deconstruction of a different aspect of that system.
Matthew is the gospel of the King in Exile. Jesus is shown as a Davidic king (Mt 1:1-17) and yet he is forced into Egypt by Herod and then lives in Galilee, the impure, Gentile tainted land most Jews disdained almost as much as they disdained Samaria. So, Jesus is a threat from the outside, only because his rightful place has been usurped; and he is coming to reclaim what is his own.
Mark is the gospel of the One. Over and over in Mark, Jesus meets with people who are outside of the circle of acceptability and he invites them into his agenda. Whether it is a leper (Mk 1:40-45) or a cripple who is squeezed out of the crowd (Mk 2:1-11), a Gadarene demoniac (Mk. 5:1-24) or a Canaanite woman (Mk 7:24-30), an unclean woman (Mk 5:25-34) or the dead daughter of a synagogue leader (Mk 5:21-24, 38-42). Jesus is rejected by his own hometown (Mk 6:1-6) and religious leaders (Mk 8:11-13) because he welcomes too many unacceptable people into his circle but will not placate their own selfish desires. For Mark, all nations are invited to Jesus’s table; but they must become something new. They cannot hold onto their previous world and live in His.
Luke is the gospel of the World Turned Upside Down. Everyone who SHOULD accept Jesus in Luke doesn’t; and everyone who SHOULDN’T accept him does. Women are wiser than priests (Lk 1:5-25) and shepherds and the elderly see what great teachers miss (Lk 2:8-52). Centurions are faithful (Lk 7:1-10) while even John the Baptist doubts (Lk 7:18-19). The greatest are the least and the least the greatest; and we are to leave those who disagree with us alone rather than lash out (Lk 9:43-56). Everything in Luke is a paradox. Even Luke’s recounting of Jesus’s Prayer contains a paradox that man’s own wickedness requires that God be fully righteous (Lk 11:1-13).
John is the gospel of the Divine Revelation. John’s Gospel presents us with the transcendent Jesus, the undeniably divine Jesus which John saw in the Revelation. John visits leit motif of light, truth, wisdom, the world. He draws from proverbs and philosophy, all to frustrate human wisdom before Christ – the Word who both creates and destroys, is known and unknown. Of all the gospels, John records a wild conversation with Pontius Pilate in which Jesus confounds the Roman governor (Jn 18:33-38).
In each gospel, a different aspect of the world system is attacked, ruthlessly and beautifully, leaving the resurrected Christ as the sole authority for the believer.
When a critic protests that one gospel records a single blind person being healed while another records two or that the resurrection narratives cannot be reconciled into a single, coherent story, they are missing the entire point. They are focused on things that did not matter to the authors or the early church audiences. They are trying to shoehorn the Gospels into a modern literary category, something that only masks their true purpose.
We have been conditioned to read the gospels as gentle narratives, pastoral allegories and convenient resources for Sunday School flannelgraph teaching. They most definitely are not. We have been lulled into a passive view of the gospels; but the gospels are a full-on assault on the values of the world; and they must be read as such. They are not defenses of Jesus’s teachings. They are offensive, frontal attacks against that which would distract from Him as the way, the truth and the life. They are not passive. They are vigorous and uncompromising.