The Gospels: One story, many dimensions

These are my notes on Chapter 7 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

The materials in the gospels may be divided into sayings (teachings of Jesus) and narratives (stories about Jesus). Therefore it is possible to apply the principles to interpreting the epistles to the former and the principles of historical narrative to the latter. But there are some sticky points: the “hard sayings” and the concept of the kingdom of God, for example.

The nature of the gospels

Almost all the difficulties in interpreting the gospels stem from 2 facts:

  • Jesus Himself didn’t write a gospel,
  • There are four of them.

Since Jesus didn’t write the gospels we have both a narrative of His life and large block of His teaching. But the sayings, originally in Aramaic, were translated into Greek. The same saying may be found in more than one gospel, sometimes with different wording.

Why four gospels? At least one answer is that different Christian communities each had a need for a book about Jesus. All this was orchestrated by the Holy Spirit. In each gospel the interest in Jesus is at two levels: First, the purely historical concern; second, the need to retell the story for future generations. They record the facts about Jesus, recall His teachings and bear witness to Him.

Exegesis of the gospels requires us to think both in terms of the historical setting of Jesus and that of the authors.

The historical context

The first task of exegesis is to have an awareness of the historical context.

The historical context of Jesus – in general

In order to understand Jesus, you need to know the first-century Judaism of which He was a part. For this, there’s no alternative to good outside reading.

One overlooked feature of Jesus’ historical context is the form of His teaching. He used parables, but also hyperbole (Matthew 5:29-30), proverbs (Matthew 6:21; Mark 3:24), similes and metaphors (Matthew 10:16, 5:13), poetry (Matthew 7:6-8; Luke 6:27-28), questions (Matthew 17:25), irony (Matthew 16:2-3), etc.

The historical context of Jesus – in particular

The difficulty here is that many of Jesus’ sayings and teachings were transmitted without their contexts. For example, Matthew 10 has a block of teaching whose sayings are scattered throughout Luke’s gospel. This suggests that the evangelists, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, gave the sayings their present contexts.

The historical context of the evangelist

This refers to the historical context of each author that prompted him to write a gospel in the first place. Of the things we can be sure about is each evangelist’s interests and concerns by the way he selected, shaped and arranged his materials.

The literary context

This has to do with the place of a given pericope in the context of any one of the gospels.

Interpreting the individual pericopes

Because of the unique nature of the gospels one must think horizontally as well as vertically.

Thinking horizontally means being aware of the parallel accounts in the other gospels. Caution: take care not to harmonise, thus blurring the distinctives of each gospel.

The parallels will often give us an appreciation for the distinctives of any one gospel. Second, the parallels will help us to be aware of the different kinds of contexts in which the same or similar materials lived in the on-going church.

A common, but unlikely, presupposition is that each gospel was written independently of the others. For one, there is a high degree of verbal similarity between Matthew, Mark and Luke. While these three are interdependent in some way, John’s gospel is an independent retelling of the story of Jesus.

Thinking vertically means being aware of both historical contexts (that of Jesus and of the evangelist). Caution: don’t go into reconstructing Jesus’ life, à la the historical Jesus.

Interpreting the gospels as wholes

The evangelists were authors in the sense that with the Holy Spirit’s help they creatively structured and rewrote the material available to them to meet the needs of their needs of their readers. So one needs to be aware of each evangelist’s compositional concerns and technique.

Three principles are at work in the composition of the gospels: selectivity, arrangement and adaptation. They selected those narratives and teachings that suited their purposes (John 20:30-31, 21:25). At the same time, they had special interests—John for example tells us his: “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God” (20:31).

The principle of adaptation explains most of the so-called discrepancies. In the cursing of the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14, 20-25; Matthew 21:18-22), Mark is concerned with the story’s symbolic theological significance (a similar judgment is pronounced on Judaism through the cleansing of the temple) while Matthew’s emphasis is on faith, so he relates the cursing and the withering together to emphasise this point.

Some hermeneutical observations

The teachings and imperatives

The same principles for the epistles apply.

On the question of cultural relativity, Jesus’ imperatives aren’t like the OT law. They are descriptions, by way of command, of what Christian life should be like because of God’s prior acceptance of us.

The narratives

These function in more than one way. The miracle stories aren’t recorded to offer morals or to serve as precedents. Rather, they function as illustrations of the power of the kingdom breaking in through Jesus’ ministry. However, stories such as that of the rich young man (Mark 10:17-22 and parallels) are placed in the context of teaching where the story itself serves as an illustration of what is being taught. The point of this story isn’t that followers of Jesus should sell all their possessions (see Luke 5:27-30; 8:3; Mark 14:3-9), but that it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.

A final, very important word

One dare not think he or she can properly interpret the gospel without a clear understanding of the concept of the kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus.