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How to Read the Gospels
The four Gospels record the life of Jesus: what he did, what he taught, how/who he loved, his death, resurrection, and the mission he gave his disciples. This is the only objective access we have to the historical Jesus. Yet, there are four accounts and they are all slightly different. Here is a guide to help you navigate these books.
It begins with a countdown.
One of the many amazing things about the Bible is that it offers us four distinct versions of Jesus’ story. These are known as the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. The term Gospel translates the Greek word euangelion and means good news. Each author has a unique voice and perspective on the purpose, and good news, of Jesus’ life and ministry.
You can see in the image above that three of the Gospels–Matthew, Mark, and Luke–share the same vision (synoptic) of Jesus’ story in one regard. They each organize the timeline of Jesus’ life in the same way. Jesus spent his early ministry completely in Galilee, then moved to Jerusalem for the final week. John, on the other hand, tells us that Jesus moved back and forth between Galilee and Jerusalem throughout the story.
Wait! Does that mean the Gospels are historically inaccurate? Yes and No. The Gospels were not written as precise timeline biographies. They were written to present the Good News of Jesus’ life and ministry and were organized more around themes than according to precise chronology. This was a perfectly acceptable literary practice at the time the Gospels were written.
Whenever you read any type of literature, it is helpful to keep in mind that you are not the only person involved in the story. There are three places, or worldviews, we must keep in mind when we encounter the Gospels:
- The story itself. Jesus was a living, breathing human who lived in a particular place: 1st century Israel under Roman Occupation. He was a Jewish man speaking primarily to Jewish people, so we must listen to his words through Jewish ears (as much as we can).
- The authors of the story. The authors of the four Gospels wrote down the story anywhere from thirty to sixty years after the events took place. Culture had shifted in the aftermath of the events and the fledgling community of Jesus’ followers faced particular challenges in the new way of being. We must listen for these themes as we read the Gospels.
- Our own story. Each one of us, in each generation since the Gospels were written, bring our own set of lenses to the story. That is why the story can be so alive as God speaks to our particular situations through these stories.
This map shows the scope of “the world” as the writers of the Gospel understood it. The Roman Empire was the dominant political force and seemed to be the center of the universe. However, they were aware of the eastern civilizations and the “barbarian” tribes to the north and south.
The Gospel stories occur exclusively in Israel. The bodies of water, circled in red are: the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Galilee (to the North), the Jordan River, and the Dead Sea (to the south).
It is important to note that there was not one type of Jew in Jesus’ day any more than there is one type of Christian in our day. There were at least five distinct sects of Judaism when Jesus lived.
- The Herodians were Jews who recognized the power of the Roman Empire and bowed to it. These Jews, led by King Herod, adopted Graeco-Roman culture and introduced it to Israel. For example, Herod built Roman circuses (horse racing stadiums) and theaters in Israel.
- The Sadducees were the aristocracy of Israel. They were wealthy land owners who were tied to the Priestly tribes and the sacrificial rituals associated with the Temple.
- The Pharisees were teachers and strict followers of the Law of Moses. They represented the working class of Israel and desired to purify the nation of all foreign influence.
- The Zealots were political revolutionaries who sought to overthrow Rome through violent uprising.
- The Essenes were scholars and monks who chose to remove themselves from society and seek God in the wilderness.
These five groups vied for power and influence in Israel during Jesus’ life. Ultimately, all but the Pharisees were destroyed in A.D. 70.
The Gospel Writers’ Place
It is impossible to know for sure who wrote the Gospels, when they were written, or the specific audience for whom each book was intended. The above diagram is one theory as to the timing of the Gospels.
Key things to notice:
- Q represents a body of literature (either written or oral tradition) that Matthew and Luke quote verbatim, but of which we have no physical record.
- The Epistles were being written at the same time the Gospels were being written. That means the New Testament letters did not have “The Gospels” in the same way that we do.
- Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire in A.D. 70. This catastrophic/apocalyptic event is a center piece that overshadows much of the Gospels and makes scholars wonder if the Gospels were written before or after this event.
- Jesus never wrote a word (as far as we know), and all of the Gospels were written a minimum of twenty years after the events themselves took place.
Jesus reached out to the fringes of Jewish society and to the foreigner during his life. The message of Jesus quickly spread beyond the cultural boundaries of Judaism after his death and resurrection. This opened up a new theological imagination that wondered what the Kingdom of God might look like outside of the Laws of Moses and inside the Graeco/Roman world. These questions underlie the Gospels and Epistles.
Two thousand years have passed since Jesus walked the earth. Civilizations have risen and fallen since that time. The world has shifted from the Ancient Era, to the Medieval Era, through the Modern Era, and now we stand in the midst of a globalized, pluralistic shift to a post modern era. How do we bring Jesus’ story into conversation and relevance with the world and story in which we find ourselves?
It is important to remember that anytime we encounter a text (this could be a piece of art, movie, book, person, etc) we bring our own set of lenses to the encounter. We must also remember that there are two significant lenses that inform these stories.
- The Gospels were written by Jewish authors who bring the entire Hebrew Scripture (Jews call this the Tanakh, Christians call it the Old Testament) into Jesus’ story and see him as the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and his descendents. These stories are also filtered by the Greek, Roman, and Persian cultures with which the Jewish culture was co-existing.
- We encounter the Gospels through the lens of two thousand years worth of interpretation. Each one of us has been raised with a particular way of hearing the Gospels interpreted and preached (if at all). This impacts how we hear the stories.
The fact is that Jesus lived one life. No one living today has direct access to know the fine details of that life. We only have the four Gospels to piece together a small snapshot of that amazing story. Some people have attempted to blend all the Gospels together into one continuous story. This is called a “harmony” of the Gospels. I actually created one. Check it out here.
It is, however, impossible to create a true harmony. In fact, it might actually be damaging to do so. The beauty of the four Gospels is that they live in tension with each other. This keeps the story alive for every generation.
I hope this brief introduction to the Gospels will help you as you encounter Jesus in a fresh way.