Reading The Gospels Today

Reading The Gospels Today

by Stanley E. Porter

As Ancient Documents, the New Testament Gospels can seem distant from contemporary life or irrelevant to modern society. Further complicating the task of reading the Gospels is the way they seem to introduce differing, if not competing, pictures of Jesus. Reading the Gospels Today is meant to help Bible readers understand -- and move beyond -- the difficulties… See more details below


As Ancient Documents, the New Testament Gospels can seem distant from contemporary life or irrelevant to modern society. Further complicating the task of reading the Gospels is the way they seem to introduce differing, if not competing, pictures of Jesus. Reading the Gospels Today is meant to help Bible readers understand -- and move beyond -- the difficulties involved in interpreting Scripture in our current context. In these insightful studies several biblical scholars explore the content of the Gospels while also discussing how to read these writings in relation to each other and in terms of today's world. Some chapters consider issues that vex Gospel criticism; others look at particular texts or Synoptic themes; still others demonstrate how one's immediate interpretive context helps to raise the issues and shape the answers that are found when we read the Gospels. Well organized, thoughtfully written, and widely accessible, this volume will serve to draw readers into the exciting field of contemporary Gospels study.

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Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
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McMaster New Testament Studies Series
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Reading the Gospels Today

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2004 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

Chapter One

Sorting Out the Synoptic Problem: Why an Old Approach Is Still Best

Craig A. Evans

Halfway through my lecture on the Synoptic problem at least one student asks what the point is: What does it matter which Synoptic Gospel was written first and how the three of them relate to one another? Seminary students are usually the quickest to raise this question. Undergraduates are a bit slower to ask, perhaps because they are less sure of themselves. However, the question is never heard from the pulpit or in the pew; evidently the question is completely irrelevant in the church.

This apparent indifference notwithstanding, the Synoptic problem is well worth pondering; its solution well worth taking into account in studying the Gospels in preparation for preaching and teaching in the church today. The exegetical and theological payoff is simply too great for us to ignore the problem and the study required to grapple with it.

What the Synoptic Problem Is and Why It Matters

The Synoptic problem becomes apparent when we observe the similarities and differences in content and order in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The striking relationship among these three Gospels is only underscored when they are compared to the fourth Gospel, which differs at almost every point of comparison.

Two or more of the Synoptic Gospels hold in common many stories and teachings of Jesus. The verbal parallels are frequent and often quite close. The words of John the Baptist ("You brood of vipers, who warned you ...?") are, with two or three minor exceptions, in exact agreement in Matthew and Luke. But there are also surprising divergences. All three Gospels seem to follow the same sequence, then unexpectedly Luke breaks away. There are also odd discrepancies between Matthew and Mark.

In Matthew we find a three-chapter version of the Sermon on the Mount, complete with the Lord's Prayer. But in Luke the sermon is given on a level place (hence it is called the Sermon on the Plain), is only half of one chapter (6:20-49), and does not contain the Lord's Prayer (which shows up several chapters later, in a completely different context).

Matthew's version of the infancy narrative features dreams, fulfilled prophecies, the visit of the magi, the wrath of Herod, and the flight to Egypt. None of this appears in Luke's version. Instead, we have canticles, a visit by shepherds, and visits to a relative and to the temple. Similar discrepancies occur in the Easter narratives. In Matthew the disciples meet the risen Jesus on a mountain; in Luke the risen Jesus joins the two on the road to Emmaus, appears in a house and eats food, and ascends. None of this is in Matthew.

Matthew presents Jesus' teaching in five major blocks of material; this material is scattered in Luke. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus makes his way from Galilee to Judea in two or three chapters. In Luke it takes ten. Matthew and Luke share a whole host of teaching, which is not found in Mark. At points Luke's version overlaps with Johannine tradition; at other points it overlaps with Pauline.

These are the most obvious examples that perplex interpreters. How are these phenomena to be explained? This is the Synoptic problem, and investigation of it is important for several reasons: (1) Explaining the relationship of the Synoptic Gospels will shed light on the origins and development of these most important sources for the life and teaching of Jesus; (2) resolution of the Synoptic problem is important for assessing the antiquity and value of the sources in study of the historical Jesus; and (3) study of the Synoptic problem heightens appreciation of the distinctive features of the Synoptic Gospels, which significantly aids the task of exegesis and theological study. It is this third reason that guides the present essay.

Why the Priority of Mark Is Still the Majority View

Matthean priority was almost universally held from the second-century church to the middle of the nineteenth century. When modern biblical scholarship was in its infancy three books appeared - one English, the other two German - arguing not only for Matthean priority, but using this priority to explain the relationship of all three Synoptic Gospels to one another. Henry Owen and the much better known Johann Jakob Griesbach proposed that Matthew was written first, that Luke made use of Matthew, and that Mark, writing last, made use of both Matthew and Luke.

Matthean priority remained the dominant solution to the Synoptic problem for more than a century. But the dominance of this position began to wane with the appearance of several studies in the nineteenth century. The middle position of Mark was observed, leading some to conclude that Mark may have been the first of the Synoptic Gospels, not second or third. Heinrich Julius Holtzmann proposed the two-document hypothesis, whereby it was understood that a Mark-like source (document A) and a sayings source (document B) were utilized independently by Matthew and Luke. The next two generations refined Holtzmann's hypothesis, resulting in the classic two-source theory, where it is understood that Matthew and Luke made use of Mark and the hypothetical Q (the abbreviation of the German word Quelle, which means source). The two-source theory and variations of it have come to dominate Gospels research.

In recent years scholarly discussion of the Synoptic problem has intensified, with some claiming that the dominant view - Markan priority - is in danger of being overthrown. In 1964 W. R. Farmer challenged the near-consensus of Markan priority. He has won a few converts (mostly in North America and in Britain; virtually no one in Germany). He and his followers continue to pound away at what are considered the weak points of Markan priority. Despite their untiring efforts, however, Markan priority continues to be held by a majority of Gospel scholars.

Markan priority continues to prevail because it possesses much greater explanatory power than does Matthean (or Lukan) priority. Parallel after parallel is more easily explained in reference to Markan priority. Let us consider two examples briefly (with major points of comparison in bold face):

Example 1

Matthew 4:1-2

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry.

Mark 1:12-13

12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.

Luke 4:1-2

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit 2 for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry.

Analysis of Synoptic parallels often prompts the question that text critics usually ask: Which passage (or reading) best explains the others? Applying this question to the story of the temptation of Jesus is very suggestive.

Matthew says Jesus "was led up" (anagein) by the Spirit into the wilderness. Luke says Jesus "was led" (agein) by the Spirit in the wilderness. Mark says the Spirit immediately "drove"/"cast" Jesus "out" (ekballein) into the wilderness. Does Mark's reading explain the readings of Matthew and Luke? Or, do the readings of Matthew and Luke explain Mark's reading? If we assume that Mark wrote first, then Matthew and Luke replaced Mark's "drove out" with forms of "led." Or, if Mark wrote last, ignoring the forms of "led" in the two texts in front of him, then we must imagine that the Evangelist deliberately chose instead to write "drove out." Which option is the most plausible?

Approximately one half of the occurrences of ekballein ("to drive/ cast out") in Matthew and Luke are in reference to exorcism; and about one half of those not in reference to exorcism are in reference to violent or negative acts, such as murdering and casting the son out of the vineyard (Matt 21:39; Luke 20:15), casting Jesus out of town (Luke 4:29), casting someone out of the kingdom into hell (Matt 8:12; Luke 13:28), casting out someone's name, that is, striking a person's name from the membership of the local synagogue (Luke 6:22), or casting merchants out of the temple precincts (Matt 21:12; Luke 19:45).

If, in writing last, Mark read and made use of Matthew and Luke, which speak of Jesus being "led" by the Spirit, it is hard to see why this Evangelist would have chosen the verb ekballein ("drive out" or "cast out") when he would have observed that this is the verb routinely used in the stories of exorcism, for example, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out (ekballein) demons in your name?" (Matt 7:22), and that it is frequently used in other negative or judgmental contexts, as in the examples cited above.

Accordingly, probability favors the first option. For it is much easier to explain the appearance of "led up" and "led" in Matthew and Luke as stylistic improvements upon Mark than trying to find an explanation that would account for Mark's "drove out," if we suppose that when he wrote he had Matthew and Luke before him. But why did the Mark an Evangelist use the word at all? Mark 1:12 is Mark's first use of ekballein. It did not occur to him that he would subsequently use this word in reference to exorcism. Had the Evangelist narrated (or read in Matthew or Luke, if we accept the Owen-Griesbach Hypothesis) one or two exorcisms before narrating the temptation, he too may have chosen a different verb, as Matthew and Luke would later do.

There are other editorial indications that Matthew and Luke are posterior to Mark. Matthew substitutes "devil," which Mark never uses, for Mark's "Satan." The devil is Matthew's preferred designation for the evil one (cf. Matt 4:1, 5, 8, 11; 13:39; 25:41), a preference perhaps prompted by the appearance of "devil" in Q, the tradition that Matthew and Luke have in common (cf. Luke 4:2, 3, 5, 13; 8:12). For his part, Luke takes the opportunity to say that Jesus was "full of the Holy Spirit," which is in step with this Evangelist's marked interest in pneumatology. And of course, both Matthew and Luke omit Mark's somewhat cryptic reference to Jesus' being "with the wild beasts." All of these differences are easier to explain on the assumption of Markan priority, not posteriority.

Example 2

Matthew 8:18-27

18 Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side.... 23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him, saying, "Save, Lord; we are perishing." 26 And he said to them, "Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?" Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. 27 And the men marveled, saying, "What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?"

Mark 4:35-41

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." 36And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 And a great storm of wind arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care if we perish?" 39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?" 41 And they were filled with awe, and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?"

Luke 8:22-25

22 One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side of the lake." So they set out, 23 and as they sailed he fell asleep. And a storm of wind came down on the lake, and they were filling with water, and were in danger. 24 And they went and woke him, saying, "Master, Master, we are perishing!" And he awoke and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; and they ceased, and there was a calm. 25 He said to them, "Where is your faith?" And they were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, "Who then is this, that he commands even wind and water, and they obey him?"

We have here one of the most vivid, exciting stories of the Synoptic Gospels. Every child who has attended Sunday School has heard this story, has seen it illustrated in picture books or on flannel boards, and perhaps has even acted it out in a skit. Once again, if we ask which reading best explains the others, logic favors Markan priority. Commentators have rightly observed that the phrase "when evening had come" is from Markan redaction and serves as Mark's way of either bringing a discrete episode to a conclusion or of introducing a new one (cf. Mark 1:32; 6:47; 11:19; 14:17; 15:42). But in adding it here, Mark creates a bit of a redundancy, if not an anomaly (is it "day" or is it "evening"?). But even more problematic, the phrase stands in tension with the story of the demoniac, which follows in Mark 5:1-20 and gives every impression of taking place on the same day. Evidently Matthew senses this problem, electing to replace "On that day, when evening had come" with "Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him." Thus, it is not the end of the day that prompts Jesus to relocate; it is the crowds. Luke removes the difficulty by simply saying, "One day...."

But Mark goes from the redundant and inconsistent to the strange, when he says the disciples "took him with them in the boat, just as he was." What on earth does the Evangelist mean by this? Is Jesus in some way incapacitated? Is he perhaps in a trance, so that his disciples have to pick him up and place him in the boat? No, probably not; it seems that Mark is only harking back to Mark 4:1-2, where Jesus got into the boat and commenced his teaching. That is, when the disciples departed from the shore, they took Jesus with them, already seated in the boat ("just as he was"). But it must be admitted that the text reads oddly. Not surprisingly, Matthew replaces the Markan verse with "And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him." Not only is the problem mitigated, Jesus is properly cast as the leader and his disciples as the followers. Luke again takes the simplest course, by dropping all reference to going aboard: "So they set out."


Excerpted from Reading the Gospels Today Copyright © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
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