Jesus and the Christian Scriptures (New Testament)
Overview of Gospel interpretation
by religious conservatives & progressives
Differences in Christian beliefs about Jesus & the meaning of the Gospels:
Most Christians would agree that:
Very few details about the life of Jesus appear in the Epistles of
Paul and other writers. 1
There is almost no mention of Jesus in non-Christian writings of the
1st century CE.
The Gospels in the Christian
Scriptures (New Testament) form the main basis for our
understanding of the life of Jesus.
As with so many factors in Christianity, religious conservatives and
progressives differ greatly in their methods of approaching the Bible and studying the
Gospels. This leads them to totally two wildly different sets of beliefs about
Jesus: his purpose, life, actions, statements, status, etc. Many, perhaps
most, Christians hold beliefs that are intermediate between the extremes
Very conservative Christians
Very liberal/progressive Christians
Basic beliefs: They generally
believe in the inerrancy, infallibility
and inspiration by God of all verses in the Bible, as they were originally
composed. The Bible is unique among books in the world; God
influenced each of its authors so that their writings were totally
free from error. Further, religious conservatives feel that passages
should be literally interpreted, unless there are obvious
indications that a verse should be understood symbolically.
Although the four gospels were written by men with different
outlooks and backgrounds, all are consistent with each other and
with the truth about Jesus. A passage written by John is as valid as
one written by Mark or Paul.
Basic beliefs: They view
the holy books of Christianity and other religions as having been written by authors who
were promoting their own spiritual and religious thoughts, and those
of their group. Their writing was not directly controlled by God.
The gospels show a clear evolution of theological belief over
time. The earliest sections of the first known gospel, "Q"
appears to have been written circa 50 CE. 2 It
presents Jesus as a very human Jewish teacher, prophet, and native healer. The final canonical
gospel, John, appears to have been written by a group of believers
in the very early 2nd century CE. It portrays Jesus as a god-man,
savior of the world, having existed
since the creation of the universe.
Duration and locations of Jesus'
ministry: John implies that Jesus' ministry lasted at least
three years. John 2:13, 6:4 and 11:55 mention three Passovers. John
5:1 implies a fourth. John deals mainly with Jesus' ministry in and
around Jerusalem; the other gospels discuss his activities in
Duration and locations of Jesus'
ministry: The gospels disagree about both duration and location
of Jesus' ministry. John implies a three year or longer ministry,
spent mainly in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Judea. The other gospels
imply a one year ministry in the Galilee.
The writers: The authors of the four gospels were
named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Matthew and John were
disciples of Jesus. Mark may have been the young man who fled the
Garden of Gethsemane. Both Mark and Luke were Paul's helpers.
The writers: None of the gospel authors' names
or identities are known. None were eyewitnesses to Jesus'
ministries. They had to rely upon second and third hand stories
Jesus. It is possible that all were children or not yet born at the
time of Jesus' ministry.
Dates written: Paul Benware
estimates that Matthew was written circa 45-55 CE, only 12 years
after Jesus' execution; Luke in either 58 or 65; Mark circa 66; John circa
85 to 95 CE. 2 Since the Holy Spirit prevented any errors, all of the
gospels are consistent and free of error.
Dates written: Mark was written circa 70 CE,
some 40 years after Jesus' execution. Matthew was written circa 80;
Luke circa 90 and John circa 100 CE. The four gospels demonstrate
how theological beliefs evolved significantly during the 70 to 80
years from Jesus' death to John. Magical and miraculous events were created by the authors or the authors' sources and added to Jesus' story.
Synoptic Problem: Many passages in
the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are identical or almost
exact. One reason for this is that all three authors based their
writing on an oral tradition passed down from decade to decade.
Another is that all of the authors were guided by the Holy Spirit in
their writing so that they described events exactly as they
occurred, without error. Finally, Matthew and John were disciples
and thus were eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry. They recorded exactly
what they saw. Mark may also have been a follower of Jesus.
Synoptic Problem: Many passages in the synoptic
gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are identical or almost exact in the original Greek. Most
scholars believe that Matthew and Luke were, in part, copied from
Mark. Many believe that a prior gospel "Q,"
now lost, was also used by both Matthew and Luke. 3
Analysis of passages
that are similar but not identical is called "redaction
criticism." It can give insight into the order in which
the Gospels were probably written, their date of composition, and
the development of theological beliefs in the early Christian
Differences in John: John's
mission was to write a gospel for the emerging Christian church. The
other gospel writers directed their gospels to specific groups: Jews
and Gentiles (both Roman and Greek). So it is to be expected that
their emphasis would be different. John mainly recorded Jesus'
ministry in Judea, near Jerusalem; the other gospel writers
discussed his ministry in the Galilee. But all four gospel writers
were preserved from error by the Holy Spirit. Their writings are inerrant,
and all useful for the understanding of the gospel.
Differences in John: The Gospel of John
differs significantly from the other gospels in theme, content,
time duration, order of events, and style. "Only ca. 8% of
it is parallel to these other gospels, and even then, no such
word-for-word parallelism occurs as we find among the synoptic
gospels." 4 John reflects a
Christian tradition that is quite different from that of the other
gospels. It was rejected as heretical by many individuals and groups
within the early Christian movement. It was almost rejected
when the choice of books for the Bible was settled. Another 40 or so Gospels were rejected even though they were in wide use among the many early Christian movements. The four Gospels that were selected for the official canon were selected because they were reasonably harmonious with the beliefs of the Church at the time, John is of little help in
uncovering the historical Jesus.
Gospel content: Each of the four
gospels is different. Although each stands on its own merits as an
accurate description of the life of Jesus, Matthew and Luke contain
information about Jesus' birth and childhood not found in the other
gospels. John contains descriptions of Jesus' early ministry. Luke
describes his later Perean ministry. 2
Most of the content of the gospels should be interpreted
There are hundreds of apparent contradictions in the
- Almost all can be harmonized through prayer and research.
- A few can be attributed to copyist errors.
A very few cannot be resolved with our present level of
knowledge. However, they can be harmonized. None have any impact on the cardinal beliefs of Christianity.
Gospel content: The gospels
contain a mixture of:
- Statements and actions of Jesus as passed down orally from
- Theological beliefs about Jesus that had developed within the
authors' own religious group long after Jesus' execution.
- Non-historical passages that reflect religious conflicts in which the
author's faith group was involved, at the time that the gospel
Material imported from non-Christian
religions in the Mediterranean area, including the virgin
birth, death, resurrection,
miracles, and healing stories that were typical of the god-men
of many religions in the late 1st and early 2nd
Interpreting the gospels:
Only those who are born again can understand the
Gospels. After a person is saved, the Holy Spirit inhabits
their body, processes their mind, and helps her/him gain
an understanding of the Bible's meaning. The gospels,
and other parts of the Bible, are normally interpreted
literally. Historic beliefs of the Christian religion are accepted
as truth: the atonement, biblical inerrancy,
incarnation, biblical inspiration, justification, regeneration of
the spirit, resurrection, salvation,
the second coming, the Trinity, the virgin
birth, etc. Faced with apparent contradictions, a believer can
take advantage of the harmonizing efforts of past theologians and
guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Interpreting the gospels: A main
activity of liberal theologians over recent generations has been
to study the gospels and other early Christian documents intensely, searching for the "historical
Jesus" -- the actual statements, acts, beliefs, teachings, etc. of Yeshua of Nazareth. This involves stripping away the magical healing and
miracle passages, removing anti-Jewish religious propaganda,
deleting text that represents theological beliefs that only
developed decades after Jesus' death, detecting distortions in the
original oral transmission, removing events in Jesus' life which are
copies of those in other god-men's lives. Not much is left. But we
can get a glimpse of
what the real Jesus was like.
Other writings: The
extra-canonical gospels and acts -- those writings by early
Christians that were not accepted into the Bible -- are of little
importance. Most are heretical in nature and can be safely ignored.
They were all rejected by the early Christians when the canon was
About 45 of other gospels, hundreds "acts"
etc. were widely circulated within the early Christian church.
Analysis of these writings -- particularly the Gospel of Thomas --
can help us understand the words and actions of Jesus, as perceived
by the early Christians.
Additional differences between conservative and progressive
interpretations of the Gospels are
Related essays at this web site:
Howard Marshall, "The Gospels and Jesus Christ," in David
& Pat Alexander, Eds., "Eerdmans Handbook to the Bible,"
Eerdmans, (1992) Page 468+ This
book is out of print but may be available from the Amazon.com online book store
Burton L. Mack, "The Lost Gospel of Q: The Book of Christian Origins",
Harper, San Francisco, (1993) Pages 73 - 80. Review/order this
P.N. Benware, "An outline of Christ's life," in "Survey
of the New Testament," Moody, (1990), Page 57+ Review/order this
F.V. Filson, "The Literary Relations among the Gospels,"
essay in C.M. Laymon: "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on
the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, (1991) Review/order this
Copyright © 2000 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2000-JUN-22
Latest update: 2012-MAY-11
Author: B.A. Robinson