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Jesus and the Christian Scriptures (New Testament)

Additional interpretation of the Gospels
by religious conservatives & progressives

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Differences between Christian conservatives and progressives:

An overview of differences between conservative and progressive interpretations of the Gospels is located elsewhere.

This essay lists more detailed differences between these two wings of Christianity

  • Conservative Christians typically consider the Gospel texts to be inerrant -- a description of the "faith which was once for all delivered to the saints." (Jude 3b). 7 They attempt to understand the meaning of the Gospels in the light of Christianity's traditional beliefs concerning Jesus, including the virgin birth, atonement, ascension, resurrection, etc. 
  • Religious liberals approach the same texts from a different point of view. They assume that the gospels are errant, since they were written by ordinary people. They believe that the sayings and acts of the historical Jesus have been deliberately obscured or distorted by the Gospel writers in order to promote the beliefs of their own Christian group.

Both groups tend to be quite certain that their interpretation is correct; both are greatly influenced -- often unknowingly so -- by their culture.

Further gospel interpretation by conservative Christians:

  • The authors of the gospels described Jesus from different viewpoints: Matthew presents Jesus as king; Mark as the servant of God. Luke emphasizes Jesus' humanity. John describes Jesus as the Son of God, the savior of humanity.
  • The gospels were written for four different audiences: Matthew for the Jews, Mark for Roman gentiles, Luke for Greek gentiles, and John for the developing Christian church.
  • "...what they wrote is accurate, without error, directed by the Holy Spirit, and is therefore authoritative in our lives." 2
  • Material in the gospels are not necessarily presented in chronological order. Jesus' aggravated assaults in the temple appears early in John's gospel, but near the end of Jesus' ministry in the synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke.
  • The gospels are not historical biographies in the modern sense. Their purpose was to preach "the gospel, the good news," not to record in detail every event during Jesus' ministry.
  • The gospels present Jesus as the Son of God, the Lord and Savior of humanity. "Throughout the gospels, Jesus appears as more than a man. His message, his deeds and his person force the reader to decision." 1

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Further gospel interpretation by progressive Christians:

They believe that the sayings and acts of the historical Jesus have been deliberately obscured or distorted by the Gospel writers, in order to:

  • Fulfill various prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).
  • Reflect the conflicts that the Christian movements were having with the Jewish and Roman authorities, late in the late 1st century when that the Gospels were being written.
  • Reflect the evolving theology of various faith groups within the early Christian movement.
  • Disguise the humanity and shortcomings of Jesus in order to make him act less as a human being and more as a god-man and miracle worker.
  • Add descriptions of imaginary, magical events, in order to prove the deity of Jesus, and allow Christianity to compete with other religions in the Mediterranean area.
  • Insert some material derived from Pagan religions in the Mediterranean area.
Liberals generally agree that the three synoptic gospels are are of the greatest help in the search for the historical Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas, which never made it into the Bible, was widely used by Gnostic Christians in the early years of the Christian moment, and is useful today. The Gospel of John contains little information about Jesus words or acts. Hundreds of scholars over many generations have devoted themselves to the analysis of Mark, Matthew and Luke. Their task has been called the greatest detective story of all time. 

A major breakthrough in the liberal interpretation of the Gospels was been the recreation of the long-lost Gospel of Q. The earliest part of that gospel appears to date from about the year 50 CE -- only two decades after Jesus' execution, and decades earlier than the first canonical gospel was written. Q seems to have been the earliest attempt to record Jesus' sayings in written form. It may thus be the most accurate portrayal of Jesus. 4 It describes Jesus as a itinerant Jewish rabbi/teacher who was motivated by a desire to spread his beliefs to his fellow Jews in Galilee. He taught a message of compassion, inclusion, and personal freedom in a culture that was extremely oppressive, insular and restrictive. He had no interest in spreading his beliefs beyond the Jews, to the Greeks and other gentiles. It contains nothing about Jesus' crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

It is quite impossible to condense the redaction criticism, and other forms of analysis, of tens of thousands of person-years of effort into one essay. There is room for only a few examples:

  • Mark includes passages that describe "various degrees of imperfection in Jesus..." -- passages that Matthew and Luke either minimize or delete. The Gospel of Mark, having being written 10 to 40 years before the remaining gospels, is assumed to include a more accurate picture of Jesus' character. Later gospels reflected the evolving theology of the early Christian movement. They began to view Jesus less as a man -- an itinerate preacher. They described him more as a perfect god-man -- the Son of God, the Lord and Savior of humanity -- free if imperfections. Geza Vermes lists parallel passages in the synoptic gospels which indicate this shift towards perfection: 5
    • In Mark 1:41, Jesus is moved by either pity or anger towards a leper. (Early manuscripts differ on this point.) In Mark 3:5 he responds to his critics with anger. Both passages indicate what might be regarded as a human emotional weakness. Luke, in his parallel verse 6:10 edited Mark, deleting the "with anger" phrase. In Matthew 12:12, the entire sentence is deleted.
    • Mark's comment in 3:21 that Jesus' family thought him insane was deleted in the parallel passages of Matthew and Luke.
    • Mark 8:12 describes Jesus sighing or groaning when the Pharisees request a sign from heaven. In the parallel verse, Luke 11:16, Jesus gave no response; Matthew deletes reference to the sigh in 16:2.
    • Mark 10:14 has Jesus reacting with annoyance when the disciples try to isolate children from him. His anger is not mentioned in the parallel passages of Matthew 19:13 or Luke 18:16.
    • Mark 5:9 describes Jesus as not knowing the name of a demon; he has to ask for the evil spirit's name. Matthew chose to delete this passage rather than copy or edit it.
    • Mark 1:34 and 3:10 describe that all of the sick were brought before Jesus, and that he healed many of them. This infers that he was unsuccessful healing others. In the parallel passages  (Matthew 8:16, Luke 4:40) he cures them all.
    • Mark 6:5 says that Jesus was able to heal a few sick people but otherwise was unable to do any mighty works in his home town, Nazareth. Matthew 13:59 alters this to say that Jesus was able to do a few miracles; he wrote "he did not do many mighty works there." Luke dropped the passage altogether.

    Parallel passages in the synoptic gospels can be read in reverse chronological order, starting with the latest (Matthew), then Luke and finally Mark. One detects a gradual increase in the humanness of Jesus. Jesus becomes less a god-man and more of a itinerate teacher. The Jesus Seminar comments:

    "...Mark's Gospel brings us nearer to the Jesus of history than any other New Testament writing...Mark is the only evangelist who enables us to hear today an occasional and faint echo of what might have been...Jesus' own words in his own language." 6
  • Luke's claim (in Chapter 1) that he carefully researched other gospels before preparing his own implies that he is a careful historian. This can be tested by comparing Luke's text with the historical record:
    • Luke 2:1 talks about Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem in order for Joseph to register in "his own city," for taxation purposes. There is no record of a Roman tax system that required people to go to the city of their ancestors. It would be totally impractical. All agriculture and commerce would ground to a halt; the empire would be paralyzed for months.
    • A woman in 1st century Palestine was either under the control of her father or her husband. There would be no necessity for her to go to Bethlehem to be registered; only adult males were recorded.
    • There is no evidence of Luke's world-wide census during the reign of Caesar Augustus, who ruled from 27 BCE to 14 CE. There was a local census in 6 CE, but this is at least a decade after the probable time of Jesus' birth.
    • In Luke 3:2, the author refers to the high priesthood of "Annas and Caiphas." But the temple only had one high priest at a time. Annas and Caiphas never served together or even consecutively. 6

    The discrepancies between Luke's gospel and the historical record indicate that Luke is not a reliable historian. His text must be interpreted with a grain of salt.

  • Christian orthodoxy: According to R.W. Funk:
    "Christian orthodoxy did not emerge immediately after the death of Jesus but developed over decades. As a consequence, traces of later Christian orthodoxy attributed to Jesus or his first followers are anachronistic." 6
  • Pagan derived content: Jesus is described in the synoptic gospels as imitating past heroes and Gods. Just as Moses fed the Israelites during the Exodus, Jesus fed thousands on a few loaves and fishes. Both Elisha and Jesus healed lepers. Jesus walked on water just as the Greek God Poseidon did. Funk continues:
    "Stories echoing Israelite and pagan heroes were strategies in the [Christian first century CE] program to market the messiah to the wider world, and their historicity is thus seriously undermined." 6

Using the above and similar methods of analysis, layers of written material that obscure the historical Jesus can be detected and discarded. The authentic words and acts of Jesus can be glimpsed.

Related essays at this web site:

References used:

  1. 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
  2. P.N. Benware, "An outline of Christ's life," in "Survey of the New Testament," Moody, (1990), Page 57+ Review/order this book
  3. 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 book
  4. Burton L. Mack, "The Lost Gospel of Q: The Book of Christian Origins", Harper, San Francisco, (1993) Pages 73 - 80. Review/order this book
  5. Geza Vermes, "The changing faces of Jesus," Allen Lane, (2000). Review/order this book
  6. R.W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, "The acts of Jesus: What did Jesus really do?," HarperSanFrancisco, (1998) Review/order this book
  7. Jude 3b

Copyright © 2000 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-JUN-22
Latest update: 2008-SEP-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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