Ten Tidbits about the Gospels

Ten Tidbits about the Gospels January 25, 2011

Four years ago we launched a “Ten Tidbits” Series that sought to introduce some basic information about scriptural texts assumed by scholars, but not necessarily well known by Latter-day Saints. The goal was to introduce these points as the results of close readings that could lead to a more accurate understanding of the scriptural texts for LDS readers. I’d like to continue that series with a more focused look not at entire books of scripture, but smaller portions. Some of these points may be widely known, and some may not be.

1. The four gospels cannot be harmonized. They contain different ideas about who Jesus is, narrative orders of his actions, content of his teachings, meaning of his miracles, etc. None of the gospel writers imagined that their text would have been read alongside any other, and in some cases directly contradict the others. In fact, the reasons that Matthew and Luke rewrote Mark was because they wanted to replace it.

2. The earliest versions of Mark do not have an account of Jesus’ appearance after the resurrection. Originally ending at 16:8 with the women fleeing after learning about the empty tomb, later editors added post-resurrection appearances of Jesus more consistent with the other gospels. This may indicate the relatively late date of stories about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances as a part of the accounts of his life and ministry.

3. The synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) only have one account of Jesus going to Jerusalem for Passover, suggesting that his ministry may have only lasted less than a year, as opposed to John who has Jesus attend Passover three times, marking a two year ministry.

4. The synoptic gospels depict Jesus’ symbolic action overturning the tables of the money changers as the immediate event which precipitates his arrest and execution. John instead sees this as the event which launches his ministry two years eariler, and does not occur in the final week.

5. Mark and John do not have accounts of a virgin birth and never make reference to it. Matthew and Luke tell very different, irreconcilable versions of Jesus’ birth.

6. Matthew and Luke expanded on Mark’s narrative by adding a source of Jesus’ teachings nicknamed Q (from the German word Quelle, or source). The idea was that a set of Jesus’ sayings circulated independently from other accounts of his life and death. This hypothesis which sought to explain why Matthew and Luke have the same sayings, but introduced in different narratives, seems to have been verified with the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, which may have derived from the same source text of Jesus’ teachings as Q, and also has no narrative account of his miracles, death, or resurrection. John is not built around sayings, but dialogues.

7. In the earliest accounts of Jesus’ controversies over the law, the Pharisees are not always named as the enemies. In later accounts, the Pharisees are added into these stories, suggesting that the conflict with the Pharisees was more acute for “Christians” decades after Jesus’ death than it may have been during his life.

8. The earliest references to gospel materials (about 150 AD) do not mention the names of the authors of the gospels. There is no internal evidence to the gospels to indicate who may have written them. It is likely that all of the gospels are assigned authors sometime in the late-second century. The legends about who these authors were are all late.

9. The author of the gospel of Luke is the same as the author of the Acts of the Apostles. He wrote his two-part work as an account of the early church, seeking to harmonize the sayings traditions with Mark, and to harmonize the missions of Paul to the Gentiles with the Jewish followers of Jesus in the Jerusalem church.

10. The Twelve are called “apostles” only by Luke, or in later manuscript additions in the other gospels. Paul explicitly distinguishes between The Twelve and the apostles as two separate groups (1 Cor 15:1-7).

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