Reaching for his cell phone ringing with the sound of “Boomer Sooner,” Hugh reads the name of the caller, “David,” he says, “What is going on, Dave?”
David answers, “Hugh, can I ask you a question about our Bible study coming up this Sunday in Sunday School?”
“Sure, Dave. What is your question?”
“I know we are about to start studying the Gospel of Mark section by section and yet, I am not sure what we mean when we say, ‘gospel.” What is it? What are the authors intending to teach the reader? From what I can tell, the four gospels are not like modern biographies. For one thing, they don’t all share the same information and for a second thing, they don’t have the same order. What can you tell me to help me know what I am looking at when I read a gospel?”
“Great questions, Dave. Since we are on the phone, I will try to streamline my reply and if we need to expand it, we can do it later in person.”
“First, Dave, before the early Christians began to use the word, gospel, it referred to good news about a military or political victory. The New Testament translates the Greek word, euangelion, as good news. From Mark 1:14-15 ‘good news’ refers to the message proclaimed by Jesus Christ or according to 1 Corinthians 15: 1 the good news concerning Jesus Christ. This is why the early believers seized the term ‘good news’ for the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”
“That is interesting, Hugh.”
“And second, Dave, in a large sense, the Gospels contain stories. We know stories grab our attention and help us retain the content of what we are being told. Stories aid us in becoming part of the events being described. Stories help us to be more than mere readers. Using our imaginations, we enter the story personally, emotionally, and psychologically.”
“That’s true, Hugh.”
“Dave, the early believers understood that Gospels drew on the personal experiences of the apostles. Justin Martyr, who lived from about A.D. 100 – 165, in his First Apology, refers to the Gospels as the ‘memoirs’ of the Apostles. Thus, it seems the early church felt that these gospel authors were writing biographies about Jesus. You have already noted that when we read the Gospels today, they are much different from modern biographies.
“Hugh, Matthew and Luke jump from his birth into this ministry with little to any information about his teen years. Mark, which what we are going to study, introduces John the Baptist without any mention of the birth of Jesus. why is that so?”
Dave, that’s keen insight about the Gospels. Have you thought about how they are arranged? In a general manner, they are arranged topically. They report what Jesus said with a variety of ways. The major difference between the Gospels and modern biographies is the amount of time the Gospels devote to the last week of Christ’s life.”
“Dave, remember just because they are not modern biographies, does not mean they are not biographies. Ancient biographies followed simple outlines. Generally, they focused on the birth or arrival of the hero and follow his life to his death. We know that the way a person dies often says much about the way the person lived.”
“The ancient authors selected sayings and actions done by the hero in order to demonstrate a truth or something important about the hero. Reading Matthew, Mark, Luke and John shows they have much in common with ancient biographies.”
“Dave, another important point to remember is this, ‘ancient writers or biographers did not feel compelled to record speeches verbatim. Paraphrasing and summarizing set the pattern for many ancient biographers. They felt free to arrange the materials to suit their themes or purposes.
“It has been said, ‘The goal of the gospels writers was to tell the story of Jesus in a faithful, yet relevant and persuasive manner for their readers. Rather than viewing the differences between accounts as errors in reporting, we should see them as illustrations of the different theological purposes and emphases of the gospel writers.’”
“Dave, let me show you how this knowledge of ancient biographers helps us understand what appears to be a discrepancy in scripture. Many astute readers of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke notice that the second and third temptations are reversed in the two gospels.
“Matthew focuses on the Kingdom of God and thus, doesn’t it make sense to end the temptations with Satan offering the kingdoms of the world to Jesus? And Luke emphasizes Jerusalem. Doesn’t it make sense that Luke would end his temptations with Jesus jumping off the temple to only be rescued by the angels? Each Gospel writer ends the temptations to emphasize his theological focus.”
“And before we call it an evening, Dave, let me remind you that the Gospels are not only ancient biographies, but they are ancient biographies that focus on Christ. They are not merely recording stories, but specific stories related to the life and ministry of Christ. They seek to communicate theological information about Jesus to their readers. All story-telling has a purpose and the Gospel writers determined to tell the story about Jesus, and Jesus, alone.”
“Dave, does that help some as we move towards our study in Mark’s Gospel?”
“It does, Hugh, thank you for helping me tonight. I can rest, now, I think. Good night!”
“Good night, Dave.”
If you have thoughts about ancient biographies and how the Gospels used this methodology, please comment.
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J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 3rd edition, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 272.