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.
Sam was born April 13, 1837 in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Charles, and his mother, Sarah, raised Charles in a strict Christian home. Sam attended the Boston Latin School.
At the ripe age of sixteen years, Sam matriculated in William College (1853). Two of his professors were naturalist Paul Chadbourne and geologist Ebenezer Emmons. These men guided young Sam to develop an interest in natural history. His favorite area of study was entomology.
Upon reaching nineteen years of age, Sam dedicated himself to a lifetime career of studying insects. Finally in 1847 Sam graduated from Williams at the head of his class.
Sam enrolled in the Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School in order to study under Louis Agassiz. Sam knew that Professor Agassiz was the most influential scientist in American at the time.
Sam studied under Professor Agassiz for four years and graduated with a B.S. degree in 1862. He worked for his favorite professor for another two years. Sadly, Sam fell under the influence of a new theory of its day, Darwinism.
Now, you might say, Hugh why are you taking class time to tell us about Sam? I wanted you to meet Sam Scudder. Sam Scudder wrote 180 papers during his lifetime – – on grasshoppers.
In 1862 his first paper identified 105 species of grasshoppers. By the end of his career, he had described 106 genera and 630 species of grasshoppers. Again you ask, “So what, Hugh?”
It fascinates me that a man could see that many differences in grasshoppers. After all, a grasshopper by any other name is still a grasshopper! Right? Where did Sam Scudder gain his skills to see so many differences?
Let me share another story that some think Sam H. Scudder wrote and then I will make application with it as we prepare to begin to study Mark’s Gospel in detail next week.
“This is how Sam’ story begins, “It was more than fifteen years ago that I entered the laboratory of Professor Agassiz, and told him I had enrolled my name in the scientific school as a student of natural history.
He asked me a few questions about my object in coming, my antecedents generally, the mode in which I afterwards proposed to use the knowledge I might acquire, and finally, whether I wished to study any special branch. To the latter I replied that while I wished to be well grounded in all departments of zoology, I purposed to devote myself specially to insects.
“When do you wish to begin?” he asked. “Now,” I replied.
This seemed to please him, and with an energetic “Very well,” he reached from a shelf a huge jar of specimens in yellow alcohol. “Take this fish,” he said, “and look at it; we call it a Haemulon; by and by I will ask what you have seen.”
With that he left me, but in a moment returned with explicit instructions as to the care of the object entrusted to me. “No man is fit to be a naturalist,” said he, “who does not know how to take care of specimens.”
I was to keep the fish before me in a tin tray, and occasionally moisten the surface with alcohol from the jar, always taking care to replace the stopper tightly. Those were not the days of ground glass stoppers, and elegantly shaped exhibition jars; all the old students will recall the huge, neckless glass bottles with their leaky, wax-besmeared corks, half-eaten by insects and begrimed with cellar dust. Entomology was a cleaner science than ichthyology, but the example of the professor who had unhesitatingly plunged to the bottom of the jar to produce the fish was infectious; and though this alcohol had “a very ancient and fish-like smell,”
I really dared not show any aversion within these sacred precincts, and treated the alcohol as though it were pure water. Still I was conscious of a passing feeling of disappointment, for gazing at a fish did not commend itself to an ardent entomologist. My friends at home, too, were annoyed, when they discovered that no amount of eau de cologne would drown the perfume which haunted me like a shadow.
In ten minutes I had seen all that could be seen in that fish, and started in search of the professor, who had, however, left the museum; and when I returned, after lingering over some of the odd animals stored in the upper apartment, my specimen was dry all over. I dashed the fluid over the fish as if to resuscitate it from a fainting-fit, and looked with anxiety for a return of a normal, sloppy appearance.
This little excitement over, nothing was to be done but return to a steadfast gaze at my mute companion. Half an hour passed, an hour, another hour; the fish began to look loathsome. I turned it over and around; looked it in the face — ghastly; from behind, beneath, above, sideways, at a three-quarters view — just as ghastly. I was in despair; at an early hour, I concluded that lunch was necessary; so with infinite relief, the fish was carefully replaced in the jar, and for an hour I was free.
On my return, I learned that Professor Agassiz had been at the museum, but had gone and would not return for several hours. My fellow students were too busy to be disturbed by continued conversation. Slowly I drew forth that hideous fish, and with a feeling of desperation again looked at it. I might not use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish; it seemed a most limited field.
I pushed my fingers down its throat to see how sharp its teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me — I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the professor returned.
“Well, what is it like?” He listened attentively to my brief rehearsal of the structure of parts whose names were still unknown to me; the fringed gill-arches and movable operculum; the pores of the head, fleshly lips, and lidless eyes; the lateral line, the spinous fin, and forked tail; the compressed and arched body. When I had finished, he waited as if expecting more, and then, with an air of disappointment:
“You have not looked very carefully; why,” he continued, more earnestly, “you haven’t seen one of the most conspicuous features of the animal, which is as plainly before your eyes as the fish itself. Look again; look again!” And he left me to my misery.
I was piqued; I was mortified. Still more of that wretched fish? But now I set myself to the task with a will, and discovered one new thing after another, until I saw how just the professor’s criticism had been. The afternoon passed quickly, and when, towards its close, the professor inquired,
“Do you see it, yet?
“No,” I replied. “I am certain I do not, but I see how little I saw before.”
“That is next best,” said he earnestly, “but I won’t hear you now; put away your fish and go home; perhaps you will be ready with a better answer in the morning. I will examine you before you look at the fish.”
This was disconcerting; not only must I think of my fish all night, studying, without the object before me, what this unknown but most visible feature might be, but also, without reviewing my new discoveries, I must give an exact account of them the next day. I had a bad memory; so I walked home by Charles River in a distracted state, with my two perplexities.
The cordial greeting from the professor the next morning was reassuring; here was a man who seemed to be quite as anxious as I that I should see for myself what he saw.
“Do you perhaps mean,” I asked, “that the fish has symmetrical sides with paired organs?”
His thoroughly pleased, “Of course, of course!” repaid the wakeful hours of the previous night. After he had discoursed most happily and enthusiastically — as he always did — upon the importance of this point, I ventured to ask what I should do next.
“Oh, look at your fish!” he said, and left me again to my own devices. In a little more than an hour he returned and heard my new catalogue.
“That is good, that is good!” he repeated, “but that is not all; go on.” And so for three long days, he placed that fish before my eyes, forbidding me to look at anything else, or to use any artificial aid. “Look, look, look,” was his repeated injunction.
This was the best entomological lesson I ever had — a lesson whose influence was extended to the details of every subsequent study; a legacy the professor has left to me, as he left it to many others, of inestimable value, which we could not buy, with which we cannot part.
A year afterwards, some of us were amusing ourselves with chalking outlandish beasts upon the blackboard. We drew prancing star-fishes; frogs in mortal combat; hydro-headed worms; stately craw-fishes, standing on their tails, bearing aloft umbrellas; and grotesque fishes, with gaping mouths and staring eyes. The professor came in shortly after, and was as much amused as any at our experiments. He looked at the fishes.
“Haemulons, every one of them,” he said; “Mr. ____________ drew them.”
True; and to this day, if I attempt a fish, I can draw nothing but Haemulons.
The fourth day a second fish of the same group was placed beside the first, and I was bidden to point out the resemblances and differences between the two; another and another followed, until the entire family lay before me, and a whole legion of jars covered the table and surrounding shelves; the odor had become a pleasant perfume; and even now, the sight of an old six-inch worm-eaten cork brings fragrant memories!
The whole group of Haemulons was thus brought into review; and whether engaged upon the dissection of the internal organs, preparation and examination of the bony framework, or the description of the various parts, Agassiz’s training in the method of observing facts in their orderly arrangement, was ever accompanied by the urgent exhortation not to be content with them.
At the end of eight months, it was almost with reluctance that I left these friends and turned to insects; but what I gained by this outside experience has been of greater value than years of later investigation in my favorite groups.”
— from American Poems (3rd ed.; Boston: Houghton, Osgood & Co., 1879): pp. 450-54.
“Class, what is the point of Sam Scudder’s story, “The Student, the Fish, and Agassiz? David, what do you think?”
“Hugh, I think we rarely look at God’s Word with much depth and detail until we are like the student. We think we have seen all there is to see and so we quit. Hugh, we need a professor to teach us to look and see what God has written. May we be as dedicated to read, study, examine closely God’s Word as much as Sam Scudder was this fish.”
“David, you are correct. We will soon be taking a passage from Mark’s Gospel and examine it in detail. Why would we let scientists show us up in such detailed observations? See you next week!”
This is Dr. Lucas, If you are following this blog, please read Mark 1: 1-8 several times this next week. We will begin to examine these verses in detail. Read it 2-4 times per day each week. Make a few notes of what you see each day that you failed to see the day(s) before your current reading.
Dr. Lucas is an author, retired pastor and retired Professor of Bible from Clear Creek Baptist Bible College in Pineville, Kentucky. Dr. Roy Lucas lives in the Appalachian Mountains in Harlan, Kentucky with his wife, Veda, also a writer.
He has articles in LifeWay’s Biblical Illustrator, Deacon Magazine, Senior Adult Bible Studies for Life, Lighthouse Bible Studies Refresh Magazine, CBN devotion, and the Revised Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (2015). “Why are You Afraid?” appears in Food for Your Soul, Compilation 1 published by Lighthouse Bible Studies (June 2019). His weekly blog is Truth-Travelers.com.
He preaches, teaches, and serves as interim pastor. His doctorate is in New Testament studies. He excavated in the Tel Gezer Project and served with the Tel Gezer Survey Project. He leads tours to Israel.
He and Dr. John Ditty, Old Testament Professor of Bible at Clear Creek Baptist Bible College in Pineville, Kentucky are leading a tour to Israel in March 2020. If you are interested, contact Dr. Lucas at his email address.