Getting the Gospels
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Getting the Gospels

Understanding the New Testament Accounts of Jesus' Life

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eBook - ePub

Getting the Gospels

Understanding the New Testament Accounts of Jesus' Life

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About This Book

On March 23, 1998, director James Cameron made an indelible mark on Academy Award history. It wasn't because his film, Titanic, captured so many Oscars. Nor was it because of the movie's unprecedented box-office success. Rather, Cameron will forever be remembered in Hollywood's annals because, upon accepting his award for Best Director, he enthusiastically declared, "I am the king of the World!" Taken literally, Cameron's exclamation denotes a claim to absolute sovereignty. Understandably, public derision followed. What Cameron's critics failed to consider, however, was the premise behind his expression. The line is borrowed from Titanic. In that context, it has an altogether different meaning. Rather than self-adulation, it speaks of joy in the face of such good fortune. Undoubtedly, that is what Cameron meant to convey, but his point escaped those unfamiliar with his premise. This real-life analogy sets the stage for Getting the Gospels. As Cameron drew upon Titanic, early Christians drew similarly upon their religious and literary backgrounds to communicate their Good News of Jesus Christ. Yet without this background, modern readers may misinterpret certain Biblical texts. Getting the Gospels examines what the evangelists knew and how their presuppositions inform, enrich, and transform their writings. The book follows Jesus' life through twelve case studies selected from each of the four Gospels. Each chapter blends scholarly research and contemporary comparisons to underscore the imperative role that such premises play in the interpretation of the New Testament.

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Jesus’ Public Ministry

Having investigated some of the assumptions behind each evangelist’s portrayals of Jesus’ early years, we have set the stage for the second section of this book: Jesus’ public ministry. Four chapters are devoted to this subject. The first (ch. 4) will examine the premises that underlie the more general ministerial frameworks of each of the gospels. The next three (chs. 5–7) will demonstrate how understanding the background improves the understanding of individual episodes from Jesus’ public career. Samples of Jesus’ parables (ch. 5), teachings (ch. 6), and works (ch. 7) will be considered in turn.

Ministerial Frameworks
FOCUS TEXTS: MARK 1:21–8:24; MATTHEW 1–28;
LUKE 1–13; JOHN 2–12
So far, our consideration of premises has focused primarily on the contents of the gospels. But certain presuppositions underlie their structures as well. Evidently, each evangelist had at their disposal a wealth of traditions about Jesus, including his teachings, his actions, his healings, etc. While much of this material is common to two, three, or even all four of the gospels, its distinctive arrangement varies from author to author.
A couple of examples can illustrate this point. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus drives the merchants out of the temple near the conclusion of his ministry (Matt 21:12–13//Mark 11:15–17//Luke 19:45–46). This act incites the Jewish leaders to destroy him (Mark 11:18//Luke 19:47). In the gospel of John, however, this same event occurs near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (John 2:13–17). There, it helps to initiate it. Similarly, in Matthew, Mark, and John, a woman with an alabaster jar anoints Jesus with oil in preparation for his approaching death (Matt 26:6–13//Mark 14:3–9//John 12:1–8). In Luke, however, the anointing takes place in the middle of Jesus’ ministry, where it serves as an object lesson in forgiveness (Luke 7:36–50).
The evangelists’ arrangements of their gospels are not limited simply to the repositioning of a few individual episodes from Jesus’ life. Rather, each of the gospels exhibits its own distinctive framework that underlies Jesus’ entire ministry. Of course, the notion that the evangelists could take such liberties with the sequence of supposedly historical events may be difficult for modern readers to accept. But the following analogy may help to clarify the dynamics behind these literary structures.
Think of four realtors who are attempting to sell the same house. Although they all have the same piece of real estate to work with, each one will undoubtedly know more about certain aspects than the others. How they choose to present the property will vary according to their individual preferences and, of course, those of their potential buyers. For instance, one realtor may relish the home’s location. Another may be charmed by its historical characteristics. A third may appreciate its progressive adaptations. A fourth may simply admire the architect. How each realtor conducts his or her “walk-through” will be determined, in part, by these inclinations. Where do they begin and in what sequence do they proceed? Which rooms will they breeze by? In which will they linger? Which features will they accentuate? And which will they ignore?
We can liken the individual components of the house to the individual episodes in the gospels. Like the realtors, the evangelists do not simply present these events randomly. Rather, to the extent that they are able, they arrange their materials according to what they think constitutes the most salient qualities of Jesus’ ministry. Just as the “structure” of a realtor’s walk-through will be predicated upon his perception of the house, so the structure of these gospels are predicated upon their authors’ perceptions of Jesus. In this respect, the broader framework of each gospel affords us a unique glimpse into the mind of its writer, and suggests to us what they valued most about the nature of Jesus’ public career.
To most modern readers, Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry does not appear to be very well organized. Jesus seems to travel around at random, teaching, healing, and performing other miracles as he goes. However, to a first-century audience familiar with the region, Jesus’ travel itinerary would have conveyed much more.
Mark indicates the key to the structure of Jesus’ ministry from the very beginning. Jesus starts at the Sea of Galilee (Mark 1:16). Even a casual glance at this gospel confirms the importance of this body of water. Jesus visits the towns in its vicinity, ministers along its shores, and even preaches and performs miracles while sailing upon it. In fact, the word boat appears far more often in Mark’s gospel (seventeen times) than in any of the other gospels (Matthew, thirteen times; Luke, five times; John, eight times). This statistic is especially impressive, considering that Mark’s is the shortest of all.
Although Mark’s Jesus gets into boats on a number of occasions (e.g., 3:9; 4:1; 6:32; 8:10), Mark clearly differentiates four major crossings of the Sea of Galilee. These are the only times Mark uses the key phrase “to the other side.” In the opening of the gospel, Jesus is on the Galilean, or western, side of the sea (so 1:14). Jesus’ first voyage to the eastern side is recorded in 4:35–41. Jesus returns to the western side in 5:21, crosses east again in 6:45–53, and then returns to the western shore for good in 8:13.
When one compares what transpires in conjunction with these four voyages, some intriguing parallels appear. Jesus’ first action in western territory, following the calling of his disciples, is to cast unclean spirits out of a man (1:21–27). As a result of this exorcism, Jesus’ fame spreads throughout Galilee (1:28). When he first arrives on the eastern side, Jesus again casts out unclean spirits from a man (5:1–19). As a result of this exorcism, his notoriety circulates throughout the Decapolis (a confederation of ten Greco-Roman cities situated on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee; 5:20).
When Jesus returns to the western shore in 5:21, a large crowd gathers around him, and he is immediately presented with requests for healing. Jesus restores a number of individuals, and then he feeds a crowd of thousands with only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish (6:34–44). Mark records that the number of baskets of food left over from this event was twelve.
Jesus then returns back to the eastern region. As in his first return to the western side, people likewise gather their sick and solicit his assistance. Again, Jesus cures a variety of maladies, and then feeds another group numbering in the thousands with only a little bread and a few fish (8:1–9). In this case, the sum of the baskets left over is seven.
Why has Mark chosen to organize Jesus’ ministry in this manner? And what do all of these parallels mean? Mark alludes to the purpose of this structure in the context of the final crossing (8:13–21). We are told that the disciples “had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat” (8:14 NAB). Jesus reminds them of the twelve baskets of fragments they collected first, and of the seven baskets they collected second (8:19–20). Then he provocatively asks, “Do you still not understand?” (8:21 NAB).
Mark implies that Jesus’ disciples did not catch on to what he was doing. However, Mark’s original audience almost certainly would have. They would have recognized that the western, Galilean side of the sea was Jewish territory. They also would have associated the eastern side with the Decapolis and the region of the Gentiles. Thus, they would have concluded that Jesus’ parallel actions on either side of the sea demonstrate his desire to reach out to both the Jews and the Gentiles. In other words, Jesus wishes to minister equally to both groups. In this respect, Mark portrays Jesus as the “one bread” who has been sent to satisfy the Jews, whose leftover baskets are twelve—a figure often used to designate this group, as in the twelve tribes of Israel. But Jesus’ mission finds fulfillment only when it is also extended to the Gentiles, whose leftover baskets are seven—a number often used to connote fulfillment or completion, as in the seven days of the week.
That Jesus’ earliest followers experienced difficulty in reaching out to the Gentiles is signified by the two storms that they encounter in their crossings. Each time the disciples endeavor to traverse the Sea of Galilee from its western (Jewish) to its eastern (Gentile) side, the forces of nature oppose their progress (so 4:35–41 and 6:45–53). In both cases, however, Jesus proves himself to be mightier than such opposition. With his assistance, their vessel successfully makes it to the distant shore.
The structure of this gospel thus indicates that Mark understood Jesus’ separate but equal outreach to Jews and Gentiles to be the most pivotal feature of his ministry. To return to our analogy, perhaps we can liken Mark to a realtor who is especially attuned to the value of location. He points out that the property is adjacent to both the Chinatown and Little Italy neighborhoods. As such, it lies in close proximity to their respective stores, restaurants, cultural centers, and houses of worship. Thus, he concludes that this home could serve members of either ethnic group equally well. Of course, as we shall see, this is hardly the only way to appreciate this prime piece of real estate. The other evangelists perceive the framework of Jesus’ ministry differently.
Of all the gospels, Matthew’s construction is the most clearly recognizable. Matthew has neatly grouped Jesus’ teachings together into a series of five extended discourses, each of which ends similarly. Matthew fills narrative material in between these discourses, so that the general outline looks like this:
As this outline suggests, Matthew places a significant emphasis upon Jesus’ words. In fact, compared to the gospel of Mark, Matthew’s Jesus spends less time healing (Mark, seventeen episodes; Matthew, thirteen episodes), and more time teaching (Mark, three parables; Matthew, twelve parables).
What, then, accounts for Matthew’s unique arrangement of his material and his demonstrated interest in Jesus’ teachings? The structure itself offers a clue. For a first-century Jewish reader, Jesus’ five sermons would most likely call to mind the five books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)—the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was Moses, of course, who first received the law from God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19–20). Tradition thus ascribes authorship of this collection to him.
Matthews divisions suggest that, if Moses was the former lawgiver, then Jesus is the new lawgiver. Indeed, this paradigm is steadily reinforced throughout Matthew’s gospel. There are, for instance, the parallel circumstances surrounding the births of Jesus and Moses (as previously described in chapter 2). Matthew’s Jesus delivers his first set of “commandments”—like Moses—from a mountain (Matt 5:1, but cf. Luke 6:20–49, where this same sermon occurs on a plain). In this gospel, a mountain is also the scene of Jesus’ final appearance (Matt 28:16–20), as it was for Moses’ (Deuteronomy 34).
Perhaps the clearest affirmation of Jesus’ role as the new lawgiver, however, is to be found in the content of his first discourse. Here, Jesus embraces the law to a degree that is unparalleled in the other gospels:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:17–19 NAB; see also 23:1–3)
Jesus proceeds to teach his disciples according to a series of comparisons between what Moses’ law stated—“you have heard it said”—and what Jesus now expects—“but I say to you” (Matt 5:21–48). In each case, Jesus’ requirements become more stringent, since he takes intentions, and not just actions, into account.
But why did Matthew go to such trouble to accentuate the relationship between Jesus and Moses? After all, wasn’t the Messiah to be patterned after David? The premise of this association would have been clear to Matthew’s original audience. As it turns out, the Torah had foretold the coming of another “prophet” like Moses. In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people:
A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you from among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen. . . . And the LORD said to me, “This was well said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kinsmen, and will put my words into his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him. If any man will not listen to my words which he speaks in my name, I myself will make him answer for it.” (Deut 18:15–19 NAB)
One might be tempted to understand this promise as referring to Joshua, Moses’ successor. But the conclusion of the Torah resists this interpretation. Rather, it assigns to Moses a rather incomparable place in history:
Since then no prophet has arisen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. He had no equal in all the signs and wonders the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt. . . and for the might and the terrifying power that Moses exhibited in the sight of all Israel. (Deut 34:10–12 NAB)
Ever since his death, the Jews have been on the lookout for the “prophet like Moses.” The structure of this gospel indicates that Matthew took Jesus to be the fulfillment of this expectation. Perhaps for this reason, Matthew’s Jesus devotes his public ministry almost exclusively to the Jews (so Matt 10:5–7; 15:22–26). It is only after his rejection, death, and resurrection that he sends his disciples to the Gentiles (so Matt 28:16–20).
Given Matthew’s penchant for tradition, we could liken him to a realtor who most appreciates the house’s history. Accordingly, he is able to highlight the original features of the building, such as the foundation, the brass fixtures, the oak trim, and the central fireplace. Furthermore, he can explain how these features have been incorporated into a major renovation and are now utilized in the present dwelling. For this realtor, those original features largely define the character of the home. It’s left to the two remaining realtors to highlight the construction’s progressive adaptations and the architect’s signature style.
With regard to its structure, the gospel of Luke presents a more complex challenge than either Mark or Matthew. To some extent, this is because it constitutes the first volume of a two-part work (the second half being the Acts of the Apostl...

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Citation styles for Getting the Gospels
APA 6 Citation
[author missing]. (2004). Getting the Gospels ([edition unavailable]). Baker Publishing Group. Retrieved from (Original work published 2004)
Chicago Citation
[author missing]. (2004) 2004. Getting the Gospels. [Edition unavailable]. Baker Publishing Group.
Harvard Citation
[author missing] (2004) Getting the Gospels. [edition unavailable]. Baker Publishing Group. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
[author missing]. Getting the Gospels. [edition unavailable]. Baker Publishing Group, 2004. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.