What Are the Gospels?
Obviously, for correct interpretation to take place, it depends on the correct identification of the kind of communication taking place. So we need to understand what kind of communication is taking place in the Gospels.
They are stories of Jesus’ life, like our modern biographies. However, when you read the Gospels, you will quickly realize that they differ from modern biographies. For instance, unlike most modern biographies, the Gospels do not cover the whole life of Jesus, but rather jump from his birth to his public ministry.
Also, the Gospel writers arrange Jesus’ actions according to their purpose rather than chronologically, and they also report what Jesus says in a variety of ways. Then finally, unlike most modern biographies, the Gospels spend a lot of time on the last week of Jesus’ life. But just because they are different than modern biographies does not mean that they are not biographies. Ancient biographies followed different rules.
In an ancient biography, there was a simple outline. They would begin with the birth or arrival of the main character followed by stories and selected sayings selected and arranged by the author to tell the audience something important about the character, and then they would end with their death. They would actually spend a good portion of their work to the character’s death because they believed that the way a person died told you a lot about them. So we can see how the Gospels have a lot in common with the ancient biographies.
In the Gospels, we have four different versions of the one story of Jesus. One difference is found in the chronological order. For instance, Matthew, Mark, and Luke can be placed well side by side in the information covered, but the order is not the same.
Cleansing of leper: Matthew 8:1-4, Mark 1:40-45, Luke 5:12-16
Centurion of Capernaum: Matthew 8:5-13, Mark–No parallel, Luke 7:1-10
Peter’s mother-in-law: Matthew 8:14-15, Mark 1:29-31, Luke 4:38-39
Sick healed: Matthew 8:16-17, Mark 1:32-34, Luke 4:40-41
Following Jesus: Matthew 8:18-22, Mark–No parallel, Luke 9:57-62
Stilling the storm: Matthew 8:23-27; Mark 4:35-41, Luke 8:22-25
Gadarene demoniac: Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39
Healing of the paralytic: Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26
Matthew’s call: Matthew 9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32
Fasting question: Matthew 9:14-17; Mark 2:18-22; Luke 5:33-39
Jairus and the woman: Matthew 9:18-26; Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:40-56
There is also a variety in the wording of the Gospels. For instance, Matthew 5:3 says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” But Luke 6:20 says, “Blessed are you who are poor…” So it is obvious that what we have in the Gospel is not the result of four people following Jesus around with tape recorders or video cameras.
We also need to realize that the writers could not include everything that Jesus said or did. As John says in John 21:25, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” So as a result, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, the Gospel writers chose what to include and omit as well as how to arrange it in a way that effectively communicated the good news of Christ.
Just like ancient biographers, the Gospel writers felt free to paraphrase or summarize what Jesus said and to arrange the events according to a particular theme rather than according to strict chronological order. The goal of the Gospel 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 purposes and emphases of the Gospel writers.
Even more specific, the Gospels are Christ-centered biographies. With that understanding, we can see the two purposes that the Gospel writers had when they wrote. First, they have selected and arranged material to tell the story of Jesus. Second, they are saying something important to us through the story of Jesus.