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Jesus and the Christian Scriptures (New Testament)

Overview of Gospel interpretation
by religious conservatives & progressives

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Differences in Christian beliefs about Jesus & the meaning of the Gospels:

Most Christians would agree that:

  • Very few details about the life of Jesus appear in the Epistles of Paul and other writers. 1
  • There is almost no mention of Jesus in non-Christian writings of the 1st century CE.
  • The Gospels in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) form the main basis for our understanding of the life of Jesus

As with so many factors in Christianity, religious conservatives and progressives differ greatly in their methods of approaching the Bible and studying the Gospels. This leads them to totally two wildly different sets of beliefs about Jesus: his purpose, life, actions, statements, status, etc. Many, perhaps most, Christians hold beliefs that are intermediate between the extremes shown below:

Very conservative Christians

Very liberal/progressive Christians

Basic beliefs: They generally believe in the inerrancy, infallibility and inspiration by God of all verses in the Bible, as they were originally composed. The Bible is unique among books in the world; God influenced each of its authors so that their writings were totally free from error. Further, religious conservatives feel that passages should be literally interpreted, unless there are obvious indications that a verse should be understood symbolically. 

Although the four gospels were written by men with different outlooks and backgrounds, all are consistent with each other and with the truth about Jesus. A passage written by John is as valid as one written by Mark or Paul.

Basic beliefs: They view the holy books of Christianity and other religions as having been written by authors who were promoting their own spiritual and religious thoughts, and those of their group. Their writing was not directly controlled by God.

The gospels show a clear evolution of theological belief over time. The earliest sections of the first known gospel, "Q" appears to have been written circa 50 CE. 2 It presents Jesus as a very human Jewish teacher, prophet, and native healer. The final canonical gospel, John, appears to have been written by a group of believers in the very early 2nd century CE. It portrays Jesus as a god-man, savior of the world, having existed since the creation of the universe.

Duration and locations of Jesus' ministry: John implies that Jesus' ministry lasted at least three years. John 2:13, 6:4 and 11:55 mention three Passovers. John 5:1 implies a fourth. John deals mainly with Jesus' ministry in and around Jerusalem; the other gospels discuss his activities in Galilee.
Duration and locations of Jesus' ministry: The gospels disagree about both duration and location of Jesus' ministry. John implies a three year or longer ministry, spent mainly in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Judea. The other gospels imply a one year ministry in the Galilee.
The writers: The authors of the four gospels were named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Matthew and John were disciples of Jesus. Mark may have been the young man who fled the Garden of Gethsemane. Both Mark and Luke were Paul's helpers. The writers: None of the gospel authors' names or identities are known. None were eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministries. They had to rely upon second and third hand stories about Jesus. It is possible that all were children or not yet born at the time of Jesus' ministry.

Dates written: Paul Benware estimates that Matthew was written circa 45-55 CE, only 12 years after Jesus' execution; Luke in either 58 or 65; Mark circa 66; John circa 85 to 95 CE. 2 Since the Holy Spirit prevented any errors, all of the gospels are consistent and free of error.

Dates written: Mark was written circa 70 CE, some 40 years after Jesus' execution. Matthew was written circa 80; Luke circa 90 and John circa 100 CE. The four gospels demonstrate how theological beliefs evolved significantly during the 70 to 80 years from Jesus' death to John. Magical and miraculous events were created by the authors or the authors' sources and added to Jesus' story.

Synoptic Problem: Many passages in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are identical or almost exact. One reason for this is that all three authors based their writing on an oral tradition passed down from decade to decade. Another is that all of the authors were guided by the Holy Spirit in their writing so that they described events exactly as they occurred, without error. Finally, Matthew and John were disciples and thus were eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry. They recorded exactly what they saw. Mark may also have been a follower of Jesus.

Synoptic Problem: Many passages in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are identical or almost exact in the original Greek. Most scholars believe that Matthew and Luke were, in part, copied from Mark. Many believe that a prior gospel "Q," now lost, was also used by both Matthew and Luke. 3 Analysis of passages that are similar but not identical is called "redaction criticism." It can give insight into the order in which the Gospels were probably written, their date of composition, and the development of theological beliefs in the early Christian movements.
Differences in John: John's mission was to write a gospel for the emerging Christian church. The other gospel writers directed their gospels to specific groups: Jews and Gentiles (both Roman and Greek). So it is to be expected that their emphasis would be different. John mainly recorded Jesus' ministry in Judea, near Jerusalem; the other gospel writers discussed his ministry in the Galilee. But all four gospel writers were preserved from error by the Holy Spirit. Their writings are inerrant, and all useful for the understanding of the gospel. Differences in John: The Gospel of John differs significantly from the other gospels in theme, content, time duration, order of events, and style. "Only ca. 8% of it is parallel to these other gospels, and even then, no such word-for-word parallelism occurs as we find among the synoptic gospels." 4 John reflects a Christian tradition that is quite different from that of the other gospels. It was rejected as heretical by many individuals and groups within the early Christian movement. It was almost rejected when the choice of books for the Bible was settled. Another 40 or so Gospels were rejected even though they were in wide use among the many early Christian movements. The four Gospels that were selected for the official canon were selected because they were reasonably harmonious with the beliefs of the Church at the time, John is of little help in uncovering the historical Jesus.
Gospel content: Each of the four gospels is different. Although each stands on its own merits as an accurate description of the life of Jesus, Matthew and Luke contain information about Jesus' birth and childhood not found in the other gospels. John contains descriptions of Jesus' early ministry. Luke describes his later Perean ministry. 2

Most of the content of the gospels should be interpreted literally. 

There are hundreds of apparent contradictions in the Bible:

  • Almost all can be harmonized through prayer and research.
  • A few can be attributed to copyist errors.
  • A very few cannot be resolved with our present level of knowledge. However, they can be harmonized. None have any impact on the cardinal beliefs of Christianity.

Gospel content: The gospels contain a mixture of:
  • Statements and actions of Jesus as passed down orally from previous generations.
  • Theological beliefs about Jesus that had developed within the authors' own religious group long after Jesus' execution.
  • Non-historical passages that reflect religious conflicts in which the author's faith group was involved, at the time that the gospel was written.
  • Material imported from non-Christian religions in the Mediterranean area, including the virgin birth, death, resurrection, miracles, and healing stories that were typical of the god-men of many religions in the late 1st and early 2nd century CE.

Interpreting the gospels: Only those who are born again can understand the Gospels. After a person is saved, the Holy Spirit inhabits their body, processes their mind, and helps her/him gain an understanding of the Bible's meaning. The gospels, and other parts of the Bible, are normally interpreted literally. Historic beliefs of the Christian religion are accepted as truth: the atonement, biblical inerrancy, incarnation, biblical inspiration, justification, regeneration of the spirit, resurrection, salvation, the second coming, the Trinity, the virgin birth, etc. Faced with apparent contradictions, a believer can take advantage of the harmonizing efforts of past theologians and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Interpreting the gospels: A main activity of liberal theologians over recent generations has been to study the gospels and other early Christian documents intensely, searching for the "historical Jesus" -- the actual statements, acts, beliefs, teachings, etc. of Yeshua of Nazareth. This involves stripping away the magical healing and miracle passages, removing anti-Jewish religious propaganda, deleting text that represents theological beliefs that only developed decades after Jesus' death, detecting distortions in the original oral transmission, removing events in Jesus' life which are copies of those in other god-men's lives. Not much is left. But we can get a glimpse of what the real Jesus was like.
Other writings: The extra-canonical gospels and acts -- those writings by early Christians that were not accepted into the Bible -- are of little importance. Most are heretical in nature and can be safely ignored. They were all rejected by the early Christians when the canon was established. Other writings: About 45 of other gospels, hundreds "acts" and epistles etc. were widely circulated within the early Christian church. Analysis of these writings -- particularly the Gospel of Thomas -- can help us understand the words and actions of Jesus, as perceived by the early Christians. 

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Additional differences between conservative and progressive interpretations of the Gospels are described elsewhere.

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Related essays at this web site:

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References used:

  1. Howard Marshall, "The Gospels and Jesus Christ," in David & Pat Alexander, Eds., "Eerdmans Handbook to the Bible," Eerdmans, (1992) Page 468+ This book is out of print but may be available from the online book store
  2. Burton L. Mack, "The Lost Gospel of Q: The Book of Christian Origins", Harper, San Francisco, (1993) Pages 73 - 80. Review/order this book
  3. P.N. Benware, "An outline of Christ's life," in "Survey of the New Testament," Moody, (1990), Page 57+ Review/order this book
  4. F.V. Filson, "The Literary Relations among the Gospels," essay in C.M. Laymon: "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, (1991) Review/order this book
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Copyright © 2000 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-JUN-22
Latest update: 2012-MAY-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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