Tuesday, September 2, 2008

September Quick Guide: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Thomas

For the period September 1 through September 30, read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Thomas.

The word "gospel" means good news. It comes from the Greek word euangelion where we get the words evangel, evangelist, and evangelism. Traditionally, "gospel" was a secular word. Governors would begin public announcements about military victories or state celebrations (such as Caesar's birthday) with the phrase "Good News!" Using this format, Mark's Gospel begins with a different kind of good news. The "good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God." (Mark 1:1)

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the synoptic gospels. Syn (similar) Optic (eye). These three proclamations about Jesus are similar in both form or narrative flow and in content. In contrast, the Gospel of John is quite different from Matthew, Mark and Luke both in the kinds of stories told about Jesus and the way in which they are framed. Each work brings its own interpretation about the significance of Jesus. That is why it is good as we read them to respect each author's integrity rather than to try to mix all the gospels into one life of Jesus. These gospels are proclamations about Jesus' significance rather than biographies of his life. John 20:30-31 explains: "Now Jesus did may other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name."

Most scholars agree that Mark is the first gospel written around 70 A.D. at the time of the Jewish War with the Romans and the destruction of the temple about 40 years after Jesus. The stories about Jesus reflect that contemporary situation. Luke and Matthew followed Mark, used his narrative flow, and added material of their own, completing their works ten to fifteen years later. The author of Luke also wrote Acts so these works should be read and interpreted as one book.

The Gospel of Thomas is a sayings gospel. It was found in 1945 in the collection at Nag Hammadi. Some of the Gospel of Thomas is similar to what is found in the synoptic gospels. Some is quite different. Thomas may have preserved some of the earliest layers of the Jesus sayings tradition.

Who was Jesus? Was he a real person? Did he even exist? We know next to nothing about Jesus outside what the Bible says about him. The Gospels are not reliable as historical biographies. They are theological proclamations. One can find antecedents to nearly all of the stories about Jesus in earlier literature. Miracles such as virgin birth, resurrection, walking on water, turning water into wine, healing people of illness, and ascending to heaven are common themes attributed to divine figures. Even many of the sayings and parables of Jesus are likely to have originated with philosophers, prophets, and sages before him. It is difficult if not impossible to determine what the historical person was like, even if there was one.

There are different ways to read these Gospels. One way is to read them as sources for information about the historical Jesus. In this way of reading we try to distinguish the mythological “gloss” from the historical person. Historical Jesus scholars such as the Jesus Seminar have developed methodology to do this.

Another way is to read each gospel as a story of Jesus in its own right. In this way of reading, we don't worry about contradictions of fact (who was actually at the tomb, etc.); rather, we try to determine who Mark's Jesus is, and how he compares to Luke's Jesus and Matthew's Jesus. In this way of reading, one brackets the questions regarding the historical person and steps into the story with all of its myth, metaphor, and magic. Then, the most important question will be from Jesus to you: "Who do you say that I am?"

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