An introduction to the study of the gospels, noting the pervasive theme of Jesus' confrontation with the Jewish religious leaders of His day as He sought to reveal the radically new reality of His own life.
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The purpose of Jesus' incarnational advent and His ministry here on earth as a man was not to establish a new religion, nor to inculcate a new teaching, nor to lay down a new morality system. Jesus came to bring Himself, the presence and dynamic of His own divine being, expressed in the humanity of one perfect man, so that He might be expressed as divine, eternal life in the humanity of all men. The gospel that Jesus brought was entirely Christocentric. There is no message of "good news" apart from the ontological reality of the very Being of God in Jesus Christ who is the essence of Christianity. Christianity is Christ!
The Gospel in a New Covenant
The written record of Jesus' historical revelation of God in man is recorded within the literature of the New Testament within the book called "The Bible." It is often overlooked that the Old and New Testaments are actually the literature of the old and new covenants of God with mankind. "Testament" and "covenant" are both translations of the Greek word diatheke, which means "to put or place through." Another Greek word for covenant was suntheke, meaning "to put or place together with," was usually used in reference to business or marital contracts and agreements between individuals or parties of somewhat equal status. Diatheke was more suited to an agreement or arrangement between a superior person with authority over those with whom he was contracting, and is therefore employed in explaining the arrangement between God and mankind.
The Old Testament, comprising the literature of the old covenant arrangement between God and man, records the inherent inadequacy of that arrangement and includes prophecies of a coming new covenant arrangement between God and man. Jeremiah speaks for God, saying,
The prophet Ezekiel likewise verbalizes God's intent:
The new covenant arrangement between God and man was brought into reality by God's grace through His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the "mediator of a better covenant" (Heb. 8:6), a "new covenant" (Heb. 9:15; 12:24), wherein the divine adequacy is provided for all function within the new arrangement as "the Spirit gives life" (II Cor. 3:6). The burdensome performance required by the old covenant was replaced by the functional freedom of the new covenant (Gal. 5:1). Actually the old covenant was an arrangement of planned obsolescence (Heb. 8:13), which God had forever intended to be superseded and fulfilled by the new covenant reality of His Son, Jesus Christ.
The New Testament is the literature pertaining to the new covenant reality of Jesus Christ. A Greek New Testament is entitled, Ho Kainos Diatheke, "the new covenant." Therein we find recorded the glorious arrangement God has made to forgive and restore mankind by His grace through Jesus Christ.
This is obviously a message of "good news" for mankind. The Greek word for such "good news" is euangellion, the word which we usually translate into English as "gospel." It must be remembered, though, that the "good news" of the gospel does not exist independently as a "message" or a "report" or a "teaching." The new covenant arrangement between God and man is essentially personified in Jesus Christ. The "good news" of the gospel is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the gospel! It is not accurate, therefore, to conceive of the gospel as entirely formulated in teaching or doctrine. Nor is it accurate to regard the message of the gospel to be fully inscribed or enscripturated within written literature. No body of literature or writing is ever referred to as "gospel" or "a gospel" within the inspired writings of the new covenant literature. "Gospel" is always reserved for the total expression of the "good news" of the new covenant reality that is inherent in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Why, then, do we refer to the first four documents in the canonized order of our New Testament as "gospels?" They are not thus referred to within the text of the documents themselves, but Greek titles utilizing the word euangellion were applied to these reports early within the history of their copying and transmission. The reasoning behind such was that these documents reported the "good news" of the gospel as Jesus expressed such in His earthly life and ministry.
Some regard the documents that we now call the "gospels" of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, (along with numerous apocryphal gospels written in the early Christian era), to be a unique literary form not previously existent in the writings of man. The format employed is not that of a technical biography with sequential chronology. Rather, they are personalized records with selected narratives and sayings, formulated with a particular evangelistic purpose to share the "good news" of the gospel of Jesus Christ with a target readership. These were teaching documents wherein the authors selectively employed varying scenarios and teachings to explain the significance of Jesus to their intended audience. The particular Christological perspective or "angle" of each author can be examined and studied. This explains why chronological gaps and non-sequiturs of time and place were not a great concern of the writers, because they were secondary to the didactic objective of the document.
If we were to attempt to explain the objective and method of the early gospel-writers in contemporary terms, we might liken them to what are called "spin doctors" today, people who take persons, events and statements, casting them into a particular perspective or "spin" to present them in a light that is conducive to their objective. Such "spin doctors" have been known to present their version of what has transpired in political and legal situations in a slanted, skewed or fallacious manner, but such is not intrinsic to the methodology of such presentation. In using the terminology of "spin doctors," it is not our intent to imply that any self-serving "spin" was applied to the gospel-records by their original authors. These men, inspired by the Holy Spirit, certainly wanted to preserve the integrity of historical veracity in presenting a picture of the One who is Truth.
Another explanation which may not be freighted with as many negative connotations in the minds of some people, might be to view the "gospel-writers" as portrait artists. They each paint a picture of the persons and events with different strokes, at different times, with different objectives in mind. They place the different vignettes in different places on the canvas, in order to paint the picture in such a way that it will be most appreciated by their audience. Each of the writers saw Jesus' actions and teaching differently, from a particular perspective. Mark and Luke most likely did not physically view or hear any of Jesus' ministry, so their perspective was probably painted on their minds by Peter and Paul respectively.
These explanations do not in any way impinge upon a proper understanding of the inspiration of the scriptures. It has long been understood that the writers of the gospel-records utilized their distinctive vocabularies in order to present selected scenarios which would best relate the gospel of Jesus Christ to their intended readers. Such does not deny the providential work of God's Holy Spirit through the minds and bodies of these men to produce an accurate record of events.
We do not have to, nor should we try to, justify, harmonize or superimpose one gospel-record upon another, and thus explain away the differences, dissimilarities and non-sequiturs, in order to make them all align with one another. Neither do we have to, nor should we, try to explain away the historical foundations and veracity of these portraits as mythical products of subsequent religious bias and tradition. There is an interpretive balance to be found between the fundamentalist extreme with its verbal, plenary inspiration theories, and the liberal skepticism of mythologization in redaction criticism theories.
There has been much speculation of how the gospel-records were formulated. New Testament scholars have engaged in form-criticism or source-criticism in order to seek a critical analysis of how they were constructed and the sources that were employed. No doubt the story of Jesus was initially passed on by oral teaching, for Christianity did not, and does not, require a written book or document to exist and function. Eventually, though, it was regarded as expedient to commit this oral teaching to written form. What was the first written gospel-record? We do not know. It is speculated that there may have been many source materials, but in particular it has been hypothesized that there may have existed a document which has been identified as "Q." Although the early church regarded Matthew as the earliest gospel, the scholarship of the last couple of centuries has posited that Mark was the first gospel written, primarily because it is the briefest and could thus have been expanded upon. The popular "two-source theory" conjectures that Matthew and Luke both used Mark's writing as a base from which to expand and amplify, and also used material from the "Q" source which is common to both of their documents, adapting all of such for the respective audience of readers they had in mind for their writing.
It is obvious that there are varying emphases in the various gospels, and that the authors employ different events and vocabulary to relate such to their readers. Separate study of each of the gospel-records is beneficial, therefore, in order to emphasize the particular themes and perspective of each writer.
Matthew is the gospel of fulfilled prophecy with approximately seventy direct references to the Old Testament. This is probably why it was placed first in the order of the canon of our New Testament, because it provides a transition from the old covenant literature to the new covenant literature. Matthew is also the gospel of the kingdom, referring to "kingdom" fifty-five times and "kingdom of heaven" thirty-three times. It was obviously intended for a Jewish readership who were expecting God's intervention for the establishment of a theocratic kingdom, even though their expectations were often misdirected in physical conceptions.
Mark is the briefest of the gospel-records and employs simple Greek construction. Mark was a cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10), and was not one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. He was apparently writing for Roman Gentiles, which explains why he omits a Jewish genealogy and gives more detailed explanation of Palestinian customs. As the Romans were impressed with quick-moving action and power, Mark writes a quick-moving gospel of action with such transitional action-words as "immediately."
Luke was an educated physician (Col. 4:10), who was also not one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. But he was a detailed researcher (Luke 1:3), employing good literary style and vocabulary in writing the longest document in the New Testament. His is the gospel for all peoples, with an emphasis on the universality of the "good news" of Jesus for all men. Luke emphasizes the humanity of Jesus as the "Son of Man," and repeatedly mentions the human interest features of physical ailments, poverty, social situations, women and children.
John probably wrote his gospel-record as long as a half-century after the other writers. Clement of Alexandria indicates that John determined to write a "spiritual gospel." His gospel has far more references to the Holy Spirit, with numerous spiritual discourses in the teaching of Jesus employing pictorial imagery of spiritual realities, such as new birth, the water of life, the bread of life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, and the vine and the branches. Ninety-two percent of the material in John's gospel-record is not found in any of the other three synoptic gospels.
Altogether the four gospel-records comprise approximately forty-five percent of the entire New Testament, a major portion of the new covenant literature. The value of this literature has been both affirmed and denied to the extreme. Certain forms of hyper-dispensationalist theology have regarded the teaching of the gospels to be in the context of the old covenant, and therefore of little or no value for understanding the Christian gospel. From their perspective it is Paul who properly articulates the gospel. On the other hand, there are those extremists who believe that Paul was a male-chauvinist mystic who perverted the gospel, and that the genuine gospel can only be ascertained from the lips of Jesus Himself as recorded in the four gospels. Their opinion is that only the ipsuma verba, the direct words from the mouth of Jesus, is of any value for understanding Christianity. Between these two extremes we must recognize the value of these gospel-records for understanding what Jesus came to bring in Himself.
Attempts to harmonize the four gospel-records have been attempted since the second century A.D. when Tatian compiled his Diatessaron. After the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation and the increased availability of printed scriptures, there have been hundreds of attempts to combine and harmonize the gospels. These endeavors take two primary forms: the combined continuous narrative wherein all four accounts are interwoven, and the placement of each of the four gospels in parallel columns. Such harmonizing of the gospel-accounts can be beneficial, but there are limitations to its value, not least of which is the subjective determination of chronology and parallels.
In the harmonization of the gospel-records we can perhaps most clearly perceive that in the course of His ministry and the revelation of Himself, Jesus is found to be in constant conflict and confrontation with the prevailing religion of the Palestinian region. Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, has noted most explicitly that "the revelation of God is the abolition of religion."1 Is it any wonder, then, that the presentation of God in man in Jesus Christ should contrast with the message and methods of the Jewish religion in the first century?
Christianity is not religion! The most accepted etymological derivation of the English word "religion" recognizes the root of the word in the Latin word religare, which means "to bind again" or "to tie back." Jesus did not come to bind, fasten, tie, or attach us to anything or anyone. He came to set us free to be functional humanity in the fullest sense, saying, "you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32), for "if the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed" (John 8:36). Paul likewise indicates that "it was for freedom that Christ set us free" (Gal. 5:1), for "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty" (II Cor. 3:17).
Jesus Christ did not come to found another religion. He came that we might have His life, and experience such in abundant human expression (John 10:10). The Christian gospel is the presence and dynamic of the life of the risen Lord Jesus being manifested in the behavior of receptive believers to the glory of God.
Such freedom of life and worship was alien and foreign to the strictures and structures of Jewish religion that existed in the first century. It can be reasonably argued that Judaism in the first century was representative of religious perversion at its worst. Every form of legalism, exclusivism, moralism, etc. was rampant in their religion. This provided, though, a perfect environment to exhibit the radical antithesis and ultimate contrast to what Jesus came to reveal in Himself, the "good news" of Christianity.
By way of introducing the fractured and factious religious environment into which Jesus came, it will be instructive to briefly review the religious parties which existed in the first century, most of whom became antagonists of Jesus.
The Pharisees were the most visible and vociferous. Their origins traced back to the Hasidim, or "Pious Ones," who fought with Judas Maccabeus to liberate the Jewish people from oppression. Their name most likely means "separated ones," for they separated themselves from the amhares, the "people of the land," by their strict and legalistic rules of purity, tithing, Sabbath observance, etc. Ironically the Pharisees were still the grass-roots "people's party" during the early decades of the first century, because the common people could identify more with such strict religious observance than with the rich politically-connected Sadducees.
The "scribes" are often mentioned in conjunction with the Pharisees. That is because most of the scribes had Pharisaic affiliation, and spent most of their time devising additional laws to interpret the Mosaic Law, which all of the Pharisees could then conform to and strictly obey. Later these additional laws and traditions were collected in the Talmud.
The Zealots may have been a right-wing political movement within the parameters of Pharisaism. They advocated the deliverance of Israel from Roman rule by militaristic might. A.M. Hunter indicates that they were "fonder of the sword than the phylactery."2 Splinter groups of the Zealots engaged in occasional guerrilla warfare which included the assassination of Roman officials. Their cause celebre became so popular after the middle of the first century that they actually took control of Judea in 66 A.D., but the Romans responded by massacring the Jews in 70 A.D.
The Sadducees took their name from Zadok, the high priest under Solomon (I Kings 2:35). They were the chief priests and elders, responsible for the administration of the temple in Jerusalem. The majority of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court which was given some latitude for self-rule in Palestine, was comprised of Sadducees. Most of them were wealthy aristocrats who were large landowners. Culturally they were Hellenists, and politically they were pragmatists who found it expedient to co-exist with Roman rule. They did not accept all the additional interpretations of the Pharisees, and did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.
The Herodians, who are mentioned only twice in Mark's gospel-record (3:6; 12:13), may have been connected in some way with the Sadducees. Their expectations for Israel seem to have been tied to the fortunes of the Herodian family.
The Essenes are not mentioned in the new covenant literature, but we know of their existence from the writings of Josephus, and possibly from their involvement in the Qumran community. They seem to have lived celibate and ascetic lives in communal desert camps, regarding themselves to be the only faithful remnant of Israel. They had an intense expectation for the coming of the Messiah, but not in the same militaristic sense as the Zealots.
Since the Pharisees enjoyed the most popular support among the Palestinian people of the early first century, it is they who reacted most strongly to Jesus' presentation of Himself. When Jesus called upon all Israel to repent, the Pharisees were offended because they did not believe that they or their people needed such. Goppelt notes that "the path of Jesus' ministry became a critical encounter with Pharisaism."3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, himself no stranger to conflict with the prevailing religion, explained that,
In identifying the Jewish religion with its various representatives as the original point of historical confrontation between Jesus and religion, there is a certain risk that some readers will surmise that the Jewish people and religion are being singled out as particularly blameworthy. Such is not the case! The inevitable notation of the obduracy and deficiency of the Jewish scribes, Pharisees, et al, is not, either on Jesus' part, or ours, a deprecation of that race or religion above others. The particular Palestinian religion of the period and place in which Jesus lived, and therefore the one which confronted Him and He confronted, was Judaism. The context of the historical and geographical settings in which the advent of Jesus Christ was enacted necessitates our noting the Judaic religion that existed in Judea in the early part of the first century, and its conflict with Jesus. This cannot legitimately be regarded as a denigration of one religion over another, and certainly not as a form of racist anti-semitism. What we want to point out is that the Jewish religion was generally indicative of all religious tendencies.
The contrast and conflict of the gospel of Jesus Christ with religion was originally found in the confrontation of Jesus with the Pharisees, but can be noted throughout the entirety of the new covenant literature. This series of studies will proceed to document Jesus' confrontation with religion in the gospel-records, but it should be recognized in every book of the New Testament. The book of Acts records the progressive awareness of the early Christian leaders of how Christianity had to be unhindered and unencumbered by any identification with the Judaic religion. Romans rejects righteousness by religious rites of the Law, but posits righteousness in Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, alone. First Corinthians counters the religious excesses that were developing in the young church at Corinth. Second Corinthians differentiates between gospel ministry and the manipulations of religious method. Galatians denies that legalistic religion is "another gospel," but regards such as damnable. Ephesians rejects religious exclusivism, claiming a new humanity for all men in Jesus Christ. Colossians combats the regional religionism of Asia, emphasizing the pre-eminence of Jesus Christ as our life. Hebrews shows the dichotomy of the old covenant of Judaic religion and the new covenant life of Jesus Christ. James repudiates the rituals of "worthless religion," arguing for the outworking of the life of Jesus in faith. In the Revelation, John saw in pictorial imagery the defeat of all religion by Jesus Christ, the Victor. The confrontation of the gospel and religion is a major theme of the entire New Testament.
The dynamic of the life of Jesus Christ lived out by His Spirit in Christian believers, which is the essence of Christianity, was soon perverted by the natural tendencies of man to revert to religious forms. Even within the first century the grace vitality of Christianity was being suppressed by those who called themselves "Christians," as they fell back into standardized forms and moralistically regulated behavior. Paul chided the Galatians for being so foolishly mesmerized by the religious tendency to revert to legalistic works (Gal. 3:1-3), and encouraged them not to "be subject again to a yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1) in religion. John recognized that the seven churches of Asia were being encroached upon by religious tendencies (Rev. 2,3).
Since the religionizing tendency is so pervasive among men, the question must be asked, "To what extent, if any, had religious thinking and perspective already pervaded the thought processes of the writers of the New Testament documents, and did this affect what they wrote?" The theological inquiry of "redaction criticism" attempts to ascertain whether any of the writers of the new covenant documents imposed a particular religious bias into their writings. Fundamentalist theology closes its eyes to such questions by positing a direct, divine dictational theory of scripture inspiration. On the other hand, the skepticism of liberal theology often runs off into subjective flights of fanciful speculation concerning source and redaction, weighted and freighted with intellectual snobbery. Surely there is a balanced position wherein we can attempt to interpret the gospel-records apart from religious bias.
Without a doubt much of the exegetical and theological interpretation of the gospel-records has been infected by religiously biased understanding. Throughout the centuries of Christian history, the preponderance of Biblical interpretation has been performed by commentators and theologians thoroughly inundated in the system of "Christian religion." Even if they had the spiritual discernment to recognize the difference between Christianity and religion and the exposé of such throughout the new covenant literature, as few have had, it is questionable whether they would have sacrificed their livelihoods in applying such to their own religious situations. What we have is a tragic history of inadequate and misconstrued Biblical interpretation, especially of the gospel-records, throughout the history of the "Christian religion." Any and all prior interpretations of religious commentators and theologians should be treated with a degree of healthy skepticism due to the inevitable baggage of religious bias that they carried with them into their interpretive task. At the same time, we must constantly examine our own baggage of religious understanding, refusing to accept at face-value the common and popular explanations of meaning.
In order to do so, we must first determine what we perceive to be the overriding purpose and meaning of Christ's advent and work. As much as they hate to admit such, the interpreter will inevitably take with him, as he studies the text of scripture, certain personal presuppositions, a certain understanding of what he regards to be the "big picture" that comprises Christianity. This particular study of the gospel-records, for example, is undeniably and unashamedly undertaken with a macro-view of theology which posits that Christianity is the ontological reality of Christ's function in man by His Spirit. Such a Christocentric theology denies that Jesus came to bring some "thing," be it a teaching or behavioral code, etc. or that He came to dispense some commodity, be it justification, salvation, etc. Rather, Jesus came to manifest Himself, and to function as God in man, Christ in the Christian, comprising Christianity. Such an understanding will always be antithetical to religious understanding, for "the revelation of God is the abolition of religion."6 So there is a secondary presuppositional attitude of anti-religionism that will color the approach that is taken to understanding the Biblical record.
As we approach the study of the written record of the gospel narratives, we seek to get "behind the scene" of the events and statements. We want to find what the Germans have called the sitz im leben of the recorded situation, the "setting in life" in which Jesus acted and spoke. We strive to ascertain the historical, political, cultural, racial, social, geographical and religious settings, apart from traditional religious accretions and interpretations. We are desirous of discovering the original direction and intent of Jesus' thinking and purpose, even the divine mind, as it were. But, in the process we must ever remember the limitations of historical research into the original settings after almost two millennia of time, as well as the limitations of finite human understanding. We will never understand all the complexities and intricacies of what took place.
As we commence these studies in the four gospel-records, we are desirous of understanding to the best of our ability how Jesus' self-revelation of Himself led to confrontation with religion, and continues to do so. We must consider Jesus' confrontation with the prevailing Jewish religion of His day, seeking to understand the religious environment in which He lived,and the dichotomy of that ideology and methodology with the reality and character of God in Christ. From that understanding we shall note that the Judaism of the first century was indicative of the general religious tendencies of all religion, which are still confronted by the reality of Jesus' life. Not wanting to perpetuate traditional religious interpretations, we shall consider the religious interpretations that have long been imposed upon the various texts of the gospel-records throughout Christian history, the fallacies of which continue to be confronted and exposed by the reality of Christianity. Above all else, though, we want to see and understand Jesus' revelation of Himself, the divine reality of Christianity that conflicts, confounds and confronts all religion. Thus we will seek to interpret the gospels apart from religion.
Writing to Timothy, Paul indicated that
there is "one mediator between God and man, the man Christ
Jesus" (I Tim. 2:5). It is important to remember that although
Jesus was inherently and essentially God, He "emptied Himself"
(Phil. 2:7) of independent divine function, and functioned as
a man who allowed the Spirit of God to function within His humanity
for every moment in time for thirty-three years. Throughout the
study of the gospel-records we will repeatedly see the human
side of "the man, Christ Jesus," who was never less
than God, but never more than man.
Jesus was straight-forward in exhibiting and explaining the life of God that He came to bring in Himself. The primary contextual setting in which the gospel-narratives must be read is that of constant awareness of the confrontation that Jesus' life had with all religion. In every recorded incident in the life of Jesus, we must ask ourselves, "What were the religious concepts that came into play in this situation?" "How is it that Jesus is contrasting the message of the gospel, His own functional dynamic of grace, with the natural religious tendencies of mankind?"
Ernst Kasemann notes that,
Throughout this study of the gospel-narratives, we shall discover how Jesus presents Himself and the provision of God's grace in contrast to, and therefore in confrontation with, religion.
Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Vol. I, Part 2. Edinburgh:
T&T Clark. 1956. pg. 280.