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Studying the Gospels? Wouldn't it be luvverly!

02 November 2006

The differences and similarities in the four Gospels should inform our theology

I WAS at a church conference recently, of the kind where a eucharist is de rigueur, and where it is thought desirable that as many people as possible should have speaking parts.

The Old Testament lesson was read in the manner of a method actor of the 1930s, alternating between Henry V before Agincourt, and the Ghost of Christmas Past. It didn't see to have occurred to him that Amos might have spoken like you or me.

The second lesson left me wondering whether English was, in fact, the reader' s first language. (It was.) The woman priest reading the Gospel reminded me of nothing so much as Eliza Doolittle and her early attempts at elocution. Here was an everyday story of Palestinian country folk read with an exaggerated emphasis on every word.

I turned to my companion and confided that now I knew what a communion service would look like had it been organised by the Goons. Have we completely lost interest in making sense of the Bible in public reading?

THE COMBINATION of new lectionaries and new liturgies means that churchgoers are now hearing bits of the Bible they never knew existed. There is something vaguely uncomfortable, I feel, about listening to an Old Testament tale of genocide, slaughter, human sacrifice, and pillage without turning a hair, only to be told at the end: "This is the word of the Lord." And something even worse about having to say: "Thanks be to God."

Do we hear what we are saying? Have we just concluded that it doesn't really matter?

It's one thing to give a bored and uncomprehending response to obscure bits of the Old Testament, but perhaps the bottom line has been reached when the same thing happens with the reading of the Gospel. Do we still have enough faithful curiosity of the kind that has occupied so many thinking Christians over the past hundred years or so, with regard to the canonical Gospels? Do we think it matters whether we can make an intelligent response to questions like: What exactly is it that I'm reading? What kind of reaction am I meant to have to this writing? Is it a discussion document or a piece of propaganda? Am I meant to be moved by it in some way? Why was it written?

THE EXISTENCE of four distinct texts about the life of Jesus, three of them very similar, one very different, all of them given the canonical seal of approval, ought to spark intense interest and debate about what exactly we base our beliefs on.

Such a study is not just a means of satisfying our curiosity. It is a means of personal theological reflection and growth; it gives liturgical occasions a degree of coherence; and, perhaps most important, it is a key component in any mission conversation.

For the most part, liturgical life, including preaching, in my experience, is carried on as if the differences between Gospels were quite unimportant, and as if the whole thing had somehow been sent as a text message from heaven.

The open discussion of questions about the provenance of the Gospels, their character, and their transmission surely enhances the liturgy and the mission of the Church, and enables grown-up consideration of the texts themselves. Only those works intended for children, such as nativity plays, ought to be allowed to gloss over the differences between Gospels so easily.

I CONCENTRATE here on the Synoptic Gospels, and trace the progress of fascination with why these three Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are so similar to each other, and yet so different from John.

The story begins with the attempt to decide which of them was written first and so acted as a source for the others. The prevailing wisdom is that the first Gospel to be written was that of Mark. The authors of Matthew and Luke used Mark when they wrote their Gospels.

They also used material common to Matthew and Luke, but absent from Mark, such as the temptation stories. Finally, Matthew and Luke each used material that is peculiar to them. It is only in Matthew that we find the story of the sheep and the goats. It is only in Luke that we can read about the good Samaritan.

This interest in sources leads on to an interest in how the Gospels were assembled from their sources. What was the process of transmission that kept those sources alive until the point where they were written up into Gospels?

There is broad agreement that the first of the Gospels was not finalised until about 30 years after the first Easter. During that period, traditions about Jesus, which were to be the raw material of the Gospels, were probably transmitted orally. Does that process raise any questions about the trustworthiness of the Gospels, for example?

Scholars, who came to be known as form critics, worked on these questions. They saw that the Gospels were made up of what we might call building-blocks of material, such as miracle stories, sayings of Jesus, parables, and so on. They examined each of these types of material as genres or formats - hence the name of their branch of criticism.

They were interested in two things. First, how had this material been transmitted orally; and, second, was it a reliable source leading back to the actual events described? But asking these questions provoked alarm among people who saw the Gospels as innocent records, perhaps the memoirs of specific apostles, contributing to an overall life of Jesus.

A little thought shows that this could hardly be the case. The Gospels are not memoirs in the usual sense because they are not written in the first person. They are not biography, either, because they deal with very selective parts of Jesus's life. Up to half of each Gospel is concerned with the events of just one week, and the rest deals mostly with just three years out of more than 30.

THE form critics' conclusions were that it is virtually impossible to reconstruct a reliable history of the life of Jesus from these materials. Moreover, they are not as innocent as they seem. They are apologetic - that is, they are seeking not just to record facts, but also to persuade readers about their significance, and to place them in a particular context.

Worse than that was the suggestion that some of the material might even have been created by the early Church as, say, sermon illustrations, or to appeal to an audience that was culturally different from the one that Jesus addressed directly.

Form critics had their heyday from the late-19th to the mid-20th century, by which time the process had become so sophisticated that reading the latest offering was about as interesting as accessing the Leipzig telephone directory.

The Gospels had become so analysed and atomised that there was a feeling that the wood was being missed, since not only the trees but even the twigs were being examined.

THIS prompted a new breed of critics interested in the final edition of the work as a whole, who opened up new questions for discussion, not about the building-blocks, but about why and how the final buildings differed from each other.

Learning the lessons of their critical forebears, they attributed to the Gospel-writers a new degree of theological sophistication. The Evangelists were seen now neither as people writing from memory, nor as scissors-and-paste editors, but rather as people with a definite theological agenda, writing core texts for their several communities.

It began to be seen, or assumed, that different writers could use the same basic story to make different points in their own Gospels, and there are some classic illustrations of this. New questions about what prompted these different theologies were raised, just as other scholars were asking questions about the sociological background of the Gospels; and these two movements fed each other.

All of these critical endeavours grew from an assumption that the truth of the Gospels could be accessed to some degree by asking the kinds of question historians ask about texts, and that there was a historical process at work here which needed to be understood.

More recently, scholars have been using the critical methods employed by students of literature, in which historical questions are secondary to those about rhetoric, style, character, and plot.

The reasons why this work matters, briefly, are threefold. It raises important issues about unity and diversity in the early Church, which have increasing importance for us. After all, would Matthew have written at all if he had thought Mark was adequate?

Second, it provides models of how theology is done, and how it develops. We have encouragement to do theology ourselves, and not just treat the whole thing as a dead given.

And third, it's just so bloody interesting. Eliza Doolittle, please note.

The Ven. John Holdsworth is Archdeacon of St Davids. Until recently he was Dean of the Faculty of Theology at Cardiff University.

John Holdsworth develops this theme in the new Church Times study guide The Same but Different. For details, see here

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