Introduction: Subject, Problems, and Approach

Jesus in the First Three Gospels
by Millar Burrows

Introduction: Subject, Problems, and Approach

Many dedicated Christians, who love Jesus sincerely and feel that the/ know him as their dearest personal friend, have very vague ideas about him. Personal experience and heartfelt devotion are of course more important than their intellectual expression. The danger is that there will be nothing distinctively Christian in them. They must be brought into focus by the Word made flesh (Jn 1:14).

One of the first heresies rejected by the early church was the denial of’ Jesus’ real and full humanity. "Beloved, do not believe every spirit. . . . By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God" (1 Jn 4:1-2; cf. 2 Jn v 7). When faith loses touch with the flesh-and-blood person whom his disciples lived with and knew, it ceases to be truly Christian.

An honest, realistic attempt to know Jesus as a real man, however, is fraught with difficulties. First of all, do we really know that he ever lived? Outside of the New Testament there is little if any contemporary evidence of his existence. That is not surprising. He wrote no books, left no coins or inscriptions. There was no reason, so far as anyone could have seen at the time, that historians should have considered him important, if they ever heard of him. The Gospels themselves, however, are sufficient evidence that Jesus lived.

How well then can we know what he taught and what he was? The Gospels do not afford the kind of evidence needed to trace the course of his life or to explore his mind and personality. They were not written for that purpose. Their authors selected, arranged, and presented the material available to them with a view to the practical religious ends of evangelism, edification, and guidance. The Gospels, however, are the only records we have of Jesus’ life on earth.

Many questions confront a serious student of the Gospels. Why, for instance, do we have not one Gospel but four in the New Testament? They cover in general the same ground, though each has also something not contained in the others. The main problem, however, is that there are perplexing differences among them. How can this be if they are all the inspired word of God? Several observations are in order here.

A valid understanding of the inspiration of the Bible, including the Gospels, must be consistent with manifest and undeniable facts. The differences among the Gospels are facts that anyone can observe for himself. What the Gospels have in common is usually more important than the points on which they differ, but not always. There are often two or three reports of the same event or saying that cannot be equally correct. We shall encounter many instances of this.

If it is assumed that every item in the sacred text must be factually accurate, these differences constitute a formidable difficulty. But if the inspiration of Scripture is to be found not in exact wording or factual details, but in profound spiritual insights concerning the source and meaning of existence and the true ends of life, then the differences between one account and another present an interesting problem for investigation but no difficulty for faith.

So regarded, the Gospels supplement one another, each making a unique contribution to a rounded view of their common subject. Attempts have often been made to harmonize them and combine them into a single Gospel. We may be thankful that such efforts have never been successful. The difficulties and differences in the records can at least preserve us from slavery to the letter and compel us to seek the true spirit of the gospel.

What then are these perplexing differences? First of all, even a superficial comparison of the Gospels encounters at once a sharp contrast between the first three and the fourth. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have the same general point of view, share much of the same material, and present it in much the same way. For that reason they are called the Synoptic Gospels. There are differences among them also, but the Fourth Gospel differs from all three much more than they differ among themselves.

To be more specific, the Synoptic Gospels represent Jesus’ ministry as exercised chiefly in Galilee until about the last week of his life; John has much to say of a ministry in Judea before Jesus began his work in Galilee. The Synoptic Gospels tell of only one visit to Jerusalem after the beginning of the public ministry; in John there are several. The cleansing of the temple comes near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Fourth Gospel, near the end in the others. Instead of the characteristic parables and pithy sayings about the kingdom of God in the Synoptic Gospels, John gives a series of long discourses concerned mainly with the exalted nature of Jesus himself. Instead of miracles performed in compassionate response to human needs, John has a series of selected "signs" by which he "manifested his glory" (Jn 2:11). The Synoptics abound in stories of casting out demons; the Fourth Gospel has none. Most important of all, the picture of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is quite different from that in the other three. The Synoptic Jesus is divine; the Johannine Jesus seems more conscious of his divinity. The Johannine Jesus is human, but the Synoptic Jesus is much more so.

The historical value of the Fourth Gospel is still a matter of debate and uncertainty, but as a historical document John is clearly less reliable than the others. It is a magnificent expression of early Christian faith, with great literary and devotional value. Scholars at present seem inclined to recognize more history in it than their predecessors did a generation or two ago. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, however, certainly give more and better information about the real Jesus of Nazareth.

So great is the contrast between the first three Gospels and the Fourth that any attempt to follow the course of Jesus’ life and the content of his teaching in all four of them together is doomed to failure. The only fruitful procedure is to study the Synoptics and John separately before attempting any synthesis. In this study I shall depend almost entirely on the Synoptic Gospels, referring to John only when there is some special reason to do so.

Among themselves the Synoptic Gospels differ less widely, but the differences are significant and sometimes formidable. A conspicuous example appears at the very beginning of the Gospel story. The first chapter of Matthew, which is also the first chapter of the New Testament, contains a genealogy of Jesus (Mt 1:1-17). Luke also has a genealogy, not at the beginning of the Gospel but after Jesus’ baptism (Lk 3:23-38). It reverses the normal order, beginning with Jesus and going back not only to Abraham but to "Adam, the son of God." Unfortunately the most striking fact about these genealogies is that they are not the same. According to Matthew the line of Jesus’ descent from David ran through Solomon and the whole succession of the kings of Judah; according to Luke it was David’s son Nathan (2 Sam 5:14) who was Jesus’ ancestor. Both lists include Shealtiel and Zerubbabel about midway between David and Joseph, but the lines from David to Shealtiel and from Zerubbabel to Joseph are entirely different.

Both pedigrees cannot be correct. If either one of them is right, the other is wrong; and there is no way to tell which is the right one. I have heard an eminent preacher say, "One is the genealogy of Joseph, and the other is the genealogy of Mary; but they are both genealogies of Jesus." The fact is that both are explicitly presented as genealogies of Joseph (Mt 1:16; Lk 3:23). For Christian faith, or for knowledge of Jesus’ life, character, and teaching, it is immaterial whether he was a descendant of Solomon or of Nathan. The disturbing fact is that here, at the beginning of the New Testament, a serious question arises concerning the accuracy of the records. Many equally perplexing instances will be encountered as we proceed.

Matthew’s genealogy exemplifies also another source of difficulty, the fact that the text of the Gospels has not come down to us entirely unaltered. In the course of copying manuscripts, the scribes inevitably made mistakes. In the mass of manuscripts that have been preserved we have not one uniform text but innumerable variant readings.

An example of such errors in copying, unimportant in itself but instructive, occurs in this genealogy. According to verse 17 the list consists of three series of generations, with fourteen generations in each. The first group has fourteen names, counting both Abraham at the beginning and David at the end. The second has fourteen without counting David again. The third, however, has only thirteen unless Jechoniah is counted again. Moreover the son of Josiah was not Jechoniah (i.e., Jehoiachin) but his father, Jehoiakim (2 Kings 24:6; 1 Chron 3:16-17); Matthew’s list as we have it therefore skips a generation. The original reading (cf. 2 Kings 23:30, 34) was probably: "and Josiah was the father of Jehoiakim and his brothers, and Jehoiakim was the father of Jechoniah at the time of the deportation to Babylon."

More important than such questions of detail are differences of purpose and plan. The question of the relationship of each of the Synoptic Gospels to the others, including their agreements and differences, is called the Synoptic problem. The investigation of this problem proceeds by several distinct but related methods: source analysis, form history, redaction history, and literary criticism, including structuralism. Insofar as all these are concerned with questions of historical fact, they may be subsumed under the general head of historical criticism. Using all available means, they examine the ways of living and thinking, the customs and institutions, and the life-situations of the people originally addressed by the ancient writers in order to determine the intended meaning.

The ultimate purpose of our study of the Gospels, however, is not to find what they meant long ago but to find what they mean now, for us. Consequently much is now being said about hermeneutics. the branch of theology that deals with interpretation and tries to establish principles and rules for interpreting Scripture. Strictly speaking, interpretation includes both what the text meant for the first readers and what it means for us today; but the former belongs to historical criticism, and it is the latter that is now usually considered the sphere of hermeneutics.

Unfortunately, historical criticism and hermeneutics combined seem still not to have brought us closer to Jesus, but rather to have drawn us away from him, focusing attention more and more on the church of later generations, in which and for which the Gospels were composed. New Testament scholars can even calmly refer to a time when it used to be thought that accurate knowledge of Jesus’ life and teaching was important. Some of us still think so. We are not greatly concerned about how many times Jesus visited Jerusalem, just where and when each event in his life Occurred, or even the exact word he spoke. We are very much interested in the kind of person he was, in whom all generations of Christians have seen a revelation of God. We consider what he taught about God and his will for man immeasurably more important than what any other person in human history has said or done.