Let me give you some advice. It’s even good advice. First, from Henry David Thoreau: “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” That’s good advice. And now, from Fran Lebowitz: “Think before you speak. Read before you think.” Now, that is better advice! And third, from Saint Thomas Aquinas (the philosopher, not the high school): “Beware of the person of one book.” Now, that is the best advice yet! No wonder they name high schools after him!
Ask anyone and they will tell you, it would be so much easier if we only had ONE gospel (“one gospel to rule them all; one gospel to combine them”). Why? Because four gospels give us headaches. Case in point, the cleansing of the temple. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus cleanses the temple on the Monday of Holy Week. On Friday of that week, Jesus will be crucified. Sometimes, it helps to see it spelled out. The cleansing of the temple is told as follows:
Matthew chapter 21 (out of 28 chapters)
Mark chapter 11 (out of 16 chapters)
Luke chapter 19 (out of 24 chapters)
And then, we have John, where this same story is told here:
John chapter 2 (out of 21 chapters)
And all God’s people said, “What????” That’s right, John broadcasts Jesus’ first miracle (turning water into wine) and immediately shares another miracle – Jesus’ teleportation back in time so that he can cleanse the temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry instead of at the end (relax, I’m joking; please don’t call presbytery or a mental health hotline). Back to being serious: Houston, we have a problem. It’s called truth and chronology. We have three people who say Jesus cleansed the temple at the end and one person who says Jesus cleansed it at the beginning. You can blame someone for not telling the truth, but I am going to blame having four gospels! See, if we only had one gospel, we wouldn’t have to wrestle with such questions as:
Did Jesus cleanse the temple once or twice?
When did Jesus cleanse the temple?
Which author(s) is/are telling the truth and which one(s) is/are lying?
Why on earth would anyone put this action of Jesus at the completely wrong time?
How can an inspired Word from God get the timing wrong?
Bottom line: those questions are headaches waiting to happen. See, it would be much easier if we only had one authoritative, chronological gospel; and yet, here we are with four gospels. But why? You may have never asked this question before, but I bet you are now. Ask any website on the gospels, and they will give you all sorts of good answers as to why there are four gospels, including:
Four gospels give us a more profound understanding of who Jesus is.
Four gospels give us a more complete picture of Jesus’ ministry.
Deuteronomy 19:15 tells us we need 2 or 3 witnesses to corroborate a claim [we have 4!].
Four gospels encourage us to read carefully.
Only four of the 12 disciples could write.
All of these suggestions merit our consideration (except for the last one; I made that one up), but I still think the most obvious answer is our best answer:
We have four gospels because they were written
at four different times,
for four different audiences
who were undergoing four different situations.
In short, different times and different purposes call for different books.
A quick overview of all four gospels shows the uniqueness of each gospel.
- Written to a Jewish audience
- Written in the 70s or 80s AD
- Written to present Jesus as the Messiah in fulfillment of the Old Testament
- Written to a Gentile audience
- Written in the late 50s AD
- Written to present Jesus as the suffering Son of God
- Written to a Gentile audience
- Written in the early 60s AD
- Written to present Jesus as the Savior of all peoples
- Written to a mixed Jewish and Gentile audience (or a Jewish context outside of Palestine)
- Written in the 80s AD
- Written to present Jesus as the eternal Son of God who reveals the Father perfectly
I used to read my grandparent’s Swedish newspaper. Okay, I wasn’t actually reading it (since it was in Swedish!), but I always “read” this one two-panel section in the newspaper. There were 10 differences between the two panels. You, the “reader,” had to find all ten. Can you spot the differences between these four panels? Here’s the point (I am sorry; I know you are sick of me saying it): Each gospel was written for a different audience, for a different reason, by a different author at a different time to address a different question with which his audience was wrestling.
Now, let’s suppose the overview presented above is correct about Matthew being written to a believing Jewish audience. What would we expect to find in Matthew’s gospel? You would think that there might be a lot of Old Testament quotes/allusions. You would think that there might be a few conversations about the Law. You would think there might be a lot of tie-ins to Jewish history and past Jewish heroes. And you would think there might be several references to Jewish customs and practices scattered throughout these 28 chapters. And you would guess that there would be an undercurrent throughout the whole book that provides answers to the questions that Matthew’s audience might be asking. And what do we find in Matthew’s “Christmas” story? All of the above.
I only have time for one example today, so let’s look at the genealogy we looked at last week in Matthew 1. Let’s face it, genealogies are literary root canals. But to the Jews in the first century this list looked like a “Who’s Who” of Hebrew Greats. We have Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Judah, Boaz, Jesse, David, Solomon and a list of kings. Matthew’s point here is that Jesus’ lineage goes through David to Abraham. Interestingly, you may recall that Luke traces Jesus’ line back to Adam (Luke is presenting Jesus as the Savior of all people), but Matthew only goes back to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. But there is more here than meets the eye. Again, Matthew will want to show that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the true Son of David. Now, you would think that Matthew would have to wait until after the genealogy to start building a theology, but you would be wrong. There’s a theology written in these names. And that theology revolves around King David. But you might not see it. In Matthew 1:17, Matthew tells us that there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the exile and fourteen generations from the exile to the Messiah. That’s a lot of fourteens.
Let’s interrupt this blog for a quick Hebrew lesson. In Hebrew, letters also have numerical value so names can be transformed into numbers, and then those numbers can be added together. Do you want to guess what the sum is if you added up the letters in David’s name (which in Hebrew would be spelled DWD)? That’s right, 14! (“D” = 4 and “W” is “6”). Matthew is spelling out David’s name in his opening genealogy; and he does so three times, “David, David, David.” Now, we probably would never see that, but Jews in the first century would. It would jump off the page at them (no one ever said Jewish interpretation in the Second Temple period was straightforward and sensible, not at least in the way we would define straightforward and sensible!). But the real question is why would Matthew do this? Here’s the answer: he wanted his readers to know, right off the bat, that Jesus is the promised Son of David. The genealogy shouts David because Matthew is going to shout, “Jesus is the promised Son of David, the Messiah,” for the next 27 chapters; and he can’t wait to get started. And there it is: Matthew’s theme even shapes his genealogy.
But knowing all this, while fascinating (at least to me), is not the end goal here. I also write with a purpose. So, let me give you one more piece of advice. Mortimer J. Adler writes: “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.” When it comes to the gospels, that is especially good advice.
More next week (including some Latin!)