Studying the Gospels


On page 21 of 'Sharing faith the Jesus way' I say that there will be some further notes on this website about studying the Gospels. These are only personal comments which I hope will lead to much more exploration and application. (By the way, I am not an academic, but I do love to study).


I mentioned the word 'hermeneutics' as the study of 'interpretation'. This is important as everyone of us naturally interprets the Bible in a different way. As with the reading of any book in any genre, none of us are 'neutral' - we all bring our personal experience and insights (if not prejudice) to what we read. This is to be recognised, acknowledged, and taken in to account in whatever study we do.


When it comes to the Bible, there are various books to help with studies of this. For example, significant work has been done from 'black' or 'feminist' perspectives and interpretation of the text. Speaking personally, I recognise that the way I look at the church, ministry, and the Bible itself, is from the perspective of 'mission'.


I know that my experience of being an evangelist affects my whole understanding of the Gospels - illustrated by the excitiement I felt when I first saw 'The Biblical Foundations for Mission' by Donald Senior and Carroll Stuhlmueller (SCM 1983). I still think it is a wonderful, ground-breaking, and amazing book which has not been surpassed. Here you will find a missional perspective explored in all books of the Bible from an academic perspective. Brilliant!


On page 21 of 'Sharing faith the Jesus way', I also mentioned the 'historical-critical' method. My approach has been to acknowledge the importance of this, but not to adopt the questions, tools and detailed study that goes with it. I know some will find this a failure, but I note that some academics are also asking critical questions of the 'critical' methods. I take particular encouragement from Pope Benedict XVI, who has taken this line in two masterful works called 'Jesus of Nazareth'. (Part 1, Bloomsbury 2007. Part 2 CTS 2011).


Pope Benedict says, 'The gap between the "historical Jesus" and the "Christ of faith" grew wider and the two visibly fell apart (in the 1950's cf Part 1, page xi in the Foreword) and goes on to say:


'For the time being it is important to recognise the limits of the historical-critical method itself. For someone who considers himself directly addressed by the Bible today, the method's first limit is that by its very nature it has to leave the biblical word in the past. It is a historical method, and that means that it investigates the then-current context of events in which the texts originated. It attempts to understand the past - as it was in itself - with the greatest possible precision, in order to find out what the author could have said and intended to say in the context of the mentality and events of the time. To the extent that it remains true to itself, the historical method not only has to investigate the biblical word as a thing of the past, but it also has to remain in the past ... its very precision in interpreting the reality of the past is both its strength and its limit'. (p.xvi) 


Having said that, I still recognise that their is also a limitation in reading the Biblical text 'as it is' without asking the critical questions. There are a host of historical, literary, and cultural questions which we tend to ignore - detrimentally, at times, I think - in Sunday sermons and mid week Bible studies today.


However, the less complicated non-contextual approach is, I freely admit, the one I have taken in both 'The 360 Gospel of Jesus' and 'Sharing faith the Jesus way'. I therefore recognise the limitation of doing so, especially when it comes to listing the 50 'Top texts'. Some academics would, I suspect, say this is an abuse of scripture as 'texts out of context' should never be quoted in such a way. Further, they would ask, how can you compare one text with another, especially if it has come from a different Gospel writer?'


I take this on the chin, and admit that to explore the context of each text is beyond my scope and expertise. I have taken the biblical text as it has been handed down to us - perhaps others can ask the bigger questions to look at the 'gospel' message of Jesus from the wider academic perspective? Bible commentaries explore these questions, of course, but I wonder if someone can collate all that material and write a considered study of the 'gospel' in the Gospels?


Before looking at two books which suggest they might explore this, let me mention a fantastic reference work, 'Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes' by Kenneth E Bailey (SPCK 2008). The sub heading is 'Cultural studies in the Gospels' - here you will find a fascinating insight in to most of the well known Gospel passages. The aim is to explore meaning in the historical context, while at the same time, find deeper meaning for its application today.


In trying to look at the 'gospel' in the Gospels, I was interested to find two academic books which, in their titles, seemed to suggest what I was looking for. (By the way, it amazes me that a lot of books have not been written about this - which is one reason I finally added my contribution through 'The 360 Gospel of Jesus'). The two books with interesting titles, and which explore related aspects of this study, are these.


The Gospel of Jesus, by James E Robinson (Harper San Francisco 2005).  The sub heading is 'In Search of the Original Good News' - which, as you can imagine, immediately made me want to read! Robinson's approach is different to mine, however, as he addresses the 'critical' methods and the reconstructs 'Q'. Don't worry if you have never heard of 'Q' (and think it sounds like a key figure in a James Bond movie!) - it is the popular title given to 'text which is not in the text!'


Let me explain as I understand it. When you read the first three Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, (called the 'synoptic' Gospels), it is clear that a lot of similarity. You would expect this as they are all about the same person and events - but more than that, it feels as if they have used other source material that seems to be missing. Academics generally agree that much of Matthew and Luke is based on Mark, but many also suggest that there is another (unknown / unfound) source of much of the common material, and that is what they have come to call 'Q'. With careful analysis, James M Robinson strings together synoptic texts, and reconstructs what he thinks the 'Q' source might have been. It is this 'Q' which he describes as the 'Gospel of Jesus'. 


Interesting though the study is, to my mind it is self evident that the 'Gospel of Jesus' is more than the unknown 'Q' - however carefully reconstructed it might have been. 'Q' is generally considered as part of source material for the the Gospel writers and not the whole. My quest has been to see what might have been the complete gospel picture in the mind of Jesus - or at least in the mind of the Evangelists! Helpfully, James E Robinson has sought to find the missing pieces in the jigsaw in the first three Gospels. I have tried to look at the bigger picture from all four.


The second book to mention does explore all four Gospels. Indeed it is in the title - 'The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ', by Martin Hengel (SCM 2000). However, this is not just looking at a missing piece of the jigsaw, or the central message but all the words of all the Gospels in an attempt to suggest a 'Gospel harmony'. He explores all the texts using the critical methods as 'An Investigation of the Collection and Origin of the Canonical Gospels'.


Hengel says: 'while there can be fundamentally only one "Gospel" as the message of salavation through Jesus Christ - whether oral or written - in the New Testament canon in reality we have four 'Gospels' as separate biographical narrative writings which, at least according to the modern critical understanding, are both rival and mutually supplementary, and which narrate the life and teaching of Jesus in sometimes quite divergent ways'.


Hengel goes on to ask, 'what is the relationship between what is systematically and doctrinally the one Gospel that Paul preached and the narrative, biographical, written report about Jesus life, teaching and death, and how, after Mark, could the two, the earlier preaching of Paul and the later '"kerygmatic biography of Jesus" be given the same designation?' 


Sufficient here to say, if you want to find the answer to that important question, I suggest you read Hengel on the matter! Be prepared, however, Hengel is a noted academic and there are over 800 footnotes in 'The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ' to prove it!  


Note, in the last paragraph was the word 'kerygmatic'. 'Kerygma' generally means the gospel as it was 'proclaimed'. It is sometimes used in contrast to 'didache' which has more to do with 'teaching'. Google 'C H Dodd' and 'James Dunn' to find out more.


If we had a lot more space and time it would be great to consider the study of the 'gospel' message of Jesus in the Gospels in greater depth. I hope many people will. In the mean time, on another page, I list the books which have helped in this study so far. To see the list of books, click here.