What type of history do the four Evangelists tell, and what does it reveal about Jesus?
No modern biographer would ignore all of Jesus’ early life, as Mark does, or skip over his formative experiences as a young adult, as all Gospels but Luke do (Luke 2:41-52). Nor would a modern biographer of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, for example, spend half of his account on just the last week of his subject’s life, even if the person died tragically. And most modern historical works at least attempt to present themselves as reasonably objective.
But the authors of the four Gospels broke all these rules, especially the last. They were not disinterested observers of Jesus and his movement. No author who launches his work with the phrase “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” is pretending to write as a neutral reporter.
If the Gospels are not like modern works of history, neither are they like folklore. The time gap between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Jesus traditions (between 30 and 60 years) is too short to consider the Gospels as mere legends or folklore, which always have long gestation periods.
If they are neither modern biographies nor legends, what type of history do these Gospels contain? What do they reveal about Jesus? I believe upon close reading that three of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and John) are ancient biographies, and one (Luke) presents itself as an ancient history.
The Gospels were not written to give a chronology of Jesus’ ministry as much as to reveal who he was. Even markers that seem to be precise were only devices to move the narrative along. Mark, for example, frequently uses the term immediately in transitions, but he usually only means “after that.”
The authors did not have access to the extensive sources available today; besides, they were more interested in presenting what was typical and revealing a person than in giving a blow-by-blow chronicle of each year of a person’s life. So ancient biographies were anecdotal by necessity.
Furthermore, most ancients did not believe a person’s character developed over time. Character was viewed as fixed at birth, determined by factors such as gender, generation, and geography; it was revealed gradually but consistently. Ancients also believed that how one died was especially revealing of one’s true character. This is one reason the Gospel writers spent so many words recounting Jesus’ last week.
One feature of the Gospels that troubles some modern readers is their lack of chronological precision, but this is typical of ancient biographies. Again, the focus is on the persons involved and what they did, not on the space-time coordinates of the event.
Jesus’ cleansing of the temple provides a fine illustration. While all four Gospels record only one cleansing, the fourth Gospel places this event near the outset, while the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, Luke) place it during Passion week. A modern reader may think Jesus cleansed the temple twice. But this interpretation overlooks two points: (1) ancient readers would have concluded there was only one cleansing since no Gospel includes two such events; (2) the ancient audience was aware that a biographer had freedom to arrange his material in whatever fashion he felt most revealing of his subject.
In this case, the fourth Evangelist wished to stress at the outset how Jesus replaced the institutions of Judaism with himself (e.g., he is God’s Torah or Word, he is the temple, he is the source of new life and purity). Many ancient biographies, such as Plutarch’s Parallel Lives or Tacitus’s Agricola, were likewise more interested in events that reveal character than in a strict chronological record.
In some ancient historical (versus biographical) works, especially in the Greek tradition, there was more attention to chronology. This helps explain the “synchronisms” in Luke 3:1-2 or Acts 18:2. A synchronism tries to locate an event in divine history in relation to secular events, like the reign of a certain governor. Thus, Luke and Acts would have seemed to ancients to be less biographical and more historical in character.
What can we depend on?
What kind of historical information, then, do the Gospels give about Jesus?
First, the Gospel accounts (especially Matthew, Mark, and John), present a good deal about Jesus’ character and how he was evaluated by his contemporaries. These character sketches, however, are largely indirect, and let Jesus’ words and deeds speak for themselves.
Second, the Gospel writers presented what they deemed were the salient facts readers absolutely must know to understand Jesus’ mission, person, and work.
Third, these writers presented this information in a broadly chronological way (e.g., Jesus’ birth obviously came before his ministry, and his ministry before his death), but they were not concerned with chronological details (except occasionally in Luke).
Fourth, this literature was written by and for a special community, a tiny minority in the Roman Empire & mash; so they could know more about their Savior.
Mark and John also appear to have been written, for audiences that had inadequate knowledge of Jesus, ‘ Jewish world, including the meaning of Aramaic words (Mark 15:34; John 19:13) and Jewish customs (Mark 7:3).
In the case of the fourth Gospel, the audience was not expected to have personally known the characters in the story (see John 11:2, 12:4,6). This Gospels was written for non-Jewish converts to Christianity.’
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