identify and describe the function purpose and major literary features of gospels

You must support your answer with specific examples from the Bible and from the book ‘How to read the bible for all its worth by Douglas Stuart’

Information must also be supported from the following:

What is a Gospel? At one level everyone knows what it is: an account of the life, teaching, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In this the Gospels seem to be rather like the narrative books of the Hebrew Bible—Kings, for example. But closer inspection raises some questions, and five will concern us here. Insiders or outsiders? First, are the Gospels written for those inside the church, to edify and instruct them, or are they evangelistic, aimed at people outside the church, to convert them? This can be put in the technical terms of New Testament scholarship by asking whether they are didache (teaching) or kerygma (proclamation). The beginning of Luke poses this question quite sharply, where the writer says that the book is intended for ‘Theophilus’ (we don’t know whether this is a real person or any ‘God-lover’, which is the meaning of the Greek name) to instruct him in the matters on which he has already been partially informed (or misinformed). Does this mean that Luke was written to convince a partly informed non-Christian of the truth of the Christian message, or does it mean that it was written for someone who was already a Christian but who needed more information about Jesus than he had so far acquired? There is no agreement on this. There are features in the Gospels that point in both directions. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (5–8) looks like teaching, laying down the rules for those inside the community of the church. But much of Mark’s terser account strikes many readers as intended to be read by non-Christians, to bring about their conversion. In practice all the Gospels have historically functioned in both ways, but saying what was the original intention is far from easy. History or propaganda? Second, should the Gospels be seen as a form of historiography (even if not everything in them is factually true) or as a form of fiction, perhaps (on the ‘kerygmatic’ interpretation) propaganda for the Christian movement? We have already faced a similar issue in the case of the narrative books of the Hebrew Bible, and have noted that there the modern distinction between fact and fiction may not always be appropriate: we may be able to decide whether an alleged incident is or is not likely to have taken place as described, but the writers had not formulated this distinction in their own minds. The Gospels are probably the distillation of a couple of generations of oral transmission of the story of Jesus, and by the time it came to be written down, people no longer knew what was fact and what fiction. Modern New Testament scholars have developed criteria for trying to decide (see Chapter 6), but such criteria were not used by the Gospel writers or compilers themselves: everything was transmitted as though it were equally historically accurate, even though the presence of parallel versions of the same story with differences in detail shows that this cannot be so in fact. However, Luke’s Prologue is important again here, because it states that he had read a number of different versions of the story of Jesus and had established a true version himself—showing that he at least had our awareness of the fact/fiction distinction, even if we cannot therefore necessarily trust his critical judgement on any given event or saying. The Gospels certainly appear to claim that they are historiography, which means that there are several ancient genres they clearly do not belong to—for example, myth or fable. John, which is treated with most suspicion by modern readers because it seems to be all interpretation of Jesus with very little fact, is arguably the Gospel that makes the strongest factual claim: ‘This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true’ (John 21:24).

Interrelationship of the Gospels Third, how are the four Gospels interrelated? Readers often assume that they are four separate eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus, which therefore corroborate each other even though they differ on points of detail. But a closer reading shows that Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the ‘Synoptic’ Gospels) tell a very similar story, while John’s account overlaps very little until the passion story, and even there has really significant differences. The similarities among the Synoptics are often verbal, with whole phrases and sentences being almost identical between two or all three of the accounts. This has led most New Testament scholars to believe that there is actual literary continuity among the Synoptics. If we adopt the common modern belief that Mark is the oldest Gospel, then it seems that both Matthew and Luke drew upon it, because often they tell the same story as Mark in very similar words. (This is what the Prologue to Luke might lead us to expect anyway, if Mark is one of the versions of the life of Jesus he was familiar with.) The simplest solution of the ‘Synoptic Problem’, as it is known, is that Matthew used Mark, and Luke used both Mark and Matthew, or alternatively that Luke used Mark, and Matthew used both Mark and Luke. But for a number of reasons these simple scenarios do not satisfy most scholars. There is indeed material not in Mark that is shared by Matthew and Luke, but there are problems in thinking that either of them got this material by reading the other. The shared non-Marcan material always seems to occur at a different place in the story in Matthew and in Luke. And sometimes one of the writers seems to have preserved what looks like its original form, and sometimes the other! This has led most (though by no means all) scholars to believe that as well as Mark, Matthew and Luke had another source for their Gospels, the source Q referred to in Chapter 2. In addition there are stories and sayings found only in Matthew or only in Luke, and these are usually called M and L: they may never have existed as independent writings, and we do not know how the Gospel-writers came by them. A lot of effort has gone into reconstructing the hypothetical Q, and there are even commentaries on it. One of the most striking features is that it seems to have consisted only of sayings of Jesus, not of stories about miracles or other events, and not to have included a narrative about Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. This reminds us that the Gospels we have are not the only kind of Christian document that could have developed. Strikingly similar to Q, as already noted, is the work known as the Gospel of Thomas. This shows that a ‘Gospel’ containing only teaching was felt by some in the early Church to be adequate as a foundation document for the Christian community. They did not share our assumption that a Gospel ‘must’ contain narrative as well as teaching. Some may have seen Jesus principally as a great teacher, as many non-Christians do today, and have been rather uninterested in what he did or in what happened to him. The relation of the Synoptics to John has also long been a disputed question. The story is recognizably about the same person, who taught, worked miracles (John calls them ‘signs’), was tried and executed and rose again from the dead. Yet there is scarcely any overlap in the stories of Jesus: apart from the feeding of the five thousand, there are no miracles in John that also occur in the Synoptics, and Jesus’ teaching has a radically different tone. Where the sayings in the Synoptics tend to be short and pithy, in John they consist of lengthy discourses, the subject matter of which tends to be Jesus himself and his identity as the Son or God, where the Synoptic sayings are mostly about human behaviour and lifestyle. There are no parables in John. The difference is obvious from the first chapter of John, which is a long discourse on the divine status of Jesus as the Word of God rather than a nativity story as in Matthew and Luke. Even if there is some use of Synoptic material in John, most of the Gospel must derive from other sources. Whether these sources preserved any historical truth, or whether they are a semi-mythical version of the life of Jesus, is widely disputed.

Local or universal Gospels? Fourth, was each Gospel written for a specific Christian community, or are they intended for all Christians? In recent years, as we have seen, there has been a tendency to see them as community-specific. If this is true, then one can work out from each Gospel what were some of the cutting-edge questions for its particular community: in Matthew’s church, for example, there were big questions about the continuing validity of the torah—hence all the material in which Jesus seems to position himself in relation to current Judaism, such as the sayings in the Sermon on the Mount about obedience to the teaching of Moses. If this general hypothesis is correct, then Christianity was a highly diverse movement by the early second century, and in particular the ‘Johannine community’ was wildly different from the ‘Marcan community’, representing a Christian approach with a much more mystical bent and preaching a Christ who was a heavenly redeemer rather than the rather down-to-earth figure of Mark and the other Synoptics. But by no means all New Testament scholars believe that the hypothesis is correct. Luke’s Prologue, again, suggests that he at least looked around the churches of his day to find his information and that his clear purpose was to replace the already existing Gospels. The same seems likely in respect to Matthew and Mark: Matthew reads like a correction of Mark, not as an alternative version intended to stand alongside it. As things worked out in the church, by the mid-second century Christians had come to accept the four Gospels as somehow complementing each other— leading to great problems over how to reconcile the accounts; but in the age when the Gospels were being written each seems to have been designed to supersede its predecessors. Even after the church accepted a four-Gospel canon, there were attempts to produce ‘harmonies’ of the four, fitting all the events in all of them into a consistent narrative. The classic attempt to do this is the Diatessaron, by Tatian, which continued to be used in the Syrian church down into the fourth century. Gospel harmonies are still produced today, because the problem of having four partly inconsistent Gospels is still felt in the churches. But probably none of the Gospel-writers originally intended his Gospel to be read alongside others, but rather to replace existing ones with something better.

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