We all want to study the gospels. And why shouldn't we? The gospels are full of the very words of Christ. I remember very early in my life as a Christian, I became very frustrated with the apostle Paul, with what I perceved as his woman-hating ways. I determined to read the words of Jesus first and take Paul later. Of course, I was much more stupid than I am now. As I have got older, I have come to appreciate Paul.
The gospels are a unique set of writings simply because they are not written by the major character in them, Jesus. They are about Jesus, but they are not written by him. They are more like memoirs. Similar to the way a biographer may focus on specific aspects of his subject's life, the gospel writers each dealt with a specific, Spirit-led focus. The fact that there are four gospels has often created difficulties for some, but clearly, if we believe in the inspiration of Scripture, we will know that God gave us four of them for a good reason.
The gospels are what Leland Ryken calls the gospels an "encyclopedic or mixed form:"
They include elements of biography, historical chronicle, fiction (the parables), oration, sermon, dialogue (drama), proverb, poem, tragedy, and comedy. This very mixture and randomness produce an unusually powerful realism... The kaleidoscopic variety of scenes, events, characters, dialogues, speehes, and encounters, always revolving around Jesus at the center, conveys an astonishing sense of reality.
It is best to read the gospels as we would read any other narrative, focusing on the characters, events, dialogue, and settings. Just like the Hebrew narratives, the accounts are episodic in nature. The gospel accounts were not written as a play by play, minute by minute, recounting. The writers picked and chose what to include -- under inspiration, of course -- to focus on the theme which they were led to present. Just like an epistle writer had a purpose, so did the gospel writers.
The difficulty in studying the gospels comes when we look at historical context, because there are two of them. There is the historical context of the time Jesus lived in, and then there is the historical context of the gospel writer himself. We have to take into consideration those two things. While reading Epistles is aided by thinking "paragraphs" we need to read thinking in "periocopes," which are episodes within a larger work. Both the context of when the events happened and the reason why the writer chose to include a particular event are important. Reconstructing the life of Jesus from a purely historical point of view is interesting and worthwhile, but asking why the writer chose to include what he did will help us more in the interpretation process.
As with the Epistles, we need to ask ourselves what is the thematic elements of a given pericope. The scenes depicted in the gospels are like drama in miniature, and each one serves a larger purpose. As we read and observe, we must discover those themes to see how each episode is linked together.
When it comes to interpretation, the same cultural cautions apply as that which we would use in interpreting an epistle. When we look at what the writers were trying to convey to their intended audience, we have to sift through not only what Jesus was saying at the time he spoke, but we have to understand why the author was including it. That is, of course, where the sound exegesis comes in. Again, we have to remember that everything is not normative for us today.
Of course, the fact that so much of Jesus' writings were in parable and proverb form demands that we learn a about those forms of literature, especially how to interpret a parable. One of the more significant things we have to understand as we read the gospels is the reality of the kingdom. Fee and Stuart comment:
One dare not think he or she can properly interpret the gospels without a clear understanding of the concept of the kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus.
The kingdom of God has come, but it is still coming. We have to adjust our thinking to the concept of the "already, but not yet." The believers alive in the time of Christ understood this idea of looking ahead to the fulfillment of the Messiah; it was crucial to their Jewishness. When Christ came, many of them looked for Christ to usher in the end. They did not realize until he had ascended that his resurrection was the beginning of the end. This principle of the kingdom being now but not yet is something we need to have in our thinking as we interpret.
I think the best approach to studying the gospels is to read, read, read, and take notes. Furthermore, we must read "horizontally," i.e., keeping in mind that there are four gospels, and "vertically," i.e., paying attention to the context of a given pericope. Getting into the context of the time Christ lived helps, too. I don't own a book that delves into that, but I would like one. Fee and Stuart recommend two books:
Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Everett Ferguson
Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, Joachim Jermias
Next week, I think I'll look at studying a parable.