How to understand the Gospels

by | Aug 21, 2020 | 04 Bible Study 101, Genre

The gospels are unique in content, although they are similar in form to ancient biographies.

  • Gospels record a person’s sayings and anecdotes.
  • Gospels focus on the person’s moral virtue.
  • The character is fixed (not adapting like fiction).
  • Gospels are apologetic, seeking to defend and explain the person’s thought.
  • Gospels are historical theology. The gospels are concerned not only with the historical accounts, but also with their theological significance.

Guidelines for interpreting gospels

(adapted from How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, by Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart, chapter 7)

  1. Learn about the historical context of Jesus in general.
  2. Pay attention to the specific literary forms of Jesus’ teaching (e.g. didactic, parables, similes, metaphors, poetry, questions, irony, hyperbole, etc.).
  3. Learn about the specific historical contexts at issue.
  4. Think context: paragraphs and scenes as literary units.
  5. Interpret individual passages in light of the whole gospel.
  6. Learn about the distinctive features of each gospel.
  7. Study the gospels as a whole. They were written as cohesive, coherent documents.
  8. Understand Jesus’ imperatives as descriptions of a new life based on God’s grace, not as entrance requirements to the faith.
  9. Understand narratives about Jesus (e.g. miracle stores) as explaining who Jesus is and His significance (as opposed to allegorizing).
  10. Think kingdom of God.

More: Basics of Bible Interpretation, by Bob Smith a classic! great for the beginner. Available FREE online, though I believe you can still buy a paper copy.

How the synoptic gospels come about

1:1Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.  – Luke 1:1-14

  • Synoptic is the Greek word for “seeing together.”
  • The intent was to compile a narrative of the events based on what the eyewitnesses reports.
  • Luke himself investigated these sources and put together an orderly account.
  • Mark’s account is derived largely from the Apostle Peter.
  • Matthew was an eye witness to the events.

Common Verses in the Synoptics

  • Total Verses: Matthew = 1069; Mark = 662; Luke = 1150
  • 97% of Mark’s words have a parallel in Matthew.
  • 88% of Mark’s words have a parallel in Luke.
  • 24% of Matthew is shared with Luke and not Mark.
  • 21% of Luke is shared with Matthew and not Mark.
  • 4.5% of Mark is unique to Mark.
  • 26% of Matthew is unique to Matthew.
  • 43% of Luke is unique to Luke.

Why is this so? Each gospel writer had a specific audience in mind. Each author organized the material to highlight its significance and importance to his audience.

See: Why we have 4 gospels

Part of the Series: Bible Study 101

More: Understanding Genre

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