Part 2 – Basic Principles: Understanding the Gospels as Literature, History & Theology
Four Gospels give us the story of Jesus — four Gospels that are both similar & different. Are these differences a reason for angst or joy? Are these differences really contradictions?
SERIES INTRO: Often skeptics point to differences in the four Gospels of Jesus Christ and claim they are contradictions.This series will cover some general principles that you can use when you do come across a Gospel difference. By using these principles, many of these perceived differences can be easily explained. On the other hand, this series is not simply to defend the Gospels, but to positively show that having four Gospels brings our understanding of the life and work of Jesus Christ deeper than any one piece of writing can do. 3 Basic Principles To start, here are 3 basic principles to keep in mind when we come across a Gospel difference: 1. Different does not = contradiction.
Yes, contradictions are always logically impossible (for example, a square can’t be a circle; a bachelor can’t be married), but differences are not necessarily contradictions.
Ask yourself when you come across a difference: Is this a true contradiction? Is there a way to logically harmonize this?
2. Different Perspectives = Unique details.
As any police officer or newspaper reporter will tell you, when you gather several witnesses to an incident, each account given will generally have the same major details, but will most likely differ in minor details. Where the overall story will match, each account will have unique details because individuals tell of events from their unique perspectives.
Do the Gospels differ in major details or minor details?
3. Different Focuses & Styles = Still God’s Word
Like Jesus was both God and man, the Bible is also a joining of God and man. Thus, though the Bible is God’s Word, it doesn’t mean it’s absent of human influence. And though the Holy Spirit inspired the writing of Scripture, God allowed the writers of the Bible to still use their own unique abilities and personalities while writing the Gospels. This is evident in the different styles of writing seen in different books of the Bible by the different authors. Much More than Newspaper Reporting
The Gospels aren’t just dry reports; they involve the theological interpretation of the Spirit-led writers. Each writer is emphasizing what we should understand about these events concerning God and salvation, and what these events mean both for us individually and for humankind as a whole. Each Gospel has specific ATM:
A – Audiences
T – Themes
M – Messages
Because of different focuses in audience, themes, and messages, different Gospel writers focus on different details, emphasizing different aspects of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Each Gospel is also a “HLT sandwich”* — a combination of:
H – Historical writing,
L – Literary writing, &
T – Theological writing.
(*Sorry for the cheesy pun on a BLT — bacon, lettuce, tomato — sandwich, but I find the more corny the joke, the better it is as a memory device.)
Again, the Gospels are not just dry, newspaper article-like historical reports. They are historical recordings of actual events, but they also contain creative literary, story-telling elements and theological elements, meaning the Gospel writers are teaching us specific lessons about God in a specific style of writing. Understandably, many of these theological lessons overlap between the Gospels, but one of the Gospel writers may focus on one aspect of theology more than another.
Vern Sheridan Poythress writes in his book on inerrancy and the Gospels, “…the differences between the Gospels are an integral and significant part of the Gospels. The differences are there for a purpose: they help us. All the Gospels are talking about the events in ways that help us to grasp their significance and their theological implications. We do not need to feel as if we have to ‘roll back’ the significance and the implications in order to get to ‘bare’ events.”
So, when we take into account ATM (Audience, Theme, and Message) and HLT (History, Literary style, and Theology), what stands out as unique in each Gospel? Here is a brief, helpful overview of the unique focus and style of each of the 4 Gospels: Matthew “Jesus the Jewish Messiah brings salvation history to its climax, saving his people from their sins.” Noteworthy for its Jewishness, its compression, and the subtle hints of significant importance. Mark “Jesus the mighty Messiah and Son of God obediently suffers as the Servant of the Lord to pay the ransom price for sins, and as a model of suffering and sacrifice for his disciples to follow.” Noteworthy for fast-paced action and for concentration on the main points. Luke “God’s end-times salvation predicted by the prophets has arrived through the coming of Jesus the Messiah, the Savior of the world, and this salvation is now going forth to the whole world.” Noteworthy for care in historical research. Where Matthew focuses on Jesus being the Jewish Messiah, Luke focuses on Jesus being the savior of all mankind. John “Jesus is the divine Son of God who reveals the Father, providing eternal life to all who believe in him.” Noteworthy for theological depth in interpreting the significance of events. Putting ATM & HLT to Use
Can understanding the Gospels as theological and literary works help to resolve perceived historic issues?
Let’s look at an example:
In both Luke and Matthew, we find a genealogy of Jesus’ family tree. One does not have to look closely to see major differences: Jesus’ genealogy: Luke 3:23– 38; Matthew 1:1–17
Matthew: Covers Abraham to Jesus (41 generations)
Luke: Covers Adam to Jesus (76 generations)
The lists are identical from Abraham to David.
But they are different from David to Jesus; only 2 names are shared after this.
There are a few proposed theories for this. One possibility says Matthew follows King David’s royal line to Jesus’ adopted earthly father, Joseph. (Notice Matthew focuses on Joseph in the birth narrative.) Luke follows King David’s blood line to Mary. (Notice Luke focuses on Mary in the birth narrative.) Both Mary and Joseph are distant descendants of King David, and Jesus is the inheritor of both David’s royal line and blood line, as the Messiah was predicted to be.
Much more can be said about these genealogies, but we won’t go into all of it here; we simply want to look at if literary style and theological focus can effect how a Gospel writer reports historic events.
So, understanding the focus of the Gospel of Matthew and Luke, their styles, and a little information about ancient Jewish literature will help here:
Matthew lists the genealogy in 3 sections of 14 names: Abraham to David, David to the Babylonian exile, the exile to Christ.
14 may represent seven times two (seven is the number of completion/perfection in Jewish culture due to God creating everything in 6 days and “resting” on the 7th; 14 would be completion/perfection doubled!) or 14 is a numerical value of the Hebrew name “David.” The Hebrew language assigns certain numbers to certain letters and “David” equals 14. 
Matthew is the “most Jewish Gospel” and focuses on Jesus as the Jewish Messiah; thus, he starts with Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel.
Arranging Jewish genealogies in memorable structure or to emphasize certain individuals was common practice in ancient literature. Basically, not all genealogies were complete; many took acceptable literary liberties to emphasize the author’s purpose. 
Luke focuses on Jesus being the savior of the whole world, so he starts with Adam, the first man, the physical father of all of mankind.
Matthew regularly uses compression (basically, meaning he shortens things — more about this later) and organizes his Gospel both thematically and topically, not necessarily chronologically, more than the other Gospel writers.
The Gospels share similarities with other ancient histories and literary genres. For instance, ancient Greco-Roman biography or bios – sometimes called “lives” or “popular biographies” – did not strive to tell the whole life story from birth to death of its subject, but to highlight a certain aspects of the subject’s life or character.
The Gospels also share similarities with ancient Jewish Midrash (books of scripture interpretation) because it includes religious/theological explanations of the events reported.
Though many scholars have concluded there is “no known parallel to [the Gospels] in the ancient world,” and the Gospels are unique in many literary and historical ways, the Gospels still have much in common with other ancient writings.
Something to think about until next time: Mark Strauss has a book titled Four Portraits, One Jesus. How is having four Gospels similar to having four painted portraits of Jesus?
NEXT: Making sense of differences in Jesus’ words  Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1245, Kindle edition.  Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 50.  Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 32.  Ibid., 39.  Ibid., 32.  Mark L. Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 214.  Poythress, 74.  Strauss, 172.  Poythress, 74.  Strauss, 260.  Poythress, 74.  Strauss, 298.  Poythress, 74.  Strauss, 223.  Strauss, 223.  Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 312.  Eddy and Boyd, 343.  Ibid., 320.