In what ways are the Gospels similar to other ancient biographies & histories? How did the Gospel writers use “Narrative Creativity” in telling about the life of Jesus? How can this help us understand differences between the Gospels?
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. Ancient Biography & History
Today, we often think writings that tell of actual events should be like modern newspaper articles: Just the cold, hard facts. Many believe historical writings should be dry, factual, neutral accounts of what happened exactly as it happened.
But have you ever written an account of something that happened to you? Try it sometime: write an accurate depiction of a situation that happened with you and a friend. Then ask yourself:
How did I decide what details to put in and leave out?
What details did I focus on and why?
What was I trying to get across by including these details?
And finally: Am I able to tell a completely neutral account?
Truth is, the majority of nonfiction writing, though it may be giving factual information, still tells the story with a certain focus, angle, or slant.
For example, a historic writer may write about a unit of American soldiers in the Vietnam War. Perhaps the writer wants to communicate that the soldiers were brave, so he’ll include details and events that show how they risked their lives and faced dangerous odds. Or the author may be against the war and instead include details that show how horrible and terrifying war is for all involved. Maybe the author has a theme of brotherhood, so he focuses on the bond of the soldiers in the unit. On the other hand, if his theme is the value of human life, his story – though still reporting the same events – will look very different than if he was focused on glorifying the effectiveness of modern military technology.
Likewise, the writers of the Gospels, as we mentioned in earlier articles in this series, all had different audiences, themes, and messages (ATM). Further, ancient writers of history and biography did not write simple, dry accounts as modern readers expect to find in text books and news reports.
Scholar Jonathan Pennington writes that ancient historians had a slightly different idea than modern Westerners of what was considered historically accurate reporting. They “exercised greater freedom of composition than their modern counterparts when reporting real, historical events.” Yet, “None of this means, however, that most ancient historians felt free to simply make up events.” Thus, “Note that we are not talking about whether these things really happened – on this the Gospels and the church fathers rightly are univocal, ‘Yes they did!’ – but rather, on how these things are retold. The reporting and retelling of the Gospel events necessarily follow ancient conventions, not our own.”
Today, people often expect nonfiction reports to be straightforward, textbook-like accounts. But this is not even the case with modern writing. For example, many books written today are historical works, but they are written like novels, such as Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden and Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose.
There are two things we should note about this sort of writing:
(1) Because it’s not just a dry, historical report, it makes for more enjoyable reading and reaches a wider audience. I think it’s safe to say most people would rather sit down and read something that reads like a novel rather than a scholarly journal article or a text book description of historical events.
(2) The author, though working to report the true events accurately, will use story-telling devices (like metaphors, suspense, symbolism, character development) to tell the factual story.
Similarly, the Gospel writers used narrative creativity in their writing, and this would have been expected and perfectly acceptable in their time. Ancient historical writers and biographers could be much more creative in their presentation of the factual material. Contra the modern idea of dry, factual accounts, the Gospel writers had much more freedom in constructing the stories of Jesus than a modern newspaper writer.
Before we look at this further, let me point out two things:
(1) Though the Gospel writers present the information in ways with more narrative creativity than a modern text book and they may omit or include details not found in the other Gospels, they still report all of the same information on the core details of the life of Jesus: his ministry, death, and resurrection.
(2) Though I am arguing here that the Gospel accounts have more “narrative creativity” than modern newspaper reports, all of the Gospels are still factual and straightforward. When compared to mythology (as skeptics often claim the Gospels are) we see an overwhelming lack of embellished and grandiose language in the Gospels, especially when compared to writings that are plainly mythological. In fact, when the Gospels report something miraculous, even the resurrection of Jesus, the frank, factual nature of the reports are unignorable.
Let’s look at how the Gospels have more “narrative creativity” than modern text books and newspaper articles, which will help us to understand why we see some variations between the Gospels.
Freedom within a Framework
Narrative freedom within a factual framework in ancient history and biography, includes:
Selective Telescoping & Compressing
(And Knowing some History & Culture Helps)
We will look at “Selective Details” below, and then the others in our following blog articles.
(1) Selective Details
As discussed earlier, this isn’t a characteristic unique to ancient historic writing, but all nonfiction writing. It’s simply impossible to include all information, so the author must be selective about what he or she includes and omits.
A good writer chooses details for a good reason. When you read, ask yourself: Why did the Gospel author include this detail? What does he want to communicate to us?
Thus, one Gospel writer may include a detail another author may not and vice versa.
To illustrate, let’s look at the example of Joseph of Arimathea. All 4 Gospels tell of him, but give us some different details about him:
Matthew 27:57-58: “As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him.”
Mark 15:43: “Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.”
Luke 23:50-52: “Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body.”
John 19:38: “Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away.” Now, let’s ask: What details about Joseph of Arimathea are only reported in one Gospel?
Went “boldly” to Pilate
“Prominent” member of the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin)
Good and upright
Did not consent to Jesus’ crucifixion
Waiting for the Kingdom of God to come
Secret disciple of Jesus
Notice how all four accounts give some different details about Joseph but none of them contradict the other. In fact, they compliment each other.
Furthermore, each gives us different details, adding to our overall understanding of Joseph. By having 4 independent accounts, we receive a more comprehensive portrait of the man that is Joseph of Arimathea and a deeper understanding of what he did.
Before closing, let’s do one more thing: If we ignore all details not included in all four Gospels and take only the details included in all four, what are we left with concerning Joseph of Arimathea?
He was a man from Arimathea who asked Pilate for Jesus’ body after His crucifixion.
Differences due to narrative creativity do not lead to contradictions but to deeper understanding and to an assurance of the accuracy of these historical reports.
NEXT: Narrative Creativity of the Gospels: Selective Representation & Chronology. Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1362, Kindle edition.  Ibid., Loc 1355.  Ibid., Loc 1368.  Ibid., Loc 1379.  Ibid., Loc 1415.  Ibid., Loc 1360.