In my new-found love for reading the Bible, I’ve decided to share with you the occasional discoveries I make, in the hopes that you too will find a passion for reading Scriptures. In fact, this may be a good Lenten resolution as you journey towards Holy Week. The question of today is this: Should we read the Bible literally? In particular, can we read the Gospels literally?
There is no question about it: the Gospels can be read literally. Throughout the last two centuries, thousands have, and scores of volumes have been written to make this case: If the Gospels (in effect, the whole Bible) are the “word of God”, how can they not be true? And that’s the real question: Are the Gospels true? The issue is not one of literal understanding, but one of authority; one of meaning and truth.
So, let’s look at the Gospels.
At first glance, even before you read the Gospels, you will notice that there are four accounts of the life of Christ. These are called the “Gospels”, a word adapted from the old English, “godspel”, meaning “good message”. It comes from the Greek “euangelion” which translates as “reward for bringing good news,” from where the Latin word “evangelium” comes. This is the first clue to the Gospels: They are good news.
The second clue is found in the fact that there are four narratives: Why not combine all of them into one, clear, succinct, non-contradictory narrative? A look at the book of Genesis makes me ask the same question. There are two completely different creation stories. Does that mean that one is true and the other one isn’t? Can it mean that they are both true? Can it mean that they are included to make it very clear to the reader that they are not intended as historical, factual, chronological and scientific truth, but rather serve a different purpose?
While I will not go as far as saying that the four Gospels narratives contradict each other, they do tell the story, each from a different point of view. Why then, include all four, as separate narratives? It is clear to me that the purpose is to point to different aspects of the same story. I don’t think this takes away from the truth of the story; rather it helps the reader understand the story at different levels.
Think of it this way: If we were to round up four witnesses to a crime, we would expect there to be inconsistencies in their retelling of the event. Each would tell the story from their own point of view, based on their own prejudices, bias and experience. Plus, each would be able to add a different perspective to the story. If the four versions were exactly the same, any investigator would suspect corroboration. They would doubt the accuracy, because it is impossible for four different people to recall an event in the same exact way. If you watched the movie Vantage Point
, you know what I mean.
Add to that the fact that the Gospels were written in a language that is not the mother tongue of the writers (except Luke, whose mother tongue is clearly Greek) and that at least two of the writers (Mark and Luke) were not personal eyewitnesses of the accounts. They had to rely on third-parties. Even for Matthew and John, if in fact they were first-hand witnesses of the events, to write something 40-50 years after the fact, with factual accuracy, is a difficult task.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Why were the Gospels written? According to most biblical scholars, the four Gospels were written at different times for different purposes. According to Peter Kreeft, in his book, You Can Understand the Bible
, (published by Ignatius Press) Matthew wrote primarily for Jews (his account may have even been written in Hebrew first), Mark wrote for Romans, Luke for Greeks and John wrote for everyone.
Most scholars agree that Matthew’s Gospel, dated at about 70-100 AD, seems to be concerned mainly with how Jesus is the Messiah. He seems concerned with how Jesus fulfills Old Testament Prophecies. Tradition attributes this Gospel to Matthew, the disciple who was a tax-collector. Gary Wills, in What the Gospels Meant
(Penguin Books), sees Matthew as the book of the teaching body of Jesus as it shows Jesus mostly in instruction.
Mark , dated to the late 60s-early 70s AD omits those things that would be meaningful only to Jews. According to Kreeft, Romans were concerned with “getting things done” and so that is how Mark presents the story of Jesus. Mark is said to have been a disciple of Peter, and if so, it is possible that his accounts are based on Peter’s own recollections (although not everyone agrees). The brevity of the Gospel, the “sticking to the facts” and the urgency in the writing (The words “immediately” and “at once” occur in Mark’s gospel forty-two times) seem to imply a need to get the message disseminated as quickly as possible. Wills sees Mark as the book of the suffering body of Jesus, as in it we find Jesus present in persecution.
Luke was a Greek doctor (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 1:24), a gentile convert and a disciple of Paul. His Gospel is dated to the 80s, early 90s AD and seems to be writing mainly for Greek converts (again, not everyone agrees). He writes his Gospel to someone named Theophilus so that “you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed”( Luke 1:4 ). Luke seems to emphasise Jesus’ humanity: his compassion and his feelings. According to Gary Wills, Luke shows Jesus mostly in consolation, and so he sees it as the book of the reconciling body of Christ.
The Gospel of John is traditionally set apart from the first three, which are termed as the “synoptic Gospels,” because of its radical difference in style and approach. According to early Church Father Irinaeus (ca. 180) the author of the Gospel of John is the disciple John, the “disciple Jesus loved”( John 19:26 ), the brother of James, son of Zebedee, who lived in Ephesus, the whom Jesus included in his close circle of friends. It is said to have been written between 80 and 110 AD. John makes his purpose for writing very clear: “these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God and that through believing your may have life in his name” (John 20:31 ). According to Peter Kreeft, John makes a strong case for our salvation. He is not concerned so much with the facts of the life of Jesus, but rather that Jesus is God incarnate. Wills agrees in that John shows Jesus present in mystical exaltation. He thus refers to the Gospel of John as the book of the mystical body of Jesus.
Now, I am not an expert, but this is what I’ve discovered from reading a bit. Thousands of books have been written as to why the Gospels were written, but my purpose here is just to show that four completely different persons, having had four completely different post-resurrection experiences, writing under four different realities, had to produce four different versions of the same story.
What most scholars do agree on is that the early telling of the “good news” of the story of Jesus centred on his passion and resurrection, and so, they were almost built upon backwards. The Gospels begin with creed, a belief in Jesus’ divinity, his meaning, and all biographical memories are fitted to them later, when the Gospels are written. Gary Wills concludes: “those biographical memories were present from the outset, but were put in order only as they conformed to the most important fact about Jesus – that his resurrection proved that he was the Messiah.”
Another point to consider is that, were the Gospels to be written in our day, the approach would have been quite different. We cannot see them as history as that term is understood today. Gary Wills explains: “They are not history at all. They are not drawn from firsthand testimony or documents. They do not use archives – for instance, court records for the trial of Jesus, birth records for his genealogy, or chronological markers for his time line.” They are more prayer, than biography.
What does this mean for us as we read the Gospels? Does it mean that each Gospel writer was “adapting” facts so as to meet his own agenda or the agenda of their community? What does it make out of the claim that the Bible is “the word of God” and that it is “inspired by God”?
To answer this, we must turn to another question: How were the Gospels written? The second ending of the Gospel of Mark (traditionally understood as an addition, probably not even written by Mark, but written in the second century and appended later so as to soften the first abrupt ending of Mark) concludes with Christ’s great commission: “Go into the all world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” ( Mark 16:15 ) This was the disciples’ first and foremost mission: to “tell the good news.” According to the Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels
, (Approved by Paul VI, on April 21, 1964) the apostles would have taken seriously this command and therefore faithfully recounted Jesus’ life and words (See Acts 10:36-41 ), taking into account the circumstances of their hearers. Also, after the resurrection, the divinity of Christ understood, each pre-resurrection story would have been infused with a post-resurrection bias. Just as Jesus, after the resurrection had interpreted scriptures to the disciples (see Luke 24:27, 45), now they too “interpreted” his words and deeds according to the needs of their listeners. And so, the earliest form of “telling the Good News” is of catechetical nature, to teach, and not of biographical or historical nature. These teachings would have been not only preserved as an oral “history” and as instruction, but also integrated into early forms of liturgy, hymns and prayers.
The Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels continues to explain that as the twelve apostles, and all first-hand eye witnesses of the accounts began to grow old and die, there was a need to “draw up a narrative” and write it down. Each writer (or schools of writers) followed the method most suitable to the special purposes they had (as briefly speculated above). The Instruction says: “They selected certain things out of the many which had been handed on; some they synthesized, some they explained with an eye to the situation of the churches, painstakingly using every means of bringing home to their readers the solid truth of the things in which they had been instructed.” And so, events may not be arranged chronologically, but logically, according to topic or theme and some details of the stories may have been added to make a particular point, rather than to express a fact of what really happened.
Let me give you an example: Think of Peter’s response to Jesus’ “who do men say that I am” at Caesarea Philippi, described in Matt 16: 13-16, Mark 8:27-30 and in Luke 9:18-20. Mark ends the passage with Peter confessing that Jesus is “the Messiah (the Christ).” Luke has him say “the Messiah (or the Christ) of God” and Matthew has Peter saying, “You are the Messiah (or Christ), the Son of the Living God.” What did Peter really say? The point is that no matter what really transcribed between Peter and Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, the Gospel writers want to make clear that Jesus is the “Messiah”, the “Messiah of God” and the “Christ, the Son of the Living God”, respectively.
So, next time you read the Gospels (or any part of the Bible), think of it as a teaching document, not as a historical document. Don’t ask, “what really happened”, but, “what does this mean, what does it mean about how Jesus acts in my life today?” That’s how the Gospels really speak to us today.
Next time, we’ll look at what the Catholic Church says about how we must read Sacred Scriptures in the context of Church tradition.