Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Similarity of the Gospels

Why are three of the New Testament Gospels so similar? This seems suspicious to the modern reader. Whatever they are, they are not mere slavishly-produced copies. Each uses its own words to describe the same incidents. This is especially clear in the Greek. Also, there are incidents in any one of the three that are not in the other two. There are also incidents found in any combination of two gospels that are not found in the other. There are also descriptions of incidents, particularly in Luke, that are so different from the others that they argue for an independent source and perhaps even for different but similar incidents (Luke 4:16-30; 5:1-11; 7:36-50). (For comparison, see Matthew 13:53-58; 4:18-22; 26:6-13.) The logical conclusion is that each of the gospel writers chose those particular things he wanted to include out of the information he had. While there may be cases where some writer knew information the others did not have, I would not conclude that every incident left out proves the author's ignorance of it.

There are also cases where the same or a similar saying is spoken in different contexts in different gospels. This is not surprising since, as anyone who as listened to a speaker over a long period of time knows, there is a tendency for speakers to repeat the same statements and illustrations. This is not only a characteristic of a bad speaker, but a good speaker. Repetition is one way to firmly plant an idea in a hearer's mind. But writing is a different medium, and a writer would want to reduce such things to a minimum. Nor does it make sense to believe that the sayings of Jesus were lost and later recovered. If there is anything we remember about famous people, it is generally their sayings. If Mark left them out, it was because he not did see Jesus as mainly a moral philosopher, but the Son of God who came to pay the ransom for sin (Mark 10:45).

Why then the repetition? It was common in the ancient world for writers to have the idea they should repeat the record as they heard it. (See the similarities between Samuel and  Kings, and Chronicles.) Or if you look at the Roman historians you will see the same tendency. They valued consistency over originality. But even today, if you read a number of biographies of the same person, there is a tendency  to find an accepted way that person's story is told; the same sayings and incidents tend to crop up. I suspect that there grew up early a standard way to tell the story of Jesus. I also suspect that in that time, when books were scarce, this record was normally memorized. When the writers wrote the gospels they used this standard narrative, taking from it those parts that fit their purpose. John, which was probably the last written, emphasized things not already found in the other gospels. But I see no reason to believe they simply copied from one another.

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