Thursday, March 7, 2013

Writing the Gospels

Why are the first three gospels so much alike? To answer this, it is important to understand that people of ancient times had a different attitude toward writing than we do. We put a high premium on being original. They put a much higher premium on telling the story exactly as it came down to them. The Roman histories show the same tendency, often retelling the same incidents  in every similar terms. Therefore, the similarities do not prove they were not accounts derived from eyewitnesses.

Now the claim has been made that the writers of the gospels give us all the information they knew. But this does not fit the material as it stands. In every gospel there is material not found in any of the others (Mark 7:31-37; 8:22-26; 14:51,52; Matthew 1:18-2:23; 9:32-38; 17:24-27; Luke 1:1-2:52; 10:25-42; 16:19-31). There are incidents found in any two of the gospels not found in the other one (Mark 1:21-28 and Luke 4:31-37; Mark 9:39-40 and Luke 9:49-50; Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4; Mark 6:45-56 and Matthew 14:22-36; Mark 7:1-8:21 and Matthew 15:1-16:12; Mark 11:20-26 and Matthew 21:18-22; Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13; Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10; Matthew 11:2-19 and Luke 7:18-35). I am forced to conclude that the writers were selective on what information they used and that there is no basis for assuming they were ignorant of what they did not. Now it is sometimes claimed that Mark was written first and that Matthew, an apostle, would not have copied from Mark, so the gospels could not have been written by whom they are claimed to be written by. Whether Mark was first could be argued, but Mark was claimed to have written his gospel based on the memories of Peter. I cannot imagine Matthew being too proud to make use of the memories of Peter.

Another problem is that the gospel writers use the same saying in different contexts, particularly in Matthew and Luke. One opinion on this is that they had a list of sayings and just fudged together contexts for those sayings. In my opinion, the better explanation is that Jesus taught the same or similar things at different times. One of the characteristics of any speaker is that they tend to repeat the same points and illustrations. This is true, not just of a bad speaker, but also of a good speaker. A good speaker realizes people need to hear the same thing more than once for it to stick. This would also explain why we have different versions of similar sayings (Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27; Matthew 22:1-14 and Luke 14:16-24; Matthew 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-26).

There are also other, more minor differences, going down to the very words used (it is clear they did not word-for-word copy from each other, though they record the same incidents). While this is not how we would write things, none of this disproves that the gospels were written by who they are claimed to be written by.

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