The Nature of the Gospels
The four gospels are documents which represent early Christian understandings of who Jesus was and the significance of His life for their communities. The early church accepted the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as scriptural documents which proclaimed the story of Jesus with apostolic authority, in accordance with the apostolic teaching, and playing a role in the church’s worship (Yoder Neufield 30). While they represent the historical life of Jesus, they are not mere biographies but are theological interpretations of His life’s significance (Yoder Neufield 42). There are six major tools which serve to evaluate and make sense of the historical value the gospels have (Yoder Neufield 43-46). First is the “criterion of dissimilarity” which seeks differences between Jesus, his Jewish contemporaries, and later Christians (43). Second is the “criterion of multiple attestation” which looks for various sources, not exclusively the four gospels, which attest to the same teaching or event in the life of Jesus (44). The third is the “criterion of coherence” which evaluates whether or not a statement of Jesus is consistent with statements which are known to be authentic (44). Next is the “criterion of Palestinian coloring” which looks for features of the gospels which fit in what is known of first century Palestine (44). Fifth is the “criterion of rejection and execution”. What kind of statements could have created the circumstances of his execution (45)? Finally, the criterion of double similarity/double dissimilarity seeks to find elements of Jesus’ life which fit both his Jewish roots and the later Christian community which would grow around his memory (45). These six tools endeavor to see through the theological interpretations of the gospels to find the historical Jesus they point to and reflect on. Though the gospels give historians material to understand who Jesus was historically, they arrange their material in a manner which seeks to provide a theological interpretation of His life’s significance. An example of their theological arrangement can be found in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew seeks to cast Jesus as a Moses figure, a presentation unique to his Gospel. Several elements of his gospel serve to highlight his interpretation of Jesus’ life. First, he provides a birth story set in the violent reign of Herod the Great who orders the execution of all young boys in Bethlehem to prevent the anticipated birth of the “King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:16-18), a scene familiar from the birth of Moses who was himself born during the mass slaughter of young Israelite males by Pharaoh (Exodus 2; Yoder Neufield 64). Second, Matthew presents Jesus as a master teacher of the Torah, reinterpreting it in an even more stringent matter than his contemporaries, the Pharisees. Jesus explicitly says: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:18-20; Yoder Neufield 64-65). All four gospel writers employ similar devices in their telling of the Jesus story to communicate to their communities how the historical life of Jesus is meant to be understood by the easy Christian communities.
Yoder Neufeld, Thomas R. Recovering Jesus: the Witness of the New Testament. Society for Promoting Christian, 2007.