The New Testament makes a radical break from the Old.
Just how radical? That is the question, one with different answers according to the different authors of the Gospels. Rather than endeavoring to understand God’s relationship with a select group of chosen followers (the primary preoccupation of the Old Testament), the New Testament concerns itself with the unification of all people under the worship of God’s semi-human ambassador, Jesus of Nazareth. The Hebrew Bible continually sets the Israelites apart from other tribes and races, reinforcing their exalted status in the eyes of a sometimes-approving, sometimes-punishing deity. It spends a lot of airtime punishing Israelite attempts to forge connections, political and familial, with outsiders—condemning miscegenation and reliance on foreign powers as expedient allies, for their tendency to become God’s competition. Christianity places Jesus in this continuum while opening the religion to converts. Thus, authors of the New Testament Gospels were under dual pressures to make Jesus’ teachings relevant to Jews raised on the Tanakh’s messianic prophesies and to Gentiles raised on entirely different worldviews, with different pantheons and teleologies. Each of the Gospels—Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John (for that is the likely order in which they were written)—reflects shifting needs in the establishment of an organized church, responding to the unique demands and conflicts of its time, location, and target population it addresses. While some, such as Matthew, endeavor to forge connections between Old Testament stories, prophesies, and preoccupations, making Jesus into the fulfillment of earlier promises, others, such as Luke, focus on Jesus’ proselytizing as a model for the church’s missionary purpose. All the Gospels are needed, however, to define and inculcate the meaning of a new religion of unification; they are the connective tissue between the old and the new, between disparate classes, cultures, and races, and together they create a religion of truly global scope.
One way to account for the differences between the Gospels is the fact that from their first telling to their canonization, the stories of Jesus’ life and teachings transitioned from oral traditions to codified written ones. In “Can the Gospels Be Trusted?” Reverend Samuel McComb observes that “More than a Generation separated the writers from the facts,” and very little was written before the Gospels (347). In an oral history, there is inevitable slippage between one teller and another, even more so as the original stories were translated into different languages. Further, the same stories take on various meanings and emphases as they are adapted for one audience to the next. What makes sense, for instance, to an illiterate rural community would necessarily need to be changed to appeal to an educated urban elite. In a period of transition from oral accounts to writing, we might expect legends to creep in to the historical text, and meanings to shift in response to the needs of a changing church. In Understanding the Bible, Stephen L. Harris notes that, “Until a tradition is finally fixed in writing, it is characterized by extreme fluidity, changing with each fresh recitation,” and the Gospels, in aggregate, are this kind of text, containing “a wide range of variation in what appear to have been the same sayings” (328). For instance, Matthew credits Jesus with saying that “whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matt. 12:30). Mark records an opposite—and, one could argue, mutually exclusive—contention with, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). This discrepancy suggests not that one Evangelist was lying or incorrect: rather, it points to differences in the ways individuals interpreted or translated an oral saying. Matthew’s author was addressing Jews who were raised on stories of their own uniqueness in God’s eyes, and so his interpretation reflects this exclusivity. Luke’s audience, on the other hand, are Gentiles, being welcomed into Jesus’ ministry, so the message is one of universality. Whatever Jesus actually said, the world is richer, not poorer, for these disparate interpretations.
In addition to the natural evolution of orally-transmitted stories, we might examine the order in which the Gospels were written—as opposed to the order in which they appear—to provide some clues as to why they diverge. According to Harris, Mark’s is the oldest (though it appears second in the Gospels themselves), and is known as the “wartime” Gospel, written between 66-70 CE (328). It is terse, to the point, and draws a relationship between Jesus’ holy suffering and the suffering of the Jews around the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Next were the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, composed between 80-90 CE, who expand, in the leisure of peacetime, on Mark and the recorded sayings of Jesus. They each adapt their styles to their target audiences. Matthew generates links to Isaiah and other Old Testament Prophets, while Luke’s style enfranchises other races and cultures, redefining God’s “chosen people” as all people who worship Jesus. John, which diverges dramatically from the synoptic Gospels, was composed between 90-100 CE, and is much more preoccupied with establishing Jesus as the Son of God, thus splitting irrevocably from what came before. John’s author tells the stories with a greater emphasis on Christ’s exceptionality in history, and “The extent to which John depicts the mortal Jesus as already manifesting divinity is unique to his Gospel” (Harris 323). Thus, we see an increasing emphasis on Jesus as an infallible, supernatural entity. We see Him in the increasing splendor of his divinity, until His greatness can hardly be contained within the pages of the book. John’s author concludes his account with the words, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I supposed that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). By now, Jesus has grown larger than life. The dilation of Jesus from a very special man who exists along the continuum of the Old Testament prophets to the end-all-and-be-all of the Christian faith—the single point of human access to the divine—is a journey readers trace when reading the Gospels chronologically.
While the discrepancies between the Gospels might cause skepticism among those of us raised on modern concepts of scientific and empirical truth, the New Testament feels like a more honest account of humanity’s struggle with meaning than a contemporary biography, with its emphasis on confirmed fact and citation. McComb goes so far as to say that the search for truth originates in disagreement—indeed, needs disagreement. He notes that “law-courts resound daily with… contradictions [like those in the Gospels], yet nobody think of giving up the search for truth and justice” (349). His point is well-taken. In Matthew, the author offers an anecdote about Jesus’ comments at a wedding, focusing on the expulsion of inappropriate guests to illustrate that, in the end, “many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14). Luke, on the other hand, wants the wedding to be a metaphor for how all are welcomed to the metaphorical wedding: “when you give a banquet,” he says, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:13-14). The actual events of an actual wedding are, at this point, immaterial. The meaning we make of these accounts are all that is important. In the distinction between these two wedding accounts, we see Matthew’s author upholding the Old Testament tradition of group cohesion and rule-following. Luke, the author of which never claims to be an eye-witness to this wedding, and has already seen the effects of Christ’s teachings on converts, represents the aims of a church that wishes to welcome the whole world to salvation. McComb smells a rat in unbroken consensus, saying, “substantial truth in circumstantial variety is so much the character of human testimony that any exact agreement of witnesses is regarded with suspicion” (349). The disagreement between the Gospels makes him trust them more, not less.
All Gospels agree that “Jesus was not an ordinary figure of history but a person of supernatural abilities whose teachings and sacrificial death had the power to confer salvation and immortality on those who believed in him” (Harris 322). McComb contends that the picture of Jesus that emerges from the Gospels is actually quite unified. In his words, Jesus is:
A true Son of Man, who… was the consistent foe of materialism and conventionality in religion… [and] the true servant of humanity who loved all men with a sacred passion in the strength of which on their behalf he laid down his life (350).
Indeed, the variety within the Gospels likely accounts, in part, for Christianity’s rise in the world: they have a little something for everyone. They diverge, but are holistic in their rendering of their holy figure. “Each Evangelist,” says Harris, “arranges his story of Jesus primarily to convey a particular understanding of Jesus’ theological significance” (324), though the centrality of Jesus is key to all the Gospels. Says McComb: “Matthew’s picture [of Jesus] is ‘prophetic,’ Mark’s is ‘realistic,’ Luke’s is ‘idealistic;’ yet these are not three pictures but one” (350). A unified church, a unified portrait, the Gospels nevertheless allow for a flexible interpretation of Christ’s divinity and message, and thus pave the way for the establishment of a new, profoundly different church, connected to, but radically distinctive from, what came before.
Behan, Warren Palmer. “The Trustworthiness of the Gospels—A Brief Catechism.” The Biblical World, Vol. 26, No. 5, Nov. 1905, pp. 364-77.
Harris, Steven L. Understanding the Bible, 8th Edition. New York: The McGraw Hill Publishing Group, Inc., 2011.
McComb, Samuel. “Can the Gospels Be Trusted?” The Biblical World, Vol. 30, No. 5, Nov. 1907, pp. 346-51.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Edited by Michael T. Coogan et al. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.