October 21, 2020

Ten Guidelines for Interpreting the Gospels

gospelsMODERATION is on.

1. Don’t harmonize the Gospels. That’s like taking four paintings and combining them into one. You come up with something no one painted and no one intended to paint. Let each Gospel author be an artist in his own right. However, a Gospel synopsis, such as those available from UBS, are very useful and important in comparing Gospel texts to one another WITHOUT harmonizing them.

2. When you interpret anything in the Gospels as if the words were spoken or the incident happened in the contemporary world (especially the west), you are almost certainly headed in the wrong direction. The Gospels come to us from another time and place. They aren’t inaccessible, but they require us to let them be what they are and not attempt to contemporize them.

3. Jesus did and said a lot of things that he didn’t explain. Ever. At all. I don’t believe there are special keys to understanding difficult sayings laying around for us to find in some spiritual treasure hunt. If Jesus first century hearers were often confused, then we will probably be confused too some of the time.

4. Our modern computer concordances- English or original languages- do not help us as much as many preachers and scholars claim. Be cautious in how much one scripture “explains” or even “enlightens” another. We have to hear a text the way others heard it, and YES, there may be nuances and references to other scripture at work, but be cautious. Very cautious. Some people think a computer Bible makes them a Biblical genius. Sometimes, it’s quite the opposite.

5. Beware of anyone in Biblical studies- whether it’s Perry Stone or Bart Ehrman- who is out on a limb by themselves. Scholarly consensus may by slow, but it is necessary and important. Ehrman’s boldness comes from his refusal to take peer review seriously. Preachers like Perry Stone and Rob Bell who claim to have little known rabbinic or first century cultural insights are usually taking minority positions that are risky or even rejected and advertising them as legitimate. It’s worth understanding and appreciating the slow task of Biblical scholarship, so when a guy like Everett Ferguson publishes a lifetime study of baptism, it has some real gravitas.

6. Big ideas dominate the Gospels: Who is Jesus? What kind of messiah is he? What does it mean to be a disciple? How does the law and the temple relate to Jesus? What do we learn from Jesus’ suffering? How did the resurrection change everything? What is the Kingdom of God? The smaller the question, the less likely it is that the Gospels are answering it directly. Perhaps indirectly or less than certainly.

7. Textual criticism is very important, because many textual variants are about changing interpretations of Jesus’ words. Phillip Comfort’s Text and Translation Commentary on the New Testament is a must have. Form and source criticism are also useful tools, even if just to understand why the other Gospels lose Mark’s “messianic secret” or Matthew changes Kingdom of God to Kingdom of heaven. And, of course, there’s Mark 16 and John 8. All important parts of serious Gospel study.

8. The Gospels were, with the possible exception of a very early Mark, written after most of the early and Pauline epistles. This is a very, very important piece of information in understanding the Gospels. The epistles show us what Christianity looked like organically, and this helps us understand the emphases of the Gospels in relation to the developing church. The Gospels came out of the environment of being church, church planting, church problems and church mission. The Gospels “sync” with this. I don’t mean to imply that Paul knew (or had before him) all the material that is in all of the Gospels- I don’t believe he did. But I believe Paul is aware of the core texts and core issues in the Gospels.

9. The study of the historical Jesus is important. Not the quest to discover a new Jesus or to shock the world with scandals about Jesus and the church, but the quest to understand better Jesus as the church knows him and proclaims him. Yoder, Recovering Jesus, is a priceless addition. Also, Griffith-Jones, The Four Witnesses. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God is life-changing. Many scholars that you might not let preach in your church have done good and helpful work on the historical Jesus and his world. I have benefited enormously from the work of Borg, Hays and Crossan. Be willing to be challenged, but keep your anchor in the Jesus of the church.

10. Make the study of the Gospels a lifelong passion. Pick one and stay with it for years and decades. Become conversant with higher levels of scholarship in your chosen Gospel and you will have rich insights into all of them. Don’t limit yourself to older authors who rarely understood the value of critical scholarship, but simply used the text to make sermons. Seek to understand Jesus. Determine to come closer to Jesus historically and personally as you come to understand the Gospels better.


  1. Let’s recall what I said about Rob Bell:

    >Preachers like …Rob Bell who claim to have little known rabbinic or first century cultural insights are usually taking minority positions that are risky or even rejected and advertising them as legitimate.

    The best analysis of Bell- and by an appreciator not participating in “hate speech”- is Ben Witherington III.

    All BW’s critiques of Bell are indexed here. http://mattdabbs.wordpress.com/2008/02/20/ben-witherington-on-rob-bell/

    BWIII is a qualified academic expert on the social and rhetorical world of the first century. He is in a good position to critique Bell.

    My only point was that Bell and many other teachers take minority positions and present them as standard. Neither I nor BW are accusing Bell of anything more than needing some more perspective on cultural background info.



  2. Todd Erickson says

    Oh, absolutely, wasn’t being sarcastic at all.

    I run into a lot of trouble finding reliable scholars who can tell me about the work of other pastors or scholars, and you being one that I respect, I wanted your insight.

    Thank you.

  3. Michael, could you clarify what you mean by “don’t harmonize”?

    Do you simply mean, “Study each one on its own, to understand the picture of Jesus painted by each author. These pictures are not identical; each author had particular concerns & emphases in mind.” ?

    In other words, “Don’t try to make them identical”?

    Or are you actually saying, “Don’t worry about whether they’re compatible or contradictory”?

  4. I mean

    1) Study each one on its own as a unique literary creation from a unique situation.

    2) Don’t force them to say the same things if they don’t

    3) Don’t worry about apparent disagreements. (Unless you are aware of some level of disagreement that I’ve missed, those disagreements are insignificant unless you have a very strict view of inerrancy.)



  5. #3 was the question–particularly the issue of kinds of disagreement.

    Take Bart Ehrman’s most recent book. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read it yet, I only know what it’s about in general terms.) It’s about contradictions between the gospels. If you respond to that with “We don’t need to harmonize the gospels,” it could mean two things:

    1.) It doesn’t matter whether the gospels contradict each other.
    2.) Those kinds of disagreements (or “disagreements”) are not meaningful.

    It sounds like you’re saying something closer to the second, right?

  6. If the contradictions were significant, it would be a significant problem, but when did Jesus turn over the tables of the money changers in John vs Mark or how many angels were at the tomb or was John at the cross don’t qualify as significant to me.

  7. Thanks for the link. I also appreciated the reference to the fellow member of the Churches of Christ – Everett Ferguson.

    Rob Bell has some excellent material but it has to be taken with a grain of salt. Like his take on the virgin birth and contemporary culture as Ben bar WII critiques in the links above. If you find yourself saying, “Wow, I never heard that before” it is probably best to find at least a couple other people saying something similar or at least for it to fit sound exegetical and socio/cultural perspectives.

  8. Are you saying, “The two authors really did flat-out contradict each other in what they were specifically affirming, but it doesn’t matter because it’s a small detail”?

    Another option being, “The accounts differ, but the authors were not intending to affirm, ‘There was one and only one angel’ versus ‘There were two and precisely two angels’.”

    I think someone like Michael Patton–whom you know well, and who also doesn’t prefer the word “inerrancy”–would go with the latter. He would say, “Inspiration requires that the Bible is true in what it affirms, in as much detail or specificity as it affirms.”

    If you’re going with the first, then you’re saying, “Inspired Scripture can get the details wrong, as long as they’re minor details.”

  9. P.S. Er… I should reword something. I should have said, “in what they actually did affirm”, instead of “in what they were specifically affirming”.

    The latter makes it sound like I was talking about details that were the focus of a verse or passage, as opposed to incidental details. That not what I meant.

    I was talking about a detail like, “About three hours later, Jesus said…”–where the passage definitely communicates something particular about the timeline, regardless of whether it was an important detail.

  10. JohnB5200 says

    Excellent post. Probably the best essay I have seen on principles for teaching the Gospels.
    I have been teaching Luke in Adult Bible Class for the past 8 months and can concur, from my experience, with all your points.

  11. N.T. Wright is AWESOME.
    I keep hearing more and more good things about Yoder Neufeld–have you read his Commentary on Ephesians?

  12. “If the contradictions were significant, it would be a significant problem, but when did Jesus turn over the tables of the money changers in John vs Mark or how many angels were at the tomb or was John at the cross don’t qualify as significant to me.”

    I, for one, would love to read more of your thoughts along these lines. You’re echoing where my own faith and understanding has developed, but I have trouble articulating it.

    I feel like I know what the Bible *isn’t* – it’s not a magic book or a scientific treatise or an impersonal, objective record of purely historical events – but I have trouble saying what it *is*, and how it differs from other religious texts.

  13. I would recommend Mark D. Roberts’s series on “Are the NT Gospels Reliable?” for thoughts on oral transmission of traditions. It contains good stuff to rebut arguments about authorship and therefore reliability.

  14. Aranion,

    One of the things that leads to “contradictions” of time and details just boils down to two different story tellers emphasizing different things. Theologically, John is emphasizing different themes than Mark and places the money changers in a position that is both theologically significant and significant to the flow of his narrative to emphasize points that Mark isn’t trying to make. So to say it is an error because two authors place it at different points in time misses the point entirely. They aren’t giving us a scientific and chronologically specific rundown of events. They are emphasizing themes that bring out different memories and events at different points that are placed together in a way significant to the author and intended for his audience. So when you get two different authors writing for two different audiences from a non-21st century point of view, there is no wonder that at times things are ordered different. It is only a discrepancy if both authors are making a point that they are telling us precisely when the events happened rather than just what happened. If they both say it happened at this time and they give us different times, then we have a discrepancy. But as it stands in the text that is not the point either Mark or John are trying to make.

  15. Jason S. Kong says

    Hi iMonk,

    I thought I’d mention this person’s take on your article, since I didn’t see it on trackback or anything.


  16. Jason just linked to my article inspired by this post, so I thought I’d add my two cents – I really liked this piece, Michael. It’s a great expression of a viewpoint that is not inerrantist and yet is thoroughly conservative, showing that the two are not necessarily wedded to each other.

  17. Bill Bryant says

    You mentioned Everett Ferguson and his study of baptism. Check out Rees Bryant’s book “Baptism: Why Wait?” He’s another sober voice (my father’s) nudging the evangelical world back toward a sinner’s prayer that gets you wet.