So here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises.
The question: Biblical scholar C. K. Barrett writes that John 1:1–18 implies that Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s introductions to Jesus were “possibly misleading.” In what ways could this be true? Review Matthew 1, Mark 1, and Luke 1–2. What does John emphasize by introducing Jesus in a manner so different from the other Gospel writers?
(adapted from Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels)
The trend for almost all of Christian history has been to harmonize the gospels, meaning to take bits and pieces from all four of them to form one picture of Jesus. It has only been in the last 100 years or so that scholars have looked more closely at the distinct voices of each writer. When I teach this concept, I usually ask my class to imagine their four favorite meals, each one beautifully presented on its own plate. Then I ask them to imagine dicing each meal and combining them in one big bowl. Is it still appetizing? (Hint: no.)
But that’s how we usually read the gospels. Sure, the nutritional qualities are still present in the mash-up, but the colors, textures, and distinct flavors–in other words, the very things that we love about the dish–get lost when we combine them.
I’ve also presented this scenario: imagine that I removed the names from conference talks by President Packer, President Uchtdorf, President Monson, and Elder Oaks. Could you figure out who wrote which? Most likely. The stern voice of warning on moral issues belongs to Pres. Packer, the aviation analogy and gentle encouragement to Pres. Uchtdorf, the touching stories about aiding the poor and forgotten to Pres. Monson, and the one formatted like a legal brief is certainly Elder Oaks! And we can imagine what a loss it would be to homogenize those four voices since each one speaks to different needs, topics, and situations. We are truly blessed to have a variety in our church leadership and we can be blessed by the gospels in the same way if we would let them speak to us in their distinct voices. I think there is a reason there are four accounts of Jesus’ life and not just one!
This first Gospel Doctrine lesson introduces the New Testament; the purpose of the lesson is to encourage students to study the New Testament. For an LDS audience, encouraging them to read the gospels as separate texts and to specifically look for their differences can be an eye-opening experience–something that would definitely motivate further study. (Did you realize that John has no parables or exorcisms? That Mark has no nativity? The Catholic scholar Felix Just has a great website where he explores some of these differences between the gospels.)
So that was a long windup; here’s the pitch: Matthew introduces Jesus via a genealogy, Joseph’s dream, wise men, etc. Mark introduces Jesus at his own baptism. Luke focuses on Elizabeth and Mary; John on the pre-mortal Christ (to use LDS terms). What effect does each of these introductions have on the reader? What does each writer emphasize; what is downplayed? And could we maybe spin these varied approaches to Jesus’ story into greater tolerance today for those who find different aspects of Jesus’ life and mission important? How can we tell the story of Jesus in a way that will resonate with our own audiences today–as missionaries, neighbors, and friends?