Imagine your four favorite meals. Now imagine them cut into bite-sized pieces and combined into one dish. That’s how we usually read the story of Jesus: we take four distinct stories and combine them into one. While the nutritive value is still there, whatever interesting textures or flavor combinations or visual appeal they once had is lost.

Most scholars recognize the following unique emphases in each gospel:

Matthew seems focused on showing how Jesus fits into Jewish prophecy and the Old Testament. This is done through frequent references to the fulfillment of OT prophecy as well as, some scholars believe, structuring the gospel in a way to suggest that Jesus is a new Moses (more on this in a future post perhaps).

Mark is focused on the theme of discipleship: What makes a good disciple? Why do some people stay true?

Luke is the gospel that Thomas S. Monson would have written had he had the assignment to write a gospel: it is wall-to-wall widows and orphans.

John is philosophical and cosmological and, paradoxically, full of simple concrete nouns (light, bread, water) that make first-year Greek students sigh in relief. (Interestingly, Luke’s concern for the down and out is paired with the most sophisticated Greek in the New Testament.)

My completely unsubstantiated suspicion is that, historically as well as today, the differences (many of which are not easily, if at all, reconcilable) between the four gospel accounts leave most readers feeling more comfortable ignoring the fact that there are four separate accounts and treating them as one. I’m sure our modern historicist biases contribute to this as well. But it’s worth remembering that there are four separate, distinct, unique accounts of Jesus’ life in the scriptures, not one.

14 comments for “Gospels

  1. I think you’re right, Julie.

    There is a great deal of effort spent on “reconciling” the gospels and most LDS lessons hop back and forth between them. Next time I’ll try focusing on one at a time and see if it brings any new insights.

  2. If I find myself in a position to be teaching the gospels, I will try to remember this and see what happens when they are studied as distinct accounts. I am certain that there will be much to be gained. I think, though, that I will teach them without giving an overview of the purpose of the author, to see if, after reading, those in the class are able to determine the same purpose or a different one.

  3. Great post. The purposes of the four gospels is something I’ve tried to teach in my Sunday School this year. Whenever we read a story, one of the first questions I ask is “Why do you think the author included this story?” I think it’s helped my students understand the readings a lot better.

    I think that in harmonizing the gospels we concern ourselves with trying to hand-wave away the differences, or maybe we focus too much on the differences, but by recognizing them as four different literary works, we realize that we don’t have to. Imagine a history book, a memoir, an inspirational book, and a piece of political propaganda all written about 9/11. They’re all going to tell the story differently and will include some things and leave out other things that might be covered by the others. It doesn’t mean that any of them are inherently wrong though.

    I had to LOL at your description of Luke, though. I’ve always heard that Luke was a Greek statesman trying to show that Jesus was an upstanding citizen rather than the rabble-rouser that rumors portrayed him to be. It makes sense, then, that Luke’s Greek would be the hardest to read, since he’s likely the only native Greek of the 4, and in writing to a public official he probably wanted his language to be more impressive.

  4. At least some of the effort to harmonize the gospels is to view the different stories from different viewpoints and learn all we can about a particular incident from looking at all the available information (the feeding of the five thousand, for example).

    However, I agree that we also be able to look at the accounts individually and not be afraid of differences. The birth accounts in Matthew and Luke are extremely different, but we don’t often notice that because we’re so accustomed to hearing the harmonized version. I think there is great insight to be gained in examining a text on its own, even where it contradicts other texts.

  5. I was thinking about this during Gospel Doctrine today, and it occurred to me that not only is President Monson our Luke, but Elder Holland is our Matthew (always giving a historical framework), Elder Ballard is our Mark (missionary work, missionary work, missionary work), and Elder Maxwell is our John (philosophy and cosmology all wrapped in one amazing package).

    I was also able to bring up the differences between Matthew’s account of Jesus walking on water and John’s, and we had an awesome, albeit short, discussion in the class on the differences and possible reasons why.

  6. “Most scholars recognize…Luke is the gospel that Thomas S. Monson would have written had he had the assignment to write a gospel….”


    Cool post. I don’t attend Gospel Doctrine and can’t remember how they’re taught there, but when I taught NT in institute a number of years ago, we enjoyed taking them one-by-one. We did some compare and contrast, but did not try to harmonize.

  7. Attempting to harmonize the gospels is liek trying to harmonize four individuals’ testimonies. Tou readily recognize overlapping themes, but fail to recognize the importance of the differences. The authors lose their unique voices.

    I would suggest the following to all students of scripture: Read a Gospel account in a single sitting. And read it from any version other than English KJV. Let the author speak to you without study aids, footnotes or commentary… and listen.

  8. John is my favorite gospel because of the way the author punches out his themes, with strong images of water, bread, and blood, that expand on his opening hymn about Jesus as the Word who created the physical world, and came wholly into that world–our world–to reconcile us with him and the Father. It really is worhtwhile reading it through as a unit.

  9. Hehehe. So glad that increasingly many are willing and interested in examining the gospels independently to see their unique contributions and christologies. Harmonization has its time and place (and even I indulge in a very modified version “of events not texts” when it comes to the Passion Narratives). But I want to thrown my own characterizations into the ring, particularly when it comes to christology:

    Mark: The John Wayne Jesus: strong, a little rough, but clearly good (sometimes I call this the Harry Potter gospel, but that has more to do with his descriptive flair when it comes to miracles).

    Matthew: Clearly the Jewish Jesus, but not without appeal to Gentiles (such as the Magi at the beginning and the centurion at the foot of the cross at the end).

    Luke: this is the Primary Jesus — “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible (gospel of Luke, really) tells me so. Always compassionate, always kind, gently, and healing. [Contrast this to the Jesus of Revelation and even the Book of Mormon: “Jesus loves me, this I know, Zarahemla’s toast you know!]

    John: the Divine Jesus, no ifs, ands, or buts. The Divine Word becomes the Incarnate Word and promises to return to his Father (by being lifted up on the cross). In an important point for Latter-day Saints, this is the Jesus most like the Book of Mormon Jesus!

  10. Ha! Eric, that is a perfect description of each gospel!

    I don’t know (and probably don’t want to know) what it says about me that I like Mark’s Jesus best and John’s least . . .

  11. I’m sometimes slightly bothered by one version of the ‘don’t harmonize these gospels’ that seems to wander to a kind of relativism–we can’t really know anything. I’m not so concerned about harmonizing in a way that tramples out differences, but I do like the unity of the person behind all the stories and the witnesses. That he is reliable and sure and one is key for having trust and coming to know. But what the Gospels give, as Eric’s post points out, and what our experience with him gives us is a Jesus, Savior, Redeemer, Light, Messiah, God of Miracles, Healer, Teacher, Truth, Way, Life, etc., who is one and knowable, but who will always have more to give, more for us to know, more for us to take in than we know now–a fountain that keeps giving the waters of life. Alpha and Omega. New and Everlasting.

  12. I am teaching Sunday School now. I only talk about 1 gospel per lesson, since that allows me to focus on the individual take of that gospel without having to talk about how that gospel differs from others.

    I would be up for talking about differences between the gospels if I saw some benefit to doing so. I don’t think there is anything particularly threatening about competing versions of the events (my wife and I have competing versions of how we met and got married, etc., but that doesn’t mean we didn’t get married!). But only want to bring up the difference if there was some insight to be gained from doing so.

    Dustin, you “think there is great insight to be gained in examining a text on its own, even where it contradicts other texts.” What are those insights? Are there some insights you, or anyone else, think I should share with my class?

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