New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #1


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?



21 comments for “New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #1

  1. Thanks very much Julie, I’m glad you’re doing this regularly. Any thoughts on why the NT editors/scribes of say the second or third centuries didn’t try harmonizing the assorted gospels by means of some sort of new official single gospel, something like the Old Testament editors/scribes did by means of the J, E, P texts? Maybe the NT accounts (and many others not included in the NT) were already circulating and known? Or maybe the OT harmonizing shouldn’t even be called harmonizing, because it was so regularly inharmonious and bizarre? I’m actually glad the NT people didn’t do that sort of thing, but given the long long impulse to make the gospels seem seamless I’m just wondering why something “official” wasn’t done (which I say recognizing how complicated “official” was still).

  2. Craig, those are great questions to which I have no real answers. Except that they _did_ try to harmonize the gospels, but it just didn’t become canonical.

    If what the performance critics say is true, then a written harmonization becoming “official” would have been impossible given that the primary existence of the gospel accounts was oral. Which isn’t to say that there were not efforts to create those harmonizations, but I can imagine Tatian’s written harmony sort of languishing in obscurity as, as a written text, it is only accessible to the vanishingly small number of literate people, while the masses listen instead to oral recitations of distinct gospels.

    And if it is true that the distinct literary structures of the four accounts contributed to ease of memorization, then that would be another force working against harmonization.

    Or it may be that the canonization process was largely firmed up while people still had commitments to distinct gospels (“Matthew’s community,” etc.).

    But I don’t think anyone really knows.

  3. Thanks Julie. Can I ask how you would recommend someone read the gospels? One at a time (if so, what order)? Or 1-2/several chapters in one gospel followed by the ‘same’ stories in the other gospels? Can you point to any reading schedule of the gospels that you think works well? Thanks again

  4. James, I would recommend reading them separately, starting with Mark (since it was written first), then Matthew and Luke (or Luke and then Matthew, either way), and then John. I also strongly encourage people to read the same passage over and over before moving on to the next one, so that more details can be appreciated on re-readings than on first glance. I also recommend listening to Mark (with no text in front of you), in its entirety, since that is probably how it was intended to be received.

    I don’t have a particular schedule in mind; it would depend on how much time one has per reading session.

  5. Thank you so much for posting these! I am excited to study the New Testament this year–especially the Gospels, under your tutelage. Your approach really resonates with me. I appreciate all the time, effort, and thought you have invested into writing this, and many other, posts on related topics. I recently re-read your article on Segullah about Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew and was reminded that I need to follow you more closely.

  6. According to Albert Schweitzer’s A History of the Life of Jesus, German scholars from the 19th century struggled with the differences between John and the Synoptic gospels. Of course, the two stories of Jesus’ birth also have issues with contradiction. In Luke, after his birth they returned to Nazareth. In Matthew, they fled to Egypt. The key is to realize these stories may or may not all be historical. They are stories that can teach us about Christ and God and the world Jesus was raised in. John sought to show Christ from a spiritual/pre-mortal existence with God. Matthew and Luke sought to fulfill scripture and to show Jesus’ life was miraculous from the moment of conception.

  7. I would start with Schweitzer’s seminal text and explain that people historically have tended to recast Jesus in their own image based on their own beliefs. Schweitzer reviewed this tendency among 19th century German liberal Protestant theologians, but the observation is applicable more broadly. I would then note the conclusion of Schweitzer’s final chapters and mention that this tendency tends to obscure the message of Jesus as a first-century Jewish apocalyptic with a belief in the imminent restoration of the Kingdom of Israel.

  8. Craig H., as Julie says there were some early attempts at Gospel Harmonies. Possibly the earliest and certainly the most famous was Tatian’s Diatessaron (lit. “Out of Four”), which dates to about A.D. 160. Variations based on the Diatessaron continued to appear into the Middle Ages. The third century Ammonian Sections was followed by the later Eusebian Canons. Augustine also wrote on the subject in his fifth century book Harmony of the Gospels (De consensu evangeliorum). Augustine popularized the idea of focusing on different emphases in the different Gospels; in his case, Matthew on royalty, Mark on humanity, Luke on priesthood and John on divinity.

    Great post, Julie. I agree with your recommendation to read the Gospels individually rather than in a harmonistic manner.

  9. Julie- is Deseret Book carrying your book? I’ve got a gift card burning a hole in my pocket!

  10. I am so appreciative of you sharing your knowledge. This will definitely be a high point to my studies!

  11. Thank you! I love having information to help me assume a more scholarly approach to the scriptures. Realizing that many adults have had the same NT lesson (from the same manual) numerous times (I figure this is my 5th time through) I want to dig alittle deeper and broaden my understanding beyond what is outlined in the lesson. I have a testimony but I don’t KNOW the NT as well as I would like. I appreciate your examples of what isn’t in particular gospels. I also want to try and take off my ‘western culture’ glasses and better see the context from which these scriptures come.

  12. A good start to a study of the NT, thanks Julie. I note that the GD NT lessons are at least partially harmonised with events and teachings cross-referenced regularly. Could this convergent approach accommodate your diversity perspective? I was also pondering your notion of different ‘voicings’ and wondering how and where you locate the JST voice which adds to the gospels and figures regularly throughout the lesson material? Any thoughts appreciated.

  13. They ought to start with Paul’s (authentic) letters, not the gospels. Plan B: spend the first two months on Mark.

  14. Dave, why would one start with Paul’s letters instead of the Gospels? Chronology makes more sense than supposed date of creation. Am I missing something?

  15. Janeen Glenn–I am told that they will stock it in stores and online at some point, but it is not there yet.

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