Which Gospel Would Jesus Read?
In an exclusive excerpt from his controversial best seller, Jesus, Interrupted, Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman argues that each gospel in the New Testament was meant to be its own good book.
The discrepancies in the Bible are important in part because they force us to take each author seriously. What Mark is saying may not be at all what Luke is saying; Matthew may stand at odds with John, and they both may conflict with what is said in Paul. But when we look at the contrasting messages of the different biblical authors, there is more involved than…detail and minutiae... There are much larger differences among these authors and books—differences not simply in a detail here or there, a date, a travel itinerary, or who did what with whom. Many of the differences among the biblical authors have to do with the very heart of their message. Sometimes one author’s understanding of a major issue is at odds with another author’s, on such vital matters as who Christ is, how salvation is attained, and how the followers of Jesus are to live.
We are in danger of misreading a book if we fail to let its author speak for himself, if we force his message to be exactly the same as another author’s message
Differences of this magnitude do not involve a simple contradiction here or there, but alternative portrayals of major importance. It is impossible to see these alternative portrayals if we do not allow each author to speak for himself. Most people do not read the Bible this way. They assume that since all the books in the Bible are found between the same hard covers, every author is basically saying the same thing. They think that Matthew can be used to help understand John, John provides insights into Paul, Paul can help interpret the book of James, and so on. This harmonizing approach to the Bible, which is foundational to much devotional reading, has the advantage of helping readers see the unifying themes of the Bible, but it also has very serious drawbacks, often creating unity of thought and belief where originally there was none. The biblical authors did not agree on everything they discussed; sometimes they had deeply rooted and significant disagreements.
The historical-critical approach to the Bible does not assume that each author has the same message. It allows for the possibility that each author has his own perspective, his own views, his own understandings of what the Christian faith is and should be. The discrepancies we have already considered are crucial for showing us that there are differences among the biblical writers. The major differences we are about to discuss should force us to recognize that the discrepancies are not merely a matter of minutiae but are issues of great importance.
I am not insisting that the historical-critical approach is the only way to read the Bible. Sophisticated theologians who are fully aware of historical-critical problems with the Bible have devised ways of treating the Bible as Scripture even though it is full of discrepancies… It is important to come to grips with what the historical-critical approach is and how it can affect the way the Bible is understood.
The approach is predicated, to some extent, on the idea that the “canon” of Scripture—that is the collection of the books into one book considered in some sense to be authoritative for believers—was not the original form in which the biblical books appeared. When Paul wrote his letters to the churches he founded, he did not think that he was writing the Bible. He thought he was writing letters, addressing individual needs as they came up, based on what he thought, believed, and preached at the time. Only later did someone put these letters together and consider them inspired. So, too, with the Gospels. Mark, whatever his real name was, had no idea that his book would be put into a collection with three other books and called Scripture; and he certainly did not think that his book should be interpreted in light of what some other Christian would write some thirty years later in a different country and a different context. Mark no doubt wanted his book to be read and understood on its own, as did Matthew, Luke, John, and all the other writers of the New Testament.
The historical-critical method maintains that we are in danger of misreading a book if we fail to let its author speak for himself, if we force his message to be exactly the same as another author’s message, if we insist on reading all the books of the New Testament as one book instead of as twenty-seven books. These books were written in different times and places, under different circumstances, to address different issues; they were written by different authors with different perspectives, beliefs, assumptions, traditions, and sources. And they sometimes present different points of view on major issues.
From Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman. Copyright © 2009 by Bart D. Ehrman. Reprinted by permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. For more information about Jesus, Interrupted please click HERE.
Bart D. Ehrman is the author of more than twenty books, including the New York Times bestselling Misquoting Jesus and God's Problem . Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.