We are a highly literate society; we often read almost constantly throughout most days. Like any frequently practiced activity, we have developed habitual ways of reading. Now that we read Scripture, we do so using these same thought patterns (reading habits) that we utilize in our everyday reading such as newspapers, road signs, recipes, novels, textbooks, corporate memos, television news alerts, or Internet blogs!
Yet in reading Gospels (indeed any Biblical narrative) some of these habits are detrimental to a well-formed understanding of scriptural intent. For instance, the gospels were written neither as history nor as biography (nor as any of the above-mentioned reading), rather as theology.
What are gospels?
Gospels are a means of transmitting the apostolic teaching of Jesus’ mission. The evangelist Mark is seen as inventing the gospel form of literature. We believe that the Gospels (as all the Bible) were written by human authors under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
St. Augustine characterizes a gospel as a passion narrative with an extended introduction. We know that Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection has been seen from the earliest days of Christianity as God’s saving action through his only Son.
The gospels teach us about who Jesus is, and what our relationship with God is and most specifically concerning the second person of the Trinity.
Best Practices – and pitfalls!
When reading gospels, keep in mind the human author’s audience and situation- these are the keys to understanding his message. The term ‘gospel’ is a translation of the Greek word meaning ‘good news’. Always look for how a gospel passage points to the ‘good news’ of salvation.
It is fruitful to compare parallel passages in the various gospels only to better understand this author’s message and/or purpose. How the author modifies a passage points to his overall message/purpose.
Because the authors wrote to different audiences in different situations, it is a pitfall (it is illogical and detrimental to understanding) to ‘mix-and-match’ between Gospels.
If perceiving an apparent ‘inconsistency’ between different Gospels, consider whether the inconsistency is of theological importance or whether it merely stems from a different emphasis that is based on the situational message that the human author intended.
A verse does not stand on its own but is relative to its entire story. What is its meaning in relation to the individual story and to this author’s purpose? It is a pitfall to take an individual verse and generalize it into a larger context.
Lastly, remember that we have four Gospels- no one is more definitive than any of the others. While we may have our favorite gospel- one that tugs more at our heart- it is a pitfall to think that it is more true or most appropriate for everyone than is any of the other canonical gospels. All are the Word of God; all are meant to advance our faith. Praise God!
— Eric Wolf