Lecture Notes
2.2.1 Exegeting a Pericope
Religion 314 (NT Theology) and Religion 311 (Synoptic Gospels)
last revised: 9/16/03 

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Preparatory Steps
Translate Passage 
/ Analyze Translations 
Text Critical Issues
Literary Issues
Literary Context
Literary Structure 
Historical Issues
Central Theme
Exegetical Outline 
Sermon Brief


Sources to Consult:

Cranford, Lorin L. "Modern New Testament Interpretation." Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Introduction to Interpreting Scripture. Second Edition, 147-162. Edited by Bruce Corley, Steve W. Lemke, and Grant I. Lovejoy. Nashville: Broadman Press, 2002.

Cranford, Lorin L. Exegeting the New Testament: vol 1, A Seminar Working Model, Revised Edition. Fort Worth: Scripta Publishing, Inc., 1991

Steps in Exegeting a Passage from the Greek New Testament

2.2.1 Exegeting a Passage

        In this lesson we will concentrate on the process of interpreting a pericope of scripture, that is, a natural literary unit of text material. In the subsequent lesson, the focus will be on pulling together the exegesis of the pericopes of a scripture document in order to gain a holistic reading of the entire document. Here the interpretative approach takes on a more obvert theological slant than will be the case with the exegesis of a single pericope.
        In beginning the process of interpreting a passage of scripture, some activities need to take place, as well as having certain tools (secondary sources of information) at hand. Ideally, the exegete begins with a reading of the scripture passage in the original language text. If such is not possible, then a careful analysis of the scripture text from a comparison of several translations representing different translation methodologies is the next best approach. In either instance, the objective is to begin trying to make sense of the passage, first in terms of its historical meaning. Only once this has been established satisfactorily can an exposition of the contemporary application of this historical meaning be attempted. Preparatory Steps
        The initial analysis of a pericope is important. The first thing is to determine as far a possible the natural limits to a passage of scripture which then will comprise a pericope of text. This can be done at one of two levels of analysis. The simplest level is to pay close attention to the paragraphing that occurs in printed Greek texts of the New Testament, as well as in a variety of modern translations. To be sure, paragraphing was not a part of the ancient process at all, but natural units of ideas were certainly built into the ancient text. Paragraphing is merely a modern device in western languages designed to visually highlight such natural units of thought expression. These can provide helpful clues to determining a pericope.
        Why is this important? Primarily, because it plays a role in establishing a literary setting or context for a passage. If a natural unit of thought expression is improperly chopped up and the parts are related to others units of thought, the exegete seriously risks misunderstanding of the idea(s) being presented. A clear example of this can be found in James 1:16 with the admonition "do not deceive yourselves, my beloved brothers!" If the statement is taken with the preceding statements in verses 13-15, then the meaning becomes "don't deceive yourselves about your responsibility for sin in your life and its consequences." However, if the statement is taken as introductory to the following verses in 17-18, then the meaning becomes "don't deceive yourselves about who God is as the giver of nothing but good gifts." When the interpretative process reaches a logical conclusion in sermonic development, the determination of a legitimate pericope -- which is the exclusive foundation for a genuinely biblically based sermon -- will play a significant role in what is preached.
        When a comparison is made of numerous Greek texts and English translations, -- although variations will certainly be found -- most always a pattern begins to emerge in the various sources. This will provide a starting point for such a determination. Further insight can be gleaned from examining commentaries, especially those like the Word Biblical Commentary series, that carefully treat such literary issues. Explanations for why the commentator divided up biblical document into specific pericopes will be helpful.
        At the highest level of analysis the exegete needs to examine the signals that indicate natural units of thought expression. These signals include repetitive words or concepts, logical progression of thought that once completed turns a noticeably different direction, detectable literary forms such as parables, beatitudes, proverbs etc. Other larger literary issues can play a role as well. In the James 1:16 issue, most commentators argue that 1:16 should go with 1:17-18 because of the stylistic pattern in the book of James. Admonitions serve consistently as the introductory lead into a pericope; for example, see 1:2, 9, 19, 22, 26 just in chapter one. Although elsewhere I have argued for 1:16 belonging with 1:13-15 on other grounds, this is a forceful argument that cannot be ignored or casually dismissed. Translate Passage / Analyze Translations
        Two very different items are touched upon here, although they do have some connection to one another.

        Translating the passage assumes an analysis of the biblical language text.
        Of course, translation is impossible until an analysis of words, phrases, and clauses inside the pericope is completed. For Greek students the sometimes dreaded parsing of words comes to the forefront, yet is an absolutely essential activity to be able to determine the boundaries of possible meaning. But as Rhetorical Criticism and Discourse Analysis have clearly demonstrated, the inner connection of words, and especially phrases, clauses and sentences inside a paragraph are necessary elements of analysis. Patterns of though development and argumentation of ideas can be detected, especially in light of how this was understood in the ancient world. These technical disciplines of exegesis have reminded us that an ancient Jewish mind doesn't think the way a modern American mind thinks. And when that Jewish mind, like the apostle Paul's, was blending elements of Jewish heritage and training with Greco-Roman heritage and training, the exegete often comes up against a thought pattern very different from a modern American pattern of thinking. As Hans Dieter Betz so effectively demonstrated over two decades ago with his commentary on Galatians in the Hermeneia series, Paul used persuasive argumentation taken from either juridical speech or deliberative speech to make his case for the Gospel to the Galatians. But interspersed in this pattern of Greco-Roman use of persuasive speech are segments where the former Pharisee arguments just like a Jewish rabbi; for example, his allegory of Hagar and Sarah in 4:21-31 immediately following a typical Greek appeal to friendship argumentational pattern in 4:12-20.
        One way of doing this detailed analysis is through developing a block diagram of the Greek text, followed by a semantic diagram of the text. For an example of this see the work on 3 John in the Adobe PDF format. The guidelines for doing this procedure are found in the Appendix Five of my Learning Biblical Koine Greek grammar. It is also available at Cranfordville.com as gkgrma05.pdf. The illustration of how this works itself out can be seen in the series of study manuals on the Greek and English text of the New Testament that I've published over the past 25 years.

        Once the initial analysis of a text is completed, the exegete is now in a position to translate the ideas of the Greek language text into an English expression. The process of translating is an involved one, but can be charted out as follows:

Translation Process
For a detailed explanation of this,
see Translating.pdf at Cranfordville.com
last revised: 9/4/03
Source Language Text
(Greek NT)
Receptor Language Text
(English translation)
A Form Oriented (FO or FE) methodology emphasizes 
retention of the original language form, 
while a Content Oriented (CO or DE) methodology 
emphasizes clarity of expression and understandability 
by the reader. Both are equally concerned with 
transferring accurately the ideas in the source language 
text into the receptor language text.
******************Transfer******************** ************

        Analysis.  The process of analysis begins with the determination of the cognitive meaning of a pericope. This focuses primarily on the analysis of the words, phrases, clauses, sentences described above. Once this process has been completed the next stage is an analysis of the connotative meaning of a passage. Ideas expressed in a range beginning with single words through sentences trigger referential meaning quite obviously. But they also trigger emotional reaction as well. A couple of passages in John 2:4 and 19:26 where the Greek word gunhv for woman is found in the vocative case.  Note John 2:4 where Jesus said literally to his mother, "What is that to me, woman?"  And then again to his mother in 19:26, "Woman, here is your son" as from the cross he handed the care of her over to John. Although the translation of "woman" is cognitively correct, it is a gross distortion connotatively. In both passages the term is one of love and endearment in the Greek. But, the English translation "woman" signals disrespect and rudeness by Jesus to his mother. Consequently, it is a bad, misleading translation of the Greek term. Thus both levels of meaning -- cognitive and connotative -- must be given carefully consideration in the analysis stage of translation.

        Transfer. This stage of the translation process takes place mostly in the mind of the translator as he serves as a bridge for transferring meaning from the SLT to the RLT. Several detailed discussions of this can be found by Nida, Tabor, and Glassman who are professional Bible translators and work in this field. See the above detailed discussion on Translating for references and more discussion. But let me summarize a couple of important points. (1) The translator must be sensitive to barriers to understanding within himself. Sometimes this is too much knowledge of the technicalities of the Greek text he is translating. Thus the resulting translation can easily take for granted that the reader knows a lot of these technical details, especially when it comes to ecclesiastical terms like redemption, justification etc. The translation becomes an 'insider' translation that only the properly 'initiated' can understand. (2) Care to reduce to a minimum the loss of semantic meaning in the translation process. Loss of meaning is inevitable, but with proper caution this can be reduced. One particularly difficult area has to do with idioms and figurative language in the source language text. With such language the translator has three options: a) preserve the idiom in tact in the RLT (from Rom. 12:20, 'heap coals of fire on his head'); b) translate with a non figurative RLT expression ('make him ashamed'); or c) substitute an equivalent RLT figurative expression ('make him feel a burning sense of shame'). The dominant translation methodology being used -- Form Oriented or Content Oriented -- will play a role in the choice here, with FO preferring a) or possibly b), while the CO will prefer either b) or c).
        Nida and Tabor recommend three guiding principles to be adhered to in the Transfer stage: (1) The content of the message must be transferred with as little loss or distortion as possible; (2) the referential (cognitive) meaning has highest priority but connotative is also very important and not to be neglected; (3) If the above meaning can be transferred by using a similar RL form then it should be used, but form must not be maintained to the sacrifice of content.

        Restructuring. At this final stage of the translation process the emphasis is upon readability and comprehension by the targeted readers of the translated text. What is the clearest, simplest way to communicate the meaning of the SLT in natural expression that can be readily understood by the reader or hearer of the RLT? With the emergence of professional Bible translation during the twentieth century, translations increasingly are focused on specifically defined targeted readerships. These include people with little education who are barely literate all the way to highly educated individuals. Different age groups become targeted audiences from a children's Bible to a youth oriented translation to a senior citizen oriented translation. Differing levels of church and religious orientation become targeted audiences, all the way from non-believers to high church worshippers. Once a targeted readership is defined by a translation team -- usually under the sponsorship of a Bible translation agency such as the American Bible Society -- then a specific translation methodology will be developed from the two basic approaches -- Form Oriented and Content Oriented -- that is taylor made to best suit the needs of the targeted audience. The restructuring phase of the translation will endeavor to produce the translation that most clearly communicates the meaning of the SLT to its intended audience. This may necessitate substantial restructuring of the source language form.

        The goal of Bible translation has been summarized well by Nida as seeking the closest natural equivalent meaning in the RLT.

        Analyze Translations. Of course, if one can't work from the original language text, then the option becomes a comparative analysis of English translations representing an array of the translation methodology described above. For a detailed description of this procedure go to the Analysis Paper assignment in either Religion 101 or 102 where the survey classes complete such an analysis as the first step of their exegesis paper assignment for this classes. At Cranfordville.com, this page is the Paper Flow Chart, Phase One Assignment.
        Very important for success in this endeavor is the choice of the three or four translations for comparative study. I've found it extremely helpful to line up the Form Oriented translations on the left hand column(s) and the Content Oriented translations on the right hand column(s). The translations adopting a mixture of these two basic methods will fall between these two. For a listing of how most modern English translations line up go to Cranfordville.com, at the page English Translations.
        The activities defined here represent two stages of analysis. First, the use of a color coding system to highlight the similarities among the four translations. Then, next, a detailed analysis of the differences that now are quite visible among the four translations. This process involves raising questions about why these differences and then at a more advanced level raising questions about the concepts or ideas being communicated by the scripture text through these four translations. The use of secondary study tools such as Bible dictionaries, concordances, and commentaries now becomes the source of finding answers to the two sets of questions emerging from the comparative analysis. Once these questions have been answered satisfactorily some interpretative conclusions about the meaning  -- both exegetical and expositional -- of the scripture text are possible. Text Critical Issues
        Textual Criticism is a scholarly discipline that requires substantially higher technical skills than the vast majority of biblical scholars possess. At the heart of the discipline is the evaluation of the 5,600 plus Greek manuscripts of the NT that have been discovered over the past 150 years and since the 1950s have become available for examination on a wide spread basis. Added to this are the hundreds of ancient translations in some half dozen or more ancient languages, the Greek lectionaries and the writings of the Greek and Latin Church Fathers where the NT is quoted or alluded to. The goal is to sort through these manuscripts that contain several thousand different wordings of the text of the NT in order to conclude what the most likely original wording of the NT documents was. Very carefully refined procedures have been hammered out with the method known as Rational Eclecticism is the method about 90% of the scholars in this field use today. Outside of the ultra-conservative Majority Text approach where only a small handful of people work, the other approach used almost entirely by a few British scholars is known as Rigorous Eclecticism. Rational Eclecticism attempts to give balance between the external evidence and the internal evidence, while Rigorous Eclecticism gives almost exclusive weight to internal factors, which by their very nature are much more subjective than the external factors.
        We will not go into the details here, but a brief introduction to these issues is available at Cranfordville.com under Greek 202 at the page Study in Textual Criticism.
        While few Bible students have qualifications to actually practice textual analysis at a technical level, it is helpful to understand some of the basics in order to make sense out of commentaries etc. that discuss these issues. The method of evaluation is typically broken down into the following aspects:

2.1 Rational Eclecticism
2.1.1. Evaluating External Witnesses Date Geographical Distribution Textual Relationships
2.1.2. Evaluating Internal Evidence Transcriptional Probabilities Shorter/Longer Reading Reading Different from Parallel More Difficult Reading Reading Which Best Explains Origin of Other(s) Intrinsic Probabilities
      For most Bible students the impact of these studies shows up in English Bible translations as marginal readings. Below is an illustration of this from the NRSV translation of James 1:1-25a, that is a part of the Religion 102 analysis paper assignment.
Illustration of Marginal Readings
NRSV Text of James 1:1-25a

Hearing and doing
the Word
1James, a servants of Goda and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.

Faith and Wisdom

     2 My brothers and sisters,b whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
     5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

Poverty and Riches

     9 Let the believerc who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.

Trial and Temptation

     12 Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will
receive the crown of life that the Lordd has promised to those who love him. 13one, when tempted, should say, "I am being tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14But one is tempted by one's own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16Do not be deceived, my beloved.e
     17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.  18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

Hearing and Doing the Word

     19 You must understand this, my beloved:e  let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce Gods righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
     22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselvesg in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget
aGk slave
bGk brothers
cGk brother
dGk he; other ancient authorities read God
eGk my beloved brothers 
fOther ancient authorities read variation due to a shadow of turning
gGk at the face of his birth
     1.1:Salutation. 1: Dispersion describes Jews scattered outside Palestine (see Jn 7.35). Its metaphorical use here testifies to the church's sense of being aliens in this world as well as the heir of Israel (Gal 4.21-31; Phil 3.20; 1 Pet 1.1).
     1.2-18: The blessings of trials. Trials are a ground for rejoicing. 5:Wisdom, see 3.13 n. 6: The sea, Isa 57.20; Jer 49.23. 7-8: The doubter's entire conduct reflects inconstancy of purpose (Mt 6.24). 10-11: Isa 40.6-7.
     1.12: The crown of life, see 2 Tim 4.8 n. 13: Temptation is not from God, but from human passions. 17: Father of lights, creatbr of the heavenly bodies (Gen 1.14-18; Ps 136.7).
18: The first fruits of harvest were frequently offered to God (Lev 23.10; Num 15.21; Deut 18.4).
     1.19-27: True worship. 19-20: Anger, see Eph 4.26 n. 21:Rid yourselves, strip off as dirty clothing. The implanted word, the gospel which has been received and is now growing. James uses a variety of expressions for the gospel:  perfect law, (v.25), law ofliberty (v: 25; 2.12), royal law (2.8). 22: Be doers..., not merely hearers, Mt 7.24-27; Rom 2.13.  25: The perfect law, the Jewish description of the Mosaic law, is here applied to the "law" (1.27; 2.1-13) through which a believer obtains freedom. Blessed, Ps 1.1; Mt


       These marginal readings that indicate underlying Greek manuscript variations of reading (footnotes d and f in the above example) provide the English Bible reader the opportunity of knowing that the translators have adopted a specific understanding of the most likely original reading of the Greek text and have made their translation based on that understood wording. But, they acknowledge that one of the legitimate alternative wordings of the text might be the original, and a translation based on these would produce the alternative translation that is contained in the footnote.
        The serious Bible student must give consideration to these issues. However, without the technical skills to do the analysis himself or herself, dependence upon those who are experts in this field becomes necessary. A single volume commentary devoted exclusively to an explanation of the text criticial apparatus in the United Bible Societies fourth revised edition Greek text is A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament by Bruce M. Metzger. The exegetical commentaries such as the Word Biblical Commentary or the Interpreter's Bible will also discuss these issues.
        In vocational Christian ministry the staff person needs to have a basic awareness of these issues in order to answer questions from church members as to why their contemporary translation has words left out that are contained in the KJV. Literary Issues
        The literary aspects of any written text have to do with both the internal arrangement of ideas and the place that a pericope has inside the larger document. Both these dimensions will now be treated. For a detailed inclusive treatement see the Lecture Notes "Interpreting the New Testament Documents" topic 3.1.2.
        By definition 'genre' has to do with repetitive patterns of thought expression that show up over a period of time in multiple documents. This is not the expression of the same idea over and over. Instead, it is a repeated arrangement of saying different ideas through the use of a common structure. This applies to forms outside of written expression. We know what pop music is over against classical music or jazz. Inside jazz, for example, you encounter fusion, smooth, latin etc. In literary forms we know the difference between poetry and narrative, between biography and fiction.
        In the study of the literary forms of the New Testament we encounter gospel, history, letter, and apocalypse as basic genre or literary forms. With the emphasis on the Synoptic Gospels, the focus will be on identifying the gospel form and its subforms.

Alternative Views:
Mitchell Glenn Reddish, "What is a Gospel?," Introduction to the Gospels (iPreach):

        For the person familiar with the New Testament, the answer to the question “What is a Gospel?” might seem obvious: a Gospel is one of the four writings in the New Testament that describe the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. That answer is true, but it is not sufficient because it does not tell us what kind of writings the Gospels are. Furthermore, it limits the term gospel to the New Testament writings alone. The Greek word euangelion, translated as “gospel,” means “good news.” This word was used among the ancient Greeks for the announcement of military victories or other instances of good fortune. Inscriptions from the Roman imperial period apply the word euangelion to the life and activities of the emperor. The Priene inscription of 9 BCE, for example, declares that the birthday of Caesar Augustus was for the world “the beginning of his good messages [or 'good news'].”4
        For the early Christians the story of Jesus was the “good news” that they proclaimed to the world. In the New Testament, particularly in the writings of Paul, euangelion is used to describe the message about Jesus that was the content of the church's preaching and teaching. The Gospel of Mark, for example, opens with the statement, “The beginning of the good news (euangelion) of Jesus Christ.” When written works describing the life and teachings of Jesus began to appear, the word euangelion was a fitting designation for these works. In this way the word gospel came to be used to describe certain writings that circulated in the Christian communities.
        An examination of the various works labeled “gospels” in the early church reveals that the term was applied to works with widely differing forms and contents. Some “gospels,” like the four in the New Testament, are primarily narrative works, containing stories about Jesus and his teachings. Other “gospels,” such as the Gospel of Thomas, are collections of sayings attributed to Jesus, with little or no narrative material connecting the sayings. Are all of these works appropriately designated “gospels”?
        On that question scholars disagree. Some scholars argue that the canonical Gospels should define the characteristics of the gospel genre. Those who follow this approach often conclude that gospels are narratives that provide information about the life, teachings, and activities of Jesus of Nazareth. One recent definition of the genre of the canonical Gospels, for instance, states, “A Gospel is a narrative, fashioned out of selected traditions, that focuses on the activity and speech of Jesus as a way to reveal his character and develops a dramatic plot that culminates in the stories of his passion and resurrection.”5 This definition virtually eliminates any of the noncanonical gospels from being considered as authentic gospels. Some are excluded because they are not narratives but collections of sayings or dialogues (such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary); others are excluded because even though they contain narrative materials they focus only on one aspect of the life of Jesus rather than on his entire life and death. Examples of the latter type would be the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Protoevangelium of James. In chapter 7 of this book we will raise again the question of the appropriateness of the term gospel for these works that are not a part of the canon and discuss the contents of some of them. Because the focus of our study, however, is the canonical Gospels, we will concentrate on the use of the word gospel as it applies to them.
        Precritical reading of the Gospels viewed them as historical writings about Jesus or as biographies of Jesus. Such readers assumed that the material in the Gospels was historically accurate and that the task of the Gospel writers had been to transmit faithfully the historical details about the life and teachings of Jesus. According to this view, the writers exercised very little creative control over the works they produced. With the rise of new approaches to the study of the Gospels in the twentieth century, scholars began to reach new conclusions about the Gospels. Using the approach of source criticism, scholars demonstrated that the Gospels were not created ex nihilo (out of nothing) but were dependent upon earlier source materials. Form criticism revealed that behind the written Gospels stood oral traditions that circulated in set forms or patterns and that became the basis for much of the Gospels. Redaction critics discovered that the Gospel writers were not merely collectors and transmitters of traditions they had received, but were also creative editors (redactors), who arranged, altered, and shaped the traditions in order to present a particular understanding of Jesus and his teachings. In other words, scholars began to recognize that the Gospels were not simply historical accounts, but were a special type of literature.
        But to what type of literature do the Gospels belong? If they are not history, at least not in the modern sense of the term, then what are they? During most of this century the dominant answer has been that the Gospels are in a class by themselves; they represent a new literary genre. According to this view, the author of the Gospel of Mark, the first Gospel to be written, produced a new kind of literature, unlike any writing that had been published before. Mark basically expanded and preserved in writing the kerygma, the preaching, of the early church. The core element of the kerygma of the church was the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Mark took these stories and added to them oral traditions about the life and teachings of Jesus, resulting in a literary genre unparalleled in the ancient world.
        Recently more and more scholars have become dissatisfied with this understanding of the Gospel genre. They argue that although the Gospels are not exactly like other writings of the ancient world, they do bear enough resemblances to certain types of ancient literature to call into question the claim that the Gospels are a unique type of literature. What then are the predecessors of the Gospels? What are their literary role models?
        Scholars have focused on ancient biographies as the best parallels to the canonical Gospels. Examples of pre-Christian Greco-Roman biographies include Xenophon's Memorabilia and Isocrates' Evagoras. Later examples include Suetonius' Lives of the Twelve Caesars and Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Charles Talbert, whose research has facilitated the quest for finding the genre of the Gospels, has defined ancient biography as “prose narration about a person's life, presenting supposedly historical facts which are selected to reveal the character or essence of the individual, often with the purpose of affecting the behavior of the reader.”6 In biographies the activities, accomplishments, and teachings of an individual often were presented to dispel erroneous understandings of the person and to present a model that was to be followed by the readers. David Aune, another proponent of the view that the Gospels are biographies, notes that Greco-Roman biographies are of several types and that the Gospels are not exactly parallel to any of the Greco-Roman biographies. He argues that the Gospels represent an adaptation of ancient Greco-Roman biographies.7 The Gospel writers, then, roughly followed a literary convention that would have been familiar to first-century readers. The earliest readers of the Gospels likely would have viewed the works as biographical, as accounts of the life of Jesus.
        One must be cautious, however, in too quickly identifying the Gospels as biographies. Modern biographies are different from ancient biographies. Modern biographers are usually interested in portraying the psychological development of an individual and the factors that influenced and shaped a person's character and development. Such were not concerns of ancient biographers. Furthermore, even though ancient biographers wrote with historical intentions, ancient understandings of history and the methods and sources available to them for determining historical accuracy were different from that of modern writers. A certain amount of fiction and exaggeration was allowed and even expected in ancient biographies. Since ancient biographers and historians had little access to the speeches and sayings of their subjects, an accepted technique was to create speeches that were deemed appropriate to the occasion. For example, Thucydides, a Greek historian of the fifth century BCE, describes how he used speeches. Thucydides was one of the more scrupulous historians according to modern historiographical standards, but even he states that at times he resorted to creating speeches that were suited to the speaker and the situation. Thucydides wrote:

With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.8
        Other ancient writers were even more prone to use fiction in their works in various ways. What this means for us as modern readers of ancient biographies, including the Gospels, is that we should not expect the same concern for historical reliability and the same standards of historiography to be present in these ancient works as are found in modern scholarly writings. Thus even though the Gospel writers may have written what they supposed to be historically accurate, there is no guarantee that the events or details described by the evangelists are in actuality historically correct. Perhaps an example from one of the Gospels would help clarify this point. In the Gospel of Luke, the author describes the birth of Jesus as occurring in connection with a census that was taken “while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (2:2). Elsewhere Luke implies that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great or, at the latest, within a year after his death.9 Herod died in 4 BCE; Quirinius was not governor or legate of Syria until 6 CE Obviously Jesus could not have been born during the reign of Herod (which the Gospel of Matthew explicitly says) and during the rule of Quirinius. Luke presented this information as historical fact. Luke likely supposed that the information was historically accurate. Luke's intention to present historical information, however, was thwarted by faulty data.
        Another characteristic of ancient biographies must be kept in mind when we read the Gospels. Ancient biographies were often written in order to praise or laud an individual. Stories were selected and edited to present a particular view or interpretation of the person, at times for the purpose of presenting a model for others to follow or for correcting erroneous views or misunderstandings about the person. With the Gospels a similar situation occurred. The Gospel writers were not interested in simply writing down all the traditions about Jesus they could find. Rather their task was to present to their readers a specific interpretation of who Jesus was. Their works are not “objective” historical accounts (no account is ever bias-free), but rather are narratives shaped to reveal particular understandings of Jesus. The Gospels are theological works as much as or more than they are historical works. The evangelists selected from the traditions available to them the stories and teachings of Jesus that were compatible with their understandings of him. They often reshaped and retold these traditions in order to highlight or downplay certain aspects of the life and teachings of Jesus. The Gospels then can best be understood as theologically interpreted history.
        The difference between an objective, historical account of the life of Jesus and what one finds in the Gospels has often been described as the difference between a photograph and a painting. Suppose one wanted to capture a likeness of a person. One could use camera and film to take a photograph of that person. Assuming that one's photography skills are acceptable and the film and camera perform satisfactorily, one should end up with a good photographic representation of the subject. Anyone who sees the photograph should be able to recognize the person from it. On the other hand, one could choose to invite an artist to paint a portrait of the person. The artist could spend some time getting to know the person and then decide to paint an impressionistic portrait. Perhaps the artist discovers that the person is very insightful and decides to paint the person with very large eyes. Maybe the person is a good listener, always attentive to people and their needs. The artist then may decide to portray the person with prominent ears to symbolize this. When completed, the artist's portrait of the person may not look at all like the photograph that was taken. The artist has exercised artistic license to present a particular understanding of the person. The artist has used paint and canvas to interpret who the person is. Is the artist's portrait any less true than the photograph? No, assuming that the artist has correctly understood and portrayed the “true” personality and identity of the person. In many ways the portrait is a better “likeness” of the person than the photograph is.
        We need to view the Gospels as portraits rather than as photographs. In some cases what they present may not correspond to what actually happened, just as a portrait may not always look like a photograph. The Gospel writers, like portrait artists, were interested in sharing with their readers their understanding of the significance of the life and teachings of Jesus. As we shall see, the “portraits” of Jesus in the four Gospels are each different. No two Gospel writers tell the story of Jesus in the same way; each interpreted Jesus differently.
        Because the Gospels are narratives or stories about Jesus, often the appropriate questions to ask of the text are literary rather than historical questions. Materials may be arranged or structured in a certain way not because the events actually happened in that order, but because the author chose to arrange them in that way for literary reasons. When we read the Gospels, we need to ask questions about narrative plot, that is, how the events in the story are connected. The plot is what provides order to the story. It keeps the story moving and provides an explanation for why events happen. We should also examine the characters in the story. Who are the major and minor characters? How does the author present these characters? What roles do they play? Are they sympathetic or antagonistic? What do they contribute to the story? When we read the Gospels as narratives rather than history, we should pay attention also to the settings in the story. Where and when do events happen in the story? Of what significance are these settings? For example, why do the resurrection appearances of Jesus in Matthew occur in Galilee while in Luke they occur in or around Jerusalem? In addition to what the authors tell us — that is, the contents of their story — we also need to take note of how the authors tell their story. What rhetorical or literary devices do they use to shape their presentations of the material? Such techniques might include repetition of words or phrases, the use of irony, symbolism, foreshadowing, echoing, intercalation (“sandwiching” one story within another), and juxtaposition.
        Because we view the Gospels, then, as the products of creative authors or storytellers, we learn to listen to the distinctive stories that each author is telling. We must resist the temptation to weave all four Gospels together into one unified story. To do so would be to do a grave disservice to the Gospel writers. Mark does not tell the same story that Matthew does. Matthew does not narrate the same story that Luke does. John tells an even different story yet. For those who are familiar with the Gospels, perhaps through years of hearing or reading the Gospels in the context of worship or church study, the task of hearing the distinctive voice of each Gospel writer is especially difficult. One begins to fill in Mark's shorter account with scenes from Matthew or Luke. Or one interprets stories in Luke with the aid of information from John. Disparate or contradictory information from various Gospels is often harmonized, blended together into a “homogenized” Gospel. This process takes place often unintentionally in the mind of the reader because he or she is so familiar with the stories of the Gospels.
        An illustration of how easily this blending of accounts occurs is the popularized retelling of the story of the birth of Jesus. In recounting the Christmas story, people usually include Joseph and Mary and their trip to Bethlehem, the angels, the three Magi, shepherds, a stable, a manger, the innkeeper, the animals in the stable, Herod and his attempt to kill the baby Jesus, and several other details. If asked to indicate whether these items are found in Matthew or Luke, most people would likely be puzzled. They assume all the material is contained in both Gospels. (Some of the information, in fact, is not found in any Gospel but comes from later church tradition. The enumeration of three wise men and the presence of animals at the birth of Jesus are examples of such elaboration.) What has happened is that people have melded together the Lukan and Matthean nativity stories into one account. By so doing, they have obliterated the distinctives of each narrative.
        The desire to blend the various Gospels into one story is understandable. The inconsistencies, variations, and contradictions among the four Gospels can create theological and historical difficulties, especially for persons who view the Gospels as completely accurate historical documents. These differences are not problems noticed only recently by critical scholars. When the four Gospels were brought together during the second century, church leaders began to notice these variations. The critics of the church noticed them, also, and used these contradictions and inconsistencies to argue against the validity of the Christian faith.
        Faced with this problem, what options did the church have? It could have decided that only one Gospel was the correct version. The other three would then be dismissed as nonauthoritative. This was the route taken by Marcion, a Christian of the second century, who rejected all the Gospels except the Gospel of Luke, which he heavily edited. Fortunately, the church refused to follow Marcion. Another option the church had was to weave one Gospel from all four. Tatian, also in the second century, accomplished this task with the production of the Diatessaron, a continuous narrative of the life of Jesus. (The title “Diatessaron” literally means “through [the] four [Gospels]”.)10 Although popular for a while, particularly in Syria, Tatian's work eventually fell into disuse.
        Rather than follow the path of Marcion or Tatian, the Christian church ultimately opted to keep all four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — as a part of its sacred texts, in spite of, or perhaps even because of, their differences and contradictions. The church wisely realized that to accept either of the other two options would mean that the church would lose more than it would gain. The church valued the distinctiveness of the four Gospels. Each had something different to say about Jesus. From the church's viewpoint, no one Gospel completely interpreted the mission and message of Jesus. The church valued the multifaceted witness to Jesus presented through the four Gospels.
        The intentional preservation of four different Gospels by the early church imposes some interpretive restraints on us as we read the Gospels. First, we must resist the temptation to harmonize, to force all the Gospels into one chronological, historical, or theological mold. If the early church could live with the inconsistencies, then so should the modern reader. Second, we must allow each Gospel to tell its own story of Jesus. The Gospel writers were creative, individual writers. We must listen to each story for its own presentation of Jesus of Nazareth.
        The approach to the Gospels that we take in this book follows that path. We will view the Gospels primarily as narratives about Jesus, told with a theological purpose. We will listen for the distinctive story that each Gospel writer tells. We will not be so much concerned about historical questions as we will about literary and theological questions. To return to our earlier analogy, we will be examining four different portraits of Jesus, rather than looking for one photograph. Some readers may be hesitant to approach the Gospels in this way, feeling that the historical questions are the most important ones to answer. Keep in mind, however, that even for the church, the importance of the Gospels has not been so much the “facts” they present about Jesus but their interpretation of his significance. It is this interpretation that we are looking for. We will be asking, “How do the four Gospels present the story of Jesus?”  Literary Context  Literary Structure Historical Issues Time/Place Markers Interpretive Issues Central Theme Exegetical Outline Conclusions Applicational Theme Expositional Outline Sermon Brief

Supplementary Bibliography

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