I am grateful for the four gospels, and today I want to tell you why.
A while back I was used-book browsing when I came across a copy of James Moffatt’s “Everyman’s Life of Jesus” (published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1924). I had read somewhere once that Moffatt’s translation of the New Testament was one of C.S. Lewis’s favorites. Remembering this, and combining it with a desire to read a life of Jesus, this volume seemed like a fortuitous pick.
A variety of occurrences stimulated my desire to read a Life of Jesus. For one thing, one of my pastors years ago was a big fan of the genre. For another, when you do any form of biblical studies the idea of “lives of Jesus” gets bandied about a great deal. Lastly, having read and re-read the gospels many times, I felt like a change in pace would do me some good—somewhat like when you have a favorite restaurant, but choose to go to another, just to make sure you’re not in a rut. I wanted some perspective. Moffatt gave it to me, but not, perhaps, in the way he anticipated.
Moffatt’s Life of Jesus is actually a chronological composite of the four gospels, and each book chapter is prefaced by a short introduction and discussion of the events we are about to read. It is, essentially, the gospels rearranged and edited according to Moffatt’s understanding and preferences, with a few explanatory notes included.
I came to the book hoping for a fresh perspective on Jesus, but instead it reminded me of how much I love the gospels. Rather than finding in it a fresh take on Christ, I read it and found myself hungering more for the Jesus of Matthew, of Mark, of Luke, and of John respectively. In short, I read Moffatt’s book and my primary response was to be grateful for the gospels we have. Let me take a moment to draw this out through four, brief ideas.
1) There is no substitute for the Four Gospels
You can read histories of Jesus and histories of ancient Israel. You can spend years devoting time to Second Temple Judaism, to Josephus and Philo. You can read thousands of books about Jesus written by scholars, pastors and nobodies. You can devote your life to the study and teaching of Christianity, of theology, of biblical studies or exegesis, and no matter your expertise or taste, there is simply no substitute for the four gospels. If you want to know Jesus, and know him as the Church intends him to be known, then your study must begin and end with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
This isn’t to say that extra information about Jesus and his time is irrelevant—far from it! Our reading of the gospels is vastly enhanced by these studies, and even some aspects of the gospels would be inscrutable without them. But that reality does not change the priority of the gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had something to say. And it is important for your faith that you learn what that something is.
But the reason for this (in relation to Moffatt’s book) is explained better by idea #2, which is:
2) Getting at the ‘real’ Jesus by cribbing together the four gospels with added historical information is a misguided enterprise.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each had something specific to communicate about Jesus. After all, Mark’s gospel was written first, and Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source for how to write their gospels. Why, we must ask, write another gospel if you already have a perfectly good one? The answer is because you have something different to say about Jesus, a different facet of his character to highlight, a different aspect of God’s mission to talk about. True, all four gospels describe the same Jesus and tell the same general story (of his life, teaching, death, and resurrection) but they are not the same. Each author had something specific to say.
Consider for a moment Monet, who painted the same bridge, or water lilies, or haystacks in different lights and different seasons. When you encounter one or more of Monet’s bridges, you don’t look at them trying to get at the ‘real’ bridge. You take each bridge as he has presented it to you in that particular work. Any effort to crib together the collection of Monet’s paintings to try and get at the ‘real’ would be utterly foolish and would, in the process, destroy the original purpose of the painting to begin with. In the same way, the gospel authors each paint a portrait of Jesus. Cribbing the four portraits together into one ‘edition’ does violence to each author’s art.
What is this ‘art’ of the gospel author? Well, that is what I want to talk about in idea #3, that:
3) There is Gospel in the editing.
We are accustomed to reading our source material as just that—sources to get us at something else. We read to mine information to suit our purposes. Our biblical text has been a particular victim of this kind of reading, one that isn’t helped at all by our chapter and verse divisions. These invasive ‘breaks’ make us think (subliminally) that each verse is a separate thought, and ignores the nature of the paragraph (as a complete idea). Most people, I find, struggle to read the text in context.
But here is one of the great beauties of the gospels—that there is gospel in the editing itself. When Jesus teaches the Sermon on the Mount, we are not to take the various clauses and separate them from the sermon. We cannot take
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. (Mt 5:23-24)
and separate it from its near neighbor,
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Mt 5:38-39).
for one teaches about when we have done wrong, and the other about when we have been done wrong. Only together do we get the full picture of what Jesus asks from us—that is, total commitment to making things right with the people we’ve wronged, and total commitment to holding no grudges when we have been done wrong. The teaching of Jesus is magnified by the editing of Matthew—and magnified even further by the rest of the sermon! To atomize it is to do violence.
Or take a different kind of example. When Mark tells the story of a blind man being healed in Mark 8:22-26, he has two purposes: first (and this is the kind of reading to which we fall naturally), to tell us that Jesus healed a blind man; but second, Mark is also telling us, in placing this story where it is in his gospel, that ‘seeing’ Jesus is something that requires a miraculous hand. The story that follows is of Peter’s confession of Christ (what great insight!), followed immediately by his rejection of Christ’s death (what blindness!). In other words, Mark has placed this story here as much to record the event as to tell us that ‘seeing’ Jesus—that is, understanding Jesus’ mission and purposes—is something that requires a kind of ‘healing.’ We are all blind to the truth of Jesus, and need his touch to help us receive him. If we take the story of the healing and abstract it, turning it into ‘evidence’ for our own picture of Jesus, we are doing violence to the original image.
Or take for example John’s words, when Judas goes out to betray Jesus, that “it was night” (Jn 13:30). This, as evidence, is a simple comment about the time of day when the events happen. But in John’s gospel as a whole, with the seven ‘days’ during which his gospel takes place, this is the night when deeds of darkness are done, when the one who “walks by night stumbles” (Jn 11:10), when evil has its time of temporary reign. We, however, await the new dawn, “early, on the first day of the week” (Jn 20:1). ‘Night’ for John is not just a time of day, but the time when the light shone in the darkness but the darkness didn’t understand it (Jn 1:5). When we atomize and rearrange the gospels, we lose the message of the originals.
And that, perhaps, is the central issue with Moffatt’s “Life,” with harmonies of the gospels, and even as far back as Tatian’s Diatessaron: they look at the gospels not as works in themselves, but as works which can get you something else. They read not for the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but for a Jesus in abstraction, a Jesus behind the gospels. As if we could scratch the paint of a portrait away to get at the person behind the canvas, or as if we could edit together a volume of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky as a way to get at the real Russia. No, the Russia you will comprehend from Russian literature is the Russia as it is portrayed in The Brothers Karamazov or War and Peace. Not in some strange hybridization between the two. Let each voice speak, and speak with authority. Let each Gospel sing, as in a choir, and let Christ be known in the harmony created by their four, interweaving voices.
4) The more I read, the more I love the Gospels.
Moffatt’s book wasn’t bad (and how can I call the text of the gospels—even rearranged—bad!). I can certainly see how it provides an important service to people who otherwise might not pick up a bible. But its service is that of the crutch—it can get you by, but is no substitute for real legs. The gospels are the real legs.
But as I’ve read and studied Jesus over my (relatively) short life so far, the more I read, the more I love the gospels. Sure, there were times when Jesus in their pages was opaque and mysterious, there were times when other books spoke to me more and I didn’t enjoy reading the bible as much. But as my understanding has matured, so have my tastes and appreciation, and as I mature and grow, the bible becomes more and more important to me—and the gospels in particular. Now I know that the problem when I was younger was not the gospels, but me, and today I turn to them again and again with relish. They contain the stuff of life, stories about Jesus, and my life would be a great deal flatter, more monochromatic, less deep, less textured, and far less beautiful if it weren’t for the quartet of voices from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, singing into my very being.
Moffatt’s book didn’t quite serve its intended purpose for me, but it did drive me home to the gospels I love. For that (and for them), I’m truly grateful.