Questions and Answers - 9
The gospel of Matthew reports that Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane said to his disciples: "Stay alert and pray in order to withstand the trial. The spirit is willing, but human nature is weak." (Mt. 26:36-46) The story of Jesus praying with his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane is deeply moving. He prays that his death might not be necessary, but gives himself in trust to God. When he finds that Peter, James and John, who he has taken with him for company, have fallen asleep, he is upset. He asks them to remain alert and to pray. But they cannot stay awake, despite his agony. The story emphasizes his loneliness and the lack of understanding and faith of his disciples.
This story is contained in the gospels of Mark and Luke, with some variations, but is not included in the gospel of John. In that gospel Jesus delivers a long sermon to his disciples and then he prays with confidence: "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you." (John 17:1) In the gospel of John, after the prayer, Jesus goes to a garden across the Kidron valley and there is immediately arrested. The difference in these two accounts is not merely factual. Jesus is in agony in the first three gospels of the New Testament, before his arrest. He prays that the cup might be taken from him. In the fourth gospel, however, Jesus prays to get on with it, so God may be glorified. Then he marches confidently to the garden, not to pray in agony, but to turn himself over to the arresting officials.
Both of these accounts cannot be factually true. They are too dissimilar. Neither may be true, of course. Together, they witness to the faith of the early church that Jesus was both fully human and one with God. One story emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, the other his divinity.
The gospel of Luke reports that on the cross, Jesus said: "Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing." (Lk. 23:34) Not all ancient manuscripts of the gospel of Luke contain this verse, and none of the other gospels in the New Testament report that Jesus said these words on the cross. If there was a tradition in the early church that included this passage, either it was unknown to the other gospel writers or they chose not to report it. Perhaps, these words are the literary creation of the author of the gospel attributed to Luke. But surely this is one of the most inspired teachings of the Bible.
Those who are crucifying Jesus know they are killing a man, because he threatens the peace maintained by Roman legions. But, in a more profound sense, they do not know what they are doing. They know their victim is innocent, but they do not know that his innocent death will inspire millions to celebrate his life in the centuries to come. And they do not know that the love of God will be so powerfully manifested in the life and death of Jesus, that he will be revered both as God and man, and also as the Savior of the world, by those who seek to be his disciples.
Each gospel tells a different story about the empty tomb. In the gospel of Matthew (28:1-7), Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" go to the tomb. An angel descends, rolls away the stone from the door of the tomb, and sits on it. He tells the women that Jesus is risen. In the gospel of Mark (16:1-7), Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Salome go to the tomb and find the stone rolled away. A young man sitting beside the tomb tells them Jesus is risen. In the gospel of Luke (24:1-7), Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James (the brother of Jesus), Joanna, and the other women with them (24:10) find the tomb open and empty. Two men appear to them and tell them Jesus is risen. In the gospel of John (20:1-11), Mary Magdalene goes alone to tomb. When she finds it open and empty, she runs to get Peter, who returns with another disciple.
These four stories can be understood as variations of the facts, but all four cannot be literally true. Yet, each can be true in a figurative or metaphorical sense. Each story testifies to the conviction of the early church that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and is alive within the life and witness of the Christian community. In this sense, all the gospel stories are true or, we might say, witness to the same truth. Each, using different facts, affirms that faith is the way to God. And this is true.
This passage is from the story of Jesus visiting Sychar, a Samaritan city. (Jn. 4:5-42) The Samaritans were the descendants of Israelites and other peoples settled in the area by the Assyrians, who conquered Israel in 722 BCE. Jews despised the Samaritans, because they worshipped not only the LORD but also other gods. This is probably why in the gospel narrative of Matthew Jesus forbids his disciples to visit Samaritan towns (Mt. 10:5). But we know from Acts of the Apostles that the early church converted Samaritans not long before Saul was converted and became the apostle Paul. (Acts 8:4-25)
In the story Jesus convinces a Samaritan woman that he is the Messiah. Then he stays in the Samaritan city for two days. And, the gospel of John tells us, "many more [Samaritans] believed because of his word." (John 4:41) This is a wonderful story unique to the gospel of John. Did Jesus visit Sychar? If so, why is this visit omitted in the other gospels? At the time the gospel of John was written, there were already Samaritans in the church. It is likely that the gospel writer knew this and told the story of the Samaritan woman at the well to legitimate the outreach of the church to the Samaritans. Whether or not this is historically accurate, the story reveals the growing diversity in the church. It is an exciting example of the reconciliation between enemies that was inspired by the presence of the risen Christ.
In Luke 24:35-48 he appears to his disciples in Jerusalem. He explains how his death and resurrection have fulfilled all that was written about the Messiah "in the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms." (v. 44) Then, he tells the disciples to proclaim "repentance and forgiveness of sins . . . in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem." (v. 47) The gospel ends with the disciples in Jerusalem, where "they were continually in the temple blessing God." (v. 53)
The gospel of Matthew does not report a resurrection appearance in Jerusalem. It ends with an appearance by Jesus to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee. What is the reason for this difference? The gospel of Luke is the first book of a two-part sequel. The Acts of the Apostles begins in Jerusalem, and the gospel of Luke locates the apostles there. The gospel of Matthew seems to have been written to convince a Jewish Christian community that the teachings of Jesus were the fulfillment of Israelite prophecy and, therefore, were to replace the Law of Moses. Twice in the gospel of Matthew Jesus ascends a mountain to deliver his commandments: when he gives the Sermon on the Mount to his disciples (Mt. 5) and when he gives them the Great Commission. In the gospel of Luke the same sermon is given on a flat place or plain to a crowd including Gentiles as well as Jews. (Lk. 6:17)
These differences are not historical contradictions, but literary devices for different audiences. The author of the gospel of Matthew is writing to help Jewish Christians convince Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah. The author of the gospel of Luke is writing to help Gentile Christians convince Gentiles that a Jew name Jesus is the key to their Savior.
In the gospel of Matthew the mother of James and John asks Jesus to favor her sons by giving them seats on his right and left hand, when he comes to reign in his kingdom. (Mt. 20:20-28) In the gospel of Mark, however, James and John ask for these special places. Are these different memories, or are they different literary constructions by the gospel authors? As almost all of the gospel of Mark is included in the gospel of Matthew but editorial changes are made at many places, it seems likely that the author of the gospel of Matthew altered the story he took from the gospel of Mark. Why would he have the mother of the two sons of Zebedee make this request of Jesus, rather than the two disciples themselves? The most obvious answer is to shift the criticism for this special pleading from the disciples to their mother.
In the gospel of Mark the disciples of Jesus are presented as weak in their faith and without understanding of the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, the gospel writer does not record a resurrection appearance to the disciples. It seems clear that the gospel of Mark is very critical of all the disciples, including Peter. In the gospel of Matthew, however, the disciples finally understand and Peter, especially, is singled out to be the leader of the church. Furthermore, the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples and commissions them as the leaders of his church.
This, however, is the subplot of the story. The moral drawn in both gospels is that the followers of Jesus must be servants, rather than seek glory for themselves.
In the gospel of John the disciples of Jesus are depicted differently than in the first three gospels of the New Testament. In what are called the "synoptic" gospels, because they have so much material in common, the disciples often do not understand the teachings of Jesus and are described as having "little faith." (See, for example, Matthew 8:26 and Luke 12:28.) Moreover, Peter, James and John are the three disciples who have speaking parts in the story, in addition to Judas Iscariot. In the gospel of John there are no comments about the disciples failing to understand Jesus or having "little faith." Moreover, Andrew, Philip, Nathanael, and Thomas, as well as Peter and Judas, have speaking parts, but James and John (at least by name) do not and the gospel does not even include their names.
In John 15:15-17 Jesus says to his disciples: "I no longer call you servants, for a servant does not know his master's business. I call you friends, because everything I have learned from my Father I have made known to you." This statement by Jesus to his disciples is not in any of the other New Testament gospels. The statement elevates the disciples, recognizes their understanding, and confirms their authority in the life of the church. But the Christian community for which the gospel was written is much more interested in some of the disciples than in others. Tradition holds that this gospel was written by the apostle John, son of Zebedee, but the gospel only refers to the author as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." (21:20, 24) Simon Peter is given the position of greatest stature in this gospel, but the author and his community do not appear to recognize the authority of James, the other son of Zebedee, who is mentioned prominently in the first three gospel accounts of the New Testament.
Each of the four gospels in the New Testament begins with an encounter between John the Baptist and Jesus. Only in the gospel of John, however, does John refer to Jesus as "the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (1:29) This image comes from the twelfth chapter of Exodus, where the Israelites in Egypt are told to sacrifice a lamb and mark their doorposts with its blood, so the LORD will "passover" their houses and strike down only the firstborn sons of the Egyptians. The statement in the gospel of John is probably also an allusion to Isaiah 53:7, where the "suffering servant" is described as "like a lamb that is led to the slaughter."
In the gospel of John this statement by John the Baptist prompts two of the disciples of the Baptist to follow Jesus. One of these two men is Andrew, the brother of Simon, whom Jesus calls "Cephas" in Aramaic, which is translated in the Greek New Testament as Peter. The story of Andrew bringing Peter to Jesus is found only in the gospel of John, and it is not consistent with the story of Jesus calling his first disciples in the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. (See Mark 1:16-20, Matthew 4:18-22, and Luke 5:1-11) The differences in the stories in the first three gospels can be reconciled, but these three stories cannot be reconciled with the account in the gospel of John. All the gospels tell their stories to demonstrate that the disciples were called by Jesus. The first three gospels, however, make the additional point that the disciples are called to fish for people (traditionally, "fishers of men"). The gospel of John does not make this point, but relates that Jesus immediately gives Simon the name Peter, which is the name by which he was known as an apostle.
The earliest manuscripts of the gospel of Mark do not contain Mark 16:9-20, so the reference to handling snakes in these verses are not included in many translations of the Bible. In these versions of the New Testament, Mark 16 ends with verse 8. This is a significant different, for verse 8 reports that the women who discovered the empty tomb ran away in fear and did not tell anyone what they saw. In this ancient version of the gospel of Mark there is no report of a resurrection appearance by Jesus to his disciples. Thus, it seems likely that an editor added verses 9-20 in order to link the gospel story to the beginning of the church.
In Mark 16:15-20 Jesus not only commission his disciples but reportedly describes signs that will be given to those who believe, including the following: "they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up deadly serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover." (vs. 17-18) The tradition of snake handling in the church comes from taking this passage literally. More important, of course, is the commission to proclaim the gospel in the world. which doesn't mean handling snakes or just talking about love and forgiveness, but living with the faith that we are loved and forgiven. This is the good news of the gospel
Matthew 6:7-15 has the form that we know. In the middle of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray. He first cautions them against using many words, saying that God knows what's in their minds and hearts. Then, Jesus teaches the disciples the Lord's Prayer. The Catholic version of this prayer more accurately records the teaching from the gospel of Matthew, because it ends with the phrase, "But deliver us from evil," (Mt. 6:13b) which concludes the prayer in the gospel. The remainder of the prayer that Protestants pray is not in the New Testament, but is a concluding phrase that was added by the early church.
The Lord's Prayer is also recorded in the gospel of Luke, but it differs from the prayer in the gospel of Matthew and has never been popular in the church. It reads: "Father, hallowed by your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial." (Lk. 11:2-4) This prayer omits the two references to heaven in the gospel of Mathew's version and several other phrases. Which version of this prayer did Jesus teach his disciples? We cannot know, but the key elements appear in both versions: address to God as Father, respect for God's name, requests for food and forgiveness, a commitment to forgive, and a request for help in avoiding temptation. Which ever words are used, this is the pattern of prayer the New Testament recommends to those who would follow Jesus.
Matthew 28:16-20 reports that Jesus, risen from the dead, appeared to his disciples and said: "Go, make disciples of all nations. And surely I am with you always, to the end of time." This is from the "Great Commission," as it is known in the life of the church. Jesus meets with his disciples in Galilee, confirms the authority God has given to him, and commands them to go out into the world to make disciples of all nations. The gospel of Luke, however, does not report this meeting of Jesus with his disciples in Galilee, but instead has Jesus appear to his disciples around Jerusalem. Then, in the Acts of the Apostles, which is a sequel to the gospel of Luke written by the same author, we read that Jesus "ordered them [his disciples] not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father." (Acts 1:4)
These are two different accounts of how the church began. In the gospel of Matthew it begins in Galilee with the Great Commission. In the gospel of Luke the disciples stay in Jerusalem and then experience the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2). Both versions cannot be factually correct, because in the Luke-Acts story the disciples do not leave Jerusalem whereas in the gospel of Matthew they return to Galilee. But in each story the same point is made. Jesus, as the Christ, commissions the disciples to begin the work of the church. The factual differences are not the point, which is why the early church did not hesitate to include both gospels and Acts in the New Testament without trying to rewrite one or the other in order to have a consistent historical account. The New Testament is not history. It is preaching that proclaims good news.
1 in Faith: A Christian Bible Study † Copyright © 2000 by Robert Traer