The Nature of the Gospels:Gospels may be divided roughly into sayings and narratives, that is, teachings of Jesus and stories about Jesus. Theoretically you should be able to use the principles of studying the Epistles for the one and the principles for historical narratives for the others. Having said this we need to look at the other dimensions of the Gospels that require additional strategy to study and understand. Almost all of the trouble in interpreting the Gospels stems from the fact that:

1.    Jesus himself did not write a gospel; they come from others, not from him. Because of this reason to perform exegesis we need to think in terms of the historical setting of Jesus and the historical setting of the authors. You will also want to think about the historical context for each Jesus and the authors. Ask yourself why a certain gospel was written and when. One of the questions you will want to ask, even if it cannot be answered for certain, is whether Jesus’ audience for a given teaching was his close disciples, the larger crowds, or his opponents

2.    There are four gospels. For a variety of reasons the gospels written for one community or group of believers did not necessarily meet all of the needs in another community. So one was written first, Mark, and then rewritten twice, Matthew and Luke. Finally a fourth, John was written. All of these books exist with the same importance and authority because in each case the interest in Jesus is at two levels. First, the purely historical concern that this is who Jesus was and this is what he said and did; it is this Jesus, who was crucified and raised from the dead; whom we now worship as the risen Lord. Second, there was the existential concern of retelling the story for the need of later communities that did not speak Aramaic or Greek, and lived in areas like Rome, Ephesus, or Antioch, where the Gospel was encountering an urban pagan environment.

These books which tell us virtually all we know about Jesus are not biographies they are “the memoirs of the apostles.” Four biographies could not stand side by side with equal value; these books stand side by side because they record the facts about Jesus, recall the teaching of Jesus, and bear witness to Jesus.

The Historical Context: Finding the historical context of Jesus can be a difficult task at best. This is because the way in which Jesus’ teaching was handed down. The content of the Gospels was passed on in individual stories and sayings (pericopes), not as whole Gospels. Some of these sayings were transmitted along with their original contexts. These are often referred to as pronouncement stories. Other stories and sayings did not include any historical context. This left the evangelist under their own guidance and that of the Holy Spirit to give the sayings present contexts. This is one of the reasons that that we often find the same saying or teaching in different contexts in the Gospels. This is also why sayings with similar themes, or the same subject matter, are often grouped in the Gospels in a topical way.

The Literary Context: The literary context has to do with the place of a given pericope in the context of any one of the Gospels. The concern for doing this is twofold: (1) to help you exegete or read with understanding a given saying or narrative in its present context in the Gospels, and (2) to help you understand the nature of the composition of the Gospels as wholes, and thus to interpret any one of the Gospels itself, not just isolated facts about the life of Jesus.

Think Horizontally: This means that when studying a pericope in any one gospel, one should be aware of the parallels in the other. There are two basic reasons for thinking horizontally. First, the parallels will often give us an appreciation for the distinctiveness of any one of the Gospels. Second, the parallels will help us to be aware of the different kinds of contexts in which the same or similar materials lived in the ongoing church. This is important in seeing how the same material was used in new contexts in the ongoing church.

Think Vertically: To think vertically means that when reading or studying a narrative or teaching in the Gospels, one should try to be aware of both historical contexts, that of Jesus and that of the evangelists. This is to help bring awareness that many of the gospel materials owe their present context to the evangelists, and that good interpretation may require appreciating a given saying first in its original historical context as a proper prelude to understanding that same word in its present canonical context.

(This post is a summary and partial abridgement of Fee And Stuart’s book “How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth.” It is based solely on Fee And Stuart’s work and any help that this content gives should be credited to God’s grace through their effort. In other words, give God glory, thank Fee and Stuart and buy the book.)