I'm getting very close to being done with my Great Bible Readthru of Lent 2018. I have just read three of the four gospels; all three synoptic gospels down, John to go. Which begs the question that has occurred to me from time to time: why are there four gospels? And why are three so similar, while the fourth is so different? When you read them all in a row, it becomes very clear how similar Matthew, Mark, and Luke are to each other. And then you reach John, and things get really different. It's still kind of amazing and confusing to me that someone in the early days didn't sit down and just compile all of the gospels into one super-gospel. Don't get me wrong, I'm kind of glad they didn't; it's more interesting to have the New Testament as it is. But it doesn't really make a whole lot of sense, does it?
The most common modern answer tends to be the old "car accident" analogy: if there is a car accident witnessed by several different people, who saw it from different angles, wouldn't you want all of the reports? And wouldn't they all be slightly different? This one has always struck me as being a little silly. Of course you would get several different reports, but wouldn't you eventually want to compile those disparate reports into a coherent narrative? To extend the car accident metaphor: if you were a reporter who had interviewed all the witnesses, you would probably collate the reports into one narrative, perhaps quoting from the different witnesses. You wouldn't just write down all the different reports, one after another. This analogy also doesn't explain why John's gospel is so different from the other three, and why the synoptics obviously borrow material from each other, down to specific wordings.
I've also read about how the four gospels examine Jesus' life and ministry in different ways: Matthew appeals to the Hebrew Scriptures more often, Mark's account is really concise, Luke's gospel is more meticulously researched, John's is more "spiritual" in its approach. I agree with this analysis, but it still doesn't explain why there are four, and not, say, five...or twelve. And while I agree that it's useful to be able to view Jesus from different perspectives, it still doesn't explain why the canon developed in this way. I guess it's a little like the way the narrative from Samuel and Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures were reinterpreted in Chronicles. It's still weird, though...
I can't find it online right now, but I've also read that, in the early days of the development of the canon, some church fathers said there have to be four gospels, just as there are four points of a compass. In other words, there was a mystical kind of numerological significance to the number four. I imagine it could have been related to the ancient concept of four elements: earth, air, fire, water. Or the "four corners" of the earth. This strikes me as a little more accurate than a lot of the modern analogies. Our forefathers were more concerned about the meaning of the canon, and there are probably some questions about how that canon developed that we'll never really know the answer to. (After all, we don't find many New Testaments that include the Didache or the Shepherd of Hermas, do we?)
I guess, in the end, the answer to my question is simply..."just because." We have four gospels because we have four gospels. (And despite the Jesus Seminar's attempt many years ago to get the Gospel of Thomas accepted into the canon, there's not a significant movement to expand Scripture in that way.) As I said above, I'm actually glad there are four gospels; I think the New Testament is a richer tapestry because of it. But if anyone has any other perspectives on the topic, I'd love to hear from you! Feel free to comment...
As I've shared in some previous posts (here and here), I'm reading the entire Bible during this Lenten season. It's certainly not an impossible task, although some days are easier than others. Yesterday, I finished the Hebrew Scriptures (aka the Old Testament), and today I read the Gospel of Matthew. Which means I'm actually ahead of schedule by a full day! Several years ago I read the whole Bible for Lent, and I seem to remember it being a much more difficult task. This time around, I'm really enjoying myself the vast majority of the time. For example, I remember Psalm 119 (the longest chapter in Scripture) being a real chore. This time, I really enjoyed it, and it didn't seem as long as I thought it would. Jeremiah was a bit tedious, to my way of thinking, but Ezekiel was awesome (except for some of the stuff at the very end of the book about the new temple measurements).
Here are a few thoughts that occurred to me as I read through the Hebrew Scriptures:
I've been thinking of the phrase, "wolves in sheep's clothing," as it applies to life in the Church. Now I seem to remember having seen this phrase used to describe church leaders who were preaching a false gospel. But that's not at all what I'm thinking of in this case. After all, the usual metaphor in scripture for church people as sheep views the people of a congregation as the flock as sheep, and the pastor as a shepherd. Or all Christians as sheep, and Christ as the shepherd. No, the reason the phrase popped into my head was that I have encountered some folks in the Church who seem like nice people until you get them started on the subject of sin...or rather, on the subject of what they consider to be sin. At that point, they go from becoming contented sheep in the flock to ravening wolves, ready to tear anything in their path. "Haven't you read the Bible?!?" they shout. "God calls <fill in the blank> an ABOMINATION!" Let the pastor preach a sermon about how God is love, and that we need to love one another as Christ loved us, and they nod. But if the pastor gets specific about a particular behavior that these wolves think is categorically sinful, they abandon their Christian love, and replace it with righteous indignation, or anger.
What about the woman caught in adultery in John 8? Doesn't Jesus tell her to "sin no more"? Yes, after all of her accusers have left her alone, because Jesus has shined the bright light of their righteous indignation in their faces...and after he's told her, "I don't condemn you either." What? He didn't condemn her? Maybe the wolves skipped that part of the story.
What about Paul, though? In the opening of his letter to the Romans, doesn't Paul list a whole bunch of acts that people commit, that God definitely views as unrighteous, sinful? Yes, he does. But keep reading: in the second chapter, just as Jesus had done with the adulterous woman's accusers, he turns that reasoning back on his "righteous" readers. "Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things." (Romans 2:1) In other words, just as Paul's readers begin feeling pretty good about how much better they are, he says, "Hold on! What's your excuse?"
Here's my point: "all we, like sheep, have gone astray," as the chorus of Handel's Messiah sings so bouncily. (He gets the text from Isaiah 53:6.) We are all sheep, and like sheep, being the kind of animals they are, we stray from the path, we go wandering after a particularly tasty looking patch of grass. But the moment we start trying to complain about another sheep's predilection for wandering from the same path, we cease being sheep, and become wolves in sheep's clothing. We begin to relish the taste of blood (metaphorically speaking, mind you). We tear, we attack, we wound, we kill.
Don't be a wolf. Be a sheep. The Shepherd will do the work of correcting your fellow sheep. And he'll take care of the wolves.
We're just under a month away from Easter at this point, and I am nearing the midpoint of the Bible. I am halfway through the book of 2 Chronicles, so I'm basically in the middle of a big recap..."Previously on...THE BIBLE!" It's not the easiest read: there are lots of long stretches of genealogies that make it slow going. And I can't help thinking, "I just read about all these people...why do I have to go through the whole thing all over again?" It actually gives me greater appreciation for the traditional Jewish order of the Hebrew Scriptures, where Chronicles comes at the very end.
Still, now that I've finished the whole saga of the kings of Israel and Judah, as told in 1 Samuel-2 Kings, I do feel a sense of accomplishment. Sure, it's an almost endless saga of good king/bad king, but it ends with the very dramatic event of the Babylonian Captivity, so there is a payoff at the end of the sequence. Meanwhile, 2 Kings has one of my favorite odd stories in it: the little paragraph at the end of the second chapter, where the boys mock Elisha the prophet, with disastrous consequences. I'll let the Bible tell it...
He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. (2 Kings 2:23-24, ESV)
Pretty weird, no? It's one of those weird little, oddly detailed stories that you come across in Scripture from time to time. They often don't advance the larger story at all, but they are interesting.
But back to Chronicles for a second. It's also interesting to me that the Chronicles version of King David's story completely skips the embarrassing tale of Bathsheba, and David's murder of Uriah the Hittite (Bathsheba's husband). If you were to read only the Chronicler's depiction of David, you would come away with a picture of him as the greatest king ever, with no evidence to the contrary. Oh, and another thing: the story of King Saul almost completely disappears in Chronicles. It's a really big deal in the earlier version of the story: Saul trying to kill David, and David always outwitting him. Saul only rates a brief paragraph in 1 Chronicles, almost an afterthought. The Chronicler just wants to move the story along to the hero--King David.
Well, after Chronicles, it's just a few relatively short books before I come to the Writings (as they're often called in Jewish Bibles): Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon. That's good stuff, and I'm looking forward to reading it all again. Thanks for reading!
Last week, I saw on Google that Johnny Galecki (Big Bang Theory) was producing a new sitcom called Living Biblically, based on the book The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. I had read the book several years ago, just after it came out, and had thoroughly enjoyed it. So I went ahead and read it again. I also watched the pilot episode of the sitcom. It wasn't brilliant, but I enjoyed it (despite the fact that critics seem to have panned it). The book, on the other hand, was just as good on the second reading as it was on the first. Here are some of my thoughts...
Jacobs spends an entire year (plus a couple weeks) trying to live his life according to a pretty literal reading of all of the Bible's commands. He spends about 2/3 of the time focusing on the Old Testament, and the remaining 1/3 following the New Testament. During this time, he grows an epic beard, visits Israel, refuses to sit anywhere that may have been touched by a menstruating woman (including his own wife), etc. This might seem like an irreverent sort of experiment. On the contrary, he seems to approach the task with great reverence, despite his secular, agnostic worldview. And even though he admittedly fails much of the time to truly "live biblically," he emerges from the experience a changed man. Does he become a believer in Judaism or Christianity? No. But he does develop a deep appreciation for the sacred.
There is much to enjoy in Jacobs' memoir of his experience. Possibly the funniest story he tells is when he informs his wife that he can't sit anywhere she's sat during her period. When he returns home that day, she gleefully informs him that she has sat on every single surface in the house, except for their toddler's play bench! He ends up purchasing a portable stool that he can carry around, thus ensuring his ability to stay pure in that regard. He even ends up "stoning an adulterer," which basically means he chucks a pebble at a cranky old man who almost decks him.
As I read the book this time through, as much as I enjoyed the experience, I wondered how a deeply religious (or deeply irreligious) person would view Jacobs' journey. After all, he doesn't end up having any sort of Christian "salvation experience," or rediscovering the Judaism of his family's heritage. At the same time, he doesn't decide the whole religion thing is not worth believing, either. He's quite honest that he still remains an agnostic, although he indicates that he has become a "reverent agnostic." Disappointing to some, I imagine, who would expect such a lengthy encounter with the word of God to have a more tangible effect. But I admire his forthcoming attitude, and the fact that he devotes so much attention to the innumerable little changes that occur inside him during his "biblical year."
Oh, and if you're interested in the sitcom that was based on the book, here's a little promo video for the show...
P.S. I thought it was interesting that the sitcom writers changed the main character from a nominally Jewish agnostic to a lapsed Catholic agnostic. Did they think that more viewers would identify with the latter?
(adj.) wild and frenzied; from Greek κορυβαντες (Korybantes)