TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

25 September 2015

Gospel, gospel music, and the gospels.

Sometimes we use a word so much, its meaning gets a little fuzzy.

Gospel /'ɡɑs.pəl/ n. Good news. Specifically, the good news of God’s kingdom, or the revelation, teaching, and saving work of Christ Jesus.
2. A record of a great person’s life, teachings, and works. (Specifically, one of Jesus, namely the four included in the New Testament.)
3. adj. Something meant to share good news, such as a book, tract, or song.
Gospel music /'ɡɑs.pəl 'mju.zɪk/ n. Black contemporary Christian music.

The gospel, the good news of Christ Jesus, you know already. Or at least I hope you do. If not, I wrote all about it. Give it a read.

Gospel music used to refer to Christian music performed by church choirs. Nowadays, in the United States, it just refers to Christian music performed by African Americans—whether Christian R&B, Christian hip-hop, or even Christian rock. That’s a controversial definition among white people, most of whom aren’t aware the Christian music business is still segregated, and never noticed just how white K-LOVE and their favorite radio stations are. Black Christian artists are simply lumped together under “gospel,” given a subsection on the Billboard charts and in the Christian bookstores, and go under-noticed, under-funded, and under-appreciated by whites. And this digression requires a much longer discussion. Today I’m mainly focused on the gospels.

In the New Testament we find four gospels, records of Jesus and his teachings. They were written anonymously—but we Christians weren’t having that, and gave credit to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew and John were members of the Twelve, and Mark and Luke were members of Paul’s ministry team.

Gospels have a lot in common with biographies, but they’re really not the same thing. They aren’t about the life of Jesus—’cause if you read ’em, you’ll notice the authors dropped a lot of biographical details. Like Jesus’s childhood, family and personal life, precise dates… We have nothing about Jesus from birth to age 30 (except Luke’s brief story about Jesus, the child prodigy, teaching in temple). That stuff historians care about, and go a little bonkers that we don’t have it. But the gospels’ authors had a wholly different priority: They were trying to prove to their readers Jesus is Messiah, the King of Israel. Jn 20.31

The gospel genre.

There’s a debate among bible scholars as to whether a gospel is a certain type of Greco-Roman literature. Y’see, the ancients liked to write books about the great heroes of their culture. Not proper biographies: They only wanted stories about their heroes’ great achievements. Or their strong moral character. Sometimes their heroic deaths. They were written to describe why these people were so great, and why we should consider them heroic too. And unless stories about their childhood did that, they didn’t bother with them.

(Or made them up. You know that story about George Washington and the cherry tree? Fake. Mason Weems invented it because his Life of Washington was written Greco-Roman style. He wanted to exalt Washington, not describe him.)

Sometimes these books were written as a publicity stunt. Invading Roman generals would have one of these books written about him, and spread it among the people he planned to conquer. His hope was they’d read the propaganda and be less likely to fight him. Maybe they’d even welcome him as their conqueror, since he was so worthy to rule them.

These heroic books are very, very biased. Unlike a proper biography, which tells us about both the good and bad in a person, these books were only about the good. If Augustus Caesar sinned, the author would either come up with a good reason for it, or just leave it out. Unlike a proper biography, which sometimes critiques the person they cover, heroic books never criticized their subjects: They only criticized their critics—just like the gospels harshly condemn Jesus’s opponents. So much so, Christians sometimes get the wrong idea, and assume all Pharisees were hypocrites, or all Jews were out to kill Jesus.

Anyway, some scholars figure these Greco-Roman hero stories should also be considered “gospels.” The gospels aren’t some new type of literature which Christians invented: They’re an old type of literature, which Christians repurposed to tell everyone about Jesus. Contrarily, other scholars figure the hero stories are just biased biographies (just like the ones nowadays which are written for children) but the gospels are still significantly different.

How? Well for one, the gospels don’t talk about Jesus’s virtues or character. Seriously. You wanna read about Jesus’s character, you gotta read the other books of the New Testament. It’s in them we find out Jesus never sinned, was humble and submissive and self-sacrificing, demonstrated fruit of the Spirit, and walked in the Light as our example. Our gospels don’t tell us why Jesus is good—though he totally is. Just why Jesus is Messiah.

And the gospels spend a lot of time on Jesus’s teachings. They give us Jesus’s instructions for his followers. The Greco-Roman books didn’t really give any teachings or philosophy. Just acts. The gospels are for potential followers of Jesus.

My view is the Greco-Roman books are actually gospels. But the Christian gospels are different ’cause they’re about a really unique individual. Christians repurposed that genre to talk about the greatness of Jesus.

Yeah, there are other gospels.

Every so often there’s a news article about some other gospel: The gospel of Thomas, or the gospel of Judas, or the gospel of Jesus’s wife (if he had one; our gospels don’t say). The New Testament gospels aren’t the only ones in existence, y’know. Various other people in ancient times tried their hand at writing one. We call them apocryphal gospels because, for good reason, Christians didn’t include them in the New Testament. Sometimes because they were written by gnostics, which is why some of ’em are called gnostic gospels.

If you’re into history, or a big fan of the Historical Jesus hypothesis, you’re gonna read them. And you can tell right away why they’re not in the bible. Some of them are just weird, and some are just silly. (There’s a few in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, volume 8.) Sometimes they contain actual teachings from Jesus… mixed together with a bunch of other things the gnostics were trying to put in Jesus’s mouth. Sometimes bizarre miracle stories. But we have no evidence they were written in the first century, and they aren’t consistent with Jesus’s character, nor anything early Christians taught. Many read like their authors were on mushrooms. (You know the Romans used to use lead in their plumbing. Just sayin’.) So they’re not in the bible. That’s best.

The synoptic gospels.

Synoptic means “seen together,” and describes the way the stories in Matthew, Mark, and Luke line up—whereas John tells its own stories. There’s a rather obvious reason why the synoptics line up: Mark was written first, and the authors of Matthew and Luke simply quoted Mark in putting together their own gospels. Sometimes word-for-word. The author of Luke admitted he tapped other sources; Lk 1.1-4 Mark just happens to be one of them.

No surprise: There are Christians, including scholars, who have a problem with the idea of the gospels’ authors quoting one another. They’re a little bothered by the idea of Matthew, fr’instance, quoting Mark… yet not perfectly; in fact Matthew even dared to alter those quotes a little—and if Mark is inspired and sacred scripture, misquoting or changing it strikes ’em as just plain wrong. They’d much rather think the authors each wrote independently of one another—and all their stories happen to match miraculously.

Other Christians who are bothered by the idea of Matthew quoting Mark because St. Matthew was one of the Twelve, and St. Mark wasn’t—he was a student of Paul, and later Peter. (According to popular tradition, Mark put together his gospel by listening to Simon Peter tell stories about Jesus.) Why would someone who was there personally, like Matthew, quote someone who might not even have been born yet when Jesus was teaching? So their theory is that Matthew wrote his gospel first—maybe even in Aramaic instead of Greek—and Mark later published an abridged version of Matthew. (And Luke quoted Mark. Or Matthew. Whichever.)

The thing to remember is the gospels were anonymous. We don’t know who wrote them. We think we know, ’cause centuries of tradition have put certain guys’ names on them. But it’s entirely possible (heck, it’s likely) Matthew didn’t write Matthew. Or it was some other guy named Matthew who wasn’t the same Matthew in the Twelve.

The (hypothetical) sources of Matthew and Luke. The pie charts indicate what percentage comes from where.

The most likely theory—the one most scholars go with—is this one.

  • Somebody (whom we’ll call “Q” for Quelle, German for “source”) put together a collection of Jesus-sayings, either writing them down or getting Christians to memorize them.
  • Somebody (whom we’ll call “Mark”) wrote Mark in the early 60s—round the time the first generation of Christians was dying off, but not before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70.
  • Somebody (whom we’ll call “Matthew”) wrote Matthew in the mid-60s, using Mark and Q’s collection as two of his sources. And of course he had his own sources; we’ll call ’em “M.”
  • Somebody (whom we’ll call “Luke”) wrote Luke around the same time, doing the same thing. His sources we’ll call “L.”
  • Somebody (whom we’ll call “John”) read Luke and decided to write his own gospel, filling in any blanks Luke might have left.

It’s called the “two-source theory,” ’cause Q and Mark are the two sources for Matthew and Luke. There’s also the “four-source theory,” where Matthew and Luke’s authors had their own, separate sources for their gospels, besides Q and Mark. (That’s the one I tend to hold to.)

Because the synoptic gospels don’t line up perfectly, they create what scholars call the synoptic problem—which of them is the most accurate version of the story? Which of them has the proper order of events? Which of them gets the Jesus-quotes precisely right? (More problematically: Are we gonna suggest, in any way whatsoever, Mark got it right and Matthew exaggerated? Or Luke got it right and Mark wasn’t thorough enough? Are we implying any of the gospels is wrong? Yikes.)

I’ll just admit: When I’m talking about the gospels, I tend to give Mark first priority. It was written before Matthew and Luke, and is in fact a source they both quote. Not that I have any intention of disregarding the other two gospels: They fill in the blanks where Mark is silent. But if there’s any contradiction between them and Mark, I’m taking Mark’s side. No offense.

The real problem is when Matthew and Luke don’t quite jibe, and there’s no Mark version of the story to help me out. I have no evidence for which of the two gospels came first—or if it even matters which came first. Most of the time, Christians go with our biases, which is never smart. I look for similar stories and themes elsewhere in the gospels and the New Testament. It’s a tricky process.

And sometimes the Holy Spirit interrupts this process, and tells me it doesn’t matter: In this particular case, he wants me to pay more attention to Luke, or Matthew, because it speaks more directly to something I need to learn. I’m not allowed to use scholarship to evade something God’s trying to teach me. (Incidentally, that goes for you too.)

Those folks who push the Matthew-came-first hypothesis: They do this because they just plain like Matthew better than Mark. As, I admit, do I. As do a lot of Christians. Matthew is more organized, and has some great stories which aren’t in the other gospels. But I’m not gonna adopt an unlikely, illogical hypothesis simply because I’m biased. I go where the facts lead. And where the Spirit leads. (They’re the same place, y’know.)

And really, the synoptic problem isn’t a huge problem. It only becomes one when you’re one of those Christians who pretend the bible has no discrepancies, inconsistencies, or contradictions. You’re trying to make it sync up precisely, when all it really needs to do is harmonize. Or, to try a different musical metaphor, you’re trying to reduce a medley to only one song.

We call three gospels synoptic because they match so much, but fact is, they’re three different points of view. (John is a fourth.) And the Holy Spirit provided us with multiple points of view because it takes multiple points of view to really understand Jesus. He’s not two-dimensional. We mustn’t reduce him to a flat image when God’s given us stereo.