How to Use Critical Analysis in the Study of the Four Gospels

Bible study is an amazing adventure; it leads to faith. However, in recent years, many people have moved from belief to skepticism because, instead of coming to the Bible with an open mind, many people have begun to see the Bible as a mere product of human geniuses. One particular section of the Bible that has fallen into the critic’s way is the Gospels. Textual criticism has moved many people from concentrating on the message of the Gospel so that they can’t come to faith in Christ. Some people have seen irregularities in the gospel accounts and have led them to doubt the historicity and reliability of the gospels. In this essay, the writer seeks to show how critical analysis can be used in the study of the four Gospels to generate faith and belief.

Textual criticism: The writer believes that textual criticism is helpful in proper bible study since it helps the reader to ascertain those parts that are true from those that do not make up part of the Biblical canon. Moreover, when properly used, textual criticism will help us to synthesize and harmonize fragments of scattered Scripture verses in the Gospels to come up with one unique story of Jesus as seen from the perspective of the gospel writers. When used this way, textual analysis will help to establish the reliability of the gospel accounts, their historicity and witness to a historical Jesus who came and save mankind from sin.

However, in looking at textual criticism, several issues emerge that undermines the true faith. Skeptics assume that the events and miracles in the Gospels should be duplicated or reproduced. This is taken as proof to show the trustworthiness of the Bible. However, it should be noted that, the miracles recorded in the Bible were not intended to satisfy human curiosity, but to serve God’s eternal purposes in helping man to come to saving faith in Christ. If the miracles that happened in Christ’s life can be duplicated, then they fail to serve the purposes for which they were wrought since they were God’s way of attesting to national Israel that Christ Jesus is the chosen Messiah. Such miracles cannot be faked or duplicated since they have served their purposes. Despite John’s exaggeration in John 20:21, the fact remains, Christ’s miracles were meant to testify that He was indeed the Messiah that Yahweh had chosen to liberate people from sin and that he was indeed the Son of God.

Differences in the Gospel accounts: The supposed differences in the Gospel accounts by no means contradict the writers. First, it has to be noted that the writers wrote at different time periods and to various audiences for various purposes. Thus, though the miracles and stories contained therein are true, they were explained in various ways to various people and each author had his own peculiar emphasis regarding Christ’s work and ministry. For example, there is evidence that Matthew wrote specifically his gospel to the Jews proving that Jesus is the Messiah. His extensive use of the Old Testament and the specific use of the phrase “to fulfill” clearly indicate that he had a purpose or points to prove concerning the Messianic claims of Christ.

On the other hand, Luke’s historical account seems to concentrate on the inclusion of Gentiles among God’s people Israel even though they were not so much treated in Matthew’s account. This can be seen from his introductions to Luke and Acts and the fact that the recipient of these two documents was a Gentile, Theophilus. Likewise, Mark’s gospel seems to bypass many events of Jesus’ early life, concentrating chiefly on his last 3 and half years of ministry. While John’s audience is not clearly addressed, it is evident from the text that his purpose in writing was to lead others into faith in Christ as God’s Son.

It is probable that no two witnesses can use the exact words in the admission of evidences. For the Gospel authors, some were eyewitnesses, e.g. the apostles, and for Luke and Mark, these learned it from others and through research. Thus, those who heard the Lord’s words directly are most likely to have given an honest account of his life and words. This is quite amazing especially if the Gospel accounts were written prior to AD.70, for many eyewitnesses would have existed that could give factual historical accounts about Jesus. Many of those who had been healed or experienced Christ’s miracles would stand as living testimony of what Christ has done, thus, cementing the Jesus legacy.

Duplications in the Gospels: As for the duplications, it is right to assume that these stories carried much of the essence of what Christ did, said or taught. However, as is common to students in a class setting, each can write notes in his own way using different words but saying the same thing. If his can be understood, then it is possible for the Gospels to have differences and duplications. The writer does not see them as duplications per se since the books were not composed by one human author or edited by one editor. It was after the gathering of these books that people began to notice the similarities and differences but yet, in their unique ways, they were complimentary and not at variance.

Truth is determined not by variances that may be owed to the manuscripts but by the witness of the eyewitness accounts. As already stated elsewhere here, the purposes of the authors differ thus, accounts for the differences in most parts. However, if we can closely examine the differing accounts, they by no means indicate error or falsehood. They stand as parts of a bigger whole and each part helps shade light to the account. For instance, the synoptic accounts may be using varying terminologies, but the parallel accounting of each writer seems to add more information to complete the bigger picture.

Guiding Principles: When approaching the gospels, certain principles should be borne in mind. Firstly, the reader should view the Gospels as God’s inspired written word. The inspiration of the Scriptures and their inerrancy are twin doctrines that cannot be ignored, especially when borne in mind that there are certain things our rational minds cannot fully understand. For the Christian, the call is not to skepticism but to belief. Howbeit, this kind of faith is build upon the premise that the Bible is God’s true record of salvation history and points people to God through Christ. Secondly, the reader should understand the witness of secular history and other archaeological findings that have given proof of a historical Jesus. While some accounts can be biased, we should however assume that, in matters of faith and doctrine, the Bible supersedes all written documents. Another principle to bear in mind is that historical facts of the Gospels are indisputable since the authors undertook careful research and observation. The third principle can be that of the nature of the gospels. They are not historical biographies and should not be read as such. They are to be read from a theological perspective for they lead the reader to Christ. Literary integrity is another principle. The Gospel accounts consists of several literary genres and styles which should be taken into account when studying certain passages, e.g. parables, narrative, doctrine, etc. Having an author’s purpose in view is also a great principle to bear in mind when approaching Gospel accounts since it safeguards the reader from misrepresenting the author’s intended message.

How miracles are to be understood: The miracles contained in the Gospels are to be understood as real and factual miracles, not myths or legends. The author’s choice of selected miraculous events is in accordance to his intended purposes. For instance, John only recorded seven miracles in his gospel, and avoided the use of the common term ‘miracle’, rather, he preferred the word “sign”. This agrees too well with the way the Synoptic authors spoke of Jesus’ miracles. At times, they even reported that Jesus could not do certain miracles because of people’s unbelief. At one point, the Synoptic gospels clearly say that Jesus refused to perform miracles to satisfy human curiosity. Even when Herod demanded a sign or when Jews asked for a sign to prove Jesus’ as the Messiah, he could not do so. Even in his temptation, he refused to perform any miracles. Thus, miracles recorded in the Gospels serve a specific purpose, that of helping readers see the uniqueness of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God who was to come and save mankind from sin. These miracles stand in their own special class and cannot be duplicated as historical accounts have shown us. The miracles are meant to create faith in us. They are signposts to a spiritual reality that God desired his people should see in Christ. It is for this reason that Jesus told his disciples that if they could not believe that He was the Messiah, at least they had his miracles as a positive sign of his Messianic claims (John 14).

The reality of Miracles: Miracles performed by Christ were real events, from his conception to his resurrection; there were many eyewitnesses. The greatest of these miracles are the incarnation and resurrection. In his post resurrection appearances, the apostle Paul points that there were over 500 witnesses that saw him alive and the witness of the apostles who ate and had fellowship with Christ. If these were myths or fabrications, the amount of martyrs who died for their faith in witnessing for Christ cannot be ignored. A sane person cannot choose to die for something that is false. The early church witnesses were not afraid to publicly witness for Christ, his person and work, and to even die for their testimony. Thus, the writer agrees with Matthew’s account that even large sums of money paid by the Jewish priests to silence the guards were enough proof to show that the resurrection miracle had truly taken place.

Contributions of modern analytical thought: Modern analytical thought can contribute to discovering the truth of the gospels by creating a platform of honest inquiry and grounds for careful investigation. It can follow Luke’s principles of careful investigation which he used in writing his Gospel and the book of Acts. When the historical reliability of the Gospels is challenged, it should not just be a matter of illogical assumptions, rather, there should be enough evidence to allow the admission or dismissal of the Gospel accounts. Modern scholars should not be biased and allow themselves to be bound to misconceptions and assumptions such as the premise that all differences in an account are contradictions or that all differing accounts are necessarily stories of the same event or teaching. Instead, they should be willing to cast all biasness aside and approach the Gospels as factual accounts meant to be read theologically. In most cases, the approach has been to treat them as Christological biographies which have turned to be disastrous. The aim of the Gospels was to evangelize, showing forth the uniqueness of Christ as God’s Son, the promised Messiah and Savior of the whole world. An honest inquiry into the matters raised should lead to objectivity rather than to a suppression of truth because one’s findings do not support a popular view or opinion.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we have seen that textual analysis can be used as a good tool in the study of the Scriptures; however, if wrongly used, can undermine faith in the Scriptures. The fact that numerous events recorded in the Scriptures cannot be duplicated or reproduced today does in no way invalidate these historical events. Rather, we should seek to find the purposes which these events serve in our Christina faith. Thus, incarnation, miracles and a physical resurrection cannot be reproduced for the modern researcher to analyze because they are not ordinary or normal daily occurrences. Differences in the Gospels are not proof of error, rather can be attributed to each author’s particular choice of words and phrases in writing. Each Gospel complements and completes the other.

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