The Four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are four of the most controversial books in what makes up what we know as the modern Bible. They are the first four books of the New Testament and depending upon the view of the interpreter, form the basis of the modern Christian religion itself. There are two conflicting views of the four Gospels. The first is the fundamentalist view, which takes the incredible happenings contained in these books on faith. They contend that the miracles performed are indeed factual and literal accounts of the events that transpired. The other view is the historical-critical view of the four Gospels. This view presents the happenings in the four Gospels as a type of myth. It takes the viewpoint that the happenings are allegorical, or political satire, as opposed to being factual accounts of the events and that Jesus represents a set of ideals, rather than an actual living person. The contradictory positions of these two viewpoints shakes the very foundation of modern Christianity, as we know it today.
An exegesis of the four Gospels raises many more questions than it answers, especially if taken at face value. The four Gospels repeat many of the same stories. The first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke have basically similar accounts of the same events and have become known as the synoptic Gospels. However, in John, the accounts are somewhat different. Fundamentalists have several explanations for this including that they are from eyewitness accounts and represent different viewpoints. However, this does not adequately explain some of the differences, which if the fundamentalist view were true, would represent blatant misrepresentations. This research will examine the various theories concerning the synoptic Gospels and will present support for the hypothesis that the differences in the stories contained in John support the historical-critical view of the four Gospels, rather than the theologian view that the accounts of Jesus are literal in nature and should be taken as an actual account of the events.
There are four basic hypotheses that support the fundamentalist point-of-view of the synoptic gospels. They are called the Markan priority hypothesis, the Matthean priority hypothesis, the Lukan priority hypothesis, and the Griesbach hypothesis (Carlson, 2000). These hypotheses explain the similarities in the Gospels by acknowledging that someone wrote it first, and then the other two copied it. The differences are explained as writer errors on the part of the copier, or as personal differences in the interpretation of the writings of another. The only disagreements between these hypotheses are the arguments over who the primary author was, and who copied whom. The main point to remember, in the historical critical view, is that no matter, who copied whom, the accounts of the events were written down at least fifty years after the death of Jesus. If the original writers of the Gospels were actual witnesses to the events, they would be very old by the time they wrote the stories. In this case, the memories of these witnesses may not have been accurate after all of that time.
As is successfully argued in the book Understanding the Bible (Harris, 2003), these fundamental arguments are the key points of contention among the Jews, Catholics, and Christian points-of-view. As Harris points out, the three major religions cannot even agree as to which book actually belong in the Bible, in which order they belong, let alone what the correct interpretation should be.
We must remember that at the time of Christ's lifetime, the population was a mix of Jews and Gentiles. When Christ would have actually lived, the mix would have been weighted towards the Jews. However, by the time that the Book of Matthew was written, around the last quarter of the first century, the community consisted of more Gentiles than Jews (Brown, 1999). The political atmosphere at the time of the events would have been significantly different than that at the time of the writing of the books describing the events. From the time that Jesus would have actually lived, until the time when the stories were written down, there had been a major political upheaval and change in power in the area. It is highly unlikely that the authors of the Gospel would have written something entirely contrary to prevailing belief at the time, for fear of persecution.
Christianity has an iconographic image of Jesus of Nazareth. The Catholic Church has an equally ingrained image of the Virgin Mary. Certain images are part of that iconography. However, many of these icons are historical impossibilities due to the timing of events involved. They also leave many unanswered questions, such as, who exactly were the three wise men? Was the star of Bethlehem really Haley's comet as some scholars propose? There are many such questions as these and many scholars have found answers in history and science that offer a plausible solution. The end result is that many traditionally held images of Jesus must be discarded for one based in historical fact. This may have happened as the stories began to be told to populations who were for the most part illiterate. With each telling of the story, they were changed a little bit. The persons telling the story did not have the background to keep the stories in historical context, and eventually, the new versions became accepted and replaced the older versions. Let us now examine some of the more popular incongruencies in the modern Christian image of Jesus.
Several common misconceptions can be found in the works of the historical critical scholars. The first is pointed out be Bornkamm, (1961), who points out the myth of the Jesus' Last Supper with his disciples. According to Bornkamm, Jesus died before Passover began and therefore we do not know what happened at his last meal with his disciples. However, we know that it was not a Seder as common belief holds. Bornkamm (1961) argues that Jesus is found in his words and actions. He is careful to point out that Jesus himself made no Messianic claims.
A second common inaccuracy that has crept into modern psyche, is that of Jesus being born of a lowly status. Brown (1999) points out that the practice of being wrapped in swaddling clothes and being placed in a manger is a practice that both enhances the fact of his Jewish ancestry and that of a high-born individual. Brown practically destroys every other element of the nativity scene in the same manner.
Dunn (1990) points out that the idea of a Virgin birth was proposed by Paul, some 27 years after the birth of Jesus. The Christians at the time of the birth of Jesus gave no indication of the idea of a virgin birth. The idea of the "God incarnate" was not a part of early Christianity. In addition, Dunn points out, the idea of the Holy trinity developed over the course of the next several hundred years. This idea would be blasphemous to the early Jews, from which the early Christians sprang. The Jews believed in only one God and the idea of the Holy trinity would be contrary to their original concepts of God found the Torah. One will recall that god, the one who struck out violently against any ideal of worshipping another God, as in the scene with the golden calf. It is not likely that the Jews who were to form the early Christian church readily abandoned generations of monotheistic tradition in an instant. Rather it is more likely, as supported by Dunn, that the idea of God incarnate developed gradually over the next several hundred years.
Schweitzer, (1910) disputes the very existence of Jesus at all, on historical grounds. He treats him as more of an icon than a real person. He feels that the individual historical inconsistencies in the Synoptic can be discounted by theology as a whole. However, due to the sheer number of them, they stand as a whole, rather than individually. Taken from this standpoint, they do much in the way of supporting the thesis that Jesus may have been a symbolic person, who represented the ideals that the new church was trying to embrace.
There are many other examples, in which the historical critical theorists manage to dispel many iconographic images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Historical facts and sequences of events do little to support these fabulous stories. The examples presented in this research represent only a small example of the vast number fo similar arguments that can be found in the historical critical writings of many scholars. Fundamentalists have been able to counter many of these arguments on a point by point basis. But they have not been able to counter the entirety of the evidence as a whole. There is another group theorists who examine the four Gospels from a literary perspective and conclude, as a whole, that the work had remarkable similarities to the Homeric Odyssey and several other classic…