Thursday 17 January 2019

My shock on reading Matthew, Mark and Luke after sustained immersion in the Fourth Gospel

I have been reading the Fourth Gospel, almost exclusively, for most of a year - deliberately avoiding (so far as is possible) the other Gospels, the New Testament, and indeed the whole of the rest of the Bible. I found the Gospel wholly convincing, at the deepest level of which I am capable.

Over the past couple of days I have read quickly through the Synoptic Gospels (in the order Mark, Matthew then Luke) - to try and get a sense of how they strike me; having come to what feels like a secure and true understanding of Jesus's nature and teaching from the Fourth Gospel.

The experience, so far, is very shocking. The Synoptics, each in somewhat different ways, seem to have missed the point and made something very different than Jesus intended. Unlike the unity and coherence of the Fourth, none of the other Gospels make sense of Jesus's teaching.

Mark reads as incomplete, a collection of notes from various sources, not integrated - and without a take home message; set it aside for now. Matthew seems to be fitting Jesus into the Old Testament expectations, without taking any note of what Jesus actually said. Luke tells a good story - but the teachings are all over the place, and again it is unclear what the core implications are supposed to be.

When the same events are reported as we can read-about in the Fourth Gospel; the other three evangelists consistently misunderstand the significance; and get them in the wrong (and a meaningless) order.

My feeling is that Matthew and Luke are not very concerned about stating clearly what Jesus actually said, nor are they troubled about the contradictions between their reported deeds and teachings - because both have apparently seized upon the imminence of Jesus's Second Coming when all such minutiae will be swept away.

Even misrepresentations of God's basic Goodness are scattered here and there, as if casually and without comment. And the reason for such apparent carelessness seems to be that Jesus will very soon be coming again (in clouds of glory etc) to end this world. For Matthew and Luke, the imminent Second Coming is The Big Message.  

Yet in light of the Fourth Gospel, the Second Coming is clearly a false invention, and one that would serve no role in the work of Jesus. An invention that could only have been made by someone who fundamentally misunderstood the nature of Jesus's teaching and gift. Plus, It Didn't Happen - so one might have supposed that this would put an end to any notion of the Synopic Gospels pretense to primary authority...

(And the Second Coming is only the largest of numerous dissonant and inappropriate additions to Jesus's teachings that are found in the Synoptics.)

Shocking indeed; especially when it is realised that it was the Synoptics which 'won' authority in the Christian churches; and the supreme Fourth Gospel which was wrongly relegated to the status of a kind of optional extra appendix to the Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts and the Epistles of Paul.


Avro G said...

Clearly you are no fundamentalist. I use that word In the simple meaning (not as it is commonly used pejoratively) which is one who accepts the whole Bible if not literally factual then as being homogenously authoritative. How do you evaluate which parts to credit and which to downplay or reject?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Avro - If you follow the first link in the post above, you will get to my book on reading the Fourth Gospel that I published a couple of weeks ago. I have been led to this position by steps I describe there.

a_probst said...

On top all that, the three Synoptic Gospels all relate the raising of the daughter of Jairus (freshly dead) but say nothing of Lazarus (raised after four days).

Bruce Charlton said...

@a probst. Indeed. When I read these different accounts, the truth of the account of Lazarus jumps out. Since the Fourth Gospel treats this as the single most important act of Jesus's ministry, and a thing qualitatively different from his other miracles; either the Fourth or the Synoptics must err.

The Synoptics seem to slip this raising in among other miracles, as if it was not qualitatively different - as I said in the post, the Synoptic authors don't seem to understand the significance of what they describe, and don't seem to regard a lack of understanding as a significant problem.

Chip said...

Very stimulating, and yes, not a fundamentalist analysis. My speculation is that all the gospels contain great value and truth. I think John's is deeper and sees further timewise also. The synoptics may well be constrained by the looming apocalypse, and some epistles also. Maybe the reason for admonitions to remain single or married, be prepared to flee the City, when certain signs become obvious, etc. I think most "second coming" passages were fulfilled in that generation, when some listeners were still alive. The 4th gospel may be the ideal conduit for a deeper and longer term teaching, especially if the author or someone very close to him, as hinted i believe, in more than one gospel, may have been one of the survivors of the Jerusalem destruction, whereas Paul, Peter, James, Stephen and others were apparently martyred beforehand. Just my thoughts, i don't claim scholarship or deep spiritual intuition, but really benefit from grappling with your insights.

Bardsey said...

Could you talk a bit more about your understanding of the Second Coming as referred to in the Synoptics, as opposed to the absence of it in the Fourth Gospel? Your post about a coming "collapse" or "cataclysm" seemed accurate to me, and I was curious how a revival of Christian belief and practice, emerging from a possible crisis, would appear to you, or, to the author of the Fourth Gospel. Thanks!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Chip - Seems plausible. Although I feel confident that the Fourth is also the first Gospel - except for Chapter 21, which post-dates the death of Peter. There is no evidence in Chapter that Paul was known, of it he was known then presumably he was not considered important or correct enough to mention. It is hard to imagine the author of the Fourth Gospel approving of what Paul, or indeed of Peter, had done with the teachings of Jesus.

@AnneT - "I was curious how a revival of Christian belief and practice, emerging from a possible crisis, would appear to you, or, to the author of the Fourth Gospel" - I don't understand this question.

Bruce B. said...

Bruce, While I have no specific argument against your understanding, I can’t help but wonder if some of the differences you pick up on are because of the four different audiences the four gospels were intended for. Much context has probably been lost and 21st century readers are not Romans, Greeks, 1st Century Jews, etc.

Matthew T said...

Since you keep bringing this up, you have convinced me to give John a read with fresh eyes. I don't mind saying that John has always been my *least* favourite gospel (except Mark, which doesn't count, for reasons you mention), and I don't really know why except to say that it has always made less "sense" to my mode of thinking.

Matthew T said...

Plus, It Didn't Happen - yes it did, in 70 AD. Oh dear, please don't let's turn this into a theology debate!

ToTheRightRon said...

I’ll preface this with “I’m not a theologian”. The synoptic gospels are the story of Christ coming to the lost sheep of Israel. They discuss his ministry to the Jews. There are asides where he foreshadows the coming church and the acceptance of the gentiles. While as gentiles there is still value for us to understand them we have to realize who the initial target was. I’m not versed well enough in dispensational theology to get deeper into the weeds. The gospel of John is the same story but the audience and message is more tailored to those who aren’t of the lost sheep of Israel and universal in scope. It’s my favorite gospel as well. When reading the new testament you always have to keep in mind that much of it was written to practicing Jews. Follow Christ, love one another, give thanks and abstain from fornication.

Bardsey said...

That was why I wanted to know more about your thoughts on the Second Coming discrepancy between the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel. Is there a way to understand the Second Coming in less apocalyptic terminology? Can there be a revival of Christian belief without the Second Coming? Does this slow-rolling crisis work more like entropy, just expanding until there's nothing left?

Crosbie said...

Any thoughts on the parables?

Bruce Charlton said...

In general - I would not recommend doing what I did unless you are impelled to do it, because the consequences have been severe - but it took me many months of re-reading and thinking about the Fourth Gospel in isolation from the rest of the Bible, before I began to understand it in its own terms. The usual way of reading it 'in conext' and by continual comparision just does not yield the truth of it.

the nature of the audience of the Matthew and Luke Gospels is secondary to their content: what does they assert was the *point* of Jesus's life, death, resurrection and ascension; what does it *mean*? (This is not all covered by Mark - which does not really have a 'point' to it.)

Annie T and Matthew T - It is the apocalytic nature of the imminent second coming, as described in Matthew and Luke, that did not happen.

Now, of course, one could construct a case that this was all meant symbolically - and that the second coming did happen because it was something qualitatively different... but I don't believe it was meant that way; both from the explicit and detailed nature of the descriptions and from the overall structure of these Gospels - what overall point/s they are making. It is these overall points that each and together clash with the Fourth Gospel.

(And presumably why it has been so often, so confidently, so ludicrously asserted that the Fourth Gospel comes after the Synoptics. All I can say is that people who make such assertions have no ability (or no incentive) to understand a text in its own terms.)

The Fourth Gospel does reference Christ coming again in Chapter 21, which was seemingly added later - presumably by the same author. However, whether or not this means anything like the apocalyse of Matthew and Luke; it is clearly not of central importance to the Fourth Gospel - it is a kind of optional extra.

The Fourth Gospel makes its main points repeatedly, and there are only two: that Jesus was divine, and son for God; and that by loving and following him through death, we can attain to resurrected life everlasting. Quite a few of the stories illustrate in symbolic terms something of the nature of this life everlasting.

If we take The Fourth Gospel as a sufficient description of Jesus's teaching by the best imaginable witness, then we don't need to consider the second coming of Christ - since it is not relevant to what we personally need to do.

But in the end I am not saying that it is 'better' or 'worse' to regard the Fourth as primary, for some purpose or another... By my understanding it JUST IS the first, best, most authoritative source about Jesus; and once accepted, that Fact apparently has profound and wide-ranging implications - which also need to be accepted.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crosbie, I have commented in some detail on a few of the parables in the Lazarus Writes book. IN general, the parables in the Fourth Gospel fit into and amplify the coherent overall message of the Gospel. The parables in the other Gospels do not have this within-Gospel, or with-message coherence.

When the same event seems to be referenced in the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptics (eg the women anointing Jesus's feet) - if we assume that the Fourth is a correct recent-eye-witness account by the closest friend of Jesus; we can see that the Synoptics often have what seems to be a later, unreliable, incomplete, garbled and/or misunderstood version of the event.

This is not to say that he Synoptics are worthless - but that they need to be read through the lens of the Fourth. This is something I may try doing - writing posts about specifci sections of Matthew and Luke that seem genuine, and add to understanding (and just leaving aside the bits that are so alien to Jesus's nature and teachings that they must be some kind of error).

Andrew said...

My experience has been the more I learn from trusted sources (Christian men and women with highly developed spiritual senses and many years spent on their individual journeys) the more the entire Bible coheres and is found to be describing the same Divine reality, often from different directions.

-Andrew E.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Andrew - That hasn't been my experience; but it may simply be that I did not succeed in locating any people of the sort you describe, any people I could trust in these matters - and trust so as to accept what they told me.

(I know several people who live very good Christian lives, but in different ways, and these people are often bad at explaining anything spiritual, and indeed are cliched or incoherent about their own spirituality. They can do it, but not teach it - and indeed often teach wrongly.)

As I have said, this is primarily a matter of the assumptions that people bring to the Bible, or to any other saource of authority. It is the assumptions that dicate the outcome (so long as we are honest).

I personally find that the fact I have no idea who compiled the Bible, what criteria they used, what were there motivations? etc. to mean that I cannot trust that the collection of text that we we have should have prime authority over my understanding.

Indeed, it is deeper than that; because I am not at all happy about basing my fundamental beliefs on any knowledge-form as indirect as 'history' - which amounts to theories and interpretations. These may be fine for most purposes; but not for this purpose.

I *must* have an intuitive assent to what I read, in a relatively specific fashion; and feel it would be spiritually lethal for me to try and over-ride such a need.

Bruce B. said...

“This is not all covered by Mark - which does not really have a 'point' to it.)”

Bruce, can it be that the point of Mark (and Luke) was already evident to the intended audiences. They had the summary, the gospel was the details and record written for them.

“I have no idea who compiled the Bible”

Maybe I misunderstand but I thought we knew this. A council of Bishops who met at Carthage.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - Mark look like a set of notes. Luke is very well constructed - and it is persuasive writing - teaching.

The process by which the Bible is constructed is like a Black Box - some texts were fed in to some blokes at a time and place, this is what came out. Were they divinely inspired? if so, in what way and to what degree?

All this I need to know directly for myself - I do not trust the multiple chains of a process of transmission, and the multiple assurances of multiple people (who I do not know well enough to trust) to pin my life on it. These I must know by direct revelation.

S.K. Orr said...

"All this I need to know directly for myself - I do not trust the multiple chains of a process of transmission, and the multiple assurances of multiple people (who I do not know well enough to trust) to pin my life on it. These I must know by direct revelation."

Yes! Finally, someone who articulates what has been swirling around in me for some time now, something to which I have not been able to give words.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SK Orr.

This was something I first got from reading Mormonism - that we ought to seek direct divine revelation to clarify anything that troubles us.

Then I realised (from reading William Arkle) that Of Course a God who is the creator and our parent would naturally make it possible for us to know whatever we needed to know - know directly and unmediated, *not* relying upon the uncertainties and distortions of communications.

(This direct form of knowing could be termed intuition.)

Of course, we make it hard for ourselves in many ways; but God wants us to know the truth; and (as creator) is able to ensure that everybody, without exception, can find it.

Of course that does Not mean we will be able to articulate this truth to ourselves in words or symbols; nor that we will or communicate this truth to other people, because that is back with uncertain 'communications' again.

Bruce Charlton said...

@T - The second coming as an event is not central to the Fourth Gospel, nor to its description of Jesus's teachings. IF the Fourth Gospel is accorded authority, therefore it ought not to be made central to the Christian religion - or at least we each need to seek personal revelation on the subject.

In fact, putting the second coming at the centre has been a recurrently refuted part of Christianity - it has a bad track record and a tendency to distort the love of Christ.

This is not necessarily the case, but often has been the case; probably because (Fourth Gospel) Christianity is about individuals and 'families' and Jesus - whereas second coming and apolcalyptic thinking makes the religion about Big Stuff, such as sociology and politics.

dearieme said...

A few Christmases ago I decided, as an interested atheist, to read Mark - partly in hopes of being better able to guess whether Jesus had existed. (Answer: yes, I think he may well have done.) I liked it. Firstly, because it doesn't contain either of the nativity fables that pollute Matthew and Luke - obvious Greek claptrap intruded into a tale about a Jewish milieu. Secondly because it doesn't make unambiguous claims about the Resurrection (you have to know to omit verses 9 onwards of chapter 16 which were added later by a different hand). This seems to me to add up to a satisfying mystery story - this chap Jesus is obviously a preacher and magician of surpassing importance in Mark's view, without its being entirely clear to him why.

So we are spared inventions about Jesus' early life - the gospel begins with J becoming a public figure by being baptised. It ends with his corpse being enigmatically absent in the tomb and a young man predicting what will happen next.

Mark may have been no master of sophisticated Greek but he knew how to spin a yarn.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - I am finding Mark to be more like a collection of variably-recollected snippets, than anything I can make any sense from. Of course the Authorised Version is nearly always a literary joy - full of great sayings.

dearieme said...

@Bruce (if I may be so familiar): "a collection of variably-recollected snippets" is probably what you get if you record as best you can bits and bobs of what people had remembered and passed on via friends or children, who in turn passed them to "Mark". That's supposing that Mark lived somewhere that gave him access to such second-hand memories, and perhaps a few first-hand memories that had been committed to writing. Perhaps he lived so far from Galilee and Judea that he relied on letters and umpteenth-hand word of mouth. (Do I recall correctly that none of the synoptic gospels is terribly accurate about the geography of Palestine? Perhaps all of M, M, and L lived at some distance.)

All-in-all I incline to think that it's remarkable that enough survived that a little can be discerned of the life and death of a chap who was at the time just a minor preacher from the sticks. He must have made the deepest of impressions on his followers.

A natural comparison is with Mahomet: he was a merchant who had had religious visions and became a successful warlord. That seems to be the sum of what's known reliably, and even then it's possible that Mahomet was a title not a name so that the story may concern more than one man. It's not even certain that his Holy City was Mecca; there's a respectable case that it may well have been Petra. In other word perhaps his army was not raised in the Arabian Peninsula, perhaps it was raised on the edge of the cultivated land of Palestine/Syria.

It's a reminder how hard it is to know anything much about individuals at such a remove.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - It's a fair characterisation of Mark. My 'beef' with the gospel is that it tells us (multiple times) that Jesus was divine, but not the core, essence, implications of what he taught - what he *meant* (not clearly, anyway). My impression is that either Mark did not 'get' this - or, more likely, it got lost from the account. Unless Mark, like Luke and Matthew, misunderstood - and imputed teaching the immiment end of the world to Jesus.