When I Open the Gospels

An Interview with Dr. Mark Goodacre
Author John D. Barry

WhenIOpenTheGospels

The Gospel writers often record a particular event in Jesus’ life differently. These differences have resulted in long quests to find the historical Jesus, who is supposedly “behind” the Gospel accounts, as well as many scholars devoting their entire lives to understanding the particular theological message behind each Gospel writer’s account. Since grasping the complexities of the Gospels is often a difficult task, Bible Study Magazine posed a set of questions to a world-renowned expert on the Gospels as synoptic (parallel) accounts, Dr. Mark Goodacre, professor of New Testament studies at Duke University.

BSM: Can you provide an example in the gospels that illustrates the importance of reading each gospel on its own merits?

GOODACRE: The most obvious example is the depiction of Mary Magdalene, who today has become a composite of a variety of figures from the four Gospels: a fictional, harmonized creation of the prostitute who repented and followed Jesus. She is variously thought of as three or four different women in the Gospels: the anonymous sinner of Luke 7:36–50, the Samaritan Woman of John 4, and the Woman Caught in Adultery in John 8. None of these women are ever called Mary Magdalene. What we actually know about Mary Magdalene is rather limited, but we do know she is never called a prostitute. It’s a good case of Christian tradition warping the way that we read the Gospels—for a long time no one really noticed that interpreters were doing this.

Right up to the present, Mary Magdalene is depicted this way in films and fiction (e.g., most recently in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ). I was delighted that in the recent BBC/HBO production The Passion, Mary Magdalene, for the first time in a major production, was not depicted as a prostitute!

BSM: Generally speaking, what are the theological slants each Gospel writer puts on their work?

GOODACRE: This is not a quick and easy question to answer, and I am always a bit wary of attempts to try and put the Gospel writers’ agendas into a nutshell.  Such attempts are rarely satisfactory and tend to draw wedges between the Gospel writers while oversimplifying their Gospels.  In spite of the importance of looking at each of the Gospels as a text in its own right, I think it is actually easier to describe what they have in common.  All four share the same basic plot and structure and agree that Jesus is the Messiah, that he taught about the kingdom of God, healed people, died and rose again on the third day, and will come again. The theme of the suffering Messiah in fact dominates all four Gospels, even if it is manifested in different ways in each.

BSM: If someone is speaking to their church, Sunday School class, or small group, how should they go about teaching on a passage that is recorded in parallel accounts in the gospels?

GOODACRE: I am not a minister or a church leader of any kind, nor have I been trained as one, so I would not presume to make suggestions about how church leaders do their work.  Nevertheless, when I am asked to speak to church groups about such things, I like to explore the world of parallel accounts a little by showing people the richness of understanding the way that different evangelists tell the same or similar stories.  Let’s take an obvious example, the annunciation of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1:18–25 and Luke 1:26–38.

Both have clear features in common, not least the announcement that Mary will give birth to a son who will be called Jesus. Nonetheless, there are substantial differences: Matthew’s Gospel has an announcement to Joseph and Luke’s Gospel has an announcement to Mary, each giving reflections on Jesus’ future that are characteristic of the way each Gospel writer portrays the narrative of Jesus’ life.

BSM: Should readers be distraught about accounts in the gospels that appear to disagree with one another?

GOODACRE: It depends on your perspective.  Since I am not, nor have I ever been, a kind of biblical literalist, I have always been a bit puzzled by those who struggle with places where the Gospels disagree with one another or, for that matter, other places in the Bible where there are disagreements.  Ignoring the disagreements does not make them go away.  What is enjoyable about studying the Gospels as a historian is that one is trained to take disagreements seriously, rather than harmonizing them. I tend to feel that taking the Gospels seriously shows a respect for their integrity as texts.  If one is interested in texts that many regard as sacred, then it is important to take those texts seriously, and that includes taking seriously places where they disagree with one another.

To learn more about Dr. Goodacre, or read more written by him, go to NTGateway.com.

For more tips on reading the Gospels, see Mark Goodacre’s The Synoptic Problem: A Way through the Maze. Go to Logos.com/Goodacre.

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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 3.