When I Open the Gospels

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


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.

Bible Study Magazine delivers tools and methods for Bible study, as well as insights from respected Bible teachers, professors, historians, and archaeologists. Take over 30% off the cover price—subscribe now!

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

Born Again ... and Again and Again?

Author Michael S. Heiser

Was Jesus open to the idea of reincarnation? The question may seem odd, but it’s one that many people, even biblical scholars, contend has a positive answer.[1] The idea comes from a passage you’ve likely read dozens of times.

John 9:1–4 ESV

“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but in order that the works of God might be made manifest in him (he was born blind). We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”


Notice the disciples’ question: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Many presume the question indicates that the disciples believed the man born blind really could have sinned before he was born, and that his pre-birth sins caused his congenital blindness. This presumption is followed by another: that Jesus’ answer wasn’t a categorical denial. Since Jesus doesn’t come out and say, “What a silly idea, don’t be ridiculous!” Some have argued that his response means that in this case the man born blind didn’t sin in a previous life, but perhaps that could have happened in another case. Could this interpretation be correct?

Reincarnation is the belief that the soul migrates from one body to another, different body, in a long (possibly endless) succession. The idea of the “migration of the soul” cannot be found in the Bible, or in other Jewish writers of antiquity,[2] which indicates the disciples were likely presuming something different: People can do good and evil while still in the womb. Paul addresses this misconception in Rom 9:9–13, when dealing with the case of Jacob and Esau. Even if a pre-born person could sin in the womb, this does not involve the migration of a soul.

Romans 9:9–13 ESV

“For this is what the promise said: ‘About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.’ And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’”

Matthew 16:13, where some people suggest that Jesus was John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the Old Testament prophets, is also no help to those who want to see reincarnation in John 9:3–4. Jesus and John were contemporaries, born six months apart (Luke 1:8–36), thus John’s soul could not have migrated into Jesus’ body. Elijah never died (2 Kgs 2:1–17), and so the migration of his soul is also not possible. If Jesus were one of the prophets, who had come back to life, then the prophet would be resurrected, not the prophet’s soul in another body. There are other, more technical flaws in this interpretation of John 9,[2] but from this examination alone, it should be apparent that the idea of Jesus approving of one being born again into another physical body,  is dead . . . again.


[1] The notion that Jesus embraced reincarnation is usually associated with New Age writers such as Elizabeth Clare Prophet and Dolores Cannon. However, J. D. M. Derrett, a highly-respected Greek New Testament scholar, recently promoted this view in a scholarly journal article, “The True Meaning of Jn 9, 3–4” (Filología Neotestamentaria xvi 2003), pgs. 103–106.

[2] See “Did Jesus Allow for Reincarnation? Assessing the Syntax of John 9:3–4” at MichaelSHeiser.com/John9.pdf

Bible Study Magazine delivers tools and methods for Bible study, as well as insights from respected Bible teachers, professors, historians, and archaeologists. Take over 30% off the cover price—subscribe now!

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

Cyril of Alexandria on Luke 8:43-48

Author John D. Barry

Cyril of Alexandria (378–444 AD) was the Patriarch of Alexandria and part of several major church councils, including the First Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. Cyril believed that God, through His incarnation of Christ, spread His divine power to all of humanity. Cyril’s belief in the “power” of the incarnation is explicit in his interpretation of the woman who was healed after touching Jesus’ garment (Luke 8:43–48).

Cyril of Alexandria on Luke 8:43–48

“When [the woman] touched [Jesus], she was healed immediately and without delay. ‘For I know,’ [Jesus] said, ‘that power has gone out from me.’ [The power] transcends our order, or probably that even of the angels, to send out any power of their own nature, as something that is of themselves. Such an act is an attribute appropriate only to the nature that is above everything and supreme. Every created being God endows with power, whether of healing or something similar, [it] does not possess [power] of itself but as a thing given [to] it by God. All things are given and worked in the creature, and it can do nothing of itself. As God, [Jesus] said, ‘I know that power has gone forth from me.’ ”*

The Passage Cyril References: Luke 8:43–48 (NIV)

Luke 8:48

“And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped. ‘Who touched me?’ Jesus asked. When they all denied it, Peter said, ‘Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.’ But Jesus said, ‘Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.’ Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.’ ”

* Cyril of Alexandria. Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke. Translated by R. Payne Smith. (Long Island: Studion Publishers, 1983).

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

Discovering the Power of Luke’s Gospel

Author Andrew B. Perrin

Whether you have spent countless sleepless nights pouring over Greek flash cards or can barely manage to order a gyro, you can reach beyond your English Bible to the original Greek in four easy steps.

In Luke 8:46, a desperately ill woman touches Jesus in order to be healed. Jesus then says, “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me” (Luke 8:46 ESV). What does the word “power” mean in the passage? What precisely went out from Jesus? To find out, we need to investigate the Greek word behind the English word “power”.

Step 1: Make the Switch to Greek and Establish a Working Definition

For those who don’t read Greek, the most effective way to make the English to Greek transition is to use a tool like the ESV English-Greek Reverse Interlinear New Testament. Simply find the English word “power” in the reverse interlinear and look at the Greek word placed below it—δύναμις (dunamis).

Now that we know that the Greek word for “power,” dunamis (δύναμις), is the subject of our investigation, we need to formulate a working definition.

If you are using print books, you can use Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible for this step. The key to efficiently using this resource is to take note of the Strong’s Number allocated to the word dunamis (δύναμις) in the interlinear Bible—1411. We can use this reference number to look up the word numerically in the Greek to English Dictionary-Index to the New Testament appended to Strong’s. Here we see that dunamis (δύναμις) can refer to a literal or figurative force, specifically the ability to work miracles, or even to a miracle itself.

We can skip this step entirely in Logos Bible Software by just double-clicking a word in a reverse interlinear. When we do this, our preferred lexicon* automatically opens to dunamis (δύναμις). For me, this lexicon is A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testamentand Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG). BDAG tells me that dunamis (δύναμις) in Luke 8:46 falls under the definition of “potential for functioning in some way, power, might, strength, force, capability.” BDAG also includes a sub-definition, which reads: “specifically the power that works wonders.”

Step 2: Briefly Track the Word through the Greek World

With one of these working definitions in mind, the next step is to investigate how this definition functions in literary contexts and biblical passages.

The key to an efficient study of a Greek word is not to reinvent the wheel by personally searching through literature of various time-periods. Rather, streamline the process by consulting a resource such as the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Abridged in One Volume) (TDNT). The TDNT provides concise articles that explain how and where a word occurs in various passages and contexts.

This resource accommodates to English readers by providing a table of English keywords. When we look up the word “power” we are directed to the entry discussing dunamis (δύναμις) on page 186. This entry discusses the word in Greek literature (such as Homer’s Iliad) and in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament (the Septuagint).

While dunamis (δύναμις) in Greek literature often had to do with various forces (powers) moving and governing the universe, the Greek translators of the Old Testament viewed “power” as something God himself possessed and exerted. This shift in meaning further develops in the New Testament.

 Step 3: Explore the Usage of the Word in the New Testament

When looking up a particular word in the New Testament, there are two things that should be considered: frequency (how many times a word appears) and distribution (where the word appears).

We can use an interactive chart in Logos’ Exegetical Guide to determine the frequency of a word in the New Testament. Our word, dunamis (δύναμις), occurs 119 times. Although this is interesting, this statistic only provides us with a panoramic landscape. We must supplement it with details of the terrain—the context (or specific distribution) of each occurrence. We can use Logos’ concordance function or Strong’s to ascertain the predominant meanings attached to this word by the New Testament authors.

Discovering the Power of Lukes Gospel

Whenever we study a word, we should focus on how it is being used in the passage we are investigating. The fact that Luke uses the word dunamis (δύναμις) fifteen times throughout his account—a frequency equaled only by Paul in 1 Corinthians—establishes that “power” is a central theme and emphasis of his Gospel.

Now that we know that “power” is a central theme in Luke’s Gospel, we need to determine how the word is used throughout the book. Each occurrence of the word can be categorized by what it describes. When we categorize the different occurrences of dunamis (δύναμις) in Luke’s Gospel, we find that it describes four things.

In the beginning of Luke’s Gospel dunamis (δύναμις) comes from the “Most High” (Luke 1:35). However, once Jesus endures a period of testing in the wilderness there is a shift. Jesus becomes “filled with the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14). From this point onwards, Jesus independently uses and distributes divine power, like God the Father (Luke 9:1; 10:19). Luke uses “power” to establish Jesus’ divine identity. Jesus’ “power” causes onlookers to scratch their heads and ponder the identity and message of Jesus (Luke 4:36).

Now that we have determined how Luke uses the term in general, we can return to Luke 8:46 to reassess the meaning of dunamis (δύναμις) in light of our entire investigation.

The use of “dunamis” in Luke:

-God (1:35; 4:14)

-Jesus’ heavenly authority (21:27; 22:69)

-Jesus’ miracles (10:13; 19:37)

-Jesus’ healing ministry (5:17; 6:19; 8:46)

Step 4: Revisit the Passage to Find the Meaning of the Word in Context

Judging from the usage of the term in various contexts (and specifically in Luke’s Gospel), it seems fair to conclude that this occurrence of dunamis (δύναμις) refers to the divine power contained and originated in the person of Jesus.

The purpose of Luke 8:46 is to highlight the connection between Jesus’ divinity and the actions performed in his healing ministry. Numerous times throughout Jesus’ healing ministry, divine “power” finds its source in him (Luke 5:17; 6:19; 8:46). Dunamis (δύναμις) in Luke 8:46 subtly expresses that the presence and effect of “power” in Jesus’ earthly ministry indicates his divine identity.

To Review:

The Greek writers used dunamis (δύναμις) to describe spiritual and universal “powers”. The translators of the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) used the word to describe something that originated from, and was distributed by, God. Among other usages, Luke primarily used “power” to describe something God the Father and Jesus possessed.


*A lexicon is an in-depth dictionary about a specific corpus of writings. Because of this, lexicons can contain more lengthy and detailed entries than dictionaries.

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