Why the Gospels Aren’t Like Steve Jobs’ Biography: Part 2

Wade —  July 11, 2013 —  Comments

Steve Jobs2

Have you ever read the four gospels side by side and thought you found some inconsistencies? Maybe the events in Jesus’ life seemed out of order from one book to the next. Or, Jesus’ words seemed slightly different in each of the accounts. Do these discrepancies mean the gospels are fabricated? Should we trust a group of people that can’t even get their stories right?

If the gospels were written around the same time as Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, then we might have a problem. Yet, to dismiss them for not being organized like our modern works, would be a failure to understand ancient Greek biographies. As I mentioned in Part 1 of this blog, to truly comprehend the stories of Jesus, we have to look at the gospels in light of their ancient culture.

Here are three aspects of ancient Greek biographies that can help us understand the apparent inconsistencies found in the gospels.

Ancient biographers didn’t always put the events of their subject’s life in chronological order

In the first century, authors felt at liberty to summarize, paraphrase, and even arranged events according to a particular theme rather than a strict chronological sequence. To break it down, sometimes they recorded stories out of order.

This is a trait we do and don’t see in modern biographies. Generally, most biographies will start at the beginning of a person’s life and work their way to the end. There are times though, when material will be arranged to convey a particular point. For instance, in Steve Jobs, Isaacson groups together large clumps of information regarding Jobs’ relationship with Pixar. Events in this chapter happen over the course of a few years, but Isaacson chooses to disregard the overall chronological order of the book to tell a specific story. This is one example of why we see particular events in the gospels out of order with each other.

Each gospel writer constructed his book for a specific audience (Jews, Romans, Gentiles, etc.). So it would be natural that they would group information together differently based upon what theme they were trying to convey. This doesn’t mean they corrupted the story of Jesus. Under the direction of the Spirit, the Gospel writers chose what to include (and omit) as well as how to arrange it in a way that effectively communicated the good news to their contemporaries. For us, this seems a little odd, but 2,000 years ago, this was completely natural.

Ancient biographies didn’t divide their time equally

Greek biographers didn’t feel the need to detail every part of their subject’s life. While childhood stories are interesting, they’re not necessary. Ancient writers, in a sense, jumped to the “good” stuff. We notice this in the gospels as well. Apart from a few chapters dealing with his birth and infancy, we really don’t know very much about Jesus’ life until adulthood. The gospels were primarily written to present the message of Jesus and call individuals to faith in him. It is for this reason that many things that could have been said were left out. Sure, I’d like to know if Jesus had any childhood sweethearts too, but it’s not something we have to comprehend in order to understand the Christian faith. So it wasn’t recorded.

žAncient biographies didn’t provide word for word quotes

Quotation marks as we know them didn’t exist during the first century. It was widely understood that authors didn’t always quote their subject word for word, especially if recording an audible lesson or sermon. Before you start freaking out, this doesn’t mean that what they said was up for grabs. Authors were required to present an accurate representation of their subject’s teachings, even if they didn’t cite them verbatim

This might be a foreign concept to some, but it fits perfectly into first-century Israel. We transmit ideas and history largely through written documentation, or on Facebook, your choice. Many ancient cultures passed on history through a combination of spoken and written word. Studies in oral tradition reveal that direct quotes and non-necessary details might change from generation to generation. The overall message, however, stayed the same. If one strand departed from tradition, they were quickly guided back. The gospels reflect this aspect of ancient culture. There are times when the gospel writers didn’t quote Jesus verbatim–this is one way to explain why some of Jesus’ teachings are different from one book to the next–but when these four accounts are closely compared with each other, they display an incredible amount of unity and cohesion.

BONUS: It’s also possible that Jesus preached some of his sermons multiple times. All good preachers have those “backpocket” messages they use when traveling to different congregations. At the core they might be the same, but they won’t repeat each word verbatim.

With these three principles in mind, I actually believe that some of the minor discrepancies in the gospels actually point to their historical truthfulness. If Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all said the exact same thing, in the exact same words, it would come across as pretty suspicious. This isn’t what happened. Ultimately, what resulted was a beautiful example of how one consistent picture of Jesus, painted in different mediums, emerges from four different authors.

In order to understand the Gospels, it’s important to realize that they are very different from our modern day biographies. They have more in common with the biographical writings of the Greeks, than they do with Steve Jobs.

Saying this, there is however, one aspect of the gospels that is truly unique to both modern and ancient biographies. The gospels did not simply seek to inform with knowledge like most non-fiction works. Instead they sought to presenting a life-changing truth. Yes, they told a story, but it wasn’t just about a man. It was about a man who was also God. It is this uniqueness that truly makes the gospels so special.

What are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography by Richard A. Burridge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; 2 edition (2004).
Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by William W. Klein, Craig L. Blombert, and Robert I. Hubbard Jr., Thomas Nelson; Revised & Updated (2004) edition.


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