The Challenge of Narratives 2: Gospels – Part I

Peter has extended comments on this post.

When we come to interpreting the narratives in the Gospels, we are faced with a couple of potential difficulties.  I’ll call it the double challenge of more than one:

1. More than one “author” of the parables. Our goal in interpretation is to grasp the author’s intended meaning.  But which one?  There’s Jesus telling the story in the first place, around AD30, in Aramaic, somewhere in Galilee or Judea.  What did Jesus intend for those original hearers to grasp and learn?  But then there’s Luke, for example, retelling the story, around thirty or more years later, in Greek, to a reader somewhere in the Greek speaking world.  Primarily our concern is with what Jesus intended, but we’d be naïve to think that Luke’s intent was unimportant.  Luke did not struggle to focus, and thereby put together a random gospel.  No, he sequences his material with precision and skill.  We see this when different gospel writers frame the same content in a different sequence of material.  But that is another challenge again.

Next time I’ll give the other half of the challenge, the other “more than one!”

5 thoughts on “The Challenge of Narratives 2: Gospels – Part I

  1. Can we separate Christ’s intent from the Gospel writer’s? I can see how we distinguish between Jesus’ immediate audience, the Gospel writer’s immediate audience, and today’s audience in our application of the passage–but I can’t see a distinction in intent.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jim. I agree that typically the Gospel writer’s intent is not hugely distinguishable from that of Jesus, especially in the parables. However, the different audience does suggest the intent may be different at times. This is true in the retelling of events, not just parables. As we see in the feeding of the 5000, Jesus had a purpose in his action and the words he spoke. The four Gospel writers framed that same event according to the theological intent of their Gospel at the stage where it sits. The shift between the pre-cross, pre-resurrection, pre-Pentecost Israel situation and the post-cross/res/Pentecost Church situation is significant. Often we need to ask not only what was Jesus’ purpose in this act or speech, but also what is the purpose of the writer in this inspired text. As I developed more on January 19th, the text is inspired, the event itself was not “inspired text” (it was revelatory action).

  3. Thank you for the response. Please don’t misunderstand my questions—they’re not criticism, they are to help my understanding. It’s difficult to discern tone in a post without using dreaded emoticons (which I am sure are evidence of the curse). Understand that I ask as a student, not a critic.

    Here is my concern—if Jesus’ intent was different than that of the inspired writers of the Text, how would we know? It seems to me that would invite a reconstruction of the events independent of the revealed Text. Some of that is done when we set the occasion of a passage using historical or archaeological data, but I can’t see how we can ascertain an intent (especially of Jesus) separate from what the writers give us.

    When preaching from John 4, it is accurate to say, “The Holy Spirit inspired John to include this event in his gospel in order that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and believing, you might have life through His name.” But, is there a way to say that the second Person of the Trinity’s intent (in the historical event) was different from the third Person of the Trinity’s (in inspiring the written account) without doing damage to the Text?

    Reading your blog is a daily priority for me. It’s difficult to express how the Lord has used you to encourage and challenge me as I seek to faithfully preach His Word. Thank you!

  4. Thanks Jim – don’t worry, I’m not seeing your comments as criticism. They are helpful prompting in a brotherly discussion. I laughed at your insightful suggestion that emoticons were a result of the fall – they are hardly the most inspiring form of communication! (I have a well developed theory that peanuts are a result of the fall too, but I’ll not pursue that here!)

    How do we know possible differences in intent? The writer’s intent is evident in both the framing (how it is set with skill in a series of pericope), and in internal literary emphasis. When there are multiple accounts, we can more easily recognize the particular writer’s focus (more easily, but not easily) through comparison with the other writers.

    How do we discern the intent of Jesus? On one level I fully agree that the only way to know that is in the text itself. You are right to raise concern over a reconstruction that is independent from the text. I couldn’t agree more. However, the key issue is original audience. Jesus’ intent in his often antagonistic interactions with the Pharisees is revealed in the text, but determined by the audience. For instance, we get the sense in places like Matthew 23 that Jesus is not exactly mollifying his antagonists – he seems, in part, to be prompting the crucifixion. Obviously Matthew doesn’t include that section to prompt crucifixion, but to both give an account of what occurred and perhaps to demonstrate that Jesus stirs response among the complacently religious. Similar intent, but distinguishable due to situation, occasion and audience.

    You mention John 4 with the purpose statement for the whole book (20:31). Specifically in the John 4 story we see Jesus’ intention to reach this woman and her town. At the same time Jesus has a lesson for the disciples (v31-38). I think there is very significant overlap between Jesus’ purpose in that moment, and John’s purpose in his written account. However, John is very deliberate in his literary design – that is, the way he frames the flow of stories from chapter 2 through chapter 4. Does that change the purpose of John 4:1-42 on its own? Perhaps not too much, but it does make that story a part of a bigger whole. (I appreciate Francis Moloney’s outline of the flow from a Jewish woman’s commitment to the word of Jesus in 2:11 to a Gentile official’s commitment to the word of Jesus in 4:53 – a journey from Cana to Cana. I won’t detail his outline here, but it is worth pursuing. Belief in the Word: Reading John 1-4. Fortress Press, 1993: 192ff.)

    Perhaps “different intent” is too strong of a way of phrasing my point. Thanks for prodding me on this. What I am suggesting is that while we naturally focus on the original situation, event, etc., we should recognize that there are two “authors” involved – the “author” that is Jesus telling the story or speaking to certain people at a particular time. And there is the Gospel writer, retelling that same story with historical accuracy, but also with literary skill as he frames it and gives emphasis for the sake of different people at a different time. For instance, in John 9 Jesus heals the man born blind. The Pharisees go to great lengths to discredit the miracle, thereby showing their own spiritual blindness. In John’s telling of the story Jesus is absent for an unusually long section of text (from v7 to v35). Some commentators suggest that one of John’s concerns in his telling of the story is to provide encouragement to his readers who likewise were facing expulsion from the synagogue and persecution (in a time when Jesus wasn’t physically right there). Our consideration of John’s situation should not obliterate the historicity of the story, but I think we do well to consider both aspects.

    So I am not suggesting any contradiction within the Godhead. Any differences between Jesus’ purpose in an event or story, and the Holy Spirit’s purpose in the inspiring of the account, is limited to differences in recipients and occasion. Consequently there is significant, often almost complete, overlap between the two. Some commentators make the mistake of over-emphasizing the evangelist’s “community” so that the original event is almost totally obscured (historicity lost). Some of us perhaps make the opposite mistake of ignoring the Gospel-writer’s skill and theological intent in our pursuit of the historical event (literary artistry lost). We need both, and we need to think carefully as we seek to understand any pericope in the Gospels.

    Thanks again for prompting my thoughts further on this matter. Thank you for your kind words about the site, that encouragement means so much to me.

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