In many seminary classes and Bible studies, there is a standard way of reading the Gospels: pick a passage, compare it with similar stories in the other Gospels, and come to a conclusion about what it means. Like the lectionary of the liturgy, passages are isolated so to focus on one particular part of the Gospel.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with that approach. Seeing how a story in Matthew is different from the Mark and Luke versions is interesting and offers insight into Gospels, sort of “triangulating” our understanding of Jesus in the world; when we throw all of the stories into one mixing pot we’re able to come up with what we believe to be the most accurate depiction we can. Where there are holes in one Gospel, the others fill them in.
And yet, there is something tragically lost in the process. You see, each Gospel is a narrative. It’s a complete work of art and theology with a beginning, middle, and end. It may have similar components as the other Gospels, but the way it weaves them together tells something more. Just like any good story, there are details meant to set up the main point, foreshadowing at the beginning that reveal hidden details at the end, development of characters, and overriding themes that help influence the meaning of individual stories.
In a way, the medium and overall work are not insignificant; they are the message itself.
For this reason, many scholars have been pushing what is called the narrative approach to reading the Gospel. Rather than comparing and contrasting the four next to each other, each one should be read in isolation from the others and in its entirety. If you’re reading Mark, focus on Mark. What is he trying to say as a complete work? Who is the Jesus he is presenting? Don’t worry how Matthew tells the story. In fact, forget that there is even a Matthean gospel. Mixing in outside details will only serve to distract from the distinctly Marcan story being told.
When we do this, what we find is that each Gospel is not just a “different perspective” on the same historical events, they actually provide a beautiful work of art with distinct theologies and distinct depictions of who Jesus is.
That is the background for this week’s Catholicism in Focus. But sometimes seeing it for yourself and having concrete examples is much easier to understand than this sort of abstract explanation. If you would like to see exactly how this plays out and what the main themes in each Gospel are, I have provided two documents for your study, which you can click below to access.