How to Read and Interpret the Gospels
As many of you know, I have begun to pursue a Master's from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. One of the primary objective with any higher pursuit of education in biblical and theological studies should be to use the "equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ" (Ephesians 4:12). I can think of no better way to equip you than to relay the insights I am gleaning from my studies.
Currently, I have been studying the gospels and what has been most beneficial for me has been the encouragement to consider how to faithful interpret the gospels according to their literary genre. What has been most fascinating is comparing the gospels to other genres and realizing that they stand alone as their own specific genre. They have a relation for sure to other scriptural genres, as well as genres from the time in which they were written (they most closely resemble the Greek "Bios"), but a more thoughtful look at them reveals that they truly are in a category all by themselves. This is because they contain both historical narrative and theological concerns. Mark Strauss identifies the gospel genre as “historical narrative motivated by theological concerns” (Four Portraits, One Jesus, Mark Strauss, p. 29). This helps us understand that we cannot seek to only interprete them as historical narratives or theolical treaties. They are both.
With this in mind, here are a few simple take away's that have helped me in my gospel studies in response to this class.
1. Identify the True Goal of the Gospel Writers
One of the most helpful things for me in response to this class in regards reading the gospels is to identify the gospel writers as evangelists. This has helped me tremendously in simply reminding myself that each gospel writer has a specific goal in the way he has compiled together his gospel. And that goal, according to the gospel of John, is that “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).
2. Read the Gospels according to their Literary Style
Another helpful thing has been to remind myself that the gospels are narrative literature and therefore seek to tell a story. Often times, I think we have a stong tendency to read all of scripture from the same lens and thus miss much of the benefit that comes from understanding each books/letters genre. Most of the time this is simply sitting down for a few minutes to search for a nugget of truth to take with us throughout the day. The problem with this approach to the gospels is that they are meant to be read as stories and thus we should sit down to read them with the goal of being drawn into the story. After all, they are a narrative on the life of the most important figure in all of history.
3. Consider a Structured Approach to Faithful Interpretation
Finally, and probably most significantly, what has helped me in digging deeper to the gospels is a sturctured approach to analyzing the gospels for consistent faithful interpretation. My professor has given us assignments which involve doing a narrative analysis on several passages of scripture. This involves analyzing each narrative section the way you would any narrative literature by identifying scenes, characters, plot movement, climax, resolution and then including an analysis of how it relates to the Gospel as a whole and the entirety of scripture. I thought I would share a copy of one of my assignments here to show how this is done. Click here to open the assignment (this approach is credited to Dr. Jonathan Pennington at SBTS).
I hope these insights will help you as you continue to grow in your study of God's word.