New Eyes on the New Testament Pt.2

II. Exegetical Issues

  1. Understanding the Gospels

The Synoptic Problem 

Determining the relationship of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, or the synoptic problem, is challenging at best.  Initially it is important to recognize that each of the gospels represents two different occasions:  the occasion of its writing and the occasion the events actually occurred.   It is generally accepted the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) were written in the early to late 60s, however some critics contend that Matthew and Luke were probably written in the 70’s or even 80’s.   Their composition and content indicate that Mark was written first then Matthew, followed by Luke.  Matthew reflects the basic outline of Mark but includes more information.  Luke probably had access to the content of Mark and Matthew and any sources they had.  In fact Luke told his readers he that investigated materials about Jesus from various sources (1:1-3).

Target Audience and Objective

When a writer wanted to convey information to Christians in the first century he chose one of two forms, a letter or a gospel.  While the gospels are more biographical in nature, the objective of their authors was not just to tell a life story.  Their intent was to use life events to convey a specific purpose or objective.

Matthew was a Jew writing to a mostly Jewish audience and/or those who would have been familiar with the Torah and Jewish tradition.  His account is filled with quotations from the Hebrew bible with no explanation of Jewish customs. According to the author of Hebrews some Christians were beginning to question Jesus’s credibility (Heb 5:11-6:6; 12:12).  Apparently Matthew’s objective was to affirm Jesus as the promised Messiah, and also to affirm him as a pro-Torah rabbi. Mark was targeting a mostly Gentile audience therefore he used more Jewish detail in his explanation of events. Consider the comparison of Matt 15:2-5 with Mark 7:1-12.  Both texts address hand washing and support of parents however only Mark provides the Jewish components.  Probably Mark’s objective was to define the nature of discipleship to a mostly Greco-Roman readership.  Luke wanted his mostly Gentile audience to understand Jesus as not just the savior of the Jewish nation but of the entire world.  Accordingly he traced the genealogy of Jesus back to Adam instead of Abraham as Matthew had done.  The gospel of John was probably penned in the mid 90’s and stands in contrast to Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Even though it is not one of the synoptic gospels, it too, illustrates an author pursuing a specific objective.  John informed his readers that his purpose in writing was to provide a basis for the belief that Jesus was indeed the Son of God (John 20:21). 

Significantly, the chronology of events was evidently not important for the gospel writers, nor were the details.  For example consider the following:

  1. Matt 8:26 and Mark 4:40: little faith or no faith in calming the storm.
  2. Matt 7:11 and Luke 11:13: good gifts or Holy Spirit from the Father.
  3. Matt 10:10 and Mark 6:8: take no staff or take a staff when going out.
  4. Matt 17:20 and Mark 9:29: faith or prayer in driving out demons.
  5. Matt 8:15 and Mark 1:31: wait on him or wait on them by Peter’s mother in law.

Selection and Adaptation of Material

The amount of information we have about Jesus’s life is very limited.  John affirmed Jesus did “many other miraculous signs” (20:30), and did “many other things” (21:25) that were not recorded.  Luke indicated three times he knew more information than he “selected” to include in his treatise. One, he said John exhorted the people “with many other words” (3:18).  Two, he reported the guards “said many other insulting things” to Jesus at the time of his death (22:65). Three, he stated that Peter said “many other words” (Acts 2:40).

Because Matthew, Mark and Luke each had a specific audience and theological objective in mind, they selected material that would fulfill their purposes.   This is clearly demonstrated by the conflict concerning divorce between Jesus and the Pharisees.   Both Matthew and Mark chose to include this event but they used it in different ways.  Mark included the dialogue as one of three triads he used to teach against divorce (1).  Mark also seemed to adapt the situation to his largely Gentile audience (at this point talking to the disciples in the house and not the Pharisees) when he added instruction about a woman divorcing her husband.  A Torah knowledgeable audience would have known that under Jewish law a woman was the property of her husband and, as such, could not divorce him.  For that same reason, according to the Torah, adultery could not be committed against the wife.   Matthew used the dialogue as a focal point to illustrate the fallacy of law keeping over servant hood.  Luke would have known of this conflict but “selected” not to record it.   Instead he included only one isolated statement about divorce and apparently used it to illustrate the greed of the Pharisees (Luke 16:18).   

In another example Matthew and Mark adapted the illustration of the fig tree to accomplish two different objectives.  According to Matthew Jesus cursed the fig tree, it immediately withered, and then Jesus used the example to teach about faith (21:19).  In Mark, Jesus cursed the fig tree on the way to Jerusalem (11:12-14).  Upon his arrival there he rebuked the chief priest and teachers of the law (11:18), but it was not until the next morning that the withering of the fig tree was mentioned.  For Mark the cursing of the fig tree appears to be symbolic of Jesus’s judgment of Judaism, followed by his teaching on faith (11:22-26).

Literary Style

The use of various literary devices was just as common in the ancient world as it is today.   A careful study of the gospels reveals that similes, puns, proverbs, metaphors, parables, and hyperboles were often used.   Parables and hyperboles were especially predominate in Jesus’s teaching.  The word parable comes from two Greek words and means to “cast along side of.”  Its intent is to compare something familiar with something that is not.   A hyperbole or overstatement is used to draw attention to an important concept.  For example when Jesus discussed wealth, he used the overstatement of a camel going through the eye of a needle.  A chiasmus is another literary device used in both ancient and modern times to emphasize a teaching, specifically statements are made (A, B) and then the concept is repeated in reverse order (B, A).  A modern day nursery rhyme is a good example: (A)“Old king Cole (B) was a merry old soul (B), a merry old soul (A) was he.”  An example of an ABCCBA chiasmus is found in Matt 6:24:   (A) “No man can serve two masters.” (B)“He will hate one”  (C) “and love the other.”  (C) “He will be devoted to one  (B) and despise the other.”  (A) “It is impossible to serve both God and Money.” A chiasmus can be found in one verse, a group of verses, a group of chapters or even a whole manuscript.


Perhaps we have erroneously tried to blend the gospels into one unit instead of regarding them as separate theological works.  Trying to harmonize them becomes a theological nightmare. The writers did not envision their work being copied or distributed to other audiences (Matt 24:15; Mark 13:14); nor could they have predicted that their texts would be combined into one volume.  Note: This would have been true of the letters as well (Col 4:16; Rev 1:3).  Few people were literate and fewer still would have had a copy of a gospel. Rather these works were read and discussed in public gatherings.   I will pursue these thoughts with the New Testament letters in following posts.


1. A triad is composed of a passion statement, misunderstanding by the disciples, and corrective teaching by Jesus.

New Eyes on the New Testament

Restudying the Gospels and the Letters

I. Fundamental Issues

In my early years as a disciple, I saw the Bible as a debater’s handbook. My preaching was mainly topical and I looked for scriptures that would answer what I perceived to be misinterpretations of the text by others. Years of study and maturity have convinced me that the Bible was not written for that purpose. I realize now that my method of seeking the truths within the text was very shallow. It has not been until more recent years that I have developed a more honest way of understanding scripture. Seeking the truths within the pages of the biblical text has been challenging and is a continuing process. My goal in the next several blog entries is to outline some considerations that have been very helpful to me on my quest. Perhaps they will be to you as well.

A. Inspiration

Initially, I want to emphasize that I choose to believe the Bible is the inspired word of God and is the nearest thing to the breath of God I know. Just as I accept but cannot understand how Jesus could be both divine and human, I believe scripture is a result of both divine and human involvement. I am willing by faith to accept the claims of scripture in respect to inspiration, the Holy Spirit’s influence on men of God, and the guidance Jesus promised (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:20-21; John 14:26). But that is the extent of my human understanding. It would be presumptuous of me to surmise how much the divine was involved in the version of the Bible I have today.

B. Translation

The involvement of humans in the construction of our present day Bible presents several challenges. We do not have any of the original texts of the New Testament, but only copies of copies created by scribes. These are called variants. For example, Jesus spoke in Aramaic, the writers recorded his teachings in Greek and scribes made copies of their recordings. Later scribes copied the copies they received (1). Sometimes the scribes made human errors, changed wording, and even added materials (Acts 8:37; 1 John 5:8 and possibly Mark 16:9-20; John 7:53-8:11). As a result numerous copies of the texts existed in the ancient world. Approximately 5000 partial Greek manuscripts of New Testament text have survived to the present day. Textual criticism is the comparison of these variants to create what is considered the most accurate copy of the original manuscript. It stands to reason that our copies of the synoptic gospels do not always agree on events, chronology, and arrangement of materials (2).

Centuries after their composition the gospels were brought together in one book, the codex. Prior to the Reformation Movement, the Latin version of the variants was used to create other translations. However during the Reformation, Erasmsus combined the Greek variants into one manuscript called the Textus Receptus. As a result, many English translations were produced. The King James Version is a comparison of these different translations. When the Westcott-Hort Greek text was created in 1881, it replaced Erasmus’s work. In 1901 Koine Greek was recognized and during the 20th century numerous English translations were composed. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls a new Textus Receptus called the Nestle-Aland was written. In recent times this text has under gone several revisions.

To a large degree the man in the pew is at the mercy of the textual critics who have tried to determine the best Greek texts from the many variants and the translators’ understanding of the resulting texts. With so many variables it can be conceded that no translation is a flawless rendering of the original text. Certainly the deficiencies of the KJV and other translations have created a number of problems (3).

The final result of all the New Testament writings is God’s communication with his creation through fallen and sometimes uneducated vessels. Just as he did with the Torah (2 Tim 3:16) (4) and regardless of the discrepancies, God guided the original writers’ objectives to provide the needed message. In spite of different recordings of the same events, dissimilarities in vocabulary, the lack of eye-witness accounts, the transmission of the synoptic gospels by scribes, and the creation of a proper Greek text and its translation into English, we acknowledge that in some way God used the divine to provide direction to the apex of his creation.

C. Historical and Cultural Background

Because the New Testament was not constructed in an historical vacuum, it is beneficial to consider the Greco-Roman world from 400 BCE through the first century. Having some understanding of this period makes interpreting the textual references to government, customs, religious factions and practices in Judea and the surrounding areas easier. LeMoine Lewis observed the following:

“Each book in the New Testament was produced in a particular historical context and first spoke to that situation and its problems. If the student of the New Testament wishes to receive anything approaching the fullness of its riches, he must master as much as possible of the history that is relevant…the more the modern reader looks back and knows of history, the better tuned his mind will be to catch the message of the New Testament for that time and for this.” (5)

During this time the Jews were not a homogenous group. Several different sects existed among them including the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Herodians. Regardless of their differences however, they all the held to Torah and the function of the synagogue. This is seen throughout the gospels and Acts.

The Jews also shared basic beliefs that had sustained them through the centuries. From 722 BCE the Jewish people had been subject to exile and rule of foreign nations. Deeply imbedded in their minds was the hope of freedom. Two ideas controlled their view of the future. (1) They believed they were the elect and chosen people of God, and (2) they believed the one God who controlled the world would save them as he had done in the past history of Israel. This confidence in a redeeming God formed their views of eschatology or beliefs about the end of time. Consider the example of Paul and his view of an imminent return of Jesus. If a new convert in Corinth had read only one letter from him, he would have concluded the Lord would return in his lifetime (1 Corinthians 1:7; 3:13; 4:5; 5:5; 7:29, 31; 15:50-57; 16:22.) Paul’s later letters show a different attitude. In Phil 1:23 he mentioned being with the Lord before his return. References to an early return of Jesus can also be found in writings of John, James and Peter (Jam 5:8; 1 John 2:28; 1 Peter 5:4). (6)

Historically we must also acknowledge that we do not have all the writings by the apostle Paul. Two and possibility three letters by him are missing (Col 4:16; 1 Cor 5:9; 2 Cor 2:3). (7) We only have hints regarding other communication. His directives regarding marriage 1 Corinthians allude to a present distress (7:27), which quite possibly influenced his response. Historical information confirms the prediction by Agabus (Acts 11:26) that Macedonia area was experiencing a famine during this period of time. If that were the case, providing for a family would be challenging.

Understanding the culture of the Jewish and Greco/Roman worlds is equally important. Consider the following three examples: One, in the Greco/Roman world a couple was divorced if either party walked out of the marriage. No divorce certificate was required unless money was involved. Incestuous marriages were possible. Because the wife was considered the property of her husband in the Jewish world, only the husband could obtain the divorce. Incestuous marriages were forbidden (Lev 20:11-21). Second, Gentiles could eat meat offered to idols because consuming blood and the meat of strangled animals was acceptable. This was not the case in Jewish culture (Acts 15:29). Most Christian activity took place in houses and the Jews regarded eating as an expression of fellowship. Sharing a meal of questionable food was an issue for Jewish Christians (Gal 2:11). Third, Jesus asked a question: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matt 7:9) Ancient people heated their ovens with hot stones, therefore both bread and stones would be in the oven. (8)

For an extensive examination of the world of Jesus, I would suggest Backgrounds of Early Christianity (third edition)] by Everett Ferguson. In following blog entries I will address the exegetical issues in understanding the gospels and letters of the New Testament.


  1. A scribe helped write at least some of Paul’s letters (Gal 6:11; Rom 16:22). Tertius felt free to add his own greeting to the church in Rome. Paul felt free to insert personal requests (2 Tim 4:13).
  2. Two of the synoptic writers (Mark and Luke) were not eyewitnesses to the accounts they recorded.  The source of their information could have been their own investigation (Luke 1:1-4)  other people (Peter and Paul).

  3. Rom 3:23; Phil 3:9; Gal 2:15-16; 1 Cor 7:28-29; Mal 2:16.

  4. Ps 19:7-9 Torah is perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure and sure. Ps 19:12-13a.  Humans have errors, faults and willful sins, but without them man can be blameless (Ps 19:13b).

  5. Furman Kearley, Edward P. Myers and Timothy D. Hadley, eds.  Biblical Interpretation: Principles and Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 244-45.

  6. Jude 24; Heb 12:28; Acts 1:9-11. See Phil 1:6; 3:20; 4:5; Rom 13:11-12; Col 3:4; Titus 2:13; 1 Tim 6:14 1 Thess 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 5:23).

  7. Paul was shipwrecked more times than recorded in scripture (2 Cor 11:25).

  8. Sometimes a literal translation of words does not communicate the accurate meaning of a text.