Comparing the Gospels

Last fall, McVille Lutheran hosted a weekly Bible study with a focus on the Gospels. We’ll be picking up this month with some more lessons after taking Advent to focus on a different topic.

Here are some basics to know:
– There are four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and were all written in the last half of the first century CE (Common Era, aka AD)
– Some scholars believe that Mark is the oldest with Matthew and Luke drawing from many of the same stories and embellishing them with additional details. John is thought to be the newest.
– Matthew is thought to have an emphasis upon education and learning. Mark writes in a brief manner with everything happening “immediately” until the very detailed story of the Passion week. Luke is traditionally known as the physician and takes time to focus a lot on the poor and needy Jesus cared for. John is far more theological with an emphasis on intellectual statements.

So here is what we did on Wednesday morning (and will continue to do for a few more weeks)
Step 1. Announce what story (or stories) will be talked about, from at least two different gospels.
Step 2. Figure out what we remember about the story.
(And write it down)
Step 3. Read the stories and take notes.
What heard, what catches attention, what surprised us, etc.
Step 4. Compare the versions.
What did we remember?
What did we read as if for the first time?
What details were new or shocking?
What is the same?
What is different?
Step 5. Give space for talking about what we learn or hear.

So now that I laid out the basics, here is an example from the first week. Another post will have a complete list of the other texts we read week by week.

Step 1 – What story
We started with a very well known story. I mean, everyone can tell the story of the Nativity, right? Part of the requirements of being a Christian is to be able to tell the story of Jesus’ birth that we hear and see yearly through pageants and music.

Step 2 – What we remember
This was fun for the brainstorming as we listed various parts of the story like angel(s) showing up to Mary, Joseph, shepherds and kings. There was no room in the inn. Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem. Star in the east. Wise men brought gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh after stopping by Herod. Jesus was born in barn/stable and laid in manger. Sheep, cow, camel and donkey looked on. There was straw. Angels sang. People knelt, amazed. Swaddling clothes. Census and decree.

Step 3 – Read the stories from the Bible
Our stories were from Matthew 1:18-2:12, Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 2:1-20. Note that the story of Jesus’ birth is only in two of the gospels. John 1 talks about the Word being made flesh and dwelling among us (but no details about how that happened) while Mark begins his gospel with Jesus as an adult.
Through our reading, we paid attention to details. Words and phrases that caught our attention were written down as we read the stories slowly.

Step 4 – Compare
For some examples:
– Luke has the story of Jesus in the manger being visited by shepherds, but Matthew’s visitors are the wise men and they come to the house sometime after the birth.
– Angels never visit kings/wise men since they were scholars who noticed the strange star rising and went on a journey to find out what happened.
– Nowhere in the gospels do we have mention of straw or animals looking on.
– We noticed that some similarities were the mentions about Joseph and Mary being engaged, the Spirit being a major part of the conception, and people were amazed.
– The child’s name was to be Jesus, but Matthew has Joseph being told in a dream to name the child while the angel Gabriel told Mary in Luke’s version.
– Following each version of Jesus’ birth, we have different stories. Luke has the child being circumcised and going to the temple to be presented while Matthew

Step 5 – Discuss
Through the conversation, we began to realize that the two versions had been woven together into one. Many of the details that we took for granted as being part of one seamless, simultaneous story were in fact likely happening at different times.
We also began to realize that artists had taken liberty with the story to make it connect with what was known or expected to have been found in a stable.
People for generations had been doing what they could to make the story come to life whether in it’s retelling through Christmas pageants, paintings, sculptures or music. And each time the story is presented, people add what they can to make it make sense to them. We often take what we know in real life and strive to use that experience to understand what read in the Bible, especially when the Bible stories leave out details that we deem important or essential.

Comparing the two versions of Jesus’ birth may be shocking to some. After that day, I began to notice nativity scenes more than ever before. It was shocking to think that what has become so beloved might not be scripturally accurate. Scenes with shepherds and wise men in the stable alongside animals looking at the baby in a manger was not likely how the story happened. Possible, but not likely.
But I had to remind myself and others that just because what we thought was true (as told through traditions), doesn’t take away the value and importance of the story of Jesus’ birth. It just happened in a different way than is often told to us, namely in two parts.