Q&R – Are the Gospel Narrators Reliable? Brad Jersak
Are the stories and words of Jesus ‘narrated’ to us, like the Old Testament stories? How does that affect our reading of the four gospels and our understanding of God?
Thanks for the excellent question. It’s very important and specifically, the style of narration is important. Here’s how I would approach it:
1. First the Gospels ARE narratives. A narrative means that we have a story-line told from a particular perspective… hence, a narrator. Who the narrator is, how the narrator relates to the protagonist, who the narrator’s audience is, and what agendas he’d like to put forward all impact the narration. And with the Gospels, I would argue, in a very positive way.
While we esteem accuracy and objectivity in modern biographies, first-century Gospel narratives are different. The people of Jesus’ day felt that it was better if the narrator was embedded in the story as an eyewitness and even personally invested in it. They believed you would get a better read of what’s going on from someone who was actually on site and part of the action.
2. Further, ancient narratives were never just passionless statements of fact or unbiased biographies. They weren’t trying to be. Even today, every narrator brings their interpretation of events into their narration. In fact, it’s impossible not to, so the claim of objectivity always worries me because it’s either intentionally deceptive or not very self-aware.
The Gospel narratives are specifically theological interpretations of the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection by those who were transformed by him. That way, they could also test their interpretative truth claims by the fruit in their lives and communities. And they specifically regard the Incarnation as Gospel, as truly Good News. That is already an assessment, showing the remarkable impact of Christ in the world they knew firsthand. They came to believe some important things about who Jesus is and what he does (note: not just in the past tense) and want their readers to believe it too. Is that a bias? Of course, it is. And so it should be.
3. The Gospel narratives also differ from each other as to their emphases, their primary concerns, how they structure and use the material, and how their readers understand the implications in their immediate contexts (in various regions and across decades). There is enough agreement between the four Gospels that it feels like we’re getting a truthful, and most importantly, reliable picture. But four Gospels also serve to give a fuller understanding of Jesus’ life and identity by viewing the narrative from four different points of view. And there’s enough difference on the fine points to challenge charges of conspiracy. They show signs of not conspiring to get their stories ‘straight.’
4. The fact that they specifically address the question of who Jesus is means these books are theological works from a standpoint after the Resurrection. The narrators admit to not really understanding prior to the Road to Emmaus and other Resurrection appearances. But having encountered the risen Christ and been filled by the Holy Spirit, they want to share the story with that revelation front and center.
That means that, at times, they prioritize a theological interpretation ahead of other concerns that we often think are more important, such as the chronology of events or who was standing where, etc. But does this make them unreliable narrators? In my opinion, no… if, that is, we ask ‘reliable in what way?’ They tell their stories in a way that reliably identifies Jesus Christ as the Incarnation of God, the crucified and risen one, Messiah of the Jews and Lord of the World.
So then, we read the stories, we take note of narratival differences, and ask whether they are incidental or actually meaningful. The ongoing sense I get is that these Gospels come together as distinct but overlapping witnesses that unveil God as a loving Father revealed in Jesus Christ (and his own narratives that we call parables). That revelation then opens our eyes to see how earlier OT narrators anticipated Christ in part but would only become clear after the apostles met the risen Lord.
P.S. I emphasize the differences between the OT authors and narrators, because they are often observable. For example, Joshua may have been written by one author, but he is playing off two very different narrators against each other to make an overall point. I don’t see that so much in the Gospels. As best we can tell, the author of Matthew and John were eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Christ. And in the case of Mark and Luke, they are providing narration that draws together the reports of eyewitnesses into a coherent message. All of these serve to show and tell us the good news of Jesus
I hope this helps!