Mike’s note: This is part of a guest series by Alexander John Shaia, sharing his insights gleaned from a lifetime of studying (and living) personal transformation, closely based on his explosive book Heart and Mind. Want to meet him in person? Join Alexander, Mona Haydar, Jasmin Morrell, Bushi Yamato Damashii, myself and others at Wisdom Camp this July 12th! Details and registration here. In the meantime, enjoy this reflection!
The element we’ll discuss today is of enormous significance, providing the reasons why these specific gospels, with their specific ‘discrepancies,’ were composed. The major differences or discrepancies between the four gospels have been a matter that has puzzled Christians for a long, long time. For example, careful readers know that the story of Jesus’ birth varies dramatically in each account, and even disappears entirely in the Gospel of Mark. The arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection accounts are equally disparate, as are many other details. Each gospel uses very different language, selectively highlights parts of Jesus’ life and teachings, and employs a distinct metaphorical ‘landscape.’
Why is this?
The traditional belief has been that the gospels represent four stories of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. And that furthermore, since the gospels were all written well after the fact, these discrepancies are nothing more than to-be-expected variations between eyewitnesses. This argument has been largely accepted for generations because it appeals to our hearts, and we can acknowledge it because we have a deeply felt sense of truth in these texts that goes beyond pure logic.
In the face of more recent scholarship, however, this view falters. In the last several decades, scholars using archaeological and linguistic evidence have posited three other theories—claiming that the traditional texts are inaccurate historical documents to begin with, or they are biased and inaccurate documents developed by competing factions as Christianity grew, or the texts are so corrupted by apocrypha and mistranslation as to be meaningless. Any acceptance of these theories would remove the gospels from a useful role as either historical or faith documents. Yet, all of these beliefs are essential contributions to the religious conversation. The limitation of all of them, with respect to our core issues of concern, is that none of them is sufficient to resolve our uncertainty about gospel controversies, our need for awe, or our spiritual need for meaning. While they may not completely defeat the gospels, neither do they bring the gospel words—or the words of any other early writings—into manifest reality in our daily lives, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.
The Four-Gospel Journey, in contrast, offers a starkly different answer—one that speaks to both head and heart. This view began with the work of scholars who pointed to some of the differences in the texts deriving, in part, from the historical realities of the communities to which they were addressed. However, Quadratos moves further, analyzing the specific discrepancies and understanding them as not only correct, but precise, purposeful and useful. They issue from the way each gospel was composed.
In the hundred years after Jesus’ death, each of the four traditional gospels was written during unique historical circumstances for a specific group of early Christians in a distinct geographical location. In each case, the writer reframed the core story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, emphasizing and even altering its elements to give that particular gospel clear relevance and guidance for the singular historical realities and dilemmas of its audience.
For example, Mark was the first gospel composed. It combined elements originating from the apostle Paul’s writings with stories of Jesus shared by groups of desperate Messianic Jews condemned to death by Emperor Nero in first-century Rome. Those courageous believers would meet as they could in homes or cells and try to allay each other’s fears and bolster their slim hopes through the ancient tradition of storytelling. As they did, their extreme emotional realities—their agony and their ecstasy—became folded into their recounting of the life and inspiration of a living Jesus the Christ.
This way of storytelling combined present-moment realities with prophetic and practical lessons. The accounts were instructive, interesting—even exciting—and completely distinct from Greco-Roman prose and other religions’ ways of storytelling. This new form of narrative, which became known as a gospel (meaning ‘good news’), profoundly helped the desperate community experience the Christ’s continuing and living presence in their struggles.
Mark then put this form into writing; he made the gospel form official. His written story of Jesus the Christ was different from a lecture or a formal sermon. Just as the oral form had done, Mark’s words enabled people to see themselves in the accounts that were written down. When the stories were read aloud or chanted as prayer, which was their usual use in those early times, people listening could understand that Jesus was not simply an historical figure, but was an ongoing experience within each person, a doorway to the lessons, compassion, strength and sense of purpose they needed to maintain their faith. This gospel form quickly found a home in Messianic hearts and took root.
When Mark chose language and metaphors to hearten the Messianic Jews in Rome, and later when Matthew, and Luke and then John followed Mark’s pattern and shaped many of the ‘facts’ of the story so that their account would be meaningful to their audience, they did not betray the truth of the message of Jesus the Christ. On the contrary: When they mixed the historical Jesus with the dilemma of the community, they formed a vehicle for a living participation with the Christ. The changes, and specifically the ‘discrepancies,’ made it possible for a particular early Christian community to live their daily lives with the sure knowledge and experience that God was with them in their time of trial.
Throughout this series—and my book Heart and Mind—I will refer to Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke as though they personally wrote down every word of the gospels that bear their names. Actually, many scholars now think it more likely that the gospels began as an oral tradition, and that each ‘author’ represents words originally developed and taught aloud for many years.
In the case of each gospel, sometime during the first century CE someone (or maybe a group with full inspiration and deep compassion) crafted an entire body of teachings into a written document that was specifically refined to meet the needs of a particular community at a particular point in history. Perhaps this was indeed the ‘author.’ But maybe it was a scribe, or even a group of students. In early tradition, the Greek word kata, ‘according to,’ was attached to each of the four gospels. It may have signified a kind of warranty that the gospels were ‘according to’ the named author (regardless of who actually recorded the words) and thus the material in them was faithful to his accounts; alternatively, it may have meant that the author actually transcribed the account himself.
Join us tomorrow as we encounter the journey these earliest communities were on when they referred to themselves as followers of The Way.
Alexander John Shaia, PhD, is a thoughtful and poetic man, living the ancient rhythms of his Lebanese and Aramaic heritage. With deep conviction, he invites us into a practice of spirituality (and Christianity) for the twenty-first century—one that crosses traditional boundaries, encourages vital thinking and inhabits a genuine community of the heart. As a spiritual director, educator, anthropologist, psychologist, ritualist and Sandplay therapist, Alexander is a holistic, cross-discipline visionary and passionate professional speaker. He founded The Journey of Quadratos, as well as the Blue Door Retreat in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Now he travels internationally, speaking, leading seminars and conducting retreats on Quadratos, the Four-Gospel Journey and Gateway to Oneness (The 72 Hours of Easter). Each autumn Alexander guides an intimate band of pilgrims on the Camino, the West’s most ancient path of transformation. He’s just released the updated edition of Heart and Mind: The Four-Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation, which this post is based on. See Quadratos.com for more about his work and offerings.