Synoptic So What?



In Tuesday’s Vacation Bible School post, Amanda Osheim gave us some (excellent and funny) background on the source theory behind the “similar yet different” structure of the synoptic gospels. Here I want to pick up on the theme of difference and ask: “So what?” As Amanda noted, not only are there differences between some of the accounts in each of the gospels, but each were written in different contexts, for different audiences, and with different goals in mind. Right away then, we can say that the synoptics are not straight-forward biographies of Jesus as we would think of that genre today. Rather, they are straight-forward attempts to convey the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in relation to the concerns of the community in which each writer was immersed.


“So what?” you ask? First off, this means that it’s probably not a good idea to read these gospels as attempts to give us the “facts” about Jesus. While of course there are “facts” contained within the synoptics, their primary task is not to give us historical, empirical, or “objective” information about Jesus, but rather to attend to the deeper message, meaning, and good news announced by, in, and through Jesus: God’s saving and liberating love for all humankind. Thus, for instance, the importance of stories where Jesus heals the sick is not that of providing empirical evidence and documentation of Jesus’ powers to somehow “prove” his divinity. Rather, such stories are chiefly about conveying that God’s saving love is concerned with the wholeness and flourishing of human beings. I am not saying that Jesus never “factually” healed anyone. Rather, I am saying that getting caught up in medical and scientific disputes about whether such healing is empirically and evidentially possible is to miss the point of what the authors are after in the first place. The synoptics are not primarily historical or biographical pieces of writing (at least as we would think of these today).

Secondly, and to repeat a point already made, even as the overall meaning of the synoptics is to convey God’s saving and liberating love for humankind in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the authors were concerned with the resonance this meaning had for their particular communities and contexts. This means that it’s probably not a good idea to attempt a one-to-one correspondence between our communities and contexts and what we find in the synoptics. We cannot simply take our questions and concerns and open up Matthew, Mark, or Luke in expectation of finding a clear, uncomplicated, or self-evident answer (this is typically called “proof-texting”). In other words, there is a process of interpretation in which we must engage. This process involves continuing to try to understand the original context in which the texts were written (their historical, cultural, social, economic, political, and religious structures) as well as looking at how our forebears in faith interpreted the writings and how all of this might or might not contribute to hearing the message of Jesus for us in our time.


The necessity of interpretation need not make us uncomfortable. It is only when we think that truth consists of “facts,” “empirical evidence,” “scientific-like methods and procedures,” or “objective” and “clear-sighted” applications of evident principals that the developing, dynamic, and open-ended process of interpretation might make us nervous (and, though this is not the place to argue this fully, “science” and the “empirical” also require interpretation). The big “So what?” here is that just because we must interpret does not mean that we have no access to the truth of the gospels. Instead, it means that the fullness of truth will always escape us because we live at a certain time and place in history and hence are not privy to the larger picture or pattern that can take account of beginning, middle, and end.


Our access to the truth of God’s saving love in and through Jesus in this way relies overwhelmingly on the Spirit. It is the Spirit, we believe, who accompanies us through the vicissitudes of history; leading us ever toward the fullness of that Truth which is God. This guidance doesn’t do away with our freedom or the facts of change, contingency, and the general ability to get things wrong. In other words, it doesn’t automatically lead us to the truth by destroying the historical reality in which live. We have been promised, however, that if we remain open to the Spirit, open to the message of Jesus passed on through time and space, we are guaranteed to keep finding, discerning, and cooperating with the saving love of God for all humankind, even if from our point of view this is a sometimes winding, dead-ended, frustrating, and impossible task. The larger story is God’s, not ours, and as we can interpret from the synoptics in relation to our own era, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26; Mark 10:27; Luke 1:37).