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A guide and introdution to the gospels
by Carole McDonnell
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Getting your Bearings: Bridging the Old and New Testaments

Parents who have to teach their children about the old and new testament may need a little help. You will have to bridge the old and new testaments, explain why there are four different
accounts of Jesus’ life, and show why Jesus is the hero of all heroes.

The author Joseph Campbell speaks of the signs of the hero. Whether they are aware of it or not, kids know the make-up of the hero quite well. All you have to do is to bring this to their mind. What is the good guy like? How do they know he is the good guy? For Christians, Jesus falls in line with all the mythic signs of the hero. He not only has a supernatural birth, an endangered childhood, and a high birth right but he conquers a cruel tyrant who has taken over the kingdom and restores peace.

Why were the people looking for this hero?

The last book of the old testament, the Jewish Bible, is Malachi. Malachi’s message ends with a warning and the terrifying spectre of a curse. We turn the page of our Bible and suddenly we see a big list of Jesus’s ancestors. By this time, your teenager might be reading the Bible on her own. This sudden shift and list of names can be surprising for a teenager. Let’s lessen their disorientation. How do we do it? By looking backward at the Old Testament for a moment.

This will remind your child of where she has been and where she has yet to go. You can teach your child to look back at the old testament in two ways. We can look at the the prophecies concerning the Messiah, the One who is anointed by God to save mankind and the world. And we can use the long list of Jesus’ ancestors to get an idea of what Matthew is trying to tell us. I recommend doing both.

First: let’s look at all those prophecies about a Coming Deliverer. Just what is this Anointed Being supposed to do?
Starting with Genesis, we recall that Moses told us that the Seed of the Woman would destroy man’s great enemy. Moses also told us that the Seed of the woman wound be wounded in some way, but that he would survive. Other symbols of the Messiah/Deliverers include: the Scapegoat on which all the community’s sins are laid, the cities of refuge where the guilty can run for sanctuary, the brass serpent which represents a cursed object that brings healing, the cleft rock from which the fountain sprang and the ram provided by God to prevent Isaac’s sacrifice and the Passover lamb. Moses also said that a new Prophet would come who will be like Moses. He warned the people of Israel to listen to that future Prophet or else they will be cut off. In the book of Joshua, we see the scarlet thread which Rahab hung from her window sill. In Judges, we have Samson. Samson is an imperfect human deliverer who destroys his enemies
with his death. In the book of Proverbs, we read of the Friend that sticks closer than a brother. Job cries out for a friend who could advocate for us with God, with His right hand on God and the other Hand on a man’s shoulder. In the Psalms, we have many prophecies. We hear about the King of Glory who enters the everlasting doors; and we also read about the rejected despised
rock which became the head corner stone. In the psalm, the Deliverer is the good Shepherd, the true pastor of the flock. In the proverb, he is Wosdom. In the Song of Solomon, the deliverer is the lover, the fairest of ten thousand and the lily of the valley. In the book of Isaiah, the deliverer is Emmanuel, God with us and the Deliverer is given a name that shows his triune divine nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Isaiah says the Deliverer will be called the Everlasting Father, the wonderful counselor, the Prince of Peace. Isaiah shows the Suffering Servant’s suffering, rejection and glory in Isaiah chapter 53. In Ezekiel, the deliverer is both the Prince and the River of Life that brings healing to everything it touches. And Zechariah tells us that the Messiah will tread the wine press alone and will be wounded in the house of His friends. There are more prophecies of the Messiah of course. But these are some of my favorites. These prophecies will also help us bridge the old and the new testaments.

If we choose to bridge the Old and the New Testament by exploring Matthew’s list, we will need a concordance. It’s a fun, uncanny, and weirdly amoral list of people. Among Jesus’
ancestors, we have Ruth, a Moabitess, the ancestor of David. (Remember that the Law states that all descendants of Moab are forever barred from the nation of Israel. Umh?) Rahab, a harlot also appears. Jesus is also descended from Bathsheba, an adulteress. Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law who pretended to be a harlot also appears. Matthew makes a point of reminding his readers that these strange “sinful” women were Jesus’ ancestors. Certainly, this is not the kind of thing to do if he
wanted to impress his audience.

When we read the New testament, we will be told that the Messiah is the beginning and the end, the Living Water, the Living Word of God and the True Vine, the Way, the Truth and the Life. He is every Word that God ever said come made into living flesh.

Historical changes

Your child will also need to get some kind of historical bearing. The world changed a great deal between testaments. The world powers that ruled during the time of Malachi were now minor
powers. The Babylonians and the Greeks no longer controlled Israel’s destiny. Israel, like much of the western world was now a part of the Roman Empire. It was ruled over by a titular head, an Idumean named Herod. Herod took his orders and authority from Rome. The Idumeans were considered descendants of Abraham. However, they were not Jews (descendants of Judah.) As you read the New testament you will notice a lot of talk about uprisings, revolutions, party members. You will read about several Herods (Herod was a family dynasty) and will have to keep them separated in your mind.

You might have found yourself wondering if you should teach your child from a particular gospel. Everyone has their favorites. Some children are attracted to the abstract and the symbolic and might like John’s book. Others are hungry for moral teachings. Some like reading about miracle stories and might like Luke’s gospel better. You know your child.

The Gospels: Why four gospels?

The writers of the gospels want to tell us that Jesus is the human life of God. They also believe that God is a being with three different persons: the Father (God up there in the sky, away from all of us earthly mortals.) God the Holy Spirit (God as He works and lives in human beings.) And God as a man who lived on earth for 33 years. Sometimes they come right out and say just this. Often they do not.

But I hear a teenager saying “Perhaps, these disciples were mistaken about Jesus calling Himself God. How can these disciples repeat word for word something they heard years ago?”
As a Jamaican-born woman who lived in the country, I can honestly say that many westerners don't know what it's like to grow up in an oral culture. Some children do not know
this. Communication and printed materials are so common in our time that modern folks and westerners don’t have to rely on their memories. Our memories and histories are stored for us on
photographs, TV’s, VCR’s and CD’s. Some of you might have to tell your children about those pre-VCR days, pre-TV days
when movie-goers memorized movie scenes because they knew they would never see those movies again. It is only in the last hundred years that the average person has been able to own --
or even read-- the printed word. Before our democratic era, the common man did not have tools of memory. They had to memorize songs, faces, stories, family histories. When my mother was
growing up in the small rural Parish of St Ann’s, only the school teacher had novels. The children would gather around as the professor read Dickens, Homer, Shakespeare. The children would listen and memorize whole paragraphs. Even now, my mother --and I-- can recite the opening chapters of many a classic literary story. People from countries with a large poor or illiterate population often develop a powerful oral tradition. Even now, if one is a frequent traveler to
places rich in the oral tradition, one can re-encounter an old friend who will repeat word for word one's conversation of many years ago. I personally have no doubt that the disciples remembered Jesus’ words accurately. These eyewitnesses viewed actions and words they considered important and holy. They respected words and they respected conversations they considered
divine. They were not going to fiddle around with the words of someone they considered holy. Moreover, these eyewitnesses were not alone while they listened to Jesus’ sermons. They had
companions. Words remembered wrongly would soon be corrected.

“But,” I hear another child saying, “Why four different versions? Why four gospels?”

A child who is a fan of television court dramas know how concerned the actor DA gets when there is an actual eyewitness to a crime. They always ask the same questions: “What
exactly did the witness see or hear?” “Is the witness an objective party?” If the witness is objective, is he/she trustworthy..or should his words be taken with a grain of salt?” The DA often compares what each witness says. The Bible is full of witnesses. The gospels are Evidence. You
are invited to compare them. Remind them of how the DA often needs an expert witness? Expert witnesses are highly-qualified specialists in their fields. As human beings, we are all Expert Witnesses. We are specialists in the field of human study. We know when folks are lying. We know when we are dealing with deluded or deceitful people. We know how fanatics speak about their leaders. But the Bible is not fanatic. It has the ring of truth. It does not smack of fanaticism or falsehood.
The disciples do not write of themselves or their leaders in pandering ways. These are men who speak as if something momentous happened. But they are as level-headed as they come. Many of these witnesses were martyred for their accounts and witness of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Surely, if there was a conspiracy to hide the truth or to mis-state a fact, the conspiracy would not have held up under Jewish and Roman persecution. Can you imagine 400 people --the majority of
them being killed and martyred by Jewish and Roman authorities-- not giving away the secret that the entire Jesus resurrection story was a lie? Often the explanation against the supernatural
requires more “faith” than the miracles themselves. It takes more faith to believe that 400 or so people would steal the body of their leader, hide it, get killed and mocked for years and yet never --not one single person— reveal the nature of the hoax. Surely, if the hoax had been revealed, the Jewish or Roman authorities would’ve brought Jesus’ decaying body out from its hiding place for all to see! So why the differences in their gospels?

The Gospels

The incidents in Jesus’ life are found in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In reading the stories about Jesus’s life, you will encounter many supernatural occurrences. Those who dislike the supernatural will find a way to make even the greatest miracle seem “only natural.” We must face a question: Were these witnesses who wrote the gospels and the book of Acts people as smart as ourselves? Kids often think that perhaps people in other countries and people in other time were not as technological or as intelligent as modern people. American kids
are especially provincial in this respect. They often believe that other people are stupid “primitives” who latched onto a supernatural explanation for every occurrence. Modern Debunkers of the miracles also often have an arrogant attitude towards these witnesses of the Good News and often neglect the aftermath of the miracles. Whatever your belief in the supernatural or man’s ability to engage in the miraculous, it is important to be aware of this bias in the modern mind --and the modern teenage mind-- and its effects.

Why are there four gospels?
Now, why are there four gospels? Honestly? Tell your child that’s just how it turned out. There are some other “gospels” out there. But those gospels are not accepted by the Church. For instance, the gospel of Peter, a book supposedly written by St Peter, is full of verses that conflict with the essential themes of the other four gospels. Tradition states that the gospels were written by Matthew, a disciple of Jesus; Mark, a
companion of St Paul’s; Luke, a doctor/researcher and friend of Paul’s; and John, Jesus’s best friend. On first glance, you might not see the necessity of reading all of them. Then you might find yourself asking “Why are some stories told in one gospel and neglected in another?” There are three reasons. Time, distance and audience. Time passes. Mark’s gospel, for instance, is the oldest. At the time the gospel was written, some events were still well-known; there was no need for Mark to write about them because everyone knew about them. Other incidents are neglected because these stories affected real people. Discussions of certain people’s relationship with Jesus
might have put some people at risk. (Why does one gospel neglect to mention Lazarus, another mention him in passing (as if we already knew the story), and only one tell the entire story?) By the time, the later gospels were written, the people in these stories were safe from danger or dead. The gospel writers wrote to different audiences. A culture far from Jerusalem might not consider Matthew’s genealogy important. But let us examine their differences and their similarities.

Let’s go back to our eye-witness analogy. Imagine yourself and three of your friends on a street corner. A car accident occurs. You and your friends all give eyewitness reports to friends and families. One eyewitness says the car was hit by a blue van. Another says the passenger in the back of the struck vehicle was a child. Some one else says the struck vehicle was hit was a convertible. Someone else says the accident occurred during rush hour. Another person says the accident occurred before dinner. Another might say that “Jack” was not looking at the road. And still another person says the red car was stopped at the corner. If you were at the scene of the crime, you no doubt would understand how all these observances work together. But, seen from our viewpoint years later, there might be confusion and discrepancies. (Who, after all, is Jack?) There is, however, no dishonesty or mistake. If you remember that each eyewitness has his own vantage point and his own ways of looking at the situation, then you’re on your way to some
inspiring reading.

St Matthew’s Gospel
St Matthew was a Jesus follower of Jesus who had been a tax-collector. He wants to show Israel that Jesus from Nazareth is the Promised Messiah mentioned in Scripture. He is concerned that they acknowledge him as a King with a spiritual kingdom. Why? Because the Jews of his day were oppressed by Rome. They wanted a real-life literal kingdom. A spiritual kingdom seems like a poor substitute. Matthew has to show them how the nation has sinned and he has to show them that they really do need a King who will deliver them from their sins. Because he is writing to a primarily Jewish audience, he reminds them of Bible verses that predict the coming Messiah. But his background as a tax collector makes his gospel resonate with grace and forgiveness. He starts his book by listing the genealogy of Jesus, showing that Jesus is a descendant of King David, and a member of both the religious tribe of Levi and the royal tribe of
Judah. The genealogy also shows that the time had come for the prophesy of the Messiah to be fulfilled. Because of his audience, Matthew often mentions people without properly introducing them. He assumes the reader is a Jewish person who will know whom he is referring to. The former tax collector’s gospel is usually the first gospel that is read by new Christians.

The gospel of Mark
The gospel of Mark is a short book which was written primarily for Roman believers. This is the book to read if you’re rushing through the Bible. Scholars believe that this book was one
of the first accounts written on the Life of Christ and that Matthew and Luke borrow heavily from it. Mark was converted to “The Way” --that was what Christianity was called back then— by Peter and he is a companion to St Paul. While Matthew depicts Jesus as the King of the Jews and Luke shows Jesus as the savior of the world, Mark is primarily concerned with depicting Jesus as a servant of God devoted to doing His Father’s duty. Mark doesn’t quote a lot of Jewish
Scripture because his intended audience -- probably the converted non-Jews in Rome -- doesn’t know a lot about Jewish history. Mark’s gospel is fast; he doesn’t tell many parables. He is more concerned with the actions of Jesus, the Servant of God. It’s good to remember that many Christians in Rome were
poor or enslaved. In depicting Jesus as God’s servant, Mark is showing that God’s ways are not man’s ways. In God’s eyes, the poor and the enslaved are rich and free. Because of its brevity,
the gospel of Mark can be easily memorized by anyone willing to try.

The Gospel of Luke
Luke is not an actual eye-witness to Jesus’ life. He is a researcher. As he tells us in the beginning of his gospel, he had heard many accounts about the life of Jesus. But Luke thought these accounts were lacking in some way. So he took matters into his own hands and decided to write as truthful and full a gospel as he could. (There are some very odd gospels of Jesus from this time. These stories have the boy Jesus healing little birds and doing other “special” deeds. Luke was an educated Greek doctor so one can only imagine his compulsion to set matters down properly. One can imagine how these fairy-tale stories would've annoyed an educated person. St Luke writes primarily to non-Jews. In the introduction, he addresses the reader as “Excellent Theophilus.” The name means, "Lover of God". Theophilus may or may not have been a real person. It might simply be Luke's way of describing all believers in Christ. Luke’s personality and concerns are evident from the beginning. Check out the way he writes Jesus’ genealogy. Whereas Matthew’s list of Jesus’ ancestors goes back only to Abraham, Luke’s genealogy goes all the way back to Adam. Luke even calls Adam, “the son of God.” He is the only Biblical writer to do this. And by doing this, Luke makes all of humanity God's children. It is common in our time to call humanity's first parents "Adam" and "Eve". But in Luke's time, this was quite radical. Each culture had its own name for the first parents. But Luke so accepts the world view of the Hebrews that he uses the Hebrew names --Adam and Eve-- for humanity’s common ancestors.

Both of Luke's books --he also wrote the Acts of the apostle-- are full of historical references. He mentions the governors of several region and the two censuses. This makes Luke a pretty tempting target for debunkers. Scholars who try to trip him up often find that Luke's history is flawless. (For many years, modern historians argued with Luke about Governor Quirinius and the two census. They thought Luke had his dates all wrong. And they only heard of one census. But inevitably, Luke was proven to be right.) A humanist, Luke often refers to Jesus as the Son of Man. A funny aside here: Luke is so confident that he got all the information on Jesus' life. Yet he completely neglects the wise men and their worship of Jesus. Was this a conscious act done in order to make Jesus more of a “common” man? Did Luke simply not get the information?” Or did Luke simply not like “magi? (Please read Acts for his description of Simon Magus.)

As you read the gospel, you will notice Luke’s deep concern for the poor. He is the only writer who writes Mary's Magnificat. The song is reminiscent of Hannah's song in the book of Samuel. And what is the song about? The triumph of the poor over the rich. For a real eye-opener, read Matthew's version of the Sermon on the Mount then read Luke’s version. Whereas Matthew writes, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” Luke pretty much equates material poverty with spiritual poverty and writes, “blessed are the poor.”

As a doctor, Luke's medical experience pops up frequently. When he tells the story of the woman who went to all the doctors and wasn't healed, he adds the interesting touch that she lost all her living on the doctors. Only a compassionate doctor would add this touch. His description of Jesus’ miracles and of Jesus’ death has some medical touches.

The gospel of John
Tradition states that the gospel of John is written by the beloved disciple. No one is quite sure who this beloved disciple is. Most people agree that the beloved disciple is John. (The phrase, “the beloved disciple,” doesn’t appear until the middle of the book after the resurrection of Lazarus. And because of this some people are convinced that the beloved gospel is Lazarus.) The Beloved disciple, whoever he is, begins by telling the reader of his reasons for writing this gospel. He tells the reader that he is a witness of the Light and he is writing this book so that we might know what the Truth is and that we may have fullness of joy. The book was written at a much later date than the other gospels. Some scholars date it
to 60 AD. This will explain why the author of this book seems so intent on clearing up misconceptions. He constantly asserts and reasserts the truth, using the Hebrew slang, “truly,
truly.” He always seems to be answering some comment or objection. He tells us, for instance, that “John the Baptist was not the True Light; John came to bear witness to the Light.” Why, one wonders, does the writer of the book want to make such a comment? We hear later, in Luke’s other book, The Book of Acts, that some people were walking around with the baptism of John the Baptist only. In addition, centuries after Jesus’ death, cults still exist that believe that John
the Baptist was the Messiah.

The writer of John’s gospel tells whole episodes that the other gospels decline to mention. While the other gospel-writers mention the Lazarus in passing, the writer of John’s gospel tells
the entire incident. He confides in the reader that the priests were out to kill Lazarus --after Lazarus was raised-- because of Lazarus’s miraculous raising from death. The author of the
gospel of John is so privileged to information, one wonders how he knows so much. When Jesus is taken captive and held in the high priest’s house, the writer of John’s gospel knows the name of the high priest’s servant. And while Peter (one of Jesus’ disciples) cowers in fear in that same house, betraying Jesus at every turn, the “beloved disciple” walks around the high priest’s house fearlessly because the high priest “knows” him. The writer of John’s gospel even knows the name of the people in Herod’s household. In addition, John’s gospel recounts some of the more intimate conversations between Jesus and his disciples. One of my favorite conversations occurs in the last chapter of the book. The gospel writer tells us, “There is a rumor going around that I won’t die. It was a misunderstanding. Jesus didn’t say, I wouldn’t die.” He then goes on to explain the conversation that started this conversation. Peter had seen the Beloved disciple
leaning on Jesus’ and had asked, “What will this man do?” Jesus’s response to Peter: “If I want this man to live on earth until I return, what is that to you?” (Along with Jesus’ parable of a man named Lazarus in hell, this is one of the comments that makes some believe that the author of this
book is Lazarus. They reason that Peter wouldn’t have asked such a question for no apparent reason. Obviously, they don’t know Peter.) The book of John is full of intimate moments like
this. It is also full of symbolic passages that deal with words like “life” and “Truth.” Yet it is also the most intimate of the gospels. And one believes everything he says because his words have the ring of truth.

I know I’m being long-winded here but I’d like to comment about those rumors that state that important higher-ups in the Catholic church (or Christianity at large) have tampered with the
gospels and hidden away some secret knowledge from the rest of us. Conspiracy theorists tell us that a large collection of hidden secret writings are hidden away under the Vatican, the catacombs or elsewhere. These statements are often mouthed by people who consider themselves more spiritually “in the know” than the rest of common humanity. These folks obviously do not realize that translating the Bible is always the effort of a diverse group. Scholars of differing denominations and religion, scholars of ancient Greek and Hebrew, scholars of history and cultures all work together to translate the Bible.

True, certain books were not accepted in the Bible; but these books are not hidden. Published versions of these supposedly secret writings abound; they are on bookstands across the country. Many books were written during the years of the early church by all kinds of people. Of these “many books,” only ten were given any serious consideration by the early church. And of that ten only two came close to being included. They
failed because the church’s policy on inclusion was simple: chosen books had to be written by people who knew Jesus or by the first disciples. Books written by disciples of the disciples were not included although they also contained truth. In short, the “rejected” writings were rejected because they were found to be hoaxes or tainted with strange agendas, or too far from the events.

As for the idea that books in the Old Testament (the Jewish Covenant) were tampered with or changed during the ages, the Dead Sea Scrolls more than adequately prove that the Scriptures we have in our Bible are none too different from the Scripture of early Israel. The scribes who meticulously copied and re-copied Biblical texts made few errors. For instance, the variations between the version of Isaiah found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the version found in our Bible are minuscule and does not change theology at all. Ready for Jesus?

Your child might also wonder if other historical documents discuss Jesus. You may tell them that Jesus is mentioned in many historical Documents that are not in the Bible. They include but are not limited to The Jewish Wars, by Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Hadrian, Suetonius, Lucian of Samosata and Mara Bar-Serapion.

So then, is Jesus actually God?
Christians believe that Jesus is God. Christians believe in the concept of the Trinity. The Bible doesn’t use the word Trinity. However Christians understand that God exists above and apart from His creation. This is God the Father, the first part of the Trinity. Christians also believe that God’s spirit lives in man. This is God the Holy Spirit, the second part of the Trinity. The third part of the Trinity is Jesus the Anointed one. The name Jesus means “God saves.”
Many people in the Bible had this name. Joshua, Jesus, Yehoshua are all the same name. The Lord Christ means the anointed one.
You are moving ahead now into the New Testament and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Are you sure you understand the Bible?

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Steven Wickstrom 01 Oct 2002
Great information! This will be a good reference to keep handy.


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