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Why Read the Gospels?

By C. Kavin Rowe, Assistant Professor of New Testament

Differences in the Gospels make it imperative that Christian leaders           actually read them

Many of us no longer actually read the Gospels to shape our thinking about Christian leadership. But we should.


Indeed, there are no more important texts in the Bible than the four Gospels that begin the New Testament. They and they alone actually narrate the life history of Jesus Christ. If thought about carefully, the differences and similarities . are not obstacles to understanding them — as is frequently alleged in public or popular discussion — but are instead a rich reflection of the way in which the Bible as a whole mediates God’s redeeming presence to the world.

Matthew’s and Luke’s use of Mark provide remarkable instances of the larger biblical pattern of traditioned innovation, the term that describes the character of God’s grace as at once preserving and renewing. Certain essential elements of tradition about Jesus . in Mark’s Gospel . are both preserved . and simultaneously transformed by their incorporation into different narrative frameworks. Moreover, these different narrative frameworks are not simply small variations on a similar theme, but are the result of artistic literary innovation.

In the Gospel of John, we see an even more radical innovation.. For example, Jesus’ demonstration against the money changers in the Temple is moved from the end of his ministry to the beginning, and the theological truth about the identity of Jesus that was realized only after his resurrection is mediated in the Gospel narrative through Jesus’ own speech prior to his death and resurrection (for example, “before Abraham was, I am” John 8:58).

Despite this narrative freedom ., the Gospel of John is emphatically not a gnosticizing departure from the historical figure of Jesus.. It is instead a theologically innovative renarration of the cosmic importance of this one, concrete human being. The divine Logos is the fleshly Jesus (1:14), not an abstract spiritual principle or a key to the gate of secret knowledge. As has often and rightly been noticed, John’s innovative construal of the life of Jesus of Nazareth simply makes explicit what is implicit in the tradition of the Synoptic Gospels.

Seen as a whole and in relation to one another, the four canonical Gospels display the reality of a living tradition and the innovations it both generates and depends upon for its ongoing transmission in the life of the church.

Editor’s note: This article from August 18, 2009, is excerpted from the third in a series of reflections by C. Kavin Rowe, assistant professor of New Testament, on the importance of thinking biblically for Faith & Leadership, the online magazine of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.