Wednesday, February 08, 2012

To Add, Or Not To Add--That Is The Question

It began with me asking on Facebook:
So, where was Mary Magdalene standing during Jesus' crucifixion?
because I had been reading this (Scripture quotes from International Standard Version):
Matthew 27:55 Now many women were also there, watching from a distance. They had accompanied Jesus from Galilee and had ministered to him. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.

Mark 15:40 Now there were women watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of young James and Joseph, and Salome. 41 They used to accompany him and care for him while he was in Galilee. Many other women who had come up to Jerusalem with him were there, too.

Luke 23:48 When all the crowds who had come together for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they beat their chests and left. 49 But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, were standing at a distance watching these things.

John 19:25 Meanwhile, standing near Jesus’ cross were his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he kept loving standing there, he told his mother, “Dear lady, here is your son.” 27 Then he told the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
Because of the many differences between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and the Gospel of John, some have supposed or concluded that John deliberately "changed" things (e.g., the day and time of the crucifixion) for theological reasons. If so, then what might have been his theological (or other) purpose in putting the women and Mary Magdalene at the cross, as opposed to the Synoptics having them view Jesus' crucifixion from a distance?

In response someone said: "People are actually movable objects. They can stand in different locations as time progresses."

Well, yes, people can move, and that may be what happened.

But is that how we are to read and understand the Gospels?

Are we to conflate the Gospel accounts so as to know "the rest of the story" in each instance where a Gospel might be "missing" something that one of the other Gospels "provides"? Thus here, for instance, are we to say that John's Gospel "adds the detail for us" that at some point Mary Magdalene and maybe a couple of the other women moved to stand by the cross while Jesus was dying on it?

Or should each Gospel be read and taken on its own?

How would Matthew and Mark and Luke and John have wanted us to read and understand their Gospels?

As a possibly poor analogy: Should one use the words and actions of two versions or remakes of a movie to "fill in the details of" (or possibly even "correct") a later or earlier version? In some instances, especially if the films are all based on the same novel or historical event and the director deliberately chose to omit or vary some things, it might be right to do so. But what if the director wanted us to view and understand his version of the story for what it is in its own right without our "adding to" it?

Back to the Gospels.

I’m sure I’m not the first one to see the following:
  • Family, Followers, and Friends: These Gospels show Jesus abandoned by all of His family, followers, and friends, and surrounded only by strangers and mockers and enemies - Luke says that all His acquaintances, including the women, stood and watched the crucifixion from a distance. 
  • Creation: Creation, too, seems to abandon Him, or perhaps mourn His dying, as darkness covers the whole land for three hours. (Matthew also mentions an earthquake at His death, but that may mean something else.)
  • God:
    • At the end of that period of darkness, both Matthew and Mark seemingly have God abandon Him, too, and Jesus doesn't call God "Father."
    • Luke, though, while mentioning the darkness, has Jesus talking and praying to His "Father" (Luke 23:34,46) and nowhere has Him appearing to be abandoned by God or has Him saying, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" 
  • Family, Followers, and Friends: John not only has Jesus not totally abandoned by His family, followers, and friends, but has some of those who were closest to Him standing by Him at the cross, and His nearly last words are with them, not with those crucified with Him (or perhaps not even with God - i.e., to whom does He say: "It is finished"?).
  • Creation: There is no mention of any darkness.
  • God: There is no suggestion that God may have forsaken Him.
So... how did the Gospel writers and how does God want us to read and understand the Gospels, and how did or do they want us to relate or not relate them to each other?

Another person said that they have problems watching biblical movies because the directors take too much artistic license by "filling things in" for us. They considered their doing so to be presumptuous, as it can change what God wants us to know or what He doesn't want us to know, leading to erroneous concepts of God.

To which I responded: Are we or preachers then doing the right thing when we use the Synoptics to "fill in" for John, or vice-versa?


  1. The most helpful material I have found in interpreting the Passion narratives in the four Gospels is The Death of the Messiah by the late Father Raymond Brown of Union Theological Seminary in New York. It is very detailed, in two volumes, and is not a specifically Roman Catholic viewpoint, which, for many RC's, has been a problem. But if you can find it in a library somewhere or order it from Christian Book Discount, this work will be well worth the steep price.

    I do think that each Gospel has to be taken as a separate witness, on its own terms. While it seems pretty clear to me that both Matthew and Luke were quite familiar with an earlier form of Mark, they were not familiar with each other. It also appears to me that the writer of John was quite familiar with the traditions reported in both Mark and Luke, but not necessarily Matthew, and yet I am not sure he ever actually read them directly. But the Gospel story is like a diamond with many facets, and each Gospel writers, while knowing a general outline of the events, sees and proclaims different facets of that diamond. And we are all richer for it.

  2. The Gospel of John is a proto-orthodox commentary on the synoptics; it even contains liturgical elements (see Jesus's conversation with Mary and Martha when he goes to raise Lazarus).

    As such, it is more concerned with driving home various theological truths, and with serving the early Christian community, than with depicting events as they happened. Although I think you make some unnecessary generalizations (John does have all of the twelve except for the beloved abandon him, for example).

  3. Good points, Nicholas - which I think somewhat supports my idea that the Gospels should be read and used individually, since they're each (possibly especially John) edited or written to make certain points. I revised my wording a bit to make it clearer who was and was not at the cross.

  4. I definitely agree that one shouldn't make a fuss attempting to forcibly harmonize unharmonizeable texts. Of course, they can still be used cooperatively to various ends.

    One more poetic interpretation of the function of the four Gospels is that they re-present the four genres of Old Testament literature: Mark, the Apocalypse; Matthew, the Torah; Luke, the history; John, the wisdom literature. I happen to like that understanding, regardless of what the original editors had in mind.

  5. They all focus on things that "speak" to them, mostly in a non-conscious manner. For instance, Matthew/Levi, the Levite-turned-tax-collector, instinctively focuses on numbers [from a symbolic as well as economic perspective], money-related issues, and OT typology. Luke, the Gentile convert, focuses on things that spoke to him as a Gentile. John, the deep mystic out on a spiritual quest [who was with the Prophet John even before he was with Christ, and who also became Jesus' intimate disciple], automatically focuses on mystical things: signs, parables, etc. It's not exactly a "conscious" effort.