Distinctives in the Fourfold Gospel Corpus

Nijay Gupta, quoting Eddie Adams, recently posted some thoughts on the distinctiveness of each Gospel. While there certainly may be some truth to Adams’ list, namely in noting some of the unique literary devices used by the Evangelists, I personally find the list dissatisfying, particularly for its lack of theological engagement. This is seen in Adams’ first distinctive, which for him is that Matthew’s Gospel is more Jewish and more explicitly tying itself off to the OT.

But this is, in my opinion, to get the point exactly backward. Matthew is not the most Jewish nor the most oriented towards the OT; instead, each of the four Gospels’ different orientation towards the OT is exactly what makes it distinctive.

As I tell my students, the four Gospels each present a broad picture of Jesus that demonstrates he comes to:

  • Restore Israel, through which he will
  • Restore the entire creation, and therefore Jesus comes to
  • Bring salvation through his life, death, and resurrection to God’s fallen world

I then go on to point out that what makes each of these books unique is not their purpose, or even their outline (Jesus’ beginnings, ministry, Jerusalem, death, resurrection), but the lens through which they view Jesus. Specifically, which Old Testament lens do they use?

In my estimation, Matthew views Jesus through a New Moses/New Israel lens, Mark through a New Exodus lens, Luke through a New Elijah/New David lens, and John through a New Creation lens.

This approach, for me, focuses on the literary and theological distinctives of the Gospel writers instead of on rather subjective historical reconstructions of the provenance, date, and audience, and also gives a more robust picture of both the literary and theological goals of the author and therefore their distinctiveness in comparison to the other Evangelists.

What do you think?

6 thoughts on “Distinctives in the Fourfold Gospel Corpus

  1. Hey Matt, good point. I often say in class that Matthew is the most Jewish gospel (due to the explicit OT fulfillments; Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah; intense conflict between Jesus & Jewish leaders; etc), but any time I say it, I find it unsatisfactory and somewhat misleading (as if the other gospels are not Jewish in orientation and perspective)… and I end up qualifying my statement a good bit… almost to the point of why say it in the first place.

    I like what you mentioned about the themes of new Exodus, new Moses, new Elijah, and new Creation. It would be fun to unpack each of those some and explore them further. I’m afraid sometimes some of those themes aren’t always immediately obvious (e.g., the ascension in Luke-Acts compared to Elijah’s departure; etc.).

    • Thanks for the comment Jeff. In my book I explore each of those themes a bit, but I’m reliant on Dale Allison’s The New Moses, Rikki Watts’ Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark, Thomas Brodie’s The Birthing of the New Testament for Luke’s reliance on Samuel & Kings, and Köstenberger & Wright for new creation in John. If you’re interested in exploring those may be good places to start.

      • Thanks. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t have your book yet (my apoologies)… and also didn’t realize you explored these in it. (I expected from the title that the last one was, but didn’t realize you explored the others.) Yes, I was curious who you saw as the leading theorists on these. I expected Allison, Watts and Kostenberger, but wasn’t sure whom beyond that you emphasized, liked, and agreed with. Thanks again.

  2. I believe Luke portrays Jesus as the Greater King David and Eternal King Cyrus; I definitely see Elijah themes as well, but I think Jesus as Restorer from Exile comes through in Luke’s account time and again (e.g. the culmination of salvation in Luke 23.43, the promise of paradise). I do see this as distinct from New Creation, by the way–though there is certainly overlap.

    I think New Creation as the dominant motif in John is undeniable. I think John’s lens of the New Creation is particularly Isaianic.

    • Good thoughts Manny. I’d agree with Wright here that each of the themes I mentioned, and the Gospels’ presentation of Jesus in general, present him as restoring Israel from exile. So while Luke may have exilic restoration themes, I’m not sure that’s enough of a distinguishing feature in comparison to the other Gospels.

      I’d also agree that John’s new creation theme is Isianic, although there’s certainly quite a bit of Genesis thrown in as well. The other three themes (Moses, Exodus, Elijah/David) are implicitly new creational, and in my opinion build towards John’s explicit focus on it.

      Thanks for the comment!

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