How To Interpret The Gospels


“I chose a passage in Mark 2, where Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees because his disciples had been walking through a grain field, eating the grain on the Sabbath.  Jesus . . . reminds them of what David had done . . . ‘When Abiathar was the high priest.’. . .

One of the well-known problems of the passage is that when one looks at the Old Testament passage that Jesus is citing (1 Samuel 21:1-6), it turns out that David did not do this when Abiathar was the high priest, but, in fact, when Abiathar’s father Ahimelech was. . . the Bible is not inerrant at all but contains mistakes.” [1]

  • Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus


By Clark Bates| In the above account of Dr. Ehrman, we read how he began his descent from Christian evangelical to skeptical agnostic.  In the introduction to his book Misquoting Jesus he goes on to relate how he desperately sought to harmonize this discrepancy, only to have his professor point out that it was more likely that Mark just “made a mistake.”

From this epiphany, Dr. Ehrman explains that he began to see many errors in the New Testament, ranging from minor variations to major adjustments.  It was here where his faith floundered.  Dr. Ehrman has since gone on to teach New Testament studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, expressly focusing his time on repeating this event in the lives of every Christian student he oversees.

Situations such as this and the flurry of internet support that they garner have furthered the hyper-skeptical attitude of a generation that cannot be ignored.  In the opening two articles of this series I sought to explain what is properly meant by the doctrine of inerrancy in regards to the Bible and the approach to textual criticism used by scholars like Dr. Ehrman, known as the historical-critical method.

This article serves as the last introductory article to the series and will discuss how the Gospels themselves should be categorized as literature.  This is vitally important for the genre of a writing determines the guidelines regarding how it can and should be interpreted.

The Genre of the Gospels

Unfortunately, modern readers struggle immensely with how to properly interpret the Gospels.  The primary reason for this is that we lack a modern parallel by which to cross-reference.  The Gospels do not read like a modern history book, novel, news article, or letter, and this difficulty is only exacerbated by the all-too-common approach given to them in modern Christianity.

What I mean by this, is that most readers subconsciously approach the texts as if they were fables.  Like most fables, the stories of the Gospels are very old, and, as in the case of most fables, Americans are taught these stories as children.  As children, we’re taught that there is a moral message behind these Bible stories, not unlike Aesops’ “Tortoise and the Hare” or “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and, as a result, the underlying emphasis transmitted is that what is important is not whether these events actually happened but what moral lesson is this story trying to teach.

Many of us have sat under a sermon or read a devotional that spent much of its time explaining that Jesus stilling the storm on the Sea of Galilee was emblematic of how Jesus could “still the storms of our own life”.  Unfortunately, the search for the moral of a story often results in the reader missing the real point of the narrative.[2]

In addition to this practice, matters are slightly complicated given that nowhere in the New Testament are any of the four accounts of Jesus’ ministry referred to as “gospels”.  I’ve written in other articles that the titles we commonly attach to the four gospels were most likely attached to the documents somewhere near the end of the first century or early on in the second.

Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) was the first to coin the term “gospel” when referring to the canonical accounts of Jesus’ ministry, and it was likely due to Mark’s prominent use of the word (ευαγγελιον) throughout his account (1:1, 14 et. al.) that led to its use as a literary designation. [3]

During much of the twentieth century, the study of the Gospels was dominated by the branch of the historical-critical method known as form criticism.  Aspects of this approach consisted of identifying the gospel literature as parable, proverb, miracle story, or the like, and tracing both their dependence on other materials and use of oral transmission to the point at which they were transcribed.

K.L. Schmidt sought to classify them as popular literature so that they might be viewed as distinct from the more literary biographies, prevalent in the Greco-Roman world, whereas C.H. Dodd saw them as mirroring early Christian preaching (called kerygma in most scholarly work) and as such could only be considered “unique” among categories.

Currently, in spite of its continued promulgation on the popular circuit, form criticism has mostly ceased to be considered as an effective means to understand the text of Scripture.  Given more evidence, the re-occurring designation of the Gospels as biography seems to be correct.  Certainly, the biography of the ancient world does not look like a 21st century biography, but at its time the genre of biography was very broad, encompassing considerably diverse works. [4]

Even modern literary critics point out that genre does not impose a rigid set of requirements but a flexible set of expectations.  It is also pointed out that there is no such thing as a truly “unique” book, for if a book is to be understood at all, it must conform to certain generic conventions.  While the gospels lack the literary pretensions of most ancient biographies, they also contain a mixture of teaching and action-oriented work that separates them from other writings.

In some ways, Justin Martyr’s reference to them as “memoirs” may also be an apt description given the eyewitness nature of each record.

How to Read the Gospels

Whether a textual critic or a student of the Word, there are two types of reading that should be practiced when engaging with the gospels: Vertical Reading and Horizontal Reading.  Vertical reading is that which examines each gospel independently of the others.  The reader should seek to identify theological themes in the introduction and closing, as well as programmatic statements that tell the reader what the message of the book will be.

Most scholars see an example of such a statement in Matthew 1:21 in which the angel narrates the mission of the Christ-child.  I should note here that recognizing that the authors of the New Testament, the gospels in particular, wrote with an intentional theological purpose does not render the texts ahistorical or unreliable.  Every author writes with an intended purpose, and it is up to the reader to discover that purpose and, in the case of historical writings, identify the place, time, and events in history within which the writing occurred.

The approach known as horizontal reading or, “comparative analysis” compares the Gospels and contrasts the differences among them while also determining which Gospels may have used the work of another.  We can, and do, recognize that there are differences between the Gospels without agreeing that there are discrepancies, this is a necessary distinction.  Many scholars address these differences as the “Synoptic Problem”, however identifying it as such presumes that it is, in fact, a problem to begin with.

What often occurs with men like Ehrman is the differences are exacerbated at the expense of the similarities, which are remarkable.  Using the horizontal reading approach, it is possible to verify, to an even higher degree, the historical accuracy of the texts.  As Blomberg states,

“Harmonizing the Gospels and analyzing their redactional distinctives are not contradictory but complementary methods.  With a full appreciation of all the variations in wording between parallel accounts, not one example has come to light which demands an abandonment of belief in the Gospel’s accuracy, provided that the accuracy is measured by standards of precision appropriate to the cultures and expectations of the original authors and their audiences.” [5]

When all is said and done, it is my belief that, properly interpreted, the Gospels contain no contradictions.

What About the Mistake in Mark 2?

So what of the “mistake” discovered by Dr. Ehrman so many years ago?  Can we explain this error in naming the high priest?  Before answering that question, I’d like to point out something.  When one is raised in a theological tradition, like Ehrman, that requires one to accept a definition of inerrancy that makes no accounting for minor textual variants or scribal errors without rejecting the entirety of Scripture, they are on a short track to becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

While I believe that Dr. Ehrman has revealed in later statements that he was facing deep theological doubts for some time prior to this moment, he was also, unfortunately, set up for failure with such teaching.

Also, if a textual critic finds an error similar to what Dr. Ehrman has in Mark 2 in another ancient document he would certainly not abandon the entire text to the flames!  Why then would it follow that because the high priest is recorded incorrectly in one place of the New Testament that the entire Gospel record must be abandoned, or seriously doubted?

Of course, Dr. Ehrman would state the errors do not end there, but it is symptomatic of hyper-skepticism such as his that all-or-nothing verdicts must be the baseline for examining Scripture, regardless of the inconsistent application of this method to all other documents in antiquity.

That being said, is there a way to reconcile this discrepancy?  I would say there is, and it involves the Vertical Reading method spoken of above.  The passage in question is Mark 2:23-27, particularly focusing in on verse 26.  At this point, in the Greek, Mark uses the phrase, επι Αβιαθαρ αρχιερεως (epi Abiathar arkiereos), which is not the standard method of identifying time, but has been rendered in English, “in the time of Abiathar the high priest.”.

Directly translated, this would have to be rendered, “upon Abiathar (the) high priest” which makes no sense.  Mark uses the preposition επι 51 times throughout his Gospel and at only 18 times does it occur with a genitive (as it does here).  Of the 18 occurrences, 16 can be translated with the standard renderings.  Of the two remaining occurrences, guess which verse is included?  That’s right! Mark 2:26; the other verse is Mark 12:26 in which Mark renders the phrase, “have you not read” in the book of Moses, as επι του βατου.

Given that none of the standard readings would be applicable, the translators see fit at this passage to reference the Old Testament story of Exodus 3:4 as “have you not read in the passage about the bush.”  Using the vertical reading method and examining the Gospel of Mark on its own merit, it makes sense to use the same translation method found here in Mark 12, back in Mark 2.

If we follow this logic it means that what Jesus is referencing in Mark 2:26 is not merely the 6 verses of 1 Samuel that Dr. Ehrman suggests but a much greater segment of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Abiathar is a much more significant character than Ahimelek , mentioned 28 times in the Old Testament over the former’s mention only 13 times. [6]

The temporal use of επι (“in the time of”) is considered extremely rare. [7]  Therefore, a more consistent interpretation of Mark 2:26 would read, “in the passage/story/account about Abiathar, the high priest.”   In all likelihood, had the King James Version of the Bible not employed this variant form, no other translation would have followed. [8]


While the above defense may be a little difficult to follow for some, it flows from a consistent text-critical approach.  Allowing the Gospel to define its own terms resolves the error that undid Ehrman’s faith.

In the coming articles I will seek to demonstrate, using the same methods, that many of the “errors” enlarged by the hyper-skeptical crowd can be resolved without special pleading, but by simply employing a consistent application of proper interpretational methods.

[1] Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, (San Francisco: Harper, 2005), 9.
[2] Andreas J. Kostenbgerger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, The Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 193.
[3] Justin Martyr, First Apology, LXVI, “For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels . . .”
[4] D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 114.
[5] Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1990), 130.
6 Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 67.
[7] BDAG, 367.
[8] In almost all modern translations you will find the alternative rendering, defended here, in the footnotes.
This article was originally featured on Exejesus and was republished with permission.
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Clark Bates has been serving the local church in various ministries for more than a decade. He has acted as an interim pastor and guest speaker for churches along the Southern Oregon Coast and lectured on apologetics and theology in Oregon, California, Michigan and Illinois. Clark holds a Bachelor’s degree in Religion from Liberty University, graduating magna cum laude, as well as a Master’s of Divinity degree from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a graduate of the Cross Examined Instructor’s Academy, a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and actively involved with the Reasonable Faith St. Louis Chapter. He has appeared on Trinity Channel’s Apologetics Marathon opposite Reason to Believe’s Ken Samples and was recently featured on Ratio Christi TV’s broadcast “Truth Matters” discussing the reliability of the New Testament. Currently, Clark writes and produces videos for his website and is beginning his second master’s degree with Concordia Seminary, in St. Louis, Mo.