Matthew as Story

How do you read the Gospels? If you are anything like me, you have had the tendency to read the Gospels as pieced together snippets of various accounts of various parts of Jesus’ life. The Gospels just seem to move from one mini story to the next without many clues regarding how the “episodes” are connected, if they are connected at all. Up until recently, I always read the Gospels in this way. I did not see continuity; I just saw a seemingly random collection of “episodes” from Jesus’ life put together. Sure, there was an obvious direction: Jesus came, performed miracles, made everyone mad at Him, died on the cross for our sins, and rose again. That much was clear. What was never clear was why the authors chose the episodes they did in the order they did in their particular Gospel. It was so unclear to me that I just assumed there wasn’t really any rhyme or reason, it just happened to be the parts of Jesus’ life they remembered the best. Thus the Gospel were a jumbled up, pieced together, random assortment of stories from Jesus’ life. This is not to say that the stories lacked significance, because I have always firmly affirmed 2 Tim 3:16-17 (“All Scripture is God-breathed and is profitable…), it just meant that their order and arrangement in the various Gospels lacked significance to me.

But then I took a class. I spent part of my summer working on a class that covered the book of Matthew at Calvary Theological Seminary. In this class we examined the book of Matthew with a heavy emphasis on what my professor called “Narrative Critical Analysis”. Now before the word “critical” makes you squirm, let me explain what that means. My professor taught us that the Gospel narratives were more than just pieced together accounts of Jesus’ life put together in a mishmash of a book, but were literary masterpieces, skillfully told complete stories, with characters, plot, conflict, climax, and a resolution. Thus, Narrative Critical Analysis critically analyzes the narrative of the book.

When this approach to the text is employed, how the passages are studied immediately must change. There are new questions that we must ask, like “Why did this writer include this part of the story in this particular spot?” “How does this “episode” aid the overall advancement of the plot?” or “How is this particular character developed in this passage?” The question of context becomes supremely important because if this is a story with continuity, then what occurs before and after a particular passage has an incredibly high impact of the understanding of the passage in question.

Without getting into everything that I learned in class, I do want to give you some of my top take-aways from this class for studying individual passages in narrative books (although the principles governing each point can be applied to the entire Bible.)

  • Pay attention to context. Clues for why this passage was included can be in the previous or following passage/chapter. How does the passage fit into the overall plot of the book? (Is it early in Jesus’ ministry? Does it lead to key turning points? Etc.)
  • Ask questions: (asking questions is a bible study basic for all genres of Scripture. The below questions specifically relate to narrative passage)
    • What characters are involved in this passage?
    • How are they characterized? What are their traits?
    • How do they develop in this passage?
    • At what point in their entire development process are they?
    • Is there conflict in this passage?
    • Who is the conflict between? (Note the conflict that takes place between Jesus and the religious leaders and how it escalates, and the conflict between Jesus and the disciples and how it escalates)
    • Is any conflict resolved? How/Why? Why not?
    • How do the characters compare/contrast with Jesus?
    • What major themes appear in the passage? How is that theme developed through the book?
    • How does the author intend for the reader to respond in light of the answers to the above questions?
    • What can I learn about Jesus/God from this passage?
    • How does this passage relate to the overall theme of the book?
  • Work hard. I personally find it easier to work through New Testament Epistles because the main point is usually a lot more obvious. Working through narrative passages can take work. It is important to press forward and not let a little hard work get in the way of learning some significant spiritual truths. Do not give up. Our best learning takes place when we struggle with the subject matter.
  • Remember God’s nature. He is not a God of confusion. He would not put something in the Bible without a specific reason. Find that reason.
  • Do not forget to apply the information to YOUR life. Do not make generalized applications (like “I should be more humble”), make specific applications to your life (like “I need to stop interrupting people because it demonstrates that I view what I have to say as more important than what others have to say and thus demonstrates a prideful spirit”)

I hope these are helpful for you. They helped me a lot. There is so much more than what I have put above, but even if these things seem basic, they were especially impactful and helpful to me.