Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Parallel Passages--Be Careful!

Parallel passages are very helpful to the Bible interpreter for (1) assessing the background of a text, (2) providing fuller treatment of an event or discussion, and (3) clarifying difficult passages.

In the Synoptic Gospels parallel passages are misused when the interpreter fails to search out the individual author’s purposes. For instance, when all data on a given event are collapsed into one account, the individuality of the Gospels becomes invisible. Mark 1:38 and Luke 4:43 provide an excellent illustration of the individuality of the Synoptic Gospels and of the potential interpretation pitfall parallel passages can become when used indiscriminately.

Mark’s purpose in 1:21-45 is to show how Jesus’ ministry priorities were circumvented by the people around Him (see Wretlind, “Jesus’ Philosophy of Ministry,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 20, 4 1977). In brief, Jesus validated His messianic preaching by healing a demoniac and others. Being astonished with and excited about the good fortune of having such a Healer in their midst, the people of Capernaum sought to keep Him in town. The disciples were likewise enthralled about the prospects of “instant ministry success.” Jesus addressed the problem of priorities by “escaping” town in the middle of the night so that He could continue His primary ministry of preaching and His secondary ministry of healing, the latter validating the former. Verse 38 contains a play on the word translated in the New American Standard Bible “I came for” (ἐξῆλθον) which occurred initially in His “escape” at verse 35, there translated “left” (ἐξῆλθεν). Verse 39 clearly outlines the priorities Jesus sought and found: the participles “preaching” (κηρύσσων) and “casting out” (ἐκβάλλων) are strategically placed in the first and second positions in the predicate. In the original text, this is clearer and more dramatic.

Luke 4:43, however, does not relate this “escape” scenario played out by Mark. Luke’s purpose is more theological. In place of the Mark’s “I came for” (ἐξῆλθον) regarding Jesus’ departure from Capernaum, Luke pens the theological term “I was sent” (ἀπεστάλην) to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. The scene in Luke focuses on God’s purpose for sending Jesus; the scene in Mark focuses on Jesus’ need to keep His ministry priorities aligned.

To collapse all data into one scene effectively distorts the purposes of both Mark and Luke. The careful interpreter will appreciate the uniqueness of each Gospel and seek to discover the different purposes the various authors sought to communicate. A useful tool for this process is a harmony of the Gospels such as Kurt Aland’s “Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum,” 3rd edition revised, for the Greek version and “Synopsis of the Four Gospels, English Edition.” Both of these and others are available from the American Bible Society website.