How are the gospel authors different?

The evangelists Mark and Luke both speak from their own perspectives, which helps better express the complex truth about Jesus.
The evangelists Mark and Luke both speak from their own perspectives, which helps better express the complex truth about Jesus. (photo: Register Files)

While they may agree about the facts of Jesus' life, the authors of the four gospels have different interests and perspectives.

Matthew has a particular interest in Jewish concerns, Luke has a particular interest in Gentile concerns, etc.

But sometimes the differences between them come out in more personal ways.

Tuesday's gospel reading contains a particularly striking illustration of that.


Mark on Doctors

Tuesday's Gospel reading contains the passage from Mark 5 dealing with the woman with the flow of blood. You know, the one who is healed by sneaking up and touching Jesus' clothing.

In Mark's account of the event, we read:

And there was a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse [Mark 5:25-26].

Ouch! Harsh.

Physicians had caused this woman a lot of suffering, they took all her money, and she got worse rather than better.

Not a positive commentary on the medical profession.


Some Truth

The comment would have resonated with many people in Mark's day, for the state of the medical profession was primitive.

Doctors might be well meaning, but they had nothing like the tools we do today.

Even just a few centuries ago, one physician (my memory fails me on precisely who) made the ironic statement that medicine amounts to making the patient comfortable while nature takes its course.


And even today there are many situations that are not treatable or not easily treatable. We're only at the dawn of effective medicine (that is, if we don't ruin the future course of medicine by making the development of new cures uneconomical).


A Matter of Perspective

While it wouldn't be surprising for many patients in Mark's day to share his outlook on doctors, there is one group that you could count on to have a significantly different perspective.

That would be the doctors themselves.

Nobody wants to think of their profession as a bunch of inept people who cause people to suffer, take their money, and make them worse.

A first century doctor would, undoubtedly, view his own efforts as doing the best he could, given the tools available, to cure people's suffering and enable them to live happy, healthy lives.

So what does the New Testament's own resident doctor think about the case of the woman with the flow of blood?


Luke on Doctors

St. Luke is described by St. Paul as the "beloved physician" (Colossians 4:14), and it's no surprise that his Gospel describes the case of the woman differently than Mark's does.

Here's what Luke says:

And a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years and had spent all her living upon physicians and could not be healed by any one, came up behind him, and touched the fringe of his garment; and immediately her flow of blood ceased [Luke 8:43-44].

Got that?

She "could not be healed by anyone."

The doctors aren't said to cause her much suffering, and they're not said to have made her worse. They just couldn't heal her.

It's a much softer statement.



Many Bible scholars of today are of the opinion that Mark wrote his Gospel before Luke did, and that Luke used Mark's Gospel.

Even the traditional order of the Gospels, as reflected in a typical New Testament, has Mark writing before Luke.

A few scholars have suggested that Mark wrote after Luke, but the majority of both historic and modern scholars think Mark wrote first.

If so, and if Luke was using Mark as one of his sources, then Luke saw Mark's harsh-sounding comment and deliberately altered it.

You can understand why. It would be the natural thing for a doctor to do.


Vive la Différence

It's this kind of thing--the fact that the Gospel authors have different perspectives--that is the reason we have four gospels in the first place.

They all tell the story of Jesus, but they bring out different aspects of it, based on the interests and perspectives of the human authors that the Holy Spirit chose and used to compose the gospels.

Neither Mark's harsh-sounding statement nor Luke's softer-sounding statement about doctors is uniquely right. They both speak from legitimate viewpoints about a complex, multi-sided phenomenon.

It's like the case of the blind men feeling different parts of an elephant. Each is saying something true, and only by taking all of their perspectives into account can a full picture be developed.

While the attitudes toward doctors revealed in these passages is a minor matter that is not essential to the message of Christ, the same holds true of the four gospels on a larger level.

They all contribute valuable information about Jesus, from different perspectives, and our knowledge of Our Lord would be diminished if even one of them were missing.


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