Gospels — Introduction





This book grows out of my own spiritual travels.

Like many Americans today, I grew up with religion playing very little part in my childhood life. This was a change from family tradition, because my ancestors had always had a strong Christian bent. Some members of the family were Huguenots—French Protestants who endured prosecution for the sake of their faith and eventually fled to England. Others were English Puritans, who suffered a different kind of persecution for their own faith and eventually fled to Jamestown in the new colony of Virginia. Once here, people in one branch of the family embraced the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the Mormons—and braved the wilderness with Brigham Young to make new homes in the western desert. All were willing to endure great sacrifices for the sake of their beliefs.

This same religious commitment continued into more recent times. The family has produced many ministers and preachers. Some of them helped to found Averett College, a Baptist-affiliated school in southern Virginia. Another, the Rev. James Battle Avirett, was the Episcopal chaplain of Turner Ashby’s cavalry regiment during the Civil War. Working for the success of the other side in the same conflict, my own great grandfather served as a doctor in the Union Army and then went on to spend the rest of his life in the ministry in Kentucky.

We were an educated family, however, and the Age of Reason had a strong influence on our thinking. By the time I was born, religion had gone out of style in America. My parents were scientists—geologists who were more inclined to study what they could see and measure, the stones and rock formations that make up the physical universe. They were fair-minded people and respectful of religion, but not religious themselves. And so I grew up virtually without a religious education.

We seldom went to church. From time to time my parents took us to services in the little Mormon farming towns of southern Utah, where my father spent summers doing geologic work. Back home in Washington they took me to a local church one Palm Sunday when I was in grade school. There I saw children my own age waving palm fronds; I recognized some of them as my classmates, but had little idea what their actions meant. Once when I was very young I had been asked by an elderly relative if I understood the meaning of Easter, and responded that I certainly did. It was the day, I explained gravely, when they nailed George Washington to the cross.

On other subjects, however, I was able to give better answers, and so I went to Harvard, the London School of Economics, and Harvard Law School. Religion remained absent in all these places. I spent my time amid throngs of intelligent people who were trying and often failing to find meaning in their lives. I enjoyed the sight of Memorial Church, a building that dominates the center of Harvard Yard and faces the main library; but I went inside only to see the lists of the Harvard men who had gone before me, and who had died in the First World War.

I also traveled during those student years, riding a motorcycle through Europe. One day I visited Mont Saint-Michel in France, and was struck by its beauty. A thin spire rose high above the cloister of the monastery, and its proportions reminded me of Memorial Church. But here too my response was just an aesthetic one—I thought it was a beautiful building with glorious architecture. Then later that day I had a serious accident. I hit a break in the pavement of the road, flipped the motorcycle, and broke my collarbone. A kindly motorist picked me up and took me to a nearby hospital affiliated with the Catholic Church. At the end of the day the nuns paced down the hallway chanting something beautiful and otherworldly. I couldn’t understand the words, but for the first time I had an inkling that the world might contain other sets of values.

Visiting the cathedral of Notre Dame while recuperating, I looked with interest at the frieze of sculptures around the choir showing biblical scenes. It wasn’t until many years later that someone explained that these depicted episodes in Jesus’ life, designed to tell the Christian story to people of the Middle Ages who were illiterate. Here I was, a highly educated man, but I was less able to read that story than a person who could not read at all.

I sometime paused to think that this cathedral—and the churches of my own country—represented a huge investment of the time and wealth of earlier generations. Clearly they were expressing some message that those people had thought was vitally important to hand down to us. But the message wasn’t reaching me.

As I moved into adult life, however, it became increasingly clear that our contemporary world was missing something that had been central to successful cultures and to successful individual lives in the past. I thought back to the European towns I had seen on my travels, and the classic American towns with churches at their center, and realized they had helped to build a sense of community that was no longer with us. The rational secular laws I had studied in law school didn’t seem to be providing a similar structure for people’s lives or making them particularly happy. There were a lot of alienated strivers in our world. But what was the alternative? One alternative began to appear when I first encountered a true community of faith, and saw what lives lived in Christian understanding might look like. This experience could happen to a person anywhere, but in my case it happened on a visit to a place in Greece called Mount Athos.

Mount Athos is in Greece but not really of it. It is a self-governing, largely autonomous monastic republic in the northern part of the country, literally a piece of the old Byzantine Empire, a part of the doubly unfamiliar world of the Eastern Orthodox churches. It occupies a remote, mountainous peninsula that reaches thirty-five miles out into the Aegean, terminating in the steep-sided peak of Mount Athos itself, which rises seven thousand feet directly out of the ocean. No road connects the peninsula with the mainland, so it is for all practical purposes an island. Scattered across this isolated landscape are twenty large monasteries, a few small towns, innumerable farmhouses and hermitages, and about 2000 monks. Even the buildings themselves are dramatic, built of stone and fortified, with Byzantine and medieval influences predominating, the monasteries sometimes standing near the sea and sometimes clinging to crags a thousand feet above it. The entire community functions as a religious republic—a sort of “Christian Tibet”—under a charter granted by the Byzantine Emperor in the year 972. For the first-time visitor like me, the experience was as strange as being suddenly dropped down on Mars.

Although Mount Athos was undeniably exotic, it did not seem likely to be the place of my spiritual awakening. After all, I had gone there as a cultural tourist, to see the architecture and the unique institutions surviving from the classical world. I was a visitor.

Once there, however, I found faith in forms that I had not seen before. For one thing, the monks did not have, as one might have expected, a dour and burdened attitude toward their austere lives. Instead, the life they had chosen for themselves seemed to have made them calm and cheerful, and at peace with the world. The country lanes around some of the monasteries were so quiet that you could hear the sound of birds’ wings and of bees in the trees, and a sense of age-old peace lay over the land. One of the monks recommended to me a line from the Psalms, “Be still and know that I am God.” The monks’ faith was not just a response to a tranquil environment. It was grounded, not in a freedom from aggravation, but in a sense of continuing communion with something larger. Every act, it seemed, was imbued with religious significance and done for the greater glory of God.

The monks rose for services at 3:30 in the morning, and prayed steadily for about four hours as the night gave way to dawn. At one monastery even the gardener’s wheelbarrow was decorated with a cross painted on the side.

Where all these elements came together, it seemed to me, was in the lamps that lit the nighttime services. These burned olive oil and were dimmer than our paraffin candles of today, and the light was further muted by shining through bowls of colored glass, often red. They were calm and intimate, close at hand. And they symbolized, at least to me, a different way of looking at God—not distant, transcendent, remote, but rather as something personal and close by. They conveyed a sense that the infinite was accessible by looking within yourself.

But if this was the experience at the monasteries, what were my own beliefs? What elements of faith did I take away from the experiences?

In some senses the answer to this question is easy. The Nicene Creed and similar pledges have long defined the essential elements of Christianity—belief in the Trinity, in Jesus’ incarnation as both God and man, in the resurrection, and in a number of other basic tenets. Yet while these are all key elements of the Christian faith, they do not all present themselves in exactly the same way to every person. Some elements have come to me more forcibly than others and have presented themselves with special vividness.

One particularly clear connection has been with Jesus in his earthly incarnation as the Son of Man. I find it easy to picture Jesus the human teacher walking the paths of his native Galilee, gathering disciples and teaching, and eventually making his way to the final confrontation in Jerusalem. His lessons speak fundamentally to the human heart, and they carry wisdom to our own day. When he tells us to “Love your enemies,” and to seek out “treasures in heaven,” he is giving a profoundly corrective message in a strife-ridden and materialistic world.

Another close connection has been with the third element in the Trinity—the Holy Spirit. Jesus described the Spirit as the Counselor, who will “bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” The Spirit is more abstract than the other persons of the Trinity. But this abstract quality also makes it all-pervasive, helping us feel our connection with all the parts of the material world, and also helping us shape our own judgments in accordance with the teachings of Jesus, making us better able to sense and to intuit the proper path in life.

I had come to realize that I wanted to know more about Jesus and his life. And as I came to learn more, I found that my own truths had changed.

For one thing, the Christian teachings have made me more patient with the other people around me. I have become more willing to accept each of them for who they are, rather than looking for who I wish they would be—to see them, insofar as I am able, as God sees them. The words from the Sermon on the Mount have not encouraged me to set aside my judgments, but rather not to judge in the first place: For your heavenly Father “is kind even to the ungrateful and the selfish.” For another thing, faith has opened the door to a different way of looking at all the business and practical dealings of daily life. It made it suddenly clear that it is possible to live in the world by different values, and to perceive both troubles and opportunities in ways very different from our society’s customary practices. A follower of Jesus might “live in this world but be a citizen of heaven.”

And so, because of these values, I have become more at peace with myself and with the wider world. All things are related, and all things are sacred. The red lamps, which symbolized for me the presence of the Holy Spirit, also symbolize this universal, unifying presence of God. The calm, low, inward-turning focus of the lamps ultimately leads, somewhat counterintuitively, to a connection with the whole world. The Seventh Century church father, St. Isaac the Syrian, expressed this connection well: “Be at peace with your own soul; then heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you, and so you will see the things that are in heaven; for there is but one single entry to them both. The ladder that leads to the kingdom is hidden within your own soul. Flee from sin, dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the stairs by which to ascend.” And so, at long last, I had relearned what had once been so well known in my family that it seemed to be in our DNA. And I had come to feel that the gospel story was something that I needed to work through, absorb, put into more understandable form, and make available to a general readership.

I therefore began a seven-year study of the history and theology involved in the various English versions of the gospels. I also acquired a working knowledge of Greek through various studies, including a course taught by the Dominicans. Then I considered whether it would be possible to build on the work of the earlier editions of the gospels by bringing some new skills that have not been a prominent part of religious publishing in the past. By profession I am an antitrust lawyer and a former editor of my school’s law review. I could bring to the task an editor’s ear for language, and a lawyer’s ability to combine a variety of authorities into a coherent whole. Those seemed to be the relevant skills for the new kind of volume that was most needed; and thus this book.


This version of the gospels strives to make the original material more readable in two different ways. First, the story is now arranged in a clean chronology, with the episodes following a single timeline and all the details of each incident or teaching collected in one account. Second, a new translation ensures that the text is clear and self-explanatory, while at the same time taking care that it preserves familiar passages and the key turns of phrase that are valued by one or another part of the Christian community.

The main challenge posed by the four gospels has always been that they are fragmented in ways that make them hard to understand. The pieces of the story are not set out in chronological order. After one book of the gospels has given what appears to be a complete life of Christ, another book will provide some new incident, which must be mentally inserted back into the story at the appropriate place. Luke describes the birth at Bethlehem, but then Matthew adds the visit of the Magi. Even more daunting, some important episodes, such as the resurrection, are described in tantalizing fragments over the course of all four gospels, with no one account presenting more than a fraction of the story.

This book provides a solution to these difficulties. It puts the incidents of Christ’s life into one sequence that theological scholars call a “harmony.” The birth is now followed, as the story intends, by the visit of the Magi. This chronological arrangement also brings together the different accounts of incidents into one complete description of each. The basic concept is additive. I take the view that each fact reported in one of the gospels is an integral part of the story as a whole. The text therefore includes all of the unique facts that are offered. A good example is the account of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus in the form of a dove after he has been baptized in the Jordan. The gospel of Luke tells us that this occurred as Jesus emerged from the water and “was praying;” Mark tells us that the heavens were “torn open” to permit the passage of the dove; and Matthew tells us that the dove ended by “alighting on him.” Once the overlaps are omitted, the unique phrases from each account can go into a single sentence: “And when Jesus came up out of the water, and was praying, straightaway he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit of God descending in bodily form like a dove and alighting upon him.”

This book also brings together the three different approaches to translation that are found in most of today’s Bibles. It refers back to the original Greek and presents a new translation, which adjusts its tone according to the needs and context of a particular passage. Most often it preserves the general tone of the King James Version, but in a form that has been inconspicuously updated with wording more accessible to the modern reader. Sometimes, where necessary, it conveys particularly difficult descriptions through use of more informal and contemporary language. And at other times it stays with the grand and familiar language of the original King James itself.

Some phrases from the King James Version are so familiar to everyone from the traditional Christmas story or the Sermon on the Mount that any great departure from them would be jarring. For example, some recent but overly-literal translations have the angels announce the birth of Jesus by saying something like, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” This contrasts oddly with the more familiar account which says, “And on earth peace, good will toward men.” There is really no substitute for the resonance of the older language, and that language has, through long usage, acquired its own legitimacy in the Christian community. Use of the King James is also appropriate where particular phrases have become familiar terms of speech. Thus certain unappreciated invitations “fall by the wayside,” and last-minute arrangements are made “at the eleventh hour.”

In the task of translation I have had invaluable help from many prior works. This is a new translation in the sense that I have looked continuously for new ways to express thoughts in traditional language that will make sense to modern readers. This volume was not written on a blank slate, however. The Revised Standard Version is still the best modern update of the King James, and has provided an essential model to style and expression, as well as to narrative interpretation. The New International Version provides scholarly insights on more modern language. And, of course, the King James Version remains the gold standard for the received traditional voice. None of these works bears responsibility for any shortcomings in the preparation of this volume. Nonetheless, I gratefully acknowledge my debt to all of them.

At the end of the day, my goal has been to create a Platonic form of the Bible story—not something with the shine of novelty, but something comfortable and familiar, the biblical narrative as it exists in our minds, and as we think we remember it.

I hope that the story in this form will speak to several different groups of readers. It may speak, first of all, in the language of faith. It does so in a form that is accessible to everyone. The teachings of Jesus do not focus on the particulars of ritual and doctrine. They address instead the wonderment of mankind’s relationship to the infinite, the self-knowledge that comes from a study of the human heart, and the true community that binds together all the parts of God’s creation. All these teachings present themselves with a new clarity and immediacy through a consolidated text.

This book should also be useful to secular readers as an accessible way to reconnect with one of the central narratives of Western civilization. The gospels are not only the foundation of the Christian faith, but also, as I learned at Notre Dame, the source of innumerable references in art and literature. One cannot understand the command to “turn the other cheek,” or fully understand the life of Jesus for its historical significance, or view a painting like Rembrandt’s Descent from the Cross, or read the O. Henry short story about The Gift of the Magi, without understanding their roots in the gospel narrative. Yet the details of this background are becoming less familiar to contemporary people, who are often less regular churchgoers than their parents and grandparents had been.

In the process of integrating the gospel accounts for a general readership I have followed several principles of composition. As already mentioned, I have followed the additive principle of including each distinctive fact, and the principle of familiarity when retaining certain well-loved phrases from the King James Version. A number of other principles also emerged during the course of the work. These address more specific issues, such as how to treat apparently identical events that are described at different times in the chronology, or how to handle the occasional points where the gospel accounts disagree with one another, or how broadly or narrowly to translate references to “the Jews.” For the reader who is interested in these details of the drafting, they are described in an appendix on “Principles of Composition.”

These kinds of judgments mean, of course, that the present work is no longer a holy text. Inevitably there will be errors in the editorial process. The resulting work should therefore be thought of as an interpretation or a study guide. When an authoritative source is needed, readers can consult the original underlying gospel texts for a given point; those references are given at the start of each chapter.

The editorial process has also tended to blur the distinctive character of the four individual gospels. Their distinctive purposes and points of view are necessarily lost in the course of creating a single narrative.

This “smoothing out” of the four gospel accounts is actually one of the main virtues of a consolidated story, however. While there may be four authoritative gospel accounts, there is only one underlying gospel. There was only one life of Jesus, and only one core body of Christian belief. The four gospels illuminate this one underlying reality from their four different vantage points, but bringing those four accounts together will give us our most rounded and nuanced portrait of Jesus and his life. A harmony is likely to come closer to this single underlying truth than any one incomplete gospel can do. To point out this fact does not imply a challenge to the historical scholarship that has been devoted to the individual gospels. Understanding the individuality of the four sources is a later and more advanced area of study, however, and many readers may feel that this is something that is best undertaken after an initial grounding in the core narrative.

My goal here has been to present the best possible consolidated text of the four gospels. I have taken the gospels themselves as a given. I have not attempted to look behind them to interpret their theology or to judge their status as historical documents. Those are tasks for other works and for individual churches. I have, however, included a number of basic footnotes in the body of the book, in order to ensure that the sense and context of a particular passage is clear, and that the reader will always understand at least the letter of what is being said. On particularly complex topics a footnote will end with an asterisk. That indicates that a fuller discussion of the subject can be found in the endnotes at the back of the book. Some narrower and more technical issues will be discussed only in the endnotes.

My hope is that this volume will make the life of Jesus more accessible to a wider audience. For some readers this text may itself be sufficient for their needs, and for others it may be the start of a more detailed study of the underlying individual evangelists.

Whichever road is taken, may you go with God.

Alexandria, Virginia 2015

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