“Scripture Interprets Scripture”–Sometimes

Parallel passages are helpful to the Bible interpreter (1) for assessing the background of a passage, (2) for providing fuller treatment of an event or discussion, and (3) for clarifying difficult passages. They also can become pathways to erroneous interpretations if the interpreter is careless.

Proper use of parallels must include: (1) historical accuracy, (2) contexts of the parallels and the primary text under consideration, (3) exegesis of both passages including the authors’ purposes. Similarities exists between working with quotations and parallel passages. (See my article “Why Did Paul Need To Be Saved?”) The popular dictum “Scripture Interprets Scripture” may lead to questionable conclusions.

Although parallels can be helpful throughout Scripture, the Synoptic Gospels are particularly open to abuse. Parallel passages may be misused when the interpreter fails to follow the above-mentioned interpretive principles. For instance, when an unproven assumption is made that similar stories must represent the same event, i.e. Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7) and Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6). Or when the context of the parallel differs from that of the text being interpreted and the purpose of the writer of the parallel differs from that of the primary text. See below to illustrate both.

When all data on a given event are collapsed into one account, the individuality of the gospels disappears. There are four gospels and four different target audiences, and the gospel writers constructed their documents differently with different goals geared towards their audience’s interests and needs. The biblical interpreter should ask, for instance, “What has Mark included or not included from the parallels and why?” To ignore such questions does a disservice to the biblical writer and may lead to erroneous interpretations and applications.

Mark 1:38 and Luke 4:43 provide an excellent illustration of the individuality of the Synoptic Gospels. Mark’s purpose in 1:21 and following shows 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 wished 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 “I came out” (ἐξῆλθον) occuring initially in His “escape” at verse 35, there translated “he left” (ἐξῆλθεν). Verse 39 clearly outlines the priorities Jesus sought to maintain: In the original text, the participles “preaching” (κηρύσσων) and “casting out” (ἐκβάλλων) are strategically and dramatically placed first and last in the predicate. This prority problem, and the different ways Jesus fought against it, continues throughout his ministry in the Gospel of Mark.

Luke 4:43 does not narrate this “escape” scenario played out by Mark. Luke’s purpose is theological. In place of the Mark’s “I came out” (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 theological purpose for sending Jesus; the scene in Mark focuses on Jesus’ immediate 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, and once found to avoid the tendency to create one narrative. A useful tool for this process among others 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, for an English Edition.

Consider working out the following exercise of interpreting parallel passages using all four gospels: (1) underline what is unique in each of the accounts of the crowds’ exclamations at the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and (2) compare the uniqueness of each with the gospel writer’s audience and emphases.

Matthew 21:5–“Hosanna to the Son of David; BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD; Hosanna in the highest!”

Mark 11:9-10–“Hosanna! BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD; Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David; Hosanna in the highest!”

Luke 19:38–“BLESSED IS THE KING WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD; Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

John 12:13– “Hosanna! BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD, even the King of Israel.”

This exercise can point you to both the target audience and a central focus for each of the gospel writers. Look for these as you study the Gospels.

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