Become a monthly supporter to advance gospel-centered resources

Editors’ note: 

The following is an interview between Justin Taylor and Andreas Köstenberger around Köstenberger’s book The Final Days of Jesus.

How should the events of Jesus’ final week inform our reading of the teaching and miracles that precede it?

German scholar Ernst Käsemann once remarked that Mark is essentially an extended passion narrative with an introduction. Of course, that’s an exaggeration, but he made a helpful point: what’s most important in each Gospel and is given a disproportionate amount of space is the narrative of Jesus’s passion—his death, burial, and resurrection, his final week. It’s there the essence of the gospel is fleshed out in the life and ministry of Jesus, and all of Jesus’ teaching—even the miracles—build up to his death on the cross for our sins and the resurrection.

What does it mean to read the Gospels both “horizontally” and “vertically”?

Reading the Gospels horizontally and vertically are two different yet complementary and equally legitimate ways of reading the Gospels. Reading the Gospels horizontally means to see how each Gospel relates to the others, as complementary witnesses to the same set of historical events and statements. Take Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, for example, which is recorded in all four Gospels. Reading the account in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John will give you the totality of what the Bible says about this event. No Gospel gives you all the details, but this kind of synoptic (or horizontal) reading will give you all the information across the board, which is obviously very valuable, because that way you’ll know all that the Bible says about this particular event.

Reading the Gospels vertically, on the other hand, means reading each Gospel from beginning to end as independent, self-contained narratives of the life of Jesus. This kind of reading capitalizes on the insight that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each told their own story, and we must respect the literary and theological integrity of their work. As we read the Gospels vertically, we will get a better sense of their respective emphases, style characteristics, and theological themes. For example, Mark likes to use the word euthus, “immediately,” which indicates the fast-paced nature of his Gospel, while Matthew and Luke use the word much less frequently.

How can we account for the differences—even apparent contradictions—among the Gospel authors in describing the 
same events (e.g., the number of Peter’s denials; what the sign on the cross read; how many women came to the tomb on Easter morning, etc.)?

On the one hand, we have to avoid approaching the text with undue suspicion, acting as if the narratives are guilty until proven innocent.

On the other hand, we want to avoid forced or artificial harmonization. (One thinks here of the interpretation that Peter ended up denying Jesus several different times).

Both approaches ironically come from the same error: bringing to the text an expectation of detail and precision it never intended to offer. The fact that the four narratives complement one another in telling the one story but don’t always harmonize themselves in neat and tidy ways actually enforces their veracity. In other words, they read exactly like eyewitness narrative and truthful historical recounting should read.

We also must distinguish between the inerrancy (freedom from deceit or error) of the gospel accounts and the fallibility (possibility of error) in our interpretation of these accounts. In The Final Days of Jesus we try to offer some help on these various issues, but we don’t claim that ours is the last word on the subject.

Let’s take as an example the crucifixion epitaph (the placard authorized by Pontius Pilate and placed on the cross above Jesus’s head). Each of the four gospels renders it a bit differently. In fact, it may be the case that none of them include all the words of the original. The original may have read in full, “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” What we did in The Final Days of Jesus is render the four versions in a chart for comparison, which I think ends up reinforcing the essential veracity of their complementary depictions.

Inerrancy doesn’t require reproducing every detail, just as a faithful witness of an event can tell the truth in selecting details which are deemed most important. Only the worst kind of wooden literalism and special pleading would insist that the renditions above constitute a genuine contradiction.

Another one would be the question of the time of day Jesus was crucified, and you can see our solution here.

For how we handle some of the other alleged discrepancies, we encourage readers to look at the book where we seek to work these out in a bit more detail.

How old was Jesus when he died?

We believe he was 37 or 38 years old. There are a number of issues bound up with this, but in brief: Jesus was probably born in the fall of 6 or 5 B.C. Herod the Great died in the spring of 4 B.C. after decreeing that all male boys “two years old or under” be put to death (Matt. 2:16). The only two serious options for the date of Jesus’s death are in the spring of A.D. 30 or A.D. 33, and we are persuaded that only the latter can account for all of the evidence. If we remember that there was no year 0 between B.C. and A.D., this would put Jesus at the age of either 37 or 38. If someone were to ask how this fits with the designation that Jesus was “about thirty years of age,” that is a reference to when Jesus “began his ministry” (Luke 3:23), which would have been three years earlier. He would have been between 33 or 35 at the time, which fits with Luke’s approximation.

Jesus spent a long time teaching his disciples on the night before his death. What did his instruction focus on and how should it affect the way we live today?

Jesus taught on a few important subjects. First, he taught his followers about love. He showed them that it is because of love that he went to the cross, and so any follower of his must likewise be a man or woman of love.

Second, he taught them how to continue in close relationship with him now that he was going to return to the Father. He told is followers that they would receive the indwelling Holy Spirit and that they must remain faithful to Jesus’ teachings and share the good news with others.

Third, he taught them about the need for believing prayer in his name. As they would embark on their mission, they could ask Jesus for the resources they would need, and he would supply them with everything they needed.

Love, the Holy Spirit, prayer, and mission, those were some of the major highlights as Jesus instructed his disciples shortly before his death.

In The Final Days of Jesus, we try to give our readers a sense of what it would have been like to be with Jesus in the Upper Room so they can get a better understanding of how a study of Jesus’s last days before the crucifixion can deeper their own walk with the Lord.