Here is fun and easy idea for helping your children (and their parents) learn about the process used for putting together the Gospels. We did this activity with our whole-family Bible study last week and it worked really well; you can do this with any small group, but it’s particularly fun with tween-age children.
The point of the exercise is to illustrate how the gospel accounts were constructed; how people can come up with slightly different versions and descriptions and details about events; and how they all still can be reliable sources of information despite these differences.
Have children interview adults about an event that occurred in the adult’s life; consider having multiple children interview the adults; assign one older child to be the recorder of the information. Choose some fun or happy event, or one that isn’t particularly lengthy to describe; it would be best to make the event something the interviewers were not present for. In our group we had children interview parents from a different family about how the married couple met.
Have the children report back to the group about the event, telling it in their own words; the recorder can do the reporting, but let the other children chime in when there is a detail they remember that the recorder doesn’t include, and let the interviewed adults insert vital corrections.
Point out when some details differ slightly; that the order of the events as described might not have been the exact order in which the events occurred; that the adults may have remembered or described some details slightly differently; and that the reports are still truthful.
When we read the gospels, we might envision Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John secluding themselves in a desert retreat and writing their books straight through from beginning to end. But it probably didn’t work that way. While the authors of the gospels used some common material, it’s also helpful to think of these men as first-century historians or journalists.
In fact, they probably put together their reports in a way that is similar to the interview activity we just did. We get a clue that this might be the case from the opening verses of Luke:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4, NAS)
Ask the basic reporter’s questions about this passage (Who, what, where, when, why, how); let the people, including children, in the group answer. The leader should make the following points when appropriate.
Question: Who wrote this, and who was it written to?
Answer: The author does not tell us his name. Very early in Christian history Luke was accepted as being the author (a good Study Bible or Bible Dictionary will help you with this point). The book was written to “Theophilus” (thee-OFF-ill-us). We don’t know exactly who this is. It may be a person named Theophilus; it may be a made-up name to protect the identity of a real person; or it may be written to all Christians, because in Greek theo means God and philo is a word for friend, so theo-philus meansfriend of God.
Q: What is being written?
A: “An account of the things accomplished among us.” Luke is telling his readers about Jesus’ life and ministry, and later, the experiences of the early church (Acts).
Q: When was it written?
A: To get this, we have to think about who was interviewed to write the book; the events “were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses.” Luke doesn’t claim to be a witness to Jesus’ life, but often uses the first person (“we”) in the book of Acts. Note that your interviewers didn’t see the events that occurred, but they were able to talk to eyewitnesses who did see or participate in the events. Luke’s sources were the eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life, including his death, burial, and resurrection. (More than 500 people saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion and death, and many of them were still alive when Paul wrote his letters; 1 Cor 15:3-7.) The fact that Luke was writing when his eyewitnesses were still alive is important, because it means if he made things up, people were around who would correct him, exposing his account as false; therefore, he had a strong motivation to give a truthful, accurate history. Since the apostles were not afraid to challenge and correct each other (e.g., Acts 15), Luke would strive to be accurate. Note that this is how your interviews worked; did a recorder make a mistake in his or her reporting, or leave out an important or interesting detail? Was it easy to correct the error?
Q: How was the information compiled?
A: Luke “investigated everything carefully from the beginning.” Lacking Google, he relied on eyewitness testimony. Would his information (starting from before the conception of John the Baptist and going through Jesus’ resurrection) have been acquired in the exact order it occurred? No, he probably picked up bits and pieces of different events and conversations, depending on who he was interviewing, and what they saw and remembered. In fact, Luke felt compelled “to write it out for you in consecutive order.” Remind your interviewers what it was like gathering the information just from the couple of people they talked to. (One of our 10-year old “recorders” even wrote the information out in the order it was received, and then during the “reporting” intuitively reorganized the information chronologically when he told the story.)
Q: Why was this account written down so carefully?
A: Luke writes that he did this “so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.” Luke’s purpose is to communicate clearly truths, to reinforce the information that Theophilus already had heard.
By conducting interviews with eyewitnesses about events, the participants in this discipleship activity can learn some important lessons about how the gospels and Acts were put together. If your experience is like ours, it will be fun; there will be some laughing in the telling of the stories; and there may be some poignant moments. I have to believe that as Luke was interviewing the people who knew and loved Jesus, it had to be the same. It wasn’t some sterile, boring lecture, it was real people relating and reliving their personal contact with the most wonderful and loving person they ever knew. The fact that many of those people were still alive when Luke wrote it motivated him to write it accurately. In itself, Luke’s introduction makes a great case for the accuracy of his gospel.