Fortress Press

Telling Tales about Jesus: An Introduction to the New Testament Gospels

Telling Tales about Jesus

An Introduction to the New Testament Gospels

Warren Carter (Author)


An Introduction from the Author

What are the Gospels and what does it mean to read them? Warren Carter leads the beginning student in an inductive exploration of the New Testament Gospels, asking about their genre, the view that they were written by eyewitnesses, the early church traditions about them, and how they employ Hellenistic biography.

He then examines the distinctive voice of each Gospel, describing the “tale about Jesus” each writer tells, then presenting likely views regarding the circumstances in which they were written, giving particular attention to often overlooked aspects of the Roman imperial setting.

A sociohistorical approach suggests that Mark addressed difficult circumstances in imperial Rome; redaction criticism shows that Matthew edited traditions to help define identity in competition with synagogue communities in response to a fresh assertion of Roman power; a literary-thematic approach shows that Luke offered assurance in a context of uncertainty; an intertextual approach shows how John used Wisdom traditions to present Jesus as the definitive revealer of God’s presence to answer an ancient quest for divine knowledge.

A concluding chapter addresses how the Gospels inform and shape our understanding of Jesus of Nazareth. Maps, images, sidebars, and questions for reflection add value to this student-friendly text.

  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • Format Paperback
  • ISBN 9781451465457
  • eBook ISBN 9781506408118
  • Dimensions 6 x 9
  • Pages 304
  • Publication Date March 1, 2016

Author Interview

See what Warren Carter has to say about his new book!

Q: What was your inspiration behind writing this book? What do you hope it accomplishes for students? What do you want the book to accomplish in New Testament studies?
A: I think Gospels can be hard texts to read well. On one level, they can seem so very simple—if you’ve read them once, that’s it. Or they can be frustrating reading. If you approach them as “a day in the life of. . .” or as eyewitness accounts, it takes only a little thought to realize that that is not an adequate approach, that the Gospel accounts are different, selective, shaped by distinct perspectives. So how to read them in a way that respects them, that begins to engage their complexity and depth? My hope is that this book will help students encounter some of this richness and depth, some of their life-giving vision as well as some of their disturbing content.

Q: Can you briefly describe the unique organization of your book, and explain how this sets Telling Tales about Jesus apart from other introductory studies of the gospels?

A: Much of the book is organized by pairs of chapters. So the first two chapters engage “getting started” questions. What sort of literature are we reading when we read Gospels, and how did they come into existence? I engage the genre question first, and then with the help of two models, think about the circulation of stories and teachings of Jesus in the time period between the death of Jesus around 30 CE and the appearance of the first gospel around 70 CE. Then the rest of the book devotes two chapters to each of the canonical Gospels. The first of the two chapters outlines the tale of Jesus each Gospel tells. And the second of the two chapters takes up an interesting aspect of reading a Gospel: the meanings different audiences in different social locations might make of the Gospel (Mark); how Matthew reshapes Mark’s tale and why (Matthew); some Gospel themes (Luke); the use of Hebrew Bible material as a meaning-making filter (John’s use of wisdom). In this way, students experience different critical approaches and see the questions they ask and the insights they produce. In this way, students encounter something of the depth and richness of the Gospels.

Q: You’re well known as a pioneer in the field of “empire studies” in the New Testament. Would you describe how that perspective plays a part in this book? What do you see as the future of empire studies?
A: Empire studies or imperial-critical approaches recognize that Gospels emerge as texts from the world of Roman power. The main character of their tales is one who was put to death by Roman and provincial allies as a threat to their world. So I want to highlight how the Gospels participate in and replicate the structures of this Roman world. So the Jerusalem leaders (scribes, priests, Pharisees, etc.) are not ancient equivalents of modern-day clergy. They are the rulers of Judea, the ruling elite, in power as allies with the Romans in maintaining an elite-benefitting world. This world caused nonelites much trouble—that’s one of the reasons there are so many sick people in the Gospel tales. Jesus’ healings are not just razzle-dazzle. They are acts that repair imperial damage. So one of the things I am attending to in the book is showing how these tales about Jesus are shaped by and engage this imperial world, sometimes imitating it, sometimes resisting it, and how they position Jesus within it. I think such an approach has much benefit for us to consider, posing as it does questions about how we live in a world that continues to wrestle with past and present competing assertions of imperial power in all sorts of forms.

Q: What advice would you offer to new students as they encounter the Gospels for themselves? How do critical approaches to reading the Gospels fit this advice?
A: My exhortation to new students is to be patient in learning to read well. This book will help them as they see different critical approaches in use and some of the insights and questions that the approaches produce.

Q: What do you find most fulfilling about the study of the Gospels? 
A: What I find most fulfilling is an honest engagement with the Gospels. On one hand, these are texts that have had incredible influence on the lives of millions of people, particularly within churches but also on the larger society. And for many this influence has been life-giving and profoundly beneficial as people have sought to live lives in relation to God and other human beings. Yet, on the other hand, not all of this influence has been positive by any means. And often readers have read with too much consent and not enough questions or dissent. So unthoughtful readings of the Gospels have resulted in terrible anti-Jewish attitudes and actions, shameful treatment of women, the use of coercive and intolerant power, disdain for other religious traditions, and judgment on those who are different. Our global village requires a different reading strategy, one that embraces the very best of a Gospel-shaped distinctive identity, yet one that lovingly engages all sorts of difference and diversity in our world. 


Review in Interpretation Jan 2018
Review in Bible Today


Carter’s Telling Tales about Jesus is a gift to teachers of the New Testament and the Gospels. . .

“Carter’s Telling Tales about Jesus is a gift to teachers of the New Testament and the Gospels in particular. Bringing together careful exegesis, crisp writing, and a keen ability to illuminate the imperial, theological, and historical contexts of the early followers of Jesus, Carter introduces students not just to the Gospel texts but to the vibrant contexts from which they emerged. But Carter’s book is not just retrospective. It prepares students to think deeply about the pressing questions that might drive communities today to turn to these ancient texts for inspiration and solace, guidance and hope. In the end, Carter makes a critical move through and beyond the typical content of introductions: genre, authorship, and provenance. He further invites students to imagine the living communities that first read the Gospel. In doing so, he invites those same students to see both the vibrancy of these ancient texts as well as the contemporary communities that still turn to them.”

Eric D. Barreto | Luther Seminary

Warren Carter has written a new textbook on the Gospels that will be an excellent addition to the New Testament professor’s bookshelf. . .

“In Telling Tales about Jesus, Warren Carter has written a new textbook on the Gospels that will be an excellent addition to the New Testament professor’s bookshelf. Particularly helpful is his insightful consideration of the sociocultural and historical setting of the Roman Empire throughout the book and in relation to each Gospel individually. Carter’s work offers the student a conversational writing style, unique interpretative lenses, two full chapters on each Gospel, and helpful review and reflection questions along the way.”

Amanda C. Miller | Belmont University

There is something so fresh in this clear introduction to the Gospels. . .

“There is something so fresh in this clear introduction to the Gospels. It is more than the concise account of each of the four tales themselves, which are summarized with sensitivity to each evangelist’s literary artistry and theological interests. Carter explores the human context of these tales, from the living conditions in first-century Rome to the complex negotiations of faith, politics, and community in the wake of the catastrophic loss of Jerusalem in 70 CE. With ample illustrations from texts and archaeology, he surfaces the political concerns and existential questions that Jesus was perceived to answer, prompting contemporary readers to consider the relevance of these ancient tales to our own pressing issues, from social inequality to interreligious tension and ecological threat. Judiciously chosen topics frame the separate Gospel treatments, and user-friendly features like sidebars, images, reflection questions, and a glossary make this an excellent and reliable resource for beginning Gospel courses.” 

Catherine M. Murphy | Santa Clara University