The Gospels

The Gospels

We come now in our helicopter view of the Bible to the gospels – the four books that lie at the centre of our faith. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, provide us with the only record we have of the life of Jesus. In them we learn of the life and the ministry of this carpenter’s son: from his birth and childhood to how he travelled around Galilee then journeyed into occupied Judea where he met his death and became the Christ at the centre of our faith.

Apart from these four all but two of the remaining twenty-three books of the New Testament are letters written by leaders of the early church. They were sent to newly established Christian communities to provide direction and reassurance as well as to resolve issues that arose within these congregations. The letters differ from the gospels because they are written for people who have already come to believe in Jesus as the Christ, which is the Greek translation of Messiah.

The gospels on the other hand were written as documents intended to persuade, to share the story of Jesus’ life, and to describe his ministries of healing and preaching. Through this retelling, the writers hope to convince their readers that the commonwealth of God, which Jesus proclaimed, has indeed come near.

We will talk more of the letters next week. Today we focus on the gospels and in particular on their structure and what we know about how they came to be written and by whom.

The word gospel is derived from the Old English translation of the Greek word “euangelion” meaning “Good News”. The book of Mark begins with the words, “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And that about sums it up. These four books were written by people or groups of people who were persuaded that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus was life-changing good news for the oppressed people of the Roman-occupied Middle East and for the world beyond.

The season of Lent, which begins today, traditionally begins with the story of Jesus’ temptation by Satan while he is on retreat in the wilderness. I asked Warren and Shirley to read two almost identical versions of this story as a way to introduce one of the tools that scholars use to dig into the gospels in search of their history and their deeper meaning. There are many passages in the first three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that are in parallel; that is, they tell a story, as with today’s reading, almost identically in each book, or at least they recount what seem very likely to be the same events, even if there are variations.

In this morning’s readings, for example, Matthew and Luke have reversed the order of the last two of the three temptations that Satan is said to have presented to Jesus. This is hardly a significant detail. But it illustrates the sort of thing that scholars look for.

As an illustration of how noticing such variations can give insight I will point to what Jesus says about how to respond when others abuse you. Matthew says, “if someone wants to take your coat, give them your cloak as well.” (5:40) Luke says, “if anyone takes away your coat, give them your shirt as well.” (6:29) Some scholars suggest that the small change of detail, giving your cloak as Matthew says, rather than giving your shirt as Luke says, indicates that Matthew was writing for an audience in a cooler climate. Giving your cloak means you will risk frostbite at night, because people in the hills of Judea wrap themselves in their cloaks to stay warm.

Luke says to give your shirt because he is writing for an audience in a warmer climate and they are not likely to have a cloak. But Luke wants to make the same point as Matthew – to suggest that we need to give more than is asked of us even if it is a sacrifice to do so. We don’t know what actual words Jesus spoke, but the gospel writers tried to convey the intent of the stories in ways that their people could understand. From the small differences, we can draw some inferences about where the authors of the gospels of Luke and Matthew lived and the nature of the audiences for whom they wrote.

You might want to have a look at our two parallel texts included with your bulletin and see what strikes you when you notice the differences. Why, for instance, does Matthew say at the end “angels came and waited on” Jesus, while Luke says, the devil “departed from him until an opportune time”?

There are a great many such parallels within the first three gospels. So much so that scholars have concluded that both Matthew and Luke had knowledge of Mark’s gospel when they wrote theirs. This hypothesis and other internal evidence – things that Mark mentions or omits – have led most scholars to conclude that Mark’s gospel was written earlier than the other two. They date it around year 60 or 65 of the Common Era, some 30 or so years after the death of Jesus. Matthew and Luke are thought to have been written between ten and twenty years later than that.

Matthew and Luke have, however, done more than simply repeat Mark’s words. Matthew, for instance, frequently includes passages from the books of the prophets that speak of the coming of a messiah. He uses these prophecies to suggest that Jesus is the one the saviour of Israel that the prophets foretold. Luke on the other hand, has very few references to the Old Testament. This difference, as well as other clues, suggests that Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience and Luke was writing for a Gentile or non-Jewish audience.

Luke is clearly the most fluent in Greek of all the gospel writers, which suggests he may have been a native Greek speaker or an educated Jew. Matthew, Mark and John all write in Greek, but their level of sophistication and use of non-Greek idioms suggest that Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, was also their first language.

Mark’s language is the least sophisticated of the four gospel writers and his gospel shows the least attention to narrative structure. Mark uses the Greek word “idou” frequently. It is strictly translated as “immediately” but the sense of it is better conveyed by the words “and then.” Without too much exaggeration, the gospel of Mark sounds almost breathless much of the time. “Jesus healed a leper and then he went to Capernaum and preached to the people and then he healed a young girl and then he said love your neighbour as yourself and then he said I am going to Jerusalem and then he met a man on the road and then he told this story…”

Thus far I have referred to the four evangelists by the names attributed to them by tradition. But we really don’t know who wrote these four books and we don’t even know if they were written by an individual or by a group of people. The Gospel of Matthew is attributed to the disciple of that name, but that is speculation. Mark may have been written by John-Mark who is mentioned in the book of Acts as a travelling companion of Peter on his missionary journeys after the death of Jesus. Luke is by tradition said to be a physician, thus highly educated, and may have been a travelling companion of the apostle Paul of whom we will hear more next week. Tradition holds that John was written by the apostle, but as the evidence is quite convincing that it was written at the end of the first century, that rules out the possibility that the writer was a contemporary of Jesus.

When I refer to evidence, by the way, what I mean is the material that scholars use to draw their inferences about these books. Some of that evidence is internal to the gospels, the language used, the stories told and the variations in the texts. But there also exist dozens of early church documents that refer to the gospels and though they may date from 100 or more years after composition, these documents provide insights that are far closer in time than we are and thus give us some basis for the conclusions that we draw about the texts.

Scholars have come to refer to Matthew, Mark and Luke as the synoptic gospels. That term synoptic derives from the Greek word meaning “seeing all together” and in this context points to the fact that all three are similar in the point of view from which they recount the life of Jesus. As I said earlier it seems certain that Matthew and Luke knew the gospel of Mark and drew heavily on the material it contains. There is on the other hand little to suggest that the author of John knew of the other three gospels.

Let me go back to the idea of using parallels to examine the first three gospels. Where there are differences or variations we can draw inferences. The stories that appear in Mark but not in the other two synoptics also invite speculation. Why would they have been left out? Perhaps they didn’t serve the purpose or goal of the gospel writer.

Most intriguingly, why are there passages that appear in both Matthew and Luke that don’t appear in Mark at all? When those passages were gathered together and examined for similarities and differences it was noted that there were many stories of Jesus that both books contained that Mark did not. This led to the hypothesis that when Matthew and Luke were being written both authors had available to them another source in addition to Mark. This theory was developed early in the twentieth century primarily by German biblical scholars. This lost book has been labeled “Q” or the Book of Q after the first letter in the German word “quelle” which means source.

Q may not be the only lost document that was available to the authors. They may also have had access to other documents that no longer exist. There are stories that appear only in Matthew and only in Luke and don’t appear in either of the other two synoptics, which suggests that each had access to material unknown to the other.

Matthew and Luke may also have known of some of the alternative gospels that were written around the same time, but which were not included in the New Testament canon. Wikipedia mentions nine or ten gospels from the first and second centuries that we have, either as preserved copies or as fragments. There are dozens of other gospels, now lost, that are mentioned in early documents, and some that have appeared over the centuries and may or may not date back to the earliest years after Christ. One that appears to have some real credibility is the Gospel of Thomas that was discovered in Egypt in 1945. Thomas is a collection of sayings of Jesus, probably similar to Q. Since many of the sayings are found in the canonical gospels, there is reason to believe that the other sayings it contains also date back to the time of the earliest gospels.

The synoptic gospels were written between the years 60 and 75 of the Common Era. An obvious question arises as to why they were written then. Some scholars speculate that as the original disciples were reaching the end of their lives, there may have been a desire to preserve their memories. Or it may have been that by this time there were so many gospels with conflicting takes on Jesus that the church wanted to limit what material was to be considered authentic. Another possibility is that as more evangelists spread out into the greater world they needed an authoritative source to convince their listeners of the story they were telling and to ensure that they did not stray too far from the official story sanctioned by the leaders of the fledgling church.

My own speculation is, however, that the most significant motivation for writing the gospels at this time was the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in the course of the Jewish revolt against Rome that occurred between 66 and 70. Christians at this time were a subset of Jews and the Romans would have made no distinction between the two groups. When the Jews mounted a substantial challenge to Roman authorities, the response was to destroy the centre of Judaism and to disperse the people around the Empire.

This marked the end of Judaism as a sacrificial cult worshipping in the Jerusalem temple. The Jewish religion became focused on their written scriptures and the study of them. The focus of worship shifted from sacrifices to scholarship. Christians may well have adopted the same strategy, to focus on teaching about the faith as a way to propagate the gospel. This educational approach would require written texts that set out what it was that potential adherents as well as the faithful needed to know.

A final word on the gospel of John – while the synoptics were written in the midst of the rebellion against Rome or its immediate aftermath, John was written thirty or forty years later when Christians were beginning to realize that they were no longer part of the Jewish community, but were coming to see themselves as moving in a new direction. Return to Jerusalem was neither a possibility, nor an objective for them because they were increasingly of Gentile rather than Jewish origin. John presents a Jesus who calls the believer into an interiorized relationship with God through him. While the synoptics focus on the actions and intentions of the faithful, John is focused on the importance of a relationship with the God who is love as a way to change our very nature. This fourth book is meditative, mythical and poetic even as it includes some of the historical details of Jesus’ life.

I imagine that over the years you have heard far more sermons preached on texts from the four gospels than on any other parts of the Bible. My hope is that this summary of the shape and formation of these four books will help you to locate in a wider context those pieces that you know and others that you hear about in the future. There is an enormous body of scholarship that expands on each of the points I have made here, and to be honest there is also scholarship that would challenge many of those points as well.

Next week we move to a very different body of literature that tells us not the stories of Jesus, but something about the early years in which the church was establishing itself. Until then…


Texts: Matthew 4:1-11 & Luke 4:1-13

Rev. Dr. John Burton reserves all rights © 2019.
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