Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Origins of the four gospels

The gospels can be understood as historical resources, and judged on their merits according to that standard. It is appropriate to assess the gospels in accordance with the applicable canons of historical research, since Christianity is founded upon a series of historical events, most importantly on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the gospels, being the account of Jesus’ life should initially be approached as works of history, and assessed using to that measure.

The gospels were primarily based on the eyewitness testimony of three disciples of Jesus, namely Matthew, Peter and John. Of these, only John is thought to have been directly responsible for a canonical gospel of the New Testament, that is, a gospel in its final form. Matthew wrote a work in Aramaic, which was a foundation document of the early Church. In regard to Peter, there is good evidence that the Gospel of Mark was primarily based upon his testimony, which Mark heard and wrote down, probably after Peter’s death. Luke’s work was a true historian’s endeavour, in which he crafted his own unique account using the historical resources available to him, starting with Matthew’s Aramaic work and the Gospel of Mark, to which he added the testimony of one or more companions of Jesus, and also included an account of events around Jesus’ birth.

None of the gospels explicitly indicate who was its author: all of the attributions are traditional, although that is not a reason to reject them. The only gospel for which the traditional attribution is made difficult by the text itself is the Gospel of Matthew, which has been attributed to Matthew, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. Since a large part of this work can be demonstrated to consist of direct borrowings from the Gospel of Mark, it is unlikely that Matthew was the author of the canonical Gospel of Matthew. This is because it is hard to substantiate the claim that an eyewitness, like Matthew, would have chosen to borrow so extensively (and in substantially the same order) from a work written by someone else who was not himself a direct eyewitness.

Despite the fact that it is likely that Matthew was not the author of the final form of the Gospel of Matthew, it remains likely that Matthew was the author of a text underlying this work. If this assertion can be substantiated, it would mean that Matthew was the creator of its unique emphases, its order, and of the majority of its text. Our evidence for this claim is a report that can be dated to early in the second century, when a bishop of the province of Asia, Papias, recorded comments, probably from John the Elder, a disciple of Jesus, to the effect that Matthew wrote logia, which is to say the “sayings,” or “oracles,” or “divine sayings” of Jesus. His report provides the grounds to believe that the Gospel of Matthew received its name because it simply was an expansion of a work that was actually written by Matthew, with the canonical work carrying his name because he was the author of the foundations (and most of the text) that led to the “edited” final gospel.

Like the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Luke is also a composite account. It draws upon the Gospel of Mark and Matthew’s logia, but to a lesser degree than the Gospel of Matthew. Indeed, the author of the Gospel of Luke said that his account was based on the work of a number of others, who in turn had based their accounts upon the report of eyewitnesses.

Luke 1:1-4: Many have undertaken to draw up a narrative concerning the things accomplished amongst us, as delivered to us by those who were eyewitnesses from the first and who became servants of the word. Therefore, it seemed good to me also, having investigated accurately all things from their source, to write to you, most excellent Theophilus, in order that you might know the reliability of the words of teaching in which you have been instructed.

We have no reason to doubt that Luke was a companion of Paul, and that he wrote both Luke and Acts. As a companion of Paul, he had access to a rich source of materials, which he would have had the opportunity of supplementing when he was in the province of Judea during Paul’s time of imprisonment (AD 60-62). One of his sources was probably someone who told him about the mission of the seventy disciples, who Jesus sent to preach and to heal, and who would have continued with him right up to the time he entered Jerusalem. Another source was someone who could tell him the stories built around Jesus’ birth, and told from Mary’s perspective.

The Gospel of John is unlike the other three gospels. It is a personal reflection on Jesus’ life and teaching and is a true eyewitness report, since in large measure it only deals with those things that can reasonably be associated with him in some way or another. The author identifies himself only by the circumlocution at the end of the work as the “disciple Jesus loved,” and he can also be found at the beginning of the work as the disciple conspicuously not named. Although the author of this work has generally been thought to be John the son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, this is not actually the impression conveyed by the work itself. It is more likely that the author of the Gospel of John was a Jerusalem disciple, not a Galilean follower of Jesus. There are three strong indicators of this. Firstly, the author had a home in Jerusalem, to which he was able to take Mary, Jesus’ mother, when Jesus was crucified (John 19:27). Secondly, the author was known to the high priest, and had access to the high priest’s house (John 18:16). Thirdly, most of the action in the Gospel of John takes place in Jerusalem and Judea, with less emphasis on events in Galilee than in the other three gospels. The action in his account starts with John the Baptist, who was baptizing in the Judean part of the Jordan, when the author was a disciple of John the Baptist. This disciple was baptised by Jesus along with his companion Andrew after John the Baptist pointed them to Jesus. Simon Peter, Andrew’s brother, joined them (John 1:19-42). This unnamed disciple is likely to have been the man known to history as John the Elder, and probably the same person who identified himself as “the elder” in the New Testament book, 2 John.[1]

Therefore, there are three clearly identifiable eyewitness sources in the four gospels: Matthew, Peter and John the Elder. Beyond these, there are other recognizable sources used by the Luke and the author of the Gospel of Matthew, although they are more difficult to identify. The range of sources used means that tensions inevitably arise in the narrative in the resulting four gospels, in that the details in the parallel passages in the four gospels are sometimes different, and indeed not strictly reconcilable, except by preferring one account to another. Yet this is not necessarily a problem. This diversity amongst the witnesses can be considered to show their independence from one another, and to the overall truthful of these witnesses and of those who wrote the reports.

Matthew was the first to write an account of Jesus’ life, giving his work a strong emphasis on Jesus’ sayings; Mark followed him and wrote an account that supplemented (and expanded) Matthew’s logia, with an emphasis on Jesus’ deeds. Then followed the two compilations, the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, drawing largely on their two predecessors, but also on other sources as well. In parallel, and probably independently came John the Elder, who would have known of Matthew’s logia, the Gospel of Mark, and probably the Gospel of Luke, but not the Gospel of Matthew. Significantly, John the Elder did not try to harmonize his account with those that had gone before. Instead, like his predecessors, he strove to get as close as possible to an accurate rendering of account of the events he was describing, as he remembered them.

Not only do we have four gospels, but there are a number of identifiable contributors to these gospels. By looking behind the gospel accounts that have come down to us we have the opportunity to discover a further insight into what the early followers of Jesus wanted to communicate to their fellows, and through them to us.


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Further reading 

Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006). Get it from Amazon.

[1] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pp.420-433.

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