Until recently the Gospels were thought to be biographies of Jesus. However scholars now agree that they are catechisms of teachings concerning the risen Lord written to increase the faith of the readers. Each writer chose special material for different audiences in different decades which account for some of their variances.
Who wrote the Gospels?
They were anonymously written. In fact most scholars today do not believe that the evangelists were eyewitnesses for the simple reason that their chronology of events and theological interpretations are different. The titles of the gospels were added in the second century and very well could designate the authority behind the finished gospel or the one who wrote one of the main sources of the gospel. The Church takes no official stance on their authorship. It is important to understand that the Church by its authority and the guidance of the Holy Spirit canonized these four gospels over many others that were circulated and read in the early centuries.
How did they develop?
The material used in the gospels went through three distinct stages.
- What Jesus said and did during his ministry in Palestine. This would include his actual words during his preaching and teaching about the kingdom and himself. If we had a video tape of those events, we would have a true biography.
- What the apostles and preachers taught after experiencing the resurrection. This stage was the product of the “Easter Faith” where they had experienced Jesus as the risen and glorified Lord.
- The evangelists finally wrote their gospels using selected material which they edited and rearranged to develope their respective themes. In addition to this they reflect the actual teaching, preaching, and practices of the emerging Church at the close of the first century.
When and where were they written?
Mark, the first gospel, was written almost forty years (c.68 AD.) after Jesus completed his public ministry. The early followers of Jesus were expecting the second coming (parousia) in their life time (Acts 1: 11; 1 Thess.1:10). Thus the delay.
It is the shortest gospel and clearly was a catechism written for the teachers and preachers. Papias (AD.130) testifies that it was written in Rome. The text suggests impending persecution.
Matthew was written in the eighties in the first major Church outside of Jerusalem, Antioch in Syria. It was there that the believers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). St.Paul started his missionary journies from Antioch.
Luke written in the mid eighties in Greece or Syria, by a well educated and skilled writer, was not an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry. He may have been a Jewish convert before becoming a Christian.
The Synoptic Problem!
There is a further stage to be addressed that deals with the similarity of the first three gospels because they have so much in common and that they are very different than John’s gospel. They are called “the Synoptics” because they see through the same eyes. It was concluded that somewhere in the third stage they became interdepend-ant because of using the same source or one of the gospels was a source for the others.
Of the many theories proposed to answer this problem, the most widely accepted solution today is the two source theory. It holds that Mark was the oldest gospel and both Matthew and Luke used Mark for one source. However they have material in common that Mark does not have indicating another source that is called “Q” (from German ‘quelle’ – source) . This was a saying source of early origins.
Mark has 661 verses. Matthew has 1068. Luke has 1149. 80% of Mark’s verses are used by Matthew and 65% is used by Luke. This is called the “triple tradition”. The approximate 220-235 verses or parts of verses of non-Marcan material that Matthew and Luke have in common is called the “double tradition”. They also have their own exclusive material, “M” and “L” i.e. infancy narratives, Luke’s extensive parable source; Matthew’s Petrine narratives, etc.
John’s gospel, a gospel apart!
It was written in the 90′s probably in Ephesus and reveals subsequent editing by other hands as late as 110 AD. While John has some dependance on the synoptic tradition, it is primarily based on an independant source, a product of the “Johanine school” of the followers of the “Beloved Disciple” within the Johanine churches. It seems to have been composed after the expulsion of the Christians from the synagogue.
The gospel and the three letters of John reveal that the Johanine community was fractured by a schism. As a result the gospel was slow in getting canonical acceptance because it was popular with heretical groups and was so different from the synoptics.
The “Beloved Disciple,” an enigmatic figure, was identified by Iraneaus (d.202) as John the son of Zebedee, the author of the gospel. Thus he argued for its canonicity. However, today there is a strong consensus among scholars that the “Beloved Disciple” who stood at the foot of the cross (Jn.19:26) was a minor figure in the synoptics but later became important in the Johanine community. This problem was compounded because there also was John the presbyter and possibly another John, author of Revelation. (See: Jerome Bible Com. or Intro to New Testament by Brown; Anchor Bible Series)