The first fact we have to note is that the gospels were written quite a few years after Christ’s death c. 30-33 A.D. and the second is that Christ did not write nor dictate anything Himself. The earliest Christian writing, c. 17 years after Christ’s death, was Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. In this and other authentic letters of Paul he reveals very little about the teachings of Christ. When he wrote about our Lord it was the passion, death and resurrection that featured mostly.
The Acts of the Apostles, an account of the early Church after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the disciples, written some fifty odd years after this event, had also Peter and Stephen and Philip proclaiming these events too of our Lord’s life, with an emphasis too on Christ’s rejection by the Jewish authorities and being responsible for His death. By the time the first Gospel was written c. A. D 70 probably all the Apostles (perhaps John was still alive) and the first generation of followers of Christ had mostly died. The three main leaders, James, Peter and Paul had been martyred in the sixties. This meant that none of the apostles wrote a gospel. In fact when we examine the individual gospels we shall see that each reflected the Christian community and time in which it was written and thus each is distinct. Thus there is a difference between the historical Jesus and the Gospel Jesus. By that I mean the respective evangelists only included those parts of the life of Jesus and His teaching that reflected his purpose in writing. We also should note that the word from which we translate “gospel” actually means “message” or even “proclamation” – a word that is found in the non-canonical works such as Protevangelium of James or of Peter. We do not know the names of any of the evangelists nor do we know for certain where they were written. Probably the Marcan was written in Rome, the Matthean in Antioch, Lucan in Greece or modern day Turkey and the Johannine in Ephesus.
Most scholars accept that the first Gospel written is that attributed to Mark sometime between 65 - 70 A.D. Who was this Mark? Is he the same person who accompanied Barnabas and Paul on the first Missionary Journey? Is he the young man who fled naked on the night of Christ’s arrest as mentioned only in this Gospel? (14.51-2). Did he travel to Rome and become the companion of Peter and therefore wrote an account of our Lord’s life through the eyes of that apostle?
Again most scholars would say, we just don’t know. Mark was a common name and there is little biographical information that can be gleaned from the Marcan Gospel about the author. Indeed if he were a companion of Peter he is very critical of this apostle, especially when compared to the Matthean Gospel who used Mark’s gospel as the basis for his own.
The Marcan Gospel was written by someone who knew Greek but not very well as this Gospel is written in poor common Greek, especially when compared to the Lucan. It would seem we have an author who thought in one language, probably Aramaic but had to write his thoughts in another as in Koine Greek as the community to which he is writing did not know Aramaic.
Where it was written? The contents suggest a time of persecution or shortly afterwards. Could this be Nero’s persecution after the great fire in Rome? If so, Mark could have written this in Rome. It could also reflect the Jewish War against the Romans, or even the Jewish Christians flight to Pella. The author does seem to insist that one can only be a Christian through suffering, that is, by taking up the cross and following Jesus. To whom was he writing? The community for which the author was writing was one which had Jewish Christian roots, as there is no attempt to explain Jewish terms. It is also a community that knew both Latin and Greek as the author uses Latin words and as already stated was written in Greek. Why was it written to this community? To give encouragement in time of persecution as expressed in 8.34-5, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” What did the author of this Gospel use for his account “of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”? It seems likely it was derived mainly from material known to this Christian community. The passion and death of Christ along with the Resurrection were well known, and probably accounts for these events dominating this Gospel. Another practice among early Christians was to read into the Hebraic Scriptures the life of Christ. This is very noticeable in the Marcan tradition. The author is conscious of the genesis, the beginning, as recorded in the opening lines of the Old Testament. Man is created in the image of God and the new Adam will lead us back to the Garden after His victory over evil. Christ is also presented in the line of the prophets, especially Elijah and Elisha (the raising of the child and the feeding with the loaves are found in 1 Kgs 17.17-24 and 2 Kgs 4.42-44 respectively. At the Transfiguration, the climax in this gospel, both Moses and Elijah are present. With the Passion narrative, he portrays Christ’s suffering through the “Suffering Servant” poems from the book of Isaiah (Is. 42.1-4,49.1-7,50.4-11, 52.13-53.12). This gospel has a day to day account of the events, what we know now as Holy Week.
The overall purpose for Mark is to present Christ as the Son of God, but this is not revealed by anyone until Golgotha in the words of the centurion after He died. The disciples never grasped this nor did his family or the Jews. The Gospel ends with the women running away from the tomb in fear. No resurrection experiences by Christ's followers for Mark! Eventually the disciples did believe and spread the Good News to the centre of the Roman Empire.
When we come to the Gospel bearing the name of Matthew, the Gospel that clearly became the Gospel for the early Church and indeed for the church almost until modern times, it was not written by Matthew the tax collector, one of the Twelve. It was probably written by a Jewish Christian of the moderate school for the church in Antioch, where the followers of Christ were first called Christians. In this city there were Christians varying from very conservative Jewish Christians to very liberal Gentile Christians. Judging from the Matthean Gospel probably the moderate Jewish Christians, that is, those more aligned to the position of Peter, than that of Paul became the more stable influence. The Matthean Gospel certainly gave more prominence to Peter than any other gospel, and it is the only one to use the word “Church” (three times). It is the church that must have a missionary outreach. The Matthean Christian community was also much concerned about authority, especially in moral matters (Mt.16.18) and to guard against “false prophets” (7.15-27). All this is reflected in Matthew’s Gospel. Antiochene Christianity wanted to preserve much of the Jewish tradition in a Christian context as illustrated in the quotation that “an householder brings forth both old and new” (13.52). First and foremost the story of salvation was essentially for the Jews as obvious in Ch.10. It is not until Christ has ascended that the good news is to be proclaimed until the ends of the earth. From this point the kingdom of heaven is open to all.
When was it written? - probably A.D. c. 85. By this time the Marcan account would have been circulated. It certainly was the basis for Matthew’s Gospel as as he used most of its material but arranging it for his own use and eliminating the difficult phraseology and any sentimental remarks about Jesus such as His loving the rich lawyer (Mk.10'. 21). He eliminated Mark’s unfavourableness towards Jesus’ family and the Apostles. This author was a bit like the Chronicler who had the books of Samuel Kings opened as he wrote his version of the same period but in a favourable light of David. Another couple of sources are also used. One is what is referred to as “Q”, meaning “source” (the Q material as used by Matthew is close to the letter of James and also used by Luke but in a different way but now lost), and another “M” – material that only featured in Matthew’s gospel such as the Infant narratives in the opening chapters, Pilate's wife's dream (27.19) and soldiers guarding the tomb (27.65). What language was it written? Papias writing c.125 A.D. suggested it was written in either Hebrew or Aramaic. The use of Old Testament quotations indicated that he knew Hebrew and probably Aramaic but he used mostly the Septuagint. However the fact that he used Mark’s gospel suggests he knew Greek and most probably he did too. The earliest version we have of it is in Greek, but there is no way of telling whether it was first translated from another language. For Matthew Jesus is the promised Messiah; He is Emmanuel as foretold in the Scriptures. The author when quoting from the O. T. mostly preceded it with the statement that “All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet who said.” Jesus is the new Moses, the new Law-giver. “The Law says, but I say unto you…” The Beatitudes sum up the way Christ’s followers are to live. Ecclesiology was also important. As noted he is the only evangelist who used the word “church” in his gospel. Ch. 16.18-19 has been the subject to much debate. What did Matthew intend? He recognized Peter as the chief leader with authority to make decisions, especially on moral concerns in the light of Christ’s teaching. He certainly was not interested in how the Papacy has taken these words to mean. From earliest times this church was led by prophets and teachers and so it was not only Peter but for all faithful Christians to uphold. In Ch.18.15-20 there is a picture of this Antiochene Church engaging in disciplinary action that involves all its members – not just one person. Another significant aspect is eschatology as illustrated the parable of the sheep and goats as is the kingdom of heaven being within the heart of Christians now.
The Lucan Gospel is different from the other two Synoptics but it is also a testimony of the faith. The prologue, written in classical Greek, announces Luke’s intention.
Forasmuch as man have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed of us,
Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and minister of the word:
It seemed good to be also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto you in order, most excellent Theophilus,
That, you might know the certainty of those things wherein you have been instructed.
Luke thus follows the traditional Greek historical approach as evident in such writers as Thucydides. It is also different that it is written as a two volume set and the Gospel section was never meant to be separated from what we know as “The Acts of the Apostles”. They are parallel accounts of the ministry of Jesus and that of the early Church. For example they both begin with a birth – the birth of Jesus in Nazareth, and the birth of the Church at Pentecost in Jerusalem. With what does the Gospel conclude? - that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (24.46). Surely this is what Acts is all about, ending with Paul in the capital of the civilized world, Rome. No doubt too the journeys of Paul in Acts influence Luke from 9.51 when Jesus first sets his face towards Jerusalem. Who was this Luke? Is he the Luke that is mentioned in other New Testament writings as a companion of Paul (Phil. 24, Col. 4.14, 2 Tim. 4.11)? Is he the companion of Paul in the “we” sections of Acts that begin in Ch.16.11 and cover roughly the years 50-63 A.D.? The main objection to this is that Paul’s theology in Acts is different from that in his authentic letters. A second century Prologue has Luke a Syrian from Antioch who wrote the gospel in Achaia. His emphasis on the poor indicates that in his church there were many affluent members whose responsibility it was to care for the poor. Although he does not have an accurate account of Palestine geography, he knew the Septuagint well, which makes one think that he was a “God-fearer” and was perhaps converted by Paul. Undoubtedly he was a man of faith who wanted others to be so too. For him Jesus is the fulfiller of the Law and the Prophets. When was it written? Probably some time between A.D. 85-95. There are reflections in Acts of a church that begins to emerge in the Pastoral letters of a structure of leadership. For Luke this is only under presbyters (Acts 14.23, 20.17). There is not the same ministry that appears in the Ignatian letters written a little later in the second century as he travels to Rome for his trial.
What material did Luke use? Approximately about thirty-five percent of his gospel is derived from Mark. Was it exactly the same copy Matthew used? He too has his own way of using this material to suit his purpose. The first thing one notices that as an educated person, Luke corrected and polished Mark’s poor Greek. Others factors are the omission of any derogatory comments about the disciples, and being more reverent towards our Lord. When using Mark, Luke tended to insert little segments more into his gospel.
The “Q” source accounts for approximately twenty percent of this gospel. Unlike Matthew who moved this material around to suit his own agenda, Luke preserved the original order. There are even discrepancies such as in the parables of the great supper and the talents/pounds (14.16-24, 19.12-27). Who was more faithful to “Q”? I don’t think Luke knew Matthew’s gospel. If he had, could he have resisted not correcting this evangelist at times? The rest of the Gospel, some forty-five percent, almost half is material only found in Luke, what is known as “L”. In his birth narratives has Luke used some of the hymns/canticles that were sung in the early church? He alone has those most memorable parables of the "lost". Luke is a good story teller who knows how to use his material and present it beautifully. In doing so he has left behind the loveliest of the gospels for reading. It is a gospel for all peoples as illustrated in those wonderful Lucan parables such as the lost coin and the lost son. Women played an important part in Christ’s ministry but they are not included in the resurrection appearances; the disciples are portrayed in a favourable light, the Samaritans are welcomed and the poor are not excluded either. Furthermore Jesus’ sufferings are minimised during His passion, and Luke shows that He is a man of prayer and forgiveness and of immense love. Who could not be won over and love Jesus after reading the Lucan Gospel and die as Jesus did ?
The gospel bearing the name of John was not written by one person, but it is the product of what we know as the Johannine Community, that seems to be distinct from other Christian communities towards the end of the first century. It is the fruit of living out the gospel for many years that gave a distinctiveness from the Synoptic Gospels. Who was its founder? He is most likely “the beloved disciple” who towards the end of Christ’s life is juxtaposed with Peter as the disciple whom Jesus loved. What do we know of him? If we cast our mind back to the first chapter of the Johnannine gospel, two of John the Baptist’s disciples, one named, Andrew, and the other unnamed have pointed out to them by their him, “the Lamb of God” as He walks by. They follow Jesus who bid them “come and see” (1. 35-40). I think the other is the beloved disciple who is there at the beginning and at the end. These two became the very first disciples of Christ in the Jordan valley, not Galilee as the Synoptics have it.
Although not appointed one of the Twelve by Christ to replace the twelve tribes of Israel, this former disciple of John Baptist gradually became a dear friend to Christ, so much so that Christ commits His mother into his care before He died (19.27. Previously he sat next to Christ at the last meal Jesus shared with His disciples (13.25). It is he who knows the High Priest where Christ was taken after His arrest in the Kidron valley. He is at the foot of the cross when all the apostles have fled. It is he who first believed in the Resurrection of His beloved Lord ( 20.8). After Christ’s death the Beloved Disciple, Mary and other Jews who were followers of Christ formed their own community. They continued to worship in the synagogue until ejected. All this appears in the fourth gospel (15.20, 16.2-3), which is one of many examples of illustrating how this gospel is two tiered. Jews rejected Jesus as the new Moses (9.28-9). Within this community which eventually saw division as illustrated in the Letters of John, it was this beloved disciple who was loved as its leader. Eventually towards the end of the first century this community gave us the fourth gospel in its final edition that echoes its teachings, struggles and discipleship over fifty years or so by the main evangelist and a redactor. Where was it written? There is no concrete evidence, although Ephesus has always been thought as the home of Mary after the resurrection and if “the beloved disciple” looked after her, this could be the home of the Johannine community.
When was it written? Probably towards the end of the first century.
One does not have to be very clever to realise there are great differences between this gospel and the other three. In the opening chapter not only did this author unfold that Christ pre-existed with the Father, but that He is the promised Messiah. Even John the Baptist knew this. There is a high Christology throughout. In the Synoptics it took much longer for this to be disclosed. Johannine ecclesiology has a different emphasis too – Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches is the ideal. Jesus is the shepherd; I shall tend my sheep (even in the appendix chapter Peter is bidden to “feed My lambs”). Discipleship is imperative and of course manifested in juxtaposing “the beloved disciple” with Peter, the chief of the Apostles. Indeed the term “apostle” is missing from this gospel. In the end it is a disciple not an apostle who stayed with Our Lord to the end. Being led by the Spirit is also imperative, and so in this gospel individual relationship with Jesus is stressed (that is also evident in the Vine imagery). Christians come to know our Lord through faith. The Johannine gospel has no institutional commands for baptism and eucharist either, but Christians are nourished by that heavenly food which is our substance here on earth (6.27). The Spirit/Paraclete is the community's leader not people.
It has the "I am's" that is telling clearly that Christ is replacing the whole Jewish system and feasts. He is also the new Moses as the new Law- Giver and Prophet.
The fourth gospel is an account of a community that certainly had its own identity that was distinct from that of the Antiochene Church where Matthew’s Gospel was written for example. Above all it is love and a loving relationship with Christ, not a position of authority that is the essential requirement in this community that acknowledged “the beloved disciple” as its inspirer but not its teacher, that is the Paraclete. Undoubtedly Christ has replaced everything old that in His resurrection led us into the new garden, the new creation.