By: Sebastian Temlett

Have you ever asked a group of people to give you an account of an event they all witnessed? If you have, I’m sure you noticed that each person relates different details, emphasises some parts more than others and provides their own unique perspective to the story.

The gospels are not like that.

But it is a good starting point. So let’s begin.

I started studying theology this academic year and so far the journey has yielded a lot of food for thought and some amazing insights. However, I write this article tentatively and with the disclaimer that I am by no means an expert, in fact, as far as credentials go for writing about theology, I am definitely a bottom feeder. What I hope to achieve here, with the help of corny jokes and bad puns, is to present information that I have learnt and have found interesting to you, the reader, with the aim of providing a little more insight into the complexities and mysteries of the four gospels.

First things first, the word “gospel” derives from an Old English word godspel, a translation of the Latin bona adnuntiatio which, in turn, was a translation of the Greek, euangelion – in English, simply, “the good news”. Euangelion, you may have noticed, bears a similarity to our English word used for naming the gospel writers, i.e. “evangelists”, which is adopted from Latin and means “bringer of good news”.

The gospels, as we know them today, is a collective name given to four separate writings which give four separate accounts of the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. These writings are attributed to four personalities, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But who were these four writers? And why do their accounts vary in style, events and focus? Why do they seem to blatantly contain discrepancies in facts? In other words, what is the deal? Bibles ready!

Mark my Words

If you open your Bible up to the first page of the New Testament, you should see something like this:

“A genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham:” followed by fifteen other verses of people begetting other people. This is the first page of the gospel according to Matthew, and is our first gospel in the New Testament. The thing is Matthew’s gospel wasn’t the first gospel to be written. That honour belongs to Mark, who sadly tends to get less attention than the longer, better written “greater gospels” of Matthew, Luke and John. But Mark was the first, weighing in with his gospel at some point around 70 AD, thirty seven years after Jesus’ death.

In scholarly discourse discussions about the gospels inevitably lead back to Mark. What were his sources? How did he influence the later gospels? What are the differences between Mark as an earlier account and the later accounts of Matthew and Luke? Mark holds important clues to the development of the gospel genre.

So who were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? No one can say for sure. Scholars can only assume they were second generation Christians who were providing a written account of the ministry of Jesus for their own community.

Extra Source?

Sources are important things in historical textual criticism. The problem is, when it comes to the gospels, we have no primary sources. No one has the actual gospel of Mark. We have copies of copies of copies of translations of translations of copies. Aside from that, we have archaeological evidence that can corroborate in part what we have written in our Bible’s today but the texts that have been discovered are themselves copies of copies. They are just a little closer to the horse’s mouth… so to speak.

The theory is that Mark compiled a collection of sayings and actions of Jesus, both written and oral, into one text. This doesn’t mean he copy pasted. Mark has a consistent style throughout his gospel which clearly indicates an actual author, not just an editor (except for the ending of Mark which is a later addition – See Mk 16; 8. – the actual ending of Mark is either verse 8 or was lost).

Matthew and Luke are thought to have used Mark as a source, maybe not the Mark we have today but a version of it. Aside from Mark, scholars believe there was an earlier source which they have named “Q”, because actual names are so outdated (actually it is known as the logienquelle meaning “source” but saying Q is a lot easier and cooler). This is the two-source theory. Matthew and Luke share elements from Mark and elements from another unknown source, hence the conclusion that there must have been another source they both had access too. This explains why you will find a lot of agreements between Matthew and Luke if you lay them out side by side. There are also many agreements between Mark and Matthew and Mark and Luke. In fact, it is because of the similarities between these three gospels that they are known as the synoptic gospels. There seems to be a shared approach to the story of Jesus by all three.

Who Started It?

Well we assume that a man named Jesus of Nazareth caused quite a stir in first century Palestine and after His death, His disciples continued to spread His message and tell people about His life. This early style of preaching could be seen as the first gospel. For example, turn to Acts 13 and read verses 23 to 31. Scholars believe this was the sort of “mini-gospel” that was circulated among early Christians and which could have been part of what Mark based his gospel structure on.

John?

Even a cursory skim of your Bible will bring attention to the fact that John is a little different from the other guys. His gospel is a bit of a mystery to scholars and opinion seems to have swung from seeing his work as more of a meditation on the life of Jesus to some feeling that his accounts of Jesus’ sayings are possibly more accurate than those found in the synoptics. What is evident in his work is a maturing theology and a deeper understanding of the humanity and divinity of Jesus.

So What Does All of this Mean for Christians Today?

This is an interesting question because we can analyse texts, deconstruct and reconstruct and search for sources all we want, but reading scripture is ultimately an act of faith and is essentially a conversation between what the text says and your own inner journey. The gospel writers were individuals trying to bring the story of Jesus to their communities in the way it had been handed down to them and in the way they understood it. Whether Matthew says Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount on, well, a mountain, and Luke says He first prayed on a mountain and then came down and preached on a “level place”, is irrelevant. What is important is the underlying truth that the text speaks to us in our present moment. This is not to say that the details aren’t important, but we need to understand what the essence of the gospel is and to read the scriptures through a lens of faith. The words of the evangelists are not historical documents when they are read in Mass. They are living words in a living tradition, and they are always good news.

 

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Sebastian TemlettSeb Profile

Sebastian is a theology student who lives in Belgium. He was born in Zimbabwe and spent eight years in
Cape Town working in the film industry. Find him at notatheologyclass.wordpress.com @SebTemlet