The canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John)
The Synoptics sources: the Gospel of Mark
(the triple tradition), Q
(the double tradition), and material unique to Matthew (the M source
), Luke (the L source
), and Mark
The Gospel of Mark probably dates from c. AD 66–70, Matthew and Luke around AD 85–90, and John AD 90–110. Despite the traditional ascriptions all four are anonymous, and none were written by eyewitnesses. Like the rest of the New Testament, they were written in Greek.
In the immediate aftermath of Jesus' death his followers expected him to return at any moment, certainly within their own lifetimes, and in consequence there was little motivation to write anything down for future generations, but as eyewitnesses began to die, and as the missionary needs of the church grew, there was an increasing demand and need for written versions of the founder's life and teachings. The stages of this process can be summarised as follows:
- Oral traditions — stories and sayings passed on largely as separate self-contained units, not in any order;
- Written collections of miracle stories, parables, sayings, etc., with oral tradition continuing alongside these;
- Written proto-gospels preceding and serving as sources for the gospels — the dedicatory preface of Luke, for example, testifies to the existence of previous accounts of the life of Jesus.
- Gospels formed by combining proto-gospels, written collections and still-current oral tradition.
Mark, the first gospel to be written, uses a variety of sources, including conflict stories (Mark 2:1–3:6), apocalyptic discourse (4:1–35), and collections of sayings, although not the sayings gospel known as the Gospel of Thomas and probably not the Q source used by Matthew and Luke. The authors of Matthew and Luke, acting independently, used Mark for their narrative of Jesus's career, supplementing it with the collection of sayings called the Q document and additional material unique to each called the M source (Matthew) and the L source (Luke).[Notes 2] Mark, Matthew and Luke are called the synoptic gospels because of the close similarities between them in terms of content, arrangement, and language. The authors and editors of John may have known the synoptics, but did not use them in the way that Matthew and Luke used Mark. There is a near-consensus that this gospel had its origins as a "signs" source (or gospel) that circulated within the Johannine community (the community that produced John and the three epistles associated with the name), later expanded with a Passion narrative and a series of discourses.[Notes 3]
All four also use the Jewish scriptures, by quoting or referencing passages, or by interpreting texts, or by alluding to or echoing biblical themes. Such use can be extensive: Mark's description of the Parousia (second coming) is made up almost entirely of quotations from scripture. Matthew is full of quotations and allusions, and although John uses scripture in a far less explicit manner, its influence is still pervasive. Their source was the Greek version of the scriptures, called the Septuagint – they do not seem familiar with the original Hebrew.
The four gospels share a story in which the earthly career of Jesus culminates in his death and resurrection, an event of crucial redemptive significance, but are inconsistent in detail. John and the three synoptics in particular present completely different pictures of Jesus' career. John has no baptism, no temptation, no transfiguration, and lacks the Lord's Supper and stories of Jesus' ancestry, birth, and childhood. Jesus's career in the synoptics takes up a single year while in John it takes three, with the cleansing of the Temple at the beginning of his ministry while in the synoptics it happens at the end, and in the synoptics the Last Supper takes place as a Passover meal, while in John it happens on the day before Passover.
Each gospel has its own distinctive understanding of Jesus and his divine role. Mark never calls Jesus "God" or claims that Jesus existed prior to his earthly life, never mentions a virgin birth (the author apparently believes that Jesus had a normal human parentage and birth), and makes no attempt to trace Jesus' ancestry back to King David or Adam. Crucially, Mark originally had no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, although Mark 16:7, in which the young man discovered in the tomb instructs the women to tell "the disciples and Peter" that Jesus will see them again in Galilee, hints that the author may have known of the tradition. Matthew reinterprets Mark, stressing Jesus' teachings as much as his acts and making subtle changes to the narrative in order to stress his divine nature – Mark's "young man" who appears at Jesus' tomb, for example, becomes a radiant angel in Matthew. Similarly, the miracle stories in Mark confirm Jesus' status as an emissary of God (which was Mark's understanding of the Messiah), but in Matthew they demonstrate his divinity. Luke, while following Mark's plot more faithfully than does Matthew, has expanded on the source, corrected Mark's grammar and syntax, and eliminated some passages entirely, notably most of chapters 6 and 7, which he apparently felt reflected poorly on the disciples and painted Jesus too much like a magician. John, the most overtly theological, is the first to make Christological judgements outside the context of the narrative of Jesus's life.
The synoptic gospels represent Jesus as an exorcist and healer who preached in parables about the coming Kingdom of God. He preached first in Galilee and later in Jerusalem, where he cleansed the temple. He states that he offers no sign as proof (Mark) or only the sign of Jonah (Matthew and Luke). In Mark, apparently written with a Roman audience in mind, Jesus is a heroic man of action, given to powerful emotions, including agony. In Matthew, apparently written for a Jewish audience, Jesus is repeatedly called out as the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy. In Luke, apparently written for gentiles, Jesus is especially concerned with the poor. Luke emphasizes the importance of prayer and the action of the Holy Spirit in Jesus's life and in the Christian community. Jesus appears as a stoic supernatural being, unmoved even by his own crucifixion. Like Matthew, Luke insists that salvation offered by Christ is for all, and not only for the Jews. The Gospel of John is the only gospel to call Jesus God, and in contrast to Mark, where Jesus hides his identity as messiah, in John he openly proclaims it. It represents Jesus as an incarnation of the eternal Word (Logos), who spoke no parables, talked extensively about himself, and did not explicitly refer to a Second Coming. Jesus preaches in Jerusalem, launching his ministry with the cleansing of the temple. He performs several miracles as signs, most of them not found in the synoptics. The Gospel of John ends:(21:25) "And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen."
Genre and historical reliability
The consensus among modern scholars is that the gospels belong to the ancient genre of bios, or biography. Ancient biographies were concerned with providing examples for readers to emulate while preserving and promoting the subject's reputation and memory, and so they included both propaganda and kerygma (preaching) in their works. Mark, for example, is not biography in the modern sense but an apocalyptic history depicting Jesus caught up in events at the end of time. Despite this, scholars are confident that the gospels do provide a good idea of the public career of Jesus, and that critical study can attempt to distinguish the ideas of Jesus from those of later authors and editors.
As Luke's attempt to link the birth of Jesus to the census of Quirinius demonstrates, there is no guarantee that the gospels are historically accurate. Matthew and Luke have frequently edited Mark to suit their own ends, and the contradictions and discrepancies between John and the synoptics make it impossible to accept both as reliable. In addition the gospels we read today have been edited and corrupted over time, leading Origen to complain in the 3rd century that "the differences among manuscripts have become great, ... [because copyists] either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please." For these reasons modern scholars are cautious of relying on the gospels uncritically, but nevertheless they do provide a good idea of the public career of Jesus, and critical study can attempt to distinguish the original ideas of Jesus from those of the later authors.