What Are the Gospels?

What Are the Gospels?

Until recently, they 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 accounts for some of their variances.

Who Wrote the Gospels?

They were anonymously written and that they were not 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 circulate and read in the early centuries.

How Did They Develop?

The material used in the Gospels went through three distinct stages.
     1) 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.
     2) 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.
     3) The evangelists finally wrote their Gospels using selected material which they edited and rearranged to develop 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, Where Were They Written?

Mark, the first Gospel, was written almost forty years (c. 68) after Jesus completed his public ministry. The early followers of Jesus were expecting the second coming (parousia) in their life time (Acts 01:11; 1 Thessalonians 01:10).  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 journeys in 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 pagan who converted to Judaism, and then became a Christian.

The Synoptic Problem!

There is a further problem 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 interdependent because of using the same source or one 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” (quelle). 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. (cf. pamphlet Origin of Gospels).

John, a Gospel Apart!

It was written in the 90s, probably in Ephesus and reveals subsequent editing by other hands as late as 100 AD. While John has some dependence on the synoptic tradition, it is primarily based on an independent 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 (John 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 the last book of the New Testament, Revelation (cf. pamphlets on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

Vatican II on the Gospels

The Gospels have a special pre-eminence for they are the principal witness of the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our Savior.  The Church has always held that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin. For what they preached in fulfillment of the commission of Christ, they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, handed on in writing to us the foundation of faith, namely the fourfold Gospel.

The four Gospels whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among us, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day he was taken up to heaven (Acts 01:01-02). Indeed after the ascension of the Lord the apostles handed on to their hearers what He said and did. This they did with that clearer understanding which they enjoyed after they had been instructed by the events of Christ’s risen life and taught by the light of the Spirit of Truth. The sacred authors wrote the Gospels selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explicating some things in view of the situation of their churches, and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such a fashion that they told the honest truth about Jesus … “these events were transmitted to us by the original eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 01:02) (Divine Revelation V; paragraphs 18-19).

"What Are the Gospels?" is one of the pamphlets on the biblical foundations of the Catholic Church written May 2008 to Nov 2010 by Deacon Paul Carlson of Minneapolis, Minnesota's St Lawrence Catholic Church / Newman Center, a Paulist Foundation. (St Lawrence is the Catholic Church of Southeast Minneapolis and is right in the heart of "Dinkytown USA".)

This blog post is a memorial serialization of those pamphlets written by Deacon Paul Carlson at the request of than Pastor/Director Fr John J. Behnke, who asked Deacon Paul to write brief answers to questions University students often encountered as Catholics.

At couple of weeks before Deacon Paul's death, he said: "If there are any financial gains made from the blog serialization of my pamphlets, please have the money given to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers, because what they do is so important." If you can, send memorials to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers at 1203 Fifth Street, S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55414. 

Remember Deacon Paul Carlson in your prayers, as well as all the other souls of the faithful departed, who have died in the grace of Jesus Christ.

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