Sunday, February 7, 2016

Introducing the Gospels

The Old Testament was filled with promises of a coming Redeemer. This Promised One was highly anticipated by the Jews as they believed God’s multiple prophecies of the coming Messiah. The New Testament, and particularly the Gospels, tells about the fulfillment of those promises. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are written from different perspectives and together give a complete picture of Jesus and how He was the fulfillment of those Old Testament promises. These four accounts are commonly referred to as Gospels. So to start with, let’s begin by defining what a Gospel is. A Gospel is an ancient biography that tells the story of Jesus, proclaiming his life, teaching and especially his death and resurrection as good news for humankind. The origin of the word Gospel is that it comes from the Old English word, godspel, where god means "good" and spel which means "story, message." The Old English word itself came from a translation of the Latin term “bona adnuntiatio,” which is itself a translation of the Greek word, euangelion which means "reward for bringing good news."

When you think of the term Gospels as a noun, the first thing you think about are the four Gospels we are all familiar with, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. 

But there are actually more than just these four Gospels. The four Gospels we have in our Bible today are called Canonical Gospels. That means that they were included in the canon of scriptures back when that was being established. The early church fathers considered these four books to be inspired by God. But there are other historical books about the life of Christ which are not in most Bibles. These other books are called Apocryphal Gospels. The word “apocrypha” means “put away” or “hidden.” A few years ago there were a rash of publications of these ancient manuscripts – the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Peter. 

There were dozens of these; there’s even a Gospel of Judas which argues that Judas was actually the only one of Jesus’ followers who really understood what he was trying to do. Some of these writings may have been historically accurate, but were not included in the canon of scripture. The only reason they are still around today is because monks kept copying them down and “putting them away” or “hiding” them in remote monasteries. They were mostly considered spurious heretical and dangerous by the early church, which is probably why the sudden rash of interest in them today.

Synoptic Gospels
Of the four Gospels that did make the canon, three of them are called the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. 

The word “synoptic” has its roots in Greek and means “seen together.” This title is given because these three books are similar in content. The vast majority of the stories and the chronology in them is similar. Mark was probably written first. Matthew and Luke apparently used Mark as the basis for their accounts along with another manuscript of the “sayings of Jesus” that is referred to a “Q” which comes from the German word “quelle” which means “source.” Some Biblical scholars have proposed that there was a document prior to the writing of the gospels which was used by the writers of Matthew, Mark and Luke as a source of information. They have called this hypothetical document "Q." It is hypothetical because there is no proof that the document existed. Nevertheless, this proposal has gained some acceptance in scholarly circles due to the very close similarities and identical written accounts found in both Matthew and Luke. It is reasoned that the very similar accounts must be taken from a common source. There are scads of charts and diagrams out there which try to demonstrate this four-source hypothesis. Here’s one of the simpler ones:

John, the fourth gospel is not one of the synoptic Gospels. John doesn’t “see things” the same way the three synoptic Gospel writers does. His account varies greatly on a few of the stories and he has a somewhat different chronology of events from the synoptic Gospels. Fact is, almost 90% of what is contained in John’s Gospel is unique to him.

Let’s take a look now, at all four Canonical Gospels.

Gospel of Matthew
Matthew is the first book of the New Testament and according to tradition was written by Matthew, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples. Matthew was first named Levi and worked as a publican collecting taxes in Palestine until he was called to follow Jesus (Matt. 9:9, 10; Mark 2:14, 15). Around the middle of the second century the church leader Papias said that Matthew the tax collector, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, “collected the saying in the Hebrew (or Aramaic) language as he was able.” After that people took this comment to mean that Matthew the tax collector wrote the book that now bears his name. Today Biblical scholars have largely abandoned the idea that it was the disciple Matthew who actually wrote this Gospel. They argue that if Matthew was an eyewitness to much of what is written here, why did he rely so heavily on Mark’s account? Regardless of whether it was actually Matthew who wrote it or not, the author is obviously a devout and educated Christian. He knows the Jewish scriptures well and is almost certainly a Jewish Christian.

Date and Place of Writing
Even though Matthew comes first in our New Testament, it was probably not the first Gospel to be written as we just discussed in our four-source documentary theory. Most scholars think Matthew was written after the Gospel of Mark since about 90% of the material in Mark’s gospel is found in Matthew’s Gospel. Some scholars think that a number of matters in Matthew’s Gospel reflect the sort of concerns that Jewish people were dealing with in the decades following the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD (cf. Matt. 24:1-2). Things like “How is God present with us?” and, “What is the continuing value of the Torah?” and, “How and when will God’s promises to Israel be fulfilled?” Our best guess, then, is that the book that we know as the Gospel of Matthew was written by an unknown Jewish Christian in Antioch or some similar Roman City sometime after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, probably in the 80’s. This author appears to have had a copy of the Gospel of Mark as well as what we described as the “Q” source and probably also a variety of other oral and perhaps written traditions about Jesus, which scholars refer to collectively as the “M” material. He wove these traditions together to create and effective narrative of Jesus’ life that would have been meaningful to urban Christians (especially Jewish Christians) living in the mid-80’s.

Matthew was written primarily for a Jewish audience. The book emphasizes Christ as King and the promised Messiah. There are more than 60 Old Testament references in the book of Matthew. Even though Jesus is presented as King in the book, Matthew also shows how Jesus was rejected by the Jews. They were looking for an earthly king to deliver them from the Romans, not a heavenly king. The phrase “kingdom of heaven” is used 32 times and is only found in the book of Matthew.

Christ proclaimed in Matthew that the purpose of His coming was to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament (Matthew 5:17, 18). While Matthew was the only Gospel writer to say that Jesus’ original ministry was only to the Jews, and it was Matthew who traced Jesus’ ancestry back to Abraham, it was also Matthew alone who records the Magi (non-Jews) coming to worship the infant Jesus (2:1-12) as well as Jesus’ statement in the Parable of the Sower that the “field is the world” (13:38) where the Son of Man spreads the seed. Matthew also gives the Great Commission (28:18-20) urging his followers to go and make disciples of “all nations,” giving Matthew a universal outlook.

Structure and Content
Matthew was a well-planned and designed Gospel. Matthew alternates narrative about Jesus’ life followed by five major discourses, or teachings, by Jesus. 

The five major teachings are: The Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:29), The Commissioning of the Twelve Disciples (10:1-42), The Parables of the Kingdom (13:1-53), The Discourse on Life in the Kingdom (18:1-35), The Olivet Discourse (24:1-25:46). It is obvious Matthew intended this from what he said at the end of each of these discourses, “When Jesus finished saying these things…” or similar words. This five-fold division suggests to some that Matthew was modeling his book on the structure of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). He may be presenting the Gospel as the new Torah and Jesus as a new and greater Moses.

Gospel of Mark
The author of this book has traditionally held to be Mark (also called John Mark in the book of Acts). He was a relative of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10). John Mark was a companion of Paul and Barnabas on Paul’s early missionary journey, but later left due to the difficulty of traveling. He was not one of Christ’s 12 original disciples. He may have been a convert of Peter since Peter is mentioned by name so many times in the book (23 times).  In 112 AD, Papias the same church leader who mentioned that it was the disciple Matthew who wrote Matthew’s Gospel, quotes an even earlier source that says that Mark was a close associate of Peter, from whom he received the tradition of the things said and done by Jesus.

Date and Place of Writing
Those who hold that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a major source believe that Mark must have been written earlier that those two gospels, probably sometime between 65 and 73 AD, around the time of the Jewish war with Rome., and just after the Roman persecutions that took the lives of Peter, Paul, and many other Christians. According to early church tradition Mark was written “in the regions of Italy,” most likely in Rome. This lines up with evidence that Peter was in Rome in the last days of his life before he was martyred there.

Mark addressed his Gospel primarily to Roman – or Gentile - readers. That’s why Mark contains very few Old Testament references and many Jewish words are translated (3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 15:22) and Jewish customs are explained (7:2-4, 15:42). Mark also seems to have a special interest in persecution and martyrdom (8:34038; 13:9-13), which are subjects of special interest to Roman believers. Writing from Rome would also explain the Gospel’s almost immediate acceptance and its rapid dissemination.
Since Mark’s Gospel is traditionally associated with Rome, it may have been occasioned by the persecutions of the Roman church in the period 64-67 AD. The famous fire in Rome occurred in 64 AD – probably set by Nero himself, but blamed on the Christians there. This resulted in widespread persecution, which Mark may have been linking to the persecution, suffering and death Jesus himself suffered at the hands of Rome.

Structure and Content
Mark presents Christ as the suffering Servant; yet, as a powerful Savior. Though He is presented as a servant, He is a faithful and very busy one. This would appeal to a Roman reader. Mark is a fast-paced book which uses the word that is translated “immediately” (euthys) forty-two times in its 16 chapters, eleven times in the first chapter alone. The emphasis is more on events than on teaching. Mark’s gospel is a simple, succinct, unadorned, yet vivid account of Jesus’ ministry emphasizing more what Jesus did than what he said. Mark moves quickly from one episode in Jesus’ life and ministry to another. Mark is less complex than Matthew’s or Luke’s, and it is less “talky” or philosophical than John’s.

Christ proclaimed in Mark that the purpose of His coming was to minister to others and give His life for them (Mark 10:45).
Aside from its sense of urgency, a couple of other features are worth noting about the Gospel of Mark. One is its ending. On Easter morning a group of women come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body for burial. A young man, probably an angel, tells the women that Jesus has risen and that they are to go and tell his disciples. Then, Mark’s gospel come to a close with this sentence in 16:8: “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.”

That seems like an odd way to end a Gospel. This abrupt ending was so odd that some Christians decided they had to compose a more suitable ending for the book, stitching together accounts of what happened next based on material found elsewhere in the New Testament. The best known of these makeshift endings is found in most English Bibles in Mark 16:9-20. It is also usually enclosed in brackets with a note at the bottom of the page that says, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 19:9-20.” There are a number of reasons Mark’s Gospel may have ended so abruptly. The ending might have gotten lost, or Mark may have ended his Gospel so dramatically for rhetorical effect – which is most likely. But if so, what rhetorical effect was he searching for? Perhaps Mark, being a faithful recorder of Peter who was the first great preacher of the Gospel, left the story unfinished as a sort of altar call – for the readers themselves to determine what happens next. We know how the story ended for most of those first followers of Jesus – the story ended in martyrdom for them like it did their Lord. But what about you and me? When it comes time to measure our faithfulness against that of Jesus or his first followers, where will we end up? In fear and silence? Of course in the final analysis, no one knows why Mark ended his Gospel in such strange fashion, it’s a mystery.

And that leads us to another peculiarity of Mark’s gospel which is the undercurrent of secrecy throughout the book. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus speaks about the “secret” (or mystery) of the kingdom of God. His parables are often spoken in coded language so only insiders will comprehend it (4:10-12). Jesus repeatedly tells people not to make known the miracles or healings he performs and he tells people not to tell others he is the Messiah. He even silences demons who would otherwise announce that he is the Son of God – why? A variety of possible reasons have been put forth, but many scholars today feel like the secrecy theme is Mark’s way of saying that no aspect of Jesus’ life can be understood apart from the cross of Christ. In other words, he tells people not to talk about his miracles or his glorious transfiguration because those elements of his story can only be understood in light of the end of the story when Jesus dies on the cross. Until then, people may be impressed by his authoritative teaching, and awed by his miracles, but no one is able to grasp what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah before he is crucified.

Think of Peter’s confession of Christ – why did Jesus then tell Peter to tell no one? Perhaps it is because Jesus knew what was ahead for Jesus himself and Peter and he knew Peter wasn’t ready to announce to the world who Jesus was? It’s actually pretty remarkable if you think about it in these terms.  

Gospel of Luke
According to the New Testament Luke was a physician (Col. 4:14), a companion of Paul (Philem. 24), and the writer of a two-volume history of the life of Christ and the early church (Luke and Acts). Luke, like Mark, was not an original disciple of Jesus. Luke was probably a Gentile by birth, and very well educated in Greek culture. Luke is so well-educated he uses some 800 words in Luke and Acts not found anywhere else in the New Testament.

Date and Place of Writing
Luke’s gospel was probably written in Rome or some other urban area. As with Matthew, the Gospel is probably older than Mark. The majority of scholars place it around the time of Matthew, in the decade of the 80’s.

Luke alone among the Gospel writers tells us exactly who is Gospel is addressed to: Theophilus (1:3), a name that means “one who loves God.” The name almost certainly applies to a particular individual rather than to lovers of God in general. The use of “most excellent” also suggests the idea that he was a Roman official or person of high position and wealth. He was most likely Luke’s patron, responsible for seeing that the writings were copied and distributed. Such a dedication to the publisher was common in Luke’s day.

Through Theophilus Luke addressed his Gospel primarily to Greek (or non-Jewish) readers and presented Jesus as the Son of Man, the ideal human being. As the Greeks had long sought after the “perfect man,” Luke’s work was designed to fulfill that quest. That’s also why this Gospel is so appealing to those of us further down in line in the Greco-Roman world – the Euro/American world built on classical philosophical concepts.

Structure and Content
The first thing that stands out when you look at Luke’s content is how much we would have lost had we not had Luke – imagine the story of Jesus without the story of the birth of Jesus with the shepherds and the angels and the manger. Or the parable of the Good Samaritan, or the stories of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Imagine no story of Zacchaeus, or Jesus on the road to Emmaus, or Jesus’ ascension. All this would have been lost had we not had Luke. In fact, almost one-half of Luke’s Gospel is composed of material found nowhere else.

Major themes in Luke include Jesus’ ministry to the excluded or marginalized of society – women, Samaritans, the poor. Luke also highlights the work of the Holy Spirit more than the other Gospels. Luke also emphasizes the saving power of God in the here and now rather than simply waiting for Christ to rescue people from an imperfect world or longing for bliss in a life to come. You find verses in Luke like:

“Today… a Savior is born” (2:11)
“Today… this scripture is fulfilled” (4:21)
“Today… salvation has come to this house” (19:10)
“Today…you will be with me in paradise” (23:43)

The parables of Jesus and his miracles also receive special attention in Luke’s Gospel.

Structurally, what Luke does is interrupt Mark’s story of Jesus by two relatively long sections largely devoted to teaching. The first of these is the Sermon on the Plain (which largely follows Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount) and a very long section known as the Journey to Jerusalem which begins in chapter 9:51 and ends at 19:40. This journey functions as a literary device where much of the teaching is presented in the context of traveling to Jerusalem where, as we all know, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and outpouring of the Holy Spirit await them.

Gospel of John
John’s Gospel, as we have already mentioned, is not one of the Synoptic Gospels. John sees things a bit differently. Clement of Alexandria (second century) said that while the other Gospels set forth “physical things,” John wrote a “spiritual Gospel.” Augustine (fourth century) said that the Synoptic Gospels were “Gospels of the flesh” while John was “the Gospel of the Spirit.”

Although John is not mentioned in the Gospel as its author, the early church almost universally held the book’s author to be John the fisherman who left his nets to follow Jesus (Mark 1:19-20), the son of Zebedee and brother of James, both of whom were among the original disciples. John is usually identified as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” who appears anonymously a number of times in this book (13:38; 18:15, 16; 19:26, 27).

But… there is some controversy. In fact, the historical controversies surrounding the author of John’s gospel are much more convoluted then the other Gospels because most scholars believe the book that we possess today is more like a second, third, fourth or fifth edition of a work that went through many stages of development. Most interpreters today assume that the beloved disciple made a significant contribution to this Gospel, but they believe what he wrote has been edited rather extensively.

One very popular theory suggests that the main editor responsible for this book is known a man from Ephesus known as “John the Elder” who may have written the letters found toward the end of the New Testament known as 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John). The fourth century church historian Eusebius identified John the Elder as a different person from John the apostle. Eusebius says that John the elder was a student of John the Apostle. In other words, the Gospel of John may have been written by two Johns, John the disciple who was an eyewitness to these things but probably a poor, illiterate fisherman who would have been very, very old at the time this late Gospel was written, and John the Elder, a well-educated man from the same community as John the Disciple and a student of his.

Date and Place of Writing
Dating this Gospel is difficult, mainly because of the complexity of its composition we just talked about. The most common date used now is sometime in the 90’s since that is probably when the final editing likely took place, and they place its composition in the town of Ephesus. The scholars who say this also recognize that much of what is contained in the Gospel comes from a much earlier time.

The recipients for this Gospel in its final form was most likely the fledgling church for its use as an evangelistic tool. The book sets out a version of the Christian message that would appeal to the Greek mind. It would have been used to defend the faith intellectually against criticisms brought by Jews and other non-believers, it would have been used to teach new converts and to establish Jesus’ superiority over other religious leaders such as Moses or John the Baptist, to argue certain doctrinal points and to encourage the community which was still seen as a counter-culture in opposition to the corrupt and unjust Roman world.

Structure and Content
As with Luke’s gospel the thing that immediately strikes you when considering the content of this Gospel is what we would have lost had we not had John’s account. 90% of what is written in it is not found anywhere else in the Gospels. We would have lost John’s amazing prologue, “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was God.” We’d lose Jesus turning the water to wind at a marriage ceremony in Cana of Galilee, Jesus halting the stoning of an adulterous woman (8:1-11), Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-57) and Jesus’ wonderful words of assurance to his disciples the night before he died, “I go to prepare a place for you…”

The author himself states the book’s purpose in Verse 20:30-31, “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

Three terms in this verse help us understand John’s Gospel: signs, believe, and life.

A “sign” is John’s word for a miracle. Out of the many signs which Jesus did, John selected seven to demonstrate the power of Christ over all things. 

Of these seven, five are found only in John’s gospel (others record the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on water).

People must be born spiritually into a new form of life that they will not experience otherwise. This is the zoe, abundant life read about in John 10:10 that comes to us through the Holy Spirit who is the agent of regeneration.

The key to receiving the abundant life promised by Christ is to believe. John has written his story to bring the reader face to face with a decision he or she must make. That’s why John’s Gospel is recommended so often to someone who is new to the faith or struggling with belief.

John’s gospel presents Jesus as the Son of God. In fact, John’s Gospel is the only one of the four to identify Jesus as God. Jesus was not only with God in the beginning, Jesus was God. John’s Gospel is nonetheless adamant that Jesus was completely human: he feels grief, fatigue, he gets suspicious and irritable, and thirsty and hungry. He even experiences death.

Most scholars see John’s Gospel as presenting the clearest picture of the Trinity according to which God could be understood as three in one: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
John’s Gospel also has more to say about love than the other three Gospels combined.  The word “love” occurs well over 50 times in this book. Jesus tells believers that to love is the new commandment.

And so there you have an overview of the Gospel Accounts. Next week we will look at the Book of Acts.

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