Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Four Versions of the Good News of Christ

Posted by foryourfaith on January 23, 2010


“As there are four quarters of the world . . . and also four universal winds, and as the Church is scattered over the earth, and the Gospel is the pillar and bulwark of the church . . . , it is seemly that it should have four pillars.”  So wrote the church father Irenaeus of Lyons (140-202 AD), offering an explanation from nature as to why the New Testament contains its present number of books about Jesus’ life and ministry.  But in fact no one rally knows why there are precisely four.  Indeed, many more “Gospels” appeared during the first and second centuries, but by the end of the second century, the church had begun to recognize only Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as canonical, that is, official and authoritative.  Probably the decision had much to do with the church’s perception that these four accounts were authored by Jesus’ own disciples or, in the case of Mark and Luke, by companions of the first Apostles.  But such a view is based on tradition, not on the Scriptures themselves.  Not one of the earliest Greek manuscripts of the Gospels contains a signature or preface indicating its author.  While some contemporary scholars find eye-witness material in the Gospels, few if any believe that all four documents we have in our Bible came directly from the pens of Jesus’ original followers.  This means that many of the stories and sayings in our Gospels have undergone an editing process, both oral and written, as they passed from believer to believer prior to their final composition.  To what extent that process involved what we now think of as historical accuracy is one of the mysteries of the Gospels.  No scholarly theory has yet won the day on this issue.

The first three of our canonical Gospels are called “synoptic” (From a Greek word that means “providing an overview or synopsis”) because, when placed in parallel columns, they turn out to be very similar, not only in the chronological sequence of these narratives but also in the very wording of many stories and sayings.  For example, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all portray Jesus’ public ministry as beginning with his baptism.  When the three accounts of this event are lined up next to one another, the observer notes that all of them contain a reference to the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus like a dove, and a voice from heaven identifying him as “my beloved Son.”  On the other hand, a synoptic view of the three texts also yields the surprising information that according to Mark and Luke the voice said, “Thou art my beloved Son,” suggesting that Jesus alone heard it, whereas in Matthew the message appears to have come also to John the baptizer, for here the words are, “This is my beloved Son.”  Moreover, only in Matthew does one find a conversation between Jesus and John just prior to the baptism, and only in Luke is it recorded that Jesus was praying at the time.

How should these coexisting similarities and differences be accounted for?  To resolve the paradox, scholars as far back as St. Augustine (354-430 AD) have proposed a literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels.  The simplest possibilities are, first that Mark, in the shortest of the gospels summarized Matthew and Luke, both of which he had at his disposal; or, second, that Matthew and Luke each knew the gospel of mark and expanded it in his own way.  Augustine favored the first option, believing Matthew to be the earliest of the three Synoptics.  Today a number of scholars still take this position.  Most, however, support some version of the second theory on the grounds that Mark would probably not leave out the rich material unique to Matthew (for instance the Sermon on the Mount) and to Luke (the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son; for example).  Furthermore, Mark does not contain the birth narrative, while Matthew and Luke do.  Why would Mark eliminate this?

The term gospel, or “good news,” was used at the time of Jesus’ birth to describe a happy event.  Historical evidence indicates that the word was used especially to announce news of royalty.  This may be why Mark – if indeed he is the original Gospel writer – decided that “good news” was the appropriate term to use when speaking of Jesus as the Son of God (Mark 1:1).  Indeed, this title was commonly used of Israelite and Egyptian kings, and Roman emperors.

Whether or not Mark’s is the first Gospel, it is significant hat originally Mark’s Gospel may have ended at 16:8 – without a resurrection appearance.  Another theory is that the original ending has been lost.  Subsequent scribes added two alternative endings.  The reader of the gospel knows that Jesus is, however, going to appear after his death in Galilee.

Regardless of which gospel one chooses as a prototype for the others, another question arises.  In a number of places, Matthew and Luke provide material that is almost word for word the same but is not found in Mark.  Did Matthew copy from Luke, or vice versa?  Or did each of them, independently, draw upon an early list of Jesus’ sayings that we no longer possess?  A majority of scholars today view the third hypothesis as most probable and give the name Q (for the German word Quelle, meaning “source”) to this lost document.  But many uncertainties persist, and most contemporary interpreters of the Bible admit that the actual series of events that produced the Synoptic Gospels is more complex than we imagine.

Approaching the fourth Gospel from the Synoptics, readers may feel that they have entered a different world.  Traditionally, John’s book has been viewed as the most spiritual of the Gospels and is symbolized in Christian art by the high-soaring eagle.  It begins not with a list of Jesus’ ancestors, as in Matthew, or a description of his immediate forerunner John the Baptist, as in Mark.  Nor does it begin, as Luke does, with stories of John’s and Jesus’ birth.  Instead it offers mystical language about the Christ in his role as God’s equal and the world’s creator:  “In the beginning was the Word (logos in Greek), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . all things were made through him . . . In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”  This prologue, which many scholars identify as a hymn designed to be sung in Christian liturgies, proceeds to a dramatic conclusion in John 1:14:  “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”  Not until the writer has completed this hymn-like prologue does he turn to earthly details of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Why does John take such a lofty approach?  One answer is that he wants to interpret the idea of Christ to Gentile readers steeped in the language of Greek philosophy.  The word logos was a popular one among Stoic philosophers and stood for the controlling force in the universe.  It denoted reason but also spirit, understood as a subtle form of matter.  Yet this answer is probably too simple, for some of the words in John’s prologue hark back to the Jewish Scriptures, especially the creation account in Genesis.  And in many passages in the body of the Gospel reflect a Jewish origin for John’s thought and language.  It is probably best to say that John combines Hebrew and Greek thinking into a unique amalgam.

But this conclusion simply raises further questions.  Why is John’s portrait of Jesus so different from that presented in the Synoptic Gospels?  Why does the Jesus of the fourth Gospel dwell so frequently upon his relationship and union with the Father, and upon himself, stressing his identity as true light, vine, good shepherd, resurrection, life, way, truth, and bread from heaven as the key to salvation for all humanity?  While a few of these notes are struck in the Synoptic Gospels, they become the entire melody for the author of the fourth Gospel.  For him, Jesus’ very personhood is the manifestation of God.  Did something momentous happen to this writer and his co-believers to result in such an exalted picture of the prophet from Nazareth?

Interpreters have suggested a religious experience, perhaps conditioned by a traumatic tension in the relationship between John’s community and its local synagogue or by contacts with various philosophical ideas.  But a full explanation for the high Christology (or theological interpretation of Christ’s person, life, and work) found in John has yet to appear.


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