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The Best-known Gospels

Perhaps the most read of the Gospels are the three narratives of the life, teaching, and death of Jesus: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Scholars generally date these Gospels as having been written after the epistles of Paul and before the Gospel of John, between the years 60 and 115 CE. As was typical of the time, these were anonymously written and only later ascribed to Mark, Matthew and Luke.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke are thought to have been written ten to twenty years later than Mark, since each uses Mark as the basis and expands it with further narratives and stories. These three are known as the Synoptic Gospels because they include many of the same stories and sequences, and sometimes use the same wording. What we would today view as plagiarism was perfectly acceptable at the time: stories were told, retold, embellished and absorbed into existing ones, and new ones added. The writer or speaker was seen as honoring the tradition and the original text by copying it, or retelling it and adding to it. It is important to remember that the vast majority of the audiences at the time were illiterate and used to an oral tradition where stories, like the tales of Homer and those of the Old Testament, were retold, shaped for specific audiences in a way that suited local circumstances, concerns, and beliefs. We would thus expect the “Good News” or Gospels of the life and death of Jesus to be similarly crafted.

Most scholars agree that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, but these Gospels were initially written in Greek. They do not claim to be written by eyewitnesses or built on eyewitness testimony. According to the eminent scholar, Bart Ehrman, there exists today 5,700 copies or fragmentary copies of the New Testament in Greek plus copies in other languages such as Coptic, or Latin of which there are about 10,000 copies. As Prof. Ehrman points out, in those days, every copy of any written document had to be made individually by hand, a fact that also contributed to textual differences. “There are more differences in our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.... Many are so unimportant that you can’t replicate them … basically they were mistakes the scribes made. Some may have been intentional, some debatable.” For a Stanford University lecture by Ehrman, talking about his book, “Misquoting Jesus,” go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfheSAcCsrE. (Bart Ehrman is the James A. Gray Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Mark was completed around 65 - 70 CE for Greek-speaking people of the Roman Empire, the vast majority of whom would have been gentiles. By the time of its completion Jesus had been dead for at least 35 years, executed by Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea, on charges of sedition against Rome. 70 CE was the year of the disastrous fall of Jerusalem to Roman hands. In the decades of upheaval that followed Jesus’ death, individual Christian communities developed in isolation, each working out different ways to express their faith and solve their problems.

Antonio Ciseri's painting depicting Pilate presenting Jesus to Jerusalem
“Behold the Man” - Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of Pilate
presenting a scourged Jesus to the people of Jerusalem

Much of Mark’s Gospel is a biographical story of Jesus probably written to strengthen the faith of early Greek Christians in the face of persecution and in response to questions from them about Jesus’ divine nature. “Its themes of travel, conflict with supernatural foes, suffering, and secrecy resonate with Homer's Odyssey and Greek romantic novels. Its focus on the character, identity, and death of a single individual reminds one of ancient biographies. Its dialogues, tragic outcome, and peculiar ending call to mind Greek drama. Some have suggested that the author created a new, mixed genre for narrating the life and death of Jesus.” (Early Christian Literature, Dennis R MacDonald).

While their stories are clearly linked, only Matthew and Luke tell of the nativity of Jesus. Mark tells nothing about Jesus’ early life at all. Scholars believe these birth stories were added as an introductory supplement to the rest; and note that both versions differ considerably from each other, again, most likely because each was writing for a different audience. According to Geza Vermes (Professor Emeritus, Jewish Studies, Oxford University)  in his book The Nativity: “To attempt a full reconciliation of the two Infancy Gospels is a patently lost cause: squaring the circle would be easier than reducing the two into a single coherent unity.”
Painting by Caravaggio of the Nativity
The Nativity by Caravaggio, 1609

“The most important point is that Jesus is the Messiah they expected, the just king. Now, they both [Matthew and Luke] interpret that in very contemporary terms. Matthew experiences the Messiah as the king of the Jews, the same title that will appear on his cross. Luke …experiences the Messiah as the Lord, Savior, and bringer of peace. So they kind of update that message for their generations.” (John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus, Biblical Studies, DePaul University, Chicago).

Matthew’s Gospel is primarily for a Jewish audience and his story echoes one of the most well known stories of the Hebrew Bible: the birth of Moses when the Pharaoh orders that all children be killed, yet the infant Moses escapes. Matthew’s good news is that Jesus is the new Moses and is the real King of the Jews. Not Herod who, like Pharaoh, ordered the children killed; not Herod who had been given the official title of King of the Jews by their Roman oppressors.

Luke is writing for gentiles in the Greek cities of Asia Minor and Greece itself, so his text is much more antagonistic towards the Jews. The birth of Jesus is announced to two groups: the shepherds and the three Magi (or Persian Wise men, who would have been Zoroastrians); both groups were “outsiders” vis a vis the Jewish community, according to Crossan.

The last Gospel included in the New Testament is John. It is very different in style and was written later around the year 85 CE. “If you read the gospel of John, you don’t read who Jesus said he was you read who John said he was.” says Bart Ehrman, “Jesus understands himself to be God and calls himself Divine in the Gospel of John, but only in the Gospel of John, not in the Synoptic (earliest) gospels.”