Question 60:

If today’s Christianity is the truth, why are there four different gospels?


Answer: The Old Testament was the first book of the Church. It soon became apparent that there was a need for scriptures which told what had happened among us, and so the four gospels were written.

It is true that we do not know about the life of Jesus from one piece of scripture, but from four parallel writings, something that is unique in the history of literature. Each of these writings contains the complete Good News. They are named according to their authors: Matthew, the tax collector who became a disciple; Mark, a young follower from Jerusalem. According to Acts 12:12, it was in the house of his mother the congregation met (possibly the house where the last supper took place); Luke, our dear friend the doctor (Colossians 4:14) who was a friend of Paul’s; and finally John, the disciples Jesus loved, who lived to an old age.

It has been said from early on that Matthew was the first to write, possibly around the year 50 in Palestine or Syria. His gospel was later edited to its current form. The gospel according to Mark, which was written around the year 63 A.D. in Rome, is therefore the oldest we have. The final version of Matthew and the gospel of Luke, which was written in Greece, are assumed to have been written between 70-80 A.D. Johns gospel is likely to have been written around the year 100 A.D. in Asia Minor. The first three gospels, also called the synoptic gospels, are often word for word the same. This proves that they are connected in one way or the other.

The four gospels are evidence of the Church’s concern that the Good News had to be preserved. They also show how this Good News was proclaimed according to the different ways of thinking in different social environments. Each one of the gospels shines a particular light on what a particular faith community considers to be most important. Matthew, who writes for the Jews, compiles the words of Jesus in five big speeches, corresponding to the five books of Moses, so that Jesus appears as the new lawgiver. Marks main interest is the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. Luke writes for his fellow educated Greeks. He shows an historic progression (and because of this also writes the Acts of the Apostles) and emphasizes Jesus love of the neglected ones: the poor, the sinners, and women. He also has much to say about the Holy Spirit and prayer.

Sometimes people try to analyze the use of words to determine in which community a gospel was preached before it was written down. Because as much as people tried to retain Jesus words exactly as he had spoken them, and as much as Jesus rhythmical and metaphor-rich way of speaking facilitated this mental feat, it also remains true that the words of Jesus were passed on in live oral tradition. That means that free clarifications and adaptations were occasionally added. Matthew changed Jesus’s words about The Kingdom of God to The Kingdom of Heaven. This is most apparent in the writings in the gospel according to John. The words of Jesus seem to reflect the terminology used in Asia Minor, where John preached. For example, he rarely uses the word Kingdom of God, which had very little meaning for the people there. Light and life was much more meaningful for them, and so those expressions are very often used in Jesus words as recorded by John. The disciple found that they were the best words to express what Jesus meant to say to those people when he used the words Kingdom of God.

This does not mean that the writers fantasized and created a Christ according to their own tastes. However, the aim of the evangelists is not the writing down of a precise progress report, month by month. Their aim is a Gospel; a proclamation of the Good News. And for that it is of immense importance that actual things really did happen, that actual words really were said. If this had not occurred, there would be no Good News to proclaim.

Interestingly, it is the fourth gospel that appears occasionally to be more precise about what actually happened. This is one of the arguments that was used later to ascribe this gospel to the ageing disciple John.

It is not only important that things actually happened, but something else also mattered: the truth about the historical Jesus. Modern Biblical research discovered that this was a special concern of the gospel writers. At a time when many of the eye witnesses for the Church were no longer around, when legalistic and lyrical ideas threatened to creep into the oral tradition, the Church tried to ensure the purity of this tradition: of what Jesus had actually been like. Therein lies the origin of the gospels.

The concern of the community to preserve the pure image of Jesus, the true faith, is guided by the Holy Spirit who lives in the Church. The Spirit does not act outside human authorship, but within it. In the final analysis, the scriptures came into being through the Holy Spirit who uses the creativity of human beings of different temperaments and talents. The extent to which the various gospels describe the same Lord can be seen in their unmistakable authenticity, which is apparent with equal strength in all four gospels. They clearly have one single source: the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

The four gospels are not the only sources of information about Jesus. In the early Church, Luke not only wrote his gospel, but also its continuation, the Acts of the Apostles. Letters, too, were written. They come from the pens (or spheres of influence) of Paul (fourteen), Jacob the younger (one), Peter (two), John (three) and Judas Thaddeus (one). Finally, there is the prophetic writing in the name of John, the book of the secret Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse (see “Glaubensverkündigung für Erwachsene”. Deutsche Ausgabe des Holländischen Katechismus. Nijmwegen-Utrecht, 1968, p. 232-235). [This is taken from the German version, an English one also exists.]

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