The Gospel Writers

 

This is the first of four articles that look at the writers behind the four gospels in the New Testament.

 

 

Part 1 – The Gospel According to St Mark

 

In contrast to their order in the New Testament, the first of the four gospels to be written was that according to Mark.  It was probably written between AD 65 and 75, at least thirty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Mark’s gospel was not the earliest book of the New Testament to be written.  Paul’s letters to the churches he founded were written much earlier.

 

Mark was not a disciple of Jesus and we are not really sure of his true identity.  Some think he was the young man who ran naked from the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:51) or the companion of Barnabas and Paul on one of their journeys (Acts 12:25) or the friend of the writer of 1 Peter (1 Peter 5: 13) However, as Mark was the most common name in the Roman Empire at that time, we have no way of definitely identifying him.  It appears that he was most probably a member of a Christian community in Rome and that he very likely knew the disciple, Peter, very well.

 

Before Mark wrote his gospel, stories about Jesus circulated in the Early Church both orally and in writing.  The main source of these would, of course, be the disciples.  The reason Mark decided to bring these together into a gospel was, probably, the passing of many of the original twelve disciples, in many cases through martyrdom.  Mark took these stories and wove them together into his gospel.  Rather like a seamstress making a bedcover out of different coloured or patterned squares of cloth, Mark assembled them in the way he felt they would go together best, acting both as an editor and writer.

 

Mark’s gospel is very short - you can read it all in a couple of hours.  It is not a life story of Jesus and has little chronology except for the last week of Jesus’ life, to which Mark devotes a quarter of his gospel.  It starts with Jesus, as a man, being baptised by John the Baptist and ends abruptly at chapter 16 verse 8 with the women fleeing from the empty tomb.  The rest of chapter 16 - verses 9 to 20 - is an addition to the gospel, written by someone else at a much later date.  Scholars are divided in their opinions as to whether Mark originally finished his gospel on such an abrupt note.  Some think Mark’s original ending was lost, others that he died before he could complete it while others feel that was the way Mark intended to end it, leaving the reader to draw the conclusion, through faith, that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  What do you think?

 

By writing the first gospel, Mark paved the way for the others.  Indeed, as we shall see, his gospel acted as a blueprint, particularly for the writers of Matthew and Luke who copied great chunks of Mark’s gospel into their own writings.

 

Alan Jones

The Gospel Writers

 

This is the second of four articles that look at the writers behind the four gospels in the New Testament.

 

 

Part 2 – The Gospel According to St Luke

 

Luke, the writer of the third gospel was also the author of the Acts of the Apostles.  He is linked to Paul as a ‘fellow worker’ (Philemon 24) and is also described as, ‘the beloved physician.’ (Col. 4 :14)  Both of Luke’s writings have an introductory dedication to someone called, Theophilus, from whom Luke appears to have received patronage for his work.  The name ‘Theophilus’ literally translates as, ‘lover of God’, which links neatly with the universal appeal of both books.

 

Luke was a Gentile and has the unique distinction of being the only non Jewish New Testament writer.  He probably wrote his gospel sometime during the last two decades of the first century.  Tradition suggests he was part of a Christian church in Antioch.  In his introduction to the gospel, Luke acknowledges the existence of a number of sources that were available to him as a gospel writer.  One of these was Mark’s gospel upon which he draws heavily and often verbatim.  Another was, probably, a collection of oral and written tradition which was also available to Matthew.  About two hundred verses, in some form or another, of Luke’s gospel can also be found only in Matthew’s gospel.  Scholars have, not too creatively, identified this source material as ‘Q’!  Luke’s third source appears to have been material known only to him and is unique to his gospel.  This material includes Luke’s account of the birth of John the Baptist, the witness of the shepherds and the ancient Christian hymns we know as the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis.

 

As a gentile writer, Luke demonstrates little interest in particularly Jewish matters, though he sees Jesus’ birth as part of a divine plan revealed through the Old Testament.  He comes across as a keen historian of that time and anchors his gospel in the mainstream of Roman history.  However, for Luke, history is a vehicle of theological interpretation and not an end in itself.

 

Luke has been described as, ‘the gospel of the poor and disadvantaged’.  While Matthew writes, Blessed are the poor in spirit, Luke, significantly writes, Blessed are the poor,!  The feeling one has is that this concern for the poor was not just a feature of Luke’s gospel but of the Christian community in which he lived.  Luke’s gospel is universal and he, alone among the gospel writers, portrays the Samaritans in a favourable light. (Luke 10:25 - 37 and 17:11 – 19)  Although Luke puts women in the traditional roles of prayer, almsgiving and supporting the missionary labours of men, he, nevertheless, has a special place for them in his gospel as the interplay between Mary and Elizabeth in chapter 1 illustrates.

 

Unlike the ending to Mark’s gospel, Luke clearly identifies a number of resurrection appearances by Jesus, including the full account of the story of the appearance on the road to Emmaus which is unique to his gospel.  However, Luke goes even further and includes a reference to the Ascension both at the end of his gospel and at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles.

 

The gospel of Luke has been called, ‘the loveliest book in the world’.  Luke himself has been adopted as the patron saint of both doctors and artists.  Tradition clearly identifies him as a physician while legend suggests he was a skilled painter.  There is a portrait of Mary in a Spanish Cathedral which is said to have been painted by him.  However, it is as the writer of two books that remind us of the basis and origins of our faith that we shall remember him.

 

Alan Jones

 

 

The Gospel Writers

 

This is the third of four articles that look at the writers behind the four gospels in the New Testament.

 

 

Part 3 – The Gospel According to St Matthew

 

As with Luke’s Gospel, Matthew’s Gospel has the Gospel of Mark at its core.  Indeed, it has been calculated that 93% of Mark’s Gospel can be found somewhere in either Matthew or Luke’s Gospels.  The fact that Matthew based his Gospel on that of St Mark rules out early beliefs that the writer was the disciple, Matthew.  If the writer were the disciple of Jesus, why would he have to use another Gospel as the basis for his writing?  He would surely have had his own recollections upon which to draw.  In addition to Mark’s Gospel, Matthew also had available the material which is common to both him and Luke.  This comprises around 200 verses and, as mentioned earlier in Part 2, has been given the identification, ‘Q’, by scholars.  Finally, Matthew also had material available to him which is found only in his Gospel.  This includes his version of the story of Jesus’ birth, including the visit of the Magi, some sayings of Jesus and the parables of the Ten Virgins and the Talents in the Gospel in chapter 25.

 

As with Luke’s Gospel, Matthew’s Gospel was probably written during the last two decades of the 1st Century and even as late as during the first five years of the 2nd Century.  It is thought it may have been written in Antioch in Syria, by a member of a Christian Community of Jewish origin.  The writer appears to have been educated in the tradition of the Jewish Scribes.  By the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, Judaism had undergone great changes.  Following the Jewish uprising against the Romans and the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, religious power rested very much in the hands of the Pharisees, rather than in the Temple based religious hierarchy.  They were keen to maintain the purity of the Jewish Religion and, as a result, tensions between Jews and Jewish Christians arose, with the result that, by AD 85, Jewish Christians were excluded from worshipping in the synagogues.  These tensions come to the surface in Matthew’s Gospel in Chapters 6 and 23 where the tone is clearly anti Jewish.

Matthew’s Gospel is full of references to the Old Testament and one of his purposes is to show clearly how Jesus was the fulfilment of all of God’s promises revealed through the scriptures.  Matthew alone uses the title ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ instead of ‘Kingdom of God’ and this may have been due to his strict Jewish education which forbade the writing of the word, ‘God’.  He sets out Jesus’ ethical teaching in his wonderful portrayal of the Sermon on the Mount and his gospel is one of reconciliation and forgiveness.  While, in Luke, forgiveness is demanded seven times, in Matthew it is demanded, ‘seventy times seven’!  Matthew’s Gospel has always been the favourite in the Church’s use of the gospels and that is, perhaps, because Matthew’s prime concerns are pastoral and ecclesiastical rather than theological.

 

Matthew, Mark and Luke, the three gospels considered so far have been termed the ‘Synoptic Gospels’ because of their similarities.  As we shall see in the final article on, ‘The Gospel Writers’, the fourth Gospel according to John takes a very different approach to the Christian Message.

 

Alan Jones

 

 

The Gospel Writers

 

This is the last of four articles that look at the writers behind the four gospels in the New Testament.

 

 

Part 4 – The Gospel According to St John

 

Scholars are divided about whether or not the writer of the Fourth Gospel knew of the Synoptic Gospels and, perhaps, especially that written by Mark.  However, whether or not the writer was aware of any other gospels, his gospel is markedly different from all of the other three - both in structure and in some content.

 

Tradition suggests the Fourth Gospel was written in Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia, towards the end of the first century by the disciple John, the son of Zebedee.  There is a clear link in the gospel with the disciple, John, who is identified in it as ‘the beloved disciple’ just as there appears to be a link in Mark’s Gospel with the disciple, Peter.  However, it is doubtful whether John the fisherman would have had the ability to write in such a learned manner.  This is reinforced by the story in Acts 4 of the account of Peter and John before the Council where the disciples are described in verse 13 as, ‘uneducated, ordinary men.’  John, the disciple, may well have had the same influence over the gospel as we think Peter had over the gospel of Mark but is unlikely to have written it.  Certainly, the gospel betrays an intimate knowledge of Palestinian geography and culture which the writer clearly gained from someone familiar with that region.

 

While Mark started his gospel with the story of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and Matthew and Luke with stories of Jesus’ birth, John hearkens back to the beginning of time with his introduction.  His prologue begins with the same opening words as the book of Genesis, ’In the beginning…’ as he proceeds to identify Jesus Christ with the ‘Word’, the ‘Logos’ in the original Greek.  Because John never returns to this idea again in his gospel, some scholars feel the prologue may have been written earlier than the gospel itself and may even have been an early Christian hymn.  Its form is certainly beautifully poetic.

John’s Gospel is full of contrasts as between light and darkness, life or death, truth or falsehood, heaven above and the earth below.  In John’s Gospel miracles are called, ‘signs’ but, while in the other gospels they herald the Kingdom of God, in John they validate Jesus as the Son of God.  John does not include any exorcisms (the driving out of demons) or the healing of leprosy in his miracles but he alone tells of the story of the changing of the water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  Like Matthew’s Gospel, John’s Gospel was written at a time when there was fierce conflict between the Christian Church and the ‘Synagogue’.  However, while the other gospels always talk specifically of the ‘Scribes and Pharisees’ opposing Jesus, John often uses the general term, ‘Jews’ instead. (John 9:22)

 

It is generally agreed that the Fourth Gospel is one of the most important books ever written.  Its influence in the Christian Church is probably incalculable.  Its strength, perhaps, lies in the way it can speak to us on so many levels whether we are scholars or ordinary men, women and children seeking the truth of, ‘the Word made flesh’.

 

Alan Jones

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gospel Writers

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