Myth understandings: Source documents: 1 The Gospels

an irregular column


In the Nineteenth Century, intimidated by the apparently reliable new theories about origins and human development, a school of thought arose which sought to rationalise what Christians believed about Jesus and all things transcendent. A campaign to undermine the authority of the main historical sources for Christianity, and the teachings of Jesus and the early church, without denying them outright, led to claims that the New Testament documents, the most important and complete records of the life of Jesus and the activities of the first Christians, had only been written many decades after the events they describe. They were, therefore, unreliable as history, and contained much that was simply myth.

This idea has become generally believed by the public, although, ironically enough, it has fallen out of favour with historians. Historical and textual analysis of the twenty-six documents which make up the New Testament has concluded that they are, in fact, what they claim to be. Part of the problem has been that the nature and purpose of these documents has been misunderstood, or misrepresented.

The earliest complete copies of the New Testament date from around 350A.D., though there are parts, or entire books, from 100 or 200 years earlier. About 5,000 manuscript copies exist for the New Testament, compared with around ten manuscripts of Julius Caesar’s “Gallic War”, written about 56 B.C., the oldest of which dates from 900 years after the original was written. No-one questions the historicity or genuineness of either Caesar or his book. The Papyrus Bodmer II contains most of the Gospel of John. It was discovered in 1956 and dates from around 200 A.D., and another of the same year contains parts of Luke and John. There is, in short, a great deal of evidence for the early origins of the New Testament.

The four Gospels were not written as biographies, as we would understand that term. No biography would devote so much space to the last week of the subject’s life, and ignore much of what went before he reached his thirties. Each of the four Gospels was written for a different audience, with a different purpose in mind.

It is understood that Mark’s was probably the first Gospel to be written down, based largely on earlier oral sources. One of these, apparently, was the Apostle Peter, as stated by Eusebius in his history. Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source, though not exclusively. Mark was a companion of both Paul and Peter on their travels, and gathered much of his material from Peter, probably in Aramaic. This he translated into Greek around 65 A.D., and his Gospel seems to have been directed to the Christians in Rome, largely Gentiles and not Jews.

Matthew used Mark as one of his sources, and both Mark and Luke seem to have drawn on an earlier collection of the sayings of Jesus, usually referred to as “Q”, which was quite likely compiled from notes taken as Jesus spoke. It is considered most probable that a second collection, referred to as “P”, was also available to the Gospel writers, and may have been quoted by Paul in some of his letters. Papias, writing around 120 A.D., says that Matthew compiled the “Logia”, the saying of Jesus, in Hebrew (or Aramaic). Matthew’s Gospel was written around 70 A.D., and was a combination of the Logia and other sources. It was written for the Jewish Christians, it would appear, based on the main emphasis of the work.

Luke is a conscious work of history, based on research, interviews with eye witnesses, and is considered by historians of the ancient world to be a work of the highest historical standard. Luke, from the beginning, bases his work on traditional historical forms and structures, and has been supported by recent archaeological discoveries. An entire article, or series of articles, could be written about the historical value and integrity of Luke’s Gospel and his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. It was probably written before Paul’s death in 65 A.D., as the Acts ends with Paul’s arrival as a prisoner in Rome, and there is no reference to the Fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., something which would have been a crucial event to record.

The Gospel of John has always stood alone in the thinking and affections of Christians. Unlike the other three Gospels, which share sources, and very often large amounts of content, John is deeper, perhaps, more theological and poetic, though it remains an historical document full of events, facts, and personal reflections and memories. John wrote for all Christians and seekers of all ages, and his emphasis is on “knowing”, being certain of the truth of what he is writing. In his Gospel, and the three letters included in the New Testament, he comes back, again and again, to the importance of knowing as truth, as fact, the events and Person he is recording.

John’s Gospel was probably the last to be written, and is thought to date from around 70 A.D. by a participant in the events it records.

“Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”


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