Read the text and not books about the text. There are thousands of books writen on the gospels all interpreting Jesus’ teaching for you. Read his teaching for yourself. Let him speak to you directly through his words. The problem is knowing which are his words and which were the words of his later interpreters? That is what I will try to address in these blogs.
Don’t bother with the beginning, all those stories of the birth of Jesus came later and were the final touches Luke and Matthew added to their gospels. These three synoptic gospels were completed and in a form we would recognize between 75 CE and 85 CE give or take a decade. Some theological teachers believe nothing was written down before about 70CE, and all these stories were passed down by word of mouth. They depended on people’s memory. I don’t think so. If you want an example of a gospel handed down by word of mouth, then look at the Gospel of Thomas. This has early material in it, but it is filled with extraneous items belonging to later periods. Everybody added whatever their special insight was. I am very thankful the gospel material was written down early on, and we do not have to wrestle with a mess like the Gospel of Thomas.
So when were the gospels written? This is a different question than, “When were they completed,” or in today’s terms. “When were they published? Without going into any detail, here are a few of my own conclusions about when the various parts of each gospel were written. We must leave to a later blog my reason for thinking this way.
Mark: The first edition came out about 45 CE. We call this Proto- Mark. John Mark was most likely its author and jotted down the stories he heard directly from the early disciples that met at his mother’s house in Jerusalem. His is a bald, factual account of Jesus’ Galilean ministry which lasted about a year. I believe John Mark acted as Paul’s secretary and wrote his narrative to fill Paul in on Jesus of Nazareth’s life during that last year. Paul had not met Jesus so he needed at least an outline of Jesus’ story. Mark and Paul did not get on together so Mark left Paul’s employ in a huff, but he left behind a copy of his first attempt at a gospel. When Luke came on board as a travelling companion and secretary, there was Proto Mark sitting on his desk. Mark took off with his own copy of his work and later added further stories and teachings to it. This is the copy Matthew had on his desk when he wrote his gospel, but that is a lot later.
Luke’s gospel was written between 52 CE and 54 CE. I cannot prove this, but at the time Paul was in prison waiting for his court appearance before the Roman Governor Felix. This was two years of down time for Luke to indulge in his passion for writing and collecting writings of others. I cannot prove this, but later we might visit this idea again. Luke had in his possession at least three documents at this time. Proto Mark, a document we call Q, a collection of parables and teachings, and another mystery document we designate as ‘L’. We don’t know anything about who wrote ‘Q’ , but I have some very esoteric ideas about who wrote ‘L’, and I believe it was the earliest of the documents, and written during Jesus’ Jerusalem ministry. This document contains parables like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. I also believe this document was responsible for Paul’s original ideas that clarified Jesus’ message. As he says in his letter to the Galatians, “I got my gospel straight from Jesus and not from any human source”. The Birth narratives were all added during the 70’s or later.
Matthew was the last written of the synoptic gospels. This is a very Jewish gospel and reminds us that at this time, Christianity was a part of the Jewish religion. Matthew was finished in its present form about 85 CE, but like Luke it is composed of what he copied from other documents. He clearly had Mark’s latest edition, and also “Q’ which Luke used. Matthew also had his own special material, this we designate ‘M’. Here are some of the odd ball things about Matthew. He uses ‘Q’ differently from Luke by adding his own interpretation to aspects of the parables he copies. He embellishes the stories he finds in Mark, again adding his own twists, for example at one point in Mark’s gospel Jesus is seen walking on the water, but in Matthew, Peter, one of the disciples gets out of the boat and tries his hand at walking on water. Matthew for one reason or another improves on Mark’s story. He also changes words in the Lord’s Prayer, but this may be liturgical creep. When prayers are used in worship, over time people add their own usage and the prayer changes in small ways. The changes in Matthew’s Lord’s Prayer suggest a gap of 30 or 40 years between the two. Notice we cannot prove this, but it is a useful way of thinking when reading the gospels and being flummoxed by the differences.
- Mark wrote down what he heard from the disciples in the first few years immediately after Jesus’ death.
- Luke copied what other people had written without too many corrections, and those grammatical.
- Matthew took what others had written and changed it to fit what his own people believed or remembered.
- The Gospel of John or 4th gospel was written later. That is a subject for another blog. So pick up a copy of the gospels and read the gospels for yourself.