The Four Gospels – Sources and History
In the writings that come from the early stages of Christianity, the Gospels are not mentioned until long after the works of Paul. It was not until the middle of the Second century A.D., after 140 A.D. to be precise, that accounts began to appear concerning a collection of Evangelic writings, In spite of this, “from the beginning of the Second century A.D., many Christian authors clearly intimate that they knew a. great many of Paul’s letters.” These observations are set out in the Introduction to the Ecumenical Translation of the Bible, New Testament (Introduction à la Traduction oecuménique de la Bible, Nouveau Testament) edited 1972. They are worth mentioning from the outset, and it is useful to point out here that the work referred to is the result of a collective effort which brought together more than one hundred Catholic and Protestant specialists.
The Gospels, later to become official, i.e. canonic, did not become known until fairly late, even though they were completed at the beginning of the Second century A.D. According to the Ecumenical Translation, stories belonging to them began to be quoted around the middle of the Second century A.D. Nevertheless, “it is nearly always difficult to decide whether the quotations come from written texts that the authors had next to them or if the latter were content to evoke the memory of fragments of the oral tradition.”
“Before 140 A.D.” we read in the commentaries this translation of the Bible contains, “there was, in any case, no account by which one might have recognised a collection of evangelic writings”. This statement is the opposite of what A. Tricot writes (1960) in the commentary to his translation of the New Testament: “Very early on, from the beginning of the Second century A.D., it became a habit to say “Gospel’ meaning the books that Saint Justin around 150 A.D. had also called “The Memoirs of the Apostles’.” Unfortunately, assertions of this kind are sufficiently common for the public to have ideas on the date of the Gospels which are mistaken.
The Gospels did not form a complete whole ‘very early on’; it did not happen until more than a century after the end of Jesus’s mission. The Ecumenical Translation of the Bible estimates the date the four Gospels acquired the status of canonic literature at around 170 A.D.
Justin’s statement which calls the authors ‘Apostles’ is not acceptable either, as we shall see.
As far as the date the Gospels were written is concerned, A. Tricot states that Matthew’s, Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels were written before 70 A.D.: but this is not acceptable, except perhaps for Mark. Following many others, this commentator goes out of his way to present the authors of the Gospels as the apostles or the companions of Jesus. For this reason he suggests dates of writing that place them very near to the time Jesus lived. As for John, whom A. Tricot has us believe lived until roughly 100 A.D., Christians have always been used to seeing him depicted as being very near to Jesus on ceremonial occasions. It is very difficult however to assert that he is the author of the Gospel that bears his name. For A. Tricot, as for other commentators, the Apostle John (like Matthew) was the officially qualified witness of the facts he recounts, although the majority of critics do not support the hypothesis which says he wrote the fourth Gospel.
If however the four Gospels in question cannot reasonably be regarded as the ‘Memoirs’ of the apostles or companions of Jesus, where do they come from? 24. Pub. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1967 O. Culmann, in his book The New Testament (Le Nouveau Testament), says of this that the evangelists were only the
“spokesmen of the early Christian community which wrote down the oral tradition. For thirty or forty years, the Gospel had existed as an almost exclusively oral tradition: the latter only transmitted sayings and isolated narratives. The evangelists strung them together, each in his own way according to his own character and theological preoccupations. They linked up the narrations and sayings handed down by the prevailing tradition. The grouping of Jesus’s sayings and likewise the sequence of narratives is made by the use of fairly vague linking phrases such as ‘after this’, ‘when he had’ etc. In other words, the ‘framework’ of the Synoptic Gospels is of a purely literary order and is not based on history.”
The same author continues as follows:
“It must be noted that the needs of preaching, worship and teaching, more than biographical considerations, were what guided the early community when it wrote down the tradition of the life of Jesus. The apostles illustrated the truth of the faith they were preaching by describing the events in the life of Jesus. Their sermons are what caused the descriptions to be written down. The sayings of Jesus were transmitted, in particular, in the teaching of the catechism of the early Church.”
This is exactly how the commentators of the Ecumenical Translation of the Bible (Traduction oecuménique de la Bible) describe the writing of the Gospels: the formation of an oral tradition influenced by the preachings of Jesus’s disciples and other preachers; the preservation by preaching of this material, which is in actual fact found in the Gospels, by preaching, liturgy, and teaching of the faithful; the slender possibility of a concrete form given by writings to certain confessions of faith, sayings of Jesus, descriptions of the Passion for example; the fact that the evangelists resort to various written forms as well as data contained in the oral tradition. They resort to these to produce texts which “are suitable for various circles, which meet the needs of the Church, explain observations on the Scriptures, correct errors and even, on occasion, answer adversaries’ objections. Thus the evangelists, each according to his own outlook, have collected and recorded in writing the material given to them by the oral tradition”.
This position has been collectively adopted by more than one hundred experts in the exegesis of the New Testament, both Catholic and Protestant. It diverges widely from the line established by the Second Vatican Council in its dogmatic constitution on the Revelation drawn up between 1962 and 1965. This conciliar document has already been referred to once above, when talking of the Old Testament. The Council was able to declare of the latter that the books which compose it “contain material which is imperfect and obsolete”, but it has not expressed the same reservations about the Gospels. On the contrary, as we read in the following.
“Nobody can overlook the fact that, among all the Scriptures, even those of the New Testament, the Gospels have a well-deserved position of superiority. This is by virtue of the fact that they represent the most pre-eminent witness to the life and teachings of the Incarnate Word, Our Saviour. At all times and in all places the Church has maintained and still maintains the apostolic origin of the four Gospels. What the apostles actually preached on Christ’s orders, both they and the men in their following subsequently transmitted, with the divine inspiration of the Spirit, in writings which are the foundation of the faith, i.e. the fourfold Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”
“Our Holy Mother, the Church, has firmly maintained and still maintains with the greatest constancy, that these four Gospels, which it unhesitatingly confirms are historically authentic, faithfully transmit what Jesus, Son Of God, actually did and taught during his life among men for their eternal salvation until the day when He was taken up into the heavens. . . . The sacred authors therefore composed the four Gospels in such a way as to always give us true and frank information on the life of Jesus”.
This is an unambiguous affirmation of the fidelity with which the Gospels transmit the acts and sayings of Jesus.
There is hardly any compatibility between the Council’s affirmation and what the authors quoted above claim. In particular the following:
The Gospels “are not to be taken literally” they are “writings suited to an occasion” or “combat writings”. Their authors “are writing down the traditions of their own community concerning Jesus”. (Father Kannengiesser).
The Gospels are texts which “are suitable for various circles, meet the needs of the Church, explain observations on the Scriptures, correct errors and even, on occasion, answer adversaries’ objections. Thus, the evangelists, each according to his own outlook, have collected and recorded in writing the material given to them by the oral tradition”. (Ecumenical Translation of the Bible).
It is quite clear that we are here faced with contradictory statements: the declaration of the Council on the one hand, and more recently adopted attitudes on the other. According to the declaration of the Second Vatican Council, a faithful account of the actions and words of Jesus is to be found in the Gospels; but it is impossible to reconcile this with the existence in the text of contradictions, improbabilities, things which are materially impossible or statements which run contrary to firmly established reality.
If, on the other hand, one chooses to regard the Gospels as expressing the personal point of view of those who collected the oral traditions that belonged to various communities, or as writings suited to an occasion or combat-writings, it does not come as a surprise to find faults in the Gospels. All these faults are the sign that they were written by men in circumstances such as these. The writers may have been quite sincere, even though they relate facts without doubting their inaccuracy. They provide us with descriptions which contradict other authors’ narrations, or are influenced by reasons of religious rivalry between communities. They therefore present stories about the life of Jesus from a completely different angle than their adversaries.
It has already been shown how the historical context is in harmony with the second approach to the Gospels. The data we have on the texts themselves definitively confirms it.
Borrowed from The Bible, The Qur’an and Science by Dr. Maurice Bucaille
23. Pub. Editions du Cerf et Les Bergers et les Mages, Paris.
24. Pub. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1967
25. The three Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke.