Which gospel is most reliable
Four gospels - four stories of Jesus
In the Bible we find not just one book about Jesus, but four. These are partly the same, but also show major differences. Why is that?
If we turn to the New Testament, we will find four books about Jesus there: the four Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.1 Many people have long since taken this for granted, as they have met the four evangelists since their early childhood in a wide variety of contexts, from school books to depictions on paintings, pulpits or church windows. But, to be honest: It's a bit strange. Why do you put four books about Jesus in a row? Why did the early Church not simply adapt to a book of Jesus? In addition, because the four Gospels agree in many respects and in some cases are even literally the same, especially the first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. However, they also show considerable differences, up to the point that the Gospels even contradict one another in some details or at least are difficult to reconcile with one another. This difficulty could have been saved if one had simply taken one of the Gospels into the Canon of the Holy Scriptures.
Where do the four gospels come from?
The New Testament research could show with good arguments that the Gospel of Mark is the oldest of the Gospels and was written around the year 70 AD. As long as there was only one gospel, one could simply speak of "the" gospel. But soon more books on Jesus came into being. Matthew and Luke probably wrote their works in AD 80-90, and the Gospel of John was added towards the end of the first century. Now the four works had to be distinguished from one another, and they were made recognizable by giving them names that were as prominent as possible. Matthew is a name from the circle of twelve (Matthew 9.9; 10.3), Mark is seen as a companion of Peter (Acts 12.12), Luke is a name from the circle of Paul (Philemon 24), and John becomes again assigned to the circle of twelve. However, these attributions to these persons from the circle of Jesus, Peter or Paul are not historically tenable. The Gospels were written too late for that. The attributions show, however, that attempts have been made to bring the Gospels as close as possible to Jesus and to tie them to known and trustworthy people as possible, precisely because they were only written a few decades after Jesus' death.
Small clues in the Gospels show that they were not only written at different times, but also in different places. Matthew probably wrote his work in Syria, perhaps in the city of Antioch on the Orontes, which was of great importance for the history of the early Church. Mark and the congregation for whom he wrote his Book of Jesus probably lived in Rome. It is difficult to say where the Gospel of Luke came from. Maybe in Asia Minor or Greece. The first version of John's Gospel was probably written in the north of the East Bank and was then continued in Asia Minor, perhaps in Ephesus.
Where do the traditions come from?
Even if the first written book of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark, was not written about forty years after the death of Jesus, that does not mean that up to then one would have remained silent about Jesus for forty years. On the contrary: Already the Gospel of Mark shows that it could fall back on existing Jesus traditions. There were oral and soon also written traditions that were collected and that Markus was able to process in his book. He probably had a collection of miracle stories, a collection of parables, a few arguments - and most importantly, a story about the suffering and death of Jesus. He processed all of this in his book and thus presented the first litter of a book of Jesus.
According to the knowledge of New Testament biblical studies, those who wrote the Gospels of Matthew and Luke knew the Gospel of Mark. They each took it as the basis for their own work. This explains the great literal correspondence between Mark, Matthew and Luke. But Matthew and Luke had other material available. In this way they benefited from a collection of Jesus' words, which researchers call the “source of verses” or “source of speech” and which are abbreviated as “Q”. We owe such important texts as the Sermon on the Mount or the Our Father to this source. In addition, Matthew and Luke processed other stories in their books, which are called "Sondergut" because these texts only appear in one of the two Gospels. These are beautiful stories like the birth stories of Jesus, which are very different from each other in Matthew and Luke, or the Easter apparitions, in which the two evangelists each go different ways. Finally, John went another way and, although basically resorting to the present Jesus tradition, he found his own language and his own images for his Jesus book.
Different Jesus books for different questions
It is obvious that if the Gospels were written at such different times and in such different places, they cannot tell the same story of Jesus. Because the situation of their addressees was different, each of the congregations had to struggle with different difficulties, and other questions arose as to how one should now live according to the message of Jesus at this time. Therefore, every evangelist set different accents with his portrayal of Jesus, deepened this or that aspect that could be of importance for his own congregation, or left out other things that he did not consider to be so important for his people's questions. In this way, different Jesus books were created, each with the situation of their own time and place in mind. They told the story of Jesus in such a way that it was understood in their own time and gave answers to their burning questions. Because one wanted to convince with the book about Jesus and show that this Jesus "today" - and that means in the year 70, 80 or 100 AD, in Rome, Philippi or Antioch - is still relevant and relevant.2
Wouldn't a single gospel be enough?
In the early Church there was no lack of attempts to replace the various Gospels, which were in circulation at the beginning of the second century and also read side by side in the congregations, with a single Gospel or a harmony from the existing Gospels.
From around 139 AD onwards, the wealthy shipowner Markion vehemently campaigned in Rome that only the Gospel of Luke and a few letters from Paul should be regarded as binding. The reason for this was that he rejected the scriptures of the Old / First Testament and therefore wanted to remove everything from the Gospels that had to do with these scriptures. So he only accepted a Gospel of Luke that had been (supposedly) "purified" from such Old Testament references. It is true that Marcion was soon excluded from the congregation in Rome because of his ideas; but because he invested a lot of money in his project, his writings were still read in some churches centuries later.
The Syrian Tatian took a different path, who at the end of the second century AD used the gospel writings known to him to create a harmony of the gospels Diatessaron. This Gospel harmony was particularly valued in Syria, but it was also widely read in the West and served as a model for other Gospel harmonies until the Middle Ages.
The church chose a different route. She held that there were and should be a plurality of gospels. Especially when dealing with Marcion, the recognition of four Gospels soon became a sign of orthodoxy.
As a consequence, this means: The New Testament not only allows a single and authoritative image of Jesus to apply, but also places a large number of images of Jesus next to one another. These can complement each other in a productive way, but in some cases they are also in tension with each other and can correct each other. When we interpret the New Testament, we must not simply set a single image of Jesus as absolute, but must be aware that we only encounter Jesus in the New Testament in a multitude of images. In this way, different points of view can find space and different voices can be heard. It is only in this polyphony that what constitutes the Jesus of the New Testament emerges.3
- Compare with this and the following Sabine Bieberstein:Jesus and the Gospels (Theology II, 1), Zurich 2015.
- How they did it exactly will soon be described in separate articles on Glaubenssache-online.ch.
- Photo credits Cover picture: Halfpoint-iStock; Image 1: photocase / owik2; Image 2: robertharding / Alamy; Image 3: Molchanovdmitry / iStock
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