THE FOUR GOSPELS
We need to begin Gospel Reading with the essential background. That means a brief introduction as to how and why the four Gospels came to be written. This will help us to make sure that we are asking the right questions as we the Gospels.
At this stage, we need to look at what led up to the Gospel. What leads on from them, how the four and only these four became the recognised Gospels of the New Testament, is another question. All I need say is that the special canonical status of these four was generally recognised by the end of the second century.
The Three Stages
The four written Gospels we now have can best be seen as the result of a three stage process of development:
- The Life and Ministry of Jesus and his disciples
- The Life and Ministry of the Early Church
- The Life and Ministry of the Evangelist and his Community
It is easiest to see these three stages as an outline story of the early Church.
- The beginning must be of course Jesus himself: gathering a group of disciples around him, preaching and teaching in Aramaic in the hills of Galilee. Eventually he journeyed to Jerusalem where he was crucified by the Roman occupiers. Three days later, God raised him from the dead.
That is the briefest possible outline of the story of Jesus, the foundation story from which the Church arose.
This is the first stage of the process: the Life and Ministry of Jesus and his disciples.
- After the Resurrection and after Pentecost, the Apostles began to continue the mission of Jesus. On the one hand, this involved a lot of reflection on who Jesus is (his origins in God) and the significance of his life and resurrection, as well as handing on his teaching and preaching. All of this was done orally - it's possible that there were a few preacher's notebooks but none have survived. At the same time, the followers of Jesus burst out of their Jewish origins. What began as a rural aramaic speaking movement in Galilee quickly became urban and Greek speaking in Asia Minor (today's Turkey). The three or four decades after the resurrection were times of immense and rapid development for the Church as the proclamation of Jesus spoke to so many.
This is the Life and Ministry of the early Church.
- The climax was then the need to write all this down as a coherent account (see Luke 1,1-4). Someone, whom we presume was the evangelist Mark, saw the need to write the Gospel as a story, an account of Jesus which was addressed to the needs of his community. This is not a biography, it is rather using a story of Jesus as a way of presenting his preaching and teaching and its climax with his Passion, death and resurrection. Three more Gospels followed, each addressing different communities and their needs. Two were based on the story told by Mark, the fourth (the Gospel of John) told the story in a quite different way.
So we have the Life and Ministry of the evangelist and his community.
Mark, the First Gospel
It is easiest to see Mark as the first Gospel to be written because Mark's story of Jesus was used by Matthew and Luke as a framework for their gospels. These two evangelists took over Mark's story but they then adapted this story in different ways. Thus Matthew added five major discourses to the story whilst Luke has Jesus making a lengthy journey to Jerusalem. These adapations bring out each evangelist's portrait of Jesus.
The Gospels, Four Portraits of Jesus
I like to think of the Gospels of Jesus as four portraits. In painting someone, an artist is giving us his understanding and interpretation of the person he is painting. This is why different portraits of the same person can be quite different. In the same way, the Gospel is a portrait of Jesus: we are fortunate to have four portraits giving us four different approaches to this unique man whom we believe to be the Son of God.
The Four Evangelists (The Book of Kells)