The best one-volume introduction to the Christian faith I’ve seen is What’s Christianity All About? by John Schwarz. There is also a condensed version of this book titled Living Faith(containing approximately 25% of the complete content). John has given me permission to reprint the entire text of Living Faith on this website. A chapter a day for ten days will be presented here as Meditations #926-#935. These meditations will be considerably longer than my usual post, but if you take the time to read them you will receive an excellent overview of the basics of Christianity. For more thorough study of the subjects in the ten chapters, purchase the larger book What’s Christianity All About? (Print and electronic versions available at Amazon.com).
CHAPTER FOUR: THE GOSPEL TESTIMONIES TO JESUS
The word gospel derives from the Old English word godspel— “God’s [good] story or news.” God’s good news is that “everyone who believes [in Jesus’ saving death] shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, sometimes called ‘the Gospel in a Nutshell’). The move from oral to written stories about Jesus— the Gospels— occurred because of the need for an authentic, firsthand account of Jesus by those who knew him (his followers were dying off) and because heretical views of Jesus were beginning to arise.
The Gospels are testimonies to Jesus. They also contain biographical material, but they are not “biographies” in the modern sense, because they cover only 10 percent of Jesus’ life and provide no information about his growing-up years in Nazareth or any “personal’ material. The concern of the Gospels is not with the facts of Jesus’ life— so we should not be surprised by occasional differences in the Gospel stories– but with the meaning of his life.
The Dating of the Gospels. Most scholars believe that Mark’s Gospel was written between 65 and 70, followed by Matthew and Luke in the 80s, and John in the 90s. A minority view is that all four Gospels were written before the year 70, because they fail to mention the destruction of the temple by the Romans in that year (see Luke 21:5-6).
The Authorship of the Gospels. It is assumed that because the Gospels are named, we know who wrote them. The Gospels, however, are anonymous; the authors did not add their names to their narratives, as Paul and others did to their letters. This does not mean that we have no idea who wrote them. They were “named” very early. Further, according to British scholar R. T. France, “There is no evidence that any of the Gospels ever existed without their present names, nor is there any variation in the names of those to whom they are attributed.” The names were added in the second century to differentiate the Gospels one from another and for purposes of liturgical reading.
The Gospel Audiences. We read the Gospels as we do other written works. In the first century, however, which had a literacy rate of only 2 or 3 percent, the Gospels were read aloud in house groups rather than privately. To help listeners follow the Gospel narratives, the writers used repetition, especially triads— repeating themes three times— which are found in each of the Gospels.
The Structure of the Gospels. Each of the Gospels has a twofold structure. The first half has to do with Jesus’ public ministry: his preaching and teaching, interspersed with healings and miracles to show that Jesus is more than just another teacher. The second half has to do with Jesus’ private ministry: preparing the disciples for his coming death in Jerusalem and their apostolic commission— and his resurrection to confirm his divine mission.
Mark: The Foundation Gospel
Mark’s Gospel was long neglected because of its alleged incompleteness. Today the opposite is the case, because it is now believed that Mark was the earliest of the four Gospels, thus the original Gospel story, and because Mark served as a source document for Matthew and Luke. (The first three Gospels are called the Synoptic Gospels, the word synoptic coming from two Greek words meaning “seeing together,” because they have a similar storyline.) Mark’s Gospel is action-packed and has a sense of urgency, as if written to Christians hiding in the catacombs and on the run, as seen in his frequent use (some forty times) of words like at once, immediately and quickly.
John Mark. According to church tradition, Mark’s Gospel was written from Rome, most likely in the years immediately following Peter’s martyrdom in the mid-60s. According to Papias, the second-century bishop of Hierapolis, “Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote down accurately all that he remembered of the things said and done by the Lord” (the graphic details in Mark’s Gospel suggest an eyewitness source). There is no reason to suppose that Mark did not write the Gospel that bears his name, because it is unlikely that it would have been attributed to someone who was neither a disciple nor an apostle unless he was, in fact, the author. According to tradition, then, the author of the first or earliest Gospel was Mark, also called John Mark (Acts 12:12,25). He was the son of Mary, a widow of some means who lived in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12), whose home may have been the location of the Last Supper. If so, the “young man” in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:51-52) may be Mark’s “secret autograph.” (Some think that each Gospel has a secret autograph; others consider such notions little more than silly speculation.) Mark was the cousin of Barnabas; together they accompanied Paul on his first missionary journey (c. 46-48). For some reason, at Perga, Mark left them “to return to Jerusalem” (Acts 13:13). Mark and Paul were later reconciled (2 Tim. 4:11).
Structure, Audience and Message. As mentioned, the Gospels have a two-part structure. The center point or hinge verse in Mark’s Gospel is Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the Christ” (8:29), following which Jesus tells the disciples that he will “suffer many things and be rejected by the elders … and that he must be killed” (8:31). Mark’s readers appear to be Gentiles: there is no Jewish genealogy in his Gospel; there are very few Old Testament references; Jewish words and customs are explained (see 7:3-4); and it is a Gentile, a Roman centurion at the foot of the cross, who declares Jesus to be “the Son of God” (15:39). Many believe that Mark wrote to strengthen the courage and faith of those suffering persecution as scapegoats for the burning of Rome by Nero in July 64. (Nero burned a residential section of the city on which he later built a palace; to counter rumors that he started the fire, he blamed the Christians.) Mark’s message is that hoping in Jesus is a real hope, just as it was for Jesus’ disciples when he told them that if they lost their lives “for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel” they would be saved (8:35).
Matthew: The Jewish Gospel
Matthew was the most popular Gospel in the early church, for three reasons. First, its author was believed to have been a disciple, which Mark was not. Second, it is comprehensive in scope (Matthew has both infancy and resurrection narratives, which Mark does not). Third, its organized teachings, like the Sermon on the Mount, made it ideal for instructing new believers.
If Mark was the first Gospel to be written, why does Matthew appear first in the canon? Because it was once believed that Matthew was the first Gospel; it is a more complete narrative (Matthew, like Luke, felt the need to write a much longer narrative than Mark); and Matthew portrays Jesus as the one prophesied about, making his Gospel the best bridge between the two Testaments. Matthew’s masterpiece is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Matthew, the Tax Collector. The author of the second Gospel is “Matthew, the tax collector” (10:3), one of Jesus’ twelve disciples (in Mark and Luke, he is called Levi). Tax collectors were despised because they levied taxes on fellow Jews and because they allegedly had no principles. (Given the low regard in which tax collectors were held, it is surprising that Matthew refers to himself as a tax collector; could this be his “secret autograph”?). Some believe that Matthew may have worked for Herod Antipas, collecting custom taxes on merchandise carried from Damascus to Acre, a city on the Mediterranean Sea. As a customs official, Matthew would have known how to write and keep orderly records and could have written down many of Jesus’ teachings, which are a central feature of his Gospel. Today there is considerable skepticism regarding the authorship of Matthew’s Gospel because it follows Mark’s story line and includes 90 percent of Mark’s Gospel. (Critics ask, “Why would someone who was with Jesus borrow so heavily from someone who was not?”) Some believe that Matthew’s Gospel was written by his disciples, which is why they had to rely so heavily on Mark. It is supposed that they took Mark’s Gospel, Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ teachings like the Sermon on the Mount and special materials like Matthew’s birth narrative, and wrote an expanded Gospel that they attributed to their teacher or master, Matthew. Today we would call this plagiarism; in the ancient world, where there were no copyright laws or controls, the use of other people’s writings was a normal, accepted practice.
Structure, Audience and Message. Matthew follows Mark’s story line but adds a different emphasis: Jesus’ teachings, which Matthew inserts into Mark’s narrative as five discourses. The discourses have to do with discipleship (chapters 5-7), mission (10), the kingdom of God (13), community life (18) and the coming judgment (23-25). Matthew’s readers appear to be Jewish Christians because Jewish words and customs are not explained (his readers know what he is talking about). Matthew’s Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, which he sets forth in two ways. First, his genealogy from Abraham through David to Joseph shows that Jesus was from the “house” of David. Second, his numerous references to the prophecies of Isaiah, Micah, Hosea, Jeremiah and other prophets show that Jesus “fulfilled” what had been spoken and written about the Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Luke: The Universal Gospel
Luke’s Gospel is the longest book in the New Testament, and Luke-Acts (Luke also wrote the book of Acts) comprises 25 percent of the New Testament. For many people, Luke’s Gospel is their favorite “Life of Christ.” (Someone once asked the Scottish scholar James Denney to recommend a good book on Jesus. Denney said, “Have you read the one that Luke wrote?”) Luke did not know Jesus during his public life; he based his Gospel on the writings and eyewitness accounts of others (see 1:1-4). Luke is careful to name people and to date events as though he is writing history, which he continues in the Acts of the Apostles. His intent, however, is to show God working out his plan of salvation on the plane of history. A special feature of Luke’s Gospel is Jesus’ parables. Luke tells the most and best loved of Jesus’ parables, which he skillfully weaves into his narrative, whereas Matthew and Mark often bunch them together.
Luke, the Physician. From the beginning, tradition has assigned the authorship of the third Gospel to Luke; there must have been compelling reasons to do so, because Luke was not one of Jesus’ disciples. It is generally assumed that Luke was a Gentile, though some dispute this because of his knowledge of things Jewish (which could easily have come from Paul). And Luke seems to have been a doctor, given his use of precise medical language and terms and Paul’s reference to him as “the doctor” (Col. 4:14). It is believed that Luke met Paul at Troas on Paul’s second journey in the early 50s; that he helped Paul start a church at Philippi, which Luke may have pastored; that he later rejoined Paul and accompanied him to Jerusalem at the end of Paul’s third journey and then went to Caesarea when Paul was imprisoned there; and that Luke sailed with Paul to Rome at the end of his life. Some think the “we” passages in Acts (16:9-17; 21:1-17; 27:1-28:16) are Luke’s secret autograph.
Structure, Audience and Message. Luke also follows Mark’s story line, but he is more polished, more literary and more expansive in telling his story. The Irish scholar David Gooding said that Luke’s Gospel has two “movements”— Jesus coming from heaven to earth, which begins in the manger, and his going from earth to heaven, which ends with his ascension (both are unique to Luke). The hinge verse is 9:51. Luke wrote for a Greco-Roman audience, which can be seen in his dedication to Theophilus, his literary style and vocabulary, his frequent use of Greek rather than Hebrew words and his limited reference to Jewish customs. Matthew wrote that Jesus was the promised Messiah; Luke wrote that Jesus was the universal Savior. Luke’s genealogy, for instance, goes beyond David and Abraham to Adam: Jesus did not come to save Israel, he came “to seek out and to save all who are lost” (19:10). Luke’s theme or message can be seen in Jesus’ homily in the synagogue at Nazareth (4:16-21), in which Jesus announces that he is the one anointed by the Spirit to bring the good news of salvation to the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed.
John: The Spiritual Gospel
John’s Gospel stands apart from Matthew, Mark and Luke in terms of structure, style and content; the overlap is only about 10 percent. Some differences can be seen in John’s omissions: John has no birth narrative, no baptism or temptations, no parables or Beatitudes, no Mount of Transfiguration and no agony in the garden or on the cross. Other differences can be seen in his additions: the wedding at Cana, Jesus and Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, healing the man born blind, washing the disciples’ feet and raising Lazarus. A special feature of John’s Gospel is Jesus’ use of seven “I am” metaphors to describe himself as “the way of salvation.” These are passages in which he says “I am the bread of life” (6:35), “the light of the world” (8:12), “the gate” (10:9), “the good shepherd” (10:11), “the resurrection and the life” (11:25-26), “the way, the truth and the life” (14:6) and “the vine” (15:5).
John, the Beloved Disciple. John was the younger brother of James (the Sons of Thunder, Mark 3:17) and most likely the youngest of Jesus’ disciples. Many identify him as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 19:26), who isn’t named, probably out of modesty (John’s secret autograph?). Five books in the New Testament bear John’s name: the fourth Gospel, the three letters of John (1, 2 and 3 John) and the book of Revelation. With regard to the fourth Gospel, the early church held that John, the son of Zebedee, is “the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down” (21:24). Today some commentators believe that the fourth Gospel did not come from the “hand” of John but from his followers, referred to as the Johannine Community.
Structure, Audience and Message. As mentioned above, John does not follow Mark’s story line; nor is it clear to whom his Gospel is addressed, but he structures his narrative like the other three— a public ministry and a private ministry. The first half (chapters 1-12) has been called the Book of Signs (or Miracles); the second half (13-21) has been called the Book of Glory (Jesus’ “hour,” his glorification). Many believe that John was writing a testimony to Jesus for the Christian community in Ephesus, where he lived out the final years of his life at the end of the first century John’s message is that Jesus is the one in whom “the Word became flesh” (1:14). William Barclay, the Scottish Bible commentator, said, “This might well be the single greatest verse in the New Testament.” Jesus did not come to bring the message of eternal life; he is the message.
The Gospels: Four Stories, One Jesus
Some say that because the Gospels present different stories and portraits of Jesus, they are fiction. Not at all. When we read multiple biographies of a famous person, we find that the authors tell their stories differently, and each helps us to know the person better than if we had read only one biography. The same is true with the Gospels. The reason they appear different is because each author chose, in shaping his narrative, to emphasize different aspects of the Jesus story for his particular audience. Mark wrote to Christians in Rome who were suffering persecution under Nero. Matthew wrote to Jewish Christians that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Luke wrote to the wider Greco-Roman world that Jesus was the universal Savior. John wrote that Jesus was the one in whom “the Word became flesh.” Four testimonies, written from four different perspectives, but all about the same Jesus, who lived and died and rose again.