Easter Sunday has been a time, for me, to reflect a little more on the Gospel according to John which takes us into some depth about the resurrection, the co-inherence of the Persons of the Trinity, and the indwelling of Christ, which is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Organized as a mandala, or more like a labyrinth, it is an ingenious document that reflects decades of reflection on the Christian mystery, the author having done so in company with the mother of Jesus with whom he lived and traveled until she died (if in fact she died before her body was assumed into heaven, if indeed it was, as were the bodies of Enoch, Moses, and Elijah before her—according to the Biblical text and traditions).
A development is taking place through the gospels, and it is worth our while to take this journey with them. According to my conclusions, based on my own research and methods, Matthew’s gospel was written first. It was, therefore, initially, the only written Gospel. Prior to this the Gospel were accounts of Jesus told by those who knew him. A convenient and appropriate occasion for this would have been when the community gathered on the evening after the Sabbath, when the “Lord’s Day” began, or the following day, to break bread as Jesus commanded, “as a memorial of Me.” As, however, the outreach to gentiles began to expand beyond the territories easily visited by such witnesses, the need became apparent for a written account of such memories. Polemically, such a collection could also serve as an argument for the kind of gentile mission envisioned by the folks in Antioch of Syria (for example, Paul) by presenting the life and teachings of Jesus in that light.
Matthew, a tax collector not to be confused with Levi (who is called “Matthew” in Matthew 9:9), was the only one of the Twelve who had a writing table and writing implements. As a close disciple of Jesus, it is not unlikely that he even wrote things Jesus said on temporary wax tablets before transferring them to papyri. Teachers like Jesus taught by rote, crafting their saying in verse for easy memorization. It seems, however, that Matthew would not have been entirely dependent on such memorization as retained by himself and his companions. Over the thirty years since Jesus’ death and resurrection, Matthew would likely have accumulated a collection of such teachings as well as many stories in the form of pericopes—coherent units suitable for public reading—that he transferred in writing to sheets of papyri. When the concept of a written Gospel developed, he organized these sheets thematically, setting them in the order with which we are familiar, and transferred them to a velum scroll for publication. I estimate that this project was completed by 52 C.E. (which, I am aware, seems impossibly early to most my peers, but their arguments to the contrary have not convinced me).
Handwritten copies of this scroll were made and distributed in Syria and Palestine as well as deposited with (or copied by) the new communities in the lands of the Diaspora (and possibly beyond). This was probably the “tradition” that Paul “handed over” to his communities.
Luke, probably a Jewish proselyte (he, a gentile, had been a frequent attender of synagogue in any case) and an educated man, met Paul possibly in 45 C.E., in Antioch of Pisidia, and became a follower of Jesus. He may have gone to Palestine at this point to interview eyewitnesses of Jesus and to gather some accounts of his own. At some point, not long after the publication of Matthew, he got a hold of Matthew’s scroll. Perhaps on his own, or at the suggestion of Paul—after they resumed contact—he decided to create his own account of the Gospel, combining the Gospel that Matthew had composed, the style of which was very Jewish, with his own notes, arranging it as a Hellenistic bio according to his own agenda, and modifying it for a more cosmopolitan audience (typical of the Pauline mission). The evidence is that he sat with a scroll of Matthew’s gospel and culled it for pericopes as he unrolled it, doing so six times as he composed chapters 3—10. After that, until chapter 19:28, Luke inserted speeches and stories he had not yet used into the lengthy section on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, which was largely a composition from his own notes. He resumes Matthew’s basic order after that. Luke’s composition was probably finished by 56 C.E. when he began work on the Acts of the Apostles.
Matthew’s account of the Gospel reflects an original setting in Palestine and the polemical situation with a particular school of Pharisees, which in his own days (after Jesus) sometimes grew violent, erupting at times into harassments and riots. The teaching in Matthew, whether directly or by allusion, also reflects some familiarity and agreement with Paul’s understanding of Israel’s teleology and Paul’s own mission.
Luke’s new account of the Gospel does not reflect a disagreement but rather an attempt to better communicate within the diasporan milieu of the Jews around the Mediterranean to people in largely gentile localities in the mixed communities of the churches—i.e., in the world of the Pauline mission. While Luke’s gospel does not demonstrate an understanding of Paul’s overall theology any more than Matthew’s (neither of them seems to have read any of Paul’s writings), it does exude an understanding of Paul’s missionary methods and experience of his mission. Indeed, in Luke’s account Jesus is the model Apostle, the Apostle par excellence, as the basis and exemplar for the church’s apostolate.
While Paul might have wanted to introduce Luke’s account of the Gospel to the communities of his apostolate, there is not much evidence that he did, even if he was familiar with the gospel. The publication of Luke’s gospel may have waited until the Acts of the Apostles was finished and the approval of the apostle Peter, who became not only the leader of the Twelve—in the predominantly Jewish churches of Palestine, Syria and beyond (mostly in the East)—but a leader among apostles of the kind that Paul was (there probably never was a ranking among them in those times, but rather a recognition and respect).
This is one scenario of how the Gospel according to Mark came about. Luke’s version of the Gospel came to Peter’s attention when he was in Rome during the Neronian persecution. Perhaps it was Paul who did this or it was Luke himself. In any case, because it differed from the accepted Gospel written by Matthew, and because it offered so much additional material about Jesus than was in Matthew’s account, there was an issue about whether it should be accepted. The Jewish believers were perhaps perfectly content with how Matthew’s account appealed to them. The gentile believers might have found the appeal of Luke’s gospel more appealing to them. It is possible that the community in Rome itself was divided, the Jews favoring one gospel and the gentiles favoring another. As it were, the tension between the two groups might have already been high, since Nero’s persecution might have targeted the uncircumcised (unconverted) gentile believers as an illegal sect (they did not honor the gods of state, community and family), the Jewish believers having a measure of protection as members of the very ancient and accepted religious sect—that of the god of Israel. Peter was asked to resolve the issue of two versions of the Gospel.
Basically, what Peter did was to gather an assembly together and lay the two scrolls in front of him. Looking for where the two gospels agreed with each other, he then retold the whole story, following the order of first one and then the other and—as an entitled eyewitness—embellishing them along the way, leaving out most of the sayings and the stories that were unique. He thereby gave his stamp of approval to Luke’s account. His decision? The church would have two accounts of the Gospel: the Gospel according to Matthew and the (same) Gospel according to Luke. He ended up creating a digest of Matthew’s gospel and Luke’s, and thereby crafted—inadvertently—a third gospel (which was not unlike Tatian’s later attempt at a synopsis of all four gospels), but with less pericopes than either of the others but often with more details than either. This took place in the early to mid-60’s, probably in 64 C.E. or thereabouts (before Peter’s martyrdom).
Of course, Peter did not write this digest. There were probably scribes present who wrote down what he said. Mark, a companion of both Paul and Peter, might have been one of the scribes or, somehow, he ended up with at least one of the scribes’ transcriptions. Either Peter never got to the end of the story, or else the ending was lost. In any case, Mark became the editor of these notes and redacted them into the form we now have. The publication of Luke’s gospel may have taken place at once, having the stamp of Peter’s approval. The new account of Mark’s took a while longer. In view of the terrible Roman persecution, the Jewish War, and the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the publication of Mark’s gospel might not have happened until the 80s of the common era. At the time, Mark might still have been in Rome, but it is also possible that he published his work in Egypt, in Alexandria. Wherever he was, it seems likely that the ending of the gospel that we now have, verses 9 to 20 of chapter 16, is Mark’s own composition (not Peter’s).
This all took place within the orbits of the Twelve, the Pauline mission in the Mediterranean, and the church of Rome.
Those two events, the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor—when virtually all the church’s leaders were put to death—and the destruction of the Second Temple, would have signaled to the believers that Jesus’ glorious return was imminent. Only, it never happened. The morale of the church, Jewish and gentile, was hit very hard and people began to look for answers.
The epistle of Jude, the epistles of John, the letters to the seven churches in the Book of the Revelation, and noncanonical sources, testify to the beginning of Docetism and proto or nascent Gnosticism as one attempt to come up with answers. These were probably not break off sects but rather independent movements within established churches. They were what we might compare to Bible study groups with leaders of their own, though they experimented with forms of worship and mystical experiences and with alternative texts that they had composed. Their leaders, at least, could not only read but could also write, and they must have itinerated to similar groups in other cities. They came up with complex and elaborate cosmological mythologies, combining things about Jesus with ideas from the mystery religions of the Persian east. Later, we might find traces of Buddhism and Hinduism in their writings. Essentially, they disparaged the material world and perceived it as a prison from which the spirit needs to become free. Jesus is the revealer from heaven of the gnosis (knowledge) that frees us. The “other” believers are caught up in matter, body and soul, and therefore are blind to how the language, symbols, and stories of church and synagogue are metaphorical and analogical of spiritual, eternal, universal and non-material truths that are beyond what is spatial and timebound.
In the early and mid-90s of the common era Onesimus brought together and published the entire letter collection of Paul (earlier Paul had bound four epistles together in an initial collection that he sent to Ephesus in the winter of 56/57 C.E.). Around this time, in the mid-90s, that is, a prophet of Ephesus named John had the visions recorded in the Apocalypse, also featuring a collection of letters to churches. It was a time of recollection and a reassessment of the past.
Meanwhile, an elderly barely known disciple of Jesus, not one of the Twelve, but rather someone who knew the family of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany, someone beloved to Jesus and to whom Jesus entrusted the care of his mother as he was dying, John by name, was working on a fourth account of the Gospel. This one was quite different than the others. It is told from the point of view of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem instead of Galilee, and unlike the synoptic gospels in which Jesus ministers in Galilee and makes one journey to Jerusalem, in John’s account Jesus makes several trips to Jerusalem over several years. The others told many stories in comparison, John tells few, each one embedded in a long teaching section. These are not the only characteristics of this particular gospel account but it is enough to suggest that something else is being attempted. It is not another version of the same Gospel but an altogether different kind of project.
Very likely Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the inspiration if not also the origin of this account of the Gospel. Hers might well be the spiritual genius behind it. She and John lived together and, if legends are to be believed, at some point migrated from Palestine to Asia Minor, and settled in Ephesus of Anatolia, the center of Paul’s Aegean apostolate. This work, the Gospel according to John, presents a unified theological vision that clarifies things that we already find in Paul and especially in the treatise that we now know as the Epistle to the Hebrews. The Gospel according to John introduces more clearly than had ever been done before the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and presents a coherent vision of the cross. This gospel more than any other writing in the New Testament canon crystalizes the essence of Christianity at a time when confusion and doubt reigned because of disappointment and loss of morale. When this gospel scroll was published in the early 90s C.E., alongside the development of a nascent Christian canon, the church could move forward as new leadership developed amid continuing and sporadic persecutions.
It wasn’t until half a century later in Rome that the split between the three synoptic accounts of the Gospel and John’s account was healed, and a fourfold Gospel canon was formed. It was not until that time that the Acts of the Apostles was separated from the Gospel according to Luke so that Luke’s gospel could stand apart from the Acts alongside Matthew and Mark. When John’s gospel was united to the other three, the intention was that all four should be accepted at the Gospel and each should be interpreted in the light of the others (that is, canonically).