The revelation of the Word of God proves a mighty task, even to those writers of early Christianity who purportedly had first-hand knowledge of Jesus and his teachings. As scholars of the works known as the “gospels,” it is important to understand that this label actually applies to many more works than the popular Matthew, Mark, Luke and John of the Bible. For all intents and purposes, however, the following argument applies only to these gospels. Historians evaluate many different sources when attempting to understand any aspect of history. The gospels can be judged in much the same manner.
Relying on one source provides too narrow a scope for adequate review of any doctrine, especially one as significant as the basis of one of the most, if not the most, prominent religious canons in the world. In order to truly comprehend the value in each of the four gospels to the formation of the early church, as well as the gospels’ testimony to the teachings of Jesus, their origins, authors and motivations have to be examined carefully. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are known as the synoptic gospels, meaning their stories and direction parallel each other.
One may question then, why do we need three gospels to tell the same story? The answer is validation. More than one writer writing from more than one location at more than one time lends much more credibility to the story than a single author telling a single story. For example, all three synoptic gospels tell the story of John the Baptist, therefore lending it credibility and a stable foundation of history for the early church. Matthew 3. 1 states, “In those days came John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness of Judea” (Mat. 3:1, KJV).
While Mark 1:4 follows, “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4). The wording is almost the same and the two works were supposedly written nearly three thousand miles apart, Matthew in Rome and Mark in northern Syria. Employing several different sources to substantiate one claim, i. e. Jesus is the Messiah, however, does have drawbacks. Different authors have different motivations, as well as basic human bias born of their particular upbringing, location and even station in the community.
Matthew, for instance, was a devout Jew, who wrote of Jesus from Bethlehem, the city of David. Matthew gave Jesus a complete Hebrew lineage; whereas Mark and Luke both refer to him as “Jesus of Nazareth” (Mark 1:24, Luke 4:34). Jesus’ birthplace has been a point of contention between theologians for centuries. Creating a timeline for Jesus’ life, especially since there is such little evidence of Jesus’ life between the ages of 12 and 30, is much more difficult with opposing evidence.
The gospel of John has always been the odd man out, possessing a more theological tone, rather than the expository nature of the synoptic gospels. Most scholars agree that the dating of this gospel cannot be placed before 100 A. D. , which means the foundations for the early Christian church we think of today were already being laid (Goodenough, 1945, p. 145). It is thought that early theologian, Marcion (circa 150 A. D. ) believed that the only scriptures that accurately represented Jesus were the gospel of Luke and Paul’s letters (to the Romans, e. g. ) (para. 1).
If John had been written during Marcion’s time, then this school of thought may have greatly influenced its tenants. The fact that all of the gospels were written after the time of Christ places their merit into question. The ambitions of a burgeoning church must always be considered when defending the authority of the words of Jesus. After all, there was no Bible until Constantine attempted to unify a fractured Roman Empire under one religion, commissioning the Bible into existence. The gospels can be supported or refuted based on their very script.
However, the true essence of religion is faith and the scriptures exist as the possibilities of truth behind that faith. Their significance as empirical evidence will always be called into question, and continually used as proof of Jesus’ teachings. It is this dichotomy that makes religion controversial and history questionable; but at the same time, worthy of defending with God’s true gift, life.
Goodenough, Erwin R. (1945). John a Primitive Gospel. Journal of Biblical Literature, 64, 145-182. Marcion. Marcion. 23 October 2008. http://www. marcion. info
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