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  • Writer's pictureEric Cline

The Gospels

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

Do you think the way society views the world is heavily influenced by the media? Fox News? CNN? Twitter? Facebook? The views of Society are certainly influenced by the key ideas of the esteemed (and not so esteemed) thinkers and leaders of our generation. We can see evidence of this in previous generations. During the period leading up to about 1771, the four Gospels were regarded as inspired by God and therefore true and binding for all people. After that, “modern” thought noticeably changed how the Gospels were read.

Augustine (354-430) believed that Matthew wrote the first Gospel Matthew. Mark sourced from Peter and Matthew and as John Mark wrote Mark. Luke sourced John (and perhaps some from Matthew and Mark) and wrote the Gospel of Luke followed by Acts. With one clarification, Augustinian thought regarding the Gospels reigned for over a thousand years.

There were differences among the four Gospels and John was clearly different than Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Those three were similar yet had significant differences. The three became known as the synoptic Gospels because events were described from a similar point of view, a view not shared by the Gospel of John. The differences among the synoptic Gospels were obvious and recognized by the religious and non-religious. Celsus, a second-century Greek philosopher, and opponent of early Christianity attacked the differences. Origen of Alexandria, an early Christian scholar, and subsequent church father, pushed back along with many others against Celsus. Criticism, specifically source criticism, drew out the differences but believers had faith in the power of God to not let any contradictions and human error taint the Gospels in fundamental ways. Augustine explained the differences in his writings as did John Calvin during the Reformation. There were differences, not contradictions.

The “Markan Hypothesis” idea posited that “Mark was the first of the written Gospels and that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as their primary source. There were numerous variations of this notion and in 1863 H. J. Holtzmann added another source that was ultimately dubbed simply “Q.” This source comprised the 230 or so verses that Matthew and Luke have in common that are not found in Mark. So the Markan Hypothesis took shape as a two-source hypothesis, the sources being Mark and Q. Swirling around all this was a virtual explosion of theories dealing with such questions as the content of Q, whether the canonical Mark was the original Mark (some theories suggested as many as four different Marks that preceded it), which of the many revisions of Mark Matthew and Luke used, whether Matthew and Luke used the same Mark, and so on. All the problems that involved how the first three Gospels related to one another were collectively called the “Synoptic Problem” by scholars.”[1] As others drilled down further in studies of the Gospels, to Mark and Q were material ascribed to Luke (designated as L) and material peculiar to Matthew (designated as M).

Source criticism drew out the Gospel differences but form criticism goes beyond the question of literary sources. Pericopae, the cutting around the written Gospel material and breaking it down into independent isolated sections helped to identify a particular part of the Gospel form. Form critics would have us believe the emphasis of the Gospels centered on the life of the early church, not the life of Jesus. “If the Form-Critics are right, the disciples must have been translated to heaven immediately after the Resurrection.”[2]

In the 1950s, source criticism and form criticism had their shortcomings replaced by redaction criticism, a new method to get one step closer but in the end, would also be insufficient. Form criticism sees the evangelists as compilers of tradition; redaction criticism sees them as authors, not collectors of oral tradition. Redaction criticism could not maintain itself as a method to solve the basic problems of Gospel research.

Some critics retain pieces of all types of historical criticism but other approaches are proving better such as structuralism (literary criticism) and narrative criticism. Structuralism posits that underlying all expression and narrative is a structure in our minds, a “deep structure,” that determines the courses that our thoughts and expressions take. By the time structuralism was applied to the Gospel stories, it had become such a complicated and esoteric enterprise that it found little widespread support. Narrative criticism focuses on literary techniques, plot, structure, ordering of events, dramatic tension, intended impact on the reader, and other such literary elements.

Social scientific criticism of the New Testament includes factors such as historical background, social context, and economic matters. Other methods include reader-response theory, rhetorical criticism, and deconstructionism. There is currently no single method of Gospels interpretation on which all scholars agree.

[1] Walter A Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament, (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 157. [2] Vincent Taylor, The Formation of the Gospel Tradition (London: Macmillan, 1933), 41.

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