The four canonical gospels – Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John – are the most significant sources of information on early Christianity and the life of Jesus. Each gospel has a unique composition, history, and emphasis. By studying the Gospels individually – both as narratives and as primary sources – we can more deeply understand and appreciate the way that early Christians thought about Jesus Christ.
The Synoptic Problem
Among the four canonical gospels, there is a strong relationship between three in particular: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They are known as the synoptic gospels because they can be seen together. They share similarities in sequence, wording, and stories.
The question of why the synoptics are similar to each other has occupied New Testament scholars and historians; it has become known as the synoptic problem. (For an excellent overview of the problem, see http://www.hypotyposeis.org/synoptic-problem/2004/09/two-source-hypothesis.html).
This problem was obvious to the early Church Fathers. Some of them, such as Augustine of Hippo, pioneered the first theories explaining how this phenomenon occurred. Augustine thought that Matthew was written first, with Mark abbreviating Matthew for his version of the gospel. He believed that Luke had both Mark and Matthew to use when writing his his gospel.
Modern theory has gone in a very different direction, arguing that Mark was probably written first. There are big and small reasons why this is likely. None of them are airtight, but the case is quite strong:
Mark’s Greek is rougher.
Mark is the shortest gospel. If Mark had access to Matthew or Luke, it is unlikely that he would exclude certain major events found in these gospels, such as the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke.
Nearly 97% of the Gospel of Mark is found within Matthew and Luke. If Mark was pulling material from both Luke and Matthew, it would not make sense for him to add so little material – if he was to add material at all. It makes more that Luke and Matthew were copying extensively from Mark.
Imagine each gospel having two kinds of material: narrative (stories about Jesus) and teachings (Jesus’ preaching). When the narrative is only in two synoptic gospels, it is (almost always) either in Mark and Matthew or Mark and Luke. This suggests that Matthew and Luke were independently pulling material from Mark.
Together, these reasons suggest that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke were written later and drawing from Mark’s Gospel. This reconstruction is known as Markan Priority.
There is shared material between Matthew and Luke which is not found in Mark. This material is typically the sayings or teachings of Jesus; therefore, scholars think that Matthew and Luke were working from an independent source (apart from Mark) which contained the sayings of Jesus. This hypothetical source is named Quelle, or just Q. Matthew and Luke seem to have been independently working from Quelle, because although the sequence of the narrative in Matthew and Luke is the same, the order of the teachings is not. This suggests that Matthew and Luke were inserting the teachings into the narrative where they seemed to fit.
In short, the most plausible reconstruction theory about the synoptic problem is that Matthew and Luke were independently working from Mark and Q. This theory is known as the two source hypothesis.
It is important to note that Matthew, Luke, and Mark each have their own traditions which are unique to their gospels. These traditions include passages such as the nativities found in Matthew and Luke, which are not derived from either Mark or Q. Rather, the nativities are part of the individual traditions of these gospels. These traditions are simply called M for Matthew and L for Luke. As we will see, the material that is exclusive to Matthew provides important insights into the unique emphases of Matthew, and the same is true of the material exclusive to Luke.
The Gospels as Narratives
First and foremost, the gospels should be read individually and as narratives. The gospels are often read synthetically, as one story. But they were written individually, and each author has a point of emphasis: a certain aspect of Jesus that they want to impress upon the hearer. Each gospel carries meaning, not only at the individual word or sentence, but also in the structure of the gospel as a whole. The reader loses meaning by cutting up and breaking down the text. Truly, in the gospels’ case, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Therefore, it is best to read each gospel individually as a narrative and then compare the differences between the gospels to highlight the unique aspects of each one.
Dating the Gospels
It is worth considering why and when the gospels were written, and we will go into more detail as we consider each gospel individually. In a basic sense, it is likely that the gospels began to appear when the people who knew Jesus (such as the apostles) started dying. It became imperative that the memory of Jesus be written down so that his story could be passed on to future generations.
Dating the gospels is notoriously difficult. In fact, absolute dating is impossible. In the case of the synoptics (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), the theory of Markan Priority – that the gospel of Mark was written first and used as a source by Matthew and Luke – has attained widespread acceptance on the strength of its supporting arguments. Although the absolute dating of Mark remains speculative, most scholars believe that Mark was written some time around 70 AD. This estimate is largely due to the gospel’s dark atmospherics and prophecies, which are consonant with the turmoil of the First Jewish Revolt and the transition from the Julio-Claudian to Flavian dynasties. In that case, the gospels of Matthew and Luke would date to the subsequent decades. Matthew may reflect conditions in the 80s or 90s AD. Luke has been dated from the 80s to the 120s AD, although there are compelling reasons to believe that Acts – the second part of the Gospel of Luke – is a first-century text. The fourth gospel, John, stands outside the synoptic tradition and is harder to date. A credible range would extend at least from 75 to 125 AD.
In the synoptic gospels themselves, there is never any passage that states “I, Matthew, wrote this gospel” or “I, Luke, am the author of this gospel.” The names we have attached to the texts are attributions by later Christians such as Papius, who are rather mysterious figures. It may be correct to view the gospel authors as communities that followed a tradition associated with a particular disciple or apostolic writer, since these texts would have likely been used independently by local Christian congregations. We will investigate the authorship of the gospels within subsequent chapters, but it is important to keep in mind that the gospels were a collaborative effort – composed, edited, and redacted by individuals and communities over time to remember the gospel of Jesus.
We know very little about the author of Mark. Papius, a church figure in the second century AD, states that Mark was the interpreter of Peter and “he wrote down everything Peter remembered but not in the order of the things either said or done by Christ.” Papius does not criticize the authenticity of Mark, but he does criticize the chronology of the events in Mark. In any case, Mark is the interpreter of Peter, who as a humble Galilean fisherman could very plausibly have needed a translator to move in the Greek and Latin speaking cities of the Roman Empire.
Mark is the earliest gospel. It was written around the year 70 AD – an extraordinarily chaotic period for Judea in particular and the Roman empire as a whole. In 68 AD, Nero committed suicide, bringing to an end the Julio-Claudian dynasty of emperors. 69 AD is known as the Year of Four Emperors because there was a succession crisis in the Roman Empire. In 70 AD, the Second Temple was destroyed. Amid this uncertainty, a “gospel” announcing a savior was written in the form of Mark’s gospel.
Emphasis of Mark
Mark’s message is that Jesus was the Messiah. The Jews believed that the Messiah would be a glorious figure: a priest or a king from the line of David who would come to destroy the enemies of the Jews. The gospel directly confronts the paradox that Jesus, the Messiah, was executed on a cross. Mark had to convince his audience that the Messiah was actually a sacrifice that had been sent to suffer and die.
Mark’s story is filled with people who fail to recognize that the Jesus is the Messiah. In a way, Jesus also tries to conceal his identity. In Mark, Jesus is the Mysterious Messiah.
Mark begins with the baptism; there is no infancy narrative or nativity. Mark’s opening scene is the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. The dove of the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus and says, “You are my beloved son…” (Mark 1:11). Notice the word “you.” It is a private message meant for Jesus alone.
In Mark chapter 5, Jesus confronts a possessed man. The spirit instantly recognizes Jesus as “Son of the Most High God.” Jesus commands the spirit to leave before he even knows the demon’s name, which is unusual – in normal exorcisms, one must know the name of a demon in order to have power over it.
Perhaps the most indicative passages describing the nature of Jesus are in chapters 8 and 9. The first significant passage is the “Two Part Miracle”:
They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.” (Mark 8:22-26)
This miracle comes at the pivot of Mark, literally in the middle of the gospel. It is, in some ways, a strange miracle. Why would Jesus choose not to cure the man’s blindness on the first try? It is a miracle that should be read symbolically; in fact, it is a miniature of Mark’s message as a whole. This is a miracle about perception. At first, the man can only partially see those around him. Then Jesus rubs his eyes, the man stares intently at the heavens, and his vision is fully cleared and restored.
This is immediately followed by a passage where Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They give various answers: that he is like John the Baptist or Elijah. Peter calls him “the Messiah,” which would appear to have been the right answer – but Jesus tells Peter not to tell anyone of this! (Mark 8:27-30) Jesus says that that the Son of Man must come to suffer and be killed. Peter rebukes Jesus in disbelief, but Jesus says to him, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 11:31-33)
It is clear from this dialogue that even the disciples of Jesus do not fully understand who he is; furthermore, some of them still expect the Messiah to be a conqueror, not a suffering savior.
It is not until late in the narrative, when Jesus is being crucified, that anybody accurately identifies Jesus. In chapter 15, while Jesus is on the cross, a Roman centurion speaks, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” In the climax of Mark, a centurion identifies Jesus as the Son of God as he hangs dead on the cross. It is only in this moment of suffering that the truth about Jesus is understood.
Mark ends in chapter 16 with the discovery of the opened tomb by Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. They find a youth dressed in white who speaks to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
Marks ends with the women’s reaction of fear in Mark 16:8: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
This is where the Gospel of Mark ends. There are later additions, but they are inconsonant with Mark’s style and writing, so the gospel ends with the striking passage of Mark 16:8. It is an unexpected ending in many ways, if we compare it to Matthew and Luke. However, it is completely in line with the emphasis of Mark. It completes the story of who Jesus is and how hard it is to understand and accept his identity and fate.