The first Christians would have seen little purpose in writing concerning the life of Jesus and his sayings, believing in his imminent return. The first writing concerning Jesus and the church was that of Paul to the churches that he established or helped to establish. Of those, the consensus of scholars of textual criticism, i.e., the study of texts to determine whether the language is consistent with the common language of the time and its uses, most, but not all, of the letters that purport to be from Paul most are considered to be authentic letters of Paul. Hebrews is one letter that makes no such claim, but is anonymous. None of the Gospels were written contemporaneously with the life of Jesus, but rather, after the writing of the letters of Paul.
Although the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John generally narrate the life of the man, Jesus, from some time during his life, through his crucifixion, his resurrection, and his ascension, among them, there are both similarities and differences. Scholars believe that among the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Gospel of Mark was written first and became the basic framework of the others.
Each of the synoptic Gospels recounts from a similar perspective a story of the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. According to the synoptic Gospels, it was only after his crucifixion and after various of his followers reported the experience of his resurrection, that his followers became convinced that he was more than a mere man, but the “Son of God.”
Each of the synoptic Gospels tells us that Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days, during which, or after which, he was tempted by Satan. A good Jew of that time could hardly miss its analogical reference to the Old Testament story of the Exodus of the Israeli slaves from Egypt, after which they wandered for 40 years in the desert, during which time they were being prepared to live as the children of God in the “promised land.” Jesus was tested in various ways to prepare him for his life of teaching, caring, and healing.
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel according to Mark begins in the Revised Standard Version:
1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.
2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare the way;
3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight -.”
With that introduction, the gospel tells of John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness, calling his Jewish followers to repentance, baptizing, and preaching that someone mightier than he was coming. The gospel introduces Jesus with the story of his baptism by John and of his temptation in the wilderness for 40 days. Numbers were meaningful for the Jews. They bore specific meaning. Today that would be called numerology.
Mark shares with the other synoptic Gospels similar stories of the crucifixion. With Mark, Jesus’ last words were, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” If one looks at the actual words, only, one could not miss the sense of despair that any human would have experienced in the same circumstance. Some Christians perceive the statement to be a recitation in his final moments of physical life of Psalm 22. That Psalm begins with the same words of despair of Psalm 22. Despite that despair, the Psalm concludes in triumphal proclamation that God is in charge and governs the nations; that in the end, the nations will “declare his righteousness.” Mark notes that as Jesus breathed his last, “the curtain of the temple was torn into top to bottom”, and when the centurion heard Jesus’ cry he said, “surely this man was the son of God!”
Mark tells us that following the Sabbath the two Mary’s were going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices. In Mark’s account, they saw that the stone had already been rolled away. They entered and saw a “young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.” The young man told them, “He is risen!” He then told them to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where he would meet them, “just as he told you.”
The Gospel of Matthew
Matthew begins with an account of the genealogy of Jesus, as it is traced through Joseph, and not through Mary. It’s story of the Nativity is relatively brief. Unlike Mark, it describes Mary’s immaculate conception of Jesus, of Joseph’s intention to divorce her for being unfaithful, and of his assurance in a dream that she had not been unfaithful, but had become pregnant “of the Holy Ghost” (Spirit). Matthew also tells us of the coming of the wise men and of Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt with the child.
In Matthew one sees a story of Jesus as a fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. It highlights Jesus command to love one’s neighbor, as himself, not to judge, that “you will know them by their fruits,” and that when the “Son of Man” returns, he will separate the sheep from the goats and reward those who did acts of kindness to others, as though they had done it for the Son of Man, and punish those who did not respond in love to the needs of those around them, as though they also had ignored the Son of Man.
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion and the agony leading to it and through it, is extensive. And it is gory. Through the centuries, it has been used by radical Christianity to justify their hatred and persecution of the Jews. Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of Christ, is based upon that account. At least one commentator objected to the movie’s magnification and seeming delight in the injustice and cruelty of the crucifixion as being “pornographic.” Consistent with that blaming, the account mentions the sign placed on the cross, above Jesus as he was crucified, reading, “this is Jesus the King of the Jews.” In his account, both of the robbers “reviled” Jesus. It simply states that “Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn from the top to the bottom, a feat that no man could have accomplished; that the earth shook and the tombs were opened. Matthew reports that the soldiers, were in awe and concluded, “truly this was the son of God!” Matthew’s account includes Jesus prophecy’ and Peter’s denial of Jesus.
Matthew also has a short account of the resurrection of Jesus, including the “Great Commission” without an account of his ascension.
Matthew’s account of the resurrection of Jesus is, like Mark, brief. Like Mark, Matthew relates the story thaty the two Mary’s “went to look at the tomb.” There was a great earthquake, as an “angel of the Lord” descended, rolled back the stone which covered the mouth of the two and sat upon it. The angel reassured them that Jesus had risen from the dead. As they were returning, Jesus suddenly appeared to them, greeted them, and told them to tell the disciples to meet him at Galilee. Matthew’s account closes with Jesus meeting his disciples at Galilee and giving them “the Great Commission.”
The Gospel According to Luke
Luke begins his Gospel by acknowledging that several biographies of Jesus were already in circulation. He undertakes to review those accounts for accuracy and to make report in his gospel.
In Luke we read the prophecies of both John and Jesus, of the Annunciation, and Mary’s song, known in liturgy as the Magnificat. Luke gives us the story of Jesus’ Nativity that is perhaps most familiar to Christians, beginning with “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.” In it, we find the shepherds “keeping watch over their flock by night.” They went to the stable, where they would find “a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
Luke also has a genealogy of Jesus, but it differs greatly from that of Matthew. Again, he traces Jesus’ ancestory from Adam through Joseph to Jesus.
Whereas Matthew is pervaded with the message that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy, Luke presents Jesus as a great physician, focusing on Jesus’ healing.
Luke’s account of the crucifixion is more succinct than that of Matthew. Luke gives the account that is frequently used in the celebration of the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. Jesus predicts Peter’s denial and he agonizes in the garden on the Mount of Olives, where he “sweat drops of blood.” Luke also tells us of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, and of his arrest. Peter denies him three times and Jesus is tried before Pilate, who “washes his hands of the matter.” Jesus is led away to his crucifixion, carrying his own cross. Two criminals were crucified with him at “the place called the skull.” Above him was the sign, “this is the King of the Jews.” One of the crucified criminals jeered, “save yourself and us!” The second rebuked the first, stating that they were justly punished but that Jesus had done no wrong. Jesus responded to the latter, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” As Jesus dies on the cross, Luke tells us that he called in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” ‘Surely this was a righteous man.”
In Luke’s resurrection story, he says that as “the women” took spices to prepare the body, they found the stone rolled away and to men gleaming “like lightning” standing before them. They announced to the women that he was not there, but was risen. “Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee:’ The Son Of Man must be looked delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’” Only after the men told the women did the women remember. The two Mary’s and others told the disciples.
On that same day a strange man joined “two of them” who were walking from Jerusalem Emmaus. They talked about the crucifixion and the stranger asked them, “Did not to Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” After all that visiting as they walked, they arrived at their home when the day was almost over. They invited Jesus to stay with them. It was only when they were sitting at the table to have some bread, that the stranger broke the bread, gave thanks and suddenly disappeared from their site, that they concluded that they had been talking and “breaking bread” with Jesus. Luke then tells us that Jesus appeared to the disciples as they met in a room with locked doors. “He said to them,’ This is what I told you while I was still with you: everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms.’” Thereafter, Luke closes very briefly with the ascension of Jesus into heaven.
Luke claims to be the author of Acts of the Apostles.
The Gospel of John
Rather than starting with the story of the man Jesus, John begins with a faith statement concerning his meaning and nature. As I read that gospel, I see many Gnostic elements. In its extreme form, Gnosticism would treat the historical Jesus as spirit, essentially impervious to human pain and death. Gnosticism was later determined by the church to be heretical. John doesn’t go that far, but, rather than beginning with the birth of Jesus, he introduces his book in the following manner:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. 8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. 9 That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. 11 He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. 12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: 13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
15 John bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me.’”
16 And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.
19 Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”
20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”
21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?”
He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
And he answered, “No.”
22 Then they said to him, “Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?”
23 He said: “I am
‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
“Make straight the way of the LORD.”
Jesus Through the Ages
Hebrews 13:8 states, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” On the other hand, Prof. Jeroslav Pelikan, in his book, Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture, notes that each age has seen Jesus in terms of the experiences of that age. We cannot help but see and perceive a person or event of the past through the bias of our own “lenses.” For the early Jewish Christians, Jesus was a rabbi; to Constantine, Jesus was a powerful King; the Renaissance saw him as the cosmic Christ; in the age of reason, he was the teacher of common sense. It is no wonder that the Gospels share some similarities, but also are distinctive – something more than literal and accurate history. The question then becomes, as Jesus framed it, “Who do you say that I am?”