The four gospels are said to be “according to” Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, respectively.
This phrase does not necessarily mean that four persons bearing these names actually wrote these documents as they now stand, although such has been the general belief. It has been further supposed that the first and last of these writers, that is, Matthew and John, were eye-and ear-witnesses of what Jesus did and said, and made record as such ; and that all the evangelists have presented in these four gospels a substantially harmonious and particularly trustworthy account of the Master’s life and work. In what respects the new or critical view modifies this conception will be indicated by. a general, though partial, statement of the situation.
The attentive reader cannot fail to observe that these four writings are very similar, and yet very different. They all report some of the same things, sometimes in the same words, and at other times in different words; and yet each contains some things that the others omit, and omits some that the others contain. Especially is the Fourth Gospel noticeably unlike the others, in its style, in its spirit, and largely in its subject-matter. In its literary form and structure it seems more continuous than the other three, as if it were more nearly the work of a single person; and while it records fewer outward events in the life of Jesus, it gives us at much greater length certain of his purported utterances in the form of conversational discourses. Besides, it is introduced with a Logos-doctrine not found in the other narratives, and throughout it employs the phrase “Son of God” in speaking of Christ, while they almost (not quite) invariably use “Son of Man.”
Now how are these similarities and differences to be explained? Modern scholars answer by saying that the first three gospels are a compilationthat is to say, are composite in structure, somewhat like the Hexateuchwhile the Fourth Gospel is mainly, if not entirely, the work of a single author; and, moreover, that the said compilation was made, or begun, under the peculiar conditions of Palestinian or Jewish Christianity (particularly in the case of Matthew), while the other production (the Fourth Gospel) originated amid essentially foreign and Hellenic surroundings, in Ephesus or elsewhere. The more one considers the facts and arguments adduced in support of this general position, the stronger it appears to be. Let us look at it somewhat closely.
After the death of Jesus his followers had no immediate occasion for writing anything about him. They met often to comfort and encourage one another, and they preached to their fellow-men the gospel which they had learned from him telling the story of his life, and repeating his cherished sayings. He had spoken, not in the Greek language, but in the Aramaic; and his utterances were undoubtedly first written down in this native dialect. At the outset they were rehearsed orally, as was the custom among the’ Jews in disseminating the instruction of teachers. It was not until the gospel began to spread abroad among the gentiles, through the work of Paul and others, that the necessity arose for translating the Master’s words into Greek. This was doubtless a gradual process, which took place variously in different Christian centers. In the very beginningperhaps for the first twenty years, from 30 to 50 A. D.not very much of the gospel story and teaching was committed to writing. But as the Christian movement grew, the facts and truths were needed for the edification of converts, and the living apostles could not be everywhere to be appealed to. Their personal testimony was the supreme authority while they lived. By and by, however, they began to “fall asleep,” the expected “second coming” was not realized, and probably some perversions of the Master’s utterances were early current; and these various circumstances led his friends to make some authentic record concerning him. At any rate, it is highly probable that certain of his sayings were committed to writing within a generation after his death, or even a shorter time; and some written memoranda of his career began to supplement the oral tradition reciting the story of his life and teaching. It is generally agreed, or at least it is a well-grounded opinion, that two of these primary documents constituted an important contribution to our first two gospels, namely, the Logia or Sayings or Words of Christ, written by Matthew; and the Memorabilia of Events in the Life of Jesus, said to have been taken down from the preaching of Peter by Mark. It is thought that the latter of these writings formed the basis of our “Gospel according to St. Mark,” which was the earliest of the four canonical narratives to be composed; and that the Logia, by Matthew, furnished the basis of our first gospel, and was supplemented by the substance of Mark’s work. Further, it is thought that the “Gospel according to Luke” was written with all these various oral and written sources of information, with perhaps still others, before its author. Finally, it is supposed that all three of these gospels passed through the hands of editors or redactors who gave the finishing touches to their composition. Their precise dates cannot be determined, but the latest of the three, Luke, is believed to have been completed not far from 90 A. D. But of course it should be remembered that a specific date like this indicates the practical finishing of the work as we now have it, and not the production of the written “sources” which entered into its final composition. It is altogether likely that some of these “sources” originated as early as 6266 A. D.; so that the narrative sketch given in Mark, which is substantially incorporated in both Matthew and Luke, and also the Logia which formed the basis of Matthew may be held with entire good reason to have been written not later than the sixth decade of the first century-that is, within the period of a generation from the Master’s death.
If the foregoing account is approximately correct, even though simple and very meager, we can see that, in the language of Prfessor George T. Ladd, these gospels are “the result of a previous process of preaching, writing, hearing, and reflecting; and they are dependent upon each other, and upon common oral and written sources, to a degree which it is difficult to determine.” And I may add that each appears to be an honest attempt to set forth such views of the life and teaching of Christ as the author believed to be true. There is no evidence of fraud or conspiracy on the part of these sincere and earnest narrators ; and the very discrepancies of their respective works, as well as the different ways in which they use the same materials, prove them to have been actuated by upright and loving motives, and so enable us to draw near to the majestic Figure whose dignity and beauty emerge from their fragmentary records, even as a photograph develops under the liquids, lights and shades which the artist employs.
The Fourth Gospel stands by itself, and the debate regarding its date and authorship is not yet closed. The traditional view has been that it was written by John, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, in his advanced age, toward the close of the first century, probably in the city of Ephesus. On the other hand it has been held to be an alien and late productionthe work of one not familiar with Palestine and Judaism to so great an extent as an intimate companion of Christ must have been, and to date from the second half of the second century. Recent discussion, however, has compelled a retreat to at least the early part of the second century, by showing that this gospel, as well as the Synoptics, was known to Tatian, if not to his teacher Justin Martyr, both of whom were flourishing by the middle of the second century. The late Prfessor Ezra Abbot, one of the ablest New Testament scholars whom this country has ever produced, was a stout champion of the Johannine authorship of this work; and many are ready to claim that, since the publication of his monograph in 188o, there is no longer much question about the matter. But a large number of scarcely less able scholars continue to take the opposite side, in spite of his cogent argument. Manifestly it is a problem which the unlearned cannot solve. For my own part it is difficult to believe that John, the son of Zebedee, could have written so profound, so philosophical, so spiritual a gospel; yet I can conceive that, residing a long time in Ephesus, where the Logos-doctrine was deeply rooted and vigorous, he might have been so influenced by this form of teaching as to have experienced a gradual and complete transformation of his intellectual conceptions, and might have harmonized his Christian faith with his Greek speculation after the manner of the Fourth Gospel. (I am reminded here of a radical and profound change which Dr. James Martineau, himself an opponent of John’s authorship of this book, tells us, in the preface to one of his latest works, took place in his own mind when, toward the middle of his life, he went for a time to reside and study in Europe.) There is nothing impossible in supposing that John may have been affected by Greek thought enough to color his whole Christology. Besides, his personal experience, long and deepin which meditation, memory, disillusionment, and devout love all had their workmay have been sufficient to give the writing that highly subjective, reflective, interpretative character which it possesses. Yet these considerations are not decisive, and the question is still an open one. A view lately advocated with ability, by Wendt, Briggs, and others, is that the gospel as we now have it is a composite workthat is to say, that the substance of the teaching which it contains is from John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” while the literary form is from another hand, which added some materials not derived from the information furnished by the aged apostle.
Such is a glimpse, yet merely a glimpse, of the way in which our four gospels came into existenceby a process of accretion that was peculiarly vital, personal, and complex.
What now shall we say about the historical value of these precious books? Are they true, ac-curate, precise, and reliable sources of information concerning Jesus Christ and his followers? They are sources of information, but they are not to be regarded as exact historiesindeed, they plainly show that they were written in any but a spirit of scientific exactness or correctness. They bear nowhere the marks of precise and infallible statement; they are loose, fragmentary, composite accounts, honestly and lovingly written, of what was currently known and believed regarding Jesus of Nazareth by the two generations immediately succeeding him; but it does not follow that every item contained in them was strictly true, even though the writers supposed it so; and it is perfectly plain to me that many wonder-stories about him must have grown up and become intertwined with the narrative of real fact and truth, which show at once the credulity of the age, the profound impression of Jesus’ life and character, and the devotion and love of the disciples who cherished his precious name and teachings. Nevertheless they tell us enough about him to enable us to gain a clear and trustworthy conception of his beautiful life, his heavenly spirit, and his pure, simple, blessed gospel. Though we cannot believe that he actually said and did everything attributed to him in these memoirs, we can believe in him more strongly than everin his historical reality, in his lofty thought, in his mighty power, in his sweet, gentle, unselfish holy character; and this, after all, is the essence, and substance of all real and true faith in Christ.