You can read the New Testament without knowing anything about the authors or the background to their writing. If that’s you, you probably won’t be interested in this post. But I have long been interested in these background matters, and lately I’ve be coming to a few conclusions.
Scholars investigate and speculate about how the four gospels came to be written, who wrote them, and what sources they used. There are some generally accepted conclusions, which I have mostly followed here. However books by the late Maurice Casey (see note below) and Richard Bauckham seem to me to offer plausible insights that modify and develop the generally accepted conclusions a little.
So here is my personal reconstruction of how it all might have happened, based on good scholarship, but also a few personal assessments. Notes at the end outline some of the reasons for these conclusions, if you are interested.
Jesus and those who heard him
Jesus drew large crowds as he went around teaching and healing, so it is obvious that many people had their own individual memories of what he said and did. Other teachers of his day expected their disciples to memorise their sayings, and used rhyme, repetition and other devices to aid memorisation, so it is likely Jesus did the same.
As the christian community grew, stories and sayings were repeated, especially those that were found most relevant. Before long it is likely that large numbers of christians knew the main narratives and sayings, in the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke.
Matthew and the sayings of Jesus
Only a small number were literate at this time, but there was at least one literate disciple of Jesus – the tax collector Matthew. It is quite possible that Matthew wrote down sayings of Jesus, in Aramaic, on wax tablets, immediately after he heard them.
And there is an ancient reference to exactly this happening. Papias, writing early in the second century, said: “Matthew put the sayings in an ordered arrangement in the Hebrew language, and people translated them as well as they could”. There were almost certainly other written records, also in Aramaic.
When the gospels we know came to be written or compiled. the authors used the stories, both oral and written, that had been passed down. It appears that they had good information about things Jesus said and did, though often in the form of individual stories (sometimes called pericopes), but they didn’t always have a complete chronological narrative and they didn’t include much background material on life and culture at that time. Thus the gospels are like biographies, but with gaps in places where we moderns would like more information. None of the gospels states who the author was – the names given to them are based on early references to them.
Mark’s gospel is generally believed to be the first of the four gospels to be written. It was probably composed to give Gentile christians a more compete account of the life of Jesus than they had from the various incomplete stories that were available to them. Dates from about 40-80 CE have been suggested for its composition, and there seem to be good reasons to suppose it to have been no later than about 60 CE.
No-one knows much about Mark, but he was not one of Jesus’ disciples. He probably obtained material from the apostle Peter and from other sources available to him. The gospel was written in Greek, and thus the writer had to translate much of his source material out of Aramaic. Some of his translation appears to be rough or incomplete, and there is no ‘proper’ ending to the gospel, so it is quite possible that Mark didn’t complete his work.
It appears most likely that Matthew’s gospel was compiled from sources including Mark’s gospel and Matthew’s written collection of sayings, and written for a Jewish Christian audience sometime about a decade either side of 70 CE (I prefer the earlier date, as did Casey). We don’t know for sure who compiled and wrote the gospel, but the name of Matthew probably stuck because of its inclusion of the sayings written by Matthew the tax collector.
Matthew’s gospel has a structure that may reflect these sources. Sandwiched between the stories of Jesus’ birth and death/resurrection, Matthew has narrative material interspersed with five sections of sayings – the so-called ‘sermon on the mount’ being the first of these. It seems possible that these sections include the original collection of sayings written down by the disciple Matthew, and incorporated into the gospel in large segments.
It is generally agreed that this gospel was written by Luke, a doctor and associate of Paul, sometime after the cataclysmic events of 70 CE when Jerusalem was sacked by the Roman armies and the temple destroyed (though there are good arguments for it being written just before then). Luke is the most cultured of the gospel writers, and in a prologue which follows some of the conventions of ancient Greek historical writing, he sets out how he has compiled his gospel from reports handed down from the original eyewitnesses, almost certainly including Mark’s gospel and Matthew’s sayings.
Luke also wrote the history of the early christian movement, in the Biblical book of Acts, and Maurice Casey describes him as “an outstanding historian by ancient standards”.
John is certainly the most difficult gospel to assess. It is less of a narrative than the other gospels, containing much more interpretation of the events and their significance. Much of it has been put into John’s own words (it is sometimes difficult to tell where Jesus finishes speaking and John begins to comment), and it is permeated with theological interpretation. For these reasons, most scholars believe little “pure history” (i.e. historical account without any interpetation) can be taken from John.
On the other hand, there is significant evidence that parts of John have a strong historical basis – he knows features of the geography of Jerusalem that had long since been destroyed when the gospel was written, and his gospel has a good sense of the chronology of Jesus’ public ministry, especially in Jerusalem.
John was probably written in its present form in the last decade of the first century, and it appears that the author may have been an eyewitness to parts of Jesus’ ministry – mainly in Jerusalem, which Jesus seems to have visited several times in his last three years, whereas the other gospels are based more in Galilee until Jesus’ last week. But the original historical material has been modified by years of theological reflection, so that the gospel contains understandings of Jesus that were probably not in anyone’s mind at the time, but developed over the decades since Jesus was alive.
John has traditionally been associated with the disciple John, but the author doesn’t name himself and is probably to be identified with the anonymous character in the gospel called “the beloved disciple”. Perhaps the best guess is that he was a man named John who grew up in Jerusalem and lived to an advanced age – and there is a historical character named John the Elder who may have been the author.
And then, and then … ?
The four gospels were used by different communities around the Roman Empire for several centuries, and gradually (by about the end of the second century) came to be accepted as the authoritative accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. Final ratification of this came in the early fourth century.
Other so-called gospels were written in the second and third centuries, one of which (Thomas) seems to be based on a few genuine sayings of Jesus, but also included among many sayings that don’t seem to be genuine. Few scholars believe the others have anything much to tell us about the historical Jesus, although they do show something of the generally Gnostic teachings that were around at the time.
Reading the gospels
My reading of the gospels is based on both history and faith.
Becoming more aware of the history has brought the gospels alive for me. Questions that I had as a young christian have been answered. (Unfortunately most churches don’t teach much of Jesus in his historical context.) And I have become more and more interested in and fascinated by the person Jesus was and what he was doing.
This has meant that my faith in him and my commitment to him have become broader and deeper. I feel more convinced than ever that he is worth following, and that his kingdom is indeed being established on earth, albeit in ways we don’t always recognise. Following him is challenging, sometimes hard work, but also deeply satisfying. What more could I ask of life?
Notes on sources and conclusions
The outline above is based on fairly accepted conclusions about the four gospels (which can be found in most books about the gospels), modified by the conclusions of two books: Jesus of Nazareth by the late Maurice Casey and Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham.
EP Sanders and others discuss how many individual memories may have been included in the gospels without a full chronology. Bauckham’s study of how eyewitness testimony was handed down orally is detailed and convincing (to me). He presents a good case that this process was done accurately (variation was allowed in the peripheral details) and under the control of apostles and elders. Craig Keener, in The Historical Jesus of the Gospels takes a similar line. My acceptance of Papias’ statement about Matthew writing down sayings of Jesus in Aramaic follows Casey, who argued that Matthew the tax collector, as possibly the only fully literate disciple, was quite capable or even likely to have written down some of Jesus’ teaching. Bauckham accepts Papias’ testimony but applies it to the whole gospel, a suggestion I believe Casey showed to be less likely.
Most scholars date Mark about 70 CE, whereas Casey suggested 40 CE. While few have followed this early date, Casey’s arguments that Mark was translated from predominantly Aramaic sources, and is incomplete, seem plausible, and thus suggest a slightly earlier date than is commonly used. Bauckham argues for Peter being a major source of Mark’s account (following Papias) while Casey and others see Peter as only a minor source.
Both Bauckham and Casey accept that Matthew’s gospel has an association with the disciple Matthew, though they understand this slightly differently – Casey finds the connection in the saying Papias reported Matthew wrote, whereas Bauckham applies Papias’ statement to the whole gospel. (Many other scholars are doubtful of Papias’ testimony, but there seems to be growing acceptance of it.) Casey suggested a slightly earlier date for the gospel than is commonly used, and this seems reasonable. Casey also suggested that it is quite possible that the gospel was compiled by another Matthew (it was a common name at the time), but said this was only conjecture.
Most of the material on Luke reflects the consensus. I think there is force in the argument that Luke was written before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, otherwise he would surely have mentioned this event in Acts, but I have stuck with the conventional date. Casey and others speak highly of Luke’s accuracy and writing style (though of course there are some places where they believe he got things wrong).
John is generally dated late in the first century. I have long thought that John is more historical than most critical scholars say. John gives a more plausible and complete outline of Jesus’ ministry, including several visits to Jerusalem and other time in Judea, and his accurate knowledge of many locations in Judea is confirmed by archaeology. Bauckham argues for John as an eyewitness, and I have followed Bauckham on authorship. (Casey saw little value in John as a source for Jesus’ life.)
Vale Maurice Casey
New Testament historian, Maurice Casey, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature in the University of Nottingham, died recently after a long period of illness. Casey was the author of several books and a recognised expert in Aramaic and the Aramaic sources in the gospels.
I have found his book Jesus of Nazareth to be an extremely helpful insight into the life of Jesus and the culture of his time, even though he was not a christian believer, and I disagreed with some of his assumptions, conclusions and emphases. I used some of his insights in the preparation of this post. Read comments by fellow scholar Larry Hurtado.