The four canonical gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were all composed within the Roman Empire between 70 and 110 C.E (± five to ten years) as biographies of Jesus of Nazareth. Written a generation after the death of Jesus (ca. 30 C.E), none of the four gospel writers were eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus. Our earliest extant sources of information about Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings remain the letters of the apostle Paul. While all four gospels narrate the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth (Christos, or Christ in English, is Greek word for “anointed one,” a translation of the Hebrew word for messiah) they present their accounts with different emphases and styles. Mark, Matthew, and Luke are classified together as the Synoptic Gospels or Synoptics, owing to the fact that they share similar content and narrative structure (in some cases the same stories appear in all three texts word for word). All three texts recount the events of the life of Jesus from roughly the same perspective (from the Greek noun synopsisor “a seeing all together” or “general view”). Mark, the earliest gospel, was likely written just after the destruction of the second Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E, and was known by both Matthew and Luke when they undertook the task of producing their own narratives.
The Gospel According to Luke, written in roughly 85 C.E. (± five to ten years), most likely during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian, is known in its earliest form from extensive papyri fragments dating to the early or middle of the third century. The Gospel of John, dated between 80 and 110 C.E. is first attested in a highly fragmentary papyrus, dated to 125-150 C.E. The oldest extant full-text versions of the entire New Testament are found in the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, both manuscripts from the fourth-century (the former is believed to be slightly older). Although the author of Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, a historical narrative of the travels and ministries of prominent followers of Jesus, neither manuscript preserves Luke-Acts as a single textual unit. Many scholars contend that the two texts were originally fused, only to be separated as the canon of the New Testament took shape. The inclusion of multiple gospels within the canon foreground the two disparate halves of the Lucan text, necessitating their separation and rearrangement for canonical coherence. While most scholars no longer hold that the same author wrote the Gospel of John and three Johannine Epistles, their thematic and stylistic similarities suggest that the texts were written by persons from the same community.
The Fourth Gospel is often described as a Hellenistic Gospel. The text’s dualistic vision of humanity (light and darkness/truth and falsity), its cosmological speculation about truth and light, and its appeal to the figure of the Word, have antecedents in Greek philosophical and religious thought. Some scholars hold the influence of Palestinian Judaism and even Gnosticism to be equally important to the study of the text. The Gospel’s author, a native Greek speaker, who likely lived in or around Palestine, is believed to have composed his text from a number of sources circulating within his community, emphasizing the signs, sayings, and Passion of Jesus. Indeed, the text stands apart from the Synoptics not only for the material it omits (note, for example, that no mention is made of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the virginity of Mary, his temptation in the wilderness, or even his baptism by John the Baptist), but also for its distinct characterization of material the two hold in common. In John’s Gospel, even though Jesus performs far fewer miracles, those he does undertake are performed openly and with great spectacle. Jesus heals privately in the Synoptics, while in John he does so publicly. Jesus’ method of teaching in John is also distinct. He does not speak in parables, nor does he discuss the imminent arrival of the kingdom of heaven. The emphasis is, instead, placed upon his status as the messenger sent from God.
Both Luke and John, as two of the four canonical gospels, become critical texts in early Christian history, the development of Christian theology, and what would ultimately become the Church. Countless Christian authors in antiquity appealed to the authoritative words of Luke and John to advance theological arguments, to combat their Jewish, pagan, or heretical opponents, and to articulate a Christian narrative of the universe and the events of history. From the second to the fifth centuries C.E. theological debates about the nature of Christ’s identity as both man and God—what theologians call Christology—dominated much of Christian discourse throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. In asking how Christ could be both man and God, theologians from all across the Roman Empire frequently turn to the Prologue of the Gospel of John, which famously narrates how the Word of God (the Greek nounLogos means word), the agent of creation, “became flesh and lived among us” (Jn. 1:14). The impact of John’s formulation in the prologue, linking the Word of God, the Son of God, and Jesus Christ, on the theological and ecclesiastical development of Christianity cannot be understated. Writers such as Augustine of Hippo and Origen of Alexandria, among others, explicitly draw upon the language of Christ as Logos not only to advance particular formulations about the dualistic human/divine nature of Jesus Christ/Son of God, but also to articulate how the Son’s manifestation as the Word of God relates to and ultimately fulfills Jewish Scripture.
The precise meaning of the evangelists’ words, however, was subject to much debate among Christians throughout antiquity. Despite mutual agreement among Christians about the authoritative status of each of the canonical Gospels, extant commentaries and treatises on the Gospels of John and Luke make it abundantly clear that during the first five centuries of the Common Era the meaning of these texts was highly controversial and subject to intense scrutiny. The sheer variety of opinions available in ancient Christian texts about the Gospels should caution against the view that any particular verse in either Luke or John possesses only one interpretation. The Gospels were and continue to be repositories of interpretative debate and contestation.
Todd Berzon, Department of Religion, Columbia University
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Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
Brown, Raymond E. The Community of the Beloved Disciple. New York: Paulist, 1979.
Edwards, Mark J. John. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.
Ehrman, Bart D., and Bruce M. Metzger. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. Fourth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.