Considering how many dogmatic statements are made by Christians and non-Christians alike, it is surprising how few people actually read the New Testament. There are those who claim that there is no evidence that Jesus actually existed, and those who claim that the books of the Testament were written long after the events they describe. In either case, it is said, the documents are simply not reliable, or they are simply fairytales, stories made up long after any historical events might have happened.
Even Christians might be surprised to know how much the early Christians differed in their fellowship and worship from today’s mainline denominations. In fact, much of what happens in Christian church buildings these days dates from the Reformation, not the New Testament. Is that a problem? Not necessarily, as long as we know why we do what we do.
To get down to basics: the New Testament consists of 27 books: the four gospels, Acts, twenty-one epistles, and the Book of Revelation. The Gospels are not biographies: each one was written to address a different audience and focussed on different things. Mark may have been the first one written, some time around 63-67 A.D. According to Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History, “Mark, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all that he mentioned, whether sayings or doings of Christ; not, however, in order.”
Mark, also known as John Mark, may well have included some of his own experience and memories, as he was probably the young man who fled from Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested. He also accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first journeys. His Gospel was apparently written to the Christians in Rome, and translated Peter’s memories from Aramaic into Greek, the language commonly used throughout the Roman Empire at the time.
Mark’s Gospel was obviously known to Matthew and Luke, who used a great deal of the earlier document’s record of the sayings of Jesus in their own books. Matthew wrote his Gospel mainly for Jewish Christians, as he emphasises the way in which Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament. He even constructed his work to reflect the five-fold division of the Torah. It was probably written around 70 A.D., and, in addition to the content from Mark, it is also thought that he used an earlier compilation of the sayings of Jesus, called “Q”, which Luke also made use of.
Luke is the historian’s favourite Gospel. It is Part One of a two-volume history, the second part being The Acts of the Apostles. In addition to using “Q” and part of Mark’s record, Luke carried out personal research, interviewing individuals and setting the events in their historical context:
“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” [Luke 1.1-4]
During the assault on the veracity of the New Testament which got under way in the late Nineteenth Century, attempts were made to undermine Luke’s reliability as an historian. But, the more archaeological investigations are made, the more precise Luke’s account appears. He gets his geography right. He uses the correct titles for the multitude of officials and bureaucrats operating at that specific time within the Empire and its constituent parts. He wrote his two-part history between 65 and 70 A.D.
John’s Gospel is quite different from the other three. John, it is recognised, was one of the Twelve chosen by Jesus as his inner circle of friends. The brother of James, he outlived all his friends from those years of travel and learning with Jesus. He is the most direct and clear about who Jesus is, and his opening sentences deliberately echo the opening of the Old Testament:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” [John 1.1-5]
These, then, are the four accounts written to record the sayings and doings of Jesus between his birth and return to the Father after his Resurrection. Of course, the critics will ask: how can we know what they said really happened? How reliable are they, or how much is myth and stories dreamed up afterwards to “prove” what they claimed? That will be for next time.