Lesson 4: The Writing of the Gospels
In the last lesson we looked at the writers of the gospels. In this lesson we will look at the writing of the gospels.
-The Bible teaches that the Scripture is inspired (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21; John 14:26; 1 Cor. 2:13).
-God inspired men, rather than simply dictating (as in the claims of Islam or Mormonism). The process (how) of inspiration is not emphasized as much as the end product (what they wrote was God’s word).
-Luke 1:1-4 states that Luke investigated his work, and decided to write an orderly account. So it was very much like history – but not just history! Investigation of sources does not preclude the work of the Spirit, but simply shows how the Spirit guided him so that the end result of his gospel was that it was the word of God.
Luke investigated because he was not an eyewitness, but did have access to accounts delivered by “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Lk. 1:2).
These eyewitnesses would have included:
-The apostles (Lk. 8:1; Acts 1:21-22).
-The women who accompanied Jesus (Lk. 8:2-3; 23:49, 55; 24:1).
-Jesus’ family (Lk. 8:19-21).
-Those who heard Jesus teach and saw His miracles (Lk. 8:34-39; 24:13-35).
Some critics claim the gospels were written too long after the time of Jesus to be based on reliable accounts. But even the standard critical dating of the gospels (Matthew – AD 80-85; Mark – AD 65-70; Luke – AD 80-85; John – AD 95) means the gospels were written in the lifetime of the eyewitnesses.
Eyewitness Evidence “Delivered”
In Luke 1:2 the Bible uses a technical term, “delivered” (paradidomi), to describe the transmission of the testimony Luke records. It means “to pass on to another what one knows of oral or written tradition” (used by Paul in 1 Cor. 11:23; 15:3).
This could refer to written sources in part. Some have suggested that Luke used Mark (since much of the material in Mark is in Luke) and another source, “Q” (abbreviation for Quelle, the German word for “source”). “Q” is shorthand for material common to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark (such as material from the “sermon on the mount”). This is the most commonly held view among NT scholars, but it is not without critics, and I personally think it is an oversimplification. I do think the disciples of Jesus may have taken notes of things He said or did in preparation of the writing of the gospels.
The other kinds of sources Luke had access to were oral accounts of the sayings and actions of Jesus. Critical scholarship in the last century dismissed the reliability of oral tradition, but current scholarship has largely debunked this skepticism, for several good reasons:
1) Jewish culture was a predominantly oral culture in which large amounts of material could be reliable remembered and transmitted. Emphasis was on precise transmission of essential details while allowing flexibility in unessential details (compare the four accounts of the feeding of the five thousand as an illiustration).
2) The apostles served as safeguards of the tradition passed down throughout the era of the writing of the gospels (see 1 Jn. 2:18-26).
3) The early Christians made a careful distinction between their own words and the words of Jesus (see 1 Cor. 7:10-12, 40).
4) Much of Jesus’ teaching was in a form easily remembered (shorter units, rhythmic and often poetic).
5) Many things Jesus said and did were observed and could be relayed by multiple eyewitnesses who could verify these transmission was accurate (as in 1 Cor. 15:6).
Classical historians tend to place more credibility on the gospel testimony than critical biblical scholars. “The experience of classicists seems to suggest that memory of oral teaching, especially if the teaching was heard repeatedly, could be retained with considerable integrity over and extended period of time” George Kennedy, “Classical and Christian Source Criticism” in The Relationships Among the Gospels: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue, ed. William O. Walker, Jr. p. 152).
Ancient History Vs Modern History
We have already talked about the differences between ancient and modern history, but a couple of points are worth repeating:
-Ancient writers freely expanded or abridged accounts (for an example see 2 Mac. 2:24-28).
-Ancient writers arranged material, including sayings, and did not always follow chronological order.
-Historians in the eastern Mediterranean tended to prefer eyewitness testimony over written sources.
Many of the details that sometimes disturb modern readers (was there one angel or two at the tomb) are products of our modern conception of what history looks like. Judged by the standards of the ancient world, “the gospels conform to the best practices of ancient historiography” (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, p. 310).
Aside from this broad observation about ancient history, there are other reasons for the variations in the gospels. Jesus Himself undoubtedly used varying versions of the same sayings/teachings/sermons during the course of His ministry (Mt. 5:1; Lk. 6:17). And Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and as His words were translated into Greek, there would be diversity in translation.