Turning our attention to the section of the Bible called the New Testament (NT), we immediately find several significant differences between this and the Old Testament discussed in my previous post. First, it is much shorter, containing 27 books comprised of 260 chapters, in contrast to the 39 books of 939 chapters which make up the Old Testament (OT). In total length it is approximately one-third that of the OT.
Second, it is written in Greek, which, along with Latin, was one of the primary languages for literature and commerce in the Mediterranean world of the first century of the Common Era. And third, its various books were written over a much shorter time span than were those of the OT. First Thessalonians, which is regarded to be the earliest of the Pauline letters, was written in 50 or 51 C.E., while the Gospel of John and the book of Revelations are generally dated scarcely fifty years later, to the final decade of the first century.
The first four books are accounts of the life of Jesus and are referred to as “gospels,” that is “good news.” The first three of these – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – are called the synoptic gospels because they share much of the same material, while John, the fourth gospel, is significantly different from the others in a number of ways. Of the first three, Mark is the oldest and was probably written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Matthew and Luke are dated from the last third of the century. All three are understood to depend on the oral transmission of stories and sayings, along with earlier written collections of the memories of those who had encountered Jesus during his life on earth.
As the oldest, Mark is also the shortest. The narrative is blunt and direct, told with a sense of urgency. There is no genealogy or birth story in Mark; rather it plunges right into the heart of the message with John the Evangelist and the baptism of Jesus. The ending is just as abrupt, with the oldest manuscripts cutting off with the angel’s announcement of Jesus’ resurrection and the women’s fleeing from the tomb in terror and amazement. While other ancient sources include either a “shorter ending” summarizing the spread of the gospel, or a “longer ending” recounting the resurrection appearances and ascension of Jesus, many scholars believe that both are later additions to the original.
Matthew and Luke are expansions of Mark and clearly addressed to different audiences. Matthew assumes a Jewish readership and emphasizes the ways in which Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection fulfilled ancient prophecies. Luke is addressed to “most excellent Theophilus,” a name which can mean “lover of God” or “beloved by God.” There is much speculation but no certainty among scholars as to who Theophilus was, but the title “most excellent” leads many to the conclusion that he was of high rank and quite likely a gentile. What we can know is that the gospel of Luke, and its companion volume “The Acts of the Apostles,” are well crafted and of high literary quality.
The gospel of John diverges in a number of ways from the three synoptic gospels. It opens, not with Jesus’ birth or genealogy, but with a magnificent hymn to the Logos, the Word of God. Noting the strong correspondence between this hymn and the description of God’s Wisdom in Proverbs 8, Francis Schüssler Fiorenza writes, “John’s prologue is a confession of faith that Jesus, in his person, reveals God.” John alone of the gospel writers tells of the miracle of water into wine at the wedding at Cana, and he places the cleansing of the temple at the beginning rather than the end of Jesus’ ministry.
Nearly half of John’s gospel is concerned with the events of just seven weeks, from the day prior to Palm Sunday through the resurrection appearances. Here again there are differences between John and the other gospels. While the latter describe the Last Supper as the Passover meal, John states that it took place “before the festival of the Passover.” (John 13:1) And where the synoptics recount the institution of the Eucharist, John tells of Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet. The best way to understand these differences, I believe, is to recognize that John’s emphasis is not so much on a chronological history as it is a proclamation of Jesus as Christ, the Lamb of God.
As for actual authorship of the gospels, it is important to remember that ancient understanding and practices of attribution were very different from our own. Attaching a person’s name to a document could just as well mean that it represented the school of thought surrounding that person, or memories by students of what was taught by the named author, or even in honor of the tradition that person represented. Tradition says that the gospel of Mark was penned by John Mark who traveled with Paul for a time, and that he drew on the memories of Peter for his account.
A puzzling hint can be found in chapter 15, verses 51-52, regarding the arrest of Jesus: “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” Was this young man perchance the author himself? Why else would this rather curious aside be inserted into the drama?
The gospel of Matthew is ascribed to the disciple of that name, and could well be the work of one of Matthew’s followers. The author of Luke is assumed to be the Luke to whom Paul refers in Colossians 4:14 as “the beloved physician.” How many Johns had a hand in writing the various books in the NT attributed to “John” remains a question for scholarly debate. There are the gospel, three letters, and Revelation. Since all are dated from the last years of the first century, or possibly even the early years of the second, it is highly unlikely that the disciple by that name was the actual author of any of them.
Having four “official” accounts of the life of Jesus gives us a richer understanding of the diversity of thought in the early Christian church than we would have were only one gospel record to appear in the NT. The minor discrepancies and contradictions among them are far outweighed by the unified theme of Jesus as the Christ, the promised Messiah, who reconciles God with God’s creation. This is the heart of the good news that the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all strove to proclaim.