Index Catholic Church The Formation of the Gospels

The Formation of the Gospels

Since we depend mostly on the Gospels for our knowledge about Christ, it is important that we understand how they came to be written and that we have some idea of how reliable they are. This is particularly so in modern times, when so many people -- who know little or nothing about it! -- take it for granted that we have no reliable knowledge about Jesus.

To start with, there was the period when the first disciples of Christ were still living -- say up to roughly 70 AD. The stories about Christ -- what he did, what he said -- were handed on by word of mouth. This sounds like rather an unreliable method, but we have to remember that we are talking about a culture where writing was comparatively rare, and that memorising the teaching of a religious leader was quite normal. The teachers of the time were used to presenting their ideas, using repeated patterns and similar techniques, in ways which made them easier to remember and to pass on to others. There are signs of this in Christ's teaching -- for example in the Sermon on the Mount and the Parables.

As the Apostolic generation drew to a close, the people we know as Evangelists (Gospel-writers) brought together elements of this 'oral tradition' into written form. They selected amongst the material available to them, so as to give not only a record of his deeds and sayings, but also a true picture of Christ's identity and his significance. It seems to me that this is rather like what an artist does when he comes to paint a portrait. He emphasises what he feels are the significant features in such a way as to bring out the true character of the person. In this way, different portraits of the same person will vary to a certain extent -- and all of them will be different to a straightforward photograph -- but each portrait will convey a particular insight into the true nature of the subject, in a way which the photograph cannot do. In the same way, the Gospels vary in their style and in some of their details, but each presents the truth about Christ in a way which a simple matter-of-fact biography would not be able to do.

Before the Gospels reached the form in which we now have them, there was a further stage where a different writer added further material from the same basic tradition. We are fairly sure about this because some passages are in a slightly different style and also interrupt the flow of the story, which resumes immediately afterwards. There are also passages added at the beginning or the end of the Gospels. The last chapter of John's Gospel is a famous example of this: the previous chapter reads so clearly like a conclusion that it must have been the original ending. The later writers are sometimes called Redactors, meaning 'editors'. They were always very careful not to change any of the original writing, or to adjust it to make it fit better with what they were adding. They themselves had authentic material about Jesus, which they did not want to be lost, but the texts they were adding to already had such an authority that they did not feel able to alter them in any way, beyond simply adding a passage here and there.

This view of how the Gospels came to be written is the result of a long process of careful studying over the past hundred years or more. Some of the earlier theories were rather extreme, but there is now general agreement about the general picture I have described, which has now been officially accepted by the Church authorities.

Sometimes people ask, 'If there were so many stages in the forming of the Gospels, where does the inspiration come in?' Traditionally we think of one person -- St Matthew, for instance -- sitting down to write his Gospel, with the Holy Spirit (so to speak) whispering into his ear and telling him what to write. But really there is no problem here. The Holy Spirit would have been involved at each stage; the whole process would have taken place under his inspiration. We don't need to speculate about whether the Evangelists were more inspired than the Redactors; the point is that what we ended up with are four true portraits of Christ -- the ones that God meant us to have.

Finally there is the question of how these four Gospels came down to us. For hundreds of years, until the invention of printing, they were carefully copied by hand. Naturally, however carefully this was done, mistakes were made -- but this need not cause us any concern about the accuracy of the Gospels we now have. During the last couple of centuries several quite early manuscripts have been discovered, together with a vast number of later ones. Scholars have examined them in great detail -- and by comparing the small differences that exist, they have constructed a sort of 'family tree' of the manuscripts, showing how the earlier ones are related to the later ones. From this, and using a few basic principles of logic, it is possible to establish with certainty almost the whole of the Gospel texts. If you look carefully at an accurate translation (such as the Revised Standard Version) you will see occasional footnotes along the lines: 'Other ancient authorities read "...".' This is the easiest way to get an idea of the degree of variation and uncertainty in the text of the Gospels -- and really it is remarkably small.


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