Introduction To The Four Gospels
Gospel of John
It has always been accepted by scholars that John's gospel was written last, and may be very late, showing the influence of hellenistic thought that was believed to be quite unknown to the first Christians. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, it was seen at once that the conceptual language of John's gospel was thoroughly at home at Qumran in at least the 1st century BC. Its dualism of light and darkness, good and evil, terms such as "sons of light' (John 12:36), the Holy Spirit or Spirit of Truth as a personality (John 14:16-17) were characteristic of Qumran.
When the actual history is discovered from the pesher of all the books, it can be confidently said that John's gospel was written first, and was completed by AD 37. It was written while Simon Magus, prominent in the book as Lazarus, was still on the side of Jesus. This was the case during the reign of Agrippa I, whose grandiosity drew most parties together against him. He was assassinated in AD 44, and his successor Agrippa II, a timid youth, fell under the control of members of his court such as Paul and Peter. Simon Magus from his Damascus base continued to oppose the royal Herods, bringing about a schism. From that point the Gentiles close to Jesus formed a separate organisation, renouncing Jewish identity and adopting the name "Christian".
Jesus himself was responsible for the composition of John's gospel, in the few years after the crucifixion. His purpose was to give as transparently as possible the true facts about the "resurrection" that Simon Magus claimed he had performed on Jesus. Yet Jesus understood very well the religious power of the symbol of resurrection, and permitted the surface narrative to be an inspiring piece of theatre - as it has always remained.
Jesus was unable to write because of his damaged hands, and Philip, later called the Evangelist, acted as scribe. Philip was a subordinate of John Mark, to whom the gospel was publicly attributed. John Mark was the head of celibate Gentiles, whose monastic institution continued the Magian organisation. At the schism of AD 44 John Mark remained in sympathy with the Magians, and his position of chief Gentile was taken over by another, James Niceta with his brother John Aquila, Christians. The story in Revelation 10 about "eating the little book" records the transfer of authorship to the Christians. It was publicly affirmed that the gospel was now being written for the first time. The historian Eusebius, who always shows unawareness of the Jewish origins of Christianity, preserved this claim and it continued to be believed.
Gospel of Mark
Of the three Synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke - so called because of their close relation with one another - it has long been recognised that Mark was written first and the other two built on it. John's gospel, very different from these, was taken to be much later.
As we have seen, the Dead Sea Scrolls have revolutionised the dating of John, and the history now available shows it to have been finished by 37 AD. The Synoptics follow it, in rapid succession, reflecting the Christian schism of 44 AD. All were finished by 49 AD, when there was an official canonisation in Ephesus, recorded in the Book of Revelation. It was presided over by Jesus himself - "the Lamb opened the seven seals". He had been responsible for the concept of a new scripture replacing the Old Testament, and had composed much of it himself.
As the church historians record, Mark's gospel was directed by Peter. The man to whom it is attributed was "my son Mark", who was with Peter in Rome in 45 AD. (1 Peter 5:13). He was the western replacement for the deputy of John Mark, who at this stage had stayed with the Magian side of the schism. Jesus himself was in greater personal sympathy with John Mark, but the anti-Magian Paul and Peter in the court of Agrippa II now dominated. Peter, in fact, was hostile to Jesus, on the question of obedience to Jewish Sadducee priests. His denial of Jesus at his trial was a denial of Jesus' claim that he himself could be the high priest, abolishing the rights of priests born into the tribe of Levi. It was when Paul won on that point that Christianity separated from Judaism altogether.
All gospels invent "miracles", following the humorous precedent of Jesus, with his "walking on water". The new miracles added by Peter are less good-humored, giving a negative surface image of Jesus. He cursed and destroyed a figtree when it did not have fruit to satisfy his hunger, even though it was not the season for figs. He destroyed a farmer's livelihood, sending 2000 pigs rushing down into the sea. He made yet another impossible feeding of a multitude with a few loaves and fish, this time adding a riddle about the numbers involved, and telling the disciples they were stupid for not solving the riddle.
Peter was getting his own back on Jesus for what seemed to be excessively radical opinions that would lose them their Jewish basis altogether. As more moderate than Jesus, Peter became Pope when they reached Rome. The gospel he inspired is much less generous, not giving the necessary information at many points. But Luke -with Jesus' further assistance - was able to take up its basis and add necessary additional material, and Matthew did the same.
In all ancient and reliable texts, Mark's gospel concludes abruptly at Mark 16:8. It is accepted that the following verses Mark 16:9-20 were added much later, to give resurrection appearances of Jesus that the original gospel had not included.
Gospel of Luke
It is no wonder that critical scholars of an earlier generation thought that Luke's gospel was late, much closer to hellenistic thought that - they believed - had never been heard of in early 1st century Judea.
It begins with two long chapters about the virgin birth of Jesus. Mark's gospel has no sign whatever of a virgin birth. Nor, in fact, has John's gospel. Luke then adds many long stories in the form of historical parables, whereas Mark had only one. John's gospel had none, only the system of miracles. When he comes to the crucifixion, Luke omits the drinking of the cup at 3 pm, and has nothing about the two criminals. He deals with the early morning visit of women to the tomb, and has a different kind of supernatural presence there. For the pesharist, Simon Magus has completely disappeared.
The same kind of information from the Dead Sea Scrolls that has revolutionised John has had the same effect on Luke's gospel. Its hellenism was familiar at Qumran in the 1st century BC or earlier. For the pesharist, there is another familiar feature. It comes from a mind very close to that of Jesus, with the same methods of both concealing and giving information, often with a humorous twist. It may be discerned that Jesus was beside Luke as he wrote the gospel, and would be with him when he wrote Acts. They were in close accord, in fact Luke was the "beloved physician" who attended Jesus in the years subsequent to the crucifixion, when he would have always suffered damaged health.
There had, however, been big political changes to which Jesus was adjusting. From 45 AD onwards the young Agrippa II was the successor to his assassinated father, approved by the emperor Claudius. The ascetics had always formed part of the households of the Herods, and the parties reflected their rivalries. Peter and Paul belonged to the court of Agrippa II, and were now using the name Christian. Like those of the young king their sympathies were with Romans, especially under the benign Claudius. Simon Magus had been the enemy of the capricious Agrippa I, and honorable men, including Jesus, had sided with him. Now there was no need for militarism against Rome, and Simon, based in Damascus, had descended into worse kinds of trickery and financial manipulation to preserve his form of mission. The pro-Magian attitudes of John's gospel had to be abandoned.
Luke's gospel was the result. It incorporated Mark, and would have been written in the few years between 45 and 49 AD, when the adjustment by the new Christian party was being made. Luke, who was the Cornelius who is named in Claudius' letter of approval for Agrippa II, one of the bearers of the letter (Josephus, Ant.20, 14). As Cornelius, his involvement with the Agrippas is recorded in Acts 10:1-48. He remained with Paul and the Romans, his presence in the record always indicating the presence of Jesus.
Gospel of Matthew
At the same time as Luke's gospel was adjusting the earlier record of the mission according to the interests of the new party of Christians, Matthew's gospel was doing the same, but with somewhat different emphases. Luke, and Jesus with him, were pro-Roman, with little time for the aggressive kind of Judaism they had previously known. Paul had undergone a political conversion to the side of the Romans, and that name was preferred by them, rather than Christians. But Peter, also in the court of Agrippa II, retained a greater sympathy with Judaism in its non-militaristic form. He retained also the opinion that Judaism should be represented by the liberal Annas priests, Sadducees who were tolerant of Gentiles. The head of the mission, its Pope, should be one of the Annas dynasty. Jesus should act as their lay deputy, not a priest himself.
When Matthew Annas, one of the five Annas brothers, was appointed high priest between 41 and 43 AD, a great impetus was given to Peter's party. The schism with the Damascus mission of Simon Magus was decisively made, and the name Christian adopted by Peter's faction. With Peter were the Gentiles James Niceta and John Aquila. In his own account in Revelation 10:1-11, James Niceta records that in the last months of the reign of Agrippa I he had been deputed to write another gospel on behalf of "the Seven Thunders", a pseudonym for Matthew Annas. His book had at first been banned by Agrippa, the "voice from heaven", who said, "Seal up what the Seven Thunders have said, and do not write it down." A few months later Agrippa I met his end, and the book which became Matthew's gospel was continued, and published by 49 AD.
More may be known from some observations always made by critical scholars. Matthew's gospel obviously incorporates Mark, as does Luke. Additionally, it has long passages of teaching, most notably the Sermon on the Mount. Luke includes some of these sayings, but not so fully. These additional sayings have been called Q by scholars, from German Quelle, "source". A tradition supplied by early church historians says that Matthew's gospel used the Logia, which at first were in Hebrew and later translated into Greek. In Acts 7:38 the word Logia appears, in a context that was apparently that of Israel in the wilderness, but its pesher concerns 6 AD. It speaks of the "church in the wilderness" - the Gentile branch of the Therapeuts - and adds that the leader received living oracles, logia zōnta. The Logia would have been the form of Jewish teaching that was intended for proselytes and uncircumcised Gentiles. The sayings were largely derived from Hillel, who in the reign of Herod the Great accepted proselytes and was the original "Abraham" of the mission. The Sermon on the Mount reflects his views, as has long been recognized. This material was available for both Luke's and Matthew's gospel, and was included to retain continuity with the earlier form of the mission. Matthew's gospel in particular brings out the Jewish aspects, and so succeeded in being placed first of the gospels when it was decided to retain the Jewish element.