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The Formation of the Gospels

Dennis Bratcher

This is an adapted excerpt from The Synoptic Problem

Consideration of how the Gospels came to be, as well as some of the implications of that process for understanding the nature of the Gospels as literature, is a topic that makes some people nervous.  For some, it suggests that to talk of a "process" in producing Scripture somehow takes away from its authority as the word of God.  Yet, this is no way raises questions about the inspiration or authority of the Gospels as Scripture for the Church. It only asks that we look at the Gospels from the perspective of the history of their formation as well as their theology. While there are other methodological issues that are relevant here, such as the compilation, redaction, and canonization of the Gospels, here we will only survey very briefly the general outlines of the Gospels' formation.

Three Stages of Development

Most biblical scholars recognize at least a three-stage process in the development of the Gospels:  the events themselves, reports or testimonies about the events either oral or written, and the collection of various reports (the traditions) into biblical books. The same process can be applied to most other biblical writings. The book of Amos, for example, can be seen rather easily in this perspective. In the case of much of the Old Testament including the prophets there is a fourth stage of development. Because of the long period of time involved, and the way the traditions were used in the community over that span of time, the material could be adapted into later historical contexts, even to the point of adding later material to the "original" writing (see JEDP: Sources in the Pentateuch). For example, the preaching of Amos to the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the Assyrian crisis of the eighth century BC was preserved in a tradition that could be reinterpreted and reapplied in the Southern Kingdom of Judah in the sixth century context of the Babylonian era (the post-exilic additions at the end of the book, Am. 9:11-15).

This fourth stage of development of Old Testament traditions, the re-application of traditions into new historical contexts, is different in the Gospels because of the shorter span of time involved.  Yet this dimension corresponds to the issues raised in discussing the Synoptic Problem. It reveals a dynamic and living tradition that could grow and be adapted into different historical contexts to address new needs within the community (see Revelation and Inspiration of Scripture). It was only later that these writings of both Testaments reached a fixed and unchanging form. This dynamic nature of a living tradition becomes the basis to understand the diversity of the Gospels.

1) The first stage in the formation of the Gospels was the life and teachings of Jesus (or of Amos). He traveled throughout the countryside speaking, teaching, performing miracles, and healing people. These events became the basis for what would later become the Gospels. We can note here that, contrary to the myths of the ancient Near Eastern religions or of the Greeks and Romans and in keeping with the faith confessions of the Old Testament, the Gospels are grounded in historical event rather than in cosmic stories about the gods (see The Enuma Elish: The Babylonian Creation Myth). This does not mean that the Gospels must be seen simply as historical data, or that their primary function was to record history. But it does mean that they are grounded in human history. From the perspective of faith confession, we would say that they are grounded in God's self-revelation in human history.

And here we must take seriously the fact that Jesus lived in a certain time and place, in a certain cultural and social context, and spoke a certain language. It is sometimes easy to forget across 2,000 years of Christian history that Jesus was not a Christian! He was a first century Jew, who most likely spoke Aramaic, could read Hebrew, and perhaps also knew Greek. He acted in accordance with first century ideas and customs, and taught in terms that first century people could understand. We are sometimes so concerned with seeing Jesus as the Christ, as the Incarnate Son of God that we forget the historical nature of the Incarnation. Of course, Jesus was all of that. But by definition, the Incarnation means that Jesus was a real human being who lived and died in real human history. What he did and taught was in the context of the time in which he lived. That does not make it irrelevant, or we would have no New Testament at all. But we must keep that historical dimension in mind as we study the Gospels.

2. In the course of Jesus' actions and travels, he attracted followers, including the twelve handpicked men who would become the Disciples and later Apostles. They listened and watched as he taught. In several places, the Gospels tell us that people spread the news of Jesus' teaching and action (Mk 3:7-8, 5:19-20, 7:36; Lk 5:15, etc.).

Soon after Jesus' death and resurrection, the Disciples and others began to witness of the resurrection. Early in the book of Acts, we read of the Apostles preaching to large crowds about Jesus (Acts 2:14-26), and that message was carried throughout the Roman world (Acts 1:8, 8:4, 11:19-20, etc.). So the second stage of Gospel formation was a Gospel tradition that grew out of the testimony and preaching of the followers of Jesus, as well as the practices of the church such as Eucharist and worship that grew out of that preaching. This tradition may have been oral, or written, or a combination of both. In any case, this tradition was the main vehicle for the Gospel message in the 30 or so years after the death of Jesus but before the actual writing of the Gospels.

And again here we need to remember the context of the message. With our modern concern with details, with data, with direct quotation, we sometimes expect the Gospel message to be repeated word for word just as Jesus spoke it. From our preoccupation with the written word, and now with video recording, we sometimes assume that Jesus' words were transcribed as he spoke them, and that people recorded his actions as if they were writing a script for an epic film of his life.

While there is no evidence of it in Scripture, it is entirely possible that written records or notes of Jesus' teaching were kept. Yet, here we need to do some reflection on the nature of the preaching of the Apostles. Their goal was not simply to preserve the details of Jesus life or to transcribe his sermons. They were far more concerned with proclaiming the significance of the events surrounding Jesus as a new revelatory act of God in human history. And that proclamation was primarily concerned with calling people to respond to that new revelation. This is why the apostolic preaching is referred to as the kerygma (Greek, "preaching"), the heart of Gospel message.

This has several implications in how we think about the Apostles' message and the emerging Gospel tradition. First, a concern with the significance of the coming of Jesus implies that they reflected on the events and teachings of Jesus in light, not only of past history, but of what they understood to be God's unfolding work in the world in light of the emerging church. Of course, we would want to say that God helped them understand the significance of Jesus' coming through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But that does not alter the fact that their preaching was aimed at communicating that significance. There is some indication that even within the Gospels this reflection on the meaning of Jesus' life continued throughout the first century.

For example, it is readily recognized by almost all biblical students that the Gospel of John was the last of the Gospels written, toward the end of the first century (c. AD 90). As would be expected, John presents the most deliberately reflective theological perspective of all the Gospels. If this is obvious in John, it is reasonable to conclude that the same process of reflecting on Jesus' teaching in terms of theological implication and communication was already underway in the Synoptics as well, most of which were written in the last half of the first century some 30 to 50 years after Jesus' life (Mark, c. 60, Matthew and Luke c. 70-80; by contrast, the Pauline Epistles were likely all written c. 50-60).

Second, the Apostles had to communicate that message in language and terms that the people to whom they were speaking would understand. There were the basic issues of language. If we assume that Jesus spoke Aramaic, then the message had to be translated into Greek for Hellenistic Jews and Greeks, or Coptic for Egyptians. And that is more than a trivial matter, as anyone who has studied a foreign language can attest. Words in any language have meaning against a whole cultural and conceptual background. So it is not just a matter of finding equivalent words; the concepts that the words represent must be translated as well. That raises tremendous potential for misunderstanding (something we should always keep in mind when we read the biblical text in our own language and then assume that the message is clear because the words have obvious meaning to us!). The misunderstanding was not as great a danger for the Apostles since they were most likely both bilingual and bicultural. That was a necessity of the times and cultures in which they lived, just as it is for most Europeans or Asians today. But it remains a problem for most of us in the modern world since we are far removed both in time and place from the origins of the Gospel tradition.

But there were also the larger issues of cultural background. Even in the Gospels, there are places where the writers stop and explain Jewish customs (e.g., Mk 7:3), an indication that the people to whom they were writing were not familiar with them. Because of their cultural and religious background, Jews would need to hear the message in one way, while Greeks with different interests, background, and concerns would need to hear it in a different way. Even among Jews, traditional Palestinian Jews most likely needed to hear it in different terms than Hellenistic Jews (Jews who had adopted Greek culture).

All this simply suggests a diversity of the Gospel tradition even before it was ever written down. The demands of the growing and spreading church encouraged, not a change in the message itself, but certainly in how it was communicated. Even if there were "original" written records or notes of Jesus' preaching, or early written records of the kerygma of the Apostles, the reality of how that message was proclaimed was also a function of both the ongoing theological reflection of the early church as well as the practical demands of proclamation to widely scattered and diverse first century audiences.

3. The third stage of Gospel formation was the actual writing of the biblical texts. Most of what was noted above in the development of the Gospel tradition can also be applied to the writing of the Gospels. Just as the Apostles had to speak to certain audiences in their preaching and practice of worship, so also the Gospel writers had to translate the kerygma into the cultural and historical context of the audience for which it was written. While we do not know for certain who these audiences were or their location, the very fact that there were a variety of Gospels written in the first and early second centuries suggests that the Gospel message was being preserved in various locations (see The Gospel of Thomas).

Here also we need to consider the likelihood suggested above that the Gospels writers did not inherit a "master" copy of the Jesus tradition. Instead, they were heirs to a variety of ways that the Gospel message had been proclaimed for 30 or 40 to as much as 60 years before they wrote. The preface to Luke's Gospel confirms that at least this writer was aware of the diversity of the tradition even in written form (Lk. 1:1-4):

1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

This reveals that the writer of Luke's Gospel was aware of other Gospel writings (whether or not these were the canonical Gospels that we now have), that he was familiar with a larger Jesus tradition, and that he chose to write to a certain audience for a particular purpose.

While we might want to assume other things from this statement, we might notice what he does not say. He does not define exactly what was "handed on to us." The sentence construction tells us that "events" is the referent for the statement. However, that does not mean that he is writing only historical data since his own declaration of purpose, as well as the unfolding Gospel itself, says that he is writing for instruction about the "truth," in this context a reference to the larger Gospel message as it worked out in the early church. This is even more obvious if we conclude that this Gospel is the first volume of a two-volume work that included the Book of Acts (note Acts 1:1).

Also, he does not say precisely how this tradition was "handed on to us." This leaves open the possibility that he was using written documents, which might have included one of more of the other Gospels of Mark or Matthew. But it is equally possible that he is referring to a widely circulated oral tradition that had become central in the early church. Or it could have been a combination of an oral tradition supplemented by earlier documents. In other words, he is only concerned with acknowledging sources by which to ground his Gospel in the apostolic tradition, not in giving details about what the sources were. This suggests that his concern lay more with the content of the message than how it came to be, which should caution us against being too rigid in our conclusions about the whole process.

He also does not define what he means by "orderly." From our perspective, concerned as we are with time sequence, we easily assume that he means chronological order. However, the Greek word he used does not mean that specifically; it only refers to compiling or organizing without references to the method of organization. This allows the author to use whatever principle of organization fit his purpose in writing rather than trying to fit our modern expectations of what proper order would entail. From a comparison of the differences mentioned earlier between the Gospels, it is apparent that the Gospel material is arranged theologically according to what each writer wanted to emphasize about the tradition, not chronologically.

Finally, the writer does not claim to be an eyewitness of the events he relates, as many often assume about the Gospel writers. He does say that the tradition he is using comes from eyewitnesses. Likewise, this does not mean that his sources were eyewitnesses or written by eyewitnesses, only that the traditions he used were faithful to the testimony of those who were eyewitnesses.

While the other Synoptics do not give us any of these details about their writing, it is reasonable to conclude that what is true of Luke's Gospel would also be true of the other Gospels as well. This helps us understand that the Gospels were the result of a deliberate process of preserving an already existing tradition about the life and teachings of Jesus for use within the church.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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