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4.2 How to Read the Gospels

Nearly everything that we know about Jesus comes from the four Gospels that are part of the New Testament. First of all we must learn how to read them. The word “Gospels” in Greek means “Good News”. These writings are a unique literary genre on their own in the sense that they teach us theology in a very narrative way, and we do not know if we can really trust the information they contain.

The first three Gospels are related together and they have used the same basic material and the same witnesses. They are also known as the Synoptic Gospels. Mark was the first author to write a Gospel (Rome c. 60 AD) and the other two are from Matthew (Antioch c.85 AD) and Luke(Corinth c.80 AD); these are based on Mark’s and on their own sources of information, or traditions. Some historians now say that the first Gospel was written by Matthew and some even think that they were written at an earlier date. The truth is that historians have not been able to trace where and when the Gospels were written, and by whom. Some earlier sources are also mentioned but they are lost (for instance “Quelle” or Q). It seems that the Gospels were initially part of an oral tradition and that they were put down in writing later on and reshaped by the Evangelists to suit their own aims.

The fourth Gospel written by St. John is different in style, provenance and theology. It is assumed to be the last Gospel and to have been written around 100 AD, but we are not certain. It contains much more concrete evidence about Jesus that the first three. Dates, places and people are more accurate in the sense that they can be verified by means of modern historical analysis. The stories are also much more detailed. There are, as a result, some differences between the Synoptic Gospels and the fourth one. For instance the Synoptic Gospels say that Jesus instituted the Eucharist before he died and that he was crucified after the Passover. The author of the fourth Gospel, who knew that Jews were forbidden to carry arms during Passover, places the arrest and condemnation of Jesus before the feast, whereas the crucifixion occurs at the time when the Passover Lambs were killed in the Temple. Some scholars go so far as saying that the author of the fourth Gospel wanted to say that Jesus intended that Christianity is the New Israel, that is, a replacement of the old Jewish religion. This is above all evident in the last chapters of this Gospel.

All the Gospels tell a different story. Matthew makes Jesus a new Moses delivering a New Law to his people. For Mark Jesus, or Joshua, is leading his followers through the wilderness to a promised land. We must remember that the Gospel writers did not have a modern library at their disposal, and that they were unable to collect all the fact to tell a dispassionate story. They started with their own personal beliefs about Jesus and fitted their narratives in these beliefs. It is quite possible that the fourth Gospel is based on traditions and memories of the historical Jesus that go back to his contemporaries. Even if we admit that it was written by John, the son of Zebedee, on the base of his actual memories of Jesus of Nazareth, we must still remember that this kind of memories is still different from historically proved facts as we understand them now. The author was not writing a straight version of Jesus’ life and death, and then noticing that the prophecies had been fulfilled. On the opposite the author started from the assumption his story had parallels in the Scriptures; he was starting with a myth and made sure his story followed. His Glory was revealed to those who believed in Him, and in this way they became the sons of God as Jesus was too, whereas the ignorant and the sinners did not even notice his presence. The fourth Gospel sees life as a permanent conflict between light and darkness. The fourth Gospel is anti-Christian according to Paul, Mark and Luke in the sense that there is in it less emphasis on the Church. Believers are first individuals born in the Light of Jesus; they do not find Him in the Communion of Saints, there is no Eucharist but the base of it is faith. In all probability the fourth Gospel was written by a sect based in Samaria or in Ephesus, having some affinity with the sons of Zebedee, anti-Jerusalem, anti-Paul and with different memories and traditions relating to Jesus and his family. It is a testimony, not a neutral history, that does not state that Jesus was God and, still less, the Second Person of the Trinity; it is understandable in full only by the Chosen Ones.

This does not mean that there is no historical fact in the Gospels. Of course the easiest way out is to say that the New testament is ALL mythology. This avoids to look for the historical reality behind the stories. In this case all that the New testament shows us are the beliefs and practices of the people involved. This approach is really too simplistic and the historians should still be allowed to look for the truth: what Jesus said, what he did, what he taught and what he looked like. All the Gospels are supposed to tell us historical facts, however we must always remember that they went through several stages of composition, and they are not the work of a single author, even if it is claimed to be the case. Only a minority of the scholars think that Jesus was invented and did not exist at all. The Evangelists described actual people, places and events such as the crucifixion, but we do not have to believe that Jesus pretended to be the second person of the Trinity and, even less, that he was God. Probably Jesus did not even think of Himself as sent by His Father to reveal God to his followers, as the fourth Gospel claims. But it is difficult to deny the existence of a Galilean preacher, exorcist and miracle-worker who died on a cross around 30 AD.

It is possible to go as far as reconstructing a symbolic, but credible, chronology of the last three years of Jesus’ life on the base of the fourth Gospel only:

27 AD Autumn (?) Appearance of John the Baptist.
28 AD March (?) Baptism of Jesus.
Jesus in Cana and Capernaum
In Jerusalem before and during Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread
(28 April-5 May).
May In Judea baptising.
Arrest of John the Baptist.
June-October In Galilee.
23-31 October In Jerusalem for Tabernacles.
November-April In Galilee.
29 AD Early (?) Death of John the Baptist.
April Desert Feeding, before Passover(18 April).
May-September In Phoenicia, Ituraea and Galilee.
15 October In Jerusalem for Tabernacles
(12-19 October).
November-December In Judaea and Peraea
20-27 December In Jerusalem for Dedication.
30 AD January-February In Bethany beyond Jordan.
February (?) In Bethany and Judaea.
March In Ephraim.
2-6 April In Bethany and Jerusalem.
7 April Crucifixion.

This however does not tell us who the author of the fourth Gospel was. It could be John, the son of Zebedee, but there is no way up to now to prove it.

The stories told in the Gospels have to be taken as they are written, since there is no way to prove that they are true or false from a historical point of view. However, they cannot even be reduced to pure parables or symbols. They are not meant to be stories, as those written by historians, that can be weighted against other sources. The story of what Jesus said and did, in the fourth Gospel, is inseparable of who he was in the mind of the author. As this later Gospel is completely different in style and theology from the Synoptic Gospels, we could say that our difficulty is limited to this book. If we want a simpler version of the events we must turn to Mark, Matthew or Luke but this would be a mistake. The fourth Gospel tends to describe the actions of Jesus as “signs” or parables, as when he transforms water in wine at Cana: the pots are the old Israel, the water is refreshing but not intoxicating, and Jesus is the new wine filling the jars. In other words God is making a new Israel, an intoxication with the Living God. The Synoptic Gospels tell the same kind of stories but the symbolism is much weaker as, for instance, in the story about a boat trip with Jesus asleep during a storm. His much afraid disciples wake him up and Jesus calms the sea. The boat is, of course, a parable for the Church that is afraid of the Roman persecution until Jesus brings quietness. Matthew, like John, believes that what took place in Jesus’ life occurred to fulfil the Scriptures. Probably he first read the scriptures and invented the stories to fit the prophecies. For example, Micah said that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem and, therefore, the Gospels say that he was born there, even if this is quite improbable for a Galilean. In the same way Jesus is Moses, delivering his Laws, leading his people to redemption, feeding them in the wilderness, … This does not prevent the Gospels to impose themselves on us even if they are closer to mythology that to facts. We can only understand them fully if we use our imagination, and not only our rational mind, since it is implicit that Gods and men are part of the same harmonious whole. According to the fourth Gospel Jesus can be apprehended, not by mankind, and not by the Church, but by the individual. “My Kingdom is not of this world” says Jesus to Pilate at his trial, meaning that those who are still limited to this material world will not understand him, or his message.

Human beings have great capacity to fantasy, in particular where religion is concerned. If only for this reason, we must not question the sincerity of the Evangelists when they tell us their stories in the Gospels. They were true for their authors and we must take them as they tell us, true or invented as they may be. The Evangelists have behaved with Jesus as creative artists do while painting a person or an icon. >From what we see we cannot guess what the sitter looked like. However the authors have not been able to obliterate completely the real figure of Jesus, who is still apparent to most of us, and inflames our imagination, as it did with his early followers. After all, if he inspired such devotion, he must have been worthy of it. (18)