A GLANCE AT THE FORMATION OF THE GOSPEL LITERATURE
OUR first three Gospels certainly have a common origin, not only in that all three relate one and the same history, but also by reason of the fact that an elaboration of this history, of some sort, was already in existence at the time of their composition, and has stamped with a common impress the three narratives. Indeed, the striking agreement between them which is easily observed both in the general plan and in certain series of identical accounts, and finally in numerous clauses which are found exactly the same in two of these writings, or in all the three -this general and particular agreement renders it impossible to question that, before being thus recorded, the history of Jesus had already been cast in a mold where it had received the more or less fixed form in which we find it in our three narratives. Many think that this primitive gospel type consisted of a written document -either one of our three Gospels, of which the other two were only a free reproduction, or one or even two writings, now lost, from which our evangelists, all three of them, drew. This hypothesis of written sources has been, and is still presented under the most varied forms. We do not think that in any form it can be accepted; for it always leads to the adoption of the view, that the later writer sometimes willfully altered his model by introducing changes of real gravity, at other times adopted the course of copying with the utmost literalness, and that while frequently applying these two opposite methods in one and the same verse; and, finally, at still other times, that he made the text which he used undergo a multitude of modifications which are ridiculous by reason of being insignificant. Let anyone consult a Synopsis, and the thing will be obvious. Is it psychologically conceivable that serious, believing writers, convinced of the supreme importance of the subject of which they were treating, adopted such methods with regard to it; and, above all, that they applied them to the reproduction of the very teachings of the Lord Jesus? -Common as, even at the present day, this manner of explaining the relation between our three Gospels is, we are convinced that Criticism will finally renounce it as a moral impossibility.
The simple and natural solution of the problem appears to us to be indicated by the Book of Acts, in the passage where it speaks to us of the teaching of the apostles, as one of the foundations on which the Church of Jerusalem was built (ii. 42). In this primitive apostolic teaching, the accounts of the life and death of Jesus surely occupied the first place. These narratives, daily repeated by the apostles, and by the evangelists instructed in their schools, must speedily have taken a form more or less fixed and settled, not only as to the tenor of each account, but also as to the joining together of several accounts in one group, which formed ordinarily the subject-matter of a single teaching. What we hear affirm is not a pure hypothesis. St. Luke tells us, in the preface of his Gospel (the most ancient document respecting this subject which we possess), of the first written accounts of the evangelic facts as composed "according to the story which they transmitted to us who were witnesses of them from the beginning, and who became ministers of the Word." These witnesses and first ministers can only have been the apostles. Their accounts conveyed to the Church by oral teaching had passed, therefore, just as they were, into the writings of those who first wrote them out. The pronoun us employed by Luke, shows that he ranked himself among the writers who were instructed by the oral testimony of the apostles.
The primitive apostolic tradition is thus the type, at once fixed, and yet within certain limits malleable, which has stamped with its ineffaceable imprint our first three Gospels. In this way a satisfactory explanation is afforded, on the one side, of the general and particular resemblances which make these three writings, as it were, one and the same narrative; and, on the other, of the differences which we observe among them, from those which are most considerable to those which are most insignificant.
These three works are, thus, three workings-over -wrought independently of one another -of the primitive tradition formulated in the midst of the Palestinian churches, and ere long repeated in all the countries of the world. They are three branches proceeding from the same trunk, but branches which have grown out under different conditions and in different directions; and herein lies the explanation of the peculiar physiognomy of each of the three books.
In the first, the Gospel of St. Matthew, we find the matter of the preaching of the Twelve at Jerusalem preserved in the form which approaches nearest to the primitive type. This fact will appear quite simple, if we hold that this writing was designed for the Jewish people, and therefore precisely for the circle of readers with a view to which the oral preaching had been originally formulated. The dominant idea in the Palestinian preaching must have been that of the Messianic dignity ofJesus. This is also the thought which forms the unity of the first Gospel. It is inscribed at the beginning of the book as its programme. The formula: that it might be fulfilled, which recurs, like a refrain, throughout the entire narrative, recalls this primal idea at every moment; finally it breaks forth into the full light of day in the conclusion, which brings us to contemplate the full realization of the Messianic destiny of the Lord. With what purpose was this redaction of the primitive apostolic testimony published? Evidently the author desired to address a last appeal to that people, whom their own unbelief was leading to ruin. This book was composed, therefore, at the time when the final catastrophe was preparing. A word ofJesus (Matt. xxiv. 15) in which He enjoins upon His disciples to flee to the other side of the Jordan as soon as the war should break out, is reported by the author with a significant nota bene, which confirms the date that we have just indicated.
Already twenty years before this, the preaching of the Gospel had passed beyond the boundaries of Palestine and penetrated the Gentile world. Numerous churches, almost all of them composed of a small nucleus of Jews, and a multitude of Gentiles grouped around them, had arisen at the preaching of the Apostle Paul and his fellow-laborers. This immense work could not in the end dispense with the solid foundation which had been laid at the beginning by the Twelve and the evangelists in Palestine and Syria: the connected narrative of the acts, the teachings, the death and the resurrection of Jesus. In this fact lay the imperative want which gave birth to our third Gospel, drawn up by one of the most eminent companions of the apostle of the Gentiles, St. Luke. The Messianic dignity of Jesus, and the argument drawn from the prophecies, had no more, in the estimation of the Gentiles, the same importance as with the Jews: all this is omitted in the third Gospel. It was as the Saviour of humanity that Jesus needed especially be presented to them; with this purpose, Luke, after having gathered the most exact information, sets in relief, in his representation of our Lord's earthly ministry, everything that had marked the salvation which He introduced as a gratuitous and universal salvation. Hence the agreement, which is so profound, between this Gospel and the writings of St. Paul. What the former traces out historically, the latter expounds theoretically. But, notwithstanding these differences as compared with the work of Matthew, the Gospel of Luke rests always, as the author himself declares in his preface, on the apostolic tradition formulated at the beginning by the Twelve. Only he has sought to complete it and to give it a more strict arrangement with a view to cultivated Gentiles, such as Theophilus, who demanded a more consecutive and profound teaching.
Was a third form possible? Yes; this traditional type, preserved in its rigid and potent originality by the first evangelist with a view to the Jewish people, enriched and completed by the third with a view to the churches of the Gentile nations, might be published anew in its primitive form, as in the first Gospel, but this time with a view to Gentile readers, as in the third, -and such, in fact, is the Gospel of Mark. This work does not have any of the precious supplements which that of Luke had added to the Palestinian preaching; in this point it is allied to the first Gospel. But, on the other hand, it omits the numerous references to the prophecies and most of the long discourses of Jesus addressed to the people and their rulers, which give to the Gospel of Matthew its so decidedly Jewish character; besides, it adds detailed explanations respecting the Jewish customs which are not found in Matthew, and which are evidently intended for Gentile readers. Thus allied, therefore, to Luke by its destination and to Matthew by its contents, it is, as it were, the connecting link between the two preceding forms. This intermediate position is made clear by the first word of the work: "Gospel of Jesus, the Christ (Messiah), Son of God." The title of Christ recalls the special relation of Jesus to the Jewish people; that of Son of God, which marks the mysterious relation between God and this unique man, raises this being to such a height that His appearance and His work must necessarily have for their object the entire human race. To this first word of the book answers also the last, which shows us Jesus continuing from heaven to discharge throughout the whole world that function of celestial messenger, of divine evangelist, which He had begun to exercise on the earth. Let us notice also a distinctive characteristic of this narrative: in each picture, so to speak, there are found strokes of the pencil which belong to it peculiarly and which betray an eye-witness. They are always, at the foundation, the traditional accounts, but evidently transmitted by a witness who had himself taken part in the scenes related, and who, when recounting them by word of mouth, quite naturally mingled in them points of detail suggested by the vividness of his own recollections.
As such do our first three Gospels present themselves to attentive readers -being called Synoptic because the three narratives may without much difficulty be placed, with a view to a comparison with one another, in three parallel columns. The date of their composition must have been nearly the same (between the years 60 and 70). Indeed, the first is, as it were, the last apostolic summons addressed to the people of Israel before their destruction; the third is designed to give to the preaching of St. Paul in the Gentile world its historical basis; and the second is the reproduction of the preachings of a witness carrying to the Gentile world the primitive Palestinian Gospel proclamation. If the composition of these three writings really took place at nearly the same time and in different countries, this fact accords with the opinion expressed above, that the writings were composed each one independently of the two others.
Did the Church possess in these three monuments of the primitive popular preaching of the Gospel that by which it could fully answer the wants of believers who had not known the Lord? Must there not have been in the ministry of Jesus a large number of elements which the apostles had not been able to introduce into their missionary preaching? Had they not, by reason of the elementary, and in some sort catechetical nature of that teaching of the earliest times, been led to eliminate many of the sayings of Jesus which reached beyond such a level and rose to a height where only the most advanced minds could follow Him? This is, in itself, very probable. We have already seen that a mass of picturesque details, which are wanting in Matthew, more vividly color the ancient popular tradition in Mark. The important additions in Luke prove still more eloquently how the richness of the ministry of Jesus passed beyond the measure of the primitive oral tradition. Why may not an immediate witness of Jesus' ministry have felt himself called to rise once above all these traditional accounts, to draw directly from the source of his own recollections, and, while omitting all the scenes already sufficiently known, which had passed into the ordinary narrative, to trace, at a single stroke, the picture of the moments which were most marked, most impressive to his own heart, in the ministry of his Master? There was not in this, as we can well understand, any deliberate selection, any artificial distribution. The division of the evangelic matter was the natural result of the historical circumstances in which the founding of the Church was accomplished.
This course of things is so simple, in some sort, its own justification. The apostolic origin of the fourth Gospel may be disputed, but it cannot be denied by any one that the situation indicated is probable, and the part assigned to the author of such a writing natural. It remains to be discovered whether in this case the probable is real, and the natural true. This is precisely the question which we have to elucidate.
- from pages 3-8, Commentary on John's Gospel