08/31/2013 11:48 am ET | Updated Oct 31, 2013

Scholars and the Gospels

There are basically two kinds of scholars: The "scholars' scholar," who concentrates on very advanced levels of research that other scholars understand, and the "laymen's scholar," who focuses on scholarly matters of a less intense nature that the average layperson understands. There are biblical scholars in each category.

The "scholars' scholar" who focus on the four Gospels researches, for example: the probability that the Gospels were originally spoken in Aramaic and preserved by committing them to memory; whether they were translated from the verbal Aramaic directly into the written Greek or were translated from Aramaic into Hebrew and then into Greek; whether the translations were accurate; the similarity of the Gospels to other religious literature of the time; where details differ from one Gospel to the next, which is correct; and which present-day Bibles are truest to original biblical texts. These are the typical matters the "scholars' scholar" likes to study and debate.

The "laymen's scholar" is also concerned about scholarly matters. But the focus is on background information that makes it easier for the layperson to understand and enjoy the spiritual significance of the Gospels, rather than getting caught up in details that raise questions and cause confusion.

The writers of the Gospels differed in literary styles, motifs for writing and theological perspectives, depending on their individual roots and life experiences. Here are some details about each Gospel that should be helpful for the laypersons reading the Gospels for spiritual assistance in living their daily lives.

The Gospel of Mark was written by John Mark, a young assistant to Simon Peter. Mark was a personal friend and travel companion of Luke (the author of the Gospel of Luke), and a member of Paul's evangelistic team during Paul's First Missionary Journey. Mark is referred to as John Mark in Acts 12:12, 25 and 15:37; only as John in Acts 13:5, 13; and only as Mark in Acts 15:39, Colossians 4:10, II Timothy 4:11, Philemon verse 24, I Peter 5:13.

Much of Mark's Gospel is eye-witness testimony passed on to him from Peter and personal observations gleaned from traveling with Paul. Mark was not writing for evangelistic purposes, but to preserve in a permanent form the life and teachings of Jesus, which had, up until then, been primarily passed along in verbal form and personal letters. This accounts for Mark's more graphic and vivid literary style: portraying life as it really was, writing about the human attributes of Jesus, and being critical of the Disciples. Mark's Gospel is free of the more artistic prose used by the other Gospel writers to make the Gospel message more appealing. The careful student of Mark will notice his crisp description of human events that are the hallmark of Peter's eyewitness accounts.

Mark's Gospel dates from around AD 65. The authors of the other three Gospels used Mark as one of their primary sources, but embellished the details, thereby making their Gospels lengthier than Mark's. Also, the other authors, writing later than Mark, had access to additional material.

But if Mark was the earliest of the Gospels, why does the Gospel of Matthew appear in the Bible before Mark? Because the books of the Bible were not arranged in chronological order, but in the order of their popularity, and Matthew's Gospel was then, and still is, the most popular of the four.

The Gospel of Matthew was probably written around AD 75 to 80. It includes about nine-tenths of the subject matter of Mark's Gospel, plus additional details of the life of Jesus (for example, birth and infancy stories and additional resurrection appearances) and a much-expanded accounting of the teachings of Jesus. Early Christians saw it as an updated version of Mark's Gospel and considered it the most complete record of the life of Jesus.

Its distinctive features have led to its being used by Roman Catholics and Protestants in lectionary readings of worship, as a source for teaching church history and doctrine and as a guide for church administration. The Roman Catholic Church uses the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John evenly in its Mass, with Mark's Gospel coming in a distant fourth. In the Book of Common Prayer, on the other hand, Matthew is way out ahead of all the other Gospels in scriptural passages suggested for use in worship, with Luke second, John third and Mark, again, a distant fourth, a pattern followed in the majority of Protestant churches.

Matthew has the strongest Jewish flavor of all the Gospels: for example, the Davidic descent of Jesus, quoting much Old Testament scripture, frequent mention of the Pharisees, and ending with Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Its contents have long been attributed to Matthew, one of the twelve Disciples.

The Gospel of Luke was written about the same time as Matthew's, AD 75 to 80. The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were originally a two-volume narration of the beginning of the Christian Church compiled by Luke. Luke was not the original source; he gathered, compiled and very skillfully edited materials others wrote.

Luke, like Matthew, relied heavily on what Mark had written, adding material to it. But the purpose, emphasis and style of Luke differ greatly.

In all probability, Luke was: a Greek-born Gentile, trained as a doctor and a seasoned sea traveler. He not only was Paul's travel companion (Philemon verse 24 and II Timothy 4:11), but also his "beloved physician" (Colossians 4:14). Being a doctor, he was especially interested in the birth and early childhood development of Jesus, including his circumcision and in disease and its cure. He had a deep concern for the well-being of others and a willingness to sacrifice for his fellow man.

During Paul's several years of imprisonment and house arrest and trials before Roman officials, Luke attended to Paul's physical and emotional needs. Since he was born a Gentile and not reared as a Jew, Luke naturally wrote for the benefit of Romans and Greeks and served as a good bridge between the Jewish Christian and the Gentile Christian. His Gospel, compared to the other three, shows by far the greatest use of a more refined Greek vocabulary in creating compelling, beautiful and emotional literary prose.

The Gospel of John was of a completely different nature than the other three. The author has historically been identified as John, the son of Zebedee and the Disciple whom Jesus loved. The purpose of John's writing this Gospel was that "you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name." (John 20:31) I think of him as the Billy Graham of the early Christian era, an evangelist primarily interested in saving souls.

This being said, one should not under estimate John's scholarly abilities. He had the unique ability to blend historical fact with theological purpose in dramatic narrative. He takes the historical facts of the other three Gospels and blends them with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, making this Gospel the unique blending of the practical and the mystical. Although written from a Jewish perspective, he uses the vocabulary of the contemporary Hellenistic mind.

Writing in about AD 100, the sources used by John are the other three Gospels, relying more on Mark and Luke than on Matthew, with a predominance of material from Mark. Added to those sources are stories collected from his contemporaries. The careful reader of the Gospels will notice that it is only in John's Gospel that the ministry of Jesus appears to be three years in length, that in John's Gospels there are no parables and that Jesus performs miracles as signs of the divine power rather than out of compassion.

In conclusion, it is my hope that this material from the perspective of a "laymen's scholar" is helpful.