[Today’s reflection is a bit longer. Something you can read or re-read over several days. Though long, I hope you will still take time to read and think about it. Jack]
As early Christianity developed and spread in the Middle East, there was a great need to explain Christian belief to people with different religious backgrounds, cultures, and geographic locations. This led to the four Gospels. The development of their final written forms took a period of about forty years from c.70 CE to c.110 CE.
The Gospel According to Mark
All four Gospels evolved from oral traditions, passed on from person to person and from place to place. More than one single person (i.e. Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) composed the final versions of the four Gospels, as we have them today.
What we call Mark’s Gospel was composed around 70 CE, probably after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70. Mark was written for Gentile Christians in Rome. They suffered Roman persecution but also discrimination from Judaeo-Christians, who felt superior to Gentile converts.
In Mark’s Gospel we see, very early, a Jesus confronted with difficulties and rejection. It is a Gospel for those who are suffering and need to find consolation: people who resonate with the fearful cry of those disciples in the sinking boat (Mark 4). They were frightened by the storm. They woke-up the sleeping Jesus and asked him if he is just going to let them all drown. Jesus calms the storm, and then says to his disciples “Why are you so frightened? How is it that you have no faith?”
Having faith in difficult times is key to Mark.
In Mark 6 when Jesus visited his hometown together with his followers, Jesus observed “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” And the Gospel writer observes about Jesus: “He was amazed at their lack of faith.”
Perhaps Mark has a special significance for us today with our fears about Covid-19?
Fear and uncertainty, if one allows them to take control, can disable, blind, and paralyze people; but Christianity is not a religion of fear. We are challenged to be alert and faithful to the Good News. Already in Mark 8:18-21 Jesus had reprimanded his disciples: “Do you not yet understand? Have you no perception? Are your minds closed? Have you eyes that do not see, and ears that do not hear?”
The Gospel According to Matthew
Mark’s Gentile Christians in Rome feared persecution and death at the hands of Roman authorities. They endured negativity and discrimination from Judeo-Christians living in Rome. Matthew’s Christians were very different.
The Gospel According to Matthew, was most likely written by a Judeo-Christian scribe in the mid-80s CE, probably in ancient Antioch, whose ruins today lie close to Antakya, Turkey. The community was STRONGLY Judeo-Christian. There were Gentile Christian members, but they were expected to obey Torah norms. Some scholars say even circumcision. The Matthean Jesus came, therefore, “not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it” (Matthew 5:17).
In Matthew Jesus is the great embodiment of all preceding Hebrew history.
The author constructs an infancy narrative that begins with “A genealogy of Jesus Christ, Son of David, son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1-17). Matthew’s genealogy features four notable Hebrew women, a number of “fulfillment” passages that relate Jesus to prophetic texts; and allusions to famous Hebrew men of the past. Note for instance that Jesus, like Moses, was rescued as an infant from a murderous king (Matthew 2:16-18). In Matthew’s creative narration, Jesus’ ministry begins with three temptations in the desert. They correspond to the experiences of Israel in the desert, after the Exodus. Jesus is God’s great liberator, the new Moses.
What strikes me as I re-read the Gospel According to Matthew, is Jesus the rabbi: the great teacher. In Matthew 5:1-10, Jesus goes up a hill with his disciples and begins to teach what we have come to know as the “Sermon on the Mount.” It is truly a charter for Christian life today: Authentic followers of Jesus realize that greatness is achieved through service not domination. They are neither so arrogant nor so self-centered that they see only what they want to see. They have compassion. They can feel the pain of another. They put an arm around the fearful and the oppressed. They are not phony believers who love to denigrate and oppress their critics, in reality showing that they love not their neighbor but only themselves.
We have many contemporary examples where Rabbi Jesus’ message can be applied…..
Mark focused on the mostly Gentile Christian community in Rome. Matthew was much focused on the Judeo-Christian community in Antioch. Luke, however, stresses that Christianity is a way of life for Gentile as well as Judeo-Christian believers; and that it warrants legal recognition in the Roman Empire.
The Gospel According to Luke
Luke is about healing and reconciliation: actions greatly needed in our own contemporary society.
Luke’s author was a highly educated Gentile Christian who came from a thoroughly Greco-Roman environment. Unlike Matthew’s author he is NOT well-grounded in the Hebrew tradition. Luke and the Acts of Apostles make up a two-volume work often called simply Luke–Act. Textual analysis suggests that Luke-Acts was written not earlier than 80–90 CE; and quite possibly as late as 90–110 CE. The text was still being revised well into the 2nd century.
While Matthew saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Hebrew history, with a genealogy of Jesus from Abraham down to Joseph and Mary, Luke understands Jesus as the high point in ALL HUMAN HISTORY. His genealogy runs backwards from Joseph to Adam.
What strikes me, as I re-read this gospel? Three themes catch my attention: a stress on women, building bridges, and religious hypocrisy.
Prominence of WOMEN: In Luke Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39), a 12-year-old girl (Luke 8:41-42, 49-56); a woman with a 12-year infirmity (verses 43-48); and a woman who had been crippled 18 years (Luke 13:10-17). In Luke we see Mary, an early disciple of Jesus. When her sister Martha complains to Jesus that Mary should be helping her with serving, Jesus replies: “Martha, Martha…Mary who has chosen the better part.” (Luke 10:38-42). In the Resurrection accounts, women not men are most important.
BUILDING BRIDGES NOT WALLS: Luke’s stress on peace-making implied a new relationship with the Roman Empire. Dialogue had to start. Destructive polarization had to end. In Luke’s infancy narrative, angelic messengers proclaim: “Good news of great joy for ALL PEOPLE. To you is born this day . . . a Savior! . . . Peace on earth among those whom God favors!” (Luke 2:10-11,14) These words echo and go far beyond the Roman monument inscriptions, at the time, which praised Augustus Caesar as “god” and “savior.” Luke hereby stresses that Jesus had completed more fully and uniquely the work of Augustus. Later in this Gospel, Luke even offsets the fact that Jesus was executed by the Romans, by having the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate declare Jesus innocent three times (Luke 23:4,14, 22).
RELIGIOUS HYPOCRISY: Some observers accuse Luke of antisemitism, because he regularly shows Jesus criticizing Jewish religious leaders. I think these critics miss the point. Jesus was strongly critical of the arrogant religious hypocrisy of the religiously elite in his day. When invited to dine in the home of a Pharisee, for example, the religious leader accused Jesus of not washing ahead of time. Jesus replied: “Now then, you clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness…. Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” (Luke 11:37-44)
Luke speaks strongly to our own contemporary society, in which prominent religious people too often praise God and ignore the poor, the oppressed, the diseased, and the marginalized. They seem more interested in power not people.
The Gospel According to John
The Gospel According to John differs from the Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) in style and content in several ways.
John’s Gospel omits a large amount of material found in the Synoptic Gospels, like the temptation of Jesus, Jesus’ transfiguration, and the institution of the Lord’s supper. In John we do not see proverbs and parables but symbolic discourses. Jesus’ miracles are designed to provide symbolic insight into Jesus’ identity and his relationship to the Father. In John, Jesus is clearly the Wisdom of God, the source of eternal life, and STILL CONTINUALLY LIVING within the community of faith.
This Gospel uses a “post-resurrection” point of view. The author looks back on the Jesus events and emphasizes the inability of the apostles to understand the things that were happening at the time they occurred. See for instance: John 2:17-22, where there are obvious references to the Resurrection, “He was speaking of the sanctuary that was his body, and after he rose from the dead his disciples remembered.” John 12:16-17, “At the time his disciples did not understand this but later, after Jesus had been glorified, they remembered….” And John 20:9, “Until this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Perhaps we do not always clearly understand?
The old tradition, from the second century, was that the author the Gospel According to John was the Apostle John, son of Zebedee. Most contemporary scholars are not of this opinion. They suggest that the original author of an oral tradition, that evolved into the John’s Gospel, was indeed a companion of Jesus, the “Beloved Disciple,” who formed a community, most probably in Ephesus. Scholars call this “the Johannine community.”
An oral tradition of eye-witness recollections of the Beloved Disciple evolved and began being written down around 90 CE. The final redaction occurred ten to twenty years later, giving us a Gospel composition date of between 90 and 110 CE. We don’t know who the “Beloved Disciple” was. There is quite a variety of scholarly opinions: a truly unknown disciple, the Apostle John, James the brother of Jesus, or even Mary the Magdalene.
The Johannine community was greatly concerned with hot issues in the church–synagogue debate and defined itself primarily in contrast to Judaism. The final version of the Gospel was composed after the crisis created by the expulsion of Christians from the synagogue in the 90s. The Judean criticism is strong; and, over the centuries, some have incorrectly used John’s Gospel as an excuse for antisemitism. It is unfortunate that English translators have so often used the words “Jew” and “Jews,” when “Judean” and “Judeans” would have been more correct and less problematic. For example, the text on Jesus’ cross should be translated “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Judeans.” (John 19: 18-22)
What stands out for me in this Gospel? Jesus in John is STRONG AND COURAGEOUSLY CONFIDENT. The Johannine account of the crucifixion does not stress Jesus as one who suffers, as we saw for example in Mark. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is the one who is exalted, “lifted up” in his moment of glorification.
The Jesus who stands before Pilate is strong. On the way to Golgotha Jesus carries his own cross. He does not need the help of a Simon of Cyrene as we saw in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Also in John, unlike the other three Gospels, Jesus’ crucifixion occurs on the day of preparation for the Passover (John 19:14) rather than on the Passover feast itself. Here Jesus prepares himself for the departure to the Father and seems to be in complete control of his destiny, even to the extent of commending his mother to the Beloved Disciple (John 19:26–27).
As members of the Christian community of faith, may we sustain each other with courage and confidence. That is the message in our fearful Covid-19 days — and as we look forward to Easter 2020.
May you all be well! – Jack