Understanding the Gospels: Some basic insights to get started!
Many people think of the gospels as biographies, however, while they have much biographical information their purpose was more than simply to recall the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Many people might be unaware that within the Gospels, differences arise not only in biographical information but also in focus and intent. It can be argued that the gospel tradition was formed ‘backwards’ beginning with the resurrection of Jesus and working backwards towards his birth. As books written in time, the Gospels often reflect the issues of the audiences to which they were addressed and the concerns of the Church as it emerged in the first century. So in many ways the Gospels are colored by preaching motives and by the fact that in the course of apostolic teaching and writing, the memory of what happened in the life of Jesus was affected by the situations in which the local Christian community found itself. Likewise, as we shall see later, the actual writing of the Gospels came some decades after the events took place. This need arose from the fact that as the Christian faith spread across the nations, new converts had to be informed about Christ and what they were invited to believe about him and his message.

Fortunately, to assist us in our task of reflection and exploration, the Church has given us a very helpful guide in the Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels, issued in 1964. Let us use this Instruction as our springboard to the task at hand. The Instruction begins by drawing our attention to what it describes as the Three Stages of Tradition by which the events in the life of Christ have come down to us. These three stages are: the Life and Ministry of Jesus, the preaching of the Apostles and the writing of the gospel texts.

Stage One: The Life and Ministry of Jesus (circa 6BC to 36 AD)

It is interesting to note that the Instruction is silent on the accounts of Infancy Narratives in both the gospels of Luke and Matthew. Rather it focuses on the life of Jesus from his proclamation of the Kingdom to his death and resurrection. Yet even here the Gospels are selective in their recall of people and events since they are concerned not with the details of ordinary life but with recalling material that pertained to how Jesus and his followers proclaimed this Kingdom to the deeper significance of his death and ultimate resurrection. On a practical level it is important to remember that what is recalled in the Gospels are events and words that occurred in time and in specific circumstances namely first century Palestine. While on one level they can assist us in our modern living we should avoid placing in the mouth of Jesus answers to issues and questions which he could never have experienced or known about. Thus, in this age of the automobile and high fuel consumption it would be futile to ask the question "what would Jesus drive"? Clearly, a first century Palestinian itinerant preacher would not have spoken about the auto industry or fuel consumption. A better-phrased question would be "looking at the life and teachings of Jesus, what is our Christian duty towards stewardship of our world and the fair use of its resources"?

This is not to say that the teachings and life of Jesus do not have decisive ramifications for all questions in our lives, even if a specific question was not valid in his day. For it is here that the tradition of the Church, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit comes into play and offers us guidance and continuity. That is why the breaking open of the Word in homilies and reflections is an important part of our Sunday liturgy. For when the Church speaks of the actions of Christ it is not speaking solely about the teachings and actions of Jesus in his public ministry but also in how those actions were reflected upon in the subsequent teaching and preaching of his disciples and down through the ages.

Stage Two: the Preaching of the Apostles (circa 36 AD to 65AD)
It is clear that during their time with Jesus, his apostles and disciples did not fully understand who he truly was. This recognition would come later, in the aftermath of his resurrection and their Pentecost experience! It was in the light of this new understanding that all their former perceptions and insights were re-cast. Those who has seen and witnessed his words and actions during his life had their following of him confirmed through post resurrection appearances. Quickly, they began to speak of him through the use of new titles: Messiah, Christ, Lord, Savior and Son of God: all of which attempted to grasp their new understanding of his divinity. Slowly they began to see that this Jesus of Nazareth was more then just the promised Messiah of Israel but the Savior of the world. This was not a distortion of the tradition of Stage One but more a deepening in light of what had now been revealed to them at Pentecost.

We call them "apostolic" in that they had been sent by the Risen Christ "to go teach all nations" (Mt 28:19). Eventually this circle of missionaries was enlarged beyond the original twelve and the faith they preached and proclaimed enriched by their own life-changing experiences. Likewise, as the faith spread across the Mediterranean region the message was developed and adapted to meet the needs of new audiences. In the decades after the death of Jesus the Gospel message spread from being preached to a rural based Jewish community to one that was primarily Gentile and Greek speaking. This in itself demanded a significant change in approach, in that the Gospel had to be translated and preached in terms that would be understandable to new audiences and at the same time remain faithful to it original message. So when we read how Luke substitutes a "tile roof" for the original Palestinian clay roof in his account of the healing of the paralytic (Lk 5:17-21), we can see how an urban Greek speaking audience would be more familiar with the former than the latter.

Another example, of more profound importance, is the teaching of Jesus on divorce and remarriage. The first three Gospels and the writings of Paul all agree that Jesus upheld the sanctity of marriage and took a strong stance on divorce and remarriage. But as Jesus was dealing with a Jewish society where divorce was both rare and limited to men only, it was difficult to see how his words could literally be applied to Gentiles communities that freely allowed women to divorce. So as one scholar points out, Jesus most likely never addressed the specific issue of divorce by women but it is an obvious corollary from his teaching on marriage that his teaching should be interpreted to cover this possibility. Similarly, Matthew adds the famous exception clause that allows divorce in the cases of "porneia" which is usually translated as marriage within the forbidden degree of blood relationship. Again, this too would be unknown among the Jewish community but not among some gentiles nations. In the light of this reality Matthew adds the exception. A new development and adaptation, but a necessary one!

All three examples show how ingenious the apostles were in remaining faithful to the teachings of Jesus, and yet allowing a degree of flexibility that kept the teachings of Jesus alive, meaningful and salvific from age to age and from place to place.

Stage Three: Writing the Gospels (circa 65 AD to 90 AD)

According to tradition two of the apostles, Matthew and John each wrote one Gospel. The other two Gospels are attributed to Mark and Luke, who while not eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus were later companions of Peter and Paul and therefore indirectly familiar with the teachings of Jesus. However, most biblical scholars now believe that the gospels were most likely written by disciples who themselves were not eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus but were part of a tradition which traced their roots to individual disciples. How otherwise could we account for the differences that exist in the four texts? How could John place the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus (Jn 2:14-22) while Mathew reports it towards the end of Jesus’ ministry (Mt 21:12-13)? Did it happen twice as some suggest? Or did the writer simply position the account to fit his own needs and the needs of his community?

Likewise, how can we reconcile the Sermon on the Mount and its inclusion of the "Our Father" (Mt 5:1- 7:28) with Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, which is without the Lord’s Prayer (Lk 6:17)? Were the sermon repeated? Perhaps! However, if we accept that the writers were not eyewitnesses but faithful successors to apostolic traditions, which they later shaped and fashioned then we avoid the need for scriptural gymnastics and supposition. This individual crafting of the Gospel story does not infer untruth or indeed infidelity to the truth. The evangelists emerge as full authors who shaped, developed and pruned the transmission of the Gospel story to their own particular needs. In the words of the 1964 Instruction "much was handed down, from this they selected some things, reduced others to a synthesis, others they explicated as they kept in mind the situation of the churches"

The Gospels: Inspired Word of God and Documents of Faith!
It should be noted from the beginning that God chose not to give us written and direct eyewitness accounts of the day-to-day life and teachings of Jesus. Rather what we have is based on Stage Three, formed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and containing within it a guarantee that the end product would faithfully reflect the eternal truths that Jesus came to preach. Little benefit can be attained by attempting to harmonize each and every inconsistency and difference, that in itself would be a grave distortion as well as an impoverishment of what each text has to offer. For God in his providence and great knowledge has given us four different Gospels texts with individual outlooks and focuses but which together describe and recall the life of Christ. These are documents of faith written in time and place, but not documents of biography or history! As document of faith they need to be evaluated in terms of what they set out to do, namely to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the proximity of the Kingdom of God.

Using the Gospels in the Liturgy: The Three-year Lectionary.

The changes that took place in the Liturgy of the Word of the Mass after Vatican II reflect a growing understanding of the individual significance of the fourfold Gospels. Prior to Vatican II little attention was paid to the Gospel of Mark, believing it to be a summary of Matthew. Instead the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were alternated and that of John was used to supplement on other occasions. However the introduction of the three-year cycle changed all this. During Year A we hear from the Gospel of Matthew, Year B from Mark and Year C from Luke. Given the distinctive nature of the Gospel of John, extracts from his Gospel continue to be spread throughout the three-year cycle. This approach recognizes that to do justice to each Gospel they need to be read sequentially, allowing the theological focus and insight to unfold over the whole of the year. This approach has of course impacted on liturgical preaching and has hastened the move from thematic sermons to homilies that attempt to break open the deeper meaning and significance of the gospel text. It is interesting to note that many other Christian communities have followed this approach with the result that many Christians of diverse background are hearing the same Gospel on Sunday!

A word of warning! Given the seasonal nature of the liturgical year, continuity of proclamation is not always possible. During the three-year cycle, the Sunday gospels will often have to stop abruptly as the focus of liturgy changes and moves to another season e.g. Lent or Advent, or indeed for the celebration of a major feast or solemnity, many of which have now been moved to the nearest Sunday. This too has an impact on the selection of gospel passages.

The Parables in the Gospels: Stories Jesus told.
Index of Sunday Gospels

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