At the time of Jesus, it’s been estimated that at least 90% of Palestine’s population was more or less illiterate. In the beginning, therefore, stories about what Jesus said and did, would have been oral, not written. They’d have been carried (and translated), by word of mouth, from Aramaic Palestine to Greek speaking cities in the Roman Empire. In such ‘oral transmission’, the original would have been progressively modified in a variety of ways, in line with the aims of the story tellers, and the ambience of the listeners. We should note that there were no printed books, telephone or internet, to enable checking for authenticity or accuracy. This is not imply that we should dismiss the gospels, but read them sensibly and critically.
Mark’s Gospel was written first. Matthew and Luke later copied Mark’s format and much of his content, although each made some changes to Mark to suit his own agenda. In addition, they both copied from a now lost ‘sayings’ document, as well as including other material known to each of them separately. The format of John is very different, as is his portrait of Jesus, who tells no short parables, but gives long ‘sermons’, not about the Kingdom of God as in the other gospels, but exclusively about himself, who he is and why he alone must be followed. Each gospel tells its own story in its own way, with inevitable inconsistencies and contradictions.
To do the gospels justice, we should consider the situation Jesus’ followers found themselves in, when their charismatic leader, in whom they had had such high hopes, was arrested and brutally killed. How on earth could they explain that to themselves, never mind to other people? They had no ready-to-hand “Guide to the Meaning of the Life and Death of Jesus”. They had to gather their thoughts, and use their imaginations, to begin to make some kind of sense of what had happened.
The ensuing debate threw up different interpretations of the ‘meaning’ of Jesus to be evaluated and argued over. One interpretation came from Jesus’ Jewish followers in Jerusalem. A different one came from the apostle Paul and he warns, in his letters, about even more alternative teachings from, as he puts it, ‘false teachers’ preaching a ‘different gospel’. The language he uses shows there was no love lost among the competing factions. It’s against this background of ongoing change and development that the gospels were successively written.
Any good overview of contemporary New Testament scholarship will show how such development can be demonstrated, although this should be obvious to any reader. To go straight from Mark to John (written around 25-30 years later) is like going from one room into a suddenly quite different one. In the first three gospels, Jesus is a down-to-earth ‘man of the people’ whereas, in John, he’s a set-apart divine being who has ‘come down’ for a temporary visit.
What this means is that, if we look at the four gospels around the year 100, it’s like looking at an archeological site with different layers. There will be earlier material that’s closer to what Jesus actually did and said. There’ll be later material reflecting what the developing Christian movement believed, or even imagined, him to have done and said. It’s clear to me, for example, that John, in these uncharacteristic, long ‘sermons’ is putting words into the mouth of Jesus which reflect the interpretation of who he was, and what he was about, which was current in John’s own time and location.
Sorting all this out is difficult, if not impossible. Scholars employ various ‘tests’, but can’t guarantee accurate results. We must make up our own minds, as thoughtfully and honestly as we can, but we must never imagine that the view of Jesus we come up with is clearly the right one, and all other views equally clearly wrong. With that in mind, let’s return to that day when a young Jewish man of 30+ years of age, suddenly appeared on the banks of the river Jordan, where a curiously dressed, charismatic figure was holding a mission, and drawing the crowds …..