The Gospels contain “stories of Jesus”. How did these stories originate, and how did they eventually find their way into the four scrolls, now books, in what ultimately became the New Testament? After his crucifixion, some of Jesus’ followers believed they’d seen him alive again. That, in my view, can reasonably be regarded as fact. Whether or not what was seen was actual or visionary is, however, a matter of faith rather than fact. The same is true of all the other supernatural appearances that have been recorded throughout history.
These excited and energised early followers would’ve shared memories and stories with one another, and with anyone else willing to give them a hearing. Jesus, in 1st century Palestine, would have spoken Aramaic. Jewish people who lived elsewhere, however, would have spoken Greek, the lingua-franca of the Roman Empire. Especially at religious festival times, there would invariably be lots of Greek speaking Jews in Jerusalem. The first adaptation of the Jesus stories would therefore have been from Aramaic into Greek.
No language can be translated into another without ‘compromise’. Many English translations (now at two removes from the original Aramaic) rather than prioritising a word-for-word approach, use ‘dynamic equivalence’ which aims at conveying what’s thought to be the original meaning in easily understandable, contemporary speech. An excellent example, in my view, is the “Contemporary English Version.”
Jews returning to their home cities in the Empire, would’ve taken these stories with them, most likely in their Greek versions, and passed them on to family members, friends, and people at their local synagogues, or places of work. Unless we dismiss the findings of biblical scholarship, and insist the Gospels are ‘inerrant’, we can acknowledge that stories, widely passed on by word of mouth, continually change to a lesser or greater extent. This would’ve especially been so, when there were as yet no written versions of these stories to check against, nor any radios, televisions, newspapers, smartphones or internet search engines. Empire-wide, there must have been a multitude of similar and yet differing stories in circulation.
Around 40 years after the death of Jesus, in a city somewhere in the Empire, there was a Greek speaking convert who (around 100 years later) was called Mark. He had the bright idea of putting pen to papyrus, to record the stories current in his own community of believers. Most likely, he collected as many as he could. There’s evidence that elsewhere in the Empire, there was a written list of sayings of Jesus, later made use of by Matthew and Luke, but not by Mark, either because it hadn’t reached his location, or hadn’t yet been compiled.
Mark’s further bright idea seems to have been, not to make a list of sayings, but to arrange his material in the form of a ‘chronological’ narrative, lasting one year. This made for a fast-paced, straight-line story, from Jesus’ baptism to his crucifixion, in which he does things or goes places “immediately”, no fewer than 41 times. Matthew and Luke, making use of Mark, retained this year-long ‘chronology’ but, when borrowing stories from Mark, felt free to modify them. They also placed some at different points along the ‘chronological’ way. They clearly didn’t imagine they were writing ‘inerrant’ scripture, nor scholarly biographies or histories.
John’s, the last gospel, ditches Mark’s year-long chronology, in favour of two-to-three years. Instead of a single journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus travels back and forth, going to numerous festivals in that city. John’s portrait of Jesus is very different from the earlier three. Rather than short, down-to-earth parables, Jesus delivers lengthy ‘theological’ discourses, which are more about himself than about the “Kingdom of God” which had been the earlier focus.
This isn’t to suggest the Gospels tell us nothing about what Jesus said and did. It’s to say that what they present are skilfully constructed compilations of material, originating from Aramaic stories, translated into Greek, and shared across the Empire by word of mouth for around 40 years before being written down. We gain most from them, in my view, by recognising that what chiefly matters is not their historicity or factuality, but the insights, values and meanings which emerge from them. Instead of arguing about them, let’s respect one another’s different viewpoints. What surely matters most is that we read, ponder, and seek to put into practice, the best of what they have to say.
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