The Four Gospels
or, Sequence in Time
Whatever our interest in Christianity may be, we would be glad to have an account of the life of its founder, Jesus. In the Bible there are four such accounts, called Gospels. They are attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and no two of them tell the story of Jesus in the same way. How confusing! Before trying to read any one of them, we might first skim all four, to see how they fit together. And especially to find out which of them is earliest, since the earliest one will also be the one least affected by later ideas and influences. It will automatically become our preferred source for Jesus and the early Christian movement.
This turns out to be not very difficult. Consider Jesus' mother. All the Gospels mention her, but they treat her in very different ways:
- In Mark, she and her other sons (along with Jesus' friends) are concerned for his sanity. They go to the house where he is gathered with others, and try to take him away. Someone says to him, "Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee." He answers, "Who is my mother and my brethren?" And he looks around at those with him, and adds, "Behold, my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother." In short, they do not believe in whatever he is doing, they think he is crazy, and he rejects them. Mark does not even mention her name. The atmosphere is one of mutual rejection.
- In Matthew, Jesus' mother (now identified as "Mary") gives birth to Jesus under miraculous circumstances, and the life of the infant Jesus is preserved from all sorts of peril, thanks to miraculous warnings to his nominal father, Joseph. Mary not only has a name, she has the status of one divinely favored.
- In Luke, there is a much more splendid birth scene. Joseph is scarcely mentioned, and Mary has center stage. The angelic announcement is made not to Joseph, but to Mary. She responds eloquently and at length (this passage is known to us as the Magnificat). Not only is Mary going to give birth under miraculous circumstances, but so is her cousin, and the cousin's child will be John the Baptist, who, while still in the womb, acknowledges Jesus when the pregnant Mary comes to visit. Luke goes on to tell how at twelve, Jesus astonished the learned Temple priests by his knowledge of the Scriptures: "And all that heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers." The role of Mary in Jesus' life, and in his early days, is far more elaborately presented than in Matthew. She is not only more divine, she is also more human. So, when the group including Mary and Joseph are a day's journey away from Jerusalem, and discover that Jesus is not with them, they go back and search for him, and finding him in the temple, they scold him. Mary says, "Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I sought thee sorrowing." So like a mother! And Jesus obediently goes home with them; so like a dutiful son.
- John has no birth scene, since for him Jesus did not come to exist at his birth, but existed since the beginning the world; he is of the same age as God himself. But Mary becomes even more involved in her son's life. The two are guests at a wedding at Cana, and the wine runs out. Knowing Jesus' magic powers, she asks him to do something, and when he hesitates, she goes ahead and orders the servants to obey him: "Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it." So like a pushy Jewish mother! Jesus dutifully turns the water into wine, and into better wine than what they had before. This is the beginning of his career as a worker of wonders. At the end, when Jesus is crucified, Mary is there, at the foot of the cross. Jesus commends her to the care of one of his disciples, the one he especially loved (in the other Gospels, his disciples have all fled the scene). To his mother, he says, "Behold thy son!" And to the disciple, "Behold thy mother!" And, as John concludes the story, "From that hour the disciple took her unto his own home." It is inexpressibly moving; a matter for tears. The dutiful son, unto the very end.
We are now done reading, and it is time to interpret the results. It is pretty obvious that these four Gospels form a series, of increasing respect for Mary, and of increasingly intimate involvement of Mary in her son's life. They were most likely written in that sequence, but which end of the sequence comes first? Do the Gospels give less and less space to Mary, and end by having her suspect her son's sanity, and having him reject her? Or go they to in the other direction, and move from that state of mutual rejection to a highly developed and highly sentimental portrait of Mary alongside Jesus? If we hesitate over the answer, and need a tiebreaker, we may consider the elaborately developed Mary cult of the Middle Ages. And that is probably clue enough. Over the centuries, and into the present moment, it seems that Mary takes an increasingly honored position in Christianity. She becomes herself the object, not only of devotion, but of prayer. It is against all human probability that the Gospels should contradict that general process of increasing respect for Mary.
We should then conclude that the order of the Gospels is: Mark > Matthew > Luke > John.
But wait! That is only one test! Who would be so careless in this important matter that they would walk away from the problem with only one test? So we can further ask, How is the Baptism of Jesus by John treated in the Gospels? Or how is Jesus himself treated - Is he human, or is he divine, and to what degree? Or we can check the relation of Galilee to Jerusalem in these four stories - At one end of the Gospel sequence, Galilee is the center of Jesus' activities; at the other, it is instead the holy city Jerusalem which has center stage throughout, and Jesus' actions in Galilee are minimized.
To make a short story even shorter, all four of these tests come out the same way, with the humanly and historically likely sequence Mark > Matthew > Luke > John. Then that, for us, will be their order of composition. And it will also be the order of their value as sources for the actual events of Jesus' life, and for the ideas of Jesus' first followers.
This is how one reads more than one text at a time. We will next look at how one might go about reading one text at a time.
It would be a simple matter to assemble a twelve-foot shelf of books on the sequence of the Gospels, and after reading through them, we would find that their conclusions are by no means in agreement. To be fair to conventional scholarship, the predominant opinion at the present time, especially among critical scholars, is that Mark is the earliest Gospel. But in the NT field at large, the matter is still much disputed. It may seem unlikely that anyone would want to run the above sequence of Four Gospels in the opposite direction, no? And yet few things are easier than to be sitting in a meeting at the annual get-together of the Society of Biblical Literature, and for some young thing to walk into the room exclaiming "Johannine priority," and for those assembled to cheer her to the echo. Amid such variety (and such enthusiasm), all we have to guide us is our faculty of reason. For purposes of this series of Biblical vignettes, the conclusion to which reason leads in this matter is: Mark > Matthew > Luke > John.
Of course this refers to the Gospels as we have them in the Bible, and not to any preliminary stages they may have gone through as individual texts.
And yes, the picture at the top of this page shows the Four Evangelists (Gospel authors) in their familiar canonical order: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. Why (one may ask) is Mark so young, and why is he wrapped in what looks like a white sheet? That and other puzzlements will be explained in what follows. Those impatient souls who like to read ahead may turn at once to The Naked Young Man.
For Further Reading