September 28, 2015

Near the end of his Gospel, St. John writes, "Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may come to have life in his name" (20.30-31).

Then in the final chapter, he writes. "There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" (21.25).

Those three sentences tell and imply a lot about the nature of the written Gospels from which we draw almost everything we know about Jesus.

First, John's Gospel and, by implication also the three synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke - present only a tiny portion of the story of Jesus' activities.

Second, there is a principle that John used for selecting what to include and what not to include - his Gospel must help his readers to have faith in Jesus as God's Son and to share in the fullness of life.

The Gospels, then, are not biographies of Jesus. They don't provide basic information about the exact dates of important happenings in his life; they say precious little about family and other influences on his human development; they don't describe his personality; they say almost nothing about his life between his infancy and his baptism in the Jordan.

The authors of the 4 Gospels wrote testimonies of faith which nevertheless strove to be true to the full meaning of the story of Jesus.

The authors of the 4 Gospels wrote testimonies of faith which nevertheless strove to be true to the full meaning of the story of Jesus.

The Gospels are highly selective accounts, written in order to inspire faith in Jesus. They are testimonies more than histories.

Moreover, the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses to Jesus' life, although they were most likely based upon what eyewitnesses told the evangelists. To take but one example, the synoptic Gospels place Jesus' cleansing of the Temple shortly before his passion and death, presenting it as an event that led Jewish leaders to push for his execution.

John, however, a Gospel most likely written decades after the synoptics, places the cleansing at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry.

If the main purpose of the Gospels was to provide biographies of Jesus, we would be forced to ask which accounts are correct and which are wrong. Yet, we are not and should not be bothered by such questions. We can say both that, in a broad sense, the Gospels are historically accurate, but that their main purpose is to be found beyond precise historical accuracy.

In his An Introduction to the New Testament, Raymond Brown briefly describes the three stages of Gospel formation. First is the public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, an itinerant Galilean Jewish preacher who attracted a huge following in early first century Palestine and who also stirred strong opposition which led eventually to his execution.


Second came the preaching of Jesus' followers who, after his death and resurrection, went out to proclaim the Good News of God's Son becoming human, miraculously healing the sick and teaching about the kingdom of God, dying a horrific death and rising from the dead to bring fullness of life to all humanity.

That apostolic preaching spread beyond the people of Israel and thus was adapted to a new audience in different cultures so that they would understand the meaning of Jesus.

Third, after decades of preaching, came the actual writing of the Gospels. To us, this may seem like an obvious step for the early Church to perform. But it only became obvious once the risen Jesus did not return in glory as soon as expected, and the eyewitnesses to his life and ministry began to die.


In the first four verses of his Gospel, St. Luke provides some insight into what was happening:

"Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed."

Luke, it would seem, believes his "orderly account" is more truthful than other orderly accounts which were then circulating, even though apparently all the accounts were drawn from eyewitnesses and servants of the word.


If you want to know why there are four canonical Gospels rather than one, Luke's introduction is a good place to begin. The "events" were receiving different interpretations. Luke contends his account is more truthful, but the Church eventually discerned that three other accounts were also divinely inspired.

In the entire history of Christianity, no neutral accounts about Jesus have been written. Every author has a perspective - from those who maintain that the resurrection was an elaborate fraud to the New Testament writers who held that Jesus is the Son of God.


Each person has a choice: Do I accept the Gospels' accounts of Jesus in faith? Or, do I believe some other story about Jesus, say one that maintains he was an exceptional man, but not divine?

I, of course, maintain that the most reasonable account of Jesus' identity is one that aligns with the Church's faith in his divinity. Moreover, accepting the Church's version of the facts cannot leave a person unchanged. These facts call a person to live in union with Jesus, the Son of God. He is to be our friend, our model and our life.