Fact or Fiction- What are the Gospels?
The Gospels are not biographies in the truest sense of the word, but they are biographical in their overviews of the life of Jesus. They all contain the story of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and his resurrection. At the same time, each Gospel presents some of the same stories, miracles, and teachings from Jesus’ ministry. Each Gospel writer also presents some material that is unique only to his book.
When the Gospels were written in the middle to late first century, it was clear that a new type of literature had been created. They were written to specific groups of Christians to help them get grounded in their faith. Matthew wrote to Jewish Christians. Luke wrote to Greek Christians. Mark was written to Christians in and around Rome. The Apostle John was living in Ephesus when he wrote his book. John was primarily for the church there but also has a universal appeal.
Of course, there have always been challenges to the historicity of the Gospels. While these challenges will probably always be with us, it is important to examine all of the evidence, both internal and external in regards to the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. For a good overview of some of the scholarship on both sides of the issue check out my book Peter and Paul in Acts. I focus primarily on the historicity of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles but it is a good treatment of the subject for someone wanting to learn more.
Luke provides some great insight on how he composed his books. “Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.” (Luke 1:1-4)
Luke implies that he interviewed eyewitnesses who were still alive and made use of oral accounts. He also used most of Mark’s Gospel as a primary account. Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth very likely came from an interview with Mary, the mother of Jesus. It reads like a first-hand account.
While Mark does not tell the reader how he wrote his Gospel, someone else does. The Church Father, Papias, said this, “Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took special care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.”
There are many excellent studies out dealing with the accuracy and the historicity of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. While this issue will always be debated, there is no compelling reason to reject the Gospels and the history that they represent. This post has focused solely on the human aspect of the creation of the Gospels.
We must also never forget the other aspect of the how the writings of Scripture were created, divine inspiration. The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
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