This chapter considers how the Gospel writers acquired information about Jesus.
Oral Traditions behind the Gospels
Scholars agree that Jesus died around 30 CE and that the first Gospel to be written, Mark, was penned around 70 CE. Matthew and Luke were written around 80 or 85 CE and John about ten years after that. The earliest accounts of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death, then, were written forty to sixty-five years after Jesus’ death.
During this time, stories about Jesus circulated orally throughout the Roman Empire. Because most missionary activity was aimed at individuals, stories about Jesus were probably told to underscore the benefits of conversion: Jesus could heal, exorcize demons, and provide food for those with faith. Those who converted told stories to other people. It is unlikely that eyewitnesses were the only ones telling stories about Jesus because there was such a wide geographic spread of Christianity through the Empire. Most likely, these stories circulated by individuals who had heard stories from other individuals who had heard stories, and so forth. As stories were passed on by word of mouth, they changed according to the circumstances and needs of the potential convert. Such changes or creations should not necessarily be attributed to deception or malice. Rather, the stories recounted what was “true” to the storyteller about Jesus.
The authors of the Gospels were not eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and ministry; they used inherited traditions, not their own recollections of events, to tell their stories about Jesus. Some of these traditions were probably historically accurate; others were certainly embellished or even wholly created. In addition, the Gospel writers continued to modify and invent stories to underscore their own beliefs about Jesus. The creation of stories is made evident by variations in the Gospel narratives, such as the different timing of Jesus’ death in Mark and John.
In sum, Christians told stories about Jesus not to preserve historically accurate records of his sayings and deeds but to convey theological truths. Stories were told to convince potential converts that Jesus was the Son of God whose death brought salvation to the world. This conclusion will guide the following chapters that focus not on historical questions but literary questions: Why did the Gospel writers tell their stories in a particular way? What messages were the authors trying to convey?
The Gospels as Biographies of Jesus
The New Testament Gospels are ancient biographies, which differ from modern biographies in significant ways. Ancient biographers relied heavily on oral sources, preferring them, in fact, to written sources. Ancient authors, moreover, did not work with theories of psychological development. Important characteristics, therefore, were present in the individual from birth. Stories were told to illustrate these ethical or moral qualities.
Some Additional Reflections: The Authors of the Gospels
Sometime in the second century, proto-orthodox Christians claimed that the Gospels had been written by two disciplesMatthew and Johnand by two companions of apostlesMark and Luke. Most scholars doubt the historicity of these traditions because (i) none of the Gospel writers claims to have been an eyewitness; (ii) the disciples were likely uneducated peasants without writing skills; and (iii) the disciples and Jesus spoke Aramaic, but the native language of the Gospel writers seems to have been Greek.