The Gospels and Their Origin


I Am to speak to-day of the origin of the Gospels, and some of their characteristics. There can be no doubt that an oral account, an account of the life and teachings and works of Jesus Christ that passed from mouth to mouth, was the basis of our present Gospels. Indeed, it is quite certain that from twenty to forty years passed before the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written down. During those twenty to forty years the story of each of these Gospels had been current in quite another way. It had been communicated viva voce, by the living voice. This ought not to surprise us. The truth is, that the apostles were primarily teachers and only secondarily writers.

There were multitudes of converts from the Jews and from the Gentiles. This multitude of converts had to be instructed, and instruction in those days was almost wholly by word of mouth. There was not only preaching, but teaching; and this preaching and teaching was all personal communication of one individual to another. You remember that the Sanhedrin commanded Peter and John no more to preach or teach in this name. They put no prohibition upon them in regard to writing. Paul taught publicly and from house to house. We read nothing at all about his writing at that time.

The multitude of those who came into the Christian church needed just this personal and direct instruction; and the memory was strong in those days, stronger probably than in these days when we trust so much more to books. The Jews, you know, could repeat endless genealogies. Those very things which might seem most difficult to remember they had deeply impressed upon their minds; and then, they not only had the most vivid recollection of the words of Jesus, their Lord, and of those wonderful three years they had passed in intimate intercourse with him, but it was their delight to speak forth the things they had seen and heard; and, if there ever was a lapse of memory, they had the wonderful promise of the assistance of the Holy Spirit, who was to bring to their remembrance all these things with regard to Christ, so that they might speak of the things of Christ and show them to others.

It is not wonderful that the apostles were primarily teachers; and in their teaching there must have been continual repetition. If we should judge the teaching of those times by our modern standard, we should make the greatest possible mistake. A modern teacher would think it was a very monotonous thing for him to say over and over again, in almost precisely the same words, the lesson he had to teach; but this was not only a common thing among the Jews, but we can almost say that it was the only possible thing. They had, you recollect, the Old Testament Scriptures. But there were very few who knew how to read, and the most of the knowledge the people had with regard to these Scriptures was what they had gained from the public reading of them. So, over and oVer again, c

the stories of the Old Testament were repeated; and when the New Testament history came to be proclaimed, it naturally was proclaimed in the same way. There was no prejudice against the continual repetition of the old, old story with regard to Jesus and his love.

But there was naturally a selection going on all the while. It was said by John in his Gospel that the world would not contain the things that would be written if everything were written out. It is very plain that, in the memory of the apostles, there was a great deal that it was not thought best by them or by the Holy Spirit should be put down permanently; and it was not desirable that there should be a record of the life of Christ so large and cumbersome that it would break down with its own weight. It was desirable that just those scenes and just those teachings of the Saviour should be selected that were most central and vital, in order that the Gospel record, when at last it was made up, should be just as simple, just as compact, just as brief as it could possibly be, consistently with giving the essential facts with regard to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

So there was a continual process of selection going on. Those things that were most representative in Christ's teachings came to be more and more insisted upon, and the things that were merely incidental began to have less and less attention paid to them; and then, as there were different classes of hearers, the truth that was adapted to that particular class was chosen in speaking to them. In that way there grew up certain types of apostolic doctrine. One apostle, having a different mental constitution and being prepared more easily to recognize certain portions of the truth than another apostle was, would make his selection of the incidents of the life and teachings of Christ and would have his way of presenting the truth; and another apostle would have his way of presenting the truth. And, while there was an agreement with regard to a great many things, there was no agreement as to what they should write. You find, in fact, with regard to the words of Christ, the reverence of the disciples for the Master's words seems, many times, to preserve exactly the same form of words in the narrative of each of the Evangelists, while, at the same time, the circumstances, the setting, the frame-work varies in many of its particulars—the one giving one sort of incident connected with the teachings, and another giving another sort of incident connected with the teachings, so that one supplements the other.

There was thus growing up all the while, during those twenty to forty years, in the case of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, what you may call a stereotyped narrative, a gradual paring down, removing of what was adventitious, putting aside the things that were merely incidental, selecting the things that were important; so that all three of the Evangelists agreed in all the main lines of teaching. In fact, there is absolute verbal agreement with regard to a great many things; yet, at the same time, each one has his own point of view, has his own hearers, persons for whom he is writing, persons whom he has in mind as the object of his discourse. So we have growing up a sort of gospel or account of the Saviour's life all oral at first, which is marked by the two characteristics of substantial agreement, and yet a wonderful individuality and independence.

The problem of the origin of the Gospels is one of the most interesting, one of the most subtle, one of the most difficult in all human history; and yet, after all, I think that these conclusions which I have tried to draw are manifestly demonstrable. They explain the facts of the case.

This oral basis, this extemporary narrative, this living account that was handed from mouth to mouth was not at first put into writing at all; in fact, there was no disposition to write. The apostles had no time to write; they were not used to writing. The literary instinct was by no means so general then as it is now. As the rabbis reiterated over and over again the same things with regard to the law, the learned did not need books, and the common people did not want them; so, in the case of these New Testament accounts, every one was contented for a very long time to have them simply pass from mouth to mouth.

Yet we find that, little by little, there came to be felt the need of putting these accounts into writing. At first, the apostles apparently expected that Christ was soon to come and put an end to all things. This might have made it seem unnecessary to spend time in writing documents. But we find that Peter, at last, begins to speak of his decease; and, as he sees the time of the end approaching, and feels the needs of the churches over which he had care, he says, " I will take care that you may have these things in remembrance." In other words, it seems as if there were an intimation that it was his purpose to put into permanent form the substance of his teaching, so that it could subsist and remain after he was taken away. And Paul, who, in his letter to the Thessalonians, had at first the surmise that the coming of the Lord was near at hand, afterward recognized the fact that Christ's coming was to take place after his day; and he speaks of "having fought the good fight, having finished his course." He is now " ready to be offered," and he tells very plainly of his expectation of approaching death. He was to die before the coming of the Lord.

It was as the apostles were passing away from the scene of action, and were no longer able to give their oral testimony, that they made sure of a written testimony that could be left forever to the church of Christ. So we find the gradual growing up of the Gospels, and what was oral becomes written.

It has been thought by some, in fact it is a very early tradition, that Matthew wrote a Gospel in Hebrew. If Matthew did write a Gospel in Hebrew, which was afterward translated into Greek, and the Hebrew original was lost, it is probable that this Hebrew original, containing the sayings of Jesus, which were the nucleus and basis of our Matthew, was the earliest of all, and may be dated A. D. 50. Mark, you know, is said to have been the interpreter of Peter; and Mark's Gospel must have been composed somewhere near the year 55 of our era, and twenty-five years at least after the death of our Lord. Matthew's Greek Gospel, as we have it now, comes a little later, perhaps in the year 58.

Luke, you remember, at the beginning of his Gospel speaks of certain attempts that have been made by others to put down incidents in the life of Christ and to compose a partial history; and he expresses his purpose of putting down in order the things of which he has become credibly informed. He may have in mind the work of Mark and of Matthew, and I put the Gospel according to Luke in the year 59.

So we have the synoptic writers; and by the synoptic writers I mean Matthew, Mark, and Luke; called synoptic because, in the early history of the church, a synopsis was made of the three, the three being so parallel with one another that you could easily form a single narrative by combining them all together.

The synoptic writers probably composed their Gospels between the years 55 and 60, so that all of the three were written before the destruction of Jerusalem; and while the oral Gospels become written, you find that there is no evidence whatever that any one of these Gospels was composed in view of the others; not one of the Gospels was consciously an attempt to supplement another; not one of them was written for the purpose of correcting what was written in another; not one of them was written with the express purpose of adapting the other narrative to a new class of hearers; but it would seem that each narrative was written by itself, each witness was independent, each gathered his material in his own way, each put it down in his own form. Yet, notwithstanding this independence, there is a wonderful harmony: harmony as to substance and harmony in a great many respects in verbal expression, between each Gospel and the others. I speak now in regard to the first three Gospels.

Then, in regard to the Gospel according to John, which differs so remarkably from all three (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), it is perfectly evident that John wrote independently. He did not intend simply to supplement what the others had written, because he included the account of the feeding of the five thousand; this as a text to which he might attach Jesus' discourse with regard to himself as the Bread of Life. He did not write in ignorance of what was written before, because he does not include the account of the transfiguration, which he certainly would have included if he had not known what Matthew, Mark, and Luke had written.

So we have the gradual growth of our Gospels from the oral to the written form, at first in a sort of oral account, passing from mouth to mouth, repeated with very slight variations, as the sacred oracles of the Lord, and existing in that form from twenty to forty years; and after that time put into written form before the apostles died. Then, after the expiration of thirty years more, John the Evangelist, in Asia Minor, writes down his account of the life of Christ and adds many things, together with chronological data, that were not given by the three Evangelists who had written before. So much now with regard to the problem of the origin of the Gospels.

I want to speak now, as the second and concluding portion of these remarks, of the characteristics of the Gospels. I have spoken of their diversity. This diversity is diversity in unity; but let us first get an idea of what this diversity is.

Matthew first of all is the publican, the collector of taxes or customs. He is a practised writer, just because of his profession, perhaps the most practised writer of them all, and, therefore, perhaps the first and the most ready to enter upon this work of committing the gospel to writing. Matthew puts down his account of the life of Christ from his own point of view and for a particular sort of hearers. And who are these hearers, the persons whom he has in view as he writes? Why, it is the Jews. He would convert the Jews to Christ; and so he speaks of Christ as the Son of David and the Son of Abraham, the heir to the Old Testament promises. He speaks of Christ as the King of Israel, who has been foretold by the prophets of old. He also speaks of Christ as the suffering Messiah, in whom all the sacrificial types of the Old Testament found their fulfilment. Matthew has for his symbol, in early Christian history, the sacrificial bullock. You know the four figures of the cherubim were taken as symbols of the Evangelists; and of those cherubic figures, the sacrificial bullock was assigned to Matthew, as indicating the fact that Matthew more than all the other Evangelists sets forth Jesus Christ as the King of Israel, who was, at the same time, the Messiah offered for human sins. That is the main characteristic of Matthew. He speaks of Christ as the sacrificed Son of God. Now the sacrificed King of Israel was the Old Testament Messiah; so, you remember, the Gospel according to Matthew begins with the genealogies, and those genealogies are intended to connect the New Testament with the Old.

Mark has in his mind an entirely different class of hearers, and who are they? Why, Mark writes to the Romans. Mark is the interpreter of Peter; Mark has in him something of the vivid, vigorous, picturesque spirit that belonged to Peter. Mark is writing for the rulers of the world, for men who have great homage for law. And so you find that Mark represents Christ in that aspect which was most likely to impress the minds of the Romans, as the wonder-worker, the worker of miracles, stirring the depths of men's hearts by his demonstrations of divine power; and so the symbol that has been assigned to Mark, in early Christian archaeology, is the powerful lion. Mark goes straight to his mark. Mark never wastes time in detail. Mark is picturesque and incisive; and there is a strength and a grasp in his Gospel. Although the shortest of them all, it is in some respects the most vigorous and powerful of them all.

Luke, in the third place, writes, not for the Jews nor for the Romans, but for the Greeks. Luke is the physician. Luke is the man of scientific spirit. It is remarkable that every description of disease given us by Luke in his Gospel is just such as would naturally proceed from the brain and pen of a physician. Luke is probably the most learned of all the Evangelists. He writes with an elaborateness and beauty of Greek style. Luke's preface is more like classical Greek than any other Greek we find in the New Testament. Now, Luke, writing for the Greeks, with his breadth of mind and his sense of human need, speaks of Christ as the friend of humanity, the humane Saviour. You find that those wonderful parables of the Prodigal Son and the Lost Piece of Money, and many others of a similar sort, are found in Luke, and not in the other Evangelists. Luke is said to have been the interpreter or representative of Paul, just as Mark was the representative or interpreter of Peter; and the image or symbol of Luke, in Christian archaeology, has been the human form. You know that among the cherubic figures—the figures that constitute the cherubim— there was the bullock which answered to Matthew, the lion which answered to Mark, the eagle which answered to John, and then the man which answered to Luke; so that we have in these cherubic figures the symbols of all four of the Evangelists.

And now, finally, you have John. John writes not for Jews, not for Romans, not for Greeks; he covers the whole world and writes for all men; for, with his loving and ardent spirit, his fiery nature, and yet his habit of introspection, he apprehends, as none other of the Evangelists do, the greatness and glory of Christ's divine nature. So he takes us back to the very beginning, before all time, and speaks of the Word which was with God, and was God. John gives us the most beautiful exhibition of the lofty, the divine element in Jesus Christ, our Lord; so that the symbol that has been assigned to John is the soaring eagle that flies to the heights of heaven, while its eye pierces with its vision to the very depths of the sea.

These are the general characteristics of the Evangelists. Each one had his own nature, each one had his own point of view, each one had his own audience, so to speak; and they give us a picture of the life of Christ that we never could get from any single one alone. Here, then, there is diversity; but let me bring you back again to the idea of the unity in diversity. That is just as wonderful as the diversity itself. Jesus was many-sided. You know it has been said of Shakespeare that he was myriad-minded. If Shakespeare could be called myriad-minded, what epithet could be applied to Christ? Why, there are no ends or sides to Christ's nature. Human intellect cannot perceive the whole of him at once. You cannot possibly see the two poles, even of a globe, at one time. You must turn one pole toward you first, and then remove that from sight, in order that you may see the other. So it was utterly impossible for any single human being to see the whole of Christ. The only way in which the world could be got to look upon Christ, in his true light, was by getting a number to look at him from different sides, and then to combine their stories.

It is said that in Paris there is a sculptor who makes statues and busts of celebrated men, and his method of making them is this: He has a circular apartment, around the circumference of which a dozen photographic cameras are stationed, all pointing toward the center. He has the subject, of whom he is to make the statue or bust, sit or stand in the center of the apartment; the lights are all properly arranged, and at a certain moment the curtain is removed from each one of the cameras. A dozen different pictures from a dozen different points of view are taken at the same instant, and the sculptor makes up his statue or his bust from all these pictures combined; so that the result is true to the original, as a single view never could make it.

Now, these four Evangelists have stationed their photographic cameras on four different sides of our Lord Jesus Christ, and they have taken their pictures from different points of view; and, in order properly to understand what Christ was, we must, from all these four narratives, construct a solid and symmetrical structure of his life. If this be true, a great deal of light is thrown upon the problem, which' to some has seemed almost insoluble, how it is that the first three Evangelists can give us such a different view from that which is given us in the Gospel according to John. Why, it is the most natural thing in the world. Cicero says, "The eye sees only that which it brings with it the power of seeing." Every man sees another out of his own eye, and gets a view of that other that no other person ever does get; and so the life of Christ appeared from different points of view to different persons.

Those of you who have been abroad, those of you who have visited the picture-galleries of Europe, know very well that there is no subject of which the representations are so astonishingly various as those of Venice. The pictures of Venice, how wonderfully they differ! There are the pictures of Canaletto, in which the drawing is perfect. It is as exact as a photograph. You almost seem to be put back into one of the gondolas on the Venetian canals. Every line is perfectly distinct. But side by side with this picture, by Canaletto, there is a picture of Venice by Turner. What an astonishing difference there is! Here you have not so much clearness of outline as you have wonderful light and shade. There is a roseate glow over the whole picture that is marvelous. It seems as if Venice were transfigured, almost as if it were the New Jerusalem; and yet Turner painted Venice just as truly as Canaletto did. So, John painted Christ just as truly as Matthew, or Mark, or Luke ever painted him. John had the seeing eye, John had the glowing heart, John had the deep love that enabled him to see in his Lord the heavenly and the divine.

We have in ancient literature also a remarkable illustration. Some have wondered whether there ever could have been such a man as Socrates, simply because we have two accounts of him—the one by Plato and the other by Xenophon—which widely differ. Shall we say that there never was such a man as Socrates, simply because these two speak of him so differently? Shall we say that there was no such a personage as Jesus Christ, simply because John speaks of him so differently from the first three Evangelists? There is no contradiction at all between them. It is simply that each one sees that which he brings with him the power of seeing; in these separate portraits we have, with all these diversities, a wonderful harmony of personality. This composite picture is the representation of a majestic person, such as never lived anywhere else upon the earth. There is no representation of any human being that can compare with this representation of Jesus. The separate portraits only differ in the aspect from which they regard him. How wonderful it is that this harmony exists, a harmony that shows there is no collusion between them, and which makes the testimony of one witness confirm that of the others. In the courts of law the testimony of one may be something; but if you get the testimony of another, side by side with his, it is plain that one and one do not simply make two, but that one plus one makes four. So these two Evangelists, Matthew and Mark, plus the two Evangelists Luke and John, do not make simply four. Two plus two do not equal four here; they make sixteen. So we have a gospel that grew up in a wonderful way into solidity and symmetry, and is given to us now only after the most complete witness to its truth by combined apostolic authority.

In conclusion, let me say that these Gospels are not, as some have supposed, a jotting down of mere tradition. What do you mean by tradition? Why, we mean by tradition that which is handed down after the death of the witnesses. A thing does not become tradition until the witnesses are dead. Now, were these things written long after the witnesses were dead, so that we can say that we have simply tradition put down here? That is the doctrine of Robert Elsmere. What a mistake it is! These things were written down while the witnesses were yet living. The men who wrote them, in more than one case, had seen the Lord Jesus; and they put down what they knew before they passed away from the scene of action. That is not tradition. That is simply a settled statement upon which they have agreed, after pondering it over in' their minds, after throwing out the things that were simply incidental and of no account, after concluding what was the truth, and what was the exact way in which they ought to express it.

There is another thing that is very remarkable, and that is this, that the apostles, by teaching, learned how to tell their story. During these twenty to forty years in which the gospel existed simply in an oral form, and was repeated day by day to new hearers, the apostles learned how to tell their story in exact accordance with the facts; and speakers and hearers mutually helped and corrected one another. At last the whole narrative, as it was exhibited in the Gospels, came to be the settled and permanent testimony of the apostles; not something taken up by chance, not something taken by a stenographer as it happened to be uttered, but the settled story upon which they had concluded as to substance and as to expression, after from twenty to forty years of a continuous utterance, for which they were willing to lay down their lives. So we have things that are absolutely certain to us, because they were not the utterances of simply temporary interpreters, but were the settled convictions and beliefs of the apostolic witnesses. This, then, is the origin of the Gospels, and these are their main characteristics.