The Timeline of Gospel Authorship Matters

This morning I’m reading an academic book about the historical John the Baptist. As usual in the “Historical Jesus” genre that governs academic study of Christ, the writer and editors make sure to emphasize from the very first paragraphs that, “Of course, the Jesus who is under investigation cannot simply be equated with whatever the Gospels say of him. The Gospels, composed in Greek a generation after Jesus’ death, reflect the faith of early Christians who came to believe in him. Their belief included reference to historical data, but also included the interpretation of Jesus as it had developed after his time.” (Editors’ comment in The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism by Joan Taylor. )

This is not an untrue observation. But it needs to be thought through before we consider the four Gospels as a mix of history and pious storytelling – a kind of fan fiction. The fact that the Gospels were written over a period from thirty to sixty years after Christ’s resurrection is a strength that needs to be taken into account.

Remember that the Christian communities we meet in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Epistles are mostly not founded by St Paul. He does plant churches in many places, but he visits and writes to many more communities that have already been worshipping Christ for years or decades. And, significantly, they accept Paul and his teaching of Jesus the divine-human Christ, preexistent, crucified, resurrected, seated at the right hand of God the Father, and identified with the LORD of the Law and Prophets. Paul is not a strange outsider to these churches: his teaching is so normative to them that he is free to correct and rebuke their errors.

And then – beginning about the time of Paul’s martyrdom in Rome, c. 67 AD, the texts we call the Gospels begin to circulate: St Mark’s account, by tradition beginning as a collection of St Peter’s preaching, followed by the Gospel as written by Sts Matthew and Luke. And then considerably later, St John’s Gospel is received and begins to be copied.

Here is why that timeline matters: It has been argued that the writers of the Gospels have reinvented the ordinary Jewish rabbi Jesus as a wonderworking, divine, messianic figure. Virgin birth, resurrection, and other details have been added into these texts in order to create a legend. And then, based on these texts, a new faith has been built – a religion that the historical Jesus would not have recognized.

But who received these Gospels?

If you lived in Ephesus, Malta, Antioch, or Alexandria in, say, 68 AD, and your community of disciples received a copy of one of these new Gospel texts, it was not news to you. Some of these communities had been followers of Jesus since the seventy apostles preached to them before the crucifixion, and many had been baptized in the years immediately following the resurrection. If you’re some kind of Jesus-follower in 70 or 80 AD, then you were likely born into an existing multi-generational community of faith, and you learned about Jesus from your parents, grandparents, and elders.

And when these Gospels, among others, arrived, what did your church do with them? Traveling teachers and letters purporting to be from Apostles were a pretty common occurrence, and when a teacher or epistle was brought to your community, it didn’t start a revolutionary new religion: rather, it was judged.

The amazing thing about the four Gospels is that when the churches of Syria, Egypt, and Asia received these texts, they recognized in them the Jesus whom they had already been worshipping for decades. Texts like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, the Acts of Peter, languished, neglected in odd corners of the empire, but the four Gospels and St Luke’s Acts of the Apostles were enthusiastically accepted, recopied, and sent onward so that by the end of the first century they are distributed and being quoted by teachers all over the Roman world.

Less than a century after St John’s Gospel (but long before anyone began canonizing lists of books as Scripture) Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, writes that the heretics “boast that they possess more Gospels than there really are. But really they don't have any gospels that aren’t full of blasphemy. It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit.” And he goes on to name the familiar four Evangelists [Gospel-writers] Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (in Against Heresies, book 3 chapter 11.)

What we have in the Gospels is a set of texts that have been judged, vetted, weighed and found faithful by the descendants of the earliest Christians in communities all over the Mediterranean and Near East. Independently these churches received and *judged* these Gospels to be faithful to the good news in which they had been believers for decades. The Gospels do not propose a legendary “Jesus of faith” or found a new religion; rather, the earliest believers in the resurrection, scattered and converted across the whole known world, recognized in these books the Good News “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life… that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us.”

Authentic Christianity is not merely built on the foundation of the Gospels. The Church, which existed before the Gospels, receives and recognizes in them faithful expressions of the Church's faith.