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4 versions, 1 story

It’s good to know so many are participating in Hope Community’s devotional readings and discussions. While these readings are from the Gospel of Matthew, there are three more New Testament accounts of the life of Christ. Four versions of one story can seem confusing.
Four people witnessing the same auto accident from the four different corners of an intersection will recount four versions of a single accident. There’s no deception or delusion. They simply witness a collision from four different angles. More crucially, each account will be colored by how each witness sees and remembers and interprets what happened.

The four New Testament gospels do that.

Throughout most of the 20thCentury scholars believed each of the four Gospels were written with a unique purpose and for a different audience. It was common to claim that Matthew wrote to present Jesus as the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, with a Jewish audience in mind. Mark, it was assumed, was written to encourage suffering Christians in Rome during
Nero’s persecution.

More recently, scholars have found increasing evidence for broad mobility in first century Roman society. It’s now thought that common people could and did travel widely and readily, although wealth was necessary for comfortable travel. Broad mobility would have been particularly true for Christian evangelists sent and subsidized by churches. Which means the apostle Paul’s travels were not unique, a fact
reflected in his letters. Christian teaching was regularly and repeatedly cross-pollinated by many wandering teachers. The church was more like a faith network than isolated faith communities.

If accurate, we may better view three of the four gospels as expanding upon the first, the Gospel of Mark.

From this view, the book of Mark remains the first authoritative written account of Jesus’ Good News. Letters from earliest Christians claim that Mark compiled and edited the apostle Peter’s message about Jesus. Like Peter, the book rushes from event to event—the word immediately was used repeatedly. Dialogues are few and compressed. Interestingly Mark offers no details about Jesus’ resurrection. According to Mark it obviously happened, and everything changed.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke followed. According to one theory, the apostle Matthew may have kept a written record of the words of Jesus (compiled in a document, identified by scholars as the
Q Source but lost to history). Many of these quotations may have been recorded during Jesus' earthly ministry, others compiled after His ascension and with assistance from apostles and others. In this theory, Mark used Matthew’s Q Source to make sure he accurately presented Jesus’ words.

After the Gospel of Mark began circulating among 1stCentury churches, the apostle Matthew composed his Gospel. Using Mark as a launching pad, he included a great deal more of what Jesus said, quotes he had previously written down and treasured. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Matthew thought it important to expand on Mark’s Gospel with evidence for Jesus as the Messiah of Old Testament prophecy, providing a prophetic explanation for the Resurrection. But the book of Matthew was not just for Jewish believers, and was soon circulating throughout the Christian world.

Matthew, Mark, and John do not identify their audience. Luke does: an individual named Theophilus. Tradition thinks he may have been an influential, perhaps wealthy believer. The problem with that is its blatant contradiction of the New Testament
command against preferential treatment. Might Luke, along with Acts, have actually been a legal brief, researched and compiled for the apostle Paul’s lawyer, whose name was Theophilus? This would explain why Acts ends without resolution—failing to report the outcome of Paul’s trial.

While Mark and Matthew rely upon the recollections of the apostles, Luke researched Jesus’ life.
Acknowledging eye witness accounts were already available, Luke composes something “more orderly”. Apparently he went and walked where Jesus walked, and conducted interviews; certainly with Jesus’ mother Mary. Perhaps Luke interviewed the Roman Centurion, and even one of the soldiers ordered to crucify Jesus. Its also clear Luke worked from the Gospel of Mark, as well as many eye witness accounts with which he corroborates the Resurrection.

Finally, towards the end of the 1stCentury, Jesus’ beloved apostle composes a starkly different account—more theological, more philosophical. Yet it’s the same Gospel, written to fill-in what other Gospels only touch. Relying more on Jesus’ words than His actions, John claims eternal life in the kingdom of God is available to all who believe. Jesus’ resurrection made that possible, and transformed how the world should be understood. ~

Dan Nygaard