14-6-3-4 The Nature Of The Gospel Records
One thing is clear from all this. Those early brethren knew
their Gospel recordss by heart; and not only that, they meditated
on them to the extent that they bubbled out of them as they thought
and wrote. F.F. Bruce correctly observes that Paul's thinking and
reasoning was based on his appreciation of the personality of
Jesus: " Paul's chief argument in his ethical instruction is
the example of Jesus Himself. And the character of Jesus as Paul
understood it is consistent with the character of Jesus as portrayed
in the Gospels. When Paul speaks of " the meekness and gentleness
of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:1) we recall the claim of the Matthean
Jesus to be " meek and lowly in heart" (Mt. 11:29). The
self-denying Jesus of the Gospels is the one of whom Paul says that
" Christ did not please himself" (Rom. 15:3)...when Paul
invites his Philippian friends to reproduce among themselves the
mind which was in Christ Jesus, who " took the form of a slave"
(Phil. 2:5-7), we may think of Him who said to His disciples at
the Last Supper, " I am among you as the servant" (Lk.
22:27)" (1). Paul's focus on the personality of Jesus means
that he was no hypocrite when he asked the believers to " put
on the Lord Jesus Christ... put on the new man" (Rom. 13:14;
On average, every 6 verses Paul is making an allusion to the Gospels
(2). That's quite something. His
mind must have been saturated with those records. And remember
that almost certainly my analysis is incomplete; the real figure
is probably more like once every 4 verses. It also needs to be remembered
that Paul probably knew words of Jesus which we don't have, and
alluded to them. He memorized Christ's words of commission to him,
and they were still in his mind when he stood before Agrippa (Acts
26:18). Also in Acts 20:35 he says he is quoting " the words
of the Lord Jesus" , although they are not recorded in our
Gospels (3). But our real character
and thinking tends to come out more in our spoken rather than written
words. When we are speaking 'off the cuff' we don't have time to
consciously frame our language in Biblical terms and reference.
If when we speak we are still making such allusions, it is because
the word is truly in our heart. It is significant that Paul's spoken
words (as recorded in Acts; see table) allude to the Gospels even
more than he does in his writing (once every four verses rather
than once every six verses for written words). The second table
above presents the figures chronologically. The general trend suggests
that in his writing, Paul increasingly alluded to the Gospels
in the last ten years of his life. And in his time of dying (in
which he wrote 2 Timothy), the intensity of his allusions to the
Gospels reaches an all time high. The above table shows that in
2 Timothy he is referring to the Gospels at least once every 3.9
verses- and almost certainly more than that, seeing that my analysis
is certainly incomplete. The old-time believers who raised me were
likewise saturated with the word. They could quote and quote and
quote; and in their last years, their ability to quote the word
to themselves gave them untold comfort and strength. Yet now, as
a community, such brethren and sisters are a dying breed. The word
is simply not in our hearts as it should be.
So what am I suggesting? That we go off and learn the Gospels? Well,
yes, although not so that we can quote them at appropriate times. Know
them and live them, feel them, think them. It's my observation that those
who could really quote and quote were normally not the intellectuals.
Illiterate Peter almost certainly had Mark's Gospel off pat. And John
was another fisherman, learning verses was not the kind of thing he'd
been brought up on. But it was possible, even easy for these brethren,
because they were Christ-centred. Not Bible-centred, but Christ-centred.
The focus of the New Testament is without doubt upon the Lord Jesus; he
is the one whose word and example should utterly dominate our
consciousness. Sadly our Christian heritage has taught us that if we zip
through our Bible readings in 15 minutes a day we're not doing so badly;
it's also taught us that " the meat of the word" is speculating
over the fulfilment of Daniel and Revelation; the Lord's parables, the
image of the spotless lamb of God moving around daily life in the petty
minded, self-centred small towns of first century Israel...these were
for Sunday School children (and the very young ones at that). And this
all meant that we (as a community) never gave the Gospels of the Lord
Jesus the serious attention and place they deserve. If the first century
converts were seriously expected to learn the Gospel of Mark, and their
elders (e.g. James, Peter, John and Paul) all set them this example (regardless
of their intellectual background)- what of us today? " Let the word
of Christ dwell in you richly" (Col. 3:16) may well be an allusion
to the tradition of learning the Gospel of Mark. How can it richly
dwell in us if we do not daily meditate upon those inspired records?
It would seem that the Gospels were so clearly etched in the minds of
the first century believers because the message of the Gospel was preached
in the form of reciting a 'Gospel', a record of the life, death and resurrection
of the Lord Jesus. This is why 'gospel' as in the message and 'Gospel'
as in the four Gospels are the same word, although this seems to be overlooked
by many. The Gospel according to Matthew is the good news about Christ
which Matthew preached and then wrote down. John of all the Gospel writers
makes it openly apparent that his preaching of the Gospel is based around
a recital of the things which he himself saw and heard in the Lord's life
(1:14; 19:35; 21:24). His Gospel is full of what have been called "
the artless notes of the authentic eye-witness" (e.g. his comment
that " the house was filled with the odour of the ointment"
Significantly, Matthew and Luke start their Gospels with reference
to the promises to Abraham and David; as many of us would. Matthew
and Mark both close with an appeal for baptism- as we would. F.F.
Bruce comments: " The four Gospels, or rather the four records
of the one and only Gospel...are not, as some sometimes imagine,
biographies of Christ...they are rather written transcripts of the
Gospel preached by the apostles" (4). Acts 10:36 speaks of
“the word…which was proclaimed throughout all Judea…how God anointed
Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit…”, as if the word of the
Gospel is the Gospel story as recorded by Mark and the others.This
would explain the sudden changes of tenses in the synoptics- as
one would expect from an author re-telling his memories. John’s
Gospel was written for the specific purpose of bringing others to
faith- like most of the New Testament, it is essentially a missionary
document (Jn. 20:30). Jn. 20:31 makes it clear that the purpose
of John's Gospel was to bring unbelievers to faith in Christ: "This
has been written in order that you may hold the faith that Jesus
is the Christ the Son of God, and that, holding this faith, you
may posess life by His name". C.H. Dodd comments: "The
tense of the verbs... the aorists... would necessarily have implied
that the readers did not so far hold the Christian faith or possess
eternal life" (5). “That ye might believe” implies John intended
his readership to be unbelievers rather than believers in the first
instance. Jn. 19:35 implies that the community for whom John was
writing had John as the basic source of their knowledge about Jesus,
and was highly respected as their spiritual father. 'John' is therefore
his inspired write-up of the Gospel he had taught his converts,
and therefore it has various specific features highly relevant to
them. Acts likewise seems to be written as a preaching document,
recording the speeches of basic apologetics which were made to both
Jews and Gentiles. The early preachers would have gone around telling
the good news about Jesus Christ, and in so doing would have recited
time and again His teaching and life story. Mark records how the
Lord commanded the Gospel to be preached world-wide (Mark 16:15);
but he surely intends this to be linked with his record of how the
generosity of the sinful woman would be told " wheresoever
this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world" (Mk.
14:9). 'The Gospel' was therefore not just the basic doctrines;
it was the whole record of the life and works of Christ. This is
why each of the Gospels is somehow personalized to the writer. Matthew,
for example, changes the Lord's quotation of Is. 9:9 from "
the people which walked in darkness..." to "
the people which sat in darkness saw great light"
(Mt. 4:16), because he was sitting at the receipt of custom
when the Lord called him (Mt. 9:9). Thus the Gospel is called
" the word of Christ" (Col. 3:16; Rom. 10:7 RV), "
the Gospel of Christ" (Rom. 1:16; 15:19,29; 16:25; 1 Cor. 9:12,18;
2 Cor. 2:12; 9:13; 10:14; Gal. 1:7; Phil. 1:27; 1 Thess. 3:2; 2
Thess. 1:8); " the word of the Lord (Jesus)" (Acts 8:25;
13:48,49; 15:35,36; 16:32; 19:10; 1 Thess. 1:8; 2 Thess. 3:1; 1
Pet. 1:25). The phrase " the word (logos) of God"
is used several times with obvious personal reference to the Lord
Jesus (Heb. 4:12,13; 1 Pet. 1:23 NIV), who now in His exalted glory
is the word of God (Rev. 19:13; 20:4). It is therefore
quite possible that the copious NT references to the preaching of
" the word of God" (a phrase the NT uses mainly concerning
the Gospel, not the whole Bible) actually refer to the preaching
of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, the word (logos)
of God. The " word (logos) of God" is parallel
with the " word (logos) of the cross" (1 Cor.
1:18), the " word (logos) of Christ" (Acts 1:1;
1 Thess. 1:8; Heb. 6:1). The Lord Jesus paralleled "my sake
and the gospel's" with "me and my words" (Mk. 8:35,38).
He Himself thus understood the Gospel to be His words.
This is all a tremendous emphasis; that the good news about Christ
contained in the Gospel records (Mt. 1:1) was in fact the basic
Gospel which was preached. When Paul talks about his Gospel,
he surely means his account of the Lord Jesus which he gave, as,
for example, Matthew gave his Gospel / account of the Lord. When
Paul preached to the Galatians, he placarded forth Jesus Christ
crucified in front of them: his preaching of the Gospel involved
a repeated and graphic portrayal of the crucified Jesus of Nazareth
as a historical event (Gal. 3:1). Thus at the day of judgment, we
will admire Christ because we believed the Gospel about Him (2 Thess.
1:10). John seems to suggest that he chose which miracles to record
so that " ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son
of God, and that believing ye might have life through his name"
(Jn. 20:31). The implication is that he wrote his Gospel with the
intention of it being used as a preaching document. Luke's Gospel
was written for the purpose of preaching to Theophilus, who had
already been 'catechized', taught by rote, one of the Gospels (probably
Mark), but who wanted to have a more detailed and factual account
(Lk. 1:3,4). Luke later describes his Gospel as his logos
, his 'word' about all Jesus did (Acts 1:1 Gk.). The Lord seems
to have foreseen this when He spoke of how " Wheresoever this
Gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this,
which this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her"
(Mt. 26:13). There is evident connection with Christ's prophecy
of how the Gospel would be preached in all the world (Mt. 24:14;
Mk. 16:15). He seems to have seen the 'Gospel' that would be preached
as a re-telling of His life and incidents in it, such as the woman's
anointing of Him. It is significant that her anointing is mentioned
in all four Gospel records (6). In
Mk. 14:9 we read that wherever the gospel was to be preached, what
she had done would be narrated in memory of her. So ‘preaching
the Gospel’ is defined there as a narration of the events
and sayings of the Lord Jesus in His ministry.
The Gospels As Eyewitness Accounts
There's been much debate about whether the Gospels fit into any particular genre of writing. Richard Bauckham spent 500 densely written pages making the case that they do in fact fit the genre of eyewitness testimony, and as such share similarities with similar eyewitness accounts from the first century (7). Several times in his work, Bauckham comments that as such, they are documents "asking to be believed". In this we see the appropriacy of the genre- the Gospels are indeed eyewitness accounts, but they are also transcripts of the preaching of the very early believers in Christ- for their testimony, axiomatically as it were, begs to be believed. Their personal testimony is an appeal for us to believe. The modern world appears sceptical of eyewitness accounts, but in the first century they were seen as the basis for true history. Hence Josephus claimed: "My qualification as a historian of the war was that I had been an actor in many, and an eyewitness of most of the events" (C. Ap.1.55). Lucian likewise commented that "Ears are less reliable than eyes" (8). Here's a summary of why we can consider the Gospels to be eyewitness accounts, rather than history written up by a historian:
- There are a large number of personal names in the Gospels. Over time, names tend to be forgotten by eyewitnesses. Their presence in the Gospels suggests the accounts are from fresh eyewitnesses and were written down at an early stage.
- Some of the detail in the accounts is the kind of thing which an eyewitness rather than a historian would put in their account. Likewise there are few references to dating- for this is the stuff of historians (or more correctly, historiography) rather than eyewitness accounts.
- The tenses and grammar at times are only appropriate to eyewitness accounts.
- The Gospels appear to be a collection of brief passages relating specific events or teachings, called "pericopes" by some students. The process of Divine inspiration would have worked through the collecting together, editing and synthesis of these eyewitness testimonies into what we now have as the Gospels.
- There are an unusually large number of named characters in the Gospels, compared to what we meet in other historical accounts of the time. Eyewitnesses tend to forget names and places very quickly; the implication could be that the Gospels are inspired transcripts of eyewitness testimony given very soon after the events. It can be argued that the cases where characters are not named was in order to protect them from persecution (9)-which would again suggest that the Gospels were produced during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses, very soon after the events. The fact some of the unnamed characters in Mark are named in John could be because John's gospel was written a little later, perhaps after the death of those named, or when the risk of persecution had decreased (examples include Jn. 12:3; 18:10).
- A case can be made that the Gospel of John is the eyewitness account of John- he says that he testifies to all he has written (Jn. 21:24).
(1) F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle Of The
Free Spirit (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1995), p. 96
(2) It is quite possible that Paul heard most of the speeches recorded
in the Gospels, and saw many of the miracles. The reason is as follows.
Every faithful Jew would have been in Jerusalem to keep the feasts
three times per year. Jesus and Paul were therefore together in
Jerusalem three times / year, throughout Christ's ministry. It can
be demonstrated that many of the miracles and speeches of Jesus
occurred around the feast times, in Jerusalem. Therefore I estimate
that at least 70% of the content of the Gospels (including John)
Paul actually saw and heard 'live'. Another indirect reason for
believing that Paul had met and heard Jesus preaching is from the
fact that Paul describes himself as having been brought up as a
Pharisee, because his father had been one (Acts 23:6). Martin Hengel
has shown extensive evidence to believe that the Pharisees only
really operated in Palestine, centred in Jerusalem, where Paul was
“brought up” at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Hengel also shows
that “brought up” refers to training from a young child. So whilst
Paul was born in Tarsus, he was really a Jerusalem boy. Almost certainly
he would have heard and known much about Jesus; his father may even
have been amongst those who persecuted the Lord. See Martin Hengel,
The Pre-Christian Paul (London: SCM, 1991).
(3) There are other hints of this. Consider 1
Cor. 9:14, where Paul says that Christ ordained that preachers should
be paid by the congregation. Or Mk. 14:58 records people quoting
Jesus as saying that he would build another temple " made without
hands" . Yet those words are not recorded in the Gospels. However,
Paul seems to allude to the idea of Christ as a temple " made
without hands" in Heb. 9:11,24; 2 Cor. 5:1. Perhaps he knew
Christ had said those words and was alluding to them.
(4) F.F. Bruce, The Books And The Parchments
(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984) p. 107.
(5) C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation Of The Fourth
Gospel (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1960) p. 9.
(6) See the discussion of Mary Magdalene in Gospel News,
Vol. 9 No. 5, May / June 1996.
(7) Richard Bauckham, Jesus And The Eyewitnesses: The Gospels As Eyewitness Testimony (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2006).
(8) Bauckham, ibid. p. 406.
(9) Detailed analysis of each case in Gerd Theissen, The Gospels In Context (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) pp. 171-174.