The Genesis of the Gospels
In a recent review of my book Why Four Gospels? for the website Review of Biblical Literature, Leo Percer of Baylor University shows considerable courage in giving credence to my view that our earliest Gospel was Matthew’s and not Mark’s, as is held by the majority of scholars today. I say “courageous” because anyone who offers even the slightest challenge to the modern consensus opinio risks being accused of the grossest obscurantism.
However, Percer creates a straw man in arguing that my view of the order of the Synoptic Gospels (which I posit as Matthew-Luke-Mark) ignores the historical evidence, which (in Percer’s view) is Matthew-Mark-Luke. This is not at all what I say, however. My view is that there are two apparently conflicting historical understandings of the order of the Synoptic Gospels, what I might call the Clementine view (named after the church father Clement of Alexandria who stated that the Gospels containing genealogies [viz. Matthew and Luke] came first); and the Augustinian view (which represents the canonical order found in most of our Bibles today).
As I note on page 43 of my book, it is possible for Mark to be regarded from two different aspects as both the second and the third—third in order of actual composition, but second in order of authority as the work of the apostle Peter. Thus the canonical order of Matthew-Mark-Luke places the works of apostles (Matthew and Mark = Peter) first. In this way, the Gospel of Mark functions as a “canonical bridge” as it were between the church’s earliest Gospel, that of Matthew (written primarily for Jewish Christians), and the next Gospel to be written, that of Luke (written largely for Gentile converts stemming from Paul’s missionary efforts in the larger Roman Empire).
Much the same phenomenon occurs with the position of the book of Acts, which is the second volume of Luke’s history of the church (Luke-Acts). Why did the church take Acts, which was written before John, and place it after that writing? The reason apparently lies in the desire of the early church to provide an explanation of how the church got from the ministry of Jesus (as portrayed in the Gospel accounts) to the organized ministration as seen in the epistles. Acts alone provides the bridge of understanding between these phases of the development of earliest Christianity.
All of this makes sense when one takes into account the historical situation. Upon the ascension of Christ, His apostles began to evangelize all the nations, to baptize them in the name of the Trinity, and to teach them (Matthew 28:18-20). Among the practical necessities of their immediate situation after Pentecost, the apostles must have recognized the need for a written record of the fulfillment of Scripture that could serve as a witness in their place whenever they themselves could not do so personally. This would involve putting into writing the evidence of how in the person of Jesus of Nazareth the God of Israel had sent His Son as the long-awaited Messiah to redeem His people, bringing them into the kingdom of God, which by His life, death, and resurrection He was establishing on earth—a spiritual fellowship that, under a new leadership and offering a new sacrifice, would include all who repented and believed and received baptism into His name.
The Twelve chose Matthew to undertake this task. Thus Matthew, no doubt in close consultation with the other apostles, set down his witness to the life of Christ, limiting himself to the scope of one commercial-length scroll (10 meters). Due to the very real threat of persecution, the “Gospel according to Matthew” was completed before the apostles separated at the time of the persecution under King Herod Agrippa I and therefore was available to the apostle Paul on his very first missionary journey.
Almost immediately, however, Paul encountered questions put to him by his converts that revealed problems peculiar to the Gentile environment to which Matthew’s Gospel account provided no explicit solutions. Between AD 58 and 60, when Paul and Luke found themselves at maritime Caesarea, Paul urged Luke to recover material that it had not been possible to incorporate in the scroll of Matthew and that would provide a fuller elucidation of Jesus’ teaching about the place of the Gentiles in the kingdom of God. This material was used by Luke to produce a “Gentile edition” of the Gospel.
Later still, in 61/62, Paul found himself in Rome, and it was during his detention there that he would have had the opportunity to ask Peter to check over Luke’s text in order to enable him to publish it for use in the Gentile churches. (Remember that Luke himself was not an apostle.) The church historian Eusebius (EH 6.14.5-7) tells us that Peter’s response came in a series of messages given before a Roman audience comprised of high military officials. These messages were recorded by Mark, who was Peter’s secretary, and issued by him in written form to members of the audience at their request. These talks subsequently came to be referred to as “the Gospel according to Mark.” There is, I submit, sufficient circumstantial evidence for accepting Mark as the literal transcript of a shorthand record made while Peter was actually delivering his talks. Subsequently, Peter permitted Mark to make the transcript available to all who asked for it. The fact that Mark never set out to write a Gospel may explain why his work was hardly ever quoted by Christian writers during the next three hundred years.
April 13, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.