Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Composition of the Synoptic Gospels

Reading N°24 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

When St. Paul spoke of the Church as "the pillar and ground of the truth"[1] possessing the deposit of faith, the Christians had long known where to find that of which he spoke. They had first sought it and found it in the preaching of the "witnesses of Christ," of those who had received instruction from His immediate hearers. The venerable Papias, "the hearer of John, who was a companion of Polycarp and one of the ancients," mentioned by St. Irenaeus,[2] declared that his whole care had ever been to inquire "into the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or Peter or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord's disciples, had said." And we are struck by Papias' expression of the rule of faith in that early day. He says:
For I did not suppose that information from books would help me so much as the word of a living and surviving voice.[3]
Now, Papias tells us that he learned from his master, "John the Ancient," that Peter's preaching was put in writing by one of his disciples, Mark. The precious fragment containing this information is so important that it deserves to be quoted in full.
And the Presbyter [John] used to say this, 'Mark became Peter's interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said or done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord, nor had he followed Him, but later on, as I said, followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were, an arrangement of the Lord's oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in thus writing down single points as he remembered them. For to one thing he gave attention: to leave out nothing of what he had heard and to make no false statements in them.[4]
As we read these lines, we seem to be witnessing the process by which St. Mark's Gospel was written. Papias says further that:
Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as best he could.[5]
From the prologue of the Third Gospel, we know that the author, Luke, a disciple of St. Paul, undertook to write the history of Jesus in chronological order, which the aged witness of those times states was absent from St. Mark's. Here, then, we have the whole story of the composition of the three Synoptic Gospels. As to the date of their composition, that seems fixed thereby. The appearance of the three Gospels preceded the appearance of the Acts of the Apostles, and the latter, written by St. Luke, was published about 62 or 64; therefore this date seems the latest that can be assigned for the composition of the three Synoptics.[6]

Shortly afterwards, we see another collection being formed, that of the Catholic Epistles, i.e., letters addressed to the whole Church. Into this collection was admitted a greater or lesser number of Epistles, according to local differences. Finally, seven came to be agreed upon by all. These seven letters are the three Epistles of St. John, the two of St. Peter, that of St. Jude, and that of St. James. By the addition of St. John's Gospel and his Apocalypse, of which we shall speak shortly, the canon, that is, the official list of the books of the New Testament, became fixed; the Christian Bible was thus complete.[7]

Later on, the Church was to proclaim the authenticity of these collections. On all sides, Christians were eager to fix upon the accounts of the ancients, to gather their teachings. St. Luke, at the beginning of his Gospel, refers to an abundant literary growth. This subsequently increased still more. The apocryphal gospels - the name given to those histories of Jesus which the Church rejected from her canon - at times had the childish character of popular legends, or the perverse tendency of heresy. A mere comparison of their fanciful and fabricated narratives with the serious and religious soberness of the canonical Gospels is enough to show the genuineness of the latter. It is true that each of the authors adopted by the Church has his own style and a definite aim. St. Matthew's style is simple, uniform, and unstudied; and it is evident that his aim is to show his compatriots, the Christians of Palestine, the fulfilment of the prophecies in Christ. St. Mark is animated, picturesque, and always has in mind the Roman world; by the narration of our Lord's many miracles, he wishes to impress upon that world the almighty power of God. St. Luke's narrative reveals a literary culture superior to that of his predecessors, and his purpose to spread the catholic ideas of his teacher, St. Paul.

But the three writings resemble one another in their lifelike and precise character. The image that rises in the mind of one who reads these gospels is that of all Galilee and Judea before the destruction of Jerusalem. Skeptical Sadducees, hypocritical Pharisees, the timid disciples of Jesus, all these pass along one after the other on the shore of that Lake Tiberias so colorful with its population of fishermen, on those roads that are burned by the hot sun, through the ripening harvests, and in that great city of Jerusalem where scribes carry on their discussions in the Temple porticoes. The portrait of Jesus traced by these unlettered writers is so utterly inimitable that the cry wrung from the unbelieving philosopher will ever issue from the lips of whoever reads these gospels with a sincere and upright heart. Their words speak to the heart, and if they were the work of invention, their contrivers would be more astounding than is the hero.[8]


[1] cf. 1 Tim. 3:15.
[2] Eusebius, III, xxxix, 1.
[3] Ibidiem, no. 4.
[4] Ibidem, no. 15.
[5] Ibidem, no. 16.
[6] See Batiffol, Orpheus et l'Evangile, p. 132. Harnack (Die Apostelgeschichte, p. 22) holds the same view as we have just set forth. Some Catholic authors, basing their conclusions on a text of St. Irenaeus (Haereses, bk. 3, chap. 1), prefer placing the writing of St. Mark's and St. Luke's Gospels after the martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul. But that passage is a mutilated text and has not the meaning supposed, as Cornely proves in his Introductio ad Novum Testamentum, III, 76-78.
[7] On the formation of the canon of the New Testament, see Batiffol, Orpheus et l'Evangile, pp. 55-80.
[8] Cf. Rousseau, Emile, in Œuvres (Didot ed.), II, 597. As to the order in which the three Gospels were written, Lebreton thus sums up the latest critical conclusions, which simply return to the traditional positions: "The primitive catechesis is embodied in the Aramaic Gospel of St. Matthew and, in Greek, in St. Peter's preaching. This latter was followed by St. Mark, while St. Matthew's collection is preserved in St. Luke's Gospel, and more exactly in the Greek Gospel of St. Matthew. These two other gospels thus utilize St. Mark's narrative and a few secondary sources." (Lebreton, "Les Evangiles synoptiques," in the Recherches des sciences religieuses, 1910, p. 505; cf. Stanton, The Gospels as Historical Documents, Part II.)


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