Toward Understanding the New Testament
Obert C. Tanner, Lewis M. Rogers, Sterling M. McMurrin

Chapter 2
The Sources

[p.30]Reliable knowledge of Jesus, his life and teaching, is limited. The years of his adolescence and young manhood are shrouded in silence, and his active ministry of not over two or three years is treated only briefly in the Gospels. There are only four short accounts of Jesus’s ministry, and these record what people thought of him as well as what he did and taught. Beyond the narrative of his teachings and actions nothing is known of his personality, physical appearance, or bearing that might account for the remarkable charismatic power which he held over his disciples and the masses who at one time followed him.1

As far as is known, Jesus left no written statements of any kind, and the only instance of him writing is related in the story of the adulteress (John 7:53-8:11), where twice he writes on the ground with his finger. There is no definite evidence that any of his disciples kept an account of his actions or teachings during his lifetime. It was the common practice in Jesus’s time and place for disciples to memorize the words of their most revered teachers, but apparently it was not customary to make a written record of them. How, then, were Jesus’s words and actions preserved in the Christian tradition? What was the origin of the Gospels, the New Testament documents that account for his birth, ministry, death, and resurrection?2

[p.31]Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians is quite generally regarded as the earliest of the books of the New Testament and the earliest of the extant Christian writings. It is usually dated approximately 50-51 CE, written from Corinth. But neither here nor elsewhere in his known letters did Paul provide information about Jesus as a person who lived and taught in Galilee and Judea. Paul’s primary interest was in Christ as the risen saviour, not in Jesus as a human person. Except for references to the crucifixion and resurrection, he made little mention of Jesus.

The Gospel of Mark is considered by most scholars to be the earliest existing account of Jesus’s ministry. It was written thirty-five to forty years after his death. No doubt by this time most of those personally acquainted with him were dead. A generation had passed and firsthand information was no longer available. It is probable, however, that some written accounts of the teachings and actions of Jesus were in circulation among the Christians even before Mark wrote his Gospel. These early materials have not been preserved in their original form, but some fragments of them were probably incorporated into the Gospels. No doubt it was largely these first writings and even more the oral traditions or memorized sayings that provided the basic information on the life and teachings of Jesus set forth in the Gospels.

The Synoptic Problem

The first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are generally known as the “synoptic Gospels,” a reference to their similarities and evidences of common sources. Indeed, these three evangelists not only frequently give the same account of an incident or discourse but often record it in the very same words. However, the three are not identical, for each Gospel contains material not found in the other two. The question of why they are almost identical in some passages yet different in others is the “synoptic problem,” which has occupied much of the attention of New Testament scholars.

In the judgment of most competent scholars, Matthew and Luke borrowed much of their material from Mark, the earliest of [p.32]the Gospels.3 But both Matthew and Luke are longer than Mark, and Matthew and Luke agree on a considerable amount of material not found in Mark. The fact that Matthew and Luke include common material that is not in Mark suggests that they had access to another common source. This source is referred to as “Q.”4 In addition to these two main sources, Mark and “Q,” Matthew apparently had access to material which neither Luke nor Mark possessed, and Luke had additional material not found in either Matthew or Mark.

The following diagram of the four-document thesis was developed by the New Testament scholar B. H. Streeter. The symbols “M” and “L” represent segments of early tradition found only in Matthew or only in Luke.

Matthew Mark Luke

[p.33]This thesis considers Mark and “Q” to be the primary basis for Matthew and Luke, with “M” and “L” as possible additional sources drawn from different versions of the oral tradition.

Another hypothesis recently adopted by some scholars in an effort to overcome difficulties posed by the four-document thesis holds that Matthew was the earliest Gospel and that Luke and Mark relied upon Matthew as a basic source. According to this view, Mark was the latest of the three synoptics; Mark had access to both Luke and Matthew as the basis of his composition. Although none of the hypotheses thus far advanced fully resolves the synoptic problem, some variation of the four-document theory, with the Gospel of Mark as the earliest source, seems to offer the most adequate explanation. This hypothesis provides the clearest resolution of the synoptic problem, fitting together more of the pieces of the puzzle of their historical-literary relationship than any competing hypothesis.5

The recognition in the late nineteenth century of the basic differences between the Jesus of the Synoptics and the highly spiritualized Christ of the Gospel of John, the Fourth Gospel, was an [p.34] important step in the critical understanding of the Gospels.6 It is a common opinion among scholars today that there was much greater diversity in belief and practice among the several Christian churches than had earlier been supposed. Equally important, it is now held that not only the individual writers of the Gospels but perhaps even more the various early churches were responsible for both the form and substance of the Christian tradition—or more correctly, the Christian traditions.

The theological-apologetic character of all four canonical Gospels is now widely acknowledged. Moreover, the essential difference in character between John and the Synoptics, so long taken for granted, is being seriously challenged. But the argument is not that John has been shown to be authentic history and is therefore more like Matthew, Mark, and Luke but rather that the Synoptics are more like John. Each of the four Gospels is regarded essentially as a faith account; each was written not as a biography but rather as an interpretation of Jesus and his teachings intended to express the faith of a particular Christian community.

The synoptic Gospels were evidently written in response to the experiences and problems of several Christian communities of the eastern Mediterranean in the last decades of the first century. Accordingly, they may be regarded as essentially trustworthy in recording the traditions about Jesus—what he said and what he did—but it should be remembered that the writers of these Gospels were not eyewitnesses. It appears that Matthew and Luke, using the Markan frame, arranged their materials, as Mark had done before them, to emphasize matters that were of special interest or concern to their respective churches.7

[p.35]The Synoptic Gospels

In 66 CE, during the reign of the emperor Nero, the Jews launched a major military revolt against Rome, a rebellion induced by an uprising of the Zealots of Galilee. Four years followed in which those who joined the rebellion fought against three legions under the leadership of the Roman general Vespasian. Declared emperor in 69 CE, Vespasian returned to Rome and left the leadership of the army to his son Titus, who conducted a siege of Jerusalem. The city fell and was destroyed in 70 CE. The Roman victory was greatly facilitated by internal strife among the city’s Jewish factions. The Temple was desecrated and destroyed and thousands were put to the sword or taken into slavery.8

When Jerusalem fell, the last effective stronghold of the Jews was eliminated. However, it required three more years for the Romans to capture the remaining Jewish fortresses. Defended by Jewish forces, these strongholds, particularly the Herodium, Machaerus, and Masada, which had been fortified by Herod the Great, were difficult to conquer. Masada, occupied by Galilean Zealots, was the last to fall, in April 73 CE. When the Romans finally breached the wall atop the great rock of Masada, they found that except for two women and several children all the defenders had committed suicide, apparently in one last desperate protest against Rome.9

[p.36]Although the war had been terrible in its destruction of human life and property, the defeat inflicted by the Roman legions was not the end of Judaism; rather it was the beginning of a new era in Jewish history. The Romans made no attempt to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Palestine. They continued to recognize Judaism as a lawful religion, even granting the Jews exemption from the commonly required veneration of the emperor, a practice that violated their intense commitment to monotheism. With the conquest and destruction the Sadducees and Essenes disappeared as far as political or religious importance was concerned, but a strong spiritual revival of Judaism led by Pharisaic sages and scribes was soon underway. The sages began in earnest their central task of grounding Judaism on the Torah and the Oral Law. They defined the Jewish canon of scripture, provided a more precise form for daily prayers, and transferred to the home, synagogue, and Sanhedrin some of the rituals connected with the Temple. They continued the pilgrim festivals and preserved the religious calendar and some rituals, including the Passover seder and the blowing of the ram’s horn (the shofar) on the New Year. Within two decades after the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis were clearly the official leaders of the Jewish community.10 The major impact on Judaism caused by the war with Rome was the ascendancy of Torah religion. The rabbis, with their scholarly approach to morals and religion, gained strength in influence and leadership while the power of the priests and Sadducees declined. The synagogue prayer, worship, and study of the Torah replaced the sacrificial cult of the Temple as the center of the religion.

The Jewish-Roman war culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem probably provided the historical setting for the writing of the synoptic Gospels. All three Gospels seem to have been composed in the early postwar period, which was a time of reconstruction for both Judaism and Christianity. Apparently a considerable number of Christians had been drawn into the confrontation with Rome by the religious-patriotic fervor of the Jewish Zealots and by their own Christian prophets. These prophets professed to have [p.37]apocalyptic visitations promising Christ’s imminent return as the messianic agent predicted in the Book of Daniel. The war was a disaster for Jews and Christians, producing devastation and chaos, but for both it was also a decisive turning point—the end of an era, of the “old way.” Jewish and Christian survival was at stake. It was critical that both reconstitute and reconstruct their cultural and economic foundations.

Throughout the period from the destruction of the Temple to the first decade of the second century, the Christians lived in close proximity to the Jews. The dialogue and dispute between them continued, and the earlier tensions which had existed from Paul’s day mounted with increasing bitterness and hostility.11 For Christians reconstruction entailed: (1) a meaningful explanation of the disastrous war for those who in time might become disillusioned by the delay of the Parousia, that is, the second coming or return of Christ; (2) a more accurate perspective on Christianity’s historical relations with Judaism, which included correcting and appropriating certain Hebrew-Jewish ideas and ideals, such as “covenant,” “Israel,” and “messiah,” found in the Old Testament and in currently popular Jewish writings; and (3) a correction of some of the earlier Jewish Christian claims about Jesus as the Messiah.12 Finally (4), Jesus’s early connections with the movement of John the Baptist had never been fully explained, and the failure of some of the Apostles to understand Jesus’s true identity and purpose required clarification.

The synoptic Gospels were apparently written to support this reconstruction. Each Gospel contributed to the orientation of Christianity upon a new foundation—the foundation of Jesus as the Christ. As a consequence of the efforts of the evangelists, Christianity became a religion in its own right. Although intimately tied to Judaism and grounded in biblical prophecy and promise, it transcended its own Jewish roots and went beyond the tradition of the Hebrew bible.

[p.38]Place and time seem to be of secondary importance to the Gospel writers. These are subordinate to their objectives and purposes. Mark makes reference to two geographical divisions—Galilee and Jerusalem. This format is followed by Matthew and Luke. Geographical considerations in the Gospel of John differ most radically from the Synoptics; John reports Jesus traveling between Galilee and Jerusalem several times for the celebration of the Passover, presumably to show Jesus in direct confrontation with Jewish officials and institutions throughout his ministry.

Matthew and Luke have similar chronologies, presumably based upon Mark’s Gospel. They begin with Jesus’s ministry in Galilee, near Capernaum and the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. The arrest and subsequent execution of John the Baptist followed by the feeding of the five thousand, the confession at Caesarea Philippi, the transfiguration, and Jesus’s decision to go to Jerusalem are important elements of the synoptic story and are crucial to the structure of all three Gospels. These events set the stage for Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, his visits to the Temple, his Temple discourses, the growing opposition and conspiracy which led to his arrest, his trials, and his death on the cross. The three synoptic chronologies are similar in their treatment of these and other major events. However, they differ somewhat in their arrangement and the contexts they provide for Jesus’s teachings and parables and his miracles of healing and exorcism.


The dates of the composition of the Synoptics are impossible to determine and can at best only be estimated. Many scholars believe that Mark was written about the time of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, ca. 65-70 CE. The authorship of Mark is questionable, but it is sometimes attributed to John Mark who is mentioned in Acts as a missionary companion of Paul. An early Christian author, Papias of Hierapolis in Phrygia who died about 155 CE, states that Mark acted as an interpreter for Peter when he was in Rome. According to this view, Mark did not personally listen to Jesus preach but recorded what Peter [p.39]remembered of Jesus.13 Contemporary scholars, however, are skeptical of this interpretation in part because of Mark’s critical attitude toward Peter. Both Luke and Matthew are more positive than Mark in their estimate of Peter’s loyalty and integrity as a disciple.

One quite obvious objective of the Gospel of Mark is to show that during his ministry Jesus predicted events connected with the destruction of Jerusalem. According to Mark, this destruction was an essential part of the drama of salvation in which Jesus played a decisive role as the Son of man. Mark believed the institutions of Judaism—the Temple and city—had been rejected by God. In Mark the confession, transfiguration, and entry into Jerusalem were closely followed by events which revealed Jesus’s intention to break with Judaism—the episode of the fig tree and the cleansing of the Temple (Mk 11:12-19). Viewed as a unit, these events show the development of a major theme in Mark’s Gospel—that although Jerusalem was the center of religion and the seat of the ancient traditions and promises, it had become an arena of opposition and hostility.14 For Mark, Jesus’s act of cleansing the Temple had significance beyond the obvious condemnation of commercialism. It meant the coming of the end of the Temple and Judaism as the means of fulfilling Abraham’s promise. Like the fig tree the Temple was barren, which meant that the religious institutions historically related to Jerusalem had been rejected (Mk 11:20-25, 13:28-32).

[p.40]Jesus’s statements to his disciples on the Mount of Olives, following his predictions about the Temple, are referred to as the synoptic apocalypse or the “Little Apocalypse” (Mk 13:5-37). Here Mark presents Jesus’s comments in the form of a sermon which is crucial to the structure and purpose of his Gospel. Jesus’s apocalyptic sermon is integrally related to the events which prompted Mark to write his Gospel in the first place—the Jewish rebellion against the Romans and the destruction of Jerusalem. It reveals Mark’s belief, and perhaps the beliefs of those for whom he wrote, that those events were the beginning of the end of the age. In his judgment the end was to come soon, for Jesus himself had forecast that end in his discourse as he sat with his disciples opposite the Temple on the Mount of Olives. For Mark the destruction marked the dissolution of the Jewish-Christian fellowship in Jerusalem. This fellowship was led by several of Jesus’ disciples who remained in Jerusalem after Jesus’s death, inspirited by their experience of the resurrection. Peter was the most prominent in their leadership, but among them were members of Jesus’s family, notably his brother James, who later became known as James the Just, and John, presumably one of the original disciples. There were also charismatic prophets who proclaimed that Jesus would return with power as the resurrected Messiah to overthrow Roman rule and establish the Kingdom of God in Jerusalem.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus warned against false prophets who would mistakenly identify the precise time and place of the Parousia. Also, Mark held that not only Peter and the family of Jesus but also other early disciples failed to understand Jesus’s purposes. Some of them had denied him and at his arrest “they all forsook him, and fled” (Mk 14:50). Mark’s case against Peter is evident, for instance, in the accounts of the confession at Caesarea Philippi (Mk 8:27-33). In the confession Peter proclaimed Jesus as the Christ, but in response Jesus rebuked the disciples, charging them to tell no one concerning him. According to Mark’s interpretation of these events, Peter was mistaken about Jesus’s identity and his intention. In his description of the encounter between Jesus and Peter, Mark provides a redirection of Peter’s statement and advances his own conception [p.41]of Jesus as the Son of man. His intention seems to be to correct Peter’s conception of Jesus as a messiah of the Davidic type.

None of the passion-resurrection predictions which Mark regarded as authentic seems to have been fully understood by Jesus’s disciples. They could not understand, or perhaps accept, his forewarning of his coming death. It was Mark’s view that Jesus as the Messiah should suffer, die, and be resurrected to return in glory as the apocalyptic Son of man. Peter and the other disciples seemed bound to a traditional Jewish conviction that the Messiah-Son of David would rise up, overthrow Israel’s enemies, and restore the Kingdom. According to Mark, the disciples did not grasp Jesus’s true identity; they were not able to accept his role as the Son of man who was to suffer and die in Jerusalem. For them such an end would be a scandalous failure.

At a time of such despair for the primitive Christian community of Jerusalem, suffering the overwhelming power of Rome, Mark’s message was one of renewed hope. The disastrous consequences of the war for the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem did not mean the extinction of all faith in the coming of the Kingdom. Mark did not abandon the expectation of Jesus’s return, but it was his view that the promise was to be fulfilled in Galilee, which Jesus himself had named as the new gathering place.


The Gospel of Matthew was probably written sometime between 80 and 90 CE. Its primary objective was to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah whose coming was prophesied in the Old Testament and to acclaim him as the one like Moses whose word came from God as law. Some scholars hold that the structure of this Gospel follows the model of the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses. It includes five collections of Jesus’s “sayings” or teachings15 described as follows:

Chaps. 5-7 The Sermon on the Mount

Chap. 10 Instructions to the apostles

Chap. 13 Parables about the coming of the Kingdom

Chap. 18 Life in the Kingdom—and in the church

Chaps. 23-25 Warnings and woes, requirements in the Kingdom—charity and mercy

[p.42]In Matthew’s view, the Christian church was the repository of Jesus’s teaching, which was to be the basis of a new standard and a new covenant. The Sermon on the Mount and the address to the Apostles are the best known of the Matthean discourses. The material used by Matthew in these sermons is also scattered throughout Luke’s Gospel. In all probability the various themes of these sermons were presented by Jesus on several different occasions during his ministry.

Both Jews and Christians suffered critical losses in the war with Rome. Most Jewish Christians either fled Jerusalem or were killed in the siege.16 Of the Jewish groups known today—the Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes, and Pharisees—only the Pharisees survived the disaster with enough strength and integrity to continue as an influential force in Judaism. The Pharisees had been moving away from the concept of Israel as a political entity toward the ideal of Judaism as a religion independent of any political-nationalist institution or body. The destruction, therefore, did not affect them as it did the Sadducees, whose life and collective function were centered in Jerusalem and the Temple cult. The influence of the synagogue was already established, and, most important, the Pharisees’ commitment to the Oral Law enabled them to adjust their loyalty to the old tradition to the new conditions which confronted them following the destruction. Despite the severe consequences of the war, they were able not only to continue to minister to the religious and moral life of Israel but even to strengthen their influence. A Sanhedrin, the supreme council and tribunal, was established at Jamnia (Javneh) near the Mediterranean coast soon after 70 CE. This council exercised central [p.43]religious authority in Judaism as well as civil and criminal jurisdiction within the new limits set by Roman rule.17

The primary task of the rabbis and the synagogue in this postwar period was teaching and perpetuating the oral Torah and achieving a successful transition from a religion centered in the temple cult to one grounded in moral and spiritual principles and practiced independently of priestly authority. The result was the building up of traditional usages, opinions, and commentaries into a formal system of directives relating the Law to life. The method employed by the great rabbis in teaching Torah independently of the scripture was known as mishnah, teaching by repetition. From their efforts issued a body of written material, the Mishnah, which related the Law to concrete, living experience and was to become the foundation of the Talmud, the sacred literature that has informed the life of Israel down to the present day.

The author of Matthew related the Christian tradition about Jesus to the life of the Christian church in his day. This entailed, among other things, a new understanding of the concept of Israel. Similar attempts to transform the traditional idea of Israel are found in Paul’s writings, especially Galatians and Romans, and also in the anonymous epistle to the Hebrews. In fact, references to the Christian church as the “New Israel” became commonplace in the literature of the early church fathers. Matthew based his thesis on the idea that Jesus was the new Lawgiver to Israel with the Sermon on the Mount as a central element of his Gospel. Here the New Word, the teaching or revelation from God, supersedes the old, the Mosaic revelation. The instructional form attributed to Jesus in the Sermon, “You have heard that it was said to the men of old. … But I say to you” (Mt 5:21f, 27f, 33f, 38, 43f), clearly established Jesus’s teaching as the new foundation of the religion. The requirements for discipleship, one of the chief concerns of the church in Matthew’s day, are spelled out in considerable detail.

[p.44]In the account of the Transfiguration in Matthew (Mt 17:1-8), the acceptance by the church of the sacred scripture of the Jews is dramatically affirmed. The circumstances described by Matthew are almost identical with those of Moses’s epiphany recorded in Exodus (Ex 24:16-18). The profound meaning of this overwhelming event for Matthew seems clear—the divine glory only partially revealed in the Old Way to Moses, Elijah, and the prophets was revealed in full in Jesus, who ushered in the New Way. Here the will of God intervenes in human history. Matthew obviously had searched the Old Testament and the traditions about Jesus for confirmation of the belief that the Jews would reject Jesus as the Messiah. He believed that in reprisal God would reject the Jewish religion and continue his revelation through a faithful remnant, the Christian church, which Matthew now represented.

For Matthew, Jesus’s teaching is to be understood by the church as the New Law and Revelation. Jesus is the Way and his Word is the foundation of the living church. The principles of discipleship in the interim period of the church are found in Jesus’s New Law, not in the temple cultus nor in Pharisaism or the rabbinic commentaries on the Law.18


Many authorities place the composition of the Gospel of Luke at approximately the time of the writing of Matthew’s Gospel, perhaps as early as 80 CE. It is commonly held, moreover, that the work which begins as Luke’s Gospel continues as the Acts of the Apostles. The link between the two is the reference to Theophilus, which appears in both documents.19 It has been claimed that Luke [p.45]was a traveling companion of Paul. However, the case against this claim is compelling.20

The Gospel of Luke was written to proclaim Christianity as a universal religion. In Luke the worldwide import of Jesus’s ministry was emphasized. In the genealogies, for example, Luke traced Jesus’s lineage back to Adam, apparently to announce that Jesus’s message is for all mankind. In keeping with his universalistic conception of Christianity, he stressed the fact that Jesus was concerned for the despised Samaritans and other non-Jewish peoples. Clearly when this Gospel was written, Christianity was in the process of overcoming its limiting parochial ties to Judaism and becoming a religion for all humankind.

A special section (Lk 9:51-18:14), probably taken from an early teaching source, was inserted by Luke into the narrative framework which he adopted from Mark. This material, which sometimes has parallels in Matthew and sometimes is unique among the Gospels, reveals important clues disclosing the purpose of Luke’s Gospel. It includes the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Friend at Midnight, the Prodigal Son, and the Unjust Steward. It also gives an account of events not recorded in either Mark or Matthew—the sending out of Seventy and the healing of ten lepers. In addition there are in Luke teaching materials that parallel Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount—the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’s comments on the nature of Christian discipleship, on the need to share, and on the need to transcend fear and anxiety. Luke provides the setting and arrangement and portrays Jesus as an example of service and stewardship. In Luke 4:16-19, for [p.46]example, the image of the suffering servant from Second Isaiah (Is 61:1f) sets the stage for presenting Jesus as the supreme exemplar.

Another of Luke’s aims was to present Jesus as the unique figure in the history of God’s affairs among men. For this purpose Luke’s Gospel involves three time frames: the past, from Adam to John the Baptist; the meridian of time, which is the period of Jesus’s ministry; and the period of the church, the interim period before the second coming of Jesus and the end of the age.21 Luke’s treatment of the events recorded in Acts frequently glosses over the sharp divisions and controversies which existed in the early church. For example, the bitterness of the struggle between Paul and the Judaizers, clearly evident in Paul’s letters, is smoothed over and minimized in Acts.22 Jesus, Luke contends, was in full control of the events of his ministry from beginning to end. The suggestion of human doubt and bewilderment in Gethsemane recorded in Matthew and even more clearly in Mark are deleted or modified in Luke’s Gospel. According to Luke, Jesus suffers as a God-Man who knows what is to come. He approaches the cross triumphantly with no doubts about the meaning and necessity of his death. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus utters no cry from the cross as he does in Matthew and Mark, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mt 26:46; Mk 15:34).

It seems to have been Luke’s purpose to shape and bring into a unified account all of the known primary sources about Jesus, including certain elements of the tradition about Paul. This would provide the Christian community of his day with a trustworthy assurance of Jesus’s unique status and place in the drama of salvation and ensure faith in the church’s indispensable role in that drama.

Luke’s most immediate and practical concern was to uproot false expectations about the nearness of “The Day” as it was proclaimed by false prophets among the Christians. Jesus is represented by him as warning his disciples against any such interpreta-[p.47]tion. “You will desire to see one of the days of the Son of man, and you will not see it. … Do not go, do not follow them” (Lk 17:22f). Luke’s strategy involved an interpretation of the delay in the timing of the Second Coming. He introduced new chronological considerations—events which must precede the End—including the idea of “the times of the Gentiles” (Lk 17:24, 30, 21:8-24) which he claimed must be fulfilled “before the day when the Son of man returns.” In place of the imminent eschatology of Paul that prevailed in the church before the Jewish-Roman war, Luke allowed for a passage of time before the Parousia, a position the church in the postwar period found more acceptable.

The power of the Spirit is central in the Gospel of Luke as it is in Paul and in John, the Fourth Gospel. For Luke, as for Paul, that power rests upon the church. The church set the limits within which the Spirit operates. According to Luke, the Spirit was present in all of the crucial events in the life of Jesus and of the church. After Jesus’s baptism and while he was praying, the Holy Spirit descended upon him. Afterward “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit” returned from the Jordan. Then, “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee,” where his ministry began (Lk 3:21f, 4:1, 14f). In the end, after his death and resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples in Jerusalem and said “I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high” (Lk 24:49). Luke’s anticipation of the fulfillment of the promise comes to fruition in the Acts of the Apostles at Pentecost when the Spirit returns and remains in the church. It was the power of the Holy Spirit, according to Acts, which brought such phenomenal missionary success to Christianity in the gentile world of the first century.

Luke’s Gospel probably contributed importantly to the stabilization of the institutional forms of the early church. It introduced several important changes in belief and practice which became the norms for Christian life. Luke’s vision of Christianity as the major force in world history, involving his reinterpretation of the Parousia and his doctrine of the Spirit, contributed to the unity and integrity of the church necessary to its survival.

The Fourth Gospel

[p.48]Even an approximate dating of the composition of the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, is difficult, if not impossible. It has often been assigned to the last decade of the first century, but some scholars argue that it was written later, in the first or second decade of the second century. However, a date of approximately 100 CE seems required by the discovery in Egypt of an early papyrus known as Papyrus 52, which dates from the first half of the second century. The Gospel itself claims that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was its author (Jn 21:20-24), but it does not name him. Early Christian authors, Papias and Irenaeus, attributed the Gospel to John, the son of Zebedee, or to another John called the “Elder,” but the question of authorship is still controversial among the most competent contemporary scholars. Some are of the opinion that at least two authors, perhaps three, were involved in writing the book. The theology set forth in the Gospel may represent the views of a group or a community rather than simply of the author or authors.23

It is generally held, on ancient authority, that the Fourth Gospel was composed in Ephesus, in modern Turkey, but there is no definite evidence for this. It was no doubt written in Greek, but with definite Aramaic linguistic influence. Although not essentially a narrative of events, it exhibits a rather pronounced knowledge of Palestinian geography.

Many scholars assume that the author of John may have used the synoptic Gospels, especially Mark and Luke, as primary sources for his book. But basic differences from the Synoptics exist. For example, few events prior to the triumphal entry into Jerusalem a few days before the crucifixion are found in both John and the [p.49]Synoptics. The Synoptics tell of Jesus doing most of his work in Galilee and relate only one final visit to Jerusalem. In John, however, a major portion of Jesus’s ministry takes place in Jerusalem. Also, according to the synoptic account, the ministry of Jesus lasted no longer than one year, but according to John it extended over approximately three years.

John has no parables. In this Gospel, which has more symbolism than the Synoptics, Jesus teaches by discourse, dogmatic sermons, and occasional diatribes. Other differences from the Synoptics relate to John’s arrangement of events and his addition of material. For example, in John, the cleansing of the Temple took place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, while the Synoptics place that incident near the end of the ministry. And John’s Gospel includes four major miracles not found in the Synoptics—turning water into wine at Cana (Jn 2:1-11), healing the impotent man at Bethzatha (Jn 5:2-9), giving sight to the blind man at the pool of Siloam (Jn 9:1-7), and raising Lazarus of Bethany (Jn 11:1-44).

Also, John omits several matters of major importance reported in the Synoptics. Although some of these when taken by themselves seem relatively insignificant, when viewed together they indicate a dramatic difference in John’s perspective and purpose. For example, in John there is no genealogy of Jesus, no birth story, no temptation of Jesus, no transfiguration, no institution of the Lord’s Supper, no agony at Gethsemane, and no cry from the cross. In the opinion of some scholars, most of these omissions were deliberate. They were not included in John’s Gospel because they did not coincide with the author’s view of Jesus and with the purpose of his Gospel. The Fourth Gospel was not intended as a supplement to the Synoptics but rather as a complete transformation of the proclamation about Jesus the Christ.24 As Professors Colwell and Titus have pointed out, John’s primary concern was not with the life and history of the man Jesus but with

the timeless, universal spiritual values which men had experienced in him.… The world of meaning and value which Jesus conveyed [p.50]transcended his own physical body even as it transcends time and place. In this Gospel the essential fact of the Jesus of history becomes the content of the Christ of faith. … this is the Gospel of the Spirit.25

John’s own statement seems to confirm this conclusion: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31).

Non-Biblical Sources
Non-Christian Writers

Besides the four Gospels, there are other valuable early sources of information about Jesus and his followers. Some were written by non-Christians. The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, writing about 115 CE, for instance, described events in Rome when he was young. Referring to Nero’s execution of great numbers of “the people commonly called Christians,” he explained that “they derived their name and origin from one Christus, who in the reign of Tiberius had suffered death by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate.” A contemporary of Tacitus, Seutonius (65-135 CE), referred to the banishment of Jewish Christians from Rome by the Emperor Claudius about 52 CE. Pliny the Younger, the Roman governor in Asia Minor, wrote to the emperor Trajan in 112 CE asking his advice on dealing with the Christians, who were increasing in numbers so rapidly that the heathen temples were almost deserted.

The most famous and controversial passage concerning Jesus in early non-Christian literature appears in The Antiquities of the Jews, by the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. In this passage Jesus is referred to as “Christ” and includes the statement, “Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works.” Though this passage was known to the historian Eusebius (ca. 260-340 CE), most competent scholars regard its present form as in whole or part a Christian interpolation. In all probability, [p.51]Josephus, who was a Pharisee, would not have treated Jesus in such a brief and casual manner if he had actually referred to him as Christ. A second reference to Jesus appears near the end of the Antiquities in a comment on Jesus’s brother James. Here Josephus refers to Jesus “who was called Christ.” Most scholars have been inclined to believe that this passage is authentic.26

Though adding little to the information about Jesus, these non-Christian sources at least tend to confirm his historicity. They corroborate the New Testament account that Jesus was crucified during the reign of Tiberius Caesar and that his followers, called Christians, increased in such numbers as to constitute a problem for Rome.

Christian Writers

There are extant, of course, many writings by the Christian fathers of the second and third centuries, scholars as well as churchmen. The fathers used the Gospels as scripture, quoting freely from them to edify and instruct their congregations. The earliest of these, Clement, Bishop of Rome, wrote his first letter near the close of the first century, about 96 CE. Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote seven surviving letters, 98-117 CE, was personally acquainted with the early setting of the Christian church. His letters, touching nearly all matters of Christ’s ministry and the early church, were collected after his death. Polycarp, writing in Smyrna about 110-117 CE, claims to have known John and mentions the letters of Paul. The “Shepherd of Hermas,” written in Rome probably some time before 150 CE, was included as scripture in the earliest collections of Christian literature. It included discussions of very early Christian doctrines.

Clearly a rich variety of literary documents was produced in the first and second centuries of the Christian era. Many letters, [p.52]theological tracts and sermons, and apocryphal and apologetic treatises dealing with folklore, legends, and miracle stories were written defending Christianity against its challengers. Together, they constitute an important library about life in the early church and its tradition about Jesus.27


1. Any attempt to understand the New Testament must take into account the differences between modern historiography and the character of ancient recording, writing, and publishing, both Hellenistic and Jewish. Martin Herzel’s essay, “The Sources of the History of Earliest Christianity in the Context of Ancient Historiography and Biography,” chapter 1 of Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity (Philadelphia, 1979), is informative on the subject.

2. Since all four Gospels concentrate on the last thirty to thirty-five days of Jesus’s life, they obviously were written not primarily as biographies or “lives” of Jesus but rather as accounts of his trial, death, and resurrection.

3. It has been estimated that approximately ninety percent of Mark is included in Matthew’s Gospel; Luke includes about sixty percent of Mark. In many instances parallel passages in Matthew and Luke differ in arrangement from Mark and from each other. The arrangement and sequence of events and teachings apparently were closely related to the purposes of each evangelist. Burton H. Throckmorton, ed., Gospel Parallels: A Synopsis of the First Three Gospels (Nashville and New York, 1979) and Kurt Aland, ed., Synopsis of the Four Gospels: Greek-English Edition (Stuttgart, 1972) are valuable tools for comparing the Synoptics.

4. “Q” probably refers to the German term, Quelle, meaning source. Although no copy of such a document exists, most scholars believe that it was a “saying source” probably written in Greek ca. 50 CE which explains the eschatological materials common to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark. It is thought to have been produced possibly on the basis of late Jewish wisdom literature in an early Christian community in which charismatic prophets and prophecy were empha-[p.33]sized. “Q” materials concentrate on the expectation of the coming end and judgment: warnings and a sense of urgency about the end, woes, and conflict; the promise that God’s kingdom will come soon, and the radical nature of discipleship in that kingdom. See Richard A. Edwards, A Theology of Q: Eschatology, Prophecy, and Wisdom (Philadelphia, 1976). Howard C. Kee, Jesus in History, 2d ed. (New York, 1977) presents a description and analysis of “Q.”

5. For a detailed analysis of the four-document hypothesis, see Burnett H. Streeter, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (New York, 1924). William R. Farmer, in The Synoptic Problem (New York, 1961), and others present the arguments in support of Matthew as the earliest of the synoptic Gospels. See Joseph B. Tyson, The New Testament and Early Christianity (New York, 1984), 153-58, and Robert M. Grant, A Historical Introduction to the New Testament (New York, 1963), 105-18. The view that Matthew was the earliest gospel seems to raise many more questions about the relationship of the three gospels than it resolves. If Matthew were earlier than Mark, why, for example, would Mark deliberately omit such significant materials as the birth stories, the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew, and the famous parables from the Gospel of Luke? Why, indeed, should Mark have taken such a harsh view of the disciples who deserted Jesus at his arrest, especially Peter, when he could have adopted the resolution of this problem provided by Matthew and Luke in which Peter is reinstated as the leading transitional figure in the history of the early church? Why did Mark not follow the lead of Matthew and Luke in proclaiming that there was to be an interim time of the church before the end of the age and the second coming of Jesus?

6. Albert Schweitzer, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God, trans. Walter Lowrie (London, 1925) and Johannes Weiss, Jesus’s Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, trans. and ed. R. H. Hiers and D. L. Holland (Philadelphia, 1971), were among those most responsible for this new assessment of the Gospels.

7. This view is shared by an increasing number of scholars. “The Gospels were not written as historical records but as witnesses of the faith. The material they contained was handed down for the benefit of the Christian church, was formulated with the needs of the church in view.” W. C. van Unnik, “Luke-Acts, A Storm Center in Contemporary Scholarship,” in Leander E. Keck and J. Louis Martyn, eds., Studies in Luke-Acts (Philadelphia, 1980), 19.

8. Detailed knowledge of the Jewish rebellion and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE comes largely from Josephus, The Jewish War. Books V-VI are concerned with the dramatic siege and fall of Jerusalem. Titus succeeded his father as emperor in 79 CE. Josephus was born in Jerusalem ca. 37 or 38 CE. He became a Pharisee at the age of nineteen. Later he was involved in the war against Rome, holding an important command in Galilee. After the fall of Jotapata in 67 CE, he was imprisoned by the Romans but won the favor of the Roman generals Vespasian and his son Titus and was released. Eventually he was sent to Rome where, adopting the name Flavius, the family name of Vespasian and Titus, he lived under protection of the Roman emperors and devoted himself to study and writing. His two major works, The Jewish War and The Antiquities of the Jews, are major sources of information on the Jews and Judaism in the Greek and Roman periods.

9. The account of the siege and conquest of the fortress of Masada is found in Josephus, The Jewish War, Book VII, chapters VIII-IX. Josephus’s account of the Roman assaults on Herodium and Machaerus are in Book VII, chapter VI. For a modern account of the siege of Masada, see Yigael Yadin, Masada: Herod’s Fortress and the Zealots’ Last Stand, trans. Moshe Pearlman (London, 1966). Professor Yadin led the expedition which excavated Masada in 1963-65.

10. For a detailed account of these developments within Judaism, see R. M. Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought (New York, 1980), 243 ff.

11. The tensions between Jews and Christians and between Jewish Christians and gentile Christians are reported in Acts 1-15 and in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

12. Jaroslav Pelikan uses the expression “correction-and-fulfillment” in his description of the church’s quest for a tradition in The Christian Tradition, Vol. I: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 100-600 (Chicago, 1971), 15.

13. Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165 CE), relying on the account of Papias, refers to the Gospel of Mark as the memoirs of Peter. Also, see comment by Clement of Alexandria in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 14 in A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. II Fathers of the Second Century (Michigan, 1956), 580: “Peter having preached the word publicly at Rome, and by the Spirit proclaimed the gospel. Those who were present, who were numerous, entreated Mark inasmuch as he had attended him from an earlier period and remembered what had been said, to write down what had been spoken. …”

14. This view of Mark in general follows the interpretation suggested by W. Kelber in The Kingdom in Mark. Kelber interprets several events–crossing the sea, exorcising, healing—as having symbolic meaning which the disciples failed to discern. Indeed, Kelber identifies a “voyage” pattern in Mark which he maintains has a symbolic meaning—that Jesus intended to break with Judaism. Werner H. Kelber, The Kingdom in Mark: A New Place and a New Time (Philadelphia, 1974), 50ff.

15. See John C. Fenton, The Gospel of St. Matthew (Baltimore, 1963), 14f.

16. Apparently many of the Jewish Christians left Jerusalem just prior to the siege, taking refuge in Pella to the north across the Jordan. Some eventually returned to Jerusalem; others remained in the upper Galilee. In any event, the Jewish war and subsequent events seem to have accentuated the estrangement of the Jewish Christians from the community of Jews.

17. In this period the term rabbi came into general use as the designation of a sage. The sages at Jamnia summarized the teachings of the earlier schools of the great rabbis Hillel and Shammai. In approximately 90 CE they completed the official canonization of the Jewish scriptures. See Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought, 247.

18. According to N. Perrin, “The gospel of Matthew is the first book in the New Testament.… It is very much a ‘church book,’ written specifically to meet the needs of the church as a developing organization.… It provided a basis on which the church could build its life.” Norman Perrin, The New Testament, An Introduction (New York, 1974), 169.

19. In Luke 1:3, “It seemed good to me also, … to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,” and in Acts 1:1, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.”

20. Irenaeus (ca. 140-202 CE), the Muratorian Canon (ca. 200 CE), Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE), Tertullian (150-220 CE), Origen (184-254 CE), and Jerome (347-420 CE) all assume that Luke was the companion and colleague of Paul and the author of both Luke and Acts. However, it is difficult to reconcile the inconsistencies between Paul’s letters and Luke’s account of Paul in the Acts of the Apostles. It would appear that the author of Luke/Acts did not actually know Paul firsthand, but in Acts he placed him centrally in the development of early Christianity. Paul’s letters are not mentioned in Acts. This problem and others are discussed in Leander E. Keck and J. Louis Martyn, eds., Studies in Luke-Acts (Philadelphia, 1980). For a detailed analysis of Luke’s theology, see Hans Conzelmann, The Theology of St. Luke, trans. G. Buswell (New York, 1961).

21. For a discussion of the three stages in Luke’s reconstruction of salvation history, see Conzelmann, Theology of St. Luke, 202-206.

22. Paul’s harsh words against the “Judaizers” are found in his letter to the Galatians, especially in 2:14; 5:7, 12.

23. See Perrin, New Testament, p. 249f, for a discussion of the Johannine School. On the problem of the authorship of John, see William D. Davies, Invitation to the New Testament (New York, 1969), chap. 30; Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, trans. Kendrick Grobel, Vol. II (New York, 1955), chap. 1; Charles H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge, 1963), appendix; Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds., The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1968), Vol. II, 414ff; Charles M. Laymon, ed., The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible (Nashville and New York; 1971), 707ff.

24. For an analysis of similarities and differences between John and the Synoptics, see Ernest C. Colwell and Eric L. Titus, The Gospel of the Spirit (New York, 1953), 30-41.

25. Ibid., 21f.

26. A valuable analysis of the Josephus passages as well as the references in Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger is found in Joseph Klausnet, Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Herbert Danby (New York, 1925), Book I, Sec. II. Also in Book I, Sec. I, Klausner analyzes early references to Jesus and the Christians in Jewish sources, the Talmud and Midrash. He also considers the treatment afforded the ancient references to Jesus by modern Jewish and Christian historians. Klausner regards the first Josephus statements in Antiquities as authentic in part—in their basic references to Jesus as a wise man—but having a later Christian interpolation. He considers the second reference to be entirely authentic.

27. Several English language editions of these writings are available. A convenient recent edition which includes work by Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and others is Cyril C. Richardson, ed. and trans., Early Christian Fathers, Vol. 1 of The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia, 1953).