By way of introduction, Dr Brian Gleeson writes that this reflection "is a partial response to those questions that the Editor of Catholica, Brian Coyne, raised in the forum on August 6, 2010: 'Who, exactly is this Jesus I'm seeking? What is his "message" or "good news"? Does he have a message for all humanity?'" In today's extract we have included the last two paragraphs of Part I as introduction to this exploration of the differing styles of the four evangelists.
THE GOSPELS AS PEN-PORTRAITS OF JESUS (continued)
The gospels are more like portraits than photographs...
The evangelists (the writers of the gospels) are not reporters, chroniclers, or journalists. While they tell the story of Jesus, they are not biographers and historians in the strict modern sense. Nor are they mere compilers of inherited materials. They are rather editors, interpreters and commentators (i.e. theologians), literary artists, pastors and preachers. What they have given us are more like portraits than photographs. While each gospel is 'the good news of Our Lord Jesus Christ', it is given 'according to' the evangelist's particular perspectives and interests. While we are left in no doubt that it is the same Jesus about whom they are speaking, each one sees him through somewhat different eyes. (It should be kept in mind that, in principle, there can be more than one true portrait of a person, Jesus included.) For all the similarities in the gospels, and especially in the 'synoptic' gospels (a word which means 'seeing together') of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, there are significant differences. Each evangelist has his own special and creative approach to the person of Jesus and his work. We note, for example, differences in the ways that Matthew and Luke present the Beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:3-12 & Lk 6:20-26) and the Lord's Prayer (cf. Mt 6:9-13 & Lk 11:2-4).
Occasionally the evangelists have retrojected (thrown back) into the life of Jesus traditions from the post-Easter period, e.g. Mt 18:20. Before going on to briefly give a thumbnail sketch of the work of each of these literary artists in next week's continuation, we might keep in mind that although early on the Church attributed each of the gospels to certain persons — Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John — they are strictly speaking, anonymous. Just the same we will refer to them by the names that tradition has given them.
The gospel according to Mark was probably written for a community of Gentile Christians in Rome during the Jewish War 66-70. Generally thought to be the first gospel written (c.65), Mark does not begin with a Christmas story but with the adult Jesus. He emphasizes that Jesus is the Messiah, but a humble, hidden, misunderstood, unrecognized and suffering Messiah. He is the Son of God, acknowledged by the Father (1:11; 9:7), by evil spirits (3:11; 5:7), and by the Roman centurion at the crucifixion (15:39), but not by the general public (see e.g. 5:40; 6:2f.), the religious leaders (2:1-3:6), and sometimes not even by his own followers (4:13b). He also stresses the truth that Jesus is a prophet (spokesperson for God) of the coming of the Kingdom (the reign and rule of God), and that as such he speaks with great authority. But 'in the Bible prophets who speak truth from God can expect a turbulent life. That is very much how Mark presents Jesus', Mark emphasizes the actions of Jesus, his deeds of power and love, more than his words and teachings. He focuses especially on the human sufferings of Jesus in his passion and death, perhaps as encouragement to his Christian readers who were suffering terrible persecution at the time. The cross is the centre of his story. In fact, he so emphasizes the Passion and Death of Jesus rather than the Resurrection that in its original form his gospel ends abruptly at Mk 6:8 with the women fleeing in terror from the tomb.
The gospel according to Matthew was almost certainly written for a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians in Antioch of Syria about the year 85. Matthew depends in part on Mark, but has re-worked Mark's material. In some contrast with Mark, he stresses the role of Jesus as Teacher, Law-giver, and the Wisdom of God. There is a very Jewish feel to this gospel. In fact, Matthew presents Jesus as the New Moses, who shows people where to find God's will and how to do it, and as fulfilling and perfecting the Old Testament in his very own person. Its most distinctive feature is a series of discourses that Jesus addresses to his disciples, starting with the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew presents those discourses as instructions by the risen Lord to the church of Matthew's day. For Matthew, Jesus is God's Messiah. He is also 'Emmanuel', i.e. 'God is with us', and this from his very conception (1:23).
Luke too (also writing c.85) uses Mark of one of his basic sources, but in his own way as well. His gospel is the first of a two-volume work, the second being the Acts of the Apostles. He addresses his work to Gentiles (non-Jews), and appears concerned to make Jesus as the Jewish Messiah intelligible to his mostly Gentile readers. He emphasizes Jesus as a person of prayer. He highlights him as the gentle and compassionate friend and liberator of people who were overlooked or rejected in Jewish society at that time: sinners (7:36-50; 15:11-32; 19:1-10; 23:34, 39-43); the poor and lowly (6:20-23); and women (7:11-17; 7:36-50; 8:1-3; 8:54; 10:38; 13:10-17; 23:27-28). To all of them Jesus brings the welcome and hospitality of God. It is the underprivileged who are the recipients of God's special love through Jesus. On the other hand, this gentle and sensitive evangelist also brings out the severity of the Master towards those who abuse their wealth (6:24-26, cf:1:51-53 ; 12:13-21; 14:7-11; 16:15; 19:31; 18:9-14). He also emphasizes the central role of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus and the continuing presence of Jesus to his disciples through his Spirit after his death and resurrection. An outstanding emphasis on the role of the Spirit is in Luke Ch. 4, where Jesus reads the prophecy from Isaiah (61:1-2; 58:6), which lists the deeds the Messiah will do. He tells his audience that he is doing them already and that he has been called by God to do them. 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,' he begins.
The gospel according to John was written independently of the Synoptics about the year 100 for a community that was probably situated around Ephesus in Asia Minor. Its author is not John the apostle, the brother of James. Nor is it John of Patmos, author of the Book of Revelation (known also as the Apocalypse). Its writer is probably a close associate of the anonymous disciple called in the gospel itself 'the disciple whom Jesus loved' (13:23; 18:15-16; 19:26, 35; 20:2; 21:7, 20, 24). This 'beloved disciple', then, may be regarded as the chief source for what this gospel says.
At this stage of the development of the Christian tradition, there was a growing concern that Jesus be seen, not just as human but as divine as well. It was necessary to show that Jesus is truly human, on the one hand, so that all can be saved, but also on the other hand, to show the divine authority that he shares with the Father. Some stories in John's gospel reflect these concerns, e.g. chapters 2, 4 and 9. (They do not appear in any other gospel, but are exclusive to John).
For John, Jesus is the great Revealer of God. He is the Word of God made flesh, who came down to earth, and who 'lived among us' (1:14). 'We saw his glory,' John adds, 'the glory that he has from the Father as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth' (1:14), i.e. full of God's love and fidelity towards his people. This Word of God who became a human being is 'the light of the world' (8:12; 9:5; 12:46), 'the real light who gives light to everyone' (1:9). He is 'the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known' (1:18), 'Anyone who has seen me,' he says, 'has seen the Father' (14:9). He is 'the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world' (1:29). He is the new Temple, the house of God in his very own person (2:21). He is also 'living water' (4:10; 7:37-38). He 'gives life to anyone he chooses' (5:21). He is 'the bread of life' (6:35), in both word and sacrament. He is 'the good shepherd' who 'lays down his life for his sheep' (10:11). He is 'the resurrection', and anyone 'who believes in him', 'even though that person dies, will live' (11:25). 'I am the Way,' he says, 'I am truth and life. No one can come to the Father except through me' (14:6). 'I am the vine,' he also says, 'you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him (her), bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing' (Jn 15:5).
John's pen-portrait of Jesus reflects 'decades of prayerful, theological contemplation' of his person and significance. While it plays down some activities of Jesus (e.g. his preaching of the kingdom, his parables and his exorcisms) it develops his encounters with individuals, his questions, and the way Jesus presents himself. While it strongly presents Jesus as divine, it is a portrait filled with the details of his humanity. Because of John's stress on the incarnation, as 'the divine descent into human existence', his gospel has been labelled 'high Christology' or 'high descending Christology'.
The gospels are not the accounts of eye-witnesses...
It would be impossible for any of the gospels to have been the work of eye-witnesses, since they were not written down till long after the death of Jesus. Mark's gospel, the first to be written, did not come into existence until c.65, thirty or more years after the death of Jesus, the other gospels later still. But even though none of the evangelists were eye-witnesses of what Jesus did and said, memories of the Apostles and of others such as Mary Magdalen, the beloved disciple, Simon of Cyrene, and Cleopas, are present in their treatments of the story of Jesus as this was being passed on from one generation of Christians to another. James D.G. Dunn has something important to say about the place and value of oral traditions circulated about Jesus in the first century:
On the one hand, we should not assume that the events of Jesus' ministry and his teaching necessarily faded or became confused in the minds of the disciples who had first followed him. In societies where the spoken word was the chief means of communication, and where a large portion of education consisted in rote learning, memories were better trained and almost certainly a good deal more retentive. On the other hand, we should not assume that such oral transmission had the same quality as a tape recording today, or that the teachers of such oral traditions saw such parrot-like reproduction as their sole objective. The Gospels themselves present a different picture.
The possibility cannot be totally excluded, though some scholars today are more and more doubtful about this, that Mark was a disciple of Peter, and Luke a convert of Paul. Matthew's gospel, as we have it, is based on a previous Aramaic Matthew. John's gospel is more heavily theological than the others, and especially in the speeches which he puts on the lips of Jesus. These long, solemn and symbolic speeches are more of a construction by the author than the very words, the ipsissima verba of the Jesus of history. (But this does not mean that they do not reflect his mind and heart). The Church has consistently regarded each of the four gospels as inspired by the Holy Spirit. It has viewed the Spirit as directing the community and its spokespersons in the selection, arrangement, and presentation of the material. Each gospel follows the same general outline: 1. The baptism of Jesus; 2. The ministry in Galilee; 3. The final journey to Jerusalem; and 4. The passion, death and resurrection. In addition, Matthew and Luke include stories about the childhood of Jesus.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2010Dr Brian Gleeson CP