Production of the Gospels
I want to examine how, when and why the Gospels were produced.
I intend to work these problems from a very down to earth point
of view, asking fundamental questions about people's needs in
the environment found at the time of Christ and then using these answers
to make my «educated» guesses.
1. What was the role of «scribes»?
Any society needs some form
of «bookkeeping» : there are financial transactions, deeds,
official documents, religious documents, letters, etc. to be
written in a neat and orderly fashion. Scribes were people who
provided these services. They were secretaries, notaries and
Someone who required their services was not
necessarily unable to read or write; scribes provided texts that
were far superior in presentation to what the casual writer could
produce.They provided expert handwriting as well as grammatical and
spelling accuracy. They also knew how to express the thoughts of
others while writing a text easy to understand.
could have been used as «reporters» : people who took down what
was going on and what was being said. Their employers could then be
admirers of the speaker or religious and state authorities intent to
keep abreast of what was going on in their jurisdiction.
was the language of communication in Palestine in Jesus' time?
In Jesus' time, most inhabitants of Palestine probably
spoke the Greek of the time, known as «koine», the «common»
language, as well as their own dialect, which varied with their
particular area. At the time Hebrew was probably a mostly dead
language, still used at the Temple, but not very much elsewhere.
The Hebrew Bible had been translated into Greek in
Alexandria by 200 BC. According to tradition, this translation was accomplished
in a short time by seventy Jewish scholars, and so it
became known as the Septuagint, a term that means seventy.
Now, why was this translation necessary, if not because Hebrew was dying as a
spoken language among Egyptian Jews?
Jews did not live only in
Palestine and Egypt but all over the known World. It follows that their
original language, Hebrew,
was rather useless nearly everywhere they lived. Furthermore,
Palestine and Egypt had been
overrun by the Greeks centuries before Christ; so the «official»
language there, the one spoken by the courts, army officers,
tax collectors, rich people, etc. was certainly Greek. Business
transactions were in Greek as were the official records. In fact, some of the
Jewish books of the Roman Catholic Bible were written directly in Greek and so lack
an Hebrew version. This lack explains why they
were removed later by Jewish rabbis from their official Hebrew «Bible».
When in Jesus' time, pilgrims came to Jerusalem to pray
at the Temple, the language by which they could communicate
with other pilgrims and the locals was Greek. The Roman
authorities spoke Greek. If Jesus spoke directly to Pontius
Pilate, it would have been in Greek. This was surely the
language spoken by the Jewish authorities to the governor and
the language by which he communicated with the crowd. The three
languages of the Cross were Latin (to signal that the sentence
was handed down by the Roman governor), Hebrew (to spite the
Temple Priests) and Greek (to be understood by most who could
So when it came time to write down what Jesus
did or said, and later what His followers did or said, it had
to be in Greek. Any other language would have had very limited
use. So why it is so improbable to many that the Gospels would
have been written in Greek from the beginning? Who knows, the
Sermont on the Mount might have been given in Greek also. Is
not this as plausible as Aramaic?
that Jesus' followers writting in Greek does not entail
their immersion in Greek culture any more than the use of English in
India, for instance, entails that its peoples know or accept
the English culture. Greek was just their language of
communication. Using the Septuagint meant that Jews could
keep their identity and religion while using the Greek language.
After all, the Gospels' writers could not have been exposed to Greek ideas
even if they wrote in Greek as this would have required
them to be part of the idle rich.
The Septuagint, have I said, is a Greek translation of the
Hebrew Scriptures made by Jewish scholars two hundred years before Christ.
Unfortunately, the Greek text they produced is somewhat erroneous
and thus does not say exactly the same
thing as the original Hebrew. This is one of the reasons the
Jewish Scholars later rejected it. On the other hand, it has been
shown that the various Gospel writers usually quote the Septuagint
version as they quote the bad Greek translations of the original Hebrew.
This again seems to reinforce the idea that they would have
worshipped in Greek rather than Hebrew, and thus would have used the
Septuagint as their «Hebrew» Scriptures.
The fact that the Gospel writers refer to the Jewish Scriptures in
their Septuagint version is the first reason
why I will from now on
refer to the Hebrew Scriptures as the Septuagint. The second is that
my Church, the Roman Catholic, recognizes as part of Scripture all the
Jewish books that formed the Septuagint in Jesus' time. The third is
that I want to avoid the term «Old Testament» to describe these books
as I find this term derogatory to the Jewish people: the term «Old» is
not meant here as a term of fondness; on the contrary, it implies that
that their Scriptures are passé, «history».
3. When and
why were the Gospels written?
I do not see how the
time of writing of the Gospels can be dissociated from their
purpose. Texts cost money, they require «paper» and a scribe.
It is thus something that is produced only when there is a real
The followers of Jesus were not all poor; and some
were educated. Scribes are mentioned constantly in the Gospels.
They were there to take down what was said, at least the same day
as it was said. Obviously not everything that Jesus said was
written down. But what some considered most relevant was taken
down during His ministry, just as was done for the Prophets. It follows
that the core of Jesus' sayings and actions were written down during His lifetime,
in one form or another, but obviously not in the form of our Gospels.
Soon after Jesus's death and resurrection the disciplines
started preaching outside Jerusalem and Palestine. And quickly
their followers were thrown out of their old synagogues. What
were they to do?
They needed their own places to meet
for prayer as well as their own prayer services. They kept
using the Septuagint which they read not only as predicting Jesus'
actions, death and resurrection but also
as the basis of Jesus' teaching.
But if Jesus was what made them outsiders to the Jews,
and if the Septuagint was the Book of the Jews, doesn't it
follow that Christians needed a sacred book that would
distinguish them from the Jews? The story of Jesus was what convinced
them to become Christians. This story caused them to be
kicked out of their synagogues, frowned upon by their friends
and attacked as trouble-makers. Was it not imperative that
this story be written down for use as a written witness to Jesus?
So the Christians' ejections
from the Jewish synagogues would have forced the writing of
the Gospels in their present form.
It is also the case that
Christians preachers needed authoritative texts on why one should be (or become)
a Christian as they started to preach far and wide.
You try to convince the people of the Book by a
book, the one of the Good News.
The way the message was
quickly disseminated in different towns and villages, East and
West, and in different countries by a lot of different people
makes it more likely that the Christian Book would differ
according to the region and the «writer»; but I believe that
the four Gospels that all the Christian Churches consider authoritative form a
coherent whole, without any inherent contradiction as far as
the essential points. That the Gospel texts do not agree word for word on
lots of sayings of Jesus does not worry me. What would worry me
is if they would have to be interpreted in such a fashion that a
fundamental contradiction would appear.
As time goes by
the more likely it becomes that outside influence, different in each community,
would interfere with the final texts, causing ever greater
discrepancies. Great variants could mean that
the texts would have been a long time evolving before finding
their present form. We could thus find fundamental contradictions
between the Gospels.
Some important Christian preachers
met in Jerusalem around 45 A.D. No disagreement regarding the
story and sayings of Jesus is found in the Acts' report of this
meeting. Furthermore none is mentionned during the time of the
writing of the various Canonical Epistles or of those of the
The only problem for the proclamation
of the Gospel that needed to be addressed at Jerusalem around
45 A.D. had to do with the degree of Judaisation that pagans
had to fulfil to become Christians. As this problem is not
treated by Jesus in any of the Gospels, the major players
in the proclamation of the Gospel needed to meet to decide
what to do about something not covered by their sacred books.
Indeed Jesus did not say that one was to do away with
circumcision as this is not one of the prescriptions of the
Law that He either did away with or changed by something else.
Both He and His apostles had been circumcised. On the other
end, circumcision applied to Jews only as it differentiated
them from goyim. So
a debate followed.
No Gospel author
invented a story where Jesus solves this problem. Luke, for
instance, could have done so instead of having Peter and Paul
debate it in the Acts of the Apostles. This he obviously could not have
done if he had finished his Gospel years before or, of course, if
he was truthful and honest.1
It has been noted that Paul's expectation of the end of
the world changes as he gets older. While in his first letters
he suggests that it will happen very soon, he admits his ignorance
in his last ones. Jesus seems to say that the end will be
soon.2 Editorial changes could have
been done to correct such passages. This again requires
dishonesty as well as late writing.
For all these reasons, I conclude that all the Gospels were in their
final form by 38 A.D. at the very latest. But I do acknowledge that this conclusion is
totally at odds with all the biblical scholars. So I will try
to show that their dates (something like two generations later)
are not at all believable.
I consider that
all four Gospels had to exist in their final form at the very
latest around 65 A.D. as there is no mention of the siege of
Jerusalem or the destruction of the Temple, facts that would
have been mentioned as they were the proof that the Old Covenant
was naught and that Jesus was right.
The author of the
Acts of the Apostles, who states that he also wrote the Gospel according to Luke,
describes events up to around 62 A.D. Even the Book of Revelation
does not mention the destruction of the Temple, something that
would have fitted very well in such a book. So it is a fair bet
that the whole of the texts of the New Testament were written
before 65 A.D.
I know that this is not what is generally
accepted by biblical scholars; but I just do not see how people
would have waited even 30 years to produce the Gospels : that
is a exceedingly long time. By then the Gospel was being
preached in probably more than a hundred places. All that
without any books?
I consider that the reading of
Paul's letters to congregations started after that of the
Gospels. These letters would first have been read only to
their intended recipients, and certainly not over and over.
Copies were then made available to other congregations as
they were highly thought of. While this process is described
in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, there is no mention
of such a process about the Gospels. Why? Because their
introduction was not news as they had been read from the
This is also why Paul does not mention
it as such. He mentions teaching the «Good News» which he
himself received. This could refer to the teaching found in a
book, though, I must admit, not necessarily. But why is it that it does not
matter who preaches, Appolo or Paul? Is it because the same
message, the same «Good News», the same book is expanded upon
by one or the other? Rabbis taught in their synagogues after
prayer with and reflexion on a text of Scripture; would not
Christian preachers have done the same? Would they not have
reflected on a written passage from the Gospels in whatever
shape it was then? The Jews read
from the Torah in their services;
would not Christians have done the same from their Holy Book,
whether we call it Gospels or the Apostles' reminiscences as
Julian Martyr did?
It is said that the reflexions found
in the Gospel of John require it to be of late date. I do not
see why. The later a document like a Gospel appears after the
others, the more it would be looked upon with suspicion.
John's main objective is to make crystal clear the fact
that Jesus is the embodiment of God, God's Expression, God's
Word. He considers that this point was not emphasized enough
by his fellow Gospel writers. He assumes that his readers
already know the Synoptics as he does not mention the sayings
of Jesus already found there as long as he finds them well
reported. But, as a first-hand
he corrects and complements
Gospels were all written before 40 A.D., there would indeed be some
witnesses to the actual events to consult and to vouch for their
accuracy on the essential points.5
It certainly makes sense to assume that those who had been part
of Jesus' group during His lifetime and believed in Him after
His resurrection would have wanted to report what Jesus said and
did and what He meant to them. Those people would have wanted
their experience of Him put down for others. We are not here
talking about a trivial event like the death of a ruler or the
fall of a city or even a great event like the destruction of the
Temple, but about something they considered crucial to them and
others, a matter of life or death for all.
Jesus proclaimed is fundamentally different
from most of the Septuagint.
The claims He made about Himself are either true or false : if
they are false, He is mad; if they are true, He is the most
important human in history. As His followers were certain that
He was that Human, they could not wait to write His sayings
down nor could they start inventing them (which means very simply
lying about Him). So His claims have to be His.
this argument does not guarantee absolute textual fidelity. I
do not go as far as suggesting that we have in the Gospels the
actual words of Jesus but rather that the Gospel text is a
satisfactory report of what He said and did, written by someone
who had had the chance to hear the same message given many
times as Jesus preached from community to community as well as
having had the chance to ask Him questions privately.
In conclusion, it seems to me that the reporting of Jesus' life,
death and resurrection was for His followers a pressing business.
They could not wait to cap the Septuagint by the Story that made
sense of it all, that revealed God in His infinite Mercy.
4. Do the Gospels make any difference?
Many will say that my analysis so far is flawed. Scholars all
seem to agree that my time frame is wrong. If the scholars' time
frame is right, the gospels' value as authentic documents is
This point has been demonstrated by Crossan's experimental
analysis of the process by which a story is passed on orally
and how the actual words used each time vary in a quite remarkable
way. From that it follows that the last oral version
can be considered to represent but only vaguely the
original. So between my arguments which would permit me to date
the Synoptic Gospels before 35 A.D. and the John Gospel
before 37 A.D. while being all based on earlier written documents so
that they can all be considered truthful, and those of them who would date them
after the 70 A.D. if not well after, there is a choice: either these texts can be
truthful, or they are quite doubtful.
Either the gospels are telling
us the truth about Jesus' ministry concerning all the essentials
or they do not. Countless humans in the span of twenty centuries
have lived their lives in accordance with Jesus' ministry as
stated in the Gospels; theirs have been lives spent in peace,
joy and effective work for their fellow humans; theirs have
been lives that have been looked at with awe by many who, though
unable to follow suit, sensed their inner value and admired
those who could live in such a way.
There must be something
in the Gospels that is of great intrinsic value if those who
live according to them live more fully than those who do not,
if those who follow their sayings are transformed by them and
so ready to suffer pain and death to remain faithful to it.
The early Christians did not fight to protect either
themselves or their religion, unlike the Jews of about a century
before6 or the Muslims of about
six centuries later.7 The early
Christians espoused complete non-violence, just like Jesus had
before. They were persecuted and they flourished under persecution
as the witness of their lives brought people to believe in the
How can these lives, based as they are on
the Gospels, really be based on nothing but lies, fairy tales and
inventions of a group of men who, just some time after Jesus'
death according to them, were so scared that they were living in
hiding? Where did they find this courage to preach what they
said was the truth? Were did they find the perseverance to go
on in the face of hardship and persecution? Why did they manage
to convert people to their message? This message was not an easy
one to follow; there was nothing to gain in the short term.
Conversion to the life of the Gospels is simple to
understand if they are God's authentic message : in them Jesus
says very clearly that He (God Incarnate, the Expression of
the Father) gives His followers the strength they need to live
like Him.8 These texts say that
God Himself supports His followers, fashions them like Him.
These identify the Agent for that change in these individuals.
But if the Gospels are all deceit, why are they effective?
Where does the strength to change come from? If the Gospels
misrepresent Jesus, they very simply tell lies. Can saintly
lives be built on lies? Perhaps, but is it very likely?
What I have just said does not imply that the Qur'an is a lie
or that a proper reading of the
Septuagint, as done by the great rabbis,
is unable to provide people with a saintly
way of life. I can accept that Muhammad got revelations from
God by the intermediary of the Archangel Gabriel. I joyfully acknowledge
that a great many Muslims live saintly lives, just like
a great many Jews and
Atheists for that matter.
Indeed God speaks to all who want to hear Him,
each in a different way. God does not demand uniformity but on the contrary
loves diversity, as His creation clearly shows. No two people are alike, no two
lives are alike and God never acts in the exact same way twice.
This said, I am not a Muslim, a Jew or an Atheist but a Roman
Catholic Christian, and it is my Christian faith and my
Holy Books that concern me here.
Disagreeing with some of the statements made in this
Chapter is not of great consequence on the next except for
one exceedingly important point. It is
based on the premiss that the Greek Gospel texts of Matthew,
Mark, Luke and John are trustworthy as they inform us correctly
about what Jesus preached and did inasmuch as these help our
understanding of Him and His message. If this is not true, there is
no point in being a member of one of the Christian Churches and
of following Jesus' «message» as it is simply false.
1 something that many modern scholars find
difficult to believe
2 For example:
«And then shall they see the
Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And
when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift
up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. And he spake
to them a parable;
Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; When
they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that
summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these
things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at
hand. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away,
till all be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away: but
my words shall not pass away.»
(Luke 21:27-33) This texts fits
better with the earlier Pauline writings.
3 «And he that saw it bare record, and his
record is true: and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye might
believe.» (John 19:35)
4 I show in Life, Love and Law that
John seemed to have assumed the knowledge of the Gospel of Luke.
That Luke and John would have worked together makes a certain
sense as Luke mentions events relating to Mary, whom John took on
as his mother after Good Friday and as John's Prologue has much
in common with Luke's three Gospel Canticles. They also both
categorically claim to have been witnesses to the events of
Jesus' public life which they describe.
5 much as Luke describes in the opening passage
of his Gospel: «Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth
in order a declaration of those things which are most surely
believed among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which
from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;
It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of
all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most
excellent Theophilus, That thou mightest know the certainty of
those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.» (Luke 1:1-4)
6 The Macchabees, for instance, fought for
their faith, killing their goyim oppressors
as well as the Jewish traitors
to their faith.
7 Muhammad fought his oppressors and won wars
8 For instance:
«At that time Jesus answered and
said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord
of heaven and earth, because
thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast
revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed
good in thy sight. All things are delivered unto me of my Father:
and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth
any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son
will reveal him. Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy
laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and
learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall
find rest unto your souls.For my yoke is easy, and my burden
is light.» (Matthew 11:25-30)
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Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, June 6th, 2004
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