This blog is a part of the “From Testimony to Testament” blog series where we are tracing the history of how the New Testament came to be. Read the introduction here.
So, picking up where we left off, the church is starting to grow around the Roman world. The majority of churches are being founded on the oral testimony of Jesus given by the apostles and their closest associates. Yet as we get into the 50s and 60s AD the apostles are starting to be executed violently and horrifically for that testimony. It’s at this point that church leaders are probably starting to worry that without any more apostles around to care for the theology and doctrine of the church, the churches could easily go astray. It was in between the years of 50 and 90 that the Holy Spirit began to lead the gospel writers to do their holy work of capturing the life and preaching of Jesus in written form. But how did they go about writing them?
First let’s consider some procedures that are shared in the writing process of the gospels:
- The gospels were dictated or written: It’s hard to tell which procedure was used for each gospel, but either the author wrote his gospel personally or dictated it to a secretary of sorts.
- The gospels writers probably used multiple sources when compiling their gospel accounts: These sources could have been written or oral. There is scholarly consensus that the authors could have used just one or all of these:
- Eyewitness testimony from their own experience or people that they interviewed.
- Information that was in gathered from the preaching and oral testimony of the apostles
- Written sources that included sayings of Jesus and possibly the narrative of his crucifixion.
- The gospel writers probably used papyrus or parchment paper: This might not seem like a big deal, but it will become more important when we talk about textual criticism
- The Holy Spirit was intimately involved in the writing of each gospel directing every word. Not in the sense that writers were robots, but in a way that God used their personality, perspective, and style to create a unique gospel. (Note* We’ll talk much more about this when we talk about inspiration and inerrancy)
Now that we’ve referred to generalities, let’s discuss a little bit about how each unique gospel was written.
Mark – This was written in the mid to late 50s by John Mark. The majority of conservative scholars believe that this gospel was written first. We know from an early Christian, Papias (who wrote around 100 AD), that the source material for John Mark’s gospel was the direct preaching and memoirs of the apostle Peter. John Mark could have used other sources as well, but we can’t be sure.
Matthew – Matthew’s gospel was written by the apostle Matthew in the 50s or 60s. Obviously Matthew probably used some of his own eyewitness account, but more than likely also used the gospel of Mark, other written sources, and other eyewitness testimonies to fully complete the account.
Luke – Luke was written by Paul’s traveling companion named—you guessed it—Luke. The gospel of Luke was probably written between 58 and 60 AD. Since Luke provides more historic details, it becomes easier to pinpoint the date. Scholars love ancient works like Luke, because us a little bit about how he wrote it:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)
The idea is that Luke is looking over all the information like the gospel of Mark, eyewitness testimonies, written sources, and the like to compile a narrative like those before him had done. Note* This is important because it clearly shows that Luke was trying to write a narrative. There are those that think the miracle accounts aren’t supposed to be taken literally; Luke clearly didn’t get the memo.
John – The gospel of John was written in the mid 80s to early 90s. This gospel is the most unique. The tradition is that John the apostle wrote this gospel towards the end of his life. Its uniqueness probably stems from the fact that it relies the least on the sources the other gospel writers used and more on the personal testimony of the author.
These gospels did not appear out of thin air, but were written by people who were directly involved in the early spread of the church and knew the type of information that the church in their day needed. Yes, the authors certainly arranged their gospels to make certain theological points, but that shouldn’t discount the truth of them. People today still write accounts of historical events picking and choosing the content and its order to drive home certain points. This does not mean that the historical events that they recount didn’t happen.
In the next blog in this series, we will be discussing a general overview of the rest of the books of the New Testament before we move on to discussing the copying of these gospels and letters (an area that people think that the gospels fail to be reliable).
-Alex Nolette (Equip Associate)
Read the previous “From Testimony to Testament” blog here.