In our June, 1956 issue of The Differentiator (Vol. 18, No. 3) some four pages (pp. 126—129) were devoted to a discussion of the question when were the Four Gospels written. This was confined to the context of the paper of which it formed a part; but, as the subject is of very great importance, a further examination of it would be profitable.
What do we really know about the chronological order of the Greek Scriptures? The answer is: Very little, though there are masses of conjectures.
Here and there are given a few indications which help us to estimate the chronological order of Paul's Epistles; but nearly all these estimates are based on reasoning about such indications, and could easily be overthrown if new data were to appear as the result of excavations in Palestine. Within the lifetime of many of us the "assured result of modern criticism" that writing was unknown at the time of Moses has been overthrown by Archaeological research; and any day further discoveries may do likewise with other "assured" results.
The earliest direct evidence we have is a fragment of Papias, who wrote in the first half of the Second Century. Our knowledge of it comes from a quotation by Eusebius, much later, which shows that he knew the Gospels of Matthew and Mark; but unfortunately his statement is mixed with so much that is patently erroneous that, beyond this, it is of little value. Nevertheless, that four gospels, and only four, were acknowledged as authoritative from the very first is certain. For this we have the evidence of Ireriaeus (about A.D. 180), Clement of Alexandra and Tertullian. The Muratorian Fragment is defective regarding Matthew; but it gives a few words about Mark. That it recognized the existence of Matthew is evident, "for it proceeds to describe what it calls the third book of the Gospels, that by Luke, whom it states to. have been a companion of Paul, but not to have himself seen our Lord in the flesh, mention being made that he commenced his history from the nativity of John the Baptist. The fourth Gospel it states to have been written by St. John. . . . ." (Salmon: "Introduction to the New Testament," p. 48. This work should be read by anyone who is interested in this subject, as all, indeed, ought to be). Incidentally; he mentions (p. 49) that Irenaeus builds an argument on the words of a text in Matthew's Gospel in such a way as to show that he was a believer in the verbal inspiration of the account.
Beyond these we have little or no reliable information about the composition of the Gospels other than what we can deduce from their texts themselves. How precarious is such deduction can be discovered by anyone who cares to follow the complex controversies which rage over the Synoptic Problem. This problem centres around the well-known fact that the first three Gospels have a great deal of matter in common. In places there is even verbal coincidence. On the other hand there are wide divergences and sometimes (according to the critics) flat contradictions. The main reason for these apparent contradictions is easily seen. Nearly everyone assumes—without proof, needless to say—that two similar accounts are different accounts of the same event. I know of only two original students of the past who managed to emancipate themselves from this strange and most unscientific illusion, Dr. Bullinger and his predecessor Dr. William Sewell (see his book "The Microscope of the New Testament"). The former's "Companion Bible" clears up many of these problems, though some remain, awaiting the researches of whoever has the honour to be called to this task; though it is quite likely that much preliminary spade-work in the way of more accurate translation will first be necessary.
An outstanding example of this illusion is the almost universal identification of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew with the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. To identify them is to proclaim that either Matthew or Luke, or even both, reported the Lord's original discourse very inaccurately. Why not take the common-sense view and assume instead that the Lord Jesus repeated at' a later date and in a different context some of the matter previously set out? This removes all difficulties at a stroke. After all, why not? Why assume tacitly that somehow He was under bond never in any circumstances to repeat anything He had said before? What could be more unreasonable and unlikely?
Efforts, more or less plausible, to explain away these divergencies; and the difficulty has been made a stage more remote by assuming that, as Mark is silent about these Sermons, Matthew and Luke collected their accounts of them from different sources, an.d that the differences between them are more apparent than real, and that they are one, not two, after all. Even if they be deemed fairly successful, that does not prove that they are necessary.
There are, however, other difficulties invented by the critics which are not so readily disposed of. The classic example is the account, or accounts, of the blind men of Jericho (Matt. 20:29-34; Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43). Almost universally is it assumed that these are three accounts of one and the same happening. One quite conservative writer says: "Here Mk. adds a good deal of detail to Mt. though mentioning only one blind man, he knows his name and his father's, and calls him a beggar. ... Mt. conversely adds to Mk., for he gives two beggars, and adds further that Jesus touched their eyes." Another suggestion is that one blind man was healed as Christ entered, and another as He left, and Matthew combines the first with the second. Yet another is that there were two Jerichos, old and new; and Luke means that Jesus was approaching New Jericho and Matthew and Mark that He was leaving Old Jericho. A third remarks that "the inspiration of the Evangelists did not extend to minutiae of this sort." This last is altogether too much to swallow. If it does not matter whether the Lord was entering or leaving Jericho, whether one or two were healed, whether He called them Himself or commanded others to, whether He spoke to them or touched them; then what would matter? Other suggestions which propose the addition of details which none of the accounts mention or even hint at are equally inadmissible. In fact, there are only two alternatives: either these are accounts of three distinct and different events or at least two of the accounts are so inaccurate as to be unreliable as historical documents. And the trouble with this second alternative is that we have no, means whatever of determining which of the three is the reliable one, even supposing that some one of them is. In other words, we cannot be certain of the historical truth of either Matthew, Mark or Luke.
Dr. Bullinger set out particulars of these three accounts with
admirable clarity in Appendix 152 of the Companion Bible, and there is
little we can profitably add to it; so we may quote his closing comment
regarding one commentator who says: "It is better to accept them as
varying accounts of one single incident":—
"True, we cannot harmonize 'one man' and 'two men' without
If, then, the Divine narratives are "Divine" at all; we have no choice but to believe them as they stand.
abandoning all idea of inspiration. We submit therefore that
'it is better' to take all the details as being evidences of the
minutest perfection, and avoid both artificial and superficial
dealing with the Divine narratives."
One of the finest books ever written on this theme is "The Microscope of the New Testament" by Dr. William Sewell, published by Rivingtons; London, Oxford, and Cambridge; 1878. The section on "The Last Scenes of our Lord's Life" is particularly important. Here I would like to indicate a precis of his findings on Pilate's questions and the three demands of the Jews for Christ's crucifixion. He points out that Matthew, Mark and Luke each seem to give separate and special details. He adds:—"Sometimes they unite together, but most frequently are entirely distinct. When all three accounts are put together they 'fall into a very wonderful harmony, and present us with a full view of the' prolonged struggle between the Roman Governor and his opponents." Here we will set out the scheme in order in which the passages. should be read:—
First comes Mark 15:8-11. Sewell then remarks: "This offer of Christ's release had been previously made by Pilate to the Chief Priests. They rejected it and demanded Barabbas, and now were endeavouring during a considerable time to alter the feelings of the multitude towards Jesus, and to induce them to demand Barabbas. Pilate now ascends the bema or tribunal, apparently for the purpose of officially releasing the prisoner demanded by the ochlos (the multitude), and summons all the parties among the assembly to come before him." Then comes a brief parallel: the first part of Matt. 27:17 and Luke 23:13, and then the rest of Matt. 27:17-20. Here Sewell remarks: "Probably at this point the message of his wife was brought to Pilate, for from this time he appears desirous to let Jesus go." Then comes Luke 23:14-19, then Matt. 27:21-23, then Luke 23:20, 21 then Mark 15:12-14, then Luke, 23:22, 23, then Matt. 27:24, 25. Here follows the account of Pilate's attempt to save the Lord Jesus, given in John's Gospel; and finally the narrative closes with three parallel passages: Matt. 27:26, Mark 15:15 and Luke 23:24, 25.
Thus set out, we get the question by Pilate asking what evil the Lord Jesus has done, three times: in Matt. 27:23, Mark 15:14 and Luke 23:22. Moreover, the answer, truly given, in Matthew is "Let Him be crucified," in Mark it is the aorist active "Crucify Him"; but in Luke it is Middle, "You crucify Him" or "Have Him crucified."
This matter could be pursued at very great length, and is: by Sewell, but here enough has been said to make the point.
One consequence follows at once. The number of passages coincident in two or three gospels is by this method of procedure drastically reduced in one stroke, and with them goes much of the Synoptic Problem. When, and only when, this line of research has been carried out in a completely satisfactory way and we are able to set out the four gospels in parallel columns in order; it will become possible to study the Synoptic Problem really scientifically. Meanwhile discussion of it is little better than beating the air; but some tentative remarks may here be put forward stating the position as far as it seems plain at present.
If it be true that Mark (as Papias declared) is largely a transcript of the Apostle Peter's verbal teaching; the little amplifications and comments which abound in it and which indicate the eye witness, and read more like a speech than a written treatise, are readily explained. Moreover we get at once a rational explanation of the matter common to the first three gospels. A considerable part of them must have been told and retold over and over again by the Apostles Matthew. and Peter and, no doubt, the others, while they were being written down, copied and circulated everywhere; and the same applies to the material which Luke gathered from various authorities. When the same incident or discourse was being related, it is hardly surprising that the same words should occasionally have been recorded.
Why this common matter should have been reiterated can be investigated only when we know for certain exactly what it amounts to. Possibly this inquiry may yield us much fresh light. There will also have to be comparative study of differing accounts of what is certainly the same event; that is to say, why one writer should feature one particular point which the other leaves out. This has often been attempted, but seldom if ever with complete scientific objectivity. There is, I am certain, a great deal yet to be discovered about the aim of each Gospel.
Almost unanimously students of the Synoptic Problem assume that the later writers copied from the earlier. Since they do not know, and therefore have to assume, which of any pair was the earlier; it becomes necessary to spin theories to. explain why certain things were (supposedly) copied, but not others; the theories varying according to the assumed order of composition. Generally, Mark is placed earliest, because it is the briefest and is supposed to be the most simple; and so it is assumed that the others copied from it. Other supposed sources, "Q" and "Proto-Luke," are also postulated; but have shown no sign of ever having existed as tangible documents. The supposed copying from Mark still does not explain the quite numerous things the others did not copy from it or why they copied only some of the presumed original. An excellent example, culled at random, will be found at Matt. 17:17-20, Mark 9:19-29, Luke 9:41-43. Here the supposedly brief Mark gives by far the longest account. Matthew adds three items and Luke, one. Immediately after this comes another parallel, Matt. 17:22, 23, Mark 9:30-32, Luke 9:43-45—the same incident, three largely different accounts which, however, do not contradict one another in any way.
Yet another parallel is to be found between Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:29-44, John 12:12-19. The way these complement one another is very instructive. And, this time, it is not the "Synoptic Gospels" which are synoptic, but Mark, Luke and John.
Mark's brevity is largely due to the number of things, related by Matthew and Luke, which he leaves out. Where he sets out his own account of the same matter as they relate, he is not specially brief. And, anyhow, why should the briefest Gospel be on that account the earliest? The estimated chronological order of Paul's epistles certainly does not set them in order of length or anything like it. A more irrational criterion of date is hard to imagine. We do not know the order of composition of the Gospels, and for the life of me I cannot imagine what we would gain by such knowledge if we did have it.
Nor have we the smallest evidence of when they were written. Almost universally it is taken for granted that they were written after Paul's epistles; but no reason is given except that Paul did not quote from them. But why ever should he have done so? If Paul's silence is evidence for anything, it would tend to show that his converts possessed copies of the Gospels. If they had them, there would obviously be no need to quote them in the epistles. On the other hand, it is impossible to suggest any passage from the epistles in which any quotation from the gospels would be in the least relevant. There are, however, one or two places. such as 1. Cor. 15:3-7 and Phil. 2:5-11, which imply that Paul's readers had some knowledge of the events recorded in the gospels; and it is only proper to say, too, that the whole of Paul's Evangel and the superstructure built on it depends (as indeed he states in the former passage) on a knowledge of at least the main events of the life of the Lord Jesus. It is therefore at least reasonable; and many will prefer to say, highly probable, that the gospels were in the hands of Paul's churches from the beginning.
After all, we need do no more than put ourselves in the place of these people, who were every bit as human as ourselves and probably more intelligent and certainly more sane than the average person can be in this crazy modern world. Is it likely, is it even conceivable, that the main actors in the sublime experience of the Transfiguration, the terrible drama of Gethsemane; the disciples who heard the marvellous words of the Lord Jesus and who lived through the appalling horror of His betrayal and death and the wonder of His resurrection and ascension—that those who had beheld all these events should not, for years and years, commit their experiences to writing? Yet we are supposed to believe this strange notion; not on grounds of anything so rational as probability or ordinary human experience; but, forsooth, because these people were (according to our teachers, but nobody else outside a lunatic asylum) expecting the immediate end of the world! Can anything more utterly ridiculous be imagined? They were not a crowd of superstitious savages, but Jews well versed in the ancient prophecies of Messiah and the reign of glory He would one day inaugurate on earth. "A pandemonium followed by a bonfire," as Sir Robert Anderson summed-up that sort of theory, was the very last thing they would have expected.
There is hardly any need to trouble to set out proofs of this point, for it stands out vividly from the pages of Scripture. Even if we were to assume that the Ascension left the disciples bewildered, so that the only thing their puzzled minds could expect was the end of the world; this assumption would not stand for one moment against the history recorded in Acts. For consider the question the disciples asked their risen Lord—just before His Ascension, mind you—"Lord, art Thou at this time restoring the Kingdom to Israel?" Now place this beside the opening, at Luke 1:32, 33, of his earlier account, Surely, there is nothing more to be said, nothing more that anyone can say, if the Kingdom which the disciples were expecting was, in fact, the end of the world.
No trace of such an idea is to be found in Peter's first speech or in any speech recorded in Acts. Indeed, the word "world" itself is absent from Acts except in one passage, Acts 17:24, where Paul told the Athenians that God made the world and all in it, not that He was going to bring it to an end.
Much of the current misunderstanding of the gospels results from misconceptions of the purpose of those who wrote them. Yet, surely, nothing could be plainer and no explanation could be more reasonable than that given by John in John 20:30, 31. Much of its point comes from the immediately preceding words uttered by the Lord Jesus to the Apostle Thomas (v. 29). That is the lot of the overwhelming majority who have seen the gospels, of all who were never actual witnesses of the Lord's ministry. The golden thread running through the whole of the Greek Scriptures is FAITH. The verb believe, pisteuO, occurs more often in John's Gospel than in the other three and Acts together. On the other hand, faith, pistis, does not occur at all in John's Gospel and only 24 times in the other three and 16 in Acts; but it occurs as frequently as all these together in Romans and a good many times in the other epistles.
The fact that Jesus Christ had become Servant of circumcision for the sake of God's truth (Rom. 15:8), that He was not commissioned but for the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 15:24), must not be allowed to confuse this truth in our minds. We must not fail to distinguish between the reason for His ministry itself and the reason for the records of His ministry. He was minister for one purpose; His ministry was recorded for another. One of the unfortunate consequences of over-preoccupation with "dispensational" matters has been this particular confusion. As records, the gospels and Acts are as much for us as Paul's Epistles are as doctrine; even though doctrinally the gospels must take second place to them. We must ever keep in mind that the Lord Jesus Himself warned His disciples that there was much which He could not tell them Himself, and that when the Spirit of the truth came He would be guiding them into all the truth (John 16:12-15); so there should not be for us any thing in the least surprising in the primacy of the epistles from this standpoint. But this does not mean that doctrinally the gospels are unimportant, but simply that in some respects, though not all, they are irrelevant to us as believers made righteous in uncircumcision.
A very simple, yet important, instance of the essentialness of the Gospel records for us is Matthew 13. The pronouncement of Matt. 13:14, 15, and the eight parables which follow, are vitally important information for us; because, although the pronouncement was to the disciples about Israel, it was for us in that if it had never been made the Evangel of the uncircumcision could never have come into existence. If it had not been for us, there could never have been anything else for us, because until it occurred Israel's primacy was intact and there was, and could be, no other people to come within the scope of God's revelation except Israel and those who approached Him as proselytes through Israel. This is not to declare. that it was not uttered to and for the elect out of Israel, the disciples; but simply that it was too far-reaching to be for them only.
That is true for many things in those parts of Scripture which belong primarily to Israel. The classic example of this is the account of how Abraham believed God. As set out in the Hebrew Scriptures, including the Hebrews Epistle, this all leads up to Israel's covenant, promises and hopes, summing-up in Heb. 11:8-19. Only when Paul probes beneath the surface in Romans 4 do the full implications of Abraham's history appear. These transform it, one might almost say transfigure it; yet they detract in no way whatever from what in it belongs exclusively to Abraham's seed according to flesh.
Israel's great crisis in Matt. 13:14, 15, although primarily concerning them, is also something which vitally affects us. And this crisis is in Matthew 13 and not Acts 28. Paul explains what really are its implications in great detail in Romans 9-11 and, in particular, in Rom. 11:15. It is very foolish to declare that the quotation of Isa. 6:9-10 in Matthew 13 is not for us because it is in one of the Gospels; but that in Acts 28 is for us—this last in the face of the fact that it is not addressed to Gentiles at all, but specifically to Jews. Acts begins with a plain hint which many in their conceit have pointedly ignored. If there had been any hope at all then of an immediate restoration of the Kingdom to Israel, there would have been no need for the Lord Jesus to decline to, answer the question in Acts 1:6. Acts, is, as it were, folded between two references to the Kingdom (1:6 and: 28:31); and this kind of phenomenon, whenever encountered, is always of very special significance. Two outstanding examples, recently referred to in these pages, are "in flesh" in Eph. 2:11 (twice) and "in spirit" in Eph. 2:22 and 3:6. Another is "according to flesh" in Rom. 9:3 and 9:5.
When One comes to reflect on the subject, it is indeed strange that those who set such store by the supposed "dispensational frontier" at the end of Acts, which is, after all, admittedly the continuation of Luke's Gospel, should care so little for the gospels themselves and virtually write off Matthew 13 as something insignificant for ourselves. It seems most inconsistent.
These four accounts, which is what the four gospels are, were written for very definite purposes, which were not (as. some people seem to think) to minister to our curiosity. Some of these purposes are stated in Luke 1:4 and John 20:31. No doubt an expert modern journalist would have produced a very different sort of gospel, highly sensational, crammed with all sorts of attractive details, devoid of reticence, even perhaps with a "love interest," and spiritually utterly worthless. Some novelists have, indeed, presumed to such blasphemous vulgarity. Bad as those, times were, mankind did at least retain some human dignity and decency; and we may well be thankful that we are spared the hideous vulgarity of special interviews with Pilate and Caiaphas and the life story of Judas Iscariot serialized in the Sunday press. The modern world has no cause for pride.
That sort of thing, in a much milder form, has been performed from time to time by irreverent authors of "Lives" of the Lord Jesus. It is noteworthy that such "Lives" never refer to Him by titles of reverence: they are always "of Jesus." For them, He is just material for a mass of fiction built upon a scrap of fact here and there and much conjecture to fill in the vast gaps. We can dismiss that sort of thing as dangerous rubbish; but in doing so we would do well to remember that those "believers" who despise the gospels are different only in degree from the fiction-mongers.
The epistles are the section of the Greek Scriptures most essential for us, because they contain that which has enabled us, who once were sinners of the Gentiles, to become members of the church which is Christ's body, and without which nothing else of the Scriptures could be for us. As pointed out before in these pages, we take for granted the right to hear the Evangel and the duty to proclaim it; but we possess no such right at all apart from the Apostle Paul's special commission; and his commission could never have been given to him had the Apostle Peter never unlocked the Kingdom to the Gentiles; and the Kingdom could never have been unlocked to us had there been no Pentecost; and there would never have been any Pentecost but for the birth and life and death and resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus, and the sending of the Holy Spirit; and there could never have been any Saviour had there not been any dealings and promises by God to His Covenant People.
The fallacy of those "Dispensationalists" who attempt to Test solely on the Prison Epistles is now obvious to us; but we must beware of plunging from it into another fallacy: that Paul's epistles alone matter to us. The absurdity of their fallacy is seen when we consider that it is all dependent, not upon the Prison Epistles themselves, but upon one of the concluding verses of Acts, which is itself the conclusion of one of the Gospels. Yet it is just as absurd to insist that Paul's Epistles alone matter to us; for Paul himself declared quite plainly that his Evangel was based on events recorded in the Gospels—not all of these events, admittedly; but enough to establish that it rests securely on the foundation of the gospels.
Indeed, it must so rest. One of the worst fallacies of Christendom is the claim that the Lord Jesus came to found a new religion. He did nothing of the kind, neither did the Apostle Paul. The Lord Jesus came to fulfil the Law and the Prophets directly; and He did. The first part was in His life, death and resurrection; and the second part will be in His return to His Covenant People, and the New Covenant. But what was not known to His disciples during His earthly ministry, and only hinted at in John 16:12-15, was that another aspect of the fulfilment wrought by Him was in prospect and had to be undertaken, with results utterly beyond the view of the Law and the Prophets themselves, of the Twelve, and the records in the Gospels and Acts.
Many writers have directly or indirectly blamed the Circumcisionist Party in Acts for their opposition to Paul, but wrongly and most unfairly. Within their limited vision and scope they were absolutely right! They had perceived what had, to all appearances (at any rate until well on in the history), escaped the Twelve; that something was going on which the Law and the Prophets had never visualized. To all appearances, at least; because it is highly probable, indeed I believe certain, that the Twelve were told by Paul, in his visits to: them recorded in Galatians, what was in the wind; but that they had to keep silent, as it was outside the strict commission given to them. The zeal of the Circumcisionists was commendable; but it was nevertheless mistaken, because it was not in accord with full knowledge. But for that they were not to blame—and, in fact, they are not blamed. Their actions are recorded; but they are not denounced so long as the Circumcisionists refrained from interfering with Paul's converts from the Gentiles.
In Vol. 11, No.4, p. 174 and in Vol. 13, No.2, p. 72, I pointed out in detail the facts about the Greek phrase ek peritomEs, literally, out of circumcision, which it was suggested might with propriety be rendered Circumcisionist. For our present purpose the most interesting passage in which it occurs is Rom. 4:12, where Abraham is spoken of as "father of circumcision, not only to those who are Circumcisionists, but to those also who are observing the elements by the foot-prints of the faith, in uncircumcision, of father Abraham." No word of blame for this party is found here; which is to be expected, since, when the Evangel of the circumcision is at length proclaimed, 'those who receive it will rightly be Circumcisionists. In Col. 4:10, 11, three Circumcisionists are greeted and praised by Paul. To be sure, in Titus 1:10, 11 many, "especially the Circumcisionists," are blamed—yet not for being Circumcisionists, but for wickedness. We learn from Acts 10:45 that some Circumcisionists were believers. That fact. should be enough to make us unwilling to condemn them too readily and completely.
We have to conclude that all Scripture is for our learning, and, in particular, all the Greek Scriptures; and that not least in importance for us are the gospels. But we have to study them with discrimination; as, in fact, we have to study everything worth while. Our critical faculties are given us, not that we should criticize so much as that we should discriminate, set everything in its proper place, place everything, in its proper setting. Thus, only, can we come to full knowledge of what God has, in Christ, wrought on our behalf.
As already pointed out, there are many things, which we would like to know, not disclosed in the gospels or anywhere else. For example, of the history of the Apostle Peter we know nothing after the middle of Acts except what the Apostle Paul tells us in Galatians. As mentioned in the previous paper, the close of his first epistle suggests that he wrote it from Babylon; though why he should have gone there is impossible to guess. The Roman Catholics like to think that this is a veiled way of describing his supposed sojourn in Rome; but why they should want to claim for their church what is said about Babylon in the Apocalypse is indeed a mystery.
The truth of the matter is that no reliable records of these things have been handed down to us and we have no means of finding out the answers to our questions. Let us have the humility and faith to be content with our position about this as it is, and not waste time and effort in futile and, indeed, ungodly guessing. It is not as though there were any shortage of accessible subjects awaiting our study. Some have been indicated in these pages from time to time. Let us interest ourselves in these and leave the hidden secrets till the day when God shall be pleased to reveal them to us.
R. B. WITHERS Last updated 6.2.2006