When you read the gospels, do you think about where they came from? If we think about it at all, we might suppose that they are a hodge-podge of memories, wishful thinking and maybe even some flight of fancy as things were passed by word of mouth from person to person and grew over time.
We know (mostly) who wrote the particular book – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. John was believed to be an apostle of Jesus. Matthew is traditionally believed to be one of Jesus’ apostles – the tax collector whom Jesus called in Matthew 9:9.
Mark was not an apostle but was an associate of Peter. Papias of Hierapolis lived 60-130AD and did not know the apostles personally but wrote down comments made by apostles and disciples that he met. One such recollection was written around 110AD about a conversation with John the Elder, a disciple of Jesus from about 30 years before. He said that “The Elder used to say: Mark, in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he recalled from memory.”
Luke was a doctor and companion of Paul who we meet several times in the book of Acts on their travels. In his introduction to Luke, he says that he investigated everything in order to write an orderly account.
One thing that is quite startling is how many early fragments of the New Testament there are. The earliest fragments are from the gospel of John (known as Papyrus (P)90), the gospel of Matthew (P104), both dated to the 2nd century AD. P98 is a fragment of the book of Revelation copied somewhere between 100 and 200AD and P52 contains a section of John and has been dated to 100-150AD.
What is perhaps more startling is how close the text of these early fragments are to the Bible we still read today.
The gospels seem to be a mixture of personal recollections, testimonies and collected stories. But they do not seem to have grown or been inflated over time. What was originally written was what was then faithfully copied.
That said, these narratives are not just personal recollections. They contain additional stories and details from other eye witnesses. Let’s think about that. In the gospel of Luke, as he tells the story of Mary and Elizabeth’s pregnancies with Jesus and John, these stories could only have come from Mary and/or Elizabeth. When Matthew talks about how Mary became pregnant, how Joseph reacted to it and how then they journeyed to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth, these recollections could only have come from Mary and/or Joseph (or Jesus himself re-telling memories from his earthly mother and father).
As you read the gospels, start to notice with each story, where they may have come from. Would it have come from Jesus, a member of his family, one of the apostles or one of his followers? Reading the gospels in this way gives a tingle of reality – we are not reading dry history or a mish-mash of tales that have evolved over time. We are reaching into people’s memories. People who were actually there.
It is thrilling.