Sources of Our Knowledge of Jesus
20. The earliest existing record of events in the life of Jesus is given to us in the epistles of Paul. His account of the appearances of the Lord after his death and resurrection (I. Cor. xv.3-8) was written within thirty years of these events. The date of the testimony, however, is much earlier, since Paul refers to the experience which transformed his own life, and so carries us back to within a few years of the crucifixion. Other facts from Jesus' life may be gathered from Paul, as his descent from Abraham and David (Rom. i.3; ix.5); his life of obedience (Rom. v.19; xv.3; Phil. ii.5-11); his poverty (II. Cor. viii.9); his meekness and gentleness (II. Cor. x.1); other New Testament writings outside of our gospels add somewhat to this restricted but very clear testimony.

21. Secular history knows little of the obscure Galilean. The testimony of Tacitus is that the Christians "derived their name and origin from one Christ, who in the reign of Tiberius had suffered death by the sentence of the procurator, Pontius Pilate" (Annals, xv.44). Suetonius makes an obscure and seemingly ill-informed allusion to Christ in the reason he assigns for the edict of Claudius expelling the Jews from Rome (Vit. Claud.25). The younger Pliny in the second century had learned that the numerous Christian community in Bithynia was accustomed to honor Christ as God; but he shows no knowledge of the life of Jesus beyond what must be inferred concerning one who caused men "to bind themselves with an oath not to enter into any wickedness, or commit thefts, robberies, or adulteries, or falsify their word, or repudiate trusts committed to them" (Epistles X.96). This secular ignorance is not surprising; but the silence of Josephus is. He mentions Jesus in but one clearly genuine passage, when telling of the martyrdom of James, the "brother of Jesus, who is called the Christ" (Ant. xx.9.1). Of John the Baptist, however, he has a very appreciative notice (Ant, xviii.5.2), and it cannot be that he was ignorant of Jesus. His appreciation of John suggests that he could not have mentioned Jesus more fully without some approval of his life and teaching. This would be a condemnation of his own people, whom he desired to commend to Gentile regard; and he seems to have taken the cowardly course of silence concerning a matter more noteworthy, even for that generation, than much else of which he writes very fully.

22. The reason for the lack of written Christian records of Jesus' life from the earliest time seems to be, not that the apostles had a small sense of the importance of his earthly ministry, but that the early generation preferred what at a later time was called the "living voice" (Papias in Euseb. Ch. Hist. iii.39). The impression made by Jesus was supremely personal; he wrote nothing, did not command his disciples to write anything, preferring to influence men's minds by personal power, appointing them, in turn, to represent him to men as he had represented the Father to them (John xx.21). But the time came when the first witnesses were passing away, and they were not many who could say, "I saw him." Our gospels are the result of the natural desire to preserve the apostolic testimony for a generation that could no longer hear the apostolic voice; and they are precisely what such a sense of need would produce, -- vivid pictures of Jesus, agreeing in general features, differing more or less in details, reflecting individual feeling for the Master, and written not simply to inform men but to convince them of that Master's claims. One evidence of the reality of the gospel pictures is the fact that we so seldom feel the individual characteristics of each gospel. This is especially true of the first three, which, to the vividness of their picture, add a remarkable similarity of detail. Tatian, in the second century, felt it necessary to make a continuous narrative for the use of the church by interweaving the four gospels into one, and he has had many successors down to our day; but the fact that unity of impression has practically resulted from the four pictures without recourse to such an interweaving, invites consideration of the characteristics of these remarkable documents.

23. The first gospel impresses the careful reader with three things: (1) A clear sense of the development of Jesus' ministry. The author introduces his narrative by an account of the birth of Jesus, of the ministry of John the Baptist, and of Jesus' baptism and temptation and withdrawal into Galilee (i.1 to iv.17). He then depicts the public ministry by grouping together, first, teachings of Jesus concerning the law of the kingdom of heaven, then a series of great miracles confirming the new doctrine, then the expansion of the ministry and deepening hostility of the Pharisees, leading to the teaching by parables, and the final withdrawal from Galilee to the north. This ministry resulted in the chilling of popular enthusiasm which had been strong at the beginning, but in the winning of a few hearts to Jesus' own ideals of the kingdom of God (iv.18 to xvi.20). From this point the evangelist leads us to Jerusalem, where rejection culminates, the sterner teachings of Jesus are massed, and his victory in seeming defeat is exhibited (xvi.21 to xxviii.20). (2) The evangelist's interest is not satisfied by this clear, strong, picture; he wishes to convince men that Jesus is Israel's Messiah, hence, throughout, he indicates the fulfilment of prophecy. The things in which he sees the fulfilment are striking, for, with but one or two exceptions, they are features of the life of Jesus objectionable to Jewish feeling. This fact, taken in connection with the emphasis which the gospel gives to the death of Jesus at the hands of the Jews, and to the resurrection as God's seal of approval of him whom his people rejected, forms a forcible argument to prove the Messiahship of Jesus, not simply in spite of his rejection by the Jews, but by appeal to that rejection as leading to God's signal vindication of the crucified one. (3) This evangelist, while proving that Jesus is the Messiah promised to Israel, recognizes clearly the freedom of the new faith from the exclusiveness of Jewish feeling. The choice of Galilee for the Messianic ministry (iv.12-17), the comment of Jesus on the faith of the centurion (viii.10-12), the rebuke of Israel in the parable of the Wicked Husbandmen (xxi.33-46), and especially the last commission of the risen Lord (xxviii.18-20), show that this gospel sought to convince men of Jewish feeling not only that Jesus is Messiah, but also that as Messiah he came to bring salvation to all the world.

24. The second gospel is much simpler in construction than the first, while presenting essentially the same picture of the ministry as is found in Matthew. To its simplicity it adds a vividness of narration which commends Mark's account as probably representing most nearly the actual course of the life of Jesus. While it reports fewer incidents and teachings than either of the others, a comparison with Matthew and Luke shows a preference in Mark for Jesus' deeds, though addresses are not wanting; and, while shorter as a whole, for matters which he reports Mark's record is most rich in detail, most dramatic in presentation, and actually longer than the parallel accounts in the other gospels. The whole narrative is animated in style (note the oft-repeated "immediately") and full of graphic traits. The story of Jesus seems to be reproduced from a memory which retains fresh personal impressions of events as they occurred. Hence the frequent comments on the effect of Jesus' ministry, such as "We never saw it on this fashion" (ii.12), or "He hath done all things well" (vii.37), and the introduction into the narrative of Aramaic words, -- Boanerges (iii.17), Talitha, cumi (v.41), and the like, which immediately have to be translated. The gospel discloses no artificial plan, the chief word of transition is "and." While some of the incidents recorded, such as the second Sabbath controversy (iii.1-6) and the question about fasting (ii.18-22), may owe their place to association in memory with an event of like character, the book impresses us as a collection of annals fresh from the living memory, which present the actual Jesus teaching and healing, and going on his way to the cross and resurrection. After the briefest possible reference to the ministry of John the Baptist and the baptism and temptation of Jesus (i.1-13), this gospel proceeds to set forth the ministry in Galilee (i.14 to ix.50). The narrative then follows Jesus to Jerusalem, by way of Perea, and closes with his victory through death and resurrection (x.1 to xvi.8).

25. The third gospel is more nearly a biography than any of its companions. It opens with a preface stating that after a study of many earlier attempts to record the life of Jesus the author has undertaken to present as complete an account as possible of that life from the beginning. The book is addressed to one Theophilus, doubtless a Greek Christian, and its chief aim is practical, -- to confirm conviction concerning matters of faith (i.1-4). The author's interest in the completeness of his account appears in the fact that it begins with incidents antecedent to the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. Moreover, to his desire for completeness we owe much of the story of Jesus, otherwise unrecorded for us. Like the first two gospels, Luke represents the ministry of Jesus as inaugurated in Galilee, and carried on there until the approach of the tragedy at Jerusalem (iv.14 to ix.50). It is in connection with the journey to Jerusalem (ix.51 to xix.27) that he inserts most of that which is peculiar to his gospel. His account of the rejection at Jerusalem, the crucifixion, and resurrection, follows in the main the same lines as Matthew and Mark; but he gained his knowledge of many particulars from different sources (xix.28 to xxiv.53). It is characteristic of Luke to name Jesus "Lord" more often than either of his predecessors. With this exalted conception is coupled a noticeable emphasis on Jesus' ministry of compassion; here more than in any other gospel he is pictured as the friend of sinners. Moreover, we owe chiefly to Luke our knowledge of him as a man of prayer and as subject to repeated temptation. An artificial exaltation of Christ, such as is often attributed to the later apostolic thought, would tend to reduce, not multiply, such evidences of human dependence on God. This fact increases our confidence in the accuracy of Luke's picture. The gospel is very full of comfort to those under the pressure of poverty, and of rebuke to unbelieving wealth, though the parable of the Unjust Steward and story of Zacchaeus show that it does not exalt poverty for its own sake. If our first gospel pictures Jesus as the fulfilment of God's promises to his people, and Mark, as the man of power at work before our very eyes, astonishing the multitude while winning the few, Luke sets before us the Lord ministering with divine compassion to men subject to like temptations with himself, though, unlike them, he knew no sin.

26. The first three gospels, differing as they do in point of view and aim, present essentially one picture of the ministry of Jesus; for they agree concerning the locality and progress of his Messianic work, and the form and contents of his teaching, showing, in fact, verbal identity in many parts of their narrative. For this reason they are commonly known as the Synoptic Gospels. Yet these gospels exhibit differences as remarkable as their likenesses. They differ perplexingly in the order in which they arrange some of the events in Jesus' life. Which of them should be given preference in constructing a harmonious picture of his ministry? They often agree to the letter in their report of deeds or words of Jesus, yet from beginning to end remarkable verbal differences stand side by side with remarkable verbal identities. Some of the identities of language suggest irresistibly that the evangelists have used, at least in part, the same previously existing written record. One of the clearest evidences of this is found in the introduction, at the same place in the parallel accounts, of the parenthesis "then saith he to the sick of the palsy" which interrupts the words of Jesus in the cure of the paralytic (Mark ii.10; Matt. ix.6; Luke v.24). When the three gospels are carefully compared it appears that Mark contains very little that is not found in Matthew and Luke, and that, with one or two exceptions, Luke presents in Mark's order the matter that he has in common with the second gospel. The same is also true of the relation between the latter part of the Gospel of Matthew (Matt. xiv.1 to the end) and the parallel portion of Mark; while the comparison of Matthew's arrangement of his earlier half with Mark suggests that the order in the first gospel has been determined by other than chronological considerations. In a sense, therefore, we may say that the Gospel of Mark reveals the chronological framework on which all three of these gospels are constructed. Comparison discloses further the interesting fact that the matter which Matthew and Luke have in common, after subtracting their parallels to Mark, consists almost entirely of teachings and addresses. Each gospel, however, has some matter peculiar to itself.

27. In considering the problem presented by these facts, it is well to remember that no one of these gospels contains within itself any statement concerning the identity of its author. We are indebted to tradition for the names by which we know them, and no one of them makes any claim to apostolic origin. The earliest reference in Christian literature which may be applied to our gospels comes from Papias, a Christian of Asia Minor in the second century. He reports that an earlier teacher had said, "Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not, indeed, in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ, for he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teachings to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord's discourses. So that Mark committed no error when he thus wrote some things as he remembered them, for he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard and not to state any of them falsely.... Matthew wrote the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language [Aramaic], and every one interpreted them as he was able" (Euseb. Ch. Hist. iii.39). The result of many years' study by scholars of all shades of opinion is the very general conclusion that the writing which Papias attributed to Mark was essentially what we have in our second gospel.

28. It is almost as universally acknowledged that the work ascribed by the second century elder to the apostle Matthew cannot be our first gospel; for its language has not the characteristics which other translations from Hebrew or Aramaic lead us to expect, while the completeness of its narrative exceeds what is suggested by the words of Papias. If, however, the matter which Matthew and Luke have in such rich measure in addition to Mark's narrative be considered, the likeness between this and the writing attributed by Papias to the apostle Matthew is noteworthy. The conclusion is now very general, that that apostolic writing is in large measure preserved in the discourses in our first and third gospels. The relation of our gospels to the two books mentioned by Papias may be conceived, then, somewhat as follows: The earliest gospel writing of which we know anything was a collection of the teachings of Jesus made by the apostle Matthew, in which he collected with simple narrative introductions, those sayings of the Lord which from the beginning had passed from mouth to mouth in the circle of the disciples. At a later time Mark wrote down the account of the ministry of Jesus which Peter had been accustomed to relate in his apostolic preaching. The work of the apostle Matthew, while much richer in the sayings of Jesus, lacked the completeness that characterizes a narrative; hence it occurred to some early disciple to blend together these two primitive gospel records, adding such other items of knowledge as came to his hand from oral tradition or written memoranda. As his aim was practical rather than historical, he added such editorial comments as would make of the new gospel an argument for the Messiahship of Jesus, as we have seen. Since the most precious element in this new gospel was the apostolic record of the teachings of the Lord, the name of Matthew and not of his literary successor, was given to the book.

29. The third gospel is ascribed, by a probably trustworthy tradition, to Luke, the companion of Paul. The author himself says that he made use of such earlier records as were accessible, among which the chief seem to have been the writings of Mark and the apostle Matthew. To Luke's industry, however, we owe our knowledge of many incidents and teachings from the life of Jesus which were not contained in these two records, and with which we could ill afford to part. Some of these he doubtless found in written form, and some he gathered from oral testimony. His close agreement with Mark in the arrangement of his narrative suggests that he found no clear evidence of a ministry of wider extent in time and place. He therefore used Mark as his narrative framework, and of the rich materials which he had gathered made a gospel, the completest of any written up to his time.

30. Such in the main is the conclusion of modern study of our first three gospels; it explains the general identity of their picture of Jesus and of their report of his teaching; it leaves room for those individual characteristics which give them so much of their charm; and it traces the materials of the gospels far back of the writings as we have them, bringing us nearer to the events which they describe. The dates of these documents can be only approximately known. It is probable that the "logia" collected by the apostle Matthew were written not later than 60 to 65 A.D., while the Gospel of Mark dates from before the fall of Jerusalem in 70. Our first gospel must have been made between 70 and 100, and the Gospel of Luke may be dated about the year 80, -- all within sixty or seventy years after the death of Jesus.

31. The fourth gospel gives us a picture of Jesus in striking contrast to that of the other three. These present chiefly the works of the Master and his teachings concerning the kingdom of God and human conduct, leaving the truth concerning the teacher himself to be inferred. John opens the heart of Jesus and makes him disclose his thought about himself in a remarkable series of teachings of which he is the prime topic. This gospel is avowedly an argument (xx.30, 31); its selection of material is confessedly partial; its aim is to confirm the faith of Christians in the heavenly nature and saving power of their Lord; and its method is that of appeal to testimony, to signs, and to his own self-disclosures. The opening verses of the gospel have a somewhat abstract theological character; the body of the book, however, consists of a succession of incidents and teachings which follow each other in unstudied fashion like a collection of annals. This impression is not compromised by the recognition, at some points, of accidental displacements, like that which has placed xiv.30, 31 before xv. and xvi., or that which has left a long gap between vii.23 and the incident of v.1-9, to which it refers. The theme of the gospel is the self-disclosure of Jesus. This seems to have determined the evangelist's choice of material, and, as the gospel is an argument, he does not hesitate to mingle his own comments with his report of Jesus' words, for example (iii.16-21, 30-36; xii.37-43). The book is characterized by a vividness of detail which indicates a clear memory of personal experience. While it is evident that the author has the most exalted conception of the nature of his Lord, this seems to have been the result of loving meditation on a friend who had early won the mastery over his heart and life, and who through long years of contemplation had forced upon his disciple's mind the conviction of his transcendent nature. The book discloses a profoundly objective attitude; the Christ whom John portrays is not the creature of his speculations, but the Master who has entered into his experience as a living influence and has compelled recognition of his significance. The Son of God is for John the human Jesus who, though named at the outset the Word -- the Logos, -- is the Word who was made flesh, that men through him might become the sons of God.

32. The contrast which the Gospel of John presents to the other three concerns not only the teaching of Jesus, but the scene of his ministry and its historic development as well. Whatever may be the final judgment concerning the fourth gospel, it is manifestly constructed as a simple collection of incidents following each other in what was meant to appear a chronological sequence. It has been seen that the biographical framework of the first three gospels is principally Mark's report of Peter's narrative. Now it is a fact that in portions of Matthew and Luke, derived elsewhere than from Mark, there are various allusions most easily understood if it be assumed that Jesus visited Jerusalem before his appearance there at the end of his ministry. Such, for instance, are the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke x.25-37), the story of the visit to Mary and Martha (Luke x.38-42), and the lamentation of Jesus over Jerusalem (Luke xiii.34, 35; Matt, xxiii.37-39). All three gospels, moreover, agree in attributing to emissaries from Jerusalem much of the hostility manifested against Jesus in his Galilean ministry (Luke v.17; Mark iii.22; Matt. xv.1; Mark vii.1), and presuppose such an acquaintance of Jesus with households in and near Jerusalem as is not easy to explain if he never visited Judea before his passion (Mark xi.2, 3; xiv.14; xv.43 and parallels; compare especially Matt, xxvii.57; John xix.38). These all suggest that the narrative of Mark does not tell the whole story, a conclusion quite in accordance with the account of his work given by Papias. It has been assumed that Peter was a Galilean, a man of family living in Capernaum. It is not impossible that on some of the earlier visits of Jesus to Jerusalem he did not accompany his Master, and in reporting the things which he knew he naturally confined himself to his own experiences. If this can explain the predominance of Galilean incidents in the ministry as depicted in Mark, it will explain the predominance of Galilee in the first three gospels, and the contradiction between John and the three is reduced to a divergence between two accounts of Jesus' ministry written from two different points of view.

33. The question of the trustworthiness of the fourth gospel is greatly simplified by the consideration of the one-sidedness of Mark's representation. It is further relieved by the fact that a ministry by Jesus in Jerusalem must have been one of constant self-assertion, for Jerusalem represented at its highest those aspects of thought and practice which were fundamentally opposed to all that Jesus did and taught. Whenever in Galilee, in the ministry pictured by the first three gospels, Jesus came in contact with the spirit and feeling characteristic of Jerusalem, we find him meeting it by unqualified assertion of his own independence and exalted claim to authority, altogether similar to that emphasis of his own significance and importance which is the chief characteristic of his teachings in the fourth gospel. If it be remembered that that gospel was avowedly an argument written to commend to others the reverent conclusion concerning the Lord reached by a disciple whose thought had dwelt for long years on the marvel of that life, and if we recognize that for such an argument the author would select the instances and teachings most telling for his own purpose, and would do this as naturally as the magnet draws to itself iron filings which are mingled with a pile of sand, the exclusively personal character of the teachings of Jesus in this gospel need cause little perplexity. Nor need it seem surprising that the words of Jesus as reported in John share the peculiarities of style which mark the work of the evangelist in the prologue to the gospel and in his epistles. His purpose was not primarily biographical but argumentative, and he has set forth the picture of his Lord as it rose before his own heart, his memory of events being interwoven with contemplation on the significance of that life with which his had been so blessedly associated. In a gospel written avowedly to produce in others a conviction like his own, the evangelist would not have been sensible of any obligation to draw sharp lines between his recollection of his Lord's words and his own contemplations upon them and upon their significance for his life. If these considerations be kept in mind we may accept the uniform tradition of antiquity, confirmed by the plain intimation of the gospel itself, that it is essentially the work of John, the son of Zebedee, written near the close of his life in Ephesus, in the last decade of the first century.

34. We have in our gospel records, therefore, two authorities for the general course of the ministry of Jesus, -- Mark and John. Even if the fourth gospel should be proved not to be the work of John, its picture of the ministry of Jesus must be recognized as coming from some apostolic source. A forger would hardly have invited the rejection of his work by inventing a narrative which seems to contradict at so many points the tradition of the other gospels. The first and third gospels furnish us from various sources rich additions to Mark's narrative, and it is to these two with the fourth that we turn chiefly for the teachings of Jesus. Each gospel should be read, therefore, remembering its incompleteness, remembering also the particular purpose and individual enthusiasm for Jesus which produced it.

35. A word may be due to two other claimants to recognition as original records from the life of Jesus. One class is represented by that word of the Lord which Paul quoted to the Ephesian elders at Miletus (Acts xx.35). Scattered here and there in writings of the apostolic and succeeding ages are other sayings attributed to Jesus which cannot be found in our gospels. A few of these so-called Agrapha seem worthy of him, and are recognized as probably genuine. The most important of them is the story of the woman taken in adultery (John vii.53 to viii.11), which, though not a part of the gospel of John, doubtless gives a true incident from Jesus' life. They represent the "many other" things which John and the other gospels have omitted, but their small number proves that our gospels have preserved for us practically all that was known of Jesus after the first witnesses fell asleep. It is certainly surprising that so little exists to supplement the story of the gospels, for they are manifestly fragmentary, and leave much of Jesus' public life without any record. The other class of claimants is of a quite different character, -- the so-called Apocryphal Gospels. These consist chiefly of legends connected with the birth and early years of Jesus, and with his death and resurrection. They are for the most part crude tales that have entirely mistaken the real character of him whom they seek to exalt, and need only to be read to be rejected.

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