The Gospel Records


Jesus was not an author or a historian. He left behind no autobiography. In fact, he wrote nothing at all. He instead committed himself and his teaching simply to the hearts and memories of those who knew and loved him. Nor did they fail him. The four little books which we call Gospels are our only sources of information about the life and words that changed everything. We might wish that the story were told with greater fullness and detail; but we know that, such as it is, the Gospel story has brought Christ to every nation and age for two millennia.

Of course, the Gospels are not really biographies in any true sense of the word. The corporeal life of Christ spanned more than three decades, and yet all four Gospels can be read in one sitting. Long periods of Christ’s life are glossed over in a single sentence. If everything were told, writes John, “the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (21:25). What we have then is essentially a set of memoirs, or selected historical accounts. But the selection is purposeful:

“These are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” (John 20:31)

Each of the evangelists aims at giving a portrait of the Messiah, and writes from their own unique perspectives. While each one has its own distinct features, they all describe the same Jesus, with the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God” upon his face. Subsequently, other ‘gospels’ appeared. They were all properly excluded because they co-mingled fact and legend. Certain unwritten sayings of Jesus not recorded in the Gospels have emerged, but their authenticity is dubious. Famous among them are:

“Let not him who seeks cease until he finds, and when he finds he shall be astonished, astonished he shall reign, and having reigned, he shall rest...Raise the stone, and there thou shalt find me; cleave the wood, and there am I...Who so is near me is near the fire.”

The earliest Gospel appeared around 65-70 A.D., or some 35 years after the crucifixion. It seems strange that such a long period elapsed. Today, people like Barack Obama write several autobiographies before reaching the age of 60. When a great man dies, his admirers would never wait an entire generation or two before publishing versions of his life story.

The best explanation for the delay in producing the Gospels is not negligence but rather exigency. In the early days of Christianity, the authors were so busy evangelizing the world, so absorbed in their active service, that literary work of any kind was simply not a priority. It is equally true that these early Christians lived in expectation of an impending end of the age, believing that “The kingdom of heaven is at hand”, and that “This generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled”. This would no doubt have made writing books seem pointless. Hence, the days flowed into months and then years, until a generation had passed before the first of four Gospels was produced.

Fragmentary accounts of isolated sayings and deeds of Jesus predate the written Gospels. In the opening verses of Luke, he mentions having a large quantity of such miscellaneous materials to collate and draw from in constructing his own narrative (Luke 1:1-4). These verses are of great importance in determining what Biblical inspiration actually means. Luke makes it quite clear that the inspired writers were not miraculously freed from the necessity of laborious historical research. Inspiration was not God miraculously transcending human minds and faculties; rather, it was God expressing his will through the discipline of dedicated men. It does not supersede the sacred writer’s own personality and make him God’s printer; it instead reinforces his personality by making him God’s living witness.

Various motivations led to the eventual transcription of the Gospels. One was that the present expectation of Armageddon subsided. The lengthening of years and gradual passing of those who had known Jesus and been eyewitnesses to his life, death, and resurrection also made it obvious that these events needed to be recorded for posterity. To continue to rely upon oral tradition and fragmentary documents was dangerous, especially given the persecution suffered by early Christians. The evangelists must have felt a strong call to preserve the story for future generations. There were also the needs of young converts from paganism to be considered. A neophyte joining the Christian Church at that time would naturally want to know what the Lord’s Supper meant, and its origins. It was obviously useful to provide them with an authoritative narrative of such events.

There was also the danger of heresy to combat. When divergent views on central matters of faith arose within the early Church, the inevitable question was ever posed: what had Christ actually said about this? What had he taught? The Gospels thus served as a written record of what Jesus actually said and did that could be used to respond to attacks from within and without the Church about the motives of its members. Along these differing lines, the need to preserve the sacred story in some definitive form was increasingly felt, and so the evangelists set to work.

Mark’s Gospel was the first to appear. A very ancient and reliable author named Papias tells us that Mark became the interpreter of Peter and that he accurately wrote down everything he remembered from Peter’s discourses and sermons. This is important, since it gives us the picture of a young Mark accompanying the great apostle on his preaching tours, standing in the marketplace while Peter preached, and helping Peter deal with inquirers when the meetings concluded. We see Mark listening repeatedly to the story of the life and death of Christ as told by Peter, until he must have imbibed it and lived in its atmosphere. Upon Peter’s death, Mark was left alone to write the entire chronicle down. And so the earliest Gospel was given to the world. It is no small thing to know that behind it stands Peter as eyewitness, one of Christ’s intimate friends. Its historical authority is thus beyond reproach.

The words “The Gospel According to Mark”, which stand in the King James Version at the beginning of his book, are a late addition. Mark himself provided no name. The evangelists sought no literary glory. They were unconcerned about whether the world would know their names. Just as humbly, they tell the Gospel story with utmost candor, never portraying the disciples in an especially favourable light or hiding their faults. Mark’s Gospel, as we have seen, is really Peter’s story, and yet his failings are there for all to see:

“He rebuked Peter, saying, Get thee behind me, Satan (8:33)“they all forsook him, and fled” (14:50)

Then of course there is the account of Peter’s denial at 14:66 and following. It is all there, nothing concealed or palliated. Earthly fame was clearly nothing to these men; rather, the beauty of Christ was all important.

Although Mark is silent about himself, we are able to gather much about him from other parts of the New Testament. Acts 12:12 provides an intriguing clue that Mark’s home may have been the “upper room” of the Last Supper, in which case Mark himself was an eyewitness to Jesus. One other fascinating point arises at Mark 14:51-52, where there is veiled reference to the writer. Who was this “certain young man” who mysteriously appears in Gethsemane? Mark is the only one of the Gospels to record this incident. Nor can Peter be his source here, for Peter had already fled (14:50). The account must have come from the“young man” himself. Nor would there have been any point in recording this unless he had been someone prominent in the yet unborn early Church.

The Gospel of Matthew is often said to be written for Jewish Christians. Where Mark’s main focus is events in the life of Jesus, Matthew concentrates upon Christ’s teaching. Papias tells us that Matthew wrote down the sayings of Jesus in Hebrew, and then each interpreted the seas they best could. It seems that Matthew the disciple, the one time despised but meticulous tax collector, had a diary in which he entered the conversations and teachings of his Master. This diary, added to Mark’s narrative, became the basis for the Gospel of Matthew.

Matthew speaks particularly to Jewish Christians in his narrative. There are frequent Old Testament quotations. Importance is placed upon Mosaic law. There is also emphasis upon the Hebrew Messianic prophesy and its fulfillment in Jesus. With the same modesty characteristic of all of the Gospel authors, Matthew reveals the account of his own conversion in a single verse (9:9). Nor is there any effort made to conceal the depths from which Christ lifted him. Matthew was a man socially ostracized, for he had sold out country, conscience, and character too in a profession which in the eyes of every loyal Jew was branded with dishonour. In what unlikely places Christ discovered his evangelists and disciples.

Luke is the only evangelist who was not Jewish, and so his account is often considered the Gospel for Gentile Christians. He used both Mark and the Sayings-Source in Matthew, but he had other materials to draw from as well. His Gentile birth and sympathies explain what is by far the most striking feature of his Gospel—it is a missionary Gospel, portraying a Christ who is not only Israel’s Messiah but also the Saviour of all mankind. The fact that the book is dedicated to Theophilus—presumably a high official in Roman government but not yet Christian—is significant. Noticeable also is that from the very outset, Luke lifts his story beyond a purely local Palestinian setting, deliberately framing it within world history. Luke traces the genealogy of Jesus all the way back to Adam as the founder of our race, whereas Matthew begins with Abraham, the father of Israel.

The missionary motive was for Luke clearly the deciding factor in determining which incidents and parables would be included in his Gospel. The parable of the Good Samaritan and the healing of the grateful leper who “was a Samaritan” (17:16), are prime examples.Such sayings of Jesus as “They shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God” (13:29); and above all, the parable of the prodigal son, which carries a national and individual reference. The younger son standing for the Gentile world and the elder representing the Jews. For Jews and Gentiles alike, Luke is therefore pre-eminently the Gospel of universal hope.

The missionary motive was for Luke clearly the deciding factor in determining which incidents and parables would be included in his Gospel. The parable of the Good Samaritan and the healing of the grateful leper who “was a Samaritan” (17:16), are prime examples.Such sayings of Jesus as “They shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God” (13:29); and above all, the parable of the prodigal son, which carries a national and individual reference. The younger son standing for the Gentile world and the elder representing the Jews. For Jews and Gentiles alike, Luke is therefore pre-eminently the Gospel of universal hope.

Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, and was a physician (Col. 4:14). It might have been as a medical man that he was first introduced to Paul, to whom he later became a traveling companion. We can readily see how useful Luke’s medicinal skills must have been to Paul, whose state of health was chronically precarious (II Cor. 12:7). Paul suffered many wounds, scars, and bruises in the course of his ministry (II Cor. 11:25). Luke’s medical training also explains the special place given in this Gospel to Christ’s healing miracles, and for the appearance throughout Luke of certain terms technical to medical practice of that era.

These first three Gospels are often called ‘synoptic’ because of their somewhat shared viewpoint. However, once we come to the Gospel of John, we sense at once that we are in an altogether different atmosphere. This distinction was even noted by early Church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, who theorized that John, perceiving that the bodily facts had been adequately set forth in the other Gospels, composed a spiritual one. John assumes that the reader knows the other Gospels, and so sets himself to the task of supplementing the synoptic Gospels. Aided by his own spiritual genius and mysticism, John elucidates the profound meaning of the life and work of Christ.

John was the last of the Gospels to appear. Among many things distinguishing John from the synoptics is that it contains no parables. It concentrates instead upon the Judean ministry of Christ, to the near exclusion of his time in Galilee. John records a whole new series of private conversations between Jesus with individuals such as Nathaniel, Nicodemus, and the woman of Samaria. John omits certain scenes where the human side of Christ’s nature is stressed, notably the temptation in the desert, the agony in the garden, and the cry of dereliction on the cross. John instead emphasizes the eternal aspects of the Redeemer’s person and work. It gives us not the carpenter from Nazareth, but rather the “Word that was in the beginning with God.”

It is most unlikely that the Gospel of John in its present form was produced by the apostle John. Other hands have worked over it (see 19:35 & 21:24). But behind it we are justified in tracing the figure of the great apostle; this wonderful Gospel was derived partly from memoirs generated by the “disciple whom Jesus loved”. These must have been diarized shortly after the described events occurred, and also included historical sermons on the life of Christ preached by the apostle John at Ephesus.

These Gospels give us history. Here we have a solid bedrock of historical fact, fixed and for Christians—impregnable. Despite this, throughout history, and perhaps increasingly today, the truth of these Gospels and their historical accuracy have been under constant attack.

It is not uncommon to hear skeptics dispute the fact that the Gospels are written as eyewitness accounts. The Gospels record events from the perspective of writers who either saw the described events themselves or spoke to someone who did. The author of John’s Gospel relates a meeting between Jesus and his disciples which appears to include the author.Indeed, he makes the following claim:

“This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things and we know that his testimony is true.”
(John 21:24)

It seems obvious that the author considers himself to be both a participant in the narrative and a reporter of the event. Even if the author is someone other than John, the claim is at the very least that the author is an eyewitness.

The author of Luke’s Gospel also self-describes as a historian who had access to first hand eyewitnesses:

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of things accomplished amongus, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word...”

Even if the author of Luke was not an eyewitness, it remains obvious that he believed himself to be recording a true history delivered to him by persons who actually saw the events set out in his Gospel.

But what if we do not know precisely who wrote the Gospels? Does this invalidate them as eyewitness testimony?

Most skeptics claiming that the Gospels are accredited to people who are not the true authors argue that the early church attempted to validate the texts via false attribution. If this is so, then why use Mark and Luke as attributions? Why did they not choose someone of greater status? Is it not obvious that the late fictional gospels such as Judas, Mary, Phillip or Thomas are far more likely to have been falsely attributed to authors who were close to both Jesus and the described actions?

Meanwhile, two of the four canonical Gospels appearing earliest in history are attributed to people who do not even lay claim to having been present during Christ’s ministry. If one were attempting to deceive gullible potential converts, then much more compelling false attributions could certainly be chosen. Concerning Matthew and John, one wonders how the question of whether they have been properly attributed is at all important. Their names do not appear in the text and were only inserted subsequently.

And so the real question remains: can these Gospel accounts be trusted as reliable records concerning the life and ministry of Jesus Christ?

Perhaps the most important issue here is whether or not the Gospels were written early enough to be verified or falsified by those who actually lived when the described events transpired. In this regard, it is worth noting the early dating of the Gospels and the chain of command which warrants their reliability, a subject beyond the scope of this discussion. Suffice it to say that there is ample evidence that the Gospel accounts have been consistent over time. If the Gospels are early, then the only remaining question is whether their content has been modified. This is where the early Church Fathers are most helpful. The ancient writings of Ignatius, Polycarp and Clement precisely represent what was being taught by the Apostles during the first century A.D. It is indisputable that the Apostles lived in the first century; skeptics simply doubt that they wrote anything or that their records have survived in uncorrupted form. The teachings of these early Church Fathers closely follow those of their own mentors—John and Paul. Gnostics can quibble about specific Gospel details all they like; but the overarching picture of Jesus as a miracle worker who claimed to be God and rose from the dead is just as clear in the writings of these first students as it was in the Gospels of their teachers, who just happen to be the very people who claimed to be eyewitnesses to the risen Christ.

So why then do doubters deny the early dating of the New Testament documents? Is this based upon some manuscript discovery proving the late arrival of the text? Certainly not; the more we learn about ancient manuscript evidence, the earlier we are able to date the scraps and partial texts used to produce the four Gospels. It happens that skeptics deny early dating of the Gospels primarily because of their own naturalistic suppositions. After all, Jesus accurately predicted destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (Matthew 24). Such skeptics choose to reject the supernatural attributes of prophesy, and so this passage must have been written post 70 A.D., when the actual destruction came to pass. They further argue that the other miracles described in the Gospels must have been written about long after any surviving eyewitnesses could have lived to deny their authenticity.

There is more than enough evidence to place the Gospels early in history and to determine their reliability from the writings of those how sat at the feet of the Apostles. Skeptical resistance may therefore have less to do with the available evidence than with the prejudices held by those questioning such evidence. This Gnosticism is hardly new. It has existed for many centuries, during which churches burned, Christians were crucified and beheaded, Christian communities were driven underground, and governments forced silence upon those who professed fidelity to the Gospels. As much as we would like to believe that these experiences are confined to the early church or to the missionaries and converts in far-off pagan lands centuries ago, the reality is that persecution of Christians is happening right now—and it is closer to home than we may realize. This is why upholding the historical and theological authenticity of the New Testament accounts is so vital: Christianity has never been under more serious attack than it is today.

Throughout the Middle East, Africa, and even in the West, Christians are still being targeted for their beliefs, whether through violence or public policy, and this trend continues to escalate. In his 2023 book entitled “The Coming Christian Persecution: Why Things Are Getting Worse And How to Prepare For What is To Come”, moral theologian and news analyst Dr. Thomas Williams incisively juxtaposes the still relatively unknown global Christian persecution of today with that of previous epochs, describing it in its various forms and providing insight into what it means for the Church and for society as a whole. He also provides valuable advice on how these outrages can be remedied and what we as Christians can do to prepare for the coming cultural onslaught.

In 2020, according to the World Watch List published by Open Doors, 340 million Christians were facing “high levels of persecution”. Right here in Alberta, three Christian Pastors were gaoled, and Grace Life Church in Stony Plain was barricaded for months and used as a police barracks. Dr. Williams reveals the state of affairs in countries that systematically persecute Christians, including North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and of course, China. In many cases, Christians must flee these countries or face economic repercussions, forced conversions to Islam, imprisonment, violence, torture, and even summary execution.

Dr. Williams also explains that Christian persecution has been with us since the beginning, during the life of Jesus, from the time of His infancy to His crucifixion. We learn what Jesus said about coming persecutions, as well as about the trials and martyrdom that His apostles endured and the many hardships of early Christians—including the 5 virgins commemorated in the Roman Canon of the Holy Mass. Williams also explores why Christians are persecuted. He reveals the thoughts of Enlightenment scholars such as Voltaire and Gibbons about how Christians were vilified and also how attempts to revise history—to blame Christian persecution on Christians themselves!—originally surfaced.

Most importantly, we begin to see how modern attacks against Christians spring from six primary sources: atheism, radical Islam, Hindu nationalism, totalitarianism, academia, and Satanism. In the prophetic words of Pope John Paul II: “The Church has once again become a Church of martyrs.”

For anyone committed to holding fast in Faith in the face of an uncertain future, it is vital to take note of emerging challenges posed by those who seek to question the Truth told by the Gospels and to destroy Christianity:

(1)  How Christians are globally experiencing white and red martyrdom due to their beliefs;

(2)  Why some who preach tolerance are intolerant of Christians;

(3)  The need to avoid fatalism and to resist rising Christian persecutions;

(4)  The need to assist, through practical and spiritual means, those who suffer such attacks; & most importantly,

(5)  The need to learn how the Gospel can inspire us to grow in virtue and to remain steadfast.

In his book, “The Coming Tsunami”, pastor and cultural scholar Dr. Jim Denison raises asimilar alarm to the one rung by Dr. Williams. Denison adroitly addresses the gravest threat Christians in the West have ever faced—four cultural tides threatening to submerge Christians and the Biblical morality we proclaim. Caused by four cultural “earthquakes”, the cultural acceptance of these pathological ideologies has seismically shifted our world. With the rise of “post-truth” culture, the expansion of the sexual revolution, the attraction of critical race theory, and the advance of the secular WOKE religion, Christians are increasingly labeled as intolerant, irrelevant, oppressive, and dangerous—the very antithesis of the life Jesus calls Christians to live through the Gospels. These tidal waves are threatening to submerge Christians and the Biblical morality we proclaim. Denison further predicts that ultimate repercussions of these issues—the coming tsunami—have yet to be fully manifested. Dr. Denison assesses how our current culture came about, identifies the enormous risk the secultural quakes represent, explores their consequences for evangelicals and our greaterculture, and offers proactive, Biblical solutions to redeem these challenges as opportunities for God’s Word and Grace. The coming cultural Tsunami will greatly impact Christians in the coming years. It will undoubtedly influence and affect our children and grandchildren. However, unlike natural tsunamis which cannot be stopped once they begin, it is not too late stop the moral tsunamis of our day...but Christians must act now. The rain is already falling. Given the continuing challenges facing Christianity, it has never been more clear that the study of these four little books is the rock upon which all wisdom of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ must founded, and why the authenticity of the Gospel records is so essential to Christians in an age when we are increasingly persecuted at home and worldwide. In closing, let us remember that the Gospels give us three vital things. They give us a history. They also give us something more valuable than mere history—revelation. For as we turn the pages, it is God’s voice that we hear, and His face that we see. Finally, more than just history and revelation, the Gospels pose a spiritual challenge. Every page renews the challenge, and each verse drives it home:

“What think ye of Christ?” And then, “What shall I do with Christ?This challenge haunts each and every one of us—until we answer.

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