Dear Brothers and Sisters,
During Advent it is traditional to preach or write about “the Four Last Things”—Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. This year I’d like to devote my pastor’s letters during Advent to some instruction on the four gospels of Matthew, Mark Luke and John. The first three gospels are called “synoptic” gospels. The word means “looking the same”. This is because Matthew, Mark and Luke contain many of the same stories and sayings about Jesus, and from Jesus. Although the stories are not in the same order and are sometimes combined with other stories or incidents, at other times the stories are almost word for word the same in these three gospels.
Scholars have made a little industry out of the art of discovering just who wrote the gospels and when. Conservative scholars usually argue that the gospels were actually written by Matthew, the tax collector and one of the apostles, Mark – the same person as John Mark who travelled with St. Paul and ended up as the companion and assistant of St. Peter, and Luke, a physician who traveled with St. Paul and who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. These scholars also argue that the gospels were largely dependent on eyewitness accounts and were all composed before the momentous events of 70 AD, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.
Liberal scholars suppose that the gospels were written as much as twenty years later than that, by people who may have known Matthew, Mark and Luke, but who wrote using their names. They suggest that by this time the gospels had been changed and added to by several different editors and story tellers. They try to date the gospels at as late a date as possible to support their theory that the miraculous elements of the gospels were added by the process of history, gradually becoming legend and then myth.
In the second century St. Irenaeus tells us about the composition of the gospels. He says that Matthew was the first gospel written and it was written in Matthew’s own tongue of Hebrew and Aramaic. Although scholars still debate the question, I believe there was a very early source of the sayings and actions of Jesus written by the tax collector Matthew in Hebrew and Aramaic, and that the version of Matthew’s gospel which we now have (which is in Greek) was composed later using the earlier collection of sayings as a source book, and also using Mark’s and Luke’s gospels as references. Matthew may have edited his own earlier work, or it may have been another writer who gathered up Matthew’s work and re-arranged the content and added extra stories from other sources including Mark and Luke’s gospels.
From the content we know that Matthew’s gospel is written to the Jews living in Judea—the area of Jerusalem. In next week’s letter I will discuss the dating of the gospels, but if, as all the scholars agree, Matthew was written to the Jews in Judea, then it would make sense that it was written in the very earliest days of the church while the headquarters of the church was still in Jerusalem. In 70 AD the Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and the first Christians (who were Jewish) were also dispersed. This would be an indication, therefore, that Matthew’s gospel, which was written to the Jews in Judea, was composed before Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews dispersed.
Why do questions of authorship and dating for the gospels matter? Because history matters. Our faith took place within human history with particular people at a particular time. During Advent we look forward to the Nativity of Our Lord and Matthew, along with Luke, are the evangelists who record the events of Jesus’ birth.