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early Christian writings about Jesus Christ. The Gospels are classified as canonical (included by the church in the New Testament) and apocryphal (the Apocrypha).
The canonical Gospels are one of the major sources of Christian teaching and worship. The church ascribes the Gospels to the disciples of Christ or the disciples of the apostles. Three of the four canonical Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—contain accounts that generally coincide. They are known as the Synoptic Gospels (Greek synopsis, “same view”). The fourth Gospel, that of John, differs sharply from the others. The shortest of the Synoptic Gospels is Mark, which served as a source for the Gospels of Luke and’Matthew. In addition, Luke and Matthew used another source that was not preserved (known conventionally in scholarly literature under the letter Q, from the German Quelle, “source”). They probably also drew on oral tradition. According to church tradition, of the four canonical Gospels John was written last. However, several contemporary scholars, including W. Hartke of the German Democratic Republic, have proposed that it is based on a very early text. This theory is supported by the fact that the Gospel of John contains a number of parallels with the texts of the Qumran manuscripts (Dead Sea scrolls).
In general, the question of the dating of the Gospels is unresolved. Neither the church tradition, which assigns the writing of Mark to A.D. 40, nor the opinion of a number of scholars (for example, the Soviet investigator R. Iu. Vipper) that the Gospels appeared only after the middle of the second century A.D., can be accepted. On the basis of a number of allusions in the Gospels to the Jewish uprising of A.D. 66-70, it is apparent that they could not have been written before A.D. 70. Furthermore, a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John, dating from around A.D. 125, has been preserved. Consequently, it seems reasonable to assume that the Gospels were written sometime around the turn of the second century A.D. (Various passages from the Gospels are cited in the Epistles of Ignatius, written about that time, and the Gospels of Mark and Matthew are mentioned by Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, who is believed to have written of them in the first quarter of the second century.)
The place at which the Gospels were written is still open for discussion. The canonical Gospels are not translations from the Aramaic and were obviously written somewhere outside of Palestine. The Gospel of Mark contains a significant number of Latinisms, which led Clement of Alexandria, a theologian of the late second and early third century, to conclude that it was written in Rome. Although church tradition links the Gospel of John with Ephesus, scholars usually associate the origin of the Gospels of Matthew and John with Syria. A number of localities, from Caesarea to Rome, have been named as the place where the Gospel of Luke was written. The authors of the Gospels are also unknown, and church traditions concerning them—particularly the one that ascribes the Gospel of John to an unnamed “beloved disciple” of Christ—have no foundation.
It is possible that the composition of the Gospels was preceded by no longer extant logia (sayings of Christ), which may have been written in Aramaic. Among the apocryphal gospels found at Chenoboskion (Arab Republic of Egypt) was a Coptic translation of the Gospel of Thomas, which contained sayings of Jesus that sometimes failed to correspond to the canonical texts but which omitted the earthly biography of Christ. Some scholars theorize that a protogospel consisting of the logia was gradually expanded to include accounts of Jesus’ activities and miracles.
The Gospels reflect the different tendencies of various political and ethnic groups. For example, Luke contains more condemnations of the wealthy than the other Gospels and includes the parable of Lazarus, with a clear defense of the poor. In the Gospel of Matthew, however, the criticism of wealth is considerably softened. The Gospel of Matthew is more closely associated with the original Jewish milieu in which Christianity developed, while Luke avoids Hebrew terminology and is clearly addressed to Christians with pagan backgrounds. In the Gospel of John one can probably see the reflection of some of the ideas of gnosticism, which are alien to the Synoptic Gospels. The account given in John is in many ways rationalized—freed from many of the crude miracles with which the Synoptic Gospels abound.
Scholarly criticism has revealed many contradictions between the Gospels (especially between the Synoptic Gospels and John) and within each of them. For example, according to John, Christ’s ministry lasted three or four years, but according to Mark, it covered only one year. According to Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount took place on a mountain, but in Luke’s version it takes place “in the plain.”
There are contradictions even within the teachings of Christ in the Gospels. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, presents the declaration “Blessed are the peacemakers,” but it also records that Christ said “I came not to send peace, but a sword.” In the same Gospel, marriage is called an unbreakable bond (“What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder”). However, at the same time, “everlasting life” is promised to a man who forsakes his wife for Christ’s sake. The Gospel of Luke expresses certain social needs of the poor—blessing is promised to the “poor” (the Russian version mistranslates this as “the poor in spirit”) and the “hungry.” The corresponding passages in Matthew speak of “the poor in spirit” and those who “hunger and thirst after righteousness.” In other words, the Gospel of Matthew reduces the problem of the poor to the level of purely spiritual perfection. Critics have also noted mistakes made by the writers of the Gospels concerning nature, life, and social institutions in Palestine. For example, Luke mentions two high priests in Jerusalem, Annas and Caiaphas, but the Jews had only one high priest.
The idea of nonresistance to evil and a call to humility are clearly expressed in the Gospels. The Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew and Luke) is permeated with these principles: “resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” and “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you.” A great reward in heaven is promised for all those who are persecuted and oppressed on earth.
The Gospel teachings on nonresistance to evil, humility and patience, and a reward of blessedness after death for earthly sufferings have continually been used by the ruling classes to keep the toiling people in submission. At the same time, the Gospels’ summons to poverty and simplicity have often formed the basis for criticism of the official church and social inequality. The doctrine of humility and patience is used even today by the church in bourgeois states in the interests of class peace and the strengthening of the foundations of imperialism.
REFERENCESKryvelev, I. A. Evangel’skie skazaniia i ikh smysl. Moscow, 1959.
Sventsitskaia, I. S. Zapreshchennye evangeliia. Moscow, 1965.
Lentsman, la. A. Sravnivaia evangeliia. Moscow, 1967.
Kublanov, M. M. Novyi zavet: Poiski i nakhodki. Moscow, 1969.
Dibelius, M. Die Formegeschichte des Evangeliums, 4th ed. Tubingen, 1961.
Hartke, W. Vier urchristliche Parteien und ihre Vereinigung zur apostolischen Kirche, vols. 1-2. Berlin, 1961.
A. P. KAZHDAN