The Gospels Untangled

There are four Gospels in the Christian canon. There are actually more gospels than those four but after a few early centuries of controversy, conflict and internal warfare, the Church declared that only four of them were sanctioned "books" that define the life, time, deeds and character of Jesus of Nazareth. Other early Christian gospels were deemed heretical (untrue) and not to be believed by practicing Christians. In fact, they were to be destroyed, burned in the fire wherever found. The story of those other gospels, their authors and believers is fascinating in itself. If you are interested I suggest you begin with few of the works by Bart Ehrman whom I believe is the leading expert working on this topic today.

Fundamental are: 

Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew

Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament

The canonical Gospels do not stand alone. Scholars have long known that they were not written by the men after whom they are named, that they were written decades after the events they recount, written by people who were not present when those events happened, who were living in other countries far from Judea when they wrote their books. Mark, the earliest gospel was most likely written thirty to forty years after Jesus' execution, probably soon after the Jewish revolt in 67 CE. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke followed Mark by ten to twenty years, perhaps a bit more. Then, in the early 2nd century a series of revisions produced the Gospel of John. The three earlier Gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke, share much in common with one another. However, John stands pretty much alone. So far this is a relatively simple story, but, as you would expect, it becomes more complicated and interconnected when the roles of the other, non-canonical sources are understood.

Many stories and traditions about Jesus and his deeds were not documented at the time they occurred or by anyone present at the time. This was due to two major factors.

One: almost everyone in the ancient world was illiterate. Illiteracy was prevalent especially among the people with whom Jesus is known to have been associated. Galilee was a country backwater. Even though the city of Sepphoris which was being built by Herod as a model of Hellenic culture in the Jewish world during Jesus' lifetime was nearby, it had little effect on the people of Galilee. Nazareth was a small country village located about three miles from Sepphoris and surely provided many of the workers, craftsmen and servants for the people of Sepphoris and those who were building it. Jesus and his father were called tekons in Greek, a work roughly translated as a skilled blue-collar worker such as a carpenter or stonemason. They would have been a step above farming peasants or day laborers but not literate.

The locals were not learned. The vast majority could not read or write and the common language was Aramaic, not Greek or Hebrew. Information was acquired, stored and passed on by stories, by word of mouth.

Two: there may have been written documents composed during  Jesus' life or soon thereafter, but if so they remain lost to us. Perhaps some might eventually be discovered, like the discoveries of the  Dead Sea Scrolls or the documents at Nag Hammadi, but of course, no one knows.

Earlier sources are to the left progressing to John, the last canonical Gospel to be composed.

By the time the first stories about Jesus and his followers were written, decades had passed since the events of his life, decades in which stories had many years to make the rounds, being told and re-told, changed, mis-remembered, amplified, enhanced and forgotten. Those who later wanted to record Jesus' life had nothing objective to work from, only stories passed around for years, for generations. As different people began to write versions of what they had heard, or versions of what they heard from others, differences and similarities began to emerge. They borrowed from one another. They added and excluded, sometimes changing stories to fit their perceptions and needs. The standard chronology and relationships among all of the Gospels are these:

Mark was composed before Luke or Matthew. We know this because there are stories in Luke and Matthew that are almost direct copies of stories that appear in Mark. Sometimes these stories are not verbatum repeats but have been changed to a greater or lesser extent from those same stories in Matthew, but they are obviously the same stories told in different ways.

All of the stories in Mark are not repeated in Luke and Matthew. In fact, there is much in Mark that does not appear in the other two Gospels. And, there are stories in Luke and Matthew that are the same or very similar to each other that do not appear in Mark. This means Luke and Matthew both had access to another source that Mark did not have. German scholars over a hundred years ago were the ones to have first published this finding. They this separate source used by Luke and Matthew's "Q", from the German quelle for source. Hence, what scholars now refer to as The Q Gospel. The generally accepted theory is that most of Q's content appears in Matthew and Luke, but the majority of what was in Q is in Luke.

To make things more interesting we know that each of the three synoptic (in synch with one another) gospels, Mark, Luke and Matthew, also drew upon sources distinct from each other. These other sources were in some instances gnostic gospels, those accounts not accepted by the Church as real or official, but heretical, or "wrong thinking" as opposed to orthodox, or "right thinking". Most of these heretical sources have names like The Sayings Gospel, The Gospel of Thomas, The Cross Gospel, The Gospel of Judas, The Gospel of Mary, to name the main ones we know about. Probably the oldest of these for which we have copies is The Gospel of Thomas that first came to light with the discovery of a library of ancient Coptic Christian scrolls at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. These were predominantly gnostic texts but also included a partial translation of Plato's Republic.

The Gospel of Thomas is radically different from any of our other gospels, canonical or gnostic. First, there is no birth story of Jesus and no chronology of events, only a listing of the saying of Jesus. One hundred fourteen of them. Second, there are no references to early Jewish prophesies, even though these are constantly interleaved with events in the canonical Gospels. Third, many of the Thomas sayings appear, often literally, in some of the canonical Gospels.

Thomas begins simply: "These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded." Didymos is Greek for twin. In some traditions, especially in the Eastern Church, Thomas is often perceived as Jesus' twin, whether biological or spiritual, I am not clear. If you wish to drill deeper into this bedrock, start with the Gnostic Library online 

That leaves us the Gospel of John, an accounting that is so different from the other three official Gospels that one wonders why it was included at all. In John, Jesus is nothing at all like he is portrayed in the other three. He is likely to break into pages long speeches, convoluted tales and recitations of who he is and why he is here. He does this only in John. Scholars attribute this Gospel to a number of different authors, believing that it went through two or three iterations before settling into its current version, and derived from a community of later Christians who were drawing ever more apart from their Jewish origins. In fact, John is the most anti-Jewish of all the gospels, referring to Jesus' enemies simply as "the Jews."

In summary then, the official, sanctioned Gospels are the four books entitled Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. However, without other ancient and now almost forgotten sources, stories, gospels and traditions they would not exist. Behind the Gospels lurks a more rich, varied, complex and confused amalgam of stories from which the official line of the Church was forged. This is not an evil thing, or something to be kept hidden in the attic like your crazy great aunt Charlotte. Uncovering the truth behind history should be honorable and respected work, not something to be demeaned, blamed or swept under the rug. 

If people think Jesus of Nazareth was an important person in the world, that he had a good word to say about life and the honorable and ethical way to live it, then it should be important to diligently, intelligently and objectively work to discover what those words, and his deeds, actually were. In any rational measure, the official canonical Gospels fail in that most important task.