Tuesday, September 17, 2013

An Introduction To the Gospels

The word "Gospel" comes from the English word "God-spell", and in Aramaic and Greek, the word for "Gospel" is "ewangelion/euaggellion" ("Good News"). The word "Gospel" was originally applied to the message preached by Christ and His followers, but eventually it was used to signify the various books that were written accounts of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Many Gospel accounts were written in the early church period, but only four were accepted by the church as inspired by God. These are the Gospels that we know today as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The Gospels that were not accepted into the canon by the early church were either not written by an apostle (or an associate of an apostle), they were not accepted as inspired by a substantial amount of the church, or they taught heresy. Most of the Gospels that were not received as inspired were written by Gnostic believers. The Gnostics were believers in a doctrine similar to that taught by Plato in that they believed all material things were evil and that Jesus Himself, being the just and Holy One, could not have been a material being Himself.

The Gnostics accepted the deity of Christ, but they denied that Jesus is a physical human being. The belief that Jesus is not a physical being is called "Docetism". "Docetism" comes from the Greek word "dokein" which means "to seem" (they believe that Jesus only "seemed" human). While Docetism was not Gnosticism itself, it was an early form of it. Gnostics also taught that secret knowledge was essential for salvation rather than faith in Christ's work on the cross (which is meaningless in Gnosticism, which teaches Christ's death to be an illusion). Jesus, in Gnosticism, is the bringer of this secret knowledge which was given to only a select few.

Many of the Gnostic writings are still in circulation today, the most popular of these being the Gospel of Thomas, which claims to have been written by Thomas the apostle, but it clearly was not as it was written in the 2nd century (by this time all of the apostles were dead). The Gospel of Thomas is not a narrative, but a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus. The Jesus in Thomas is not the Jewish Messiah that we believe in, but a teacher more akin to a Greek philosopher. Thomas shows more reliance upon the canonical Gospels than any of the other Gnostic Gospels, it's similarity to the canonical Four has caused many to believe that it reflects an early and reliable tradition on Jesus' sayings, but this is definitely not true upon examination of the text, which presents (as said before), a Gnostic view of Jesus and His teachings.

Other Gospels written by Gnostics include Judas, Mary, Phillip, Truth, and possibly even the Gospel of Peter. All of these writings are heretical and do not reflect a reliable view of Jesus and His teachings. From the Gospel of Phillip is the idea derived that Jesus was married to Mary of Magdalene, but even this text does not conclusively give any evidence for this theory. The Gospel of Judas teaches that Judas was the favorite of Jesus's disciples and that Jesus actually asked Judas to betray Him, which is in clear contrast to the teachings of the Scriptures. The Gospel of Peter is a very damaged manuscript that only includes the Passion, and it also seems to reflect Gnostic teachings (such as Jesus saying, "My power, My power, why have you forsaken Me?" rather than "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"), and it also shows very obvious embellishments (like a talking cross coming out of the tomb with a giant Jesus and two giant angels), and historical errors (blaming the Jews for the death of Christ and also showing the Jewish authorities camping out by the tomb of Jesus, which is very unlikely in light of Numbers 19:11-16).

I don't feel like I can mention the Gnostic Gospels without mentioning the even more wild so-called Infancy Gospels, called this because they claim to be written accounts of the "lost years" of Jesus's childhood. The most famous ones are the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Infancy Gospel of James. These writings have been compared to the myths of the Greek demigods like Hercules, portraying the young Jesus as a divinely charged trickster. These often have very unbelievable material, such as Infancy Thomas claiming that Jesus once struck a child dead for bumping into Him.

There are also non-Gnostic Gospels that are not canonical, like the Gospel of the Hebrews, Gospel of the Nazarenes, and the Gospel of the Ebionites. These, while being Jewish-Christian writings, do not teach sound doctrine. The Gospel of the Hebrews teaches that the Holy Spirit was Jesus' mother, rather than His Father. The Gospel of the Ebionites also reflects the teachings of thie sect that used it, such as an Adoptionist Christology (that Christ was adopted as the Son of God and not born as God's Son), therefore denying His deity.

The four Gospels that we have in our Bible teach sound doctrine and do not contradict the rest of the Bible, they also are written by apostles and/or associates of the apostles. All of these Gospels are certain to have been written in the 1st century. The Gospel of John was said by critical scholars to have been written in the 2nd century, but this was later proven false when a manuscript was found in Egypt from around 125 AD (Papyrus P52). Dr. JS Asseman mentioned seeing a manuscript of the four Gospels in Syriac Aramaic from the year 78 AD. If his date is correct, then we have the four Gospels collected together at a very early date.

The first Gospel is believed to have been written by Matthew Levi, a tax collector that became one of the twelve apostles (Matthew 9:9). Matthew's Gospel was written to the Jewish people, answering their question as to whether of not Jesus of Nazareth is the long-awaited Messiah prophesied of in the Old Testament. Matthew's Gospel quotes the Old Testament more than any other Gospel. Jesus is portrayed as the kingly Messiah (being referred to as "the son of David" more times than in any other Gospel). According to Papias, Matthew called his Gospel "The Sayings of Jesus", which is a very fitting title as he pays more attention to Jesus' teachings than any of the other writers. Jesus is portrayed as the Rabbi Messiah, teaching us the way to God.

The second Gospel is believed to have been written by John Mark (mentioned in Acts 12:12). Mark traveled with Paul and Barnabas for a time, but eventually departed from them (Acts 13:13). Barnabas and Paul eventually had a falling out over whether or not to let Mark travel with them again (Acts 15:36-39). Mark is later mentioned by Paul in II Timothy in a favorable manner, showing that he and Paul eventually began to work with each other again (II Timothy 4:11). According to church tradition, Mark also traveled with Peter as his translator in foreign lands. Mark eventually chronicled Peter's memoirs about Jesus in this Gospel that bears his name. Many believe Mark's audience to have been Roman Christians. Mark is more concerned with the acts of Jesus than His words. Jesus is portrayed as the Servant Messiah. Mark offers a great summary in these words spoken by our Lord Jesus in Mark 10:45 (Murdock translation), "And also the Son of man came, not to be served, but to serve; and to give his life a ransom for many."

The third Gospel is written by the physician Luke, a close companion of Paul (mentioned in Colossians 4:14 and II Timothy 4:11). This Gospel is written to Theophilus (which is Greek for "Lover of God"), but whether this is just the name by which Luke calls his audience of if it was one individual is unknown. Luke's Gospel is thoroughly researched (Luke 1:1-4) and is a more complete account of Christ's life than the other Gospels. Luke places great emphasis on Jesus's love and compassion for the outcasts and also on the role of women in the church. Jesus of Nazareth is portrayed in this Gospel as the Son of man, the human Messiah (not denying His deity by any means, but emphasizing His humanity in things like telling how He grew intellectually in Luke 2:52). A great summary of Luke's Gospel is offered in these words of Christ in Luke 19:10 (Lamsa translation): "For the Son of man came to seek and save that which was lost." Luke's Gospel includes many of the most well-known passages of the Bible that pertain to the life of Jesus, like the Christmas story (Luke 2:1-20) and Christ's forgiveness of the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 22:32-43). This Gospel also places heavy emphases on the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of Christ. Luke's Gospel is also the first of two volumes, the second being The Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:1).


The fourth Gospel was written by one called the beloved disciple (John 21:20-25), who has traditionally been taught to be John, the son of Zebedee and the brother of James (Matthew 10:2). John emphasizes the deity of Christ more than any of the other Gospel writers, introducing Him as the Word (Greek: Logos, Aramaic: Miltha, Hebrew: Davar) and by saying that the Word is God and that this Word became flesh (John 1:1, 14). The first three Gospels are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels ("Synoptic" means "similar") because they show similar views of Jesus, but John stands alone and acts as a great supplement to the Synoptic Gospels (primarily portraying events that are not chronicled in the other Gospels). It is by John's Gospel that we have deduced that Jesus's ministry last about three years (as he mentions three Passover festivals: John 2:13, 6:4, 13:1). John portrays Jesus as the final Passover Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world (John 1:29) and also shows us that He died during the Passover festival. In John's Gospel, Jesus has several major discourses that reveal a lot about who He is (John 5:17-47, 6:26-59, 8:31-58, 14-17). John brings us the glorious, divine Messiah. Jesus is the heavenly God coming down in the flesh to save us from our sins.  




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