Good News for the Churches
On top of this mysterious relationship with each other, it is clear that the gospels were written not simply to report, but also to show how Jesus’ teaching and ministry address the problems that the Church (in its various communities) faced and still faces. So then, the evangelists can be seen to select and to shape their stories so that they answer particular questions that their reading community encountered, and which we may also be bothered about in our own day. One clear example is seen in Mark 7, where Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees about his disciples not washing their hands ceremoniously; the gospel (in many versions of Mark 7:19) explicitly applies this to the later controversy in the Church regarding whether one could eat food that was not kosher. Another can be seen in the way that Luke applies Jesus’ parable of the two sons (Luke 15:11–31): Jesus no doubt was referring, as he originally told the story in Israel, to the ultra-religious Pharisees over against the more lax Jewish “people of the land;” Luke uses it to suggest that the “younger brother” is the Gentiles, who have not paid attention to the God of Israel.
As a result of this complexity and development, questions have been asked through the ages, and especially in our day: did one or more of the evangelists use other gospels, as well as oral report, lost (to us) writings, as well as eye-witness knowledge, in composing his gospel? How much latitude in writing was expected in a work that at least resembles the ancient biography? What do we do about the fact that John’s Gospel seems to present a three-year ministry for Jesus, while the synoptics, which give us many more episodes, seem to imply a one-year ministry? Did Jesus cleanse the Temple at the beginning or end of his ministry, or twice?
No solution that has been suggested to explain this complex relationship between the gospels answers all the questions that we might have about chronology, or detail: this is because the purpose of the gospels is to show Christ in his glory, and draw us to him, not primarily to give us history lessons. History, nevertheless, remains important to us, because God the Son entered human time and space, and redeemed it. He cares about the body, and not just our souls or spirits. Moreover, the continued use of four various gospels in the Church invites us to ask questions like these. Yet, these concerns should not distract us from the main one, which is the identity of Jesus, and God’s claim upon our lives.