The Medieval Canon: part one

Scriptorium Series: Volume 5
Northwest & Pacific Publishing




Northwest & Pacific Publishing


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"The Medieval Canon"

Copyright:  Hugh Bibbs, B.A., 2000
All rights reserved

First Edition


"First of all you must understand this, that no
prophesy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation,
because no prophesy ever came by the impulse of man, but
men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God."  -St. Peter
 (2 Peter. 1:20,21)

It is easy to critique the Roman Catholic tradition of Europe for its
structural flaws, for its institutional history.  However, that tradition is
above all the caretaker of western spirituality, and was never intended as
a branch of civil government.  It is, at its core, a religious tradition built
upon and maintained by the mystical experiences of millions of
westerners and their fellow communicants around the world.
What is remarkable about Christianity's relationship with the
Roman Catholic edifice, is that the mystical religion known as
Christianity actually survived the trauma, the damage, done to it by
having been absorbed and reconstructed as an officially sanctioned
institution.  Christianity was early on swallowed whole and given back
to mankind in the form of a department of religion, wrapped in the
institutional clothing of a warrior-driven Imperial bureaucracy: the
Roman Empire.  And yet, in spite of this, after two thousand years have
passed, human souls continue to find themselves moved and carried
forward by the Spirit of God through the mystical communion of the
Christian tradition.  


The credit for the survival of Christian mysticism and the religious
experience it encompasses is due largely in part to the Canon of the New
Testament, in particular the Gospels.
This text is aimed at an investigation of the literature called by
Christian tradition: "The Word of God".  Taking specifically the gospels
of the New Testament, and from an attitude of Christian faith, this
investigation looks into the problem of how the writings of men can take
on mystical dimensions.  The ancient attitude that God himself wrote
them using men as puppet instruments used to be common, and is still
held forth by some.  
The four gospels, being the books of Luke, Matthew, Mark and
John, proclaim the same message of Christian revelation: that God
revealed Himself to men by entering the world as the man Jesus of
Nazareth.  The gospels each fulfil the one purpose of delivering an
account of this singular event so that all "may know the truth"  
concerning it.
To introduce this text, though, as carefully as it deserves, a
thorough introduction to the Hebrew prophetic tradition contained in the
preceding texts of the Old Testament must be given.  So to begin with,
the Bible as a whole is discussed as part of the same literary history.
Biblical Literature and Religious Truth

The Bible presents its reader with a complex series of stories, often
repeating itself in consecutive accounts of the same incident for the
purpose of elaborating special details.  While the Bible handles its
subjects with authority, it is apparent that chronologies and histories
within the Bible conflict.  The stories themselves often strike us as
thoroughly fictitious.  It is as if we are expected to accept that which we
have no reason to.  Apparently, fiction is liberally mixed with fact in the
Bible.  If one is to face this problem of fiction and still remain aware of
the message presented, we must learn to understand the presentation.  
Jesus made up stories we call parables to illustrate our relationship to God.
The Old Testament also used stories to illustrate our relationship to God.
The religious truth of the Bible has marked it as the most important
religious scripture in the western world. Yet even as we admire the truth
which is there, we must acknowledge the presence of parables in the text.  The
solution to the problem of interpretation is found in the relationship
between mythology and religious truth in the Bible.  What follows is a
simple assessment of that relationship.  
Religion is intimately connected with the meaning of existence as
each man experiences it.  Religion is not a dispassionate study, or a
philosophy, or a fine theory about how we exist and why.  Religion is
involved with personal existence, and it is for this reason that without a
personal involvement in Religion we do not have any understanding of
it.  Specifically, Religion has to do with the experience of the Holy, of an
"otherness" which is personal yet powerful, independent, unrestricted by
time.  This experience is certainly real, and nobody denies that another
person may simply have a religious experience.  But, of special concern
to the believer is not the objectiveness of the experience, but the faith he
has that the experience is of an objective otherness, another person, the
person of God.  Of the Holy, we experience deep fascination, and
confidence in its integrity, but we also feel deep inadequacy in personal
closeness to the implicit power and truth of the Holy, because in
experiencing the Holy, we know our relationship it.  The Holy is
powerful, honest, beautiful, and lasting, and when we are in its presence,
we are unsettled.  Religion is the whole of a tradition involved in the
experience of the Holy.  Religious truth is fidelity to that experience in
the definition and communication of it.  
Mythology is the symbolic expression of an understanding of
human existence.  J. Henninger wrote that Myth is "the complex
expression of man's global experience of himself and of certain
mysterious realities with which he finds himself in relation.".   The myth
uses symbols to express these realities.  "A symbolic form is an
expression of truth, not a denial of truth",    so it is valid to express a form
of knowledge in symbols, as long as the meaning is accessible to the
student of that knowledge.  
Religion is not mythology.  Where mythology is man-centred and
attempts to interpret man, and is expressed outside of time or at least
beyond history, religion is transcendence-centred, tries to understand the
relationship between God and man, and is historical, placing emphasis on
the problem in time, in history.  "History, historical validity, exists at the
core of the religion and is essential to it."  
The problem is that religion uses mythology.  Therefore, there is a
popular lack of distinction between myth and religion by people who
prefer to believe that the experience of the Holy is not an experience of
otherness, but of self.  This approach suggests that religion is inspired by
a mythological view of man.  On the other hand, a view popularised in
this century by Rudolf Bultmann suggests that myth is inspired by a
perception of divinity, and that the purpose of myth is to reveal that
perception.    Myth is seen to be a representation of the divine in its
relation with the world of men.  Bultmann suggested that the secret
purpose of myth is not to give us any explanation of our world's origin
or nature, but to express man's dependence upon God.  He felt that
expressing this idea by using mythological terms frustrated its
communication: "The objective mythological representations absorb our
attention and distract us from the real point."    But, he made the mistake
of defining myth as categorically religious, rather than realising that while
religion may employ myth, that does not make the literary nature of myth
strictly religious.  
Where religion does employ myth, the religious idea that the divine
intervenes in the affairs of men is introduced in a mythical form by
endowing the transcendent forces with certain terrestrial characteristics,
"representing them in a form which is drawn from realities with which
we are familiar."    However, in the religious myth, the idea behind the
mythology is, by necessity, plain to see.  Even when the religious myth
is read historically, as though it were literal fact, the idea behind it is still
presented to us with clarity, contrary to what Bultmann said.  The
religious myth does not disguise a question or an ambiguity as does world
mythology.  The religious myth embodies a definite point of view, a
dogmatic religious article of faith.  This is understood in its relation to our
existence, and will never be like scientific truth which forces us to accept
it.  Instead, it requires us to be aware of its implications, and forces us,
not to accept it, but to choose to accept it or reject it.  "Even before we
have faith, everyone has an attitude towards God".    Our response to the
point of view expressed in the religious myth is always going to be
according to our attitude towards God.  This indicates the role of myth in
the religious text.  The story is not itself religious, but the story is used to
illustrate the religious truth.  
The development of myth in the Bible can be traced through the
history of the Hebrew people.  Especially when we find the sources of the
myths do we see the reason for the use of a particular story, illustrating
a particular idea.  It appears that stories in the Bible are there for one of
two reasons.  Either the story is from the true history of the Hebrews, or
it is an adaptation of a popular pagan story that is retold, according to the
Hebrew point of view, in order to highlight the special vision of the
They employed myth in their writings that dealt with pre-Exodus
accounts, and it continues through the story of the Babylonian exile.
Historically, before the Exodus, the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt.
Through no power of their own, they were wholly delivered from out of
the land and hands of the Egyptians.  This was their origin as a nation.  
The tremendous impact of this Exodus event left the people with a lasting
religious tradition.  Without question the very unique aspect of Exodus
was not the entire removal of an oppressed class from the society of its
oppression, but the experience of being led into a new and promising life
by the personal intervention of God.  In those days, those who were
actually delivered from Egypt, and in whose memories lived the actual
experience of the Exodus, had no personal need of mythical and cultic
representations of the saving event.  But they had a need of some means
by which they could relate and perpetuate the experience in their
Their understanding of the experience was related firstly through
the retelling of the saving event in plain language, as a story, but
interpreted according to the religious experience which was the very heart
of the Exodus.  Then, secondly, it was related through the re-enactment
of the saving event by the establishment of cultic representation.  The cult
is the acting out of the thought content of the tradition, which is often
conveyed in symbolic and mythic language.  The cult was employed to
re-present the actual experience of the saving event.  So, a liturgy was
established to define the cult, and an oral tradition was established to
retell the great experience.  The smearing of blood, the bitter herbs,
unleavened bread, all of which came into the passover meal, received a
significance and life once again in the Hebrew liturgy.  As new
generations grew up and those who had lived through the Exodus passed
into memory, the nation's emotional experience of a saving event
depended on the religion which had been established.  The mythology of
the oral tradition developed according to the Hebrew religious emphasis.
The growth of myth was checked by the nation's religious experiences,
and according to the role which myth was permitted to have within the
Hebrew faith.  "At the point where cultic literature serves to perpetuate
the religious heritage then it is canonised and itself becomes Holy, too"
noted the Jesuit Biblical scholar, John Sheehan.   In fact, that is what
happened with the Hebrew scripture as it passed from being an
expression of the religion to being the foundation of the religion for the
contemporary nation.  
In examining particular biblical stories, we can achieve some
familiarity with the use of myth in the Bible, and thereby see how
mythology was used to present religious truth.  Each of the myths
incorporated by Hebrew theologians into their literature presented the
Hebrew vision of a particular question.    

Old Testament Myths

A comparison of the Biblical account of creation with its
Mesopotamian  and Canaanite counterparts reveal similarities in the
structure of the myth , but the Hebrew version can be viewed as a direct
polemic against the pagan myths.  
Those bodies of the universe which were deities in the pagan
myths are reduced to the status of things in the Biblical version. Mankind,
on the other hand, portrayed as insignificant pawns in the pagan universe,
is said in Genesis to have been created in the image and likeness of God,
receiving dominion over the rest of creation.  
Good and evil are represented as primary creations in the pagan
myths, whereas in Genesis, all primary creation is good, but it is within
the power of the created beings to produce good or, for the first time, evil.
In all the Biblical accounts of creation, God is shown as having asserted
control over chaos, which is the vehicle by which sin and death enter our
lives.  The question of whether God created out of something or out of
nothing is not dealt with, because it is not important or even meaningful
in the Hebrew context.  Instead, as Sheehan points out, "the relationship
between God and chaos in a world where nature is not under any kind of
control is of immense significance."     The Hebrew authors illustrated
their own religious awareness of God as one who allows and uses chaos
to serve His own purpose.  In the Hebrew tradition God did not promise
us control over chaos, but He has assured mankind that chaos is subject
to His restriction.  
The act of creation is an act of God's goodwill.  In the New
Testament all things are seen as having been created in and for Christ, the
son of God, and through him, all things are made new (2 Col 5:7). Christ
has made of each believer a new creation (Eph 2:15) by his act of
overcoming sin and death, the two essentials in the nature of chaos.
Religion could appear to be merely an exercise in linguistic riddles if it
weren't for the personal and historical reality which the religion reveals.
Another story in Genesis deals with the fall of Mankind from
grace.  It is apparent that the Genesis account of the Fall borrows heavily
from the myths of the neighbours of the Hebrews.  In the Gilgamesh epic,
an ancient Mesopotamian poem, which predated the Exodus by at least
one thousand years, possibly many more, a man and his wife are the only
two people on earth.  They live in a paradise of delight at the mouth of
two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates.     Genesis incorporates this myth
in a modified form to present its own distinct vision that it is a result of
man's rebellion against God that he is doomed to death.  
Adam and Eve, whether interpreted as historic or symbolic,
represent Man and Woman as created by God.  They are tempted to "be
like God (Gn 3:5)" and choose to disobey God's will for them.  This is
their movement away from God.  Afterwards, they despair, and hide from
God.  When He approaches them with their personal guilt, they each deny
it and blame someone else, Adam blames Eve, she blames the serpent in
the Garden.  According to the Genesis author(s), this is the foundation of
sin, and one man's sin is seen to hurt all men.  
With the Flood story, chaos reasserts itself in a universally known
form of natural disaster.  The previous versions of this story found in
older Babylonian, Assyrian, and Sumerian mythologies question the
wisdom of the gods who impose disaster indiscriminately.  The deluge
story is the clearest example of how the Hebrews retold popular traditions
from other peoples and retold them in a way which presented their
theological precepts.  The Genesis story faces the theological problem
found in the pagan story, but the Hebrews didn't blame the disaster on
irrational anger.  They saw such a disaster as rising from the corruption
of mankind (Gn 6:12).  God allowed the flood to happen in order to crush
an evil humanity.  The event is seen as just punishment for sin.     In this
way, the Hebrew authors answer the question of how a good God can
allow such things to happen.  The answer is that man brings chaos upon
himself by sin, and God allows man to be responsible for his own choice,
and man finds that he must eventually face the destruction implicit in his
sin.  Once again, the religious myth is a vehicle for an independent
religious truth.  The myth is used to present the religious truth as a
universal reality which applied at one time to all mankind in the flood.
In the New Testament, the waters by which most of mankind was
annihilated are conversely compared to the waters of Christian baptism
which purge sin while at the same time establishing the creation of a
reborn human in Christ.  The Old Testament authors could have done as
the apostles did and written pure reflections on theology to illustrate their
faith.  Instead, they used stories to illustrate their faith.  .

Historic and Mythic Interpolation

Fiction is mixed liberally with fact in the Old Testament, and often
it is not at all clear which is which.  In the example of the Book of Ruth,
we can accept it as either.  Whatever its original literary form, it presents
powerful religious insights.  Scholars sense that the outline of the Ruth
story is taken from a Canaanite fertility myth, since the symbolism
indicates it.  The Canaanite fertility cult was the religious heritage which
the Hebrews inherited from the ancient Palestinians.  The Hebrews
repressed the pagan rites and beliefs, but they could not avoid cultural
saturation with Canaanite symbolism.  So the Hebrews drew upon the
rich symbolism because it evoked a deep response in regard to the lives
of their agricultural people.  Fertility involved the life of the earth, the
fields, the flocks and mankind.     So the Hebrew authors borrowed an
acceptable pagan myth with its acceptable symbolism and made use of it
in their writings about their own people.  Even the Hebrew cultic worship
absorbed the Canaanite influence.  In the Canaanite cult, the fertility god
was customarily erected over the threshing floor of the grain harvest.  
When King David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, he took
it up to the old pagan threshing floor in procession and, after a free-
spirited dance, he had it erected on the site of the threshing floor.  The
name of the place of the threshing floor was Beth le hem, "house of
bread".     Of course, it was on this site that Solomon later built the
Some scholars suppose that some of the Judges recorded in the Old
Testament who are said to have been ancient leaders of Israel before the
monarchy may have been heroes from pagan stories.  Since later Old
Testament editors would have been aware of the origin of these stories,
they may have adjusted the facts as recorded in the literature to render the
text more compatible to Hebrew tradition.  For instance, one of the Judges
mentioned was Shamgar, son of Anath, the Canaanite god of violence.
 Shamgar is said to have killed six hundred Philistines with the jawbone
of an ass, a feat later attributed to Samson who was a Hebrew and of
whom a great deal was written.  But Shamgar, because of his pagan
relative, is unsuited to Hebrew tradition and is relegated to an aside of
two lines (Jd 3:31; 5:6).  In fact, he is recalled in the line "In the days of
Shamgar, son of Anath." only to be used as a dating marker; to recall
the emotion and times associated with the events actually being discussed
in the text.    
The value of a fictitious national hero is obviously not historical.
 Instead, the figure is upheld because of the specific national attitude
associated with him; it is the emotional reality which is evoked that is

Mythic Traditions

When the Levites complained about having no share of the land
after the conquest of Israel, they were told that "the Lord Himself is their
inheritance (Jos 13:33)".  The passage is found in a book of scripture
which scholars take to be recent in terms of the history of the Hebrews,
and it is unlikely that the passage gives an historical account of the
establishment of the Levites as the priestly class.     Yet the teaching
force of this passage is real.  It expresses faith in a pure and powerful
By the time of Christ, the priesthood was held by Zadokites.  
Zadok had been David's high priest in Jerusalem, and it is likely that he
was one of the Jebusites whom David had converted to Yahwism in order
to serve as priests in Jerusalem.  His descendants made up the Zadokite
class, and of all the priests in Israel, the Zadokites alone had remained
faithful to Yahweh during the Babylonian Exile, when the Levites and the
rest of Israel had apostasized (Ez 44:15).  There are genealogies recorded
in the Old Testament which mark Zadok as a Levite (1 Ch 5:34; 24:3-6)
and a descendant of Aaron (1 Ch 27:17) and Eli (2 Sam 8:17).  It is likely
that these genealogies were fabricated at a later time when the priesthood,
thought to belong to the Aaronite tradition, was held by Zadokites.     In
this way, the Old Testament editors sought to sanction the situation of
their own time, because Zadok was evidently not a Levite.  If the
genealogies are mythical, they serve to represent Zadok as a legitimate
high priest, which he was in any case.  So, it seems that the truth of
history was violated by the Hebrew authors in order to serve more
faithfully what they considered the truth of Yahwism.  The perspective
which lends validity to this attitude was that of the prophets, who called
Israel relentlessly back "from the attractive world of cult into the more
sober, spiritual and enlightened religion which was pure Yahwism."  

Mythic Vision of Destiny

The prophets were men called by God to interpret the will of God
for contemporary Israel and for the pagans, as in the case of Jonah.  Even
as Christ drew upon the story of Jonah in the belly of the whale to be a
sign to men of God's plan, so were all the prophets a sign of God's will
for men, being a sign of contradiction to the rest of the nation.  That is,
in the Hebrew society where widow and orphans starved to death at the
doors of the wealthy families, the prophets raged, "Israel, prepare to meet
your God! (Am 4:12)."    They spoke of imminent tribulation, but
promised life for those who repented.  They proclaimed a time of justice
when God would restore Israel to righteousness and glory. Drawing of the
promise to David that his throne is "established forever (2 Sam 7:13)",
the Hebrews anticipated a son of David's house to come as a great King,
restoring Israel to glory and favour with God.  On account of their belief
that Yahweh would give them supremacy, they fell into a superstitious
attitude towards their Lord, and felt that they had been granted an
irrevocable position of favour.  It was against this self-complacency that
the prophets raged.
The Hebrews anticipated a Messiah, but their tradition left them
with a multiplicity of whom to expect "the anointed one" to be.  Isaiah
revealed a suffering servant, an innocent figure, who would suffer
blamelessly, so that "by this chastisement we are healed. The Lord laid
on Him the guilt of us all (Is 53: 6-7)", and in this way Israel would be
redeemed.  They also expected a deliverer, both a priest and a King, a
royal messiah greater than David, to deliver Israel forever from the hands
of their foes.  Israel has waited long for this messiah.  Apocalyptic
prophets came in later Old Testament times and proclaimed the end of the
world.  An eschatological expectation developed.  The royal Messiah
would appear only at the end of time, he would be the Son of God (Ps
2:7), come to take the righteous into heaven and destroy the wicked.  This
eschatological outlook was adopted by the Christians.  The Christians
expected that since the suffering servant, Jesus, had been glorified by
God, then the final act of a universal judgement was imminent in time.
 In the expectation of the return of Christ at the end of time, an
apocalyptic tradition was established.  
The Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, is largely a rethinking of
Old Testament symbolism, with particular focus on the messianic strains.
 It is completely unintelligible without faithful reference to the Old
Testament sources which it draws upon.  Modern scholars are not willing
to draw specific interpretation about the message contained in this Book,
but they propose that it is either entirely eschatological in outlook, or that
it reflects the historical events at the time of its composition, with
particular attention on the plight of the early church.  It employs material
from ancient mythological traditions, but there is conflicting opinion
regarding the influence of the Hellenism of the times.  "This New
Testament mythology borrows acceptable symbols from that of the
Jewish Apocalypse and the Gnostic mythology of redemption."   as
opposed to. "the patterns of myth which one may find in the New
Testament are not drawn from the myth and mystery religions of the
Hellenistic world, but from the mythopoeic thought and language of the
Old Testament."     Actually, a reading of the apocalyptic literature of the
contemporary Essene cult, discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls, reveals
that the Book of Revelation is so consistent with that purely Jewish
literature that arguably it originates from the same cult.    
As far as the relationship between mythology and religious truth in
the Bible is concerned, it has been illustrated here how the mythology
compliments the religious truth, but really does not embellish it; the
mythology simply makes it easily accessible.  The religious truth
enhances the mythology and gives it any merit which it contains.  

The Gospels

Three of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, were written
according to the same schematic plan, a synopsis of early Christian
salvation history, and are therefore called the Synoptic gospels.  This plan
begins with the preaching of John the Baptist and, in this order, deals
with the baptism of Jesus, his temptation in the wilderness, the calling of
the disciples and his Galilean ministry. Then comes the journey to
Jerusalem, the passion, death, and resurrection.  This plan involves only
the one climactic visit to Jerusalem, whereas John's gospel, which does
not follow this plan, reports three annual visits to Jerusalem during the
ministry.  Since John's gospel declares that the author of the text is one
of the twelve disciples (John 21:24), it can be presumed that his
chronology of events is reliable, since he was personally involved in the
events concerned.
The synoptic gospels have a large amount of material in common,
yet, familiarity with the texts brings with it the problem of discrepancies
between gospels.  The discrepancy is not in the message, but in the actual
accounts of the ministry.  A series of problems present themselves.  
Which text is to be preferred when chronologies, genealogies, quotations,
and details conflict?  Can the texts each be considered the Word of God
when they are imperfect?  If they are not the Word of God, wherein is
their authority?  Finally, if their authority is in doubt, is their message also
not in doubt?   The problem to be dealt with is in grasping the actual
nature of these writings, and to verify their message in the context of their
true character.
The gospels all have two characters; that of faith, and that of
history.  The message about Jesus is embodied in both the faith expressed
in the gospels and in the historical basis for that faith.  Without the
historical basis, the faith would be meaningless.  
Jesus actually was a man, who grew up in Nazareth and spent
several years a a travelling teacher, proclaiming his message and working
wonders in Palestine sometime during the years when Pontius Pilate was
pro-curator of Judaea from AD 25 to 35.  So there are reported in the
gospels the historical accounts, and not necessarily included with them,
are the accounts of events which were prefigured in the Old Testament.
 The message of the gospels, that Jesus is the Messiah spoken of in the
Old Testament and long awaited by Israel, required the incorporation of
the Messianic themes and prophesies into the accounts of Jesus.  The
question arises whether these Old Testament themes are noted in the
gospels because Jesus actually fulfilled them by deed, or whether they are
included because the gospel writers felt obliged to apply them to Jesus in
claiming him to be their fulfilment.
The process of investigating just how the gospel material was
collected and written down is a literary technique called Form History.
 Between the death and resurrection of Jesus, which occurred at around
AD 33, and the writing down of the first gospel, there was a period of
some thirty years.  During that time, the early church grew; through that
decisive Christian Pentecost in Jerusalem; through the death of the first
martyr, Stephen, one of the Seven (AA 6:5); through the persecution and
dispersion; through the early missionary efforts of Paul and others; until
the church had grown in size, and the communities of faithful were found
from end to end of the Roman Empire.  
By the time the first gospel was written, the tradition of the
Christian church had become fixed, and great concern was given to
handing down that tradition with precision, and especially with fidelity
to existing eyewitness accounts.  Before the first gospel was written
down, most of Paul's Peter's James' John's, and Jude's letters had been
written, with all their uniformity of instructions to the faithful, and
doctrine.  In other words, the gospels were not written as a means of
informing the Church about Jesus.  The Church already had the material
contained in the gospels.  They were written, as Luke explains it, "to
write an orderly account. of the things which have been accomplished
among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the
beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word (Lk 1:1,2)."
An orderly account; meaning that the written gospel is an effort to
organise and include all the acceptable accounts of the Church's message
into one comprehensive work.  Form History, then notes how the early
Church, having preserved an oral tradition during the first thirty years,
must have come to a point where the demand was felt to write down the
entire oral tradition "of the things which have been accomplished" in
order to preserve it intact and immutable, especially in light of the fact
that the precious few remaining eyewitnesses would soon be dead.  
The gospels have preserved for the Church the state of the oral
tradition exactly as it was around the time of the fall of Jerusalem in AD
70.  Attention must be given to the nature of oral tradition in Palestine
and other areas of the Roman Empire at that time, in order to see how the
gospel message, being fixed in oral tradition, was preserved in different
styles by particular "ministers of the word" and different communities.
The material which the gospel writers had to work with was
varied.  It can be broken down into types of material which would likely
have been collected together by the oral tradition to form sets of
instructive and informative sayings and stories.  Rudolph Bultmann
suggested this widely accepted breakdown of the gospel material into two
classes, Sayings and Narratives.  The sayings are divided into:
1. those which are fixed within a narrative, being the outcome of
controversies or being instructions
2. proverbs
3. apocalyptic sayings
4. community rules
5. personal proclamations by Jesus of himself and affirming his
6. parables.  
The narratives are divided into miracle stories and biographical legends.
The significance of all this is that while the early Church did not
have the written gospels, it did have this wealth of material dealing with
the faith.  The transmission of this material orally did not, and could not,
concern itself with reconstructing the life of Jesus.  Instead, within the
known biographical fact of the passion, death, and resurrection of the
Messiah, all of this material helped the early church to live according to
the example and instructions of Jesus.  The oral tradition concerned itself
with the situations in life to which it could be applied; the situation in life
for which a saying was immediately applicable.  For instance, Matthew
records a community rule saying in which Jesus advises the disciples on
how they should best handle someone who is disrupting the community
(Mt 18:15-17).  Significantly, Matthew, writing in Greek, puts the word
"eklesia" into the mouth of Jesus.  The term means Church to us today,
as it did to Matthew.  But there was no Christian church in Palestine
when Jesus spoke and he certainly did not use the word as we know it.
 Yet the oral tradition had fixed the word "eklesia" into that saying so that
it applied directly to the early Church as the community of which Jesus
spoke.  In this way, material was selected for the oral tradition to suit the
life situation of the Church.  
This discriminating selection had to be made.  John advises us at
the conclusion of his gospel, "there are also many other things which
Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world
itself could not contain the books that would be written (Jn 21:25)."  In
other words, John isn't telling us everything he knows, but only that
which he believes we need to know for our lives as Christians.  The life
situation of the Church determined what material was to be handed down
in forming the tradition of the Church.
From reading the gospels we can see that the oral tradition had
different types of material which may have been contained in separate
collections.  A collection of parables is easy to understand.  A collection
of community sayings may well have been assembled in order to establish
a common basis for agreement and order.  The apocalyptic sayings would
certainly have been a collection unto themselves, carefully studied by an
early Church expecting the end of the world at any moment.  In this way,
it can be seen that while the gospel writers had a perfectly adequate
collection of material, as well as the basic biographical framework of
Palestine from "the days of Herod the king (Lk 1:5)" through "the reign
of Tiberius Caesar (Lk 3:1)" to when "Pontius Pilate was governor of
Judaea (Lk 3:1)", yet, unless they were eyewitnesses, they still had no
chronological account of Jesus' ministry into which they could fit the
narratives and sayings with precise historical certainty.  Still, they sought
to write down the collected oral tradition, not in the form of a collection,
but in the form of a narrative; as a sequence of passages within the
limited known biographical framework; "an orderly account."
Oral tradition helps to explain the divergences of the gospels, but
it cannot account for their similarities.  The synoptics agree in a variety
of ways amidst obvious differences.  All three gospels share 330 verses
in common, but they each use these passages in different orders.  For
example, Luke placed the call of the disciples after the first preaching of
Jesus at Capernaum, while Mark placed it before.  Then, between any two
of the synoptics are further passages in common between only those two.
 Matthew and Luke both contain most of Mark's gospel, which scholars
agree was written first.  The indication is that both Matthew and Luke
used Mark's gospel as a basis for writing their own.  Matthew and Luke
imitated Mark's schematic plan, as well as using his gospel as source
material.  Literary peculiarities, such as rare or slang Greek works, are
said to be found in the same passages in two or more gospels, while the
actual passages differ in historical chronology.  So, they use the same
material and yet are unaware of any real chronological history.  
Since there was no chronology of events available to the writers of
the synoptic gospels, they were obliged to develop their own schematic
representation of events in keeping with the revelation of Jesus which
they had received.  Most of the enormous quantity of sayings and lessons
which are found in the gospels are found alike in all of the synoptics, yet
are written up using different approaches.  Mark organised his ministry
material into two phases.  The first grouping which emphasised the
divinity of Jesus gives way, with Peter's confession of Jesus as Lord, to
the second grouping emphasising Jesus as the suffering servant.  Matthew
organised this same material mostly into five major discourses, including
the "sermon of the Mount", in which Jesus is portrayed clearly as a
teacher and a leader to be followed.  Luke followed Mark closely except
for his great insertion of material into a ten chapter account of Jesus'
purposeful Journey to Jerusalem, in which his ministry is seen as bringing
him inexorably closer to Golgotha.  This aspect of his mission as being
destined for rejection is prefigured in Luke by the account of his rejection
in Nazareth which Luke places at the beginning of Jesus' ministry.
John Mark wrote, in greek, the first of our four gospels.  He was
a member of the first Jerusalem community and he embarked with Paul
on Paul's first missionary journey.  He ended up in Rome, with Paul,
during the early 60's, where it is believed that he wrote his gospel.
The probability that his gospel was written in Rome is supported
by his lack of Old Testament references, the use of Latin words for
military and economic terms, and his constant explanation of any aramaic
terms which he uses.  The oral tradition which he recorded was clearly
that of a gentile Church.  John Mark lived much of his life as a
missionary, and his long contact with the gentile churches would have
subdued his original dependency upon the distinctive Jerusalem tradition.
 He wrote his gospel for a gentile audience, and that is probably the
reason why he avoids emphasising Jesus' confrontations with the Jewish
authorities.  That confrontation is most in important in the other gospels.
Matthew recorded parables and sayings in the distinctive Hebrew
oral style.  The Semitic techniques for memorising an instructive story
involved a basic story format, parallelism.  Repetition is a key to
memorising, and parallelism is effected by balancing one situation against
another, one format being used repeatedly to present several aspects of
the concluding idea.  Parallel situations are related, and a conclusion is
drawn as the synthesis of the outcome of all the situations.  This method
makes it easy to memorise a long lesson.  Taking the story of the sheep
and the goats (Mt 25:31-46), it can be seen how the Church in Palestine
had fixed this lesson in the oral tradition using parallelism.  The sheep
and the goats are introduced as the thesis and antithesis.  The sheep at the
right hand are praised for their good works and the lesson is given, "what
you do to my brothers, you do to me."  Then the goats at the left hand are
condemned for their lack of good works and the lesson is given, "what
you did not do for my brothers, you did not do for me."  The conclusion:
the evil ones are sent to hell, and the good ones to heaven.  The story
reinforces doubly the lesson.  This passage is not found in any of the
other gospels.  It was preserved in this form only by the Church in
Palestine.  Matthew also groups sayings in numbers, connecting sayings
with catchwords, ".you have heard it said. but I say to you.".  "Ask
and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock and it will be
opened to you.  For everyone who asks recieves, and he who seeks finds,
and to him who knocks it will be opened (Mt 7:7)."  The presentation is
lyrical, rhythmic, and easy to remember.
Matthew has included in his material many references to Old
Testament texts which he used to illustrate, if not to prove, that fact that
Jesus was the foretold Messiah of Israel.  Since the preaching efforts of
the Palestine church were largely aimed at converting Jews, the use of the
Torah and the prophets would have been an essential part of their
ministry.  The Jews expected the Messiah to fulfil certain conditions as
laid down in their own tradition, and the Palestine Christians had to use
the Jewish Messianic tradition to show that Jesus was the Messiah.  In
this way, the oral tradition of Palestine, as recorded by Matthew,
contained a collection of Old Testament Messianic prophecies which
Jesus had fulfilled.  Matthew also included a contrived genealogy which
is intended to demonstrate to the Jewish audience how Jesus is a
descendant of Abraham and David.  The genealogy is arranged to fit into
a numerical plan (three groups of fourteen) typical of Semitic oral style.
Luke wrote in the best Greek style to be found in the New
Testament.  It is possible that he was a professional scribe.  He
accompanied Paul on missionary work, and wrote the Acts of the
Apostles as well as this gospel.  Luke addressed his gospel to a gentile
audience, "Theophilus" (lover of God).  To edify the gentiles for whom
he wrote his gospel, Luke uses a contrived genealogy to deomostrate how
Jesus was a descendent of Adam, just like the gentiles.  The only problem
here is that his genealogy conflicts miserably with Matthew's.  It is no
wonder that Paul urged the disciples "not to occupy themselves with
myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather that
the divine training that is in faith (1Tim 1:4)."
Luke avoids topographical references, which would be superfluous
to non-Palestinian readers, by simply omitting place names.  Since he
used the gospel of Mark as a source for the material of his own gospel,
Luke must have omitted the place names, which Mark used, For a
deliberate reason.  The most apparent reason for his doing this has to do
with the plan of his gospel.  He used Mark's plan for the general outline,
but he placed a large body of material, ten chapters, within the Journey
to Jerusalem, and in order to accommodate this particular emphasis on
the Journey, he rearranged Mark's material and used much of it, out of
place, in the Journey account.  If he had used the place names which
Mark gives, the picture which would have emerged of the Journey would
have been one the wild zig-zagging and backtracking across the Judaean
countryside.  Luke avoided this by ignoring the place names.
Luke and Matthew each present an account of the birth of Jesus,
an event so significant to the believers.  Each of them handles the infancy
of Jesus in a different way.  Luke deals with the glory and joy which the
event brings to the oppressed.  He begins by dealing with the birth of the
last prophet of Israel, John the Baptist, and shows how John is a type of
his master, Jesus.  The basis for the birth of John may well have been
local oral tradition, yet it is easily seen how Luke could have used the
Messianic themes of the Old Testament to demonstrate how John and
Jesus were born in the manner typical of the great prophets.  John's
parents were old and his mother barren, Jesus' mother a virgin.  
However, both of these women could rejoice, saying, "Thus the Lord has
done to me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach
among men (Lk 1:25)", because both women conceive and bear sons.  
The pattern of the account of John's birth so closely parallels that of
Jesus' that it would seem likely that the pattern is fabricated for the
purpose of symbolic representation.  This is especially likely when it is
noted that virtually all of the content of the infancy gospels is borrowed
from the Old Testament.  For example, the song of Mary, which we call
Mary's Magnificat, is strikingly similar to the song of Hannah (1 Sam
2:1-10).  Since Luke did not know what Mary actually said, he put these
words into her mouth as though Mary were speaking on behalf of her
people.  Luke inserts biographical material, such as the virgin birth in the
days of the census, or the relation between Mary and Elizabeth, into a
contrived framework which is rich in symbolism.  In Luke's account of
the birth of Jesus, the women, the shepherds, the devout, are all exalted
by God, who sends angels to them announcing the "good tidings of great
joy (Lk 2:10)" that the Messiah is to be born, and this joy, Luke
announces, if for all people, including gentiles.  
Matthew's infancy gospel also borrows upon Messianic themes in
the Old Testament, but in such a way as to present the infancy of Jesus
as a fulfilling of the scriptures.  The emphasis of Matthew's infancy
gospel is on the mission of the suffering servant.  Herod's plotting against
Jesus, the slaughter of the infants in the region of Bethlehem, and the
flight to Egypt, are powerful testimonies to the tragedy of the Lord's
rejection by Israel.  The necessity of emphasising the error if Israel is
important to the Church in Palestine, and the infancy gospel of Matthew
provides a clear vision of the divine innocence of Jesus, and the
wretchedness of those who put him to death.  It is also significant to the
Palestinian Church that the gentiles should recognise the Christ, as the
account of the three Magi illustrates.  It can be seen that the infancy
gospels were used as a prelude to the written gospels in order to reinforce
the Christian message.  Profoundly tragic it is that the seeds of anti-
Semitism in the illiterate Europe of the Franks were sewn here in
Palestine by these literate early Jewish Christians who were themselves
only trying to make a difficult mystical point clear to their own tribe.  
The infancy gospels reflect a Semitic literary form, known as
Midrash, which is also found elsewhere in the Bible.  Midrash involves
the imaginative elaboration of an idea or incident.  The Old Testament
uses midrash, taking some principle of Jewish faith and presenting it in
a fictitious narrative, in books such as Daniel, Ruth, and indeed most all
of the books of the Old Testament.  This method of re-presenting a
religious truth was apparently viewed as necessary and valid.  So, it can
be seen that the infancy gospels re-present Messianic texts from the Old
Testament in such a way as to illustrate the Lordship and mission of
Jesus.  Since this is a Semitic technique, it is untypical of the writing of
Luke, and can be viewed as a preface or appendix to his gospel, which
may or may not have been composed by him.
The gospel of John is obviously set apart from the synoptics, both
in style and content.  Long thought to have borrowed heavily from Greek
philosophy, today in light of the Qumran documents, its content is seen
to be distinctly and utterly Semitic.  John presents the apocalyptic
mentality seen in Palestine at the time of Jesus, and he represents Jesus
as fulfilling the eschatological expectations of the Jews.  There are catch
phrases used by John which are noted to be common with the Qumran
scrolls: "the word of life"; "to do the truth"; "Sons of Light"; "life
eternal".  The fact that John was at home with the intense and almost
fanatically judgmental Jewish apocalyptic school of thought is perfectly
in keeping with the title, "son of thunder (Mk 3:17)" given him by Jesus.
 However, by the time he had composed his own gospel, John, who had
once sought to bring down fire and brimstone to destroy a town which
had rejected Jesus, had also developed a profound sense of the love which
Jesus has for him, and indeed which God has for all mankind.  John's
gospel confronts us with our relation to God, and imposes a decision
upon us, whether or not to embrace Jesus, with Thomas, as "my Lord and
my God (Jn 20:28)".  This confrontation with God's plan for us in Jesus
is illustrated in the many visits to Jerusalem in John's gospel, in which
Jesus is seen as confronting his people with God's plan for them.  John
is acutely aware of Israel's failure to accept Jesus.  He levels the blame
against all of his people, and writes up the confrontation between Jesus
and his opponents as if between Jesus and "the Jews".  His accusation is
plain: "He who is of God hears the words of God; the reason why you do
not hear them is that you are not of God (Jn 8:47)."  
John presents the bulk of his teaching in a long presentation of
Jesus' discourse at the last supper.  In this section of his gospel is found
a problem of composition.  The last supper episode ends in chapter
fourteen, and Jesus says, "Rise, let us go hence."  Chapter fifteen begins
with a continuation of the discourse of the last supper and continues for
three more chapters.  Then, chapter eighteen opens with a second ending
to the last supper account.  A similarly odd composition ends the gospel.
 A conclusion is found in chapter twenty, yet the gospel continues for
another chapter, which then repeats the first conclusion, to end the
As well, the second conclusion gives a first person singular
testimony as to the truth of the gospel, "This is the disciple who is bearing
witness to these things, and who has written these things", and then goes
on to ratify this testimony with a first person plural testimony, "and we
know that his testimony is true."  All of which proves that John's gospel,
as we have it, was not strictly speaking entirely written by John.  It was
probably composed by John over years of preaching, and the men closest
to him must have inserted into John's original manuscript those passages
which he had left out, but which they, being familiar with them, did not
want to lose.  
The second ending of John's gospel includes reference to his
death.  Not that he had died, but that he would die.  In fact, it is written
up as an apologetic justification of John's death.  This indicates that John
had died, and those who revised his gospel made a special note of it
because, as they mention, there had been a saying among the brethren that
John was not to die.  If the composition of John's gospel was
contemporaneous to his death, then it was written earlier than both
Matthew and Luke's possibly at the same time as Mark's, which explains
in one respect why it is that John and Mark are not at all mutually
The gospels must be recognised as the writings simply of men.  
Each text is influenced by the individual who wrote it.  The message of
each gospel is coloured by the character and circumstances of the author.
 Yet in spite of the distance and time between the various authors, they
have all managed to convey the same message about Jesus of Nazareth
who was the only begotten son of God, born of a woman according to the
will of our God whom Jesus knew as Father; Jesus, who was from
conception in union with the almighty Spirit of God, and who brought
men face to face with the kingdom of God, and gave us an example in his
surrender to God even unto death; who is the one lamb of God, and who
gave himself and was given by God to death as atonement for the sin of
men, so that we may, in following Him, receive redemption.  Finally, the
gospels proclaim the good news that Jesus fulfilled the condition of God's
chosen one of absolute power over death; "He has risen (Mk 16:6; Mt
28:6; Lk 24:34; Jn 20:9)".  
Certainly the writings of the New Testament are varied and the
message of Jesus is presented in many different ways, yet it is not a
different message which is represented in each case, for they all present
the same plain message of Jesus, and of what He is for us all.  In this
way, it cannot be said that the texts are imperfect, for their perfection is
in their message, and not in their literary conformity.  The written gospel
carries the same authority as the spoken gospel, which is the authority of
preaching the message of Jesus, whose word is God's own, and which is
the channel by which one man calls another to the Spirit of God.  
As the message of the Church, the gospel is the Word of God to
those who hear, and the authority of the Word of God cannot be
questioned by them.  The evidence given by the gospels proves that God
does not use men as puppet instruments to execute His will.  The
evidence is to the effect that God invites men to do His will, enabling
them by His own grace, and that the more perfect a man's union with
God, the more excellent his individuality is seen to be.  One man presents
the gospel to another with a subjectivity which expresses his own
witness, and with an objectivity which expresses the Church's faith.  In
the context of the complex literary nature of the gospels, their common
message most certainly remains viable.
This message was wholly embraced by medieval Europe.  All
natural experience was interpreted in the light of these scriptures, and no
learning was held in higher esteem than the simple living out in daily life
the social and mystical ideal taught by the gospels.  Then, as now, few
enough were able to do that well.  


From the ninth century Lindisfarne Gospels manuscript, this leaf shows the celtic influence in Northumbrian art.

[ Part Two: the Christology of Gregory of Tours ]