We have arrived in our study of the Sacred Scriptures at the threshold of the most interesting and the most momentous topic which is presented to the student of the Biblical literature, -- the question of the origin of the Gospels. These Gospels contain the record of the life and the death of Jesus Christ, that marvelous Personality in whom the histories, the prophecies, the liturgies of the Old Testament are fulfilled, and from whom the growing light and freedom and happiness of eighteen Christian centuries are seen to flow. Most certain it is that the history of the most enlightened lands of earth during these Christian centuries could not be understood without constant reference to the power which came into the world when Jesus Christ was born. Some tremendous social force made its appearance just then by which the whole life of mankind has been affected ever since that day. The most powerful institutions, the most benign influences which are at work in the world to-day, can be followed back to that period as surely as any great river can be followed up to the springs from which it takes its rise. If we had not these four Gospels we should be compelled to seek for an explanation of the chief phenomena of modern history. |We trace,| says Mr. Horton, |this astonishing influence back to that life, and if we knew nothing at all about it, but had to construct it out of the creative imagination, we should have to figure to ourselves facts, sayings, and impressions which would account for what has flowed from it. Thus, if the place where this biography comes were actually a blank, we should be able to surmise something of what ought to be there, just as astronomers surmised the existence of a new planet, and knew in what quarter of the heavens to look for it by observing and registering the influences which retarded or deflected the movements of the other planets.| [Footnote: Inspiration and the Bible,
That place is not a blank; it is filled with the fourfold record of the Life from which all these mighty influences have flowed. Must not this record prove to be the most inspiring theme open to human investigation? Is it any wonder that more study has been expended upon this theme than upon any other which has ever claimed the attention of men?
What do we know of the origin of this four-fold record? Origin it must have had like every other book, an origin in time and space. That there are divine elements in it the most of us believe; but the form in which we have it is a purely human form, and it would be worthless to us if it were not in purely human form. The sentences of which it is composed were constructed by human minds, and were written down by human hands on parchment or papyrus leaves. When, and where, and by whom? These are the questions now before us.
Let us go back to the last half of the second century and see what traces of these books we can find.
Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, in France, who died about 200, speaks distinctly of these four Gospels, which, he declares, are equal in authority to the Old Testament Scriptures, and which he ascribes to the four authors whose names they now bear. With the fanciful reasoning then common among Christian writers, he finds a reason in the four quarters of the globe why there should have been four Gospels and no more.
Clement of Alexandria was living at the samq time. He also quotes liberally in his writings from all these four books, of which he speaks as |the four Gospels that have been handed down to us.|
Tertullian, who was born in Carthage about 160, also quotes all these Gospels as authoritative Christian writings.
It is clear, therefore, that in the West, the East, and the South, -- in all quarters where Christianity was then established, -- the four Gospels were recognized and read in the churches in the latter half of the second century. Let us go back a little farther.
Justin Martyr was born at Rome about the year 100, and was writing most abundantly from his fortieth to his forty-fifth year. In one of the books which he has left us, in describing the customs of the Christians, he uses the following language: |On the day which is called Sunday there is an assembly in the same place of all who live in cities or in country districts, and the records of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as we have time. Then the reader concludes, and the president verbally instructs and exhorts us to the imitation of these excellent things. Then we all rise up together and offer our prayers.| In another place he speaks of something commanded by |the apostles in the records which they made, and which are called Gospels.| Justin does not say how many of these Gospels the church in his day possessed, but we find in his writings unmistakable quotations from at least three of them. Dr. Edwin Abbott, of London, whom Mrs. Humphry Ward refers to as master of all the German learning on this subject, says that it would be possible |to reconstruct from his (Justin's) quotations a fairly connected narrative of the incarnation, birth, teaching, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord;| that this narrative is all found in the three Synoptic Gospels, and that Justin quotes no words of Christ and refers to no incidents that are not found in these Gospels. [Footnote: Encyc. Brit., vol. x. p.817.]
We may fully accept Dr. Abbott's testimony so far as the quotations of Justin from the first three Gospels are concerned; but his arguments, which are intended to prove that there is no certain reference to the fourth Gospel in Justin's works, appear to me inconclusive. When Justin says: |For indeed Christ also said, 'except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven,' but that it is impossible for those who were once born to enter into their mother's womb is plain to all,| he is quoting words that are found in the fourth Gospel, and not in any of the other three. The attempt to show that he found these and similar citations in the same sources from which the author of the fourth Gospel derived them is not successful.
Several indirect lines of evidence tend to confirm the belief that Justin possessed all four of our Gospels. This, then, carries us back to the first half of the second century. Between 100 and 150 Papias of Hierapolis, Clement of Rome, and Polycarp of Smyrna were writing. Papias, who wrote about 130-140 A. D., composed five books or commentaries on what he calls |The Oracles of the Lord.| He gives us some account of the origin of at least two of these Gospels. |Mark,| he says, |was the interpreter of Peter;| |Matthew wrote his scriptures (logia) in Hebrew, and each man interpreted them as best he could.| |Interpreted| here evidently means translated. Elsewhere he repeats a tradition of |the elder,| by which word he apparently means the Apostle John, whom he may have known, in these words: |Mark, having become Peter's interpreter, wrote down accurately all that he remembered, -- not, however, in order, -- both the words and the deeds of Christ. For he never heard the Lord, nor attached himself to him, but later on, as I said, attached himself to Peter, who used to adapt his lessons to the needs of the occasion, but not as though he was composing a connected treatise of the discourses of our Lord; so that Mark committed no error in writing down some matters just as he remembered them. For one object was in his thoughts, to make no omissions and no false statements in what he heard.| [Footnote: Quoted by Abbott, as above.] This is a perfect description of the Gospel of Mark as we have it in our hands to-day. And the testimony of Papias to its authorship, and to the spirit and purpose of the author, is significant and memorable. Evidence of this nature would be regarded as decisive in any other case of literary criticism.
Polycarp, who was the friend and pupil of John the Apostle, was born about the year 69, and suffered martyrdom about 155. In his writings we find no express mention of the Gospels, but we do find verbally accurate quotations from them. It is clear that he was acquainted with the books. Polycarp was the teacher of Irenaeus of Lyons whom I first quoted, and he was the pupil and friend of St. John and the other apostles; and Irenaeus, who quotes all these Gospels so freely, bears this testimony respecting Polycarp, in a letter which he wrote to Florinus.
|I saw you, when I was yet a boy, in Lower Asia with Polycarp.... I could even point out now the place where the blessed Polycarp sat and spoke, and describe his going out and coming in, his manner of life, his personal appearance, the addresses he delivered to the multitude, how he spoke of his intercourse with John, and with the others who had seen the Lord, and how he recalled their words, and everything that he had heard about the Lord, about his miracles and his teaching. Polycarp told us, as one who had received it from those who had seen the Word of Life with their own eyes, and all this in complete harmony with the Scriptures. To this I then listened, through the mercy of God vouchsafed to me, with all eagerness, and wrote it not on paper, but in my heart, and still by the grace of God I ever bring it into fresh remembrance.|
These living witnesses give us solid ground for our statement that the Gospels -- the first three of them at any rate -- were in existence during the last years of the first century. Indeed, not to prolong this search for the origin of the books, it is now freely admitted, by many of the most radical critics, that the first three Gospels were written before the year 80, and that Mark must have been written before 70.
It is interesting to contrast the course of New Testament criticism with that engaged upon the Old Testament. In the study of the origin of the Pentateuch the gravitation of opinion has been steadily downward, toward a later date, so that the great majority of scholars are now certain that the books must have been put into their present form long after the time of Moses. In the study of the origin of the Gospels the date has been steadily pushed upward, to the very age of the apostles. The earlier critics, Strauss and Baur, insisted that they must have appeared much later, far on in the second century; but the more recent and more scientific criticism has demolished or badly discredited their theories, and has carried the Gospels back to the last part of the first century.
Are we entitled, then, to say that these Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? We should be cautious, no doubt, in making such a statement. The Gospels themselves are not so explicit on this point as we could desire. Their titles do not warrant this assertion. It is not |The Gospel of St. Matthew| or |The Gospel of St. Mark;| it is the |Gospel according to St. Matthew| or St. Mark. The import of the title would be fully satisfied with the explanation that this is the story as Matthew or Mark was wont to tell it, put into form by some person or friend of his, in his last days, or even after his death. But the testimony of Papias, to which I have referred, is to my own mind good evidence that these Gospels were written by the men who bear their names. In the case of Luke, as we shall presently see, the evidence is much stronger. And after going over the evidence as carefully as I am able, the theory that the four Gospels were written by the men whose names they bear, all of whom were the contemporaries of our Lord, and two of whom were his apostles, seems to me, on the whole, the best supported by the whole volume of evidence. The case is not absolutely clear; perhaps it was left somewhat obscure for the very purpose of stimulating study. At all events, the study which has been given to the subject has confirmed rather than weakened the belief that the Gospels are contemporary records of the life of Christ. Mr. Norton, a distinguished Unitarian scholar, sums up the evidence as follows: |It consists in the indisputable fact that throughout a community of millions of individuals, scattered over Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Gospels were regarded with the highest reverence, as the works of those to whom they are ascribed, at so early a period that there could be no difficulty in determining whether they were genuine or not, and when every intelligent Christian must have been deeply interested to ascertain the truth.... This fact is itself a phenomenon admitting of no explanation except that the four Gospels had all been handed down as genuine from the apostolic age, and had everywhere accompanied our religion as it spread throughout the world.|
When we turn from the external or historical evidence for the genuineness of the Gospels to study their internal structure and their relations to one another, we come upon some curious facts. These Gospels, in the form in which we possess them, are written in the Greek language. But the Greek language was not the vernacular of the Jews in Palestine when our Lord was on the earth; the language which was then spoken by them, as I have before explained, was the Aramaic. It is true that Palestine was, to some extent, a bilingual country, -- like Wales, one writer suggests, where the English and the Welsh languages are now freely spoken, -- that Aramaic and Greek were used indifferently. I can hardly imagine that a people as tenacious of their own institutions as the Jews could have adopted Greek as generally as the Welsh have adopted the English tongue. Even in Wales, if a Welshman were speaking to a congregation of his countrymen on any important topic, he would be likely to speak the Welsh language. And much more probable does it seem to me that the discourses and the common conversation of Jesus must have been spoken in the vernacular. The discourses and sayings of our Lord, as reported for us in these Gospels, are not therefore given us in the words that he used. We have a translation of his words from the Aramaic into the Greek, made either by the writers of the Gospels, or by some one in their day. We have quoted the testimony of Papias, that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew (by which he undoubtedly means Aramaic), and that each one interpreted it as best he could; and if this be true, then that copy first made by Matthew did contain many of our Lord's very words. But that Aramaic copy has never been seen since that day; we have no manuscript of any New Testament book except in the Greek language. There are a few cases in which the writers of the Gospels have preserved for us the very words used by Christ. Thus in the healing of the deaf man in the neighborhood of Decapolis, of which Mark tells us (vii.34), Jesus touched his ears, and said unto him, |Ephphatha,| that is, |Be opened.| The Evangelist gives us the Aramaic word which Jesus used, and translates it for his readers into Greek. Likewise in the healing of the ruler's daughter (Mark v.41) he took her by the hand, and said unto her, |Talitha cumi, which is, being interpreted,| the Evangelist explains, |Damsel, I say unto thee, Arise.| Doubtless most readers get the impression that our Lord used here some cabalistic words in a foreign tongue; the fact is that these are the words of the common speech of the people; only the Evangelist seems to have thought them especially memorable, and he has given us not merely, as he generally does, a translation into the Greek of our Lord's words, but the Aramaic words themselves, with their meaning appended in a Greek phrase. The same is true of our Lord's words on the cross: |Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?| These are Aramaic words, the very words that Jesus uttered. The Roman soldiers who stood near might not know what he meant; but every Jew who distinctly heard him must have understood him, for he was speaking in no foreign tongue, but in the language of his own people.
When we speak, therefore, of the Greek as the original language of the Gospels, we do not speak with entire accuracy. The Greek does not give us our Lord's original words. These we have not, except in the cases I have named, and a few others less important. No man on earth knows or ever will know what were the precise words that our Lord used in his Sermon on the Mount, in his conversation with the woman at the well, in his last discourses with his disciples. We have every reason to believe that the substance of what he said is faithfully preserved for us; the fourfold record, so marvelously accordant in its report of his teachings, makes this perfectly clear. But his very words we have not, and this fact itself is the most convincing dis-proof of the dogma of verbal inspiration. If our Lord had thought it important that we should have his very words he would have seen to it that his very words were preserved and recorded for us, instead of that Greek translation of his words, made by his followers, which we now possess. These evangelists could have written Aramaic, doubtless did write Aramaic; and they would certainly have kept our Lord's discourses and sayings in the Aramaic original if they had been instructed to do so. The fact that they were not instructed to do so, but were permitted to give his teachings to the world in other words than those in which they were spoken, shows how little there was of modern literalism in Christ's conception of the work of revelation.
The first three of these Gospels exhibit many striking similarities; they appear to give, from somewhat different standpoints, a condensed and complete synopsis of the events of our Lord's life; therefore they are called the Synoptic Gospels. The fourth Gospel differs widely from them in matter and form. It will be more convenient, therefore, to speak first of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
The singular fact respecting these Gospels is the combination in them of likeness and difference. A considerable portion of each one of them is to be found, word for word, in one or both of the others; other considerable portions of each are not found in either of the others; some passages are nearly alike, but slightly different in two or in all of them. Did these three authors write independently each of the other? If so, how does it happen that their phraseology is so often identical? Did they copy one from another? If so, why did they copy so little? Why, for example, did each one of them omit so much that the others had written? And why are there so many slight differences in passages that are nearly identical? If we accepted the theory of verbal inspiration, we might offer some sort of explanation of this phenomenon. We might say that the Holy Ghost dictated these words, and that that is the end of it; since no explanation can be offered of the reason why the Holy Ghost chose one form of expression rather than another. But the Gospels themselves contain abundant proof that the Holy Ghost did not dictate the words employed by these writers.
The two genealogies of our Lord, one in Matthew and the other in Luke, are widely different. From Abraham to David they substantially agree; from David to Christ, Matthew makes twenty-eight generations, and Luke thirty-eight; only two of the intermediate names in the one table are found in the other; the one list makes Jacob the father of Joseph, and the other declares that the name of Joseph's father was Heli. All sorts of explanations, some plausible and others preposterous, have been offered of this difficulty; the one explanation that cannot be allowed is that these words were dictated by Omniscience. In the story of the healing of the blind near Jericho, Matthew and Mark expressly say that the healing took place as Christ was departing from the city; Luke that it was before he entered it. Matthew says that there were two blind men; Mark and Luke that there was but one. About these details of the transaction there is some mistake, -- that is the only thing to be said about it. The various explanations offered are weak and inadmissible. But what difference does it make to anybody whether the healing took place before or after Jesus entered the city, or whether there was one man healed or two? The moral and spiritual lessons of the story are just as distinct in the one case as in the other; and it is these moral and spiritual values only that inspiration is intended to secure.
Similarly, Luke (iv.38-39) expressly tells us that the healing of Peter's wife's mother took place before the calling of Simon and Andrew; while Matthew and Mark tell us with equal explicitness that the calling took place before the healing. No reconciliation is possible here; either Luke or Matthew and Mark must have misplaced these events.
So in Matthew xxvii.9, certain words are said to have been spoken by Jeremiah the prophet. These words are not in Jeremiah; they are in Zechariah xi.13. It is simply a slip of the Evangelist's memory.
So in the record of the inscription on the cross when Jesus was crucified. Each of the four Evangelists copies it for us in a different form. The meaning is the same in all the cases, but the copy was not exactly made by some of them, perhaps not by any of them. If the Holy Ghost had dictated the words, they must, in a case like this, have been exactly alike in all the Evangelists. The substance is given, but the inexactness of the copy shows that the words could not have been dictated by Omniscience. It is sometimes explained that this inscription was in three languages, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and that we may have the exact translations of the different inscriptions. This might account for three of them, but not for four.
From these and many other similar facts, we know that the theory of verbal inspiration is not true; but that these Evangelists were allowed to state each in his own language the facts known by him concerning our Lord, and that nothing like infallible accuracy was so much as attempted. The only inspiration that can be claimed for them is that which brought the important facts to their remembrance, and guarded them against serious errors of history or doctrine.
But now the question returns, if they wrote these Gospels in their own language and independently of one another, how happens it that they use so often the very same words and phrases and sentences? Take, for example, the following verses from parallel narratives in Matthew and in Mark, concerning the calling of the first apostles: --
And walking by the sea of Galilee, he saw two brethren, Simon who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left the nets, and followed him. And going on from thence he saw two other brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them. And they straightway left the boat and their father, and followed him.
And passing along by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they left the nets, and followed him. And going on a little further, he saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending the nets. And straightway he called them: and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went after him.
There are slight verbal variations, but in general the words are the same, and the corresponding sentences are in precisely the same order in both narratives. Now, as Archbishop Thomson says, in Smith's |Bible Dictionary,| |The verbal and material agreement of the first three Evangelists is such as does not occur in any other authors who have written independently of each other.|
Besides many such passages which are substantially alike but verbally or syntactically different, there are quite a number which are identical, word for word, and phrase for phrase. These verbal agreements occur most frequently, as is natural, in the reports of our Lord's discourses and sayings; but they also occur in the descriptive and narrative portions of the gospel. This is the fact which is so difficult to reconcile with the theory that the books were produced by independent writers.
Suppose three competent and truthful reporters are employed by you to write an exact and unvarnished report of some single transaction which has occurred, and which each of them has witnessed. Each is required to do his work without any conference with the others. When these reports are brought to you, if they are very faithful and accurate for substance, you will not be surprised to find some circumstances mentioned by each that are not mentioned by either of the others, and it will be strange if there are not some important discrepancies. But if on reading them, you find that the reports, taken sentence by sentence, are almost identical, -- that there is only an occasional difference in a word or in the order of a phrase, -- then you at once say, |These reporters must have been copying from some other reporter's note-book, or else they must have been comparing notes; they could not have written with such verbal agreement if they had written independently.| Suppose, for example, that each of the three reports began in just these words: |The first object that attracted my notice on entering the door was a chair.| Now it is extremely improbable that all these writers, writing independent reports of a transaction, should begin in the same way by mentioning the first object that attracted the attention of each. And even if they should so begin, it is wholly beyond the range of possibilities that they should all select from all the multitude of the words in the English language the very same words in which to make this statement; and should put these words in the very same order, out of the multitude of different orders into which they could grammatically be put. There is not one chance in a million that such a coincidence would occur. But such coincidences occur very often in the first three Gospels. How can we account for it? We say that they wrote independently, that their words were not dictated to them; how does it happen that there is so much verbal agreement?
We may get some hint of the manner in which these biographies were produced if we turn to the beginning of Luke's Gospel: --
|Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus; that thou mightest know the certainty concerning the things wherein thou wast instructed.| The marginal reading of this last phrase is, |which thou wast taught by word of mouth.| This is the more exact meaning of the Greek. The passage contains these statements: --
1. Theophilus had been orally taught the Gospels.
2. Many persons, not apostles, had undertaken to write out parts of the gospel story, as they had heard it from eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.
3. Luke also, as one who had full and accurate information, had determined to reduce his knowledge to an orderly written narrative, for the benefit of his friend Theophilus.
It appears from this clear statement that written memoranda of the discourses of our Lord and of the incidents of his life had been made by many persons. Numbers of these had undertaken to combine their memoranda with their recollections in an orderly statement. This fact itself shows how powerful an impression had been made by our Lord's life and death upon the people of Palestine. Everything relating to him was treasured with the utmost care; Luke, for his part, believing that he had gained by careful investigation sufficient knowledge to warrant the undertaking, sets out to collect the facts and present them in a consecutive and intelligible literary form. Yet Luke, in this announcement of his purpose, betrays no consciousness that he is using any different powers from those employed by the many others of whom he speaks. Rather does he most clearly rank himself with them, as one of many gleaners in this fruitful field. He does claim thoroughness and painstaking accuracy; I believe that every honest man will concede his claim.
This, then, was the way in which Luke went to work to write his Gospel. This is not guesswork; it is the explicit statement of the author himself. Have we not good reason for believing that the Gospels of Matthew and Mark were composed in much the same way?
In addition to the written memoranda of Christ's life which were in the hands of the apostles, and of many others, there was another source from which the Evangelists must have drawn. Luke alludes to it when he speaks of the fact that Theophilus had received much of his narrative |by word of mouth.| There was, unquestionably, an oral gospel, covering the larger part of the deeds and the words of Jesus, which had been widely circulated in Palestine and in the whole missionary field. When it is said (Acts viii.1-4; xi.19) that they which were scattered abroad by the early persecutions went everywhere preaching the word, it must be understood that they went about simply telling the story of Jesus, his birth, his life, his deeds, his words, his death upon the cross. Sometimes, when preaching to Jews, they would show the correspondence between his life and the Old Testament prophecies, to prove that he was the Messiah; but the substance of their preaching was the telling over and over again of the story of Jesus. It was upon this oral gospel that the apostles and the first missionaries mainly relied. What they desired to do was to make known as speedily and as rapidly as possible the words of his lips and the facts of his life. And it is highly probable that before they set out on these missionary tours, they took great pains to rehearse to one another the story which they were going forth to tell. |The apostles,| says Professor Westcott, |guided by the promised Spirit of truth, remained together in Jerusalem in close communion for a period long enough to shape a common narrative, and to fix it with requisite surroundings.|
It was these concerted recollections and rehearsals that gave to so many passages of the gospel its identity in form. Some of the sentences often and devoutly repeated were remembered by all, word for word; in some of them there were verbal differences and discrepancies, as they were repeated by one and another. The verbal resemblances as well as the verbal differences are thus explained by this theory of an oral gospel, prepared at first for preaching by the apostles, and held only in their memory.
The preservation of so many passages in words and sentences nearly or exactly similar is nothing miraculous. Even in our own time there are, as we are told, secret societies whose ritual has never been written, but has been handed down with nearly verbal accuracy, from generation to generation. For the Hebrews, who were a people at this time greatly disinclined to write, and thoroughly practiced in remembering and repeating the sayings of their wise men, this task would not be difficult.
The apostles and the early evangelists, as Westcott suggests, were preachers, not historians, not pamphleteers. They believed in living witnesses more than in transmitted documents. They did not write out the record at first, partly because they were naturally disinclined to write, and partly, no doubt, because they expected the immediate return of our Lord to earth. Their gospel was therefore for many years a spoken and not a written word. As they went on repeating it, changes would occur in the repetition of the words; to the remembrance of one and another of them the Spirit of truth would bring facts and circumstances that they did not think of at first; words, phrases, gestures of our Lord would reappear in the memory of each, and thus the narrative became varied and shaded with the personal peculiarities of the several writers.
Years passed, and the expected return of the Lord to earth did not take place. The churches were spreading over Asia and Europe, and the apostles were unable personally to instruct those who were preaching the gospel in other lands. Thus the need of a written record began to make itself felt; and the apostles themselves wrote out the story which they had been telling, or it was written for them by their companions and fellow-helpers in the gospel. The oral gospel as it lived in their memories would form, no doubt, the substance of it, and the written memoranda of the discourses and incidents, to which Luke refers, would be drawn upon in completing the biography. The oral gospel thus carefully prepared and transmitted by memory would be substantially the same, yet many differences in arrangement of words and phrases would naturally have crept in; the written memoranda would in many cases be verbally identical. And each Evangelist, gleaning from this wide field, would collect some facts and sayings omitted by the others.
There are other explanations of the origin of the Synoptic Gospels, some of which are ingenious and plausible, but I shall not burden your minds with them, since the theory which I have presented appears to me the simplest, the most natural, and the most comprehensive of them all.
The Fourth Gospel, it is evident, must have had a different origin. Beyond question it is a consecutive narrative, composed by a single writer, and not, like the Synoptics, a compilation of memoranda, oral or written. It appears to be, in part at least, a supplementary narrative, omitting much that is contained in the other Gospels, supplying some omissions, and correcting, possibly, certain unimportant errors. Mr. Horton illustrates the supplementary work of this Evangelist by several instances. |The communion of the Lord's Supper,| he says, |was so universally known and observed when he wrote that he actually does not mention its institution, but he records a wonderful discourse concerning the Bread of Life which is an indispensable commentary on the unnamed institution, and by filling in with great detail the circumstances of the last evening, he furnished a framework for the ordinance which is among our most precious possessions. On the other hand, because the common tradition was very vague in its date he gave precision to the event which they had recorded by fixing the time of its occurrence.... In Matt, iv.12 and Mark i.14, the temptation, immediately following Christ's baptism, is immediately followed by the statement, 'When he heard that John was delivered up, he withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth he came and dwelt in Capernaum.' But this summary narrative had excluded one of the most interesting features of the early ministry of Jesus. Accordingly the Fourth Gospel enlarges the story and emphasizes the marks of time. After the Baptism, according to this authority, Jesus 'went down to Capernaum, he and his mother and his brethren and his disciples, and there they abode not many days' (ii.12). Then he went up to the Passover at Jerusalem, where he had the interview with Nicodemus. After that he went into the country districts of Judea, where John was baptizing in Aenon, and then the writer adds, as if his eye were on the condensed and misleading narrative of the common tradition, 'For John was not yet cast into prison.' The two great teachers, the Forerunner, and the Greater-than-he, were actually baptizing side by side, and it was because Jesus saw his reputation overshadowing John's that he voluntarily withdrew into Galilee, passing through Samaria. So that while there had been two journeys to Galilee before John was imprisoned, and that early period of the life was full of unique and wonderful interest, all had been compressed and crushed into the brief statement of Matt. iv.12 and Mark i.14. In this case we seem to see the Evangelist deliberately loosening and breaking up the current history in order that he might insert into the cramped and lifeless framework some of the most valuable episodes of the Lord's life. If the fourth Evangelist had treated the triple narrative in the way that many of us have treated it, regarding it as a sin against the Holy Spirit to suggest that there was any incompleteness or any misleading abbreviations in it, we should have lost the wonderful accounts of the conversation with Nicodemus and with the woman at the well.| [Footnote: Inspiration and the Bible, pp.95-99.]
If such is the relation of the Fourth Gospel to the Synoptics, it follows that it must have been the work of one who was thoroughly familiar with the events recorded. That the narrative bears evidence of having been written by an eyewitness is to my own mind clear. That the writer intends to convey the impression that he is the beloved disciple is also manifest. Either it was written by John the Apostle, or else the writer was a deliberate deceiver. There can be no such explanation of his personation of John as that which satisfies our minds in the case of Daniel and Ecclesiastes; the book is either the work of John, or it is a cunning and conscienceless fraud. And it seems to me that any one who will read the book will find it impossible to believe that it is an imposture. If any book of the ages bears in itself the witness to the truth it is the Fourth Gospel. It shines by its own light. Any of us could tell the difference between the sun in the heavens and a brass disk suspended in the sky reflecting the sun's rays; and in much the same way the fact is apparent that the book is not a counterfeit gospel.
It is true that historical criticism has raised difficulties about it; the battle of the critics has been raging around it for half a century; but one after another of the positions taken by men like Strauss and Baur have been shown to be untenable; and it can truthfully be said, in the words of Professor Ladd, |that the vigorous and determined attacks upon the genuineness of the Fourth Gospel have greatly increased instead of impairing our confidence in the traditional view.| [Footnote: What is the Bible? p.327.] And I am ready to go farther with the same brave but reverent scholar, and say, |Having thus grounded in historical and critical researches the genuineness of the Fourth Gospel, we have no hesitation in affirming what position it must take in Sacred Scripture. It is the heart of Jesus Christ with which we here come in contact. Inspiration and reflection uniting upon the choicest and most undoubted material of history, and fusing all the material with the holy characteristics of revelation, are nowhere else so apparent as in the Gospel of the Apostle John.| [Footnote: Doctrine of Sacred Scripture, i.573]
Such, then, is the fourfold biography of Jesus the Christ preserved for us in the New Testament. If this study has removed something of the mystery with which the origin of these writings has been shrouded, it has, I trust, at the same time, made them appear more real and more human; and it has shown the providential oversight by which their artless record, many-sided, manifold, yet simple and clear as the daylight, has been preserved for us. Of these four Gospels we are certainly entitled to say as much as this, that whatever verbal discrepancies may be detected in them, and however difficult it may be satisfactorily to explain all the phenomena of their structure and relations, in one thing they marvelously agree, and that is in the picture which they give us of the life and character of Jesus Christ. In this each one of them is self-consistent, and they are all consistent with one another. And this, if we will reflect upon it, is a marvelous, not to say a miraculous fact. That four such men as these Evangelists incontestably were should have succeeded in giving us four portraitures of the Divine Man, without contradicting themselves, and without contradicting one another, -- four distinct views of this wonderful Person, which show us different sides of his character, and which we yet instantly recognize as the same person, is a very great wonder. No such task was ever laid on any other human biographer as that which confronted these men; no character so difficult to comprehend and describe ever existed; for one man to preserve all the unities of art in describing him would be notable; for four men to give us, independently, four narratives, from the simple pages of which the same lineaments shine out, so that no one ever thinks of saying that the Jesus of Matthew is a different person from the Jesus of Mark or Luke or John, -- this, I say, is marvelous.
And it is this character, majestic in its simplicity, glorious in its humility, the Ideal of Humanity, the Mystery of Godliness, that these Gospels are meant to show us. If they only bring him clearly before us, make his personality real and familiar and vivid before our eyes, so that we may know him and love him, that is all we want of them. Infallibility in details would be worthless if this were wanting; any small discrepancies are beneath notice if this is here. And this is here. Read for yourselves. From the page of Matthew, illuminated with the words of prophecy that tell of the Messiah's coming; from the vivid and rapid record of Mark, in which the Wonder-worker displays his power; from the tender story of Luke, speaking the word of grace to those that are lowest down and farthest off; from the mystical Gospel of the beloved disciple opening to us the deep things that only love can see, the same divine form appears, the same divine face shines, the same divine voice is speaking. Behold the man!