In any case, thirty years elapsed between that of Jesus' oral teaching and the composition of the gospels. It is known that the oral teachings were more extensive than the written work, and probably preferred by those fortunate enough to hear the accounts of eye-witnesses.
But the time came when they realized that the words must be written down before they should become too diluted, or changed by those who had not actually seen.
The four gospels were written independently of each other, and in the early days one church might use one of them, another church another -- whichever they had access to in those times when writings were not common and printing had not been invented.
The churches of the first century gradually decided on four of the gospels as being most acceptable, and began somewhat to ignore the others.
The first three gospels are called "synoptics" because each presents a general synopsis of the life of Jesus, and each correlates rather closely with the other. The gospel of John stands apart, being written in a more mystical vein.
The word "evangel" or "gospel" (more literally godspell, which means "good news") was applied to the four books about Jesus, for they announced the good tidings of the new covenant brought by him. Evangelist means "messenger," one who brings good news. These good tidings said essentially that "The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." Let us take a look at the four Evangelists, those great messengers of good news who have since been sainted.
The Gospel of Matthew was written, it is said, eight years after the ascension of Jesus, in the Hebrew language. The present translation into Greek (from which our English work is taken) does not contain all of the original.
Matthew was undoubtedly the apostle of Jesus who was also named Levi, a publican and son of Alpheus. It has been said he "put in order" the sayings of Jesus. A large part of the gospel of Matthew is taken up with Jesus' discourses. Matthew must have had the ability to write accurately, having had to record accounts as a tax-collector. It was probably the most-used gospel in earliest times, though there may well have existed other writings before it.
Matthew wrote in the "Hebrew dialect" or ancestral language, probably Aramaic, which was generally spoken throughout Palestine in that time. But Christians of non-Jewish origin knew only Greek, so the sayings were later taken by various readers and "each one of them interpreted them as he was able."
The church chose one of the Greek translations, finally, as easier to read than the Aramaic, and that is the translation which has come down to us. While the original gospel had been the first to be written, it is believed the later translation into Greek took place after the others had been written, and the translators may have used the others for reference.
Matthew was addressing Christians of Jewish origin. He misses no opportunity to note in which sayings Jesus fulfilled the old prophecies of the Messiah to come. And he pointed out that Jesus' ministry was directed solely to the Jews. Beneath this Jewish "crust," however, his gospel is strictly universal. Irenaeus says, "Among the Hebrews, Matthew produced also a writing of the Gospel in their own language, while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome and founding the church; then after their departure, Mark the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also delivered to us in writings the things preached by Peter ... "
The first Gospel is considered the gospel "of the church," and is the only one that used the word "church." His later life is not known, though certain traditions point toward work in Ethiopia, and others to Parthis and Persia.
The copies of this gospel written in the Syriac and Arabian languages read: "Here ends the copy of the Gospel of Matthew, which he wrote in the land of Palestine, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in the Hebrew language, eight years after the ascension of Jesus the Messiah into heaven, and in the first year of the Roman Emperor, Claudius Caesar."
The second gospel is generally attributed to that John, surnamed Mark, mentioned several places in Acts and Paul's Epistles, as one whose mother was named Mary, and who had a house in Jerusalem.
This house was a meeting place for the Christians, and there Simon Peter took refuge after his miraculous release from prison in 44 A.D.
Mark was the cousin of Barnabas whom he accompanied with Paul to Antioch on the first missionary journey, but Mark left them and later returned to Jerusalem, incurring Paul's displeasure.
When Barnabas wanted to take John Mark along on their second journey, Paul refused, so Barnabas left also and went with Mark to their native Cyprus.
They apparently had a change of heart, for ten years later Mark was with Paul in Rome to comfort him as he awaited trial by Nero. A year or two later Mark was in Rome with Peter (I Peter 5:13). Later, in 66 A.D., Paul was in Asia, for Paul wrote Timothy (II Timothy 4:11) "Take Mark and bring him with you for he is useful to me for the ministry."
Tradition gives Mark a closer relationship with Peter, however, from whom he supposedly gained all the facts recorded in his gospel. Many authorities agree that he either wrote it for Peter or as a faithful record of Peter's eyewitness teachings, whether during the lifetime or after the departure of Peter and Paul is not known. The modesty of Peter would account for the fact that most stories concerning him are omitted.
It is said that the Greek in which this gospel is written was rather poor and elementary, but the narrative all the more vivid and direct as a result. It has been conjectured by many that as a boy Mark may have witnessed the crucifixion, and that he may even have been the young man, not mentioned by name, who fled naked when laid hold of by the men who came to take Jesus. (Mark 15:51) Tradition also credits him with founding the church in Alexandria.
Luke, whose name may have been Lucanus, was a Greek from Antioch who became Christian before the year 50, though he had seen Jesus. He accompanied Paul on the latter's second missionary journey, and was called by Paul, "the most dear physician."
Except for certain intervals he was with Paul during much of the remainder of Paul's life, even to the end, for Paul wrote (II Timothy 4:11), "only Luke is with me."
Luke wrote both the third gospel and the Book of Acts, in clear continuity, identified by the prologue in which he dedicates each of these writings to one Theophilus, of whom nothing is known, but it was a common courtesy of that day to dedicate one's writing to an outstanding person.
He was probably more learned than the writers of the two previous gospels, and while not an eyewitness, carefully gathered together all the information he could get from those who were, and whose stories he had heard over and over.
It may be that Peter and James were his informers, or it may have been some of the ladies who followed Jesus, for he mentioned many in his gospel, but most believe it was Mary herself who contributed the story of the Nativity, as much as this would have been known only to her.
For he tells of her conversation with Gabriel, and "that she pondered all these things in her heart." The first two chapters of Luke are almost wholly concerned with the events surrounding the birth of Jesus and John the Baptist, and have become those things most famous in both celebrations and works of art commemorating Jesus' life.
There is a tradition that Luke himself painted a portrait of Mary, though it is unlikely she would have permitted this, for
Jews were allowed no pictures or images, in their religion. It is not certainly known that he actually met her; he may have gleaned the nativity story from other current writings. At any rate, Luke has been named the patron saint of painters.
As Matthew had written for the Jews, Luke wrote for the Gentiles. This gentle physician paid special heed to the healings, and it is he who quoted Jesus as saying, "Physician, heal thyself."
As with the other gospels, there is no definite signature, but "the beloved disciple" can be none other than the Apostle John. This has been almost unanimously agreed, although some have attempted to disprove it.
There is an old paper that says John asked the disciples to join him in three days of fasting, after which each should tell the others what he had received, and Andrew at the end of that time said that John, with the concurrence of all, should write down everything in his own name.
Clement of Alexandria said of the gospel of John -- "seeing that in the preceding gospels there had been made manifest the corporal things, he, urged by his friends and divinely borne aloft by the Spirit, produced a spiritual gospel."
But while some think his gospel Gnostic and less factual than the three Synoptics, in actual fact there is reference to obscure geographical locations in John's gospel of such fine accuracy as would have only been known to one who was there. In fact, the consensus is in favor of John as hewing to a more accurate chronology of events, having been present at all of them, from the baptism on.
He was a brother of James, one of the sons of Zebedee, and all were fishermen of the town of Bethsaida, the town where the brothers Simon and Andrew also resided as fishermen. Some have argued against his having written this gospel because how, they ask, could a mere fisherman's son have gained the learning necessary to such a task? But it is also believed that Zebedee was not a poor fisherman, but owned a fishing fleet. Or it may be that John later in life gained the necessary learning, or dictated the gospel.
Called the most spiritual of the gospels, this one is written quite differently from the other three, but coming after them, he may have felt it unnecessary to repeat all that had been previously written.
He writes from the Hebrew viewpoint, but also slants his work to gain the interest of the Gnostics, a movement which was rapidly growing in the time when he wrote, and as though he were attempting to keep some of their ideas from getting out of hand by picking them up and carrying them to the Reality.
Mary is barely mentioned by John, which seems strange because she lived with him after Jesus' death, as his mother.
John and Peter became the leading apostles after Jesus' crucifixion, performing many miracles and healings, sometimes just by walking down the street.
John lived to a great age, far outliving all the other apostles. He probably left Palestine about 57 A.D., since Paul does not mention his presence on that visit, as he had on previous occasions. John was later exiled to Patmos where he wrote the Book of Revelation, and then returned to Ephesus, where he probably died around 104 A.D., a natural death.
It has been recounted that when Christopher Columbus was sailing on one of his voyages and was overtaken by a tempest, he would stand in the prow of his ship and recite over the storm-tossed sea the opening verses of the Gospel of John.
Some believe that Luke and John were most faithful in the chronology of their accounts -- Luke because of his interest as a historian, and John who seems to fix certain points only suggested by the others. Since these two already had the other gospels to refer to, it is probable that they may have corrected certain errors or lapses noted in the others.
For some reason the four evangelists have been accorded the emblems of the four creatures in Revelation, and in Ezekiel's vision: the Man stands for St. Matthew; the Lion for St. Mark; the Ox for St. Luke; and the Eagle for St. John.
When one becomes familiar with the personalities of the writers of the gospels, he may detect some of their natural interests in the gospels they wrote, as well as the perfect humility in leaving out any unnecessary references to themselves.
Moses from Sargentís "Frieze of the Prophets"