John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v. 1, Sources: The Canonical Books of the New Testament,
pp 41-43

(Detailed summary)

Can we find in the Gospels the sequence of events surrounding Jesus and the words he actually spoke?

  • The Gospels are not historical narratives in the modern sense of the word "history"; they did not seek to tell what happened, but to proclaim that Jesus is Messiah and Lord, and to sustain the faith of the first Christians, and are therefore above all catechetical narratives.

  • The evangelists are so uninterested in the details of Jesus' life that Mark and John only present us with an adult Jesus in his ministry which lasted only a few years. Matthew and Luke precede their Gospel with two chapters on his childhood, but the historical value of these childhood accounts is nowadays much disputed.

  • It is impossible to reconstruct the sequence of events of Jesus using the continuation of the Gospel accounts. Take for example the Gospel of Mark, which appears to be the oldest. Through his text we perceive collections of oral and written traditions grouped under different themes such as controversies, parables, miracles. They appear like the grains of a rosary that are threaded one after the other, the transition often being made with the help of key words, such as the word "bread" in chapters 6-8. While using Mark's material, Matthew did not hesitate to establish a different order: for example, he grouped together nine miracle stories, with a small transition after each group of three.

  • The situation becomes even more complicated if we compare the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) and the Gospel of John. For Mark, almost all of Jesus' public ministry took place in Galilee, and only at the very end does he go to Jerusalem to be confronted with the religious elite and die there, whereas for John, the adult Jesus made at least four trips to Jerusalem.

  • As for Jesus' words, we must accept that the Gospels do not reproduce exactly what Jesus said, but rather its substance. Take for example the words of the Last Supper. We have four different versions of Jesus' words (Mark, Luke, Matthew and Paul). Why? Obviously, the event happened only once. The same is true of the discourse on the beatitudes that we have in two versions in Matthew and Luke. It must therefore be concluded that the Gospels have preserved only the substance of Jesus' words, not the exact words, and that all these variations bear the mark of several years of liturgical adaptation, homiletic development and creative activity of the Christian prophets.

Next chapter: What is the date of the Gospels and their source?

List of all chapters