The Three Stages of Gospel Development
Vatican II’s, Dei Verbum (§19); Pontifical Biblical Commission’s, “Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels” (§6-9)
These two magisterial documents explained that the Gospels contain materials that originated in three distinct first-century time periods or “stages,” often all appearing in the same biblical passage:
- Stage 1: The Ministry of Jesus
Traditions dating from Jesus’ words and deeds during his ministry in the late 20s [example from John 9: Jesus was known as a healer].
- Stage 2: Post-Resurrectional Preaching of the Apostles
Convictions about Jesus that arose after the Resurrection, especially that he was the divine “Lord” and “Son of God” [example: the blind man worships Jesus, John 9:38].
- Stage 3: The Writing of the Gospels by the Evangelists
Texts about Jesus that are shaped by the situations, concerns, and insights of the Gospel writers themselves [example: the blind man’s parents fear “the Jews,” as if Jews are a separate group, John 9:22].
Some Points about the Three Stages
- The Evangelists didn’t write the Gospels to give us “histories,” as we use the term. They wrote so readers would “come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).
- Therefore, for Christian faith Stage 3 is the most important. It gives the Evangelists’ inspired reflections on the meaning of Jesus. This tutorial will focus on these stage 3 insights of the Gospel writers.
- To ask the Gospels historical or Stage 1 questions is to distract from their main purpose. But modern readers pose such questions anyway. Therefore, although this tutorial will highlight the perspectives of the Evangelists, a brief historical reconstruction will accompany each Passion Narrative scene.
- An effective way to perceive the perspectives of each of the Gospel writers is to compare the similarities and differences of their four Gospel accounts, and this is the procedure that will be followed in this online tutorial.
The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s “Instruction on the Bible and Christology”
The PBC noted the value of such contrasts in a 1984 study, “The Bible and Christology”:
“The Gospel traditions were gathered and gradually committed to writing in [the] light of Easter, until at length they took a fixed form in four short books. These books do not simply contain things ‘that Jesus began to do and teach’ (Acts 1:1), they also present theological interpretations of such things. In these booklets, then, one must learn to look for the Christology of each Evangelist. This is especially true of John, who in the Patristic period would receive the title ‘Theologian.’ Other [Gospel] authors have interpreted the deeds and sayings of Jesus in diverse ways, and even more so his death and resurrection... The New Testament authors, precisely as pastors and teachers, bear witness indeed to the same Christ, but with voices that differ as in the harmony of one piece of music.” [2.2.2]
Some Polemical and Apologetic Concerns of the Evangelists
The Gospel writers had varied purposes. Some were polemical (arguments formed in debates), others were apologetic (efforts to defend from attacks or to appease authorities). These are some of their concerns:
- For Christianity to be a legal religion in the Roman Empire;
- To argue for the church’s way of being Jewish after the Temple’s destruction by the Romans in the year 70;
- To explain why the Temple was destroyed;
- To show that the claim that the Crucified One had been raised was consistent with the Scriptures of ancient Israel;
- To validate bringing the Gospel to non-Jewish Gentiles;
- In the case of the Passion Narratives, these all contribute to a tendency to de-emphasize Roman responsibility and to highlight the role of Jewish figures.
Jerusalem Society in Jesus’ Time
- Ancient societies did not make modern distinctions between religion, politics, or economics. “Religion” was imbedded with politics and economics in the concrete social forms of family, local community, and authority structures. The Temple, for example, was both the religious center, a military fortress, and the economic heart of Jerusalem.
- At the time of Jesus' birth, the whole region was under the rule of the Roman client-king Herod the Great. Crowned "king of the Jews" in Rome more than three decades before Jesus was born, he was preoccupied with the security of his realm and person, keeping close control over all potential and imagined threats. He dominated Jerusalem through the appointment of friends and relatives to the Temple high priesthood and council. He was widely known for his sponsorship of massive building projects in Jerusalem and throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
- After Herod's death, Rome divided his realm among his sons. Judea and Samaria were briefly governed by Archelaus, who was quickly replaced with a Roman governor when he proved unable to control the widespread anti-Roman unrest that arose after his father's death. Another of Herod the Great's sons, Herod Antipas, reigned long and effectively over the regions of Galilee and Perea. Antipas would later order the execution of John the Baptizer.
- Thus, Roman rule was generally exercised through carefully selected and controlled indigenous leaders.