Before studying each Gospel text, it would be helpful to explore how the Catholic tradition and recent biblical scholarship understand the origins of the Gospels and their proper interpretation.
This page introduces three important Catholic ecclesiastical documents on interpreting the Christian Bible:
- Pope Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943)
- Vatican Council II’s Dei Verbum (1965)
- The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” (1993)
Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu
- Prior to 1943, Catholic biblical scholars were discouraged from using original languages, archaeological discoveries, or “scientific” methods of textual analysis.
- In 1943, Pope Pius XII issued Divino Afflante Spiritu, an encyclical letter that required the use of original languages.
- It urged interpreters to “go back wholly in spirit to those remote centuries of the East with the aid of history, archaeology, ethnology, and other sciences, and accurately
determine what modes of writing ... the authors of that ancient time would be likely to use, and in fact did use.”
- By promoting the use of analytic or “critical” tools to explore the Scriptures, this encyclical launched a virtual renaissance in Catholic biblical research.
Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation
- In 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued the Dogmatic Constitution, Dei Verbum. It presented what might be called an “incarnational” understanding of the Bible.
- The Bible is both the inspired Word of God ... “Those things revealed by God that are contained and presented in the text of Sacred Scripture have been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” 
- ... and the inspired work of human authors: “Seeing that, in Sacred Scripture, God speaks through human beings in human fashion, it follows that the interpreters of Sacred Scripture, if they are to ascertain what God has wished to communicate to us, should carefully search out the meaning which the sacred writers really had in mind, that meaning which God had thought well to manifest through the medium of their words.” 
- Therefore, the Council taught that biblical researchers “must look for that meaning which the sacred writers, in given situations and granted the circumstances of their time and culture, intended to express and did in fact express through the medium of a contemporary literary form. Rightly to understand what the sacred authors wanted to affirm in their work, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic patterns of perception, speech, and narrative which prevailed in their time, and to the conventions which people then observed in their dealings with one another.” 
Pontifical Biblical Commission
“The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”
In 1993, the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) made the same point in this way:
“Holy Scripture, inasmuch as it is the ‘word of God in human language,’ has been composed by human authors in all its various parts and in all the sources that lie behind them.” [I,A]
Therefore, “Catholic [scriptural research] freely makes use of the scientific methods and approaches which allow a better grasp of the meaning of texts in their linguistic, literary, socio-cultural, religious, and historical contexts, while explaining them as well through studying their sources and attending to the personality of each author.”
The Catholic approach to scriptural interpretation, then, could be described as a conversation between the faith of the biblical generations with the faith of Church communities today. The faith experiences of today’s Church are, of course, shaped by the intervening history since biblical times and by the circumstances of the 21st century. As the PBC put it:
“Sacred Scripture is in dialogue with communities of believers: It has come from their traditions of faith. . . . Dialogue with Scripture in its entirety, which means dialogue with the understanding of the faith prevailing in earlier times, must be matched by a dialogue with the generation of today [actualization].”
This slide graphically presents some important first-century dates and events, including the writing of and relationships among the Gospels.
Most researchers place the date of Jesus’ death at Passover time around the year 30.
The earliest New Testament books, the letters written by Paul, were composed in the decade of the 50s.
In the mid-60s, James, Peter, and Paul are all killed. Peter and Paul likely perished during the persecution of the church in Rome by Nero. The deaths of these important church leaders likely encouraged the writing down of narratives about Jesus.
In the year 70, Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple, effectively ending a Jewish revolt against the Empire that had begun four years earlier.
Although some scholars disagree, the vast majority of researchers believe that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, sometime around the year 70.
This scholarly consensus holds that the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke were composed, independently of one another, sometime in the 80s or 90s. Both used a written form of the Gospel of Mark as source material for their own narratives. In addition, because both Matthew and Luke contain a large amount of material in common that is not found in Mark, most researchers hold that both Evangelists also had a collection of Jesus’ sayings that they incorporated into their works. This saying source is known as “Q” and was likely assembled in the 40s or 50s. This understanding of the origins of the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke explains why they are similar yet different from one another. The arrangement is called “The Two-Source Hypothesis” because Matthew and Luke are seen to have two written sources, Mark and Q.
The Gospel of John emerges from an independent literary tradition that is not directly connected to the Synoptic tradition. This explains the major differences between John and the Synoptics. The Johannine narrative is indebted to oral and possibly written traditions that were transmitted from earlier decades.
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.