May 22, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Early Church: Christians began to write stories about Jesus

John F. Fink(Seventh in a series of columns)

For almost 40 years after Jesus’ resurrection, Christians learned about his life and teaching orally or from the letters of St. Paul. Since there were both Jewish and gentile converts to Christianity, the life of Jesus had to be articulated differently.

For Jews, the important thing missionaries had to do was to prove that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Scriptures, the long-awaited Messiah promised by the prophets. For gentiles, the missionaries first had to explain many of the Jewish traditions.

By the middle to late 60s, people who had actually seen Jesus and told stories about him thought it important to preserve the stories, so they started to write them down. Quite a few people, in fact, but not all of those stories made it into the New Testament that we have today.

St. Mark, who was with both St. Peter and St. Paul in Rome, wrote his Gospel (which means “good news”) for a community in Rome that had suffered from the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Nero. Therefore, he emphasized the cross and a suffering Christ. The story of a crucified Jesus and of his Apostles who struggled to remain faithful would have meant much to this community.

Mark’s Gospel spread among the Christians, and both Matthew and Luke used it, along with other material, for theirs. However, they were writing for different communities.

Matthew’s Gospel, written around 80-85 (a decade or more after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem), was addressed to a Jewish audience, so it includes many references to Jewish scriptural prophecies. His infancy stories, for example, portray Jesus as the new Moses who was saved from Herod just as Moses was saved from the Pharaoh, and who came out of Egypt just as Moses had done. In his Gospel, Jesus delivers his Sermon on the Mount just as Moses went up a mountain to bring back the Ten Commandments.

Luke’s Gospel, written about the same time, was addressed to an affluent gentile-Christian audience. Sometimes he had to explain certain Jewish customs not familiar to gentiles so that his audience would understand what was happening. (Actually, some of the details in the Gospel show that Luke himself was not very familiar with Palestine or with Jewish customs.)

The Gospel of John, written between 90 and 100, is much different from the other three. It gives much more emphasis to Jesus’ divinity, beginning with his prologue. It has long discourses, especially at the Last Supper, written as messages from God.

Eventually the Church had to decide which of the many writings told the story of Jesus that was sensitive to the various “vantage points” of all the people to whom God’s revelation was being given. Those making that decision had three criteria: The Gospel (and other writings) had to convey apostolic teaching; a specific community thought enough of it to preserve it; and it had to portray Jesus in a way that resonated with what was generally and consistently accepted about Jesus.

Some early Gospels that were rejected by the Church were called the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. †

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