What Are The Gospels?
The four gospels should not be thought of or treated as literary documents, but as the presence of Christ among his people.
They are the verbal icon of Christ. They are the church’s prayer, the church’s liturgy, the church’s story and her participation in the mysteries of Christ. They are the “power of God unto salvation to all who believe …” (Romans 1:16). They are a sacrament, even if not according to traditional definition. They do what a sacrament does, they remit our sins, unite us to Christ, and restore us to God, for they are Christ among us speaking to us. As often as they are articulated in the church they open our deaf ears and blind eyes. They strengthen our feeble limbs and make us alive to know Christ, and to live, suffer, die, and rise again with him.
The gospels are not reportage, or a biography of Jesus, a history of the early church, or a religious tradition recorded so that future generations might satisfy their curiosity. Though they are historically factual they are not given to the church as history, but as liturgy and as anamnesis which is participation in Christ who by them is truly present among us. That said, by the gospels and the Sacraments the church has communion with Christ; and through Christ with the Father.
1 John 1:1-4 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life-- 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us-- 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
When were the gospels written? On this question all previous scholarship, even the witnesses of the most respected early church fathers, should be read critically. Moreover we should let reason, rather than the echo chamber of critical scholarship, guide us.
Could the gospels have been written during the Lord’s ministry as a running account, and completed after the Ascension? As unlikely a possibility as this is, consider it for a moment, even if only to balance the extreme critical opinion of reified scholarship.
Another possibility is that the gospels were written in the 40 days between Easter and Ascension when the Lord celebrated Holy Communion with the disciples (Acts 1:4) and “discoursed with them concerning the reign of God” (Acts 1:3).
Or could it have been within the 10 day span between Ascension and Pentecost?
Another possibility is that they were written immediately following Pentecost. Within weeks or months.
But, in this author’s mind, there is no reason to posit a late first century, or even second century date, after a long time of oral tradition, and following much research and collaboration. Nor need we assert dependence of one gospel writer upon another. As the Spirit led Moses to write what God gave him to write, so the 4 evangelists. Nor is there reason to think that the gospels were not written by one author each from beginning to end.
But if one did wish to posit a later date, and a period of assembly, then is it possible that the gospels might consist of a number of liturgical remembrances of Jesus, gathered from church practice and logically edited into one cohesive book each?
And another question. When the gospels were finished, when the Spirit gave the authors nothing more to write, and the ink was dry, what was done with them?
It is impossible to trace for certain, but let us use “the little grey cells” as Hercule Poirot would say.
The greatest likelihood is that they were immediately read aloud in the eucharistic assembly of the particular evangelist. They may have been read cover to cover, or in large swaths, or as a lectio continua at successive Eucharists: which may have been celebrated daily in some locales.
This reading / hearing constituted the Real Presence of the exalted Christ among his people in both Word and Sacrament, even as it does today. “Lo, I am with you always.” (Mt. 28:20)
It seems further reasonable and logical that there was an ardent and unquenchable demand for copies of these holy gospels so that every local church could have its own copy of what amounted to “Christ among us, the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27)
At first a church, or diocese of churches, may have only known one gospel, but the other three were very soon known by all, and demanded by all, and became the chief worship document, liturgy and order of service of the earliest church.
Though it is an argument from silence we should remember that there is no first (or second) century extant liturgy – unless the Gospels themselves were that liturgy! There are first and second century references such the very early dated First Clement, and the Didache (ca. 100 AD) of what the primitive church said and did when it assembled, but little more.
Without doubt they celebrated Eucharist which is the church’s liturgy, prayer and worship. Some posit that the eucharist was a full meal early on, such as Jesus celebrated on Maundy Thursday. Perhaps it was, but we cannot say for sure. I envision a rather different “order of Service” conducted first (but not exclusively) in “house churches”. One in which a gospel was read from cover to cover each Sunday, but not only read / heard, but enacted.
In proposed sketch form early in the Service would be baptisms, since all the gospels record the Lord’s baptism up front. They would proceed with exorcisms, prayers, teaching and miracles of all sorts, and then with the Eucharist itself as all four gospels proceed. And might that early ordo, 33 AD and later, have ended with an ordination of ministers, and commissioning of missionaries since all four gospels conclude with the same?
There is no extant evidence but that should not trouble anyone who willingly accepts a whole body of theories regarding Scripture, by critical scholarship, that has no basis in fact: but is conjecture built upon doubtful conjecture.
Think on these things. Re-arrange the puzzle beginning with this scenario and test it to learn if other pieces of existing information might not support this idea. As we do so we should keep in mind that the gospels were written for the post-Pentecostal church, and are not an attempt to reconstruct a history of past events – though again what they state did happen; but the events were molded under the Spirit’s guidance which may well explain why we have four different accounts of the First Holy Communion.
And it is these post resurrection accounts, the four gospels, written for the church of the ages, that set the tone for worship and celebration today. No longer of the Jesus of history, but of the exalted and glorified Christ who ever lives to intercede for us. Who liturgizes the Father for and with his Bride the church until the end of the age, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.