Virtually all that we know about Jesus comes from only four writers; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Usually the Church blends these accounts together, we get both the wise men and the shepherds together, but appreciate that almost certainly these writers never met. They all wrote separately, years apart from each other, and for different reasons, just gathering together what each could remember or could collect. Two of them seem to have been around in Jesus’ days, while two only came on the scene years after Jesus. Furthermore, any writer’s personality inevitably colours their work if only in what order to give, and the emphasis to give it.
So let’s look at each one alone, (looking just at the beginning and end of each account,) and possibly notice what each doesn’t say.
By the Sea Of Galilee, looking south, on the east coast at the Decapolis, the ‘area of ten towns’
Let’s take JOHN first, because he was actually there; his gospel ends with a note about ‘the disciple that Jesus loved’, and then remarks that this was himself. Despite being close to Jesus, and later looks after his mother, John thinks about the spiritual source of Jesus but doesn’t mention the physical birth. Jesus just turns up at the Jordon to be baptised by John the Baptist, and the story starts.
John’s account immediately after the Crucifixion interestingly is the only one to say that Joseph from Arimathea is also helped by Nicodemus. Apparently they took 30 kilos of myrrh and aloes to treat the body.
Thirty Kilos! That’s massive! In Sainsburys the heaviest bags of potatoes which they let you handle is 2.5 kilos. Imagine not one or two but twelve of those bags. That’s a couple of wheelbarrows. For one body. Yet no mention of all this mass of material a couple of days later when they find the cloths still there with the head bands rolled up, apart.
It is Mary from Magdala who, after the Sabbath, comes early on Sunday to find the tomb already open. She dashes off to tell Simon Peter and this other disciple whom Jesus loved, who came, were mystified to find the tomb empty, and left. But Mary hung around and, looking in the tomb saw two angels in white who asked why she was crying. She then turned around, meeting Jesus in the garden, first thinking he was the gardener. That evening Jesus met with the disciples who were in a locked room, and gave them the Holy Spirit, Thomas being absent. A week later He returned to make Thomas happy, and with that John winds down his account, saying that he is recording these miracles so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah and that through him you may have life. That concludes his purpose. Not particularly concerned with talking about life after death.
Then surprisingly he starts story telling again, adding another chapter describing when they had all returned home to Galilee in the north. This has three parts. Having caught nothing, Jesus tells the Disciples to let out the net on the other side of their fishing boat which virtually overloads the net with 153 fish, some of which they eat together. He taxes Peter three times, in memory of Peter’s three denials before the Crucifixion, and then John ends up with a note concerning himself. No final mention of where Jesus went.
The North- west shore of the Sea of Galilee, near Capernaum, looking north.
At the arrest of Jesus, MARK’s account tells of a certain young man dressed only in a linen cloth who was also about to be arrested so he ran away naked leaving the cloth behind. This is so unexpectedly personal that we take it to be Mark himself, the only other of our writers to be around in Jesus day. His very ‘go ahead’ manner of writing might fit with a younger person.
Like John, he also starts when Jesus comes from Nazareth to be baptised by John the Baptist in the Jordon. Interesting that neither of our two writers who were nearest to Jesus makes any comment on his birth.
In chapter one alone, Mark tells of John the Baptist, Jesus in the Wilderness, calling four fishermen, curing an evil spirit at the synagogue, healing Simon’s mother-in-law, preaching through Galilee and healing a skin disease. All that in the very first Chapter!
His last chapter is remarkable in reverse. As for John, early on the Sunday Mary Magdalene (with two others) arrives to find the stone rolled away, entered and found a young man in white who told them to go and tell the disciples, including Peter, to go to Galilee where they would see Jesus. The women just went out and ran away in fear telling nobody. ENDS. Nobody sees Jesus at all.
Nothing more from Mark. Why so abrupt an end? Did he stop, or has the last page come loose? Much later two different authors added short endings, one of which has two verses summarising the road to Emmaus story given fully by Luke some tens of years later.
At Nazareth, looking into the Museum Tomb.
Now we come to Matthew and to Luke who, alongside Mark are called the Synoptics, ( from the word Synchronous) because these two have come along later to search for information about Jesus, seen Mark’s account and both have copied it separately, so all three tell a similar story. There has also been more information around called ‘Q’.
I am going to suggest that while Mark’s work was written and could be used fairly accurately, the ‘Q’ information was spoken, and having reached Matthew and Luke in different places on different dates coming through by different tellers, could deviate accordingly. This is before the accounts became elevated to Holy Status, and fixed. The Holy Torah had to be remembered exactly to the last comma in order to be passed down the generations, but I suggest that accounts of Jesus’ doings first started off as just general street gossip.
Jerusalem, at a souk in the Muslim quarter.
MATTHEW I cannot date, but his great purpose was to persuade other Jews that this Jesus was the Messiah, and he calls in every possible text from the Jewish writings which might apply. To a Jew, of course, being a man was everything. Being a woman was of no account. Notice that God always talks to Joseph, not Mary. Mary gets no more than half a sentence; ’but before they were married she found she was going to have a baby by the Holy Spirit’. That’s it.
According to Matthew it seems they lived in a house in Bethlehem, where we presume the child was born. Wise men from a distance came to visit, following a star, and unfortunately involved Herod. God warned Joseph in a dream, and they were up and off that very night towards Egypt. When Herod died God said to Joseph to come back. He did so, but out of fear of Herod’s son he decided to move north and settle in Nazareth.
After the Crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea puts Jesus in the tomb, with Matthew adding the extra note that it had been prepared for Joseph himself. On the Sunday Mary Magdalene, (with another Mary) comes to the tomb at which point there was a fearsome earthquake which rolled away the stone. An angel in white told the women that Jesus would meet the disciples back north in Galilee, and in fact the women actually met Jesus whilst on their way to do so.
With his Jewish emphasis, Matthew spends his time describing that guards on the tomb were placed by the Jews and how in the morning, being terrified by the earthquake, then by the missing body, the guards were bribed by the Jewish authorities to say they had been sleeping, a report which spread around the Jews ‘to this very day’.
Then very simply Matthew tells that the disciples met Jesus in Galilee, ending with the very notable two verses of commission and assurance.
So that’s three of our four writers, simply Jews telling Jews, and certainly no interest in Jesus birth.
On the Sea of Galilee, looking West at the valley that leads up towards Nazareth.
With LUKE we have an entirely different ball game.
Matthew was a Jew; only men mattered. Luke, on the other hand, was a Greek, a doctor, and, differently, he could listen to women. Notice for instance that all we know about Virgin Birth or Mother Mary comes only from the pen of Luke, no other except for Matthew’s half sentence (see his Chapter 1) where in fact she only becomes a virgin during the translation out of Isaiah’s Hebrew account into Greek.
Luke never met Jesus, he only joined permanently with Paul when Paul was making his second visit to Greece at least twenty years after the crucifixion, and, like Matthew, Luke just had to collect together whatever he could find out about Jesus.
Arriving with Paul in the Holy Land, to gather information a sensible investigator would immediately visit the mother if she were still alive. True or false this seems to me the case.
Luke, remember, hasn’t seen Matthew’s story. There is no attempt to compare facts. Differently from Matthew, Luke has the girl Mary living up north in Nazareth.
The first chapter is taken up entirely with detailing the birth of John the Baptist and Gabriel commissioning young Mary. Also being told about her elderly relative Elizabeth being pregnant with John, Mary hurriedly travels sixty-plus miles south to Jerusalem to visit Elizabeth for three months. Notice no mention by the other writers about John and Jesus being related.
Months later we have the census and the need to travel south once more, whist pregnant, down to Bethlehem with the birth of Jesus in the stable of the Inn while they were there. No mention at all of a donkey. There may or may not have been one but it is guesswork, not in the bible.
Like in Matthew there are visitors come to visit the baby, but in Luke’s information they are not wise men but local shepherds. The child has normal Jewish circumcision after a week, then is presented at the temple in Jerusalem, meeting with both Simeon and Anna, before the return home again to Nazareth. All quite peaceful, none of this Herod and Egypt escape whatsoever.
Chapter two ends with Jesus having reached Jewish manhood at the age of twelve being found at the Temple astonishing the experts. All this is the personable sort of information that the mother would tell.
The ancient road through the Judean desert from Jerusalem down to Jericho.
Jerusalem is roughly as high as the top of Snowdon while Jericho is a long way below sea level, the lowest dry land on earth.
Moving forward to after the crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea put the body, wrapped in a linen cloth, in an unused tomb. He was watched by those women who had followed Jesus south from Galilee, notably again, Mary Magdalene, with two others. These returned on the Sunday morning with spices and perfumes to find the stone rolled away. They found the tomb empty. Two men in shining clothes told them Jesus was alive. They went and told the apostles who didn’t believe them, although Peter went to have a look for himself, so up to this point nobody had seen Jesus at all.
Then Luke embarks on the story of the road to Emmaus in full detail. Cleopas and friend chatted with a man on their five mile walk home. In response he explained to them all about Jesus in the scriptures but, being evening, it was only after they invited him in for a meal that they realised who it was, and he vanished. Although it was now night-time they got up at once and, forgetting any tiredness, went back the five miles to tell the disciples in Jerusalem.
Then Jesus appeared in the room amongst them, establishing himself by eating some cooked fish. He told them how all about himself in the scriptures had come true, told them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit. Finally he led them out to Bethany where he blessed them and was taken up into Heaven.
Apart from telling that Jesus was last seen at Jerusalem instead of far up north back home in Galilee as told by John and Matthew, this is the only writer who actually specifically tells us of Jesus going off to Heaven. At least it places the disciples in Jerusalem ready for when Luke continues, writing about their activities in the Acts of the Apostles.
A Street in Jerusalem.
There you have it. Four authors writing quite separately to give what each knows or has heard about Jesus. Other writers are mainly preachers. In Acts, Luke contributes Paul’s conversion experience. Peter in his second letter confirms that they were there to hear God speak on the holy mountain.
Incidentally Simon Peter remarks at the end of his first letter that he has a son, Mark. Could this be our writer Mark, who in any case seems to have got information from Peter?
Considering that we are going back an unbelievable two thousand years it is astonishing that we have these scripts on hand at all.
By Gordon Anderson.
The Pictures are courtesy of Rev David Bradburn.