Why, How and When the Gospels?

(In accordance with the Clementine Gospel Tradition)


The Markan Priority theory has undermined, in many minds, acceptance of the historical reliability of the Gospels. Its advocates claim that Mark, who never knew Christ, wrote the first. As Matthew and Luke based their Gospels on Mark, this shows they were not able to give an eyewitness account of Christ’s public life.


Those opposing this theory have been ineffective in disproving it, because they have clung to the Matthew-Mark-Luke-John sequence, used by Jerome in the 4th century. But other scholars have proposed an answer based on evidence provided by Bishop Clement of Alexandria and others, who lived 200 years before Jerome. Together with modern literary analysis, they have produced a convincing alternative to Markan Priority. So let us look at their scenario.


Matthew, as a former tax collector, was educationally equipped to provide a structure for the earliest Christian meetings. These consisted of prayer, the singing of psalms, listening to a teacher, meditating on the life of Christ and breaking bread together.

Hebrew was still known in the Holy Land [1], but Aramaic used in normal conversation. We do not know which was used for the earliest Gospel, but analysis shows that our Gospel in Greek was translated from Hebrew [2].


It recounted the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus as the fulfilment of Jewish prophesies. The middle section was constructed in five parts, each consisting of a narrative and a discourse. [3]. Each part opens with, or similar: ‘And when Jesus had finished these sayings…’  [4]. To develop his five thematic parts, Matthew used events and stories from the public life of Jesus. By ignoring chronology, his gospel gives the impression that Christ’s public life lasted for one year.


When the Christian missionaries travelled through the Roman Empire, they would go to the synagogues first. As the Jews living outside Palestine mainly spoke Greek Matthew’s Greek version would have been ideal for gaining an initial group of converts. These would then go to preach to the local Gentiles.


Paul saw the need to have a Gospel written specifically for the Gentiles, so his secretary, Luke, ‘took the matter in hand’. According to the oldest tradition, this was the second Gospel to be written. [5]. Luke aimed to produce an account in chronological order and to separate the stories of what Jesus did from what he taught [6]. So he gathered the teaching sections together and placed them in a central section. When borrowing verses from Matthew’s thematic work it was necessary to change many of the introductions so as to prevent apparent contradictions of timing.


Luke had not lived with Christ, but when Paul and Luke arrived in Rome, they saw the opportunity to have Luke’s work publicly authenticated by Peter. To do this, Peter gave a talk in kione (common) Greek. Peter quoted alternatively from Matthew and Luke, blending them together while adding a few additions of his own.


Peter omitted parts (e.g. the infancy of Jesus), where he had not been an eyewitness. Peter’s secretary, Mark, recorded Peter’s words in shorthand.

The two existing Gospels had been designed to fill a standard papyrus roll, but this new script was much shorter. When the large audience asked for copies, Mark provided it without editing out errors of memory, grammar and mannerisms (Peter was not a native Greek speaker). That is why Mark’s Gospel is often judged to be in ‘poor’ Greek. Peter was indifferent to its distribution until he saw the beneficial results. This led to the publication of a second edition. One version is twelve verses longer than the other. The last verses are in a different style and appear to be Peter’s answers to questions at the end of the talks.


Later the bishops of Asia Minor, together with the Apostle Andrew, asked John to answer the heretics spreading Gnostic versions of Christianity. The Gnostics believed in demi-gods, such as Light, Monogenes, Word (Logos) and Life. They denied Christ was God and creator of the world, and claimed that John the Baptist was superior to Christ. In preaching they made use of apparent ambiguities in the three existing Gospels. John answered the Gnostic arguments and closed his Gospel with chapter 20.


Then, about 95 AD, questions arose regarding the authority of Peter, and a rumour that John would never die. John answered these in his chapter 21.


So two eyewitnesses of Christ’s public life (ie: Matthew and John) wrote Gospels. The gospel according to Mark was the transcript of a talk given by Peter (another eyewitness), when Luke’s book was being endorsed by him. So eyewitnesses were involved with all the Gospels. The traditional Christian claim: ‘The Gospels were written by Apostles and ‘apostolic men’ [7], is vindicated.


Luke also wrote a history of the early church and the missionary work of Paul. This history was entitled, ‘Acts’. Luke often says ‘we’ but uses ‘they’ when he was not with Paul. After being in Rome, Paul visited Spain. The background to letters sent by Paul to Titus and Timothy in Asia Minor does not appear in Acts, because it had been composed before Luke and Paul arrived in Rome.


[1]  Acts 21: 40, 22: 2 and recent research.

[2]  Books by Claude Tresmontant, Jean Carmignac and others.

[3]  A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, 1953, section 678c.

[4]  Matthew 7:28,  11:1,  13: 53,  19:1,  26:1.

[5]  Saint Clement of Alexandria and others.

[6]  Luke 1: 1-4 and Acts 1: 1-2.

[7]  Vatican II, Dei Verbum, paragraphs 7 and 18.


[G 216]


Version: 30th March 2016