A few months ago, I was having a heated discussion with a Muslim student about the four Evangelists. His main bone of contention was that the Gospels were written decades after Christ ascended and asked me how one could vouch for their accuracy. I kindly explained to him that the Gospels are reflections of the catechetical teachings of Sts. Peter, Paul, and John. Of course, it was an argument that went on for an extremely long time. At the end of half an hour of seemingly fruitless discussion, I handed the topic over to a friend of mine that is much better at discussing these things than I am.
Yet I have continued to think about the four evangelists and the way that they spread the Good News through their writings. I have written about the evangelists before on their respective feast days, but I have never managed to find the right words to speak on this topic until today on the feast of St. John the Evangelist.
When one looks at the gospels separately, one thing becomes immediately apparent. Each of the evangelists was writing for a specific audience and had a specific purpose in mind when embarking on his writings. St. Luke, for example, was writing to a Gentile audience and portrayed Christ as the Great Physician of our souls and bodies. St. Matthew, on the other hand, wrote for a newly converted Jewish audience and used the prophecies to show that Jesus was the Messiah promised by God centuries before to the Jewish nation. St. Mark wrote to a persecuted community and highlights Our Lord as a suffering servant, while St. John writes about the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
All of these four perspectives coalesce into one image of Our Lord. Even where there are slight disagreements among the authors and where there are whole bits of information that are left out, the Gospels manage to complement each other in various ways. The reason why the Gospels complement each other and fill each other in is because they are based, like I said above, on the oral catechesis of their authors.
As is well known St. Mark was a disciple of St. Peter and the earliest bishop of Alexandria in Egypt. When reading St. Mark’s Gospel, the reader often notices that St. Peter is not as prominent as he is in the other Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John. This is because St. Mark’s Gospel is an accurate reflection of St. Peter’s own catechesis and, therefore, there was no need for St. Peter to play up his own role.
St. Matthew’s Gospel is different because it tends to center more on the promised Messiah. Like St. Mark and St. Luke, there are events that are shared between. St. Matthew’s Gospel is also taken from the catechesis of St. Peter, but there are also incidents that are not to be found in the other two Gospels that are found in St. Matthew’s. For example, he writes about the flight into Egypt and the arrival of the Magi as well as his own calling to the apostolate by Our Lord. The events of the Holy Childhood, St. Matthew may have heard from people that were actually there, while the account of his calling clearly comes from his own memory of that momentous event.
St. Luke’s Gospel is yet another vision of Christ. This time, Our Lord is portrayed as the Divine Physician. St. Luke’s medical background made this an appropriate topic for Him. Yet Our Lord is not only a physician of souls, but also of bodies. Therefore, St. Luke includes the Parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Since it was written for a Gentile audience, St. Luke writes in a style that is much more Hellenized than that of the other authors. As St. Paul’s companion on his missionary journeys, St. Luke had access to St. Paul’s oral catechetical teaching and it is this teaching that is reflected in his Gospel. Not only this, but St. Luke probably spoke to Our Lady and was able to obtain from her own lips the accounts of Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Nativity of Our Lord in Bethlehem.
St. John’s Gospel is different than the other three. Whereas the other three are known as the Synoptic Gospels because they fit together into a rather seamless whole, St. John’s is completely different. St. John is writing this Gospel at the end of his long life on the island of Patmos. With years of experience in the apostolate behind him, St. John sets down those things that he witnessed as a very young man. Not only this, but the lights that he has received from the Holy Spirit have allowed him to set down a Gospel that is much more mystical than that of the other evangelists.
St. John’s Gospel is primarily concerned with showning Our Lord as the Lamb of God. From the Gospel’s magnificent prologue and the appearance of St. John the Baptist, we sense something otherworldly in the writing of St. John. Not for him, the parables of St. Luke or the prophecies exhaustively cited by St. Matthew. His Jesus is a man that speaks in ways that bewildered His audience. Indeed, the famous Eucharistic sermon given in chapter 6 indeed bewildered Our Lord’s original listeneres, who were scandalized by the fact that Our Lord spoke of His precious blood as true drink and His body as food. Nor was it easy for Nicodemus to understand what it meant for a man to be born again of water and the spirit. Yet Our Lord was patient with him and explained to him exactly what it meant. Probably several times over.
For many people, including myself, the Gospel of St. John is the hardest to read because one does not always understand everything that Our Lord says. Indeed, it takes long meditation for us to understand his meaning and yet Our Lord speaks most profoundly through St. John. Indeed, it is throug his Gospel and that of the others that we are able to see Our Lord as He was during His life on earth.
In our day, historical and rationalist criticism has examined and re-examined the Gospels in light of their scientific facts. Scholars routinely ask questions about what Our Lord truly meant or why the writers wrote down what they did. Indeed, heads spin over what the evangelists truly meant to say. The truth of the matter is that the evangelists wrote under divine inspiration what was dictated to them by the Holy Ghost. The meaning of Our Lord’s words is contained within the Gospels themselves. Indeed our only task to get to the meaning is to, in the word of Our Lord to St. Augustine, “Pick up and read.”
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
St. Matthew, pray for us!
St. Mark, pray for us!
St. Luke, pray for us!
St. John, pray for us!