We know from apocryphal gospels, as well as from statements of orthodox and heretical Christians, that in the second century gospel texts were altered and combined. This was particularly likely to occur in those early days, when the documents were not regarded as authoritative and definitive, and when there was no central organisation to secure and enforce uniformity.
Here is how an acknowledged authority on the subject, Elaine Pagels puts it in her book, The Gnostic Gospels:
…. whaWhoever the author was he seems to have known little of Jewish life or culture, or of Palestinian geography. He often attributes Roman customs and artefacts to Jesus and his followers. He was writing for a Roman audience, and his narrative is tailored accordingly. He takes pains to explain Jewish customs (e.g. Mark 7:3-4) where he knows about them.t we call Christianity — and what we identify as Christian tradition — actually represents only a small selection of specific sources, chosen from among dozens of others. Who made that selection, and for what reasons? Why were these other writings excluded and banned as “heresy”? What made them so dangerous?
The rhyme and rhythm of the Sermon on the Mount shows that at least some of the Matthew gospel was originally phrased in Aramaic. This gospel may well have been adopted from a list of sayings written in a Semitic language and then fitted into a narrative framework6. The Jerusalem Bible describes this gospel as a “dramatic account” in seven acts. It is essentially propaganda for Jewish Christians. Its author may well have been a Palestinian Jew, perhaps representing the views of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem. He repeatedly mentions that Jesus was sent only to the Jews, not to the gentiles, and emphasises Jewish Law. He represents Jesus as a majestic sovereign, descended from an ancient royal line, who comes “not to bring peace, but a sword”. The author also makes much of Old Testament prophecies and their fulfilment.
Re: Mark The authors of the other gospels used Mark as a principal source, but increasingly toned down Jesus’ human weaknesses and developed an increasingly divine persona for him. Whoever the author was he seems to have known little of Jewish life or culture, or of Palestinian geography. He often attributes Roman customs and artefacts to Jesus and his followers. He was writing for a Roman audience, and his narrative is tailored accordingly. He takes pains to explain Jewish customs (e.g. Mark 7:3-4) where he knows about them.
The gospel may have been written as a protest by gentile Christians against the influence of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. The author consistently denigrates the Jews. Jesus’ Jewish followers are made out to be dull, quarrelsome and cowardly. They desert him at the first sign of trouble. The Jewish establishment is presented as trying to trick him and kill him. By contrast the Romans are presented as models of civility and justice. Pontius Pilate, for example, makes every effort not to condemn Jesus, despite Jewish demands. This was a politically correct account during a period when thousands of Jews were being crucified for rebelling against Rome, and it helped earn Pilate his sainthood in the Coptic Church.
The author, whoever he was, was much more urbane than the authors of the other gospels and other early writers, so it is sometimes possible to see in the original Greek where he has incorporated the writing of others.
This gospel was written for, and angled at, an Hellenic gentile audience. It represents the views of Paul, on his mission to the gentiles, and so omits much of the specifically Jewish material. Here Jesus is represented as a gentle lamb-like teacher of modest birth — the “Gentle Jesus meek and mild” of childhood prayers. This author has humble shepherds visiting the baby Jesus where the Matthew author has high dignitaries bringing gifts to a new-born king.
The gospel is really only the first volume; the second volume is called The Acts of the Apostles. One of the author’s chief motivations for writing Luke and Acts was clearly to represent Christianity as a movement that carried all before it. Another important motivation was to stress that it did not constitute a threat to the State.
This gospel is substantially different from the other three canonical gospels. Indeed apart from the passion story (thought to be a late addition), its presentation bears no relationship at all to them. The few incidents that are common to the other gospels occur at different times, or in different places, and in different circumstances. The other three gospels are together known as the synoptic gospels. (The word synoptic means “seen-together” and is applied to Matthew, Mark and Luke because they share a common point of view.)
For centuries there was controversy as to whether this gospel should be admitted to the list of canonical books. The Church Father Irenaeus of Lyons stated that the book had been written to refute the arguments of Cerinthus, a well-known Gnostic who had lived a few years earlier. On the other hand the gospel was itself used by Gnostics — one reason why “orthodox” Christians wanted to reject it from the canon. Most biblical scholars accept it represents an interpretation of Jesus that developed late in the first century AD, probably in Ephesus. Its opening verses express ancient Middle Eastern views, personifying the Word (logos), but they are adapted to a new emerging theology.
The gospel’s target audience appears to be educated, middle-class and Hellenic. The author, like the author of the Mark gospel, takes trouble to explain Jewish words, names and attitudes (e.g. 1:41-2 and 4:9). As in other late documents, the gospel is consistently anti-Semitic (the Jewishness of Jesus and his followers is underplayed, even implicitly denied8 — while his enemies are referred to about sixty times as “the Jews”).
Of the four canonical gospels John stresses Jesus’ divinity most strongly and also plays down his human weaknesses most strongly. The miracles are consistently more impressive, and may have been taken from a source in which they served simply as demonstrations of Jesus’ power9. This gospel has been described as a meditation in dramatic form.
Re: Errors and Inconsistancies
According to the gospels Jesus often contradicted himself. He claimed to uphold the traditional laws unreservedly (Matthew 5:17-19, cf. Luke 16:17). He then addressed a number of questions and in each case overturned the traditional law. These questions concern subjects such as murder, adultery, divorce, swearing, punishment (an eye for an eye), and loving one’s enemies. On the question of divorce the accounts in both the Matthew and Mark gospels contradict the traditional laws, under which divorce was a simple matter for men32. Not only that, the two gospels are incompatible with each other. Mark 10:9 forbids divorce in any circumstances. Speaking of man and wife Jesus says:
What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
The sermon on the mount related by Matthew differs substantially from its counterpart given in Luke. The one in Luke is similar to that in Matthew, but its text differs in a number of respects. Furthermore it occurs later in the story than it does in Matthew, and is reported as having been given not on a mount, but a plain (see Matthew 5:1-7:27 and Luke 6:17-49). There are other cases where the same story is told more than once, with minor alterations. The story of the feeding of the four thousand (Mark 8:1-10, Matthew 15:29-39) varies only slightly from the same story told elsewhere, when five thousand were fed (Mark 6:30-44, Matthew 14:13-21, Luke 9:10-17, cf. John 6:1-15). That it is really the same story told twice over is confirmed by the fact that on both occasions the disciples cannot imagine how the crowd is going to be fed. If the disciples had already seen the miracle once, then they would hardly be at a complete loss to work out how the second (smaller) crowd might be nourished.
There are even disagreements over the wording of the Lord’s Prayer. Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4 give different versions (neither of which match the version in common use today).
Again, lists of the 12 apostles are not consistent (see Appendix B). Matthew 10:2-4 and Mark 3:16-19 give a list including Thaddaeus, Luke 6:14-16 and Acts 1:13 give a similar list except that it excludes Thaddaeus, and includes a second Judas — Judas son (or brother) of James.