Because of the Jews, the Christian era from its beginning possessed a body of scriptures as a unique heritage. But unlike orthodox Jews, who believed the collection to be a completed scripture, Christ’s disciples knew there was now a richer portion. They didn’t abandon the Old Word, for new understanding had made it more precious than ever. But they now had the teachings of the Savior as remembered by the Gospel writers and later augmented by the writings of his Apostles and other early church leaders.
For Bible scholars, there is major uncertainty in our day about what constituted the “New Word” for the early Christians. How accurate, how complete is our modern-day version of it?
The truth is, the records we have—though accepted as scripture and priceless in what they give us—are not totally satisfactory as a complete record. While the four testimonies that bear witness of Christ’s life do so with much power, there are many details of his life that are missing. In Mark’s story, for example, only thirty-one days are accounted for. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that all of the sayings attributed directly to Jesus in the New Testament can be read in just one-half hour. When one considers the numerous occasions on which he taught, and external evidences of the length of his sermons, it becomes obvious that we have only a very small portion of his teachings.
But perhaps the most conspicuous gap in the New Testament accounts is the period after the Lord’s resurrection. We know that at that time he spent forty days with his Apostles—forty days in which his word was expanded upon. How vital these teachings and instructions must have been! Yet they are almost totally missing from our current New Testament.
In spite of these challenges, the New Testament text is still priceless among the written works preserved for mankind. Although not always accurate as translated (see A of F 1:8), this record alone, among the records we have, has the honor of detailing the mortal life and mission of Jesus Christ.
Interestingly, there is a growing body of evidence that the New Testament began as a record of the sayings of Jesus. This, of course, would come as no great surprise to Latter-day Saints, for in the Book of Mormon, the Lord personally instructed the Nephites more than once to “write these sayings after I am gone.” (3 Ne. 16:4; also 3 Ne. 23:4.) Many scholars think that the writers of the first three Gospels in some way used such a record, or at least part of it, as a source for their accounts of Christ’s life.
One scholar, for example, shows that some passages of the first three Gospels dealing with direct quotations are so similar that they present strong evidence of dependence upon the same written source.1 Furthermore, the similarities exist in such “minute and parenthetical identities of language” that these and other considerations make strong the contention that some written document of Christ’s sayings must have been used.2
Substantiating evidence comes from a second century bishop, Papias, who claimed it was Matthew who composed this “Logia” (Christ’s oral utterances) in the Hebrew, and that subsequent writers of Gospels translated their work from it.3 It is more than interesting that some of the most important recent textual discoveries are writings which claim to be “sayings” of the Savior. Particularly exciting are discoveries of teachings claiming to come from the Lord during that forty-day period after his resurrection—an indication that his teachings may have been recorded then but are yet to be found in their fulness and purity.4
But though there may once have existed a separate record containing the sayings of Jesus, the fact remains that we do not have it. What we do have are four Gospels, or testimonies, each a witness of some of the sayings and events that are associated with Christ.
We know only a little about the stories behind the writing of these Gospels. But we do know enough to know that they derived their authority from the Twelve Apostles. Matthew and John were, of course, among the original Twelve Apostles. (See Luke 6:14–15.) Mark, who was so close to Peter that Peter called him his “son” in the faith (1 Pet. 5:13), may have made his record under Peter’s guidance and authority.5 The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were both written by Luke, a close companion of Paul (Acts 16:10; Acts 20:6; 2 Tim. 4:11), and therefore bear Paul’s influence. But the authority behind Luke’s account is also derived from Luke’s claim to be a messenger of the Savior and to have sought original sources—the witness of the original Apostles themselves and other eye-witnesses. (See JST, Luke 1:1–4.) The first and best texts of the New Testament, then, like those of the Old, came from the prophets, either by their own hands or by the hands of very close assistants.
But while we must offer high praise to the writers of the four Gospels, who labored greatly in a period of severe persecution to preserve for us these precious accounts, we must also recognize the greater gift behind them—from the Savior himself. His gift, his incredible life, was the “raw material” to which they gave written shape. He was the Word. He was the Old Word being fulfilled, and he was the New Word being lived. This “greatest story ever told” did not spring out of someone’s imagination; rather, its impact and power are inescapably bound to its reality—and more so because it was deliberately lived, even to its utmost bitterness in Gethsemane and on Golgotha.
There are some special values in having four different accounts of Christ’s life. While there are some dissimilarities in them (and numerous theories as to why these dissimilarities exist), we must remember that there is much more unity than disunity. And as A. R. Faussett has pointed out, “Reconcilable diversity is a confirmation of truth, because it disproves collusion, and shews the witnesses to be independent. Sameness in all four gospels would make all but the first mere copies.”6
The fact is, each gospel contributes its own unique insights and emphasis. Matthew’s special emphasis was on Christ’s teachings, and he also showed special sensitivity to the Lord’s fulfillment of specific Old Testament prophecy. Mark’s emphasis was upon the acts of Christ, as he portrayed the Savior with energy and power. Luke’s emphasis was on the universal nature of Christ’s mission; his account is also the only source for many stories about Christ and teaching he gave that we would otherwise miss. John’s special emphasis was on the divinity of Christ, reminding us always of his true origins. It was John who, by being sensitive to the symbolic meanings of the Savior’s teachings, recorded for us Christ’s teachings that He was the Lamb who would be slain for us, the Bread from Heaven who would nourish us, the Light which would enlighten us, the Vine from which we could draw strength and through which we might bear fruit.
Thus each separate writer of the Gospels adds his gift of enrichment and helps us see the Messiah from many different perspectives.
As we know, after the Gospels and Luke’s account of the Acts of the Apostles, much of the New Testament consists of letters. Having so much of the New Testament in letter form has proved both a strength and a problem for Christianity. The strengths are pointed out by Richard L. Anderson, who shows that beyond their value for spiritual uplift, the letters help verify the accuracy of the history and doctrine expressed in the Gospels.7
On the other hand, in much of the Christian world the letters have been made to assume a role for which it appears they were never fully intended. The Gospels as we have them focus primarily on the life of Christ, on those teachings that bear witness that he was and is the Christ, and on his teachings about how man ought to live. They do not contain a complete presentation of the full range of gospel doctrines and principles. Generally, therefore, Christian sects have obtained many of their doctrines from the epistles. But the epistles themselves, though they contain doctrine, do so in patches and pieces. Most of them were written in response to specific needs and questions arising in specific geographical areas of the early Church.
Furthermore, they often contained many items of unequal weight and importance, making it difficult at times to determine which passages are statements of doctrine and which are counsel on temporary, immediate problems the Saints faced. The biggest problem is that in the process of answering specific questions, a great deal of information necessary for full understanding was left out, apparently because those to whom the letters were directed were already familiar with the basic principles involved. Thus, many things were only alluded to, such as baptism for the dead and the roles of the various priesthood leaders. It is this “partial explanation only” that has caused confusion for later readers. In fact, it could be argued that this unfortunate lack of clarity of doctrine in what remained as part of the canonized scripture is partially responsible for many of the later divisions of belief among Christian sects.
But though we grieve for that which was lost, we can still rejoice in that which we have in the New Testament record. Even fragments of the Gospels are precious. They are precious for what they contain—and for how we receive them. Almost always, behind every piece of sacred literature, there is a fascinating story. And with the knowledge that revelation never comes easily, the stories behind the formation of scripture surely would prove to be very fascinating.
Unfortunately, in most cases we know little of the specific influences which pressed upon each New Testament writer and brought from his pen God’s word. But we know that the things Christ prophesied to them would come to the minds of his servants. We know that on the eve of his death he warned that they would be hated, they would be persecuted, they would be cast out of their own synagogues, and they would be slain. And they would suffer these things for the witness they would bear.
Because we possess a more prolific and personal set of writings from Paul, we can learn through his experiences a little of what all must have endured. Paul’s insights and writings were spawned by experience. He could write, then, of the miracle of Christ’s grace because he had personally experienced it. He had set himself upon a course of crushing the seeds of Christianity, and afterward bore a keen awareness that only the direct intervention of the Lord had prevented his pursuit of that disastrous course. The weight of that indebtedness was one reason he accepted so readily his appointed missions to unknown lands and people, everywhere preaching and writing of the salvation which comes through Christ.
But the strengths of Paul’s writings come from other influences as well. As the book of Acts and most of his letters indicate, in his labors he experienced stonings, scourgings, mockings, illness, and accusations. He faced death many times, and his escapes were narrow. His traveling for the Word was constant. He was shipwrecked. He knew loneliness. Like Christ, he was deserted by friends. He was accused, chained, imprisoned with imprisonments as long as two years. He was tried again and again, finally condemned, and at last martyred.
Out of all these experiences, came his letters. He wrote when he suffered “trouble, as an evil doer, even unto bonds” (2 Tim. 2:9); nevertheless he could rise up and say, “But I determined this with myself, that I would not come again to you in heaviness” (2 Cor. 2:1). And he wrote, “We were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life.” (2 Cor. 1:8.) And finally he wrote, “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand.” (2 Tim. 4:6.)
While in prison, he pleaded for his scriptures: “The cloke that I left … when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments.” (2 Tim. 4:13.)
He loved the scriptures, and in his loving, wrote scripture: “And … from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
“That the man of God may be perfect.” (2 Tim. 3:15–17.)
As Paul spoke of the writings he so greatly loved, so in time have his writings come to be greatly loved, as are the writings of all his companions who bore witness through the pen of their faith in Jesus Christ. Though we know more of Paul’s trials, he surely spoke for all who used the pen to spread the gospel when he said, “For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears.” (2 Cor. 2:4.)
The book of Revelation, written by John, was also written in sorrow—from the lonely circumstance of exile: “I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation … was in the isle that is called Patmos.” (Rev. 1:9.) But perhaps even more powerful than the physical separation and loneliness John felt as he wrote was the spiritual isolation he suffered. We can sense it as we read his words, for John did not write in a time of success, but of gloom. The young, struggling gospel kingdom was beset upon from all sides. The Saints were hunted, persecuted, slain. But more distressingly, the Church was being ravished from within by false teachings. Undoubtedly the loneliness and sorrows John felt as he beheld the struggles of the beleaguered Church contributed strongly to the passion in his words as he wrote what he saw. Then, trying to communicate the scenes viewed in revelation, John wrote of the trials and glories of the earth’s future in powerful and starkly beautiful terms.
Although the Revelation is placed at the end of our collection of New Testament scriptures, it was not the last book written. The last written, however, was by John, the distinction of finality for that dispensation going to his epistles.8
As the testaments of those ancient prophets who bore witness of Christ’s eventual coming had ceased, eventually to be compiled into a book, so the testaments of those who knew Christ in the flesh also ceased, to be later compiled into a scriptural record. Another dispensation had ended. For a time the heavens were shut up, to await another day when the love of God for his needy children would again fling them open.
End of Part 3. To be continued.