Divergences of the gospels

Question: What is the Divergences of the gospels to the Roman Catholic Church? 

Answer: The existence of numerous and, at times, considerable differences between the four canonical Gospels is a fact which has long been noticed and which all scholars readily admit. Unbelievers of all ages have greatly exaggerated the importance of this fact, and have represented many of the actual variations between theEvangelical narratives as positive contradictions, in order to disprove the historical value and the inspiredcharacter of the sacred records of Christ’s life. Over against this contention, sometimes maintained with a great display of erudition, the Church of God, which is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), has always proclaimed her belief in the historical accuracy and consequent real harmony of the canonicalGospels; and her doctors (notably Eusebius of CæsareaSt. Jerome, and St. Augustine) and commentatorshave invariably professed that belief. As can readily be seen, variations are naturally to be expected in four distinct, and in many ways independent, accounts of Christ’s words and deeds, so that their presence, instead of going against, rather makes for the substantial value of the Evangelical narratives. From among the various answers which have been given to the alleged contradictions of the Evangelists we simply mention the following. Many a time the variations are due to the fact that not one but two really distinct events are described, or two distinct sayings recorded, in the parallel passages of the Gospels. At other times, as is indeed very often the case, the supposed contradictions, when closely examined, turn out to be simply differences naturally entailed, and therefore distinctly accounted for, by the literary methods of the sacredwriters, and more particularly, by the respective purpose of the Evangelists in setting forth Christ’s words anddeeds. Lastly, and in a more general way, the Gospels should manifestly be treated with the same fairness and equity as are invariably used with regard to other historical records.

To borrow an illustration from classical literature, the ‘Memoirs’ of the Apostles are treated [by unbelievers] by a method which no critic would apply to the ‘Memoirs’ of Xenophon. The [Rationalistic] scholar admits the truthfulness of the different pictures of Socrates which were drawn by the philosopher, the moralist, and the man of the world, and combines them into one figure instinct with a noble life, half hidden and half revealed, as men viewed it from different points; but he seems often to forget his art when he studies the records of the Saviour’s work. Hence it is that superficial differences are detached from the context which explains them. It is urged as an objection that parallel narratives are not identical. Variety of details is taken for discrepancy. The evidence may be wanting which might harmonize narratives apparently discordant; but experience shows that it is as rash to deny the probability of reconciliation as it is to fix the exact method by which it may be made out. If, as a general rule, we can follow the lawwhich regulates the characteristic peculiarities of each Evangelist, and see in what way they answer to different aspects of one truth, and combine as complementary elements in the full representation of it, we may be well contented to acquiesce in the existence of some difficulties which at present admit of no exact solution, though they may be a necessary consequence of that independence of the Gospels which, in other cases, is the source of their united power (Westcott).

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The gospels and the oral gospel

Question: What are the gospels, and what is the oral gospel? 

Answer: All recent critics admit that the contents of our four Gospels are intimately connected with more primitive accounts of Christ’s life, which may be described, in a general way, as an Oral Gospel. They are well aware that Jesus Himself did not consign to writing His own teachings, and directed His Apostles not to write, but to preach, the Gospel to their fellow-men. They regard as an undoubted fact that these first disciples of the Master, faithful to the mission which He had entrusted to them, began, from the day of Pentecost on, boldly to declare by word of mouth what they had seen and heard (cf. Acts 4:2), considering as a special duty of theirs “the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). It is plain, too, that those whom the Apostles immediately selected to help them in the discharge of this most important mission had to be, like the Apostles themselves, able to bear witness to the life and teachings of Christ (cf. Acts 1:21 sq.). The substance of the Evangelical narratives would thus be repeated viva voce by the early teachers of Christianity, before any one of them bethought himself to set it down in writing. It can be readily seen that such Apostolic teaching was then inculcated in words which tended to assume a stereotyped form of expression, similar to that which we find in the Synoptic Gospels. In like manner, also, one can easily realize how the Apostles would not be concerned with the exact order of events narrated, and would not aim at completeness in telling what they “had seen and heard”. Thus, according to this opinion, was gradually formed what may be called the “Oral Gospel”, that is, a relation of Christ’s words and deeds, parallel, in respect to matter and form, to our canonical Gospels. In view of this, critics have endeavoured to find out the general contents of this Oral Gospel by means of the second part of the Book of the Acts, by a study of the doctrinal contents of the Epistles of St. Paul, and more particularly by a close comparison of the Synoptic narratives; and it may be freely said that their efforts in that direction have met with considerable success. As regards, however, the precise relation which should be admitted between our canonical Gospels and the Oral Gospel, there is still, among contemporary scholars, a variety of views which will be set forth and examined in the special articles on theindividual Gospels. Suffice it to say, here, that the theory which regards the canonical Gospels as embodying, in substance, the oral teaching of the Apostles concerning the words and deeds of Christ is in distinct harmony with the Catholic position, which affirms both the historical value of these sacred records and the authoritative character of the Apostolic traditions, whether these are actually consigned to writing or simply enforced by the ever living voice of the Church.


Asking a Catholic what their Classification of the gospels are?

Question: What is your classification of the gospels?

Answer: The present order of the Gospels has the twofold advantage of not separating from one another those Evangelical records (St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke) whose mutual resemblances are obvious and striking, and of placing at the end of the list of the Gospels the narrative (that of St. John) whose relations with the other three is that of dissimilarity rather than of likeness. It thus lends itself well to the classification of the Gospels which is now generally admitted by Biblical scholars. St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke are usually grouped together, and designated under the common name of the Synoptic Gospels. They derive this name from the fact that their narratives may be arranged and harmonized, section by section, so as to allow the eye to realize at a glance the numerous passages which are common to them, and also the portions which are peculiar either to only two, or even to only one, of them. The case stands very differently with regard to our Fourth Gospel. As it narrates but a few incidents in common with the Synoptists, and differs from them in respect to style, language, general plan, etc., its chief parts refuse to be included in a harmony such as may be framed by means of the first three Gospels. While, therefore, the Synoptic narratives are naturally put together into one group, St. John’s record is rightly considered as standing apart and as, so to speak, making up a class by itself (see SYNOPTICS).


Asking a Catholic What are the Order of the gospels?

Question: What are the order of the gospels?

Answer: The present order of the Gospels has the twofold advantage of not separating from one another those Evangelical records (St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke) whose mutual resemblances are obvious and striking, and of placing at the end of the list of the Gospels the narrative (that of St. John) whose relations with the other three is that of dissimilarity rather than of likeness. It thus lends itself well to the classification of the Gospels which is now generally admitted by Biblical scholars. St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke are usually grouped together, and designated under the common name of the Synoptic Gospels. They derive this name from the fact that their narratives may be arranged and harmonized, section by section, so as to allow the eye to realize at a glance the numerous passages which are common to them, and also the portions which are peculiar either to only two, or even to only one, of them. The case stands very differently with regard to our Fourth Gospel. As it narrates but a few incidents in common with the Synoptists, and differs from them in respect to style, language, general plan, etc., its chief parts refuse to be included in a harmony such as may be framed by means of the first three Gospels. While, therefore, the Synoptic narratives are naturally put together into one group, St. John’s record is rightly considered as standing apart and as, so to speak, making up a class by itself (see SYNOPTICS).


Chief differences between canonical and apocryphal gospels

Question: What is the chief differences between canonical and apocryphal gospels?

Answer: From the outset, the four Gospels, the sacred character of which was thus recognized very early, differed in several respects from the numerous uncanonical Gospels which circulated during the first centuries of the Church. First of all, they commended themselves by their tone of simplicity and truthfulness, which stood in striking contrast with the trivial, absurd, or manifestly legendary character of many of those uncanonical productions. In the next place, they had an earlier origin than most of their apocryphal rivals, and indeed many of the latter productions were directly based on the canonical Gospels. A third feature in favour of our canonical records of Christ’s life was the purity of their teachings, dogmatic and moral, over against the Jewish, Gnostic, or other heretical views with which not a few of the apocryphal gospels were tainted, and on account of which these unsound writings found favour among heretical bodies and, on the contrary, discredit in the eyes of Catholics. Lastly, and more particularly, the canonical Gospels were regarded as of Apostolic authority, two of them being ascribed to the Apostles St. Matthew and St. John, respectively, and two to St. Mark and St. Luke, the respective companions of St. Peter and St. Paul. Many other gospels indeed claimed Apostolic authority, but to none of them was this claim universally allowed in the early Church. The only apocryphal work which was at all generally received, and relied upon, in addition to our four canonical Gospels, is the “Gospel according to the Hebrews“. It is a well-known fact that St. Jerome, speaking of this Gospel under the name of “The Gospel according to the Nazarenes“, regards it as the Hebrew original of our Greek canonical Gospel according to St. Matthew. But, as far as can be judged from its fragments which have come down to us, it has no right to originality as compared with our first canonical Gospel. At a very early date, too, it was treated as devoid of Apostolic authority, and St. Jerome himself, who states that he had its Aramaic text at his disposal, does not assign it a place side by side with our canonical Gospels: all the authority which he ascribes to it is derived from his persuasion that it was the original text of our First Gospel, and not a distinct Gospel over and above the four universally received from time immemorial in the Catholic Church.


Asking a Catholic on the Number of the gospels

Question: How man gospels are there?

Answer: The name gospel, as designating a written account of Christ’s words and deeds, has been, and is still, applied to a large number of narratives connected with Christ’s life, which circulated both before and after the composition of our Third Gospel (cf. Luke 1:1-4). The titles of some fifty such works have come down to us, a fact which shows the intense interest which centred, at an early date, in the Person and work of Christ. it is only, however, in connexion with twenty of these “gospels” that some information has been preserved. Their names, as given by Harnack (Chronologie, I, 589 sqq.), are as follows: —

  • 1-4. The Canonical Gospels
  • 5. The Gospel according to the Hebrews.
  • 6. The Gospel of Peter.
  • 7. The Gospel according to the Egyptians
  • 8. The Gospel of Matthias.
  • 9. The Gospel of Philip.
  • 10. The Gospel of Thomas.
  • 11. The Proto-Evangelium of James.
  • 12. The Gospel of Nicodemus (Acta Pilati).
  • 13.The Gospel of the Twelve Apostles.
  • 14.The Gospel of Basilides.
  • 15.The Gospel of Valentinus.
  • 16.The Gospel of Marcion.
  • 17.The Gospel of Eve.
  • 18.The Gospel of Judas.
  • 19.The writing Genna Marias.
  • 20.The Gospel Teleioseos.

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Asking a Catholic “What are the gospels?”

Question: What are the gospels in your terms?

Answer: The first four historical books of the New Testament are supplied with titles (Euaggelion kata Matthaion, Euaggelion kata Markon, etc.), which, however ancient, do not go back to the respective authors of those sacred writings. The Canon of Muratori, Clement of Alexandria, and St. Irenæus bear distinct witness to the existence of those headings in the latter part of the second century of our era. Indeed, the manner in which Clement (Stromata I.21), and St. Irenæus (Against Heresies III.11.7) employ them implies that, at that early date, our present titles to the Gospels had been in current use for some considerable time. Hence, it may be inferred that they were prefixed to the evangelical narratives as early as the first part of that same century. That, however, they do not go back to the first century of the Christian era, or at least that they are not original, is a position generally held at the present day. It is felt that since they are similar for the fourGospels, although the same Gospels were composed at some interval from each other, those titles were not framed, and consequently not prefixed to each individual narrative, before the collection of the four Gospels was actually made. Besides, as well pointed out by Prof. Bacon, “the historical books of the New Testament differ from its apocalyptic and epistolary literature, as those of the Old Testament differ from its prophecy, in being invariably anonymous, and for the same reason. Prophecies whether in the earlier or in the later sense, and letters, to have authority, must be referable to some individual; the greater his name, the better. But history was regarded as a common possession. Its facts spoke for themselves. Only as the springs of common recollection began to dwindle, and marked differences to appear between the well-informed and accurate Gospels and the untrustworthy . . . did it become worth while for the Christian teacher or apologist to specify whether the given representation of the current tradition was ‘according to’ this or that special compiler, and to state his qualifications”. It thus appears that the present titles of theGospels are not traceable to the Evangelists themselves.

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The Catholic Gospel

Question: What is really the Catholic gospel?

Answer: The word Gospel usually designates a written record of Christ’s words and deeds. It is very likely derived from the Anglo-Saxon god (good) and spell (to tell), and is generally treated as the exact equivalent of the Greek euaggelion (eu well, aggello, I bear a message), and the Latin Evangelium, which has passed into French, German, Italian, and other modern languages. The Greek euaggelion originally signified the “reward of good tidings” given to the messenger, and subsequently “good tidings”.