The four Gospel accounts were not composed by SS. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John sitting around a large table in the Upper Room reviving memories and comparing notes. The Gospel accounts took shape at least over the course of a generation and certainly in scattered areas of the Mediterranean world.
Although bits and pieces of Jesus’ life story were no doubt in oral and written circulation before an inspired pen was put to paper, most Biblical commentators agree that St. Mark was the first of the inspired gospels to be composed. SS. Matthew and Luke probably then used this first edition plus other sources when composing their own gospel accounts.
The similarities of these three Gospel books have earned them the label “synoptic Gospels,” from the Greek meaning “viewed together.” St. John, on the other hand, presents the reader with 80% new material not found in the other writers.
The intended readership for the four Gospel accounts is equally varied. St. Matthew’s account was probably circulated among Jews in the Holy Land. St. Mark’s version seems to have Romans in mind as its destination. St. Luke has no doubt written for the Greek-speaking world. St. John’s original audience seems to have consisted primarily of Diaspora Jews scattered around the Near East. And of course, it is challenging to determine the dates the four accounts were actually composed.
The fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is now considered critical to dating the Gospel accounts. A number of current thinkers actually place the origins of the four accounts before that solemn date, possibly within a generation of Christ’s death. St. Mark was certainly first, possibly even written as early as 42 A.D., and St. John was most likely last maybe in 60 A.D. These dates are much earlier than has been traditionally thought by previous scholars.
Now where is the Quiet Corner going with all this data on the origins, sources and roots of the Gospel accounts? This coming Sunday’s Gospel passage from St. Matthew’s account offers one of the three listings of the Twelve Apostles in the Synoptic Gospels.
St. Matthew wrote: “The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon called Peter, and his brother Andrew; James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus; Simon from Cana, and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him.” Note St. Peter is listed first followed closely by SS. James and John, the other two “pillars” of the Church as labelled in Acts.
Now compare St. Mark’s arrangement: “He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.”
And now consider St. Luke’s list: “When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.” (St. Luke’s account in Acts is identical.)
St. John does not offer a list of apostles (nor does he ever use the word apostle). However, in the celebrated sermon on the Bread of Life, St. John makes clear reference to the standard grouping: “So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well (Jn 6:67)?’” In the course of his writing St. John does make explicit reference to seven of the 12.
Perhaps the point has been somewhat belabored but its importance for Roman Catholics is vital. Christ established a hierarchical church including officers whom Christ called “apostles” and who are now called pope and bishops. No matter how far and wide the Good News was preached, no matter when or where the Gospel was proclaimed, the selection by Christ of 12 men with one designated leader was remembered and revealed.
The Good News of salvation, announced first by Christ himself, was entrusted next to his 12 chosen evangelists, and then in turn to their ordained successors who through the centuries have both proclaimed and protected the original Gospel message.
Apostolicity was and is a mark of the true Church, a sign to the ages that the message being preached is truly the authentic word of God announced first by Christ and then entrusted to his chosen apostles and now to their legitimate successors.