The Missionary Nature of the Gospels

As Carson, Moo, and Morris point out (1992), nowhere in the New Testament are the first four books referred to as “Gospels.” It is not until the second century that the title “Gospel” is attributed to these compiled stories about Jesus (Carson, Moo, Morris 1992:46, cf. Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 3). While the details provided in all four Gospels testify to their accounts being documented close to the actual events, none of them identify the authorship by personal name. Although the authors of the third and fourth Gospels do use first personal singular pronouns in reference to themselves (Luke 1:3; John 21:25), only the fourth gospel identifies the author as the “disciple who bears witness to these things” (John 21 24). 

Justin Martyr (ca. 155-157AD) first refers to the Gospels as the memoirs of the apostles in his defense for the practice of the Eucharist (First Apology 66). Irenaeus (ca. 180AD) later reinforces apostolic authorship in his defense of Christianity against Celsus:

Matthew also issues a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence in Ephesus in Asia.” (Against Heresies 3.1.1)

These early testimonies point to a tradition that was well established in the church. Indeed, the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea remarks,

Papias [ca. 60-130AD] gives also in his own work other accounts of the words of the Lord on the authority of Aristion who was mentioned above, and traditions as handed down by the presbyter John; to which we refer those who are fond of learning. But now we must add to the words of his which we have already quoted the tradition which he gives in regard to Mark, the author of the Gospel. It is in the following words: “This also the presbyter said: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not indeed in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things done or said by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.” These things are related by Papias concerning Mark. But concerning Matthew he writes as follows: “So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.” And the same writer uses testimonies from the first Epistle of John and from that of Peter likewise. And he relates another story of a woman, who was accused of many sins before the Lord, which is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews. These things we have thought it necessary to observe in addition to what has already been stated.”  (H.E. 3.39.14-17)

For the early church, apostolic attestation of the Gospels crystalized their reception and canonicity. Thus, Matthew and John were apostolic eyewitnesses of the events, Mark was an eyewitness (Mark 14:51), but also recorded his gospel from the apostle Peter’s perspective, while Luke, a colleague of the apostle Paul (Acts 16:10-11), conducted what we might think of as early historiographic research for his narrative account.

The oral nature of Greek and Roman learning in the first century points to the idea that written documents were more often heard than read. Paul certainly had this expectation for his letters (Col 4:16). Such emphasis on the oral nature of learning is highlighted in Papias’ remarks, “I did not suppose that information from books would help me so much as the word of a living and surviving voice” (In Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.39.3-4). The Gospels, carrying on an oral tradition that encouraged the transmission of Jesus’ stories by word of mouth, were written with evangelistic purposes and served to codify the life and ministry of God incarnate. Indeed, Irenaeus relates this movement from the oral to written Gospels, 

“We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.” (Against Heresies 3.1.1)

He continues with the purpose of the Gospels, “These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ, the Son of God” (Against Heresies 3.1.2). As Justin Martyr relates, the Gospels were intended to be heard and explicated,

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.” (First Apology 62).

The missionary purpose of the Gospels and their continued oral transmission helped catalyze the phenomenal growth of the early church. In fact, during the period when they were written in the first century, the church grew by 900 percent in part due to the transmission of the stories about Jesus throughout the Roman Empire. The formation of the Gospels in general and John’s ability to connect Jesus’ stories to the stories of his audience in the Fourth Gospel are two examples of how missiological theology is a key tool to ensure an indigenous Christianity rooted in true stories that make sense to a culture’s story.

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