The Gospels and Greek Culture, Part 1: Who were the Gospel Writers?
Updated: Dec 15, 2021
This post is the first in a series that has been adapted from my MA thesis which I wrote over the summer of 2020. So many people have asked to read it, so I figured the easiest way to make it accessible was through a blog series! All Greek has been transliterated into Latin characters and translated, and all footnotes/academic language has been taken out for readability but the sources used are all referenced in the bibliography at the bottom. I did this in the official acknowledgements section of the paper, but I have to give another shout-out to my supervisor Dr Daniel King who was of massive encouragement and help throughout the whole process.
The Canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are some of the most scrutinized ancient texts in history. Each is an account of the same man, Jesus Christ, but they also interact with both their subject and audience in diverse ways which can provide meaningful insight as to how their authors were influenced by the world around them.
When reading the Gospels, it is primarily important to consider their theological message, but we can't overlook how their authors’ writing was shaped by their own societies, which were hugely impacted by the spread of Greek culture before and during the 1st century AD. The concept of culture is complex but within this series, the phrase ‘Greek culture’ will refer to the language; literary works and techniques; philosophy and religion; history; and political theory of the ancient Greek peoples. These elements were what united the Greeks despite being spread across the ancient Mediterranean and beyond (when we refer to 'the ancient Greeks' we're talking about 'Greekness' in a much more cultural sense, not just people who lived in modern-day Greece as there were Greek settlements all over the place). The expansion of these things was key in shaping the ancient world as they became intertwined with the other cultures around them.
This series looks at three elements of the Gospels: their language; the way in which they each portray Jesus; and the issues surrounding their genre. The aim of this is to look at the extent of the connections between these texts and Greek culture, and particularly how each author uses these elements to relate to their intended reader and convey their message of the need to follow Jesus.
The topic of the Gospels and their engagement with Greek culture has been widely explored by academics over the last century or so, but this seems to have been carried out through more specific works focused on individual areas, such as themes or parallels between the Gospels and one particular genre. This paper aims to draw these discussions together under the umbrella of ‘the Gospels and Greek Culture’ in order to assess these connections as a whole. The inclusion of a linguistic exploration in the next section will be especially helpful in doing this, as although the character of the Gospels’ Koine (meaning vernacular/common) Greek has been rather widely discussed, the lack of a more sociolinguistic approach has meant that linguistic-cultural engagement in this context has been quite underappreciated in academia until very recently.
The Gospels and Their Authors
However, it is important before all of this is assessed that the identities of the Gospel authors are clarified in some way so that we can properly look at the ways in which they connected with Greek culture afterwards, as well as the dating of the texts’ authorship so that their contexts can be properly explored.
If the traditional theories about the Gospel authors’ identities are correct, (we'll will be working on the assumption that these are accurate given the lack of enough evidence, in my view, to the contrary) then we know that both Matthew and John, at least, were from a similar area of Palestine to Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew is attributed to Matthew the tax collector mentioned in the account itself (cf. Matthew 9:9), and it seems that he was stationed on the road leading into Capernaum, a port on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. His status as the true author is often debated on account of a large degree of reliance on Mark’s account, but Matthew is still very much ‘its own Gospel’, featuring a greater expansion on the words of Jesus, a different structure, and the inclusion of Jesus' resurrection appearances.
John also refers to himself in his account, mostly as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, or simply ‘the other/another disciple’. We also know from John 1:44 that the disciples Andrew and Peter were from Bethsaida, which was, therefore, the likely hometown of John and his brother James also in light of their being called to follow Jesus whilst all working together on the Sea of Galilee. The certainty of his identity as the author can be found in John 21:24.
The authorship of the third Gospel and the book of Acts is attributed to Luke, who travelled a great deal with the Apostle Paul, the man who wrote the majority of the New Testament. We know that Luke was a doctor (which would certainly account for the level of education demonstrated in his writing) on account of a reference made to him by Paul in Colossians 4:14, and it is highly possible that he joined Paul on his travels in a professional capacity. Tradition states his home as Antioch which is not definite, but it is reasonable to assume given the importance of Antioch in the establishment of the early church and the frequency of references to it in Acts, that Luke did indeed live there and that his faith and close friendship with Paul developed as a result. This would also make it reasonable to assume that Luke was a Hellenized (culturally Greek) Jew, not only because the missionaries in the book of Acts were never Gentiles (non-Jewish people), but he also demonstrates significant knowledge of Jewish tradition and the Old Testament.
Mark’s background is somewhat less certain. If the author of the Gospel of Mark is the John-Mark referred to Acts as is traditionally thought, then we know that he had a high level of involvement with the early church and that he spent a significant amount of time travelling with both Peter and Paul as well as other apostles. Although Mark himself wasn't one of Jesus' twelve apostles, it is highly possible that he was a disciple of Jesus during his time of ministry. It has even been suggested that the young man in Mark 14:51-52 was in fact Mark himself and that this was his way of signalling his status as an eyewitness, but this has not been proved. It is, however, clear from the numerous Semitisms in his work, particularly in terms of some of his sentence structures and the presence of some Aramaic words, that Aramaic was his first language, and that he was actively translating his thoughts into Greek as he wrote. It is therefore highly likely that he was from Jerusalem or the surrounding area, making it possible that he was in fact an eyewitness to at least some of the events he wrote about.
So if the traditions as to the identities of the Gospel writers are to be believed, then we can conclude that all of the Gospel writers were most probably Hellenized Jews. We can see this through a combination of various and frequent references in each Gospel to the Old Testament, both implicit and explicit; frequent Semitisms in their works; as well as the conclusions which can be drawn from the places in which they lived as mentioned in the New Testament.
In terms of the dating of the Gospels, it is now agreed upon by the majority of academics that all four accounts were written before the end of the 1st century AD. Mark was written first, most likely in Rome sometime between 55-69 AD. His travels with Paul and with Peter would place him there between roughly 60-62 AD against the background of the initial stages of the persecution of Christians in Rome, which may explain the concise nature of his work, as well as the orientation towards a Christian readership who had at least some prior knowledge of the subject with the aim of giving them encouragement. He is often called ‘the Interpreter of Peter’, which would fit well with the timing of both of them being in Rome. It would also account for much of the detail give in the narrative and insight into scenarios involving only the twelve apostles, such as their initial call to follow Jesus, and the less organised nature and oral-storytelling style of the account could be attributed to the use of Peter’s ‘anecdotes’ as a major source.
Matthew and Luke were written roughly around the same time within the last 30 years of the 1st century AD. Matthew likely pre-dates Luke, with Matthew thought to have been written not long after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. It is considered the most 'Jewish' of all the Gospels due to its frequent references to the Old Testament and the fulfilment of prophecies, and it is stated in parts of Eusebius’ History of the Church that Matthew is thought to have written in Israel or within the surrounding provinces. What this suggests is that Matthew’s primary ‘target audience' was the Jewish people and Jewish converts to Christianity, who would have instantly recognised the significance of these references to the Old Testament, although not so much as to alienate non-Jewish readers. There have been suggestions that he wrote in Hebrew or Aramaic before his work was translated into Greek, but despite a general academic acceptance of this theory in the past, there is no particular evidence to confirm it and the idea of an Aramaic original is now mostly rejected.
It is likely that Luke wrote in the latter 15-20 years of the 1st century AD, given his clear knowledge of various other accounts, probably including Mark’s Gospel and possibly also Matthew’s, given the amount of shared material he has with them. He wrote under the patronage of a man called Theophilus, who was seemingly already a Christian yet wanted certain evidence on which to base his faith. This would explain the fact that Luke’s Gospel seems to be a much more thoroughly researched and organised account, as well as the significantly higher standard of Greek, which is considered to be the most refined of all the Gospels.
John’s was the last of the Gospels to be written, probably during the last decade of the 1st century AD either during his exile on the island of Patmos or during the last years of his life in Ephesus. The Gospel of John is marginally different from the three other Gospels. It features a great deal of distinctive content in terms of certain characters, miracles, and the emphasis on Jesus’ "I am" statements, as well as different vocabulary and style. As one of Jesus’ three closest apostles during the time of his ministry, John had a unique and personal perspective on the events he describes in his account, which allow him a deep insight into both who Jesus was and many of the meanings of what he said and did.
Now that the identities and backgrounds of the Gospel writers have been clarified as much as is currently possible, we can move onto the exploration of how they actively engaged with Greek culture in their texts, beginning with their use of the Greek language.
Read Part 2: The Language of the Gospels here.
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