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The Inspiration of the Gospel Accounts

The Inspiration of the Gospel Accounts

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

The Gospel texts excede the work of human authors, because through the Gospel God himself speaks to us. We express this by saying that the gospels have been ‘inspired’. God himself is the author because he moved the human authors to write down what they wrote. He used the human authors as his instruments through whom he could express his word to us.

How did God actually do this?

In the case of the gospels we can distinguish the following stages:

Stage One: Jesus Christ communicated God’s intentions to the apostles. He taught them by parables and instructions what they should believe and practise. He showed them by his deeds what God’s salvation means. Finally he gave them the commission to preach this salvation everywhere.

Stage Two: After Jesus’ Resurrection and after receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the apostles fulfilled the commission Jesus had given them. By their oral preaching, by their example and their counsels they handed on the apostolic tradition. A large part of this tradition they had received directly from Jesus. In matters of interpretation they were assisted by the Holy Spirit so that they could pass on Jesus’ gospel faithfully.

Stage Three: The apostolic preaching was written down by zealous disciples. What Jesus had said and done was put on paper. First, collections were made of passages that belonged together. Then the time came for a complete written expression of Jesus’ message. That is why the Holy Spirit prompted four writers, the evangelists, to compose a written account of Jesus’ Gospel. According to Christian tradition those writers were:

  1. Matthew, one of the apostles, who composed his version of the gospel especiaJly with the view of converting his fellow Jews;
  1. Mark, St. Peter’s assistant and interpreter, who knew so well the conditions in pagan Rome;
  1. Luke, a Greek convert and a great missionary who wanted to bring all people, Jews and non-Jews, to faith in Christ;
  1. John, the apostle who enjoyed Jesus’special love, and who desired to complete the other gospels by preserving words and deeds of Jesus not mentioned in them.

The Holy Spirit was at work in all these stages. He helped the apostles understand Jesus’ teachings. He guided the early Church in the faithful expression of apostolic traditions. And he moved and assisted the evangelists during all their work of writing. The process of inspiration embraced the formation ot the gospels in all these stages.

We should mark this well: the gospels are not the product of the four evangelists alone. The gospels are the product of the Church’s preaching. Some individuals, it is true, had an important hand in giving the final shape to the gospel editions: that was the special task and achievement of the evangelists. But what they wrote down was not their own personal opinion. They were conscious of the fact that they wrote as representatives of the church community and they drew their information from the Church. ( Read about all this in: Vatican II, Decree on Revelation, no. 7.)

The various stages of Gospel formation are well expressed in a document issued by the Vatican commission on Sacred Scripture: ‘On the historical truth of the Gospels’, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 56 (1964) pp. 712-718; Catholic Biblical Quarterly 26 (1964) pp. 305-312; see the commentary by J.A.FITZMYER in Theological Studies 25 (1964) pp. 386-408.

Summarizing we may, therefore, say:

  • the gospels are the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John;
  • the gospels contain the apostolic teaching of the early Christian community;
  • the gospels express Jesus’ words and deeds;
  • the gospels are the Word of God, - of God who through the apostolic preaching and through the writings of the evangelists speaks to me.

John Wijngaards

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