The Figures Behind the Evangelists.
By Frederick W. Marks.
The New Oxford Review.
One of the most powerful arguments for the reliability of the Gospels is the fact that two of them were written by eyewitnesses: Matthew and John. There is another fact, however, that is equally important. The other two evangelists, Mark and Luke, were not eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus, but they were in extremely close touch with those who were. Mark was Peter’s secretary, and Luke, who spent a good deal of time in Ephesus where Mary lived, is said to have painted her portrait. What is interesting is just how heavily Mark’s Gospel appears to have been influenced by Peter, and Luke’s by Our Lady.
Eusebius, the first great Christian historian, calls Mark an “interpreter of Peter” who “transmitted to us in writing” the things the first Pope preached, and this is borne out by the text. From Mark’s Gospel comes the most detailed account of the cure of Peter’s mother-in-law, along with the most complete coverage of Peter’s denial of Christ. Still another incident involving Peter covered most completely by Mark is the time Peter walked on water. After recording that Jesus Himself had walked on water that day, Mark adds that Our Lord would have passed His Apostles by had they not called out to Him in fright, thinking they were seeing a ghost (cf. Mk. 6:48-49).
Given that Peter answered almost all of Christ’s questions and gave voice to nearly all of the Apostles’ queries, one is not surprised to find that Mark is the go-to Gospel for information on Jesus’ teaching style. One learns that Our Lord matched His parables to the intellectual level of His listeners and explained everything to the Apostles in private, also that His critics stopped questioning Him after He bested them in debate, and that there were times when even His own disciples fell silent (cf. 4:33-34; 9:32; 12:34).
The man to whom Jesus entrusted “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” and who heads every list of Apostles would have been politically astute and, therefore, adept at sensing moods. If Our Lord sighed at times, if He looked indignant or angry, one would expect to hear about it from Mark, and one does (cf. 3:5; 7:34; 8:12; 10:14).
Turning to the Gospel of Luke, it has many distinguishing features, some of which are well known: its felicity of style, for example. Special respect is shown for non-Jews such as the Samaritans, which squares with the fact that, of the four evangelists, Luke alone was a Gentile. He was also a physician, and his Gospel is replete with terms familiar only to members of the medical profession. Finally, there is the extent to which Luke’s Gospel reflects his closeness to the Blessed Mother, something central to the theme of the present article.
Let me explain. The prophetess Anna is one of the most exceptional women of the New Testament. A widow for many decades, she fasted, lived a celibate life, and prayed without ever leaving the Temple: she was the prototype of a cloistered nun (cf. Lk. 2:37). Luke’s account also contains most of what we know about Martha and Mary at the time of the death and resurrection of their brother, Lazarus. In Luke’s telling, we encounter a widow who, like Mary, loses an only son (until he is raised from the dead), and we meet the “daughters of Jerusalem” who comforted Jesus along the Via Dolorosa (cf. 7:11-17; 23:28).
One can go further. Luke alone reports that wealthy women like Mary Magdalene and Joanna bankrolled the Apostles, just as he alone reveals that Jesus commended Mary of Bethany for giving Him her undivided attention (cf. 8:2-3; 10:42). The author of the third Gospel is the historian of the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Purification, and the Presentation: all stories of Mary. The Blessed Mother must have told Luke about Simeon’s prophecy that a sword would pierce her heart, as well as about the time fellow villagers on good terms with Jesus suddenly turned on Him (cf. 2:35; 4:22, 28-29). And from whom, other than Mary, is Luke likely to have obtained his privileged information about her relatives, Elizabeth, Zachary, and John the Baptist?
It was more than the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that inspired Our Lady to observe in her Magnificat that the Lord “has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty” (Lk. 1:53). She knew all this firsthand. According to the Protoevangelium of James(1), a volume highly regarded by the early Church, Mary came from a prosperous, well-connected family that made its home in Jerusalem. If so, she would have witnessed the corrupting power of wealth on members of the upper class, even as, later in life, she experienced the grace-filled happiness that can remain with the faithful even under a cloud of deprivation — in her case, simple living in a hill town far removed from the center of power, a town of such ill repute that Nathaniel would ask if “anything good” could come out of it (Jn. 1:46).
I mention this because Luke rings more changes on the above-cited verses of the Magnificat than any of the other evangelists. He begins by telling us that shepherds on the bottom rung of the social ladder were the first to come to Christ, as well as the first to bear Christian witness. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man is again Lucan, as is the tale of a farmer who hoards his wealth until his soul is suddenly required of him, and he is punished (cf. Lk. 16:19-31; 12:16-21). Vintage Luke, once again, is Jesus’ warning that what is exalted in the sight of men is an abomination before God, and one might add that Luke’s Gospel is the only one that tells of a blessing Jesus gave to the poor (cf. 16:15; 6:20). A blessing similar to this is mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel, but it is the “poor in spirit,” rather than the poor in purse, to whom Jesus refers (Mt. 5:3). Most likely, two different blessings were given on two different occasions.
Mary is said to have attended the prestigious Temple school in Jerusalem, and she is commonly depicted in ancient art as studious with a book in hand. According to the biblical exegete Origen (b. ca. 184), she was learned in Hebrew Scripture (Homilies on Luke 6:7). If so, this may explain why Luke alone speaks of Bible studies led by Jesus: one on the road to Emmaus and another in the Upper Room (cf. Lk. 24:27, 45-46).
If anyone were to take issue with the theory of Marian influence, it would probably be on account of the one-dimensional way in which Mary is generally viewed. She is sorrowful in Michelangelo’s Pietà and the Stabat Mater. The Salve Regina (“Hail, Holy Queen”) lauds her for her mercy, sweetness, and clemency, while the Memorare salutes her as “most gracious.” She was all these things, to be sure, but the impression of Mary as a person who was merely sorrowful, tender, and mild makes it hard to argue for the third Gospel as “the gospel of Mary” because Jesus is more severe and demanding in this Gospel than He is in any other.
Evidence for Jesus’ toughness in Luke is not hard to find. Though Matthew’s account is the one that normally comes to mind when one thinks of the “woes” Jesus hurled at the Pharisees, Luke gives us more woes than Matthew does, and he appends three of them to the beatitudes, reminding his readers, at a key moment, of Christ’s sterner side. Luke also adds lawyers to the circle of opprobrium reserved by Matthew for the Pharisees (compare Mt. 23:13-29 with Lk. 6:24-26; 11:42-52).
Again and again, the third Gospel stiffens the tone of the first. Luke follows Matthew in mentioning Christ’s insistence on a willingness to forgive, but He includes an expectation of apology on the part of the sinner (cf. Mt. 18:21-22; Lk. 17:4). Were it not for Luke, Jesus’ warning in Matthew that “few” find the way that leads to life (cf. Mt. 7:14) could be explained away by taking the word life to mean a decent life here on earth. But we know exactly what Jesus meant because the author of the third Gospel gives us the question to which Jesus was responding: “Are only a few to be saved?” (Lk. 13:23).
There is more. Jesus is on record in Matthew as likening the fate of civilization at the time of the Second Coming to what befell mankind in the days of Noah, when only a handful of people survived the flood. Luke also mentions the flood but sharpens the tone by quoting Jesus’ reference to the incineration of Sodom (cf. Mt. 24:38-39; Lk. 17:26-29). Compare Matthew with Luke when it comes to religious commitment. Matthew tells about a disciple who is refused permission to go home and bury his father before joining the apostolic band (cf. Mt. 8:21-22). One finds the same story in Luke, along with another in which a would-be follower of Christ is not even allowed to bid his family farewell (cf. Lk. 9:59-62)!
Few, if any, have ever viewed the third Gospel as uniquely demanding, but how else is one to describe it? The evidence is overwhelming.
Anyone who compares Matthew’s parable of the talents with Luke’s parable of the gold pieces will find that both feature a scapegrace servant who describes his master as “stern.” But in the Lucan version, the master describes himself as “stern” and orders the execution of his enemies (cf. Mt. 25:24; Lk. 19:20-27).
All three of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record Jesus’ prophesy of the Temple in ruins. It is Luke, however, who furnishes the lion’s share of the details and identifies those responsible for what he calls “days of vengeance” for those who knew not the time of their “visitation” (Lk. 19:43-44; 21:22). The list goes on.
One of the reasons why Luke’s life of Christ has been called “the gospel of mercy” is because it alone includes three of the best-known parables of forgiveness: the prodigal son, the lost sheep, and the lost coin. But based on the way two of these parables end — i.e., with reference to the joy in Heaven “over one sinner who repents” — the focus would appear to be more on repentance than on mercy (cf. Lk. 15:7, 10). In the case of the prodigal son, forgiveness is preceded by a humble admission of guilt (cf. 15:19).
Repentance runs like a leitmotif through the third Gospel. Zacchaeus turns over a new leaf (cf. 19:8). A publican who beats his breast is preferred to a self-satisfied Pharisee (cf. 18:9-14). A penitent thief steals paradise (cf. 23:39-43). Twice in three verses, Luke quotes Jesus as saying, “Unless you repent, you will all perish” (13:3-5). Luke likewise has more to say than any other evangelist about Mary Magdalene, the greatest penitent of all time, and his account of the way she anointed Jesus’ feet with oil and dried them with her hair is twice as long as anything found in Matthew or Mark.
Readers who have come this far will not be surprised to find that Luke’s “mercy” passages are greatly outnumbered by those of a different sort. Three Gospels give us Jesus’ parting words moments before His Ascension, but only one includes His command to preach “repentance and remission of sins” (Lk. 24:47). It is Luke who records what Jesus said about a servant who is not told how to carry on during his master’s absence. In his ignorance, he misbehaves. But, ignorance notwithstanding, he is still punished because he should have known better (cf. 12:42-48). Luke alone, once more, records Christ’s ominous suggestion that religious faith may be in short supply or even nonexistent on the day of judgment (cf. 18:8). He alone reveals how Our Lord comported Himself at a dinner party given by a leading Pharisee. After rebuking His fellow guests for taking seats of honor at the table, He takes the host to task for not extending his hospitality to people who are unable to reciprocate (cf. 14:7-14).
One might add, as an aside, that what the first edition of the Jerome Biblical Commentary calls “the Gospel of Pardon” is full of fight. Instead of urging soldiers to lay down their arms, Luke quotes John the Baptist as telling them to be content with their pay (cf. 3:14). There were swords at the Last Supper, we learn, and those without a weapon were advised to buy one (cf. 22:36, 38). Conscientious objectors point out that when the Apostles asked Jesus if they could strike at a cohort of soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane, He denied them permission, which is true. But one also learns from Luke that Jesus wanted His disciples to save their swords for future use. “Bear with them thus far,” He told them (22:49, 51; italics added).
Where, then, do we stand on the question of Luke’s indebtedness to Mary? Given the steeliness of the third Gospel, may we still regard it as profoundly Marian? The answer would be “no” if the picture of Our Lady found in prayers such as the Salve Regina and the Memorare were balanced and complete. But it is not.
We know many things about the Blessed Mother that need to be factored into the equation. In her Magnificat, for example, she declares God’s mercy to be upon those who fear Him, not upon those who believe in Him or serve Him or even obey Him (cf. Lk. 1:50). Fear takes center stage. Equally telling are the things she said at Lourdes about the sinfulness of mankind and the need for prayer and penance. The children of Fatima were given a terrifying vision of Hell and told not only that many souls go there but that God is most offended by sins of the flesh. At the same time, Mary asked the children if they wanted to offer themselves in reparation. “We do,” they replied. And Mary prophesied, “Then you will suffer much.” Pope St. John Paul II called the Fatima message “motherly,” but also “strong and decisive.” It “sounds severe,” he observed, “like John the Baptist speaking on the banks of the Jordan. It invites us to repentance. It gives a warning.” Rarely do we find Mary and John the Baptist mentioned in the same breath, but the comparison is spot-on.
This was a woman of gravitas. In a society that expected every female to marry, Mary chose virginity. At a time when sexual infidelity was punished by stoning, she risked her life, as well as her honor, by accepting the Angel Gabriel’s invitation to become the mother of God. She wanted us to know, too, about the way Jesus, as a 12-year-old, addressed her when she found Him in the Temple after a three-day search: “Did you not know that I must be about my father’s business?” (Lk. 2:49). As the likeliest source for Luke’s reportage, Our Lady held nothing back. Other mothers might have been embarrassed by the incident, but she seems to have been proud of the way her Son put duty to God ahead of closeness to family.
Having survived Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and witnessed an attempt by neighbors to do away with her Son, she knew what it was like to look straight into the face of evil (cf. Lk. 4:28-29). The crushing shock of the Crucifixion, along with the execution of Stephen and James (men who must have been as good as sons to her), not to mention the flight of Christians from Jerusalem — all this must have left its mark. By the time Luke met her, she had experienced widowhood and lived as a refugee in Egypt, as well as Ephesus. She wasn’t hardened by tribulation. But can anyone doubt that she shared her Son’s distrust of mankind (cf. Jn. 2:24-25)? Marian solicitude at Cana is of a piece with Marian fortitude at Calvary. Nowhere in Scripture do we read that she shed a single tear on the first Good Friday when she saw her only child through His passion and death.
We learn from the Bible that God is mercy and justice alike (cf. Sir. 5:6-7), and so it is with what Luke wrote under the inspiration of the Blessed Mother. There is too much justice in it to call it “the gospel of mercy,” and too much mercy to call it “the gospel of justice.” Withal, it is mercy and justice alike, with more of both than one will find in any of the other Gospels.
Summing up, we began with an observation that eyewitness testimony is vital to the case for Gospel reliability, the touchstone of Christian faith. There has never been much doubt that the first and fourth Gospels were written by men who saw and heard the things they reported. But there is additional cause for rejoicing. Peter, the best of all eyewitnesses, was almost certainly looking over the shoulder of Mark, whom he called his “son” (1 Pet. 5:13), during the writing of the second Gospel. Equally to the point, albeit less well known, is a massive amount of evidence suggesting that no less an eyewitness than Jesus’ own mother had enormous influence on Luke.
Frederick W. Marks, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is the author of ten books, including, most recently, Confessions of a Catholic Street Evangelist and Pro-Life Champion: The Untold Story of Monsignor Philip J. Reilly and His Helpers of God’s Precious Infants.
(1) The Protoevangelium of James, which appeared in the mid-100s and was highly revered by the early Christian Church, has Mary coming from a prosperous Jerusalem family that consecrated her to the Lord and placed her education in the hands of the Temple authorities. Portions of the Protoevangelium of James that pertain to Mary were published by Henri Daniel-Rops in The Book of Mary (1960). For the dating of the Protoevangelium, see Giuseppe Ricciotti’s The Life of Christ (1947). — Frederick W. Marks. For more and other opinions cf. Hurd Baruch in Letters To the Editor: Re: The Gospels of Peter and Mary (Scroll to Reconstructing Biblical Authorship and reply by author).
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— Cf. also The Truth of Christmas: Beyond the Myths (Studies in Scripture) by Fr. René Laurentin
— Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: Biblical Interpretation in Crisis