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Displaying items by tag: gospel - Early Christians

Saint Matthew

To tell the truth, it is almost impossible to paint a complete picture of him because the information we have of him is scarce and fragmentary. What we can do, however, is to outline not so much his biography as, rather, the profile of him that the Gospel conveys.


What went on at the Last Supper?

The hours that preceded the Passion and Death of Jesus were registered with singular force in the memory and heart of those who were with Him.

For this reason, many of the details concerning what Jesus did and said at the Last Supper are recorded in the New Testament. It is one of the best reported episodes of His life, according to Joachim Jeremias. On that occasion, Jesus was alone with the Twelve Apostles. (Matt 26:20; Mark 14:17 & 20; Luke 22:14). Neither Mary, His mother, nor any of the holy women were present.

In St. John’s account, he explains that, in an act full of significance, Jesus washed the feet of His disciples thereby providing us with an example of humble service (John 13:1- 20). There then follows one of the most dramatic moments during this event: Jesus announces that one of those present is going to betray Him. They all look at another, stupefied by what Jesus has just said. Jesus, then, discreetly points to Judas (Matt 26:20–25; Mark 14:17–21; Luke 22:14 and John 13:21–22).

So far as the supper itself is concerned, the most surprising aspect was the institution of the Blessed Eucharist. We have four accounts of this event: the three Synoptics (Matt 26:26–29; Mark 14:22–25; Luke 22:14–20) and that of St. Paul (1 Cor 11:23–26), all of which are very similar. In each case, the account only runs to a few verses. They record the actions and words of Jesus that gave rise to the Blessed Sacrament and which form the central element of the new rite: “And he took bread, and when had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ (Luke 22:19 and ff.).

These words express the enormous difference between what happened during this particular supper which Jesus had with his Apostles and an ordinary supper. Jesus did not distribute bread to those who were at table with Him at the Last Supper. Instead, what he gave was something utterly different under the appearance of bread: “This is my body.” And He gave to the apostles present there the necessary power to do what He had just done: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

There is a further event of special relevance at the end of the supper. “And likewise the cup after supper, saying, This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:20 and ff.). 

The apostles understood that they had witnessed earlier the giving of His body under the appearance of bread whereas now they were being given His blood in a cup. Through this, Christian tradition understood that the memory of the separate giving of His body and blood was an efficient sign of the sacrifice that was to culminate on the cross a few hours later. 

Furthermore, Jesus continued to speak throughout with such affection that His last words penetrated into the heart of His apostles. The gospel of St. John records the extended and moving conversation at the end of the meal. It is at this point when the new commandment is pronounced, the fulfilment of which will become the sign that will define a Christian: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35).

Francisco Varo


What does the “Gospel according to Mary (Magdalene)” say?

What is known as the “Gospel according to Mary (Magdalene)” is a Gnostic document, originally written in Greek, found in Oxyrhynchus ( in northern Egypt) as two fragmented texts:

– a papyrus from the 3rd century (P.Ryl. III 463 y P.Oxy. L 3525),

– and another fragment translated to Coptic from the 5th century (Papyrus Berolinensis 8502). Both were published between the years 1938 and 1983; 

– but the original text was very likely written in the 2nd century. 

Mary, probably Mary Magdalene – although she is always referred to only as Mary – is seen as a source of “secret revelation”, since she seems to maintain a close relationship with the Lord. 

In the fragmented text available to date, there are details on an encounter in which the disciples ask the risen Christ questions and he responds.

Christ then sends them to preach the Good News to the gentiles, and he leaves. The disciples are left sad, without confidence to fulfil their mission. Mary encourages them to carry on with what they have been asked to do. 

Peter asks Mary to communicate to the disciples the words they have not heard from Jesus, since they knew that Jesus “loved her more than the rest of the women”. Mary talks about one of her visions, full of Gnostic connotations. In the context of a world which is disintegrating, Mary explains the difficulties the soul has to overcome to reveal its true spiritual nature in ascending to its eternal resting place. 

When she finishes relating her vision, Andrew and Peter do not believe her. Peter doubts the Lord preferred her to the other disciples, and Mary starts crying. Levi defends her (“You, Peter, always been hot tempered”) and blames Peter for attacking Mary. 

Then Levi encourages the disciples to accept that the Lord preferred Mary to themselves, and invites them to go and preach the Gospel. So they finally do.

This is all the testimony left on the fragmented texts of this gospel. Not much, certainly. Some authors wanted to see in the Apostles’ opposition to Mary (in some way also present in the gospels according to Thomas, Pistis Sophia and in the Greek gospel according to the Egyptians) a reflection of the existing confrontations within the Church in the 2nd century. That would indicate that the official Church would be opposed to the esoteric revelations and leadership by a woman.

Considering the Gnostic nature of these texts, it is more plausible to believe that these “gospels” do not represent the true circumstances in the Church, but do reflect particular conflicts and antagonisms towards the Church. We could reason that an idea proposed from a sectarian group should not be extrapolated in an attempt to understand more general circumstances of a larger reality. Just as we understand that an exception should never become the rule.

Juan Chapa


What was the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene?

It is clear from the Gospels that Mary Magdalene had a great love for Jesus. She had been freed by him from possession by seven devils, had followed him as a disciple, ministering to him from her means (Luke 8:2-3), and had been with Mary, the Mother of Jesus and the other women when Jesus was crucified (Mark 15:40-41). She was, according to the Gospels, the first person to whom Jesus appeared after the resurrection, after searching for him tearfully (John 20:11-18). Hence the veneration which the Church has had for her as a witness to the risen Christ. (See: “Who was Mary Magdalene?”). From these Gospel passages one cannot conclude that she was a sinner, and much less that she was the wife of Jesus.

Those who claim that she was the wife of Jesus rely on some apocryphal gospels. All of them, with the possible exception of part of the Gospel of Thomas, were written after the canonical Gospels and are not historical in character, but were written to transmit Gnostic teachings. According to these works, which are not properly speaking Gospels but rather writings that contain what are said to be secret revelations of Jesus to his disciples after the resurrection, Mariam (or Marianne or Mariham – the name Magdalene does not appear except in a few books) was the one who best understood those revelations. That is why she is Jesus’ favourite disciple and receives from him a special revelation.

The opposition which she faces from the apostles because she is a woman (according to some of these writings: The Gospel of Thomas, Dialogues of the Saviour, Pistis Sophia, The Gospel of Mary) reflects the negative attitude of some of the gnostics to the feminine and to Mary as an important disciple. Nevertheless, some people like to see this opposition as a reflection of the attitude of the official Church at the time, against the spiritual leadership of women as proposed by those groups. None of this is demonstrable. 

This opposition is more likely to have been a conflict of doctrines: Peter and the other apostles confronting the ideas that these gnostic groups were putting forward in the name of Mariam. In any case, having recourse to Mary was a way of justifying their gnostic ideas.

In other apocryphal gospels, especially the Gospel of Philip, Marian (this time she is also cited with her name of origin, Magalene) is a model of gnosticism, precisely because of her femininity. She is the spiritual symbol of discipleship of Christ and of perfect union with him. In this context they speak of a kiss between Jesus and Mary (if the text is really to be understood in that way), symbolising that union, since through that kiss, which was a kind of sacrament superior to baptism and to the eucharist, the gnostic engendered himself as a gnostic. The whole tone of these writings is quite foreign to any kind of sexual implications. 

If, according to the gospel of Judas, Jesus himself orders the apostle to betray him, it is because, by dying, the divine spirit which was in him would finally be able to liberate itself from involvement of the flesh and re-ascend to heaven. Marriage oriented to births is to be avoided; woman will be saved only if the "feminine principle" (thelus) personified by her, is transformed into the masculine principle, that is, if she ceases to be woman.

No serious scholar takes these Gnostic texts as historical evidence of a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. It is very sad that that accusation, which has no historical foundation – not even the Christians of that time found themselves having to defend themselves against it – should resurface every now and again as though it were a great novelty.

The huge misunderstanding is the fact that these writings are used to make them say exactly the opposite of what they intended. The Gnostic vision – a mixture of Platonic dualism and Eastern doctrines, cloaked in biblical ideas – holds that the material world is an illusion, the work of the God of the Old Testament, who is an evil god, or at least inferior; Christ did not die on the cross, because he never assumed, except in appearance, a human body, the latter being unworthy of God (Docetism). The strange thing is that today there are those who believe they see in these writings the exaltation of the feminine principle, of sexuality, of the full and uninhibited enjoyment of this material world!

Juan Chapa


Who was Mary Magdalene?

The Gospels do not tell us very much about Mary Magdalene. She was one of a group of women who followed Jesus and who provided for him out of their means (Luke 8:2).

She was a woman called Mary who came from Migdal Nunaya, Tariquaea in Greek, a small town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, some 3 miles north of Tiberias.

Jesus had expelled seven demons from her (Luke 8:2; Mark 16:9), which is the same as saying “all the demons”. This could mean possession by the devil, but it could also mean a bodily or spiritual sickness.

The synoptic Gospels mention her as being the first of a group of women who observed the crucifixion of Jesus from a distance (Mark 15:40-41) and who were sitting opposite the tomb (Matt 27:61) when they were burying Jesus (Mark 15:47). They tell us that very early in the morning on the day after the sabbath Mary Magdalene and other women returned to the tomb to anoint the body with spices which they had bought (Mark 16:1-7). Then an angel informs them that Jesus has risen, and instructs them to go and tell the disciples.

Saint John gives us the same information with slight variations. Mary Magdalene is beside the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross (John 19:25). Early on the day after the sabbath, while it was still dark, she comes to the tomb, sees that the stone has been taken away and goes to tell Peter, thinking that someone has stolen the body of Jesus (John 20:1-2). She returns to the tomb and is weeping there when she meets Jesus who tells her to announce to his disciples that he is to ascend to his Father (John 20:11-18). That is her glory.

That is why the tradition of the Church in the East has called her “isapostolos” (equal to or equivalent to an apostle), and the Church in the West “apostola apostolorum” (apostle of apostles). There is a tradition in the East that she was buried in Ephesus and that her relics were taken to Constantinople in the 9th century.

Mary Magdalene has often been identified with other women in the Gospels.

From the 6th and 7th centuries in the Latin Church they tended to identify Mary Magdalene as the sinful woman who, in the house of Simon the Pharisee, bathed the feet of Jesus with her tears (Luke 7:36-50).

Some Fathers of the Church and ecclesiastical writers, harmonising the Gospels, had already identified that sinful woman as Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who, in Bethany anoints the head of Jesus with perfume (John 12:1-11). Matthew and Mark do not mention the name of Mary, but just say that it was a woman, and that the anointing took place in the house of Simon the leper (Mt 26, 6-13).

As a result, due largely to Saint Gregory the Great, in the West the idea spread that the three women were all the same person. However, nothing in the Gospels indicates that Mary Magdalene is the same person as the Mary who anoints Jesus in Bethany, because it seems that the latter is the sister of Lazarus (John 12:2-3). Nor can one conclude that she is the sinner who according to Saint Luke bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears. In this case, however, the identification is understandable since Saint Luke, immediately after the account of Jesus forgiving this woman, says that Jesus was helped by some women, among whom was Mary Magdalene from whom he had expelled seven demons (Luke 8:2).

Furthermore, Jesus praises the love of the sinful woman: “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much” (Luke 7:47), and we also discern great love in the encounter which Mary has with Jesus after the resurrection (John 20:14-18). In any case, even if it were the same woman, her sinful past is not a dishonour. Peter was unfaithful to Jesus, and Paul was a persecutor of Christians. Her greatness lies not in her being impeccable, but in her love.

Because of her prominent role in the Gospel she received special attention from some fringe groups of the primitive Church. These were basically Gnostic sects whose writings gathered together secret revelations of Jesus after the resurrection and made use of the figure of Mary for transmitting his ideas. They are stories that have no historical foundation. 

Fathers of the Church, ecclesiastical writers and other works highlight the role of Mary as a disciple of the Lord and proclaimer of the Gospel. From the 10th century onwards some fictitious stories appeared which exalted her and which spread mainly in France. It is there that the legend grew up, which has no historical foundation, that Mary Magdalene, Lazarus and some others, when the persecution of the Christians began, went from Jerusalem to Marseille and evangelised Provence. According to this legend Mary died in Aix-en-Provence or Saint Maximin and her relics were taken to Vezelay.

Juan Chapa


How were the first gospels written?

The Church unhesitatingly asserts that the four canonical gospels “faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught” (Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, 19).

These four gospels “are of apostolic origin. For what the Apostles preached in fulfilment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, handed on to us in writing: the foundation of faith” (ibid, 18).

Ancient Christian writers explained how the evangelists did this work. St Irenaeus, for example, says: “Matthew published among the Hebrews, in their own tongue, a written form of the gospel, while Peter and Paul preached the gospel in Rome and founded the Church. It was after his departure that Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also transmitted in writing what Peter preached. Luke, Paul’s companion, also wrote in a book what Paul preached. Then John, our Lord’s disciple, the same one who laid his face on his breast (John 13:23), also published the gospel while living in Ephesus” (Against heresies III, 1,1).

Similar commentaries can be found in Papias of Hierapolis or Clement of Alexandria (cf Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, 3, 39,15:6, 14, 5-7): the gospels were written by the apostles (Matthew and John) or by disciples of the apostles (Mark and Luke), but always having collected the preaching of the gospel from the apostles.

Modern exegesis, with the help of a detailed study of the gospel texts, has explained in a minor way, this process.

Our Lord Jesus Christ sent us his disciples not to write but to preach the gospel.

The Apostles and the apostolic communities did so, and, to facilitate the work of evangelisation, they put in writing part of this teaching.

Finally, in the moment when the apostles and others in their generation started to disappear, “The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches” (Dei Verbum, 19).

Therefore, it can be said that the four gospels are faithful to the Apostles’ preaching about Jesus and also that their preaching is faithful to what Jesus said and did. This is the way we can say that the gospels are faithful to Jesus.

The names that the ancient Christian writings give to these texts – “Recollections of the Apostles”, “Commentaries, Words about Our Lord” (cf St Justine, Apology, 1,66; Dialogue with Trifon, 100) – lean towards this meaning.

With these gospel writings we have access to what the Apostles preached about Jesus Christ.

Vicente Balaguer


Who were the evangelists?

The evangelists were those who wrote the gospels. They were either Apostles or men who were close to the apostles (cf Dei Verbum, 19). What is important in the gospels is that they give us the preaching of the Apostles. This does justice to what has been received through tradition:

The authors of the gospels are Matthew, John, Luke and Mark. 

Of these, the first two feature in the lists of the twelve apostles (Matt 10:2-4 and parallel accounts) and the other two appear as Saint Paul’s and Saint Peter’s disciples, respectively.

Modern research, after a critical analysis of this tradition, does not find it a great issue to attribute to Mark and Luke the authorship of their respective gospels. However, it does analyse with more critical eyes the authorship of Matthew and John. It is said that such attribution reflects more the apostolic tradition from which these writings proceed, and not that they themselves were the authors of the text.

What is important, therefore, is not the specific person who wrote the gospel, but the apostolic authority behind each one of them.

Towards the middle of the 2nd century, Saint Justin spoke of the “recollections of the apostles or gospels” (Apologetics, 1,66,3) that were being read at liturgical meetings.

With this, we can understand two things:

– the apostolic origin of these writings, and that

– they were collected to be read in public.

Later, still in the 2nd century, other writers tell us that the apostolic gospels are four in number and only four.

So, Origin writes: “The Church has four gospels, the heretics have very many; among these one has been written ‘according to the Egyptians’, another ‘according to the twelve Apostles’. Basilides has dared to write a gospel and put it under his name (…). I know of a gospel called ‘according to Thomas’ and ‘according to Matthias’; and we read many others” (Homily 1 on Luke, PG 13, 1802). 

Similar expressions are found in Saint Irenaeus, who also adds in a certain place: “The Word, the Artificer of all, He who sits upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit” (Against heresies, 3, 2,8-9). With this expression – the Gospel under four aspects – he states a very important fact: The Gospel is one, but the form is presented by four views.

The same idea is expressed in the titles of the gospels: Their authors are not indicated, as in other writings from the same era, with the origin (gospel of…”) but with the expression kata (“Gospel according to…). In this way, the Gospel is shown to be one: Jesus Christ’s. However it is witnessed in four ways that come from the Apostles and from the disciples of the Apostles.

What is also indicated is a plurality in unity.

Vicente Balaguer

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