In 1952, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen won the Emmy Award for “Most Outstanding Television Personality,” beating out such show business icons as Lucille Ball, Arthur Godfrey, Edward R. Murrow, and Jimmy Durante. In his acceptance remarks, giving credit where credit was due, he said, “I wish to thank my four writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” The good bishop may have been more indebted to the quartet than what his words indicated. Commenting on Sheen’s remark, one journalist quipped, “And they said, ‘Uncle Fultie’ Didn’t Have a Prayer.”
Sheen, of course, had no doubt that all his listeners would be familiar with the names. As for myself, as a child, as well for many other tykes, they guarded our sleep: “There are four corners on my bed; there are four angels overhead; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; bless the bed that I lie on.” The world, of course, knows them more formally as the four Gospel writers of the New Testament.
But who exactly are these writers, these saintly souls who, as a group, are the most inspired, profound, and influential members of their profession over the long history of mankind? They were a diverse group from different backgrounds: Matthew was a tax collector; Mark, a reporter; Luke, a physician; and John, a fisherman. So, too, their audiences were different, which accounts for variations in each Gospel. They were, respectively, Hebrews, Romans, Greeks, and Christians. Some scholars believe Matthew wrote his Gospel in Aramaic about the year 42 A.D., which was subsequently translated into Greek about the year 55. Likewise, scholars say Mark wrote his Gospel between the years 53 and 63, Luke wrote between 60 and 63, and John wrote around the year 100. The second-century Gallic bishop Irenaeus described them as the four pillars of the Church. St. Jerome saw them, respectively, as the Man, the Lion, the Calf, and the Eagle.
Matthew’s calling was dramatic. While seated at his counting table, Christ summoned him to be an Apostle. Only he and John were numbered among the 12 apostles. Matthew abandoned his previous way of life and followed Christ wholeheartedly. Since he wrote primarily for the Jewish people, he frequently cited the Old Testament. To convince his audience of the continuity between the Old and New Testaments, he referred to the fulfillment of prophecies. He mentioned Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, and David as he proclaimed that Christ is the Son of the living God, the Expected of the nations, and the Messiah of the Jewish people.
Mark was the youngest of the writers. His mother was a prominent follower of Christ. Acts 12:12 informs us that her house in Jerusalem was used as a meeting place for other disciples. Mark was a close friend and follower of Peter. Consequently, he derived from him much of the information he incorporated in his Gospel. Since he wrote the Gospel while in Rome, he used few references to the Old Testament. He used certain Latin words that are not found in any of the other Gospels—such as when the demon refers to himself by the Roman military term “Legion” in Mark 5:9. His appeal was to the Roman mind. He emphasized what Christ did, rather than what he said or thought.
Luke did not know Jesus Christ personally. He became a follower after Christ’s death, thanks to Paul teaching him the Gospel. Paul referred to him as “the most dear physician.” As a physician, Luke wrote and thought as a physician. Therefore, he was especially interested in healings. He quotes Isaiah’s reference to Our Lord’s healing mission. Of the six miracles that he alone recounts, five are miracles of healing. Also, Luke seems to have had a special interest in woman’s role in the gospels. The word “woman” appears in Matthew 30 times, in Mark and John 19 times each, but 43 times in Luke.
John is regarded as the greatest of the four Gospel writers. His Prologue is a sublime poem that presents God as “The Word” that becomes flesh. His Gospel is associated with light, but light that those without faith cannot comprehend and consequently reject. In speaking to all Christian people, he reaffirmed what is said in the other gospels, namely, that Christ is both true God and true man, the eternal-in-time. He had the privilege of being present at the foot of the Cross. Toward the end of his life, John was exiled to the island of Patmos where he wrote his Gospel, as well as the mystical Book of Revelation.
For many years after the death of Christ, the books written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were separate items. They were not united and placed in the New Testament until several hundred years after they were written. They were incorporated into the New Testament along with other valuable writings such as the letters of St. Paul together with those of James, Peter, John, and Jude.
Even though the four Gospel writers wrote at different times, in different places, in different styles, and to different audiences, they nonetheless demonstrate a remarkable harmony. Each of the four writers makes a unique contribution though the same incidents are described in more than one Gospel. The baptism of Jesus is contained in all four Gospels, but 90% of the information in John does not appear in any of the other Gospels. Only 7% of the material found in Mark is unique. None of the Gospels contradict each other. In fact, in varying degrees, they support and reinforce each other. Together they describe Christ’s birth, his sinless life, his death and resurrection, the availability of forgiveness, and that he is the Father’s “only begotten Son.”
They are, indeed, the “four pillars of the Church.”
Dr. Donald DeMarco is Prof. Emeritus/St. Jerome’s University, Adjunct Prof./Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the St. Austin Review. His latest five books include How to Navigate through Life; Apostles of the Culture of Life; Reflections on the Covid-10 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding; The War Against Civility (all posted on amazon.com), and A Moral Compass for a World in Confusion.
Image Source: AB/Media. Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)