How many gospels are there?
You might say four: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. If you have read about the so-called apocryphal gospels, you might also be able to add the Gospel of Thomas or Peter, or Nicodemus. To the conspiracy theorist, these are witnesses to other brands of Christianity which were written out of history. The more conventional tend to view them as footnotes and tidying up exercises by people who wanted to fill in gaps left unfilled by the Big Four. The Gospel of James, for example, was about Mary’s childhood, and the Gospel of Nicodemus purports to fill in the missing bits in Jesus’ trial – a kind of speculative fiction.
But the only Gospel which calls itself a Gospel is the Gospel of St Mark, and it does not call itself the Gospel of St Mark, but The Gospel of Jesus Christ. Its focus is its subject, Jesus.
We can trace through history the first mentions of what we now call the Gospels. Justin Martyr, in the second century, called them ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ and coined a brilliant word for them, which for some inexplicable reason never caught on: Apomnemononeumata.
The strength though of calling them memoirs is that, as with St Mark calling his little book ‘the Gospel of Jesus Christ,’ the focus remains on Christ, not the author.
St Paul, who wrote all of his letters before any of what came to be called Gospels were ever written, wrote a lot about the Gospel , and his meaning was clear: the good news about who Jesus was, what he did and what he meant for the world.
So there is one Gospel. And all the New Testament letter-writers, as well as Mathew, Mark , Luke and John, were trying to tell it.
This multiplicity of voices and perspectives has sometimes alarmed people. One response has been to try to iron out any apparent contradictions. One early attempt in the life of the church was an attempt to stick them all together in one consistent version.
This instinct is behind the way we often tell the Nativity story. Rather than concentrating on St Luke’s version, which has the annunciation and the shepherds, we add in King Herod and the Magi from St Matthew. One of the casualties is Joseph, who also plays more of a role according to the reading we just heard than in St Luke’s telling, but inevitably gets trumped by Mary’s more dramatic contribution.
Mary has a visit from an angel and sings the Magnificat. Joseph just has a dream. But that dream is significant. According to St Matthew’s Gospel it is Joseph who has a religious experience of a divine messenger. You might not have noticed that this echoes the story of a famous Joseph from the Hebrew Scriptures.
Receiving a message, a spiritual insight from God, during a dream has a very ancient precedent. I would never count out the promptings from deep within our unconscious minds, which can come when our surface mind gets a rest anyway, but that is not really my point.
St Matthew is clearly trying to make a number of points by what he writes. Primarily, he wants to assert that there is continuity between the Hebrew Scriptures and the shape of Christ’s teaching and ministry. When St Mark begins his book by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, he is insisting that Jesus is the real thing, unlike those pretenders on the imperial throne who, as bloody and flawed as they are, make that claim about themselves.
As it is thought that Mark’s Gospel was written in Rome with a gentile Christian audience, this slant makes sense, but St Matthew, on the other hand, almost certainly had a Jewish Christian audience in mind. From the very off he concentrates on Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, as the Saviour sent by God to redeem the people. That this is his aim is revealed by the first two words of his book. You don’t need to be a Greek scholar to sit up when you hear the words Biblos geneseos: literally, ‘the book of Genesis’. This is a new creation story, a new origins story, deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures.
And Joseph plays an important part. He assents to the whole thing too, just as Mary does in the beautiful story of the Annunciation. It is Joseph too, according to St Matthew, who has yet another dream, which tells him to take his family to Egypt when King Herod starts trying to find the potential rival to his throne.
We have an icon of St Mary with Christ at the back of church. It is a very familiar image. Mary has long been called the God Bearer – the Theotokos – and given an exalted role.
There are statues too of St Joseph, carrying the infant Christ.
In the Gospel reading this morning we hear of the fulfilment of a prophecy from the Hebrew Scriptures.
Look, the virgin (in Hebrew, ‘young woman’) shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means ‘God with us.’
‘God with us’. Poets talk of the phrase where the poem lands. In this case, the words ‘God with us’ stand at the crunch point.
Our hopes for Christmas are centred on this child – who he is, what he will do – this child, who is announced to his parents by divine messengers: the saviour to be born in Bethlehem.