The Four Gospels

As I’m sure you’re aware, there are four gospels in the New Testament, a “gospel” being a story of the life and ministry of Jesus. The standard understanding is that each of these gospels has a different “target audience”.

Matthew’s target audience is the Jews — and consequently is concerned with showing how Jesus is the Messiah by fulfilling Old Testament prophecies. Matthew has a genealogy tracing Jesus’s lineage back to King David, showing that he has the right to be King of the Jews.

Mark’s is the Romans — showing Jesus as a man of action. Notice how often the word ‘straightway’, or ‘immediately’ (EUThUS) appears in this Gospel “And immediately Jesus did this… and then immediately he did that…”. Matthew and Luke contain long sermons (the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain respectively) — Mark does not. In Mark, Jesus is someone who “gets things done.”

Luke’s target audience is educated “Greeks” (non-Jews): Luke endeavors to show Jesus as the ‘perfect human’. Luke has a genealogy tracing Jesus’ lineage all the way back to Adam! Luke’s language is very literary and sophisticated (where Mark is terse and Matthew about in the middle).

Which brings us to the Gospel of John. The standard understanding of this gospel is that its target audience is EVERYONE! Which has never made sense to me. The very first sentence: “In the beginning was the Word (LOGOS)…” — what typical person understands what THAT’s about? The average person on the street back then couldn’t have made any sense of it, and we still don’t — significant explanation is necessary! It’s also in a class by itself: Matthew, Mark and Luke are all rather ‘down to earth’, whereas John is rather mystical. It’s really cut from very different cloth than the other three.

I’ve wondered if, instead of such a concrete approach as “Matthew is for the Jews, Mark for the Romans, etc.” if a more allegorical approach might be helpful. By allegorically aligning a major city of the ancient world to each Gospel.

Matthew’s allegorical city would have to be Jerusalem — the epicenter of Judaism. Mark’s would be Rome — the epicenter of the Roman Empire. And Luke’s would be Athens — the epicenter of classical Greek thinking (Plato, Aristotle, etc.). I don’t mean those cities literally, but what they allegorically stood for.

And John? Why, I suggest that would be Alexandria. Here’s my thinking:

Alexandria at the time of Christ was arguably the most cutting edge and advanced city in the Roman Empire. Philosophy, religion, science, mathematics and engineering were all thriving there like nowhere else in the Mediterranean region. (The first known woman mathematician in the Western world thrived there. There wouldn’t be another for over a millennium.) Alexandria was the ‘Silicon Valley’ of innovation in religion, philosophy, mathematics, science, and engineering.

‘LOGOS’ was a common enough word in the ancient world, meaning ‘reason’, or that which organizes something, or an argument (as in arguing for some position), or even the financial accounting of a business. In philosophical circles, LOGOS also referred to the principle that organizes the entire Cosmos — an idea that goes back to Heraclites in the 5th century BCE. Over the centuries LOGOS waxed and waned in terms of prominence of concern in philosophical circles, and in first century Alexandria it was at a high tide.

One philosophical school quite popular at that time was the Stoics, and the LOGOS figured prominently in their thinking. And, we have Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE – 50 CE) — a learned Jew who became quite enamored of Greek philosophy (and Stoicism in particular). Philo made it his life’s work to try to reconcile Greek philosophy and Judaism — bringing together Athens and Jerusalem, Plato and Moses, so to speak. The LOGOS figured very prominently in Philo’s thinking — for Philo the LOGOS plays a critical role in bridging the gap between God and humanity.

What John brings to the table is the idea that the LOGOS is not just a Cosmic Principle, but that the LOGOS became a human being and ‘dwelt among us, full of grace and truth’. So John’s opening statement would make perfect sense — albeit astonishing — to the Alexandrian line of thinking.

Just some thoughts for your rumination.