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GOSPELS . Under this heading we may consider the four Gospels as a whole, and their relations to one another, leaving detailed questions of date and authorship to the separate articles.

1. The aims of the Evangelists . On this point we have contemporary evidence in the Lukan preface ( Luke 1:1-4 ), which shows that no Evangelist felt himself absolved from taking all possible pains in securing accuracy, that many had already written Gospel records, and that their object was to give a contemporary account of our Lord’s life on earth. As yet, when St. Luke wrote, these records had not been written by eye-witnesses. But they depended for their authority on eye-witnesses ( Luke 1:2 ); and this is the important point, the names of the authors being comparatively immaterial. The records have a religious aim ( John 20:31 ). Unlike the modern biography, which seeks to relate all the principal events of the life described, the Gospel aims at producing faith by describing a few significant incidents taken out of a much larger whole. Hence the Evangelists are all silent about many things which we should certainly expect to read about if the Gospels were biographies. This consideration takes away all point from the suggestion that silence about an event means that the writer was ignorant of it (see Sanday, Criticism of Fourth Gospel , p. 71). Again, although, before St. Luke wrote, there were numerous Gospels, only one of these survived till Irenæus’ time (see § 4 ). But have the rest entirely vanished? It may perhaps be conjectured that some fragments which seem not to belong to our canonical Gospels (such as Luke 22:43 f., John 7:53 to John 8:11 , Mark 16:9-20 ) are survivals of these documents. But this is a mere guess.

2. The Synoptic problem . The first three Gospels in many respects agree closely with one another, and differ from the Fourth. Their topics are the same; they deal chiefly with the Galilæan ministry, not explicitly mentioning visits to Jerusalem after Jesus’ baptism until the last one; while the Fourth Gospel deals largely with those visits. In a word, the first three Gospels give the same general survey, the same ‘synopsis,’ and are therefore called the ‘ Synoptic Gospels ,’ and their writers the ‘Synoptists.’ But further, they agree very closely in words, arrangement of sentences, and in many other details. They have a large number of passages in common, and in many cases all three relate the same incidents in nearly the same words; in others, two out of the three have common matter. The likeness goes far beyond what might be expected from three writers independently relating the same series of facts. In that case we should look for likenesses in details of the narratives, but not in the actual words. A striking example is in Matthew 9:6 = Mark 2:10 = Luke 5:24 . The parenthesis (‘Then saith he to the sick of the palsy’) is common to all three an impossible coincidence if all were independent. Or again, in Mt. and Mk. the Baptist’s imprisonment is related parenthetically, out of its place ( Matthew 14:35 ., Mark 6:17 ff.), though in Lk. it comes in its true chronological order ( Luke 3:19 ). The coincidence in Mt. and Mk. shows some dependence. On the other hand, there are striking variations, even in words, in the common passages. Thus the Synoptists must have dealt very freely with their sources; they did not treat them as unalterable. What, then, is the nature of the undoubted literary connexion between them?

( a ) The Oral Theory . It is clear from NT ( e.g. Luke 1:2 ) and early ecclesiastical writers ( e.g. Papias, who tells us that he laid special stress on ‘the utterances of a living and abiding voice,’ see Eusebius, HE iii. 39), that the narrative teaching of the Apostles was handed on by word of mouth in a very systematic manner. Eastern memories are very retentive, and this fact favours such a mode of tradition. We know that the Jews kept up their traditions orally ( Matthew 15:2 ff. etc.). It is thought, then, that both the resemblances and the differences between the Synoptists may be accounted for by each of them having written down the oral tradition to which he was accustomed.

This is the ‘Oral Theory,’ which met with a great degree of support, especially in England, a generation or so ago. It was first systematically propounded in Germany by Gieseler, in 1818, and was maintained by Alford and Westcott, and lately by A. Wright. It is suggested that this theory would account for unusual words or expressions being found in all the Synoptics, as these would retain their hold on the memory. It is thought that the catechetical instruction was carried out very systematically, and that there were different schools of catechists; and that this would account for all the phenomena. The main strength of the theory lies in the objections rained to its rival, the Documentary Theory (see below), especially that on the latter view the freedom with which the later Evangelists used the earlier, or the common sources, contradicts any idea of inspiration or even of authority attaching to their predecessors. It is even said (Wright) that a man copying from a document could not produce such multitudinous variations in wording. The great objection to the Oral Theory is that it could not produce the extraordinarily close resemblances in language, such as the parentheses mentioned above, unless indeed the oral teaching were so firmly stereotyped and so exactly learnt by heart that it had become practically the same thing as a written Gospel. Hence the Oral Theory has fallen into disfavour, though there is certainly this element of truth in it, that oral teaching went on for some time side by side with written Gospels, and provided independent traditions ( e.g. that Jesus was born in a cave, as Justin Martyr says), and indeed influenced the later Evangelists in their treatment of the earlier Gospels. It was only towards the end of the lives of the Apostles that our Gospels were written.

( b ) The Documentary Theory , in one form, now obsolete, supposed that the latest of the Synoptists knew and borrowed from the other two, and the middle Synoptist from the earliest.

This theory, if true, would be a sufficient cause for the resemblances; but in spite of Zahn’s argument to the contrary ( Einleitung , ii. 400), it is extremely unlikely that Matthew knew Luke’s Gospel or vice versa . To mention only one instance, the Birth-narratives clearly argue the independence of both, especially in the matter of the genealogies. Augustine’s theory that Mark followed, and was the abbreviator of, Matthew is now seen to be impossible, both because of the graphic and autoptic nature of Mk., which precludes the idea of an abbreviator, and because in parallel passages Mk. is fuller than Mt., the latter having had to abbreviate in order to introduce additional matter.

The form of this theory which may now be said to hold the field, is that the source of the common portions of the Synoptics is a Greek written narrative, called (for reasons stated in art. Mark [Gospel acc. to]) the ‘Petrine tradition’ the preaching of St. Peter reduced to the form of a Gospel. The favourite idea is that our Mk. is itself the document which the other Synoptists independently used; but if this is not the case, at least our Mk. represents that document most closely. This theory would at once account for the close resemblances.

Here it may be as well to give at once a sufficient answer to the chief objection to all documentary theories (see above). The objection transfers modern ideas with regard to literary borrowing to the 1st century. As a matter of fact, we snow that old writers did the very thing objected to; e.g. Genesis freely embodies older documents; the Didache (c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 120) probably incorporates an old Jewish tract on the ‘Way of Life and the Way of Death,’ and was itself afterwards incorporated and freely treated in later documents such as the Apostolic Constitutions ( c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 375), which also absorbed and altered the Didascalia; and so the later ‘Church Orders’ or manuals were produced from the earlier. We have no right to make a priori theories as to inspiration, and to take it for granted that God inspired people in the way that commends itself to us. And we know that as a matter of fact written documents were in existence when St. Luke wrote ( Luke 1:1 ). It is not then unreasonable to suppose that Mk. or something very like it was before the First and Third Evangelists when they wrote. A strong argument for the priority of Mk. will be seen if three parallel passages of the Synoptics be written out in Greek side by side, and the words and phrases in Mk. which are found in || Mt. or || Lk. be underlined; it will be found almost always that nearly the whole of Mk. is reproduced in one or both of the other Synoptics, though taken singly Mk. is usually the fullest in parallel passages . Mk. has very little which is peculiar to itself; its great value lying in another direction (see art. Mark [Gospel acc. to] for other arguments). The conclusion is that it, or another Gospel closely resembling it, is a common source of Mt. and Lk. This accounts for the resemblances of the Synoptists; their differences come from St. Matthew and St. Luke feeling perfectly free to alter their sources and narrate incidents differently as seemed best to them. They had other sources besides Mk. Here it may be desirable to remark by way of caution that in so far as they use a common source, the Synoptists are not independent witnesses to the facts of the Gospels; in so far as they supplement that source, they give additional attestation to the facts. Yet an event spoken of by all three Synoptists in the same way is often treated as being more trustworthy than one spoken of by only one or by two. A real example of double attestation, on the other hand, is the reference in 1 Corinthians 13:2 to the ‘faith that removes mountains,’ as compared with Matthew 17:20; Matthew 21:21 .

Another form of the Documentary Theory may be briefly mentioned, namely, that the common source was an Aramaic document, differently translated by the three Evangelists. This, it is thought, might account for the differences; and much ingenuity has been expended on showing how an Aramaic word might, by different pointing (for points take the place of vowels in Aramaic), or by a slight error, produce the differences in Greek which we find. But it is enough to say that this theory could not possibly account for the close verbal resemblances or even for most of the differences. A Greek document must be the common source.

( c ) The non-Markan sources of Mt. and Lk . We have now to consider those parts of Mt. and Lk. which are common to both, but are not found in Mk., and also those parts which are found only in Mt. or only in Lk. In the former the same phenomena of verbal resemblances and differences occur; but, on the other hand, the common matter is, to a great extent, treated in quite a different order by Mt. and Lk. This peculiarity is thought by some to be due to the source used being oral, even though the ‘Petrine tradition,’ the common source of the three, was a document. But the same objections as before apply here ( e.g. cf. Matthew 6:24; Matthew 6:27 = Luke 16:13; Luke 12:25 , or Matthew 23:37-39 = Luke 13:34 f., which are almost word for word the same). We must postulate a written Greek common source; and the differences of order are most easily accounted for by observing the characteristics of the Evangelists. St. Matthew aimed rather at narrative according to subject, grouping incidents and teachings together for this reason, while St. Luke rather preserved chronological order (cf. the treatment of the Baptist’s imprisonment, as above). Thus in Mt. we have groups of sayings ( e.g. the Sermon on the Mount) and groups of parables, not necessarily spoken at one time, but closely connected by subject. We may infer that St. Luke treated the document common to him and St. Matthew in a stricter chronological order, because he treats Mk. in that way. He introduces a large part of Mk. in one place, keeping almost always to its order; then he interpolates a long section from some other authority ( Luke 9:51 to Luke 18:14 ), and then goes back and picks up Mk. nearly where he had left it. Probably, therefore, Lk. is nearer in order to the non-Markan document than Mt.

Of what nature was this document? Some, following a clue of Papias (see art. Matthew [Gospel acc. to]), call it the ‘Logia,’ and treat it as a collection of teachings rather than as a connected history; it has been suggested that each teaching was introduced by ‘Jesus said,’ and that the occasion of each was not specified. This would account for differences of order. But it would involve a very unnecessary multiplication of documents, for considerations of verbal resemblances show that in the narrative, as well as in the discourses, a common non-Markan document must underlie Mt. and Lk.; and, whatever meaning be ascribed to the word logia , it is quite improbable that Papias refers to a record of sayings only . While, then, it is probable that discourses formed the greater part of the non-Markan document, we may by comparing Mt. and Lk. conclude that it described at least some historical scenes. The document must have included the preaching of the Baptist, the Temptation, the Sermon on the Mount, the healing of the centurion’s servant, the coming of John’s messengers to Jesus, the instructions to the disciples, the Lord’s Prayer, the controversy about Beelzebub, the denunciation of the Pharisees, and precepts about over-anxiety. It is very likely that it contained also an account of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and many other things which are in Mk.; for in some of the passages common to all three Synoptists, Mt. and Lk. agree together against Mk. This would be accounted for by their having, in these instances, followed the non-Markan document in preference to the ‘Petrine tradition.’

In addition there must have been other sources, oral or documentary, of Mt. and Lk. separately, for in some passages they show complete independence.

3. Relation of the Fourth Gospel to the Synoptics . The differences which strike us at once when we compare Jn. with the Synoptics were obvious also to the Fathers. Clement of Alexandria accounts for the fact of the differences by a solution which he says he derived from ‘the ancient elders,’ namely, that John, seeing that the external (lit. ‘bodily’) facts had already been sufficiently set forth in the other Gospels, composed, at the request of his disciples and with the inspiration of the Spirit, a ‘spiritual’ Gospel (quoted by Eusebius, HE vi. 14). By this phrase Clement clearly means a Gospel which emphasizes the Godhead of our Lord. The human side of the Gospel story had already been adequately treated. Elsewhere Eusebius ( HE iii. 24) gives an old tradition that John had the Synoptics before him, and that he supplemented them. In all essential particulars this solution may be treated as correct. The main differences between John and the Synoptics are as follows:

( a ) Geographical and Chronological . The Synoptists lay the scene of the ministry almost entirely in Galilee and Peræa; St. John dwells on the ministry in Judæa. The Synoptists hardly note the flight of time at all; from a cursory reading of their accounts the ministry might have been thought to have lasted only one year, as some early Fathers believed, thus interpreting ‘the acceptable year of the Lord’ ( Isaiah 61:2 , Luke 4:19 ); though, if we carefully study the Synoptics, especially Lk., we do faintly trace three stages in the wilderness of Galilee (a brief record), in Galilee (full description), and in Central Palestine as far as Jerusalem and on the other side of Jordan. During this last stage Jesus ‘set his face’ to go to Jerusalem ( Luke 9:51; cf. 2 Kings 12:17 , Ezekiel 21:2 ). But in Jn. time is marked by the mention of several Jewish feasts, notably the Passover, and we gather from Jn. that the ministry lasted either 2 1 / 2 or 3 1 /2 years, according as we read in 5:1 ‘a feast’ (which could hardly be a Passover) or ‘the feast’ (which perhaps was the Passover). These differences are what we should expect when we consider that the Synoptic story is chiefly a Galilæan one, and is not concerned with visits to Jerusalem and Judæa until the last one just before the Crucifixion. Yet from incidental notices in the Synoptics themselves we should have guessed that Jesus did pay visits to Jerusalem. Every religious Jew would do so, if possible, at least for the Passover. If Jesus had not conformed to this custom, but had paid the first visit of His ministry just before the Crucifixion, we could not account for the sudden enmity of the Jerusalem Jews to Him at that time, or for the existence of disciples in Judæa, e.g. , Judas Iscariot and his father Simon Iscariot ( John 6:71 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ), probably natives of Kerioth in Judæa; Joseph of Arimathæa, ‘a city of the Jews’ ( Luke 23:51 ); the household at Bethany; and Simon the leper ( Mark 14:3 ). The owner of the ass and colt at Bethphage, and the owner of the room where the Last Supper was eaten, evidently knew Jesus when the disciples came with the messages. And if the Apostles had just arrived in Jerusalem for the first time only a few weeks before, it would be unlikely that they would make their headquarters there immediately after the Ascension. Thus the account in Jn. of a Judæan ministry is indirectly confirmed by the Synoptics (cf. also Matthew 23:37 how often ’).

( b ) Proclamation of Jesus’ Messiahship . In the Synoptics, especially in Mk., this is a very gradual process. The evil spirits who announce it inopportunely are silenced ( Mark 1:2 f.). Even after Peter’s confession at Cæsarea Philippi at the end of the Galilæan ministry, the disciples are charged to tell no man ( Mark 8:30 ). But in Jn., the Baptist begins by calling Jesus ‘the Lamb of God’ and ‘the Son of God’ ( John 1:29; John 1:34 ); Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael at once recognize him as Messiah ( John 1:41; John 1:45; John 1:49 ). Can both accounts be true? Now, as we have seen, a Judæan ministry must have been carried on simultaneously with a Galilæan one; these would be kept absolutely separate by the hostile district of Samaria which lay between them ( John 4:9 ). Probably two methods were used for two quite different peoples. The rural population of Galilee had to be taught by very slow degrees; but Jerusalem was the home of religious controversy, and its inhabitants were acute reasoners. With them the question who Jesus was could not be postponed; this is shown by the way in which the Pharisees questioned the Baptist. To them, therefore, the Messiahship was proclaimed earlier. It is true that there would be a difficulty if the Twelve first learned about the Messiahship of Jesus at Cæsarea Philippi. But this does not appear from the Synoptics. The Apostles had no doubt heard the questions asked in Judæa, and did know our Lord’s claim to be Christ; but they did not fully realize all that it meant till the incident of Peter’s confession.

( c ) The claims of our Lord are said to be greater in Jn. than in the Synoptics ( e.g. John 10:30 ), and it is suggested that they are an exaggeration due to a later age. Certainly Jn. is a ‘theological’ Gospel. But in reality the claims of our Lord are as great in the Synoptics, though they may not be so explicitly mentioned. The claim of Jesus to be Lord of the Sabbath ( Mark 2:28 ), to re-state the Law ( Matthew 5:17; Matthew 5:21 f., RV [Note: Revised Version.] , etc.), to be about to come in glory ( Mark 8:38; Mark 14:62 ), to be the Judge of the world ( Matthew 25:31 ff. etc.), the invitation ‘Come unto me’ ( Matthew 11:28 ff.), the assertion of the atoning efficacy of His death ( Mark 10:45; Mark 14:24 ) cannot be surpassed (see also Mark [Gospel acc. to], § 3 ). The self-assertion of the great Example of humility is equally great in all the Gospels, and is the great stumbling-block of all the thoughtful upholders of a purely humanitarian Christ.

( d ) Other differences, which can here be only alluded to, are the emphasis in Jn. on the work of the Spirit, the Comforter; the absence in Jn. of set parables, allegories taking their place; and the character of the miracles, there being no casting out of devils in Jn., and, on the other hand, the miracle at Cana being unlike anything in the Synoptics. The only miracle common to the four Gospels is the feeding of the five thousand, which in Jn. is mentioned probably only to introduce the discourse at Capernaum, of which it forms the text ( John 6:1-71 ). All these phenomena may be accounted for on Clement’s hypothesis. The Fourth Evangelist had the Synoptics before him, and supplemented them from his own knowledge. And it may be remarked that, had Jn. been a late work written after the death of all the Apostles, the author would never have ventured to introduce so many differences from Gospels already long in circulation; whereas one who had been an eye-witness, writing at the end of his life, might well be in such a position of authority (perhaps the last survivor of the Apostolic company, whoever he was) that he could supplement from his own knowledge the accounts already in use.

The supplementary character of Jn. is seen also from its omission of matters to which the writer nevertheless alludes, assuming that his readers know them; e.g. , Jesus’ baptism (without the knowledge of which John 1:32 would be unintelligible), the commission to baptize (cf. the Nicodemus narrative, John 3:1-36 ), the Eucharist (cf. John 6:1-71 , which it is hardly possible to explain without any reference to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, for which it is a preparation, taking away their apparent abruptness), the Transfiguration (cf. John 1:14 ), the Birth of our Lord (it is assumed that the answer to the objection that Christ could not come from Nazareth is well known, John 1:46 , John 7:41; John 7:52 ), the Ascension (cf. John 6:62 , John 20:17 ), etc. So also it is often recorded in Jn. that Jesus left questions unanswered, and the Evangelist gives no explanation, assuming that the answer is well known ( John 3:4 , John 4:11; John 4:15 , John 6:52 , John 7:35 ).

There are some well-known apparent differences in details between Jn. and the Synoptics. They seem to differ as to whether the death of our Lord or the Last Supper synchronized with the sacrificing of the Paschal lambs, and as to the hour of the Crucifixion (cf. Mark 15:25 with John 19:14 ). Various solutions of these discrepancies have been suggested; but there is one solution which is impossible, namely, that Jn. is a 2nd cent. ‘pseudepigraphic’ work. For if so, the first care that the writer would have would be to remove any obvious differences between his work and that of his predecessors. It clearly professes to be by an eye-witness ( John 1:14; John 19:35 ). Either, then, Jn. was the work of one who wrote so early that he had never seen the Synoptic record, but this is contradicted by the internal evidence just detailed, or else it was written by one who occupied such a prominent position that he could give his own experiences without stopping to explain an apparent contradiction of former Gospels. In fact the differences, puzzling though they are to us, are an indication of the authenticity of the Fourth Gospel.

4. Are the Gospels contemporary records? We have hitherto considered them from internal evidence. We may, in conclusion, briefly combine the latter with the external attestation, in order to fix their date, referring, however, for details to the separate headings. It is generally agreed that the Fourth Gospel is the latest. Internal evidence shows that its author was an eyewitness, a Palestinian Jew of the 1st cent., whose interests were entirely of that age, and who was not concerned with the controversies and interests of that which followed it. If so, we cannot place it later than a.d. 100, and therefore the Synoptics must be earlier. Irenæus ( c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 180) had already formulated the necessity of there being four, and only four, canonical Gospels; and he knew of no doubt existing on the subject. It is incredible that he could have spoken thus if Jn. had been written in the middle of the 2nd century. Tatian ( c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 160) made, as we know from recent discoveries, a Harmony of our four Gospels (the Diatessaron ), and this began with the Prologue of Jn. Justin Martyr (c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 150) is now generally allowed to have known Jn., though some hold that he did not put it on a level with the Synoptics. Again, it is hard to deny that 1 Jn. and the Fourth Gospel were written by the same author, and 1 Jn. is quoted by Papias ( c [Note: circa, about.] . 140 or earlier), as we learn from Eusebius ( HE iii. 39), and by Polycarp ( Phil . 7, written c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 111). If so, they must have known the Fourth Gospel. Other allusions in early 2nd cent. writers to the Fourth Gospel and 1 Jn. are at least highly probable. Then the external evidence, like the internal, would lead us to date the Fourth Gospel not later than a.d. 100. This Gospel seems to give the results of long reflexion on, and experience of the effect of, the teaching of our Lord, written down in old age by one who had seen what he narrates. The Synoptics, to which Jn. is supplementary, must then be of earlier date; and this is the conclusion to which they themselves point. The Third Gospel, being written by a travelling companion of St. Paul (see art. Luke [Gospel acc. to]), can hardly have been written after a.d. 80; and the Second, whether it be exactly the Gospel which St. Luke used, or the same edited by St. Mark the ‘interpreter’ of St. Peter (see art. Mark [Gospel acc. to]), must be either somewhat earlier than Lk. (as is probable), or at least, even if it be an edited form, very little later. Its ‘autoptic’ character, giving evidence of depending on an eye-witness, makes a later date difficult to conceive. Similar arguments apply to Mt. (see art. Matthew [Gospel acc. to]). Thus, then, while there is room for difference of opinion as to the names and personalities of the writers of the Gospels (for, like the historical books of OT, they are anonymous), critical studies lead us more and more to find in them trustworthy records whose writers had first-hand authority for what they state.

It may be well here to state a difficulty that arises in reviewing the 2nd cent. attestation to our Gospels. In the first place, the Christian literature of the period a.d. 100 175 is extremely scanty, so that we should not a priori expect that every Apostolic writing would be quoted in its extant remains. And, further, the fashion of quotation changed as the 2nd cent. went on. Towards the end of the century, we find direct quotations by name. But earlier this was not so. In Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin, and other early 2nd cent. writers, we find many quotations and references, but without names given; so that doubt is sometimes raised whether they are indebted to our canonical Gospels or to some other source, oral or written, for our Lord’s words. It is clear that our canonical Gospels were not the only sources of information that these writers had; oral tradition had not yet died out, and they may have used other written records. To take an example, it is obvious that Justin knew the Sermon on the Mount; but when we examine his quotations from it we cannot be certain if he is citing Mt. or Lk. or both, or (possibly) an early Harmony of the two. It may be pointed out that if, as is quite possible, the quotations point to the existence of Harmonies before Tatian’s, that fact in reality pushes back the external evidence still earlier. Many, or most, of the differences of quotation, however, may probably be accounted for by the difficulty of citing memoriter . When to quote accurately meant to undo a roll without stops or paragraphs, early writers may be pardoned for trusting too much to their memories. And it is noteworthy that as a rule the longer the quotation in these early writers, the more they conform to our canonical Gospels, for in long passages they could not trust their memories. The same peculiarity is observed in their quotations from the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] .

Bearing these things in mind, we may, without going beyond Tatian, conclude with the highest degree of probability, from evidence which has undergone the closest scrutiny: ( a ) that our Mt. was known to, or was incorporated in a Harmony known to, Justin and the writer of the Didache ( c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 120) and ‘Barnabas’; and similarly ( b ) that our Mk. was known to Papias, Justin, Polycarp, and (perhaps) pseudo-Clement (‘2 Clem. ad Cor .’), Hermas, and the author of the Gospel of pseudo-Peter and the Clementine Homilies , and Heracleon and Valentinus; ( c ) that our Lk. was known to Justin (very obviously), the Didache writer, Marcion (who based his Gospel on it), Celsus, Heracleon, and the author of the Clementine Homilies; and ( d ) that our Jn. was known to Justin, Papias, and Polycarp.

A. J. Maclean.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Gospels'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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