HOW DID THE CANONICAL Gospels come down to us?
At one level, it is enough to be assured that God provided them. But normally God operates through identifiable means. At no point do the canonical Gospels give the impression that they were handed down from heaven on golden plates, or transcribed by apostles attentive to divine dictation.
Luke provides the most detail as to how he went about his task (Luke 1:1-4). He tells us that “many” had already “undertaken to draw up an account” of Jesus’ life and ministry, in line with what was “handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (1:1-2). From this we can infer two things: (a) Luke does not himself claim to be an eyewitness of Jesus. He does claim to be in touch with what the original “eyewitnesses and servants of the word” handed down. (b) By the time he writes, Luke knows that already there are many written reports circulating. This is not surprising. The Jews were a literate race. Every boy learned to read and write. It is inconceivable that no one committed anything to paper in the first years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and exaltation.
Then Luke tells us he himself “carefully investigated everything from the beginning.” The words suggest that he read the sources, talked with all the principals he could find, and evaluated the reports. We can glimpse at least a little of his method when we read his second volume, the book of Acts. There, by following his movements, we discover that he can be placed in all the early major Christian centers, where he would have the opportunity to talk to all of the earliest Christian leaders, and to read all of the earliest reports and archives. It is not too much of a leap, then, to infer that if Luke the doctor (see Col. 4:14) has some extra information about Mary’s unique pregnancy (Luke 1:26ff.), it is because he looked her up and had some long chats. In due course, then, he chose to write “an orderly account” (1:3).
Two things follow. First, however much the Spirit of God superintended the production of this gospel, such divine superintendence did not obviate the need for strenuous research and careful work. Second, this method of bringing a canonical book into being is entirely in line with its subject matter: God himself brought the messianic Son of David, the Son of God, into this world (1:35), the eternal invading the temporal, forever assuring that one could talk of him as a witness speaks of what is observed. The transmission of Christian truth necessarily rests, in part, not on mysticism, but on witness.