Only a minority in ancient society were capable of reading. The Church had to appoint Readers, to whom the congregation listened. Books other than the Hebrew Bible or its Septuagint version played a negligible part in the initial propagation of the faith that Jesus is the Christ. Probably after the fall of Jerusalem, which was a profound shock to the Church as well as appalling for the Synagogue, perhaps at about the time when letters of Paul were being collected to provide a point of reference, hitherto oral traditions transmitting the teaching and actions of Jesus were being put in writing and gathered. 'Gospel' meant first the message. In consequence of Mark's bold originality the word was to become the theme-title of a new genre of book, with a narrative charged with impassioned feeling reaching a climax in a long account of the Passion and ending in an extraordinary and numinous story of the empty tomb without any account of the appearances of the risen Lord. Luke's preface explains that he has drawn on first-hand witnesses, and imposed on the material an order not found in several predecessors who have composed narratives about Jesus. Luke's 'order' is no doubt more theological than merely chronological. His infancy narrative is there to show above all how, from birth, Jesus fulfilled God's ancient promises to his people. For Matthew Jesus was a new Moses who gives a new Torah for his community of disciples. And that community is the embodiment of 'the kingdom of God', a society already distinct from the Synagogue and entitled 'the Church'.
As memory began to become hazy, even though oral proclamation of the gospel would long remain preferable to books, these evangelists provided a kind of permanence in times that were mountingly precarious. They thought of themselves as more than mere reporters. Not only were they providing a support to the remembered tradition, but they were interpreting that for the needs of their own generation.
In St John's gospel the needs of the time had made the theological interpretation of the significance of Jesus so overwhelmingly primary that the historical narrative was there for its symbolic value. This method did not