The gospels are not history books, but testimony of faith. The purpose of the evangelists is not to contradict the life of Jesus in every chronologically accurate details but to illustrate the eternal significance of Jesus through selected examples of his teaching, activities and the impact of them on his contemporaries. The gospels are written by men of faith for men of faith. All biblical scholars trace three stages of the development of the written gospels.
a) The original words and deeds of Jesus.
b) The oral proclamation of the apostles and disciples.
c) The writing themselves.
These are specified not only by the scripture scholars but also by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1964 (the historical truth of the gospels). What we have today is the finally edited version given by the evangelists. The process of writing can be sorted out through various levels of traditions.
It is to find out the historical Jesus, to find out what really happened. This is relatively a later development. Scholars agree that we can get behind the testimonies of faith and identify at least the basic historical foundation of Jesus' life and ministry.
Till the 18th century everyone believed that the gospels have the clear and reliable account of the life of Jesus, that there was not any discrepancy between the faith of the primitive church and the fact upon which the faith was built. This belief was questioned first by Herman Reimarus in 1768. Thereafter many attempted to construct the life of Jesus each portraying a Jesus of his liking. The last serious work was by A. Scheweitzer in his 'The quest of the historical Jesus'.
This method was developed in Germany between the times of two world wars and was concerned primarily with the formation of the gospel tradition, which took place through liturgical expressions roughly between 35 - 60 AD. It is essentially a means of analysing typical features of biblical texts (hymns, acclamations, confessions, sermons, instructional materials editorial remarks, descriptive narratives, sayings of Jesus, dialogues and quotations etc.) in order to relate them to original situation in life. Form criticism brought out the fact that a long period of oral tradition preceded any writing of the New Testament. Form criticism is concerned with:
a) Distinctive literary form.
b) Cultural context
c) The history of the transmission of this traditional material in early Christianity.
This criticism tries to discover the dominant ideas which governed the final editing of the gospel as we have them today. Just as form criticism disclosed the existence of an oral tradition prior to the formulation of the NT so redaction criticism stresses the antecedent existence of both oral and written traditions from which the NT authors worked depending on the particular theological bent.
Scripture as source and norm of faith: Though all Christians affirm the authority of the bible in the life of the church, various theologians and denominations propose different models for understanding the basis of this authority.
For Protestants it is - 'sola scriptura'.
Catholics depend on two sources: scripture and tradition. Scripture is the norm to guide the tradition. Protestants and Catholics agree that bible has authority but it is a historically bound document spoken to an earlier age.
Scripture as a faith experience of the community, written to strengthen and guide the faith of the community. It’s written to evoke a similar experience, like that of foundational period of God, of Christ in people who do not share the faith. The bible presents itself as the normative record of what happened at the time of God's special self-communication, which climaxed with Christ.
Faith in Christ is essential and primary in reading the scripture; the interpretation of the scripture should be done according to the present day situation. The written word, the scripture aroused the religious consciousness of the foundation experience in the believing community and the scripture became the unifying force for the whole community.
Scriptures are the basic experiences of the whole community expressed by various means and lived accordingly. The scripture holds the believing together. It is the community that decides which books are normative and which are not. And this involves the guidance of the spirit in the community. Thus the spirit not only inspires the human author to write but also inspires the community to accept these written books as inspired and as norms of their lives.