There is evidence that the period between Paul's writing (46-56CE) and the writing of the gospel according to John (90-110CE) saw developments in New Testament narratives in the service of the theology of the early Church. For example, Paul's letters do not refer to Mary or Joseph as the parents of Jesus but only that he was "born of a woman." He does not mention the miracles of Jesus that are so conspicuous in the synoptic gospels. He speaks about resurrection without details about the risen one, but in terms of "appearances" and he evidently did not know of the tradition of the empty tomb.
The gospel according to Mark (70CE), the earliest of the gospels, is curious for its ending that does not include appearances of the risen one. So curious, in fact that a hand other than Mark felt the need to add an ending (16:9-19) that shared with the other gospels accounts of the risen Jesus as well as an account of the ascension that only appears in Luke. Such an attempt to produce an ending that conformed to the other synoptic gospels bears witness to the fluidity and indeed vulnerability of biblical texts and lends support to the idea that each gospel writer added his own inventions for theological and contextual reasons. Hence, the bible is both a gift from God and the work of men.
Some of the differences between the gospels are due to them each addressing their particular community i.e. they were contextual. The writers did not think it strange to alter parts of the traditions they received to fit with the particular culture in which they found themselves. A similar process is active today. Our scientific culture has thrown doubt on the miraculous, and biblical scholars and theologians look for, and find, alternative and more theologically interesting readings.
The narrative development we find in the gospels take the form of legend that served a theological purpose. The most obvious is that concerning the infancy of Jesus. There is no mention of this either in Paul or Mark, a flourishing in Luke and Matthew that are quite different from each other, and again, none in John. We may conclude that the virgin birth, so central to Christian theology, is a legend that arose as an attempt to underline the divine origin of Jesus i.e. he had no earthly father.
Christian theology finds its sources in historical events and in the legends that Israel and later, the Church, spun as a way of speaking about God. Some legends had no historical basis, as in the creation stories, others, like the exodus of Israel from Egypt probably had an historical reference that was overlade with legendary material. It is unlikely that the infancy narratives of Jesus, the virgin birth, the resurrection, the empty tomb and the ascension as well as the events at Pentecost related by Luke have an historical basis. This does not mean that they are untrue and hence the stuff of fairy tales. Rather, they are essential stories that outline the character of God and are taken seriously in the writing of theology.
In my last essay I wrote about the resurrection being an expression of the continual presence of Christ to His Church. As Mark expresses it after Jesus was raised:
"But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." (Mark 16:7,8)
The legend of resurrection is multi-vocal. While indicating the continuing presence of Christ as the risen and crucified one and the soul of the Church, it also speaks about the vindication of the rejected and abandoned Word of God. This theme began in Luke with the holy family finding no room in Bethlehem, in Matthew in the flight into Egypt and appears in the prologue of John where we are told:
"He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him." (John 1:10,11)
The theme of rejection is fulfilled on the cross. He was betrayed not by a distant enemy but by one close to him, Judas, who was one of the twelve and who conspired with the priests of the temple. The civil authorities abandoned him and relegated their duty to see that justice was served. And, heartbreakingly, the disciples fled to their homes leaving only Mary and some other women. History? Legend? Who knows? Whatever, the point is made, this Jesus is brother to all who die abandoned and alone.
It is this reality that prompts Peter to speak after Pentecost:
"You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know- this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death,because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. (Acts. 2:22-24)