Introduction to the Gospels


The four Gospels are perhaps the most illustrious works of non-fiction ever composed, yet are consequently the most scrutinized. The Gospels withhold the majestic characteristic that chisels characters, judges hearts, and reveals all that is within any person. Reading the life of Jesus through the lens of a people far more culturally adept in the Jewish-Christian epoch illuminates the distinguishable features of Jesus that showed him to be both man and God, a coexistence of God and flesh, a culmination of the Divinity of the Father and the unimaginable Infinity of the Holy Spirit that followed the fruition in his bodily, earthly figure. To refer to the four ancient biographies of Jesus Christ as merely gospels does a sure injustice to the magnitude of the pages held in the reader’s palms. Derived from the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον, Gospel—or gōd-spell in Old English—defines the most valuable and eschatologically transforming material ever handed down through the ages as good news. An undeserving man, if asked to describe his elegant, beautiful bride in one word, might say that she is good, but he may go many steps further: She is exceptional, or reputable, or my everything and more. In his right mind, he may fall silent. Describing the indescribable, colloquially illustrating that which cannot be deduced to words, He who cannot be condensed to an analysis or an intuition, is to fail miserably at our disposal of language. In the same spousal scenario, the wife may ask her husband to describe to her what it’s like to be in love with her. Are words sufficient for conveying that which cannot be metaphorically depicted? Perhaps she takes it a step further; maybe she asks him to describe that which is what it is to experience love for her. Intuiting those areas of experience that cannot be described are left to subjective intuition, impossible to otherwise realize—and thus we fall silent. I digress.

The Gospels provide readers—who behold an otherwise inapprehensible perspective of the Almighty Creator—with a minimal understanding (and ever-increasing at a directly proportional rate to maximized love for God) of God in Christ that is made possible by the careful research and delicate authorship of four men (likely more, considering Q and others). French Philosopher Henri Bergson (20th century) argues that there is an insatiable desire of communication and its failure to construe intuition—that we can never guarantee our utterances are properly received by any listener; why speak at all? This is a philosophy that the four Gospel authors quickly disarm. While they didn’t imagine or intend to present Jesus in all his fullness and glory in just a few pages (John 21:25 says not even the “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written”!), they desperately tried. Had they fallen silent for reasons that would have sufficed, we may never have been given the beaming source of our Heavenly Majesty as found in the Gospels.

That there are four Gospels could be thoroughly discussed, being that four, along with many other numbers (namely 2, 3, 6, 7, and 12) are interwoven allegorically in and throughout the Testaments. However, four is the number of Gospels, and that’s the conclusion of the matter for the sake of the paper. There are many similarities between the Gospels, especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which are all three considered synoptic gospels (synoptic meaning "read together"). Outside of the Canonical Gospels, there are other extra-biblical apocryphal gospels written. These books are non-canonical because the Founding Fathers of Christianity did not accept them as the inerrant word of God. Other gospels found outside the Bible are the Jewish-Christian gospels, including the Gospel of Ebionites, the Gospel of the Hebrews, and the Gospel of the Nazarenes. Likewise, a gospel accredited to St. Thomas can be found. There is a gospel of Peter, which is widely accepted as legendary, and was written in the 2nd century with docetic doctrinal influences. There is a gospel of Judas, which is controversial and, like the gospel of Peter, shows signs of inauthentic relational aspects of Jesus. Along with these few, there are several Islamic views of Jesus, there exists the Diatessaron, a harmonization of the Gospels as written by Tatian around 175 A.D., and more. Though there are many gospels, there are only four Gospels accepted in the Canon, and this cannot be over stressed.

The three synoptic Gospels are similar, though have many distinctions worth nothing. Similarities are mostly ascribed to the heavy use of the book of Mark in Matthew and Luke (up to 90% of Mark included in Matthew), as well as another source Q. The construction of the first three gospels introduces a literary issue called the synoptic problem. Depending on perspective, the synoptic problem can create a myriad of unsolvable riddles in the four gospels, which can (and have, throughout history) negatively affect exegesis and hermeneutics. It can further “form criticism of the gospels as well as affect the quest for the historical Jesus, early church history, and even the text of the gospels [emphasis added].”[1] The synoptic problem creates controversy for the evidences and validity of the first three gospel accounts, but not without reasonable solution. The Two-Source hypothesis is most widely accepted to explain the synoptic problem, and follows the tradition that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel (likely written first among the gospels) to construct their own. Matthew, for example, expounded on much of the material Mark wrote, and both Matthew and Luke include their own evidence within their works. However, there is material in both Matthew and Luke that are thought to come from yet another source, Q, which is thought to have contained the sayings of Jesus. Unbeknownst to modern scholars, Q may have been composed by a disciple of Jesus, or someone else altogether; but its addition to the synoptic Gospels is widely accepted. Thus we are given four Gospels. For more reading on Q, you can find a lot of helpful information here.

The book of Matthew is likely written by Matthew (also named Levi in Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27). Mark Powell, in Introducing the New Testament, illustrates the doubt in Matthew’s authorship (and each of the Gospels for that matter), but Matthew the tax collector is the most widely accepted author of Matthew’s Gospel. He was likely a Jewish Christian, indicated by the extensive use of Old Testament scriptures (62 references) and his lack of explanation behind the lifestyle and law of the Jews. If the audience was Jewish, there would be no need to explain the Jewish lifestyle, as they would already be well aware of the culture. Further, the use of the Old Testament was to show the flow of the Messianic prophecies in Jesus Christ, and to prove the divinity and fulfillment of the Law in Jesus.

Along with the heavy use of Old Testament scriptures, the word "kingdom" is used 52 times (in the ESV), as Matthew records Jesus' deliberate and consistent teaching on the Kingdom of God. Aside from the major theme of the Kingdom of Heaven, there are other topics including the Jews' (especially Pharisees and Sadducees) conflict with Jesus' teachings and Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law, which Jesus clarifies as distinctly different than the abolishment of the Law (Matthew 5:17), a commonly confused concept in the first century (and now).

Mark, though placed after Matthew in the Canon, was written before the other Gospels (~50 A.D.),. It's most widely accepted that Mark is the author, though he never introduces himself. Early manuscripts (as well as historical evidence that Mark was Peter's interpreter) strongly suggest Mark's authorship. Mark is a concise storyline of Jesus. Mark likely wrote the book in Rome. Different church fathers recognize Mark's work with Peter (i.e. Papias and Clement of Alexandria). He also uses Latin words in different parts of the book (12:14, 15:15, 15:21), which would also be indicative of Roman composition. Matthew and Luke show indications of having borrowed from Mark's Gospel, alongside the additional Q document.

We know a bit about (John) Mark from several places throughout the Bible.

1. He was Barnabas' cousin. Colossians 4:10: "Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him). . ."

2. His mother's name was Mary, and he provided a place for the early church to meet. Perhaps we could consider him a house-church leader. Acts 12:12: "When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying."

3. John Mark was on the first missionary journey in Acts with Paul and Barnabas. Acts 12:25: "And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark." Also Acts 13:5: "When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them."

4. John Mark left Paul earlier in the missionary journey to return to Jerusalem. Acts 13:13: "Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem. . ."

5. In Acts 15, following the Jerusalem Council, Paul begins his second missionary journey and wants to bring Barnabas, as he did on his first journey. However, Barnabas wants to take John Mark again, and Paul doesn't want Mark to come, because he left them in Pamphylia during their first journey. Ultimately, the brothers commend Paul after deciding to take Silas to Syria and Cilicia, and Barnabas went to Cyprus with John Mark. Was Barnabas not also commended? Did he do something wrong? Perhaps a conversation for another day; just a speculation. In short, we don't have the simple answer to those questions. Acts 15:36-41: "36 And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” 37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches."

6. Paul later commends John Mark, for he supposedly proved himself worthy during the second missionary journey with Barnabas. Philemon 24: "Mark . . . my fellow workers." Also Colossians 4:10: "Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him). . ." Paul also thought he was a helpful addition to his ministry in 2 Timothy 4:11: "Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry."

Luke’s Gospel is the most magnificently written, using the highest standard of Greek (a stark contrast with the low quality of grammar in Mark). Luke was a doctor and a Greek Christian, and his gospel, written closer to the early 60s A.D., is the third of the synoptic Gospels. Like Mark, Luke also went with Paul on his mission journeys (though Luke went on more than one, whereas Mark only went on one, or half of one). Luke is different than Matthew and Mark, because it was originally written alongside the Acts of the Apostles. It is helpful to read them with each other, as it is one continuous story. Luke, though not mentioned in Luke or Acts, is mentioned a few other times in the New Testament.

1. Colossians 4:14: "Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas."

2. 2 Timothy 4:11: "Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry."

3. Philemon 23-24: "Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers."

Luke wrote more of the New Testament than any other writer, even Paul. He is not mentioned in any part of the Bible beyond the three scriptures above. Luke's Gospel is used as another descriptive evidence for the validity of Jesus and his message. The prologue of Luke's book state that many people had made accounts of Jesus, and that Luke still carefully examined all the facts from the beginning. Luke wrote his book to Theophilus, which means "lover/friend of God.” It's unclear what the relationship was between Luke and Theophilus. Some have even suggested that Theophilus refers to all Christians, though Theophilus may have been a figure in the government or someone of nobility.

The reason Luke wrote his Luke-Acts Gospel is under question, but the leading thoughts say that either he was writing to show the Roman Empire that the Christians were not a threat to their government, or to reassure Christians that were questioning the timing of Jesus' second coming. A popularizing view is that Luke wrote his gospel to aid Paul in his trial against Caesar.

The Gospel John is unlike the other three gospels. It was written by the "disciple whom Jesus loved" as late as 85-95 A.D., decades later than the synoptic gospels.

There was what is referred to as "400 years of silence” (or the Intertestamental Period) between the Old Testament and the New Testament. During this period, God did not speak to his people through prophets. Now in the Gospel of John, he once again speaks to his people through John the Baptizer, the last prophet before Jesus. John the Baptist should not be confused with the author of John, who was an apostle.

John's approach to his gospel is for the belief of the Jews that Jesus was truly Divine, God in the flesh. Note: John the Apostle was the son of Zebedee and the younger brother of James. John and James were likely disciples of John the Baptist prior to Jesus. John was a prophet, but he denies being the prophet. He’s obsessed with pointing people to Jesus instead of himself. The Jews were expecting the second coming of Elijah based on Old Testament prophecies, specifically Malachi 4:5. Luke 1:17 says that John came in the “spirit” of Elijah, and then Jesus says that John actually was Elijah who was to come in Matthew 11:11-13. John's humility is incredible as he laid the foundation for Christ's ministry. John intimately understood that Jesus was Divine, and his life mission adequately reflected that.

There is discourse between the Jews and Jesus throughout John, often due to Jesus' claims of divinity. It is also thought that parts of John (or all of it) have been revised several times because of the light inconsistencies throughout the book (John 8 referring to the Jews who had believed him, the same people who apparently tried to kill him shortly after).

Jesus had seven "I am" statements in the book of John, all which certainly directed the Jews' attention to God's response to Moses in Exodus 3. Moses asked God what he his name was, and God said "I AM," or "I AM WHO I AM." Likewise, Jesus says "I am" in the gospel of John, something considered blasphemy to the Jews.

  1. Bread of Life (John 6:35)

  2. Light of the World (John 8:12)

  3. The Gate (John 10:9)

  4. The Good Shepherd (John 10:11)

  5. The Resurrection and the Life(John 11:25:26)

  6. The Way, The Truth, and The Life (John 14:6)

  7. The Vine (John 15:5)

Jesus often spoke these "I am" statements around specific feasts or festivals, which is further indicative of Old Testament fulfillments. A study on the festivals and feasts of John is fascinating, but I don't have the time to discuss in length.

From the beginning of the book of John, the apostle John writes concerning the coming of God in the flesh. John 1:1 uses very similar language as the beginning of Genesis: "In the beginning", however, John shows that Jesus was also with God in the beginning, and that Jesus was/is God.

"Logos" (λόγος) is the Greek word that John uses to introduce Jesus (the Word). Logos is what is behind the universe that orders all things. “Logos” is John’s very intentional introduction of Jesus’ divinity. By using the word Logos, he is communicating that Jesus is what bridges the gap between the transcendent and the material universe. Jesus is what holds all things together. “Through him all things were made.” This idea is the foundation for the Gospel of John. John 20:31 says that John's Gospel is written so that people might believe.

Jesus is referred to in John as the Lamb of God (1:29). Exodus 12:11-13 is a foreshadow of Jesus’ atonement on the cross. Jeremiah 11:19 and Isaiah 53:7 prophecy that Jesus would be brought like a lamb to the slaughter. John 1:29, from the beginning of John's gospel, prophecies that Jesus “takes away the sins of the world"!

John's gospel also records Jesus' first use of God as Father, an intimacy with the Creator that was offensive to the Jews, as it set Jesus as equal to God. (John 2:16) Set apart from the rest of the Gospels, John serves as a look into the life of Jesus’ soul. While the synoptic gospels are said to depict Jesus as God in the flesh, John is said to present Jesus as Jesus in the Spirit. However, there are some “scholars who would deny that the Gospel of John is Jewish and/or that it is mystical.”[2]

Harmonizing the four Gospels is unnecessary and dangerous. If I investigated my family tree, and talked to each person still living about their memories of my great-grandfather, my hope would be that each person would tell me their oral history (memory) of him. I don’t want each of them to tell me the same exact story, in the same way, with the same emotions and memories; that would delude the reality of their past relationship, and would make my great-grandfather seem fiction. Jesus was very real and alive, and he loved people deeply, and he had (and has) a major impact on the world around us. For everyone I ask about Jesus, I expect different responses of the life they’ve experienced through him. The Gospels are just that: ancient biographies written of the Son of God by men who experienced him (either through research or transmission) in their own, subjectively realized, true way.

[1] "Synoptic Problem FAQ." Synoptic Problem Website:. Accessed March 05, 2016. http://www.hypotyposeis.org/synoptic-problem/2004/09/synoptic-problem-faq.html.

[2] "Gospel of John by James F. McGrath." Gospel of John. Accessed March 05, 2016. http://www.bibleodyssey.org/tools/ask-a-scholar/Gospel of John.aspx.