The Gospels

There are four gospels. Everyone knows that: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. However, most people have never stepped back to ask, "Why?" Why are there four gospels? Why these four? What's going on here?

Maybe you've heard of other gospels: the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter. Maybe you read or used a complicated harmonization and been struck by the need for such a harmonization between four books. Or maybe (hopefully!) you've been reading a blog like this one by a Greek geek talking about the formation of the New Testament and the early Jesus Movement. Either way, I want to take a walk through the four canonical gospels (and some other non-canonical ones) to hopefully resolve some questions you may have had while I've been discussing Scripture Mastery, the Christmas Story, and who knows what else.

Not Histories

Let's get one firm statement out of the way: the gospels are not histories. Perhaps I should say it again, just to emphasize it: the gospels are not histories.

What do I mean by that? In our modern day, we learn history in school, write historical papers, and assume a lot about the historical process. We assume that historians are trying their best to stay out of the process. We allow that all history requires a certain amount of interpretation (otherwise, history would only be a recitation of dates and events, but historians attempt to tell true stories), but we expect historians to tell the truth according to their sources.

The evangelists (a fancy word for gospel-authors) are not writing history: they are relating stories with a point and a purpose. That purpose is not to simply relate historical events but is to present the main character of their works, Jesus of Nazareth, as the Messiah. Facts are stretched, invented, and changed to suit each author's stories.

One example would be the day when Jesus died. Matthew, Mark, and Luke (known as the synoptics because they are so similar that they "See together") relate that the Last Supper occurred in place of the Passover feast. For Jews celebrating Passover in Jerusalem, a lamb was killed at the Temple and was consumed that evening in a ritual feat commemoration God's liberation of Israel of Egypt. In the Gospel of John, however, the Last Supper occurs the evening before the Passover meal. As a result, because Jesus dies the day after the Last Supper, in John's Gospel Jesus is killed at the same time of day that priests at the Temple would be slaughtering Passover lambs. This matches up with the declaration of John the Baptist at the beginning of John's Gospel (read that again if the multiple "Johns" are confusing you) that Jesus was the "Lamb of God". So three of the Gospels say that Jesus died the day after the lambs were killed, and one of the them says that Jesus died the same day that the lambs were killed. They can't both be right: at least one of these days must be wrong. And frankly, John's use of the lamb symbolism leads most scholars to think that John is, in this case, sacrificing historical accuracy in favor of teaching a point about the role of Jesus's death.

And if history can be sacrificed once to make the story better fit the author's purpose, how many other times does it occur? As the old adage goes, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. When we read the gospels critically, we need to assume that what we are reading may have been altered or even invented by the author in support of their purposes. The word usually have very negative connotations, but it would be much mor accurate to call the gospels "propaganda" instead of "histories".

Traditions

Today there are four canonical gospels. But obviously these works have not always existed. Long ago, somebody wrote each one. Let's first look at the traditional story, and then move on to how modern scholars approach them.

Traditionally, the four gospels were authored by:

  • Matthew, also known as Levi, one of Jesus's 12 Apostles, wrote the first gospel to be written, and it was based on his own eyewitness experience. Originally written in Hebrew for Jewish converts, it was later translated into Greek, unlike the other gospels which were all Greek compositions. Written around 50 CE.

  • Mark, also known as John Mark, he is a later convert to the Jesus movement. He was a missionary companion to Paul until they had a bad fight. Later tradition said that Mark took care of Peter the Apostle in the years before Peter died. Traditionally, Mark used Matthew's Gospel, edited it according to the stories that Peter told him. It's purpose was to explain Jesus to Gentile converts. Written around 60 CE.

  • Luke, a Greek convert to the Jesus movement. Luke was a physician, and was a friend of Paul's. Luke approached the task of putting together an orderly history of Jesus, using Matthew and Mark as his sources, supplemented by what Paul, acting as an Apostle, had told him. He also wrote the only sequel to any of the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, about the troubles and growth of the Church after Jesus ascended into heaven. Written before 63 CE.

  • John, one of Jesus's 12 Apostles, wrote the last gospel. His gospel was meant to fill in the gaps left behind by other gospels and to be a much stronger testimony of Jesus's divinity. Written around 80-90 CE.

That's what tradition tells us. Note the lack of strong dates. But now let's look at what most modern scholars think, and we'll discuss why there's such a difference.

Modern Chronology

The chronology runs thus:

  • The Gospel of Mark, written by an anonymous author, roughly 60-65 CE. Originally written in Greek.

  • The Gospel of Matthew, written by an anonymous author, roughly 75 CE. Based heavily on Mark, but with extensive rewrites and expansions. Also made use of other sources. Originally written in Greek. Written for a group of Christians who kept the Jewish Torah.

  • The Gospel of Luke (and Acts of the Apostles), written by an anonymous author, roughly 80 CE. Used many different sources, including Mark and some of the same sources used by the author Matthew (or possibly used Matthew, but most scholars think the author of Luke was unaware of the existence of Matthew's Gospel). Originally written in Greek. Written for a group of Greek Christians.

  • The Gospel of John, written by an author who possibly claims to be John the disciple (though this might actually be a source used by the anonymous author). Written in Greek anywhere from 90CE-110 CE. Scholars are divided on whether the author was aware of the other Gospels already written. Written for a group of Christians more concerned with a spiritual relationship with God than in a relationship of covenantal obedience.

So, right off the bat we have some major differences, the greatest being the anonymity of the authors. None of the gospels (apart from a possible claim at the end of John) claim an author. This doesn't preclude their actually being written by their traditional authors, of course, but some of the authorship claims don't line up very well with authorship by Jewish authors who would have been more familiar with Aramaic than Greek.

For the remainder of this piece, and in the future, when I say "Mark/Luke/etc", unless I specify the "historical" Mark/Luke/etc please assume that I mean the unknown author of the book called Mark/Luke/etc. It's just easier to use the traditional names of the books without always saying "the author of" all the time.

Also, note which gospel is assumed to be the oldest: Mark. There's a number of reasons for this, but the largest reason is that Mark is obviously a source used by Matthew. Matthew has a number of stories unique between itself and Mark, but where they overlap that overlap is very strong. Matthew follow's Mark's ordering of his stories closely, and even used many of the same wording when telling those stories. However, Matthew often has "softer" readings than Matthew. For instance, whereas in Mark Jesus might ask his disciples "Why do you have no faith?" the same story in Matthew will often say something similar to "Why are you of so little faith?" SImilar, but softer.

Basically, scholars feel it's much easier to accept that Matthew rewrote Mark and, in so doing, attempted to improve the perspective of Jesus's disciples. Going the other way hits some difficult questions, such as why would Mark drop many of the unique stories found in Matthew, and why would he rewrite the stories of Matthew to be harsher against the disciples? It works much better going the other way.

Similarly, Luke makes extensive use of Mark as a source, mixing Mark's gospel among Luke's other sources.

Together, this viewpoint explains why these three gospels all tell very similar stories (again, why these three are called the "synoptics", meaning that they "see together"). The traditional viewpoint says that the stories are similar because they are three accounts independently verifying the history. But the modern viewpoint says that they are similar because the later authors used the earlier authors in composing their works.

John stands as the odd gospel out. His gospel only tells a few of the same stories, but instead of focusing on stories, John focuses on sermons. The Jesus as presented in John's Gospels is very long-winded and complicated in how he delivers his message. John's Gospel has no parables and no birth stories.

Implications

So what? Who cares if these books weren't composed the way we think?

Here's the problem: the traditional viewpoint assumes a harmony exists among the four gospels, because each are based in different ways upon the same events. But if Matthew is basically a rewrite and an expansion of Mark, what does Matthew think about the usefulness of reading Mark? And the same question goes for Luke: if Luke basically incorporates much of Mark into his own gospel as just another source, is Mark actually meant to be read alongside Luke? And what about the relationship between Matthew and Luke? Are they meant to be read together? It doesn't actually appear so. It appears that these three gospels exist somewhat in opposition to each other. They each have a relationship to each other through their various sources, but that relationship is indifferent at bets, and hostile at worst.

Hostile?

Sure. The following is just a short list of where these gospels don't play well together:

  • In Mark, while Jesus is presented as an inspired figure and as the messiah, and is even called the "son of God", he is not presented as divine. Many figures in the Hebrew scriptures have been called the son of god, including some of Israel's ancient kings and rulers. Mark's Jesus, while send by God, is not himself God. Much of Jesus's message is about the kingdom of God, presented by Mark's Jesus as an actual place rapidly approaching this world.

  • In Matthew, the Jewish Torah is presented as supreme in importance to Jesus's ministry. Only in Matthew does Jesus say that "not one stroke or dot of the law will be done away with" and that he has come to "fulfill" the Torah. In Matthew, Jesus is concerned about association with Gentiles and avoids ministering to and among non-Jews. Only Matthew depicts Jesus as founding a "church", and only Matthew deals with rules of how this "church" should be run. In Matthew, one's righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees to find salvation in the coming Kingdom of God.

  • In Luke, Jesus is not very concerned with the Jewish Torah, instead focusing mostly on a message of helping the poor. Jesus's message is about compassion and assistance. More of a focus on parables and on miraculous events than Mark or Matthew.

  • In John, Jesus is presented as God himself. No parables, just long sermons. Some signs, but few miracles. The actual history depicted by John matches up very poorly with the Synoptic Gospels. The Kingdom of God is said by Jesus to be "among" his followers, and is represented more as a relationship with Jesus and God than as a physical place coming soon to the world.

  • In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus spends most of his time in Northern Judea, only going to Jerusalem at the end of his ministry, which seems to have lasted only around a year. John mentions numerous trips to Jerusalem and multiple Passovers, pulling Jesus's ministry in length anywhere from 2 to 3 years.

Reading Them Wrong, Reading Them Right

The four gospels were written by four very different authors for four very different audiences of Christians. When we try to read them in harmony, or when we try to supplement one account with details found in another account we are not reading them the way the original authors would have them be read.

However, when we read them independently of each other and on their own terms, we are engaging with the texts as the authors intended. The author of John was not thinking, "Well, everyone has been reading these three other gospels, so I'll just fill in the blanks." He seems to have been thinking, "There are other accounts of the life of Jesus out in the world now, but this one is the correct account." You may agree, you may not, but the author doesn't care. His account is the only one that matters.

Sometimes this assumption of cooperation among the writers is used to explain the discrepancies, which what are called "conspicuous silences". When we assume that one author not saying something another author says, that event takes on increased significance. However, when a position of ignorance, or of supremacy, is assumed of an author we can see that these conspicuous silences arise out of differing purposes, different sources, or even disdain for a previous source.

In the end, how one reads the New Testament Gospels is a personal decision. Reading them traditionally as four different, but complimentary, accounts that depict historical events is possible, but in doing so we blunt the impact of each gospel's peculiarities and uniqueness to their detriment.

Any questions or comments? There's tons more that can be said about this topic, and I'm not sure I've covered it completely. Have something to say in support of traditional authorship? Please let me know.

See other posts in my Scripture Mastery New Testament Series

Tom Doggett

Tom Doggett

I'm a programmer, Ancient Greek reader, feminist, spouse and partner, and a dad.

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