The early Christians used the Latin term evange- lium to refer to the spoken message about Jesus Christ; in Old English, the translation was “god spel” (good tale), which eventually became “Gospel” as a generic label for written narratives of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Four Gospels were accepted into the Christian canon, and around 40 other “apocryphal” Gospels have been identified. The four canonical Gospels were attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and they appear in that order in the Christian canon. Matthew and John were numbered among the 12 disciples of Jesus. Early church tradition associated Mark with Simon Peter, and Luke was an associate of Paul. Scholars generally accept the validity of the early church traditions about the authorship of the Gospels of Mark and Luke, but many are skeptical about the degree to which Matthew and John were responsible for the Gospels associated with their names.
The Gospels bear some similarities with the conventions of ancient biographies, but overall they are unique among ancient writings. As narratives, each Gospel has a beginning, middle, and end, but they do not follow strict chronological order in describing the events of the life of Jesus. Instead, they often group the sayings and deeds of Jesus by theme or topic.
Of the four Gospels, only Matthew and Luke begin their narratives about Jesus by describing his birth. They also include genealogies that describe Jesus’ roots in the history of Israel, going back as far as Abraham in the case of Matthew and as far as Adam in the case of Luke. Only Luke describes an event from Jesus’ childhood, namely, his visit to the Temple when he was 12 years old.
The first event recorded by Mark and John is the ministry of John the Baptist and his baptism of Jesus. All four Gospels emphasize John’s role as a prophet who was preparing God’s people for the coming of the Messiah and his kingdom. Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe Jesus’ temptation by Satan during his 40 days in the wilderness. This initial, decisive confrontation with the forces of evil serves as the overture for his public ministry, during which Jesus repeatedly frees people from the domination of evil by means of healings and exorcisms.
The four Gospels differ in their description of the next events of Jesus’ life. Matthew and Mark describe the beginning of his preaching in Galilee and the call of his 12 disciples. Luke also refers to Jesus’ return to Galilee, but then he recounts his sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth. This story serves to introduce important themes developed more fully in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. After Jesus’ baptism by John, the Gospel of John describes Jesus’ call of four disciples and the miracle of changing water into wine at the marriage celebration in Cana. After these stories of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew, Mark, and Luke follow each other closely in terms of content and order. Because of their similarities, they are referred to as the “Synoptic” Gospels, a term that means “to see together.” John is significantly different from the other three in both order and content.
All four Gospels describe an event in Jesus’ life that serves as the turning point in the narrative. For the Synoptics, this event is Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah followed by Jesus’ first prediction of his suffering, death, and resurrection. That event is followed by the Transfiguration during which the heavenly voice declares that Jesus is God’s Son. From then on, each narrative moves inexorably toward Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death in Jerusalem. For the Gospel of John, the turning point is associated with Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead, an event that crystallized the intention of the Jewish leaders to plot Jesus’ death.
All four Gospels contain a lengthy account of the last week of Jesus’ life, which is called “the Passion Narrative.” This narrative may have existed as a written document before its use by Mark, the first person to write a Gospel. The Passion Narrative begins with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Sunday, continues with various discourses and events that culminate in the Last Supper on Thursday night, and ends with his crucifixion on Friday. All the Gospels conclude with narratives of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples after his resurrection on Sunday morning.
The Gospel writers were motivated to write narratives about Jesus because of their conviction that Jesus brought about the beginning of the end of history. Many Jews at that time believed that history would be divided into two parts. This present age, which is dominated by sin and death, would be replaced by the age to come. The event that would usher in the age to come was the Day of the Lord, when the Messiah would establish God’s kingly rule on Earth. The resurrection of the dead was associated with the Day of the Lord.
Christians believed that, through his death and resurrection, Jesus conquered the powers of sin and death and therefore inaugurated the age to come. Because the age to come has broken into the present, the Gospel writers describe the kingdom of God as both present and future. Each Gospel attempted to show how the turning of the ages occurred through Jesus.
The majority view among scholars since the early 1900s is that Mark wrote the first Gospel about 40 years after Jesus’ death and that Matthew and Luke used Mark as the framework for their Gospels, which were written 10 to 20 years later. Matthew and Luke supplemented Mark with a written source they had in common, which is called “Q” (from the German Quelle, which means “source”). Each included his own distinctive material, which is referred to as “M” and “L,” respectively. A minority of scholars have defended the centuries-old belief that Matthew was the first Gospel. Some have argued against the existence of Q, and some have posited a more complex interaction over time among all the Gospel writers.
Most scholars date the Gospel of John near the end of the first century. The narrative claims to be based on the eyewitness testimony of the Beloved Disciple, who has often been identified with John the son of Zebedee. Various scholars have proposed that the book was revised more than once by different editors. Most would concede that an editor (who was different from the original author or authors) compiled the final version that appears in the Christian canon.
Gregory L. Linton
See also Bible and Time; Christianity; Eschatology; God and Time; Time, Sacred
Bockmuehl, M., & Hagner, D. A. (Eds.). (2005). The written Gospel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Hengel, M. (2000). The four Gospels and the one gospel of Jesus Christ: An investigation of the collection and origin of the canonical Gospels (J. Bowden, Trans.). Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.
Stanton, G. (2002). The Gospels and Jesus (2nd ed.).
Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.