Jesus—His Life and Message: The Four Gospels
November 11, 2014
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: The Four Gospels
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
The Gospels were written a few decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ by believers of that day. Thanks to their accounts of Jesus’ story, His life, His words, His actions, and His promise of salvation have been preserved and shared over and over throughout the centuries. Two thousand years later, we continue to read and study the same Gospel as did the first readers.
Before jumping into the content of the Gospels, it is helpful to know something about who wrote them, why, and when. Historians date the writing of the first three gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—between AD 45 and 69, and the last one, John, at about AD 90. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels, as when they are placed side by side in three parallel columns, their many similarities, as well as their differences, can be easily examined.
While no one knows for certain, the Gospel of Mark is generally considered by scholars today to be the first gospel written, with Matthew and Luke being written later. The general scholarly consensus is that Matthew and Luke had access to Mark’s gospel when they wrote theirs, and that they each had another common source of written material which they both used. On top of that, Matthew had some independent material or resources which Luke didn’t have, while Luke had his independent sources as well. This is why much of the material in the Synoptic Gospels is similar.1
The Gospel of John, written decades after the other three, doesn’t follow the same pattern as the Synoptic Gospels. It’s similar to them in a broad sense, but contains distinct features of content, style, and arrangement differing from the other gospels.2 Instead of telling the birth account or listing the genealogy as Matthew and Luke do, John’s account explains Jesus’ birth as the manifestation of God’s Word becoming incarnate (embodied in human flesh). Instead of the parables, he records Jesus’ teachings in the form of lengthy dialogues. He also arranges events in a different order than the Synoptic Gospels.
In many ways, the Gospels were written in similar fashion to ancient biographies. Unlike modern biographies, ancient biographers and historians did not write from so-called objective viewpoints. They didn’t necessarily attempt to document all periods of an individual’s life, nor did they necessarily place their accounts in chronological order. Often they grouped events together in a narrative, although they happened at different times. Things that the person being written about said—their conversations, their speeches—were often abbreviated or paraphrased.3 The authors of the Gospels wrote in such a fashion. Mark’s account tells nothing of Jesus’ life before the beginning of His ministry. Matthew and Luke both wrote about Jesus’ birth, but emphasized or included different aspects. John left out many of the details that are included in the other gospels, and focused more on writing about specific aspects of Jesus’ teachings.
The focus of the gospel writers wasn’t to provide a detailed account of Jesus’ life. We’re told almost nothing about His childhood or His interaction with His parents or brothers and sisters. There is no mention of His personality traits, likes or dislikes, etc.—details you would normally find in a modern biography. Rather than presenting Jesus’ actions in detail, these are often summarized in phrases such as “He healed them all,” or “He travelled through all the towns and villages teaching and preaching.”4 John wrote at the end of his gospel that there were many other things Jesus did that weren’t included in his gospel.5 The gospel writers only described those parts of Jesus’ life which they felt would best inform the readers who Jesus was, what He preached, and what it all meant in terms of His death and resurrection and our salvation. The main purpose was to share the good news, to call others to faith in Jesus, and to provide a means of teaching new believers about Him and the message He preached, so that they could in turn share it with others.
Prior to the writing of the gospels, much of the content contained in them would have been circulated orally. Many of Jesus’ teachings are framed poetically, similar to the Old Testament writings, which would have made them easy to memorize. The general method of education in antiquity, especially in Israel, was rote memorization, which enabled people to accurately recount large quantities of teachings, far lengthier than all of the gospels put together.6
Besides orally sharing the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry, there were apparently also some written accounts of things Jesus said and did, as evidenced by what Luke wrote at the beginning of his gospel:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.7
It became important for the information about Jesus and His teachings to be put into written form at that time. This was for two reasons: One was that the original eyewitnesses were getting older, and some of them were dying; the other was that the gospel had been spread throughout much of the vast Roman Empire of the day. This meant it was no longer possible for the apostles and other early believers to travel to the remote corners of the empire to personally share what they had learned at Jesus’ feet. The story of Jesus, His life, and teachings needed to be written in order to be preserved and shared beyond the capabilities of the people who were delivering it orally.
The Gospel Writers
None of the gospels explicitly state the name of their authors within the gospels themselves. There are Christian writings from the early part of the second century which have served as a basis for identifying the authors. Some scholars dispute it, but there are historical arguments for the claims that the authors are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Let’s take a brief look.
The earliest reference to Matthew as the author of the book that bears his name came from Papias (died c. AD 130), the bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia (near Pamukkale in modern-day Turkey). Some writings of others quoted Papias as inferring that Matthew wrote a gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic and that others translated his work. Modern-day scholars question whether he actually wrote in Hebrew or Aramaic, or if this meant that Matthew wrote his gospel in Greek, but in the style of Jewish writing. Other church fathers8—Irenaeus (c. 120–203), Origen (c. 185–254), and Eusebius (c. 260–340)—all attest to Matthew’s authorship.
Papias is also the earliest source for identifying the author of the Gospel of Mark as being John Mark, who as a young man had traveled with Paul. Other early church fathers attest to this as well. Papias wrote that “the presbyter,” who is understood to be the apostle John, said that Mark, who had worked with the apostle Peter, accurately wrote down what Peter had told him and what Peter had preached about the things said and done by Jesus. Mark hadn’t been an eyewitness, but he wrote Peter’s account of the life of Jesus. He worked closely with Peter, who called him his “son.”9 Mark was the cousin of Barnabas,10 a traveler with Barnabas and Paul,11 and the son of a wealthy family in Jerusalem.12 Even though he left Paul and Barnabas when they were traveling, resulting in a rupture with Paul, he was later reconciled to Paul, as indicated in Paul’s writings:
Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.13
Luke’s gospel is the longest of the four gospels and the only one which has a sequel—the book of Acts. Luke was not an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, but the opening statement in his gospel makes it clear that he gathered information from early believers, checked his evidence with eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word,14 15 and arranged the material in order. Luke was a doctor16 and most likely a Gentile (non-Jew), who knew Paul and sometimes traveled with him. Numerous early church fathers point to Luke as the author of the gospel.
Scholars generally believe that Luke had access to Mark’s gospel and that he also had a great deal of oral and written material from other sources, as over forty percent of his gospel is different, including the information he gives about the birth of Jesus as well as sayings and parables which are not included in the other gospels.17 Upon examination, scholars find that Luke’s descriptions of settings, customs, and locales show a great concern for accuracy.
Because Luke wrote both his gospel and the book of Acts, which ends with Paul in prison but not yet executed, this gospel most likely predated Paul’s execution, and was probably written sometime in the late 50s or early 60s AD. The target audience seems to be Christians with a pagan background. Both were ostensibly written to Theophilus, who may have been a new Gentile Christian to whom Luke wanted to give a full explanation of Jesus’ life and message.
The authorship of the Gospel of John has been widely debated in the last century. The ancient church fathers understood the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, to be the author of this gospel. In more modern times, his authorship came into question because of how different this gospel is from the Synoptics. Those who question John’s authorship base their position on the fact that this gospel has a more developed theology than the others and that Jesus’ words are not in the same order as the Synoptics, among other things. They conclude therefore that it must have been written much later. The basis for rejecting John as the author has been textual analysis rather than historical record.
The historical support for John’s authorship is found in the writings of a number of church fathers in the second century. Irenaeus (c. 180) wrote that John published a gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. Much of what Irenaeus wrote was derived from Polycarp (c. 69–155), who was a follower of John.
The date traditionally attributed to the writing of John’s gospel is between AD 90 and 100. It was likely written in Ephesus, in present-day Turkey.
John’s gospel differs from the Synoptics in that it doesn’t include the parables that appear in the other gospels; there are no exorcisms, no healing of lepers, and no breaking of the bread and drinking of the wine at the Last Supper. John features conversations with individuals such as Nicodemus,18 the Samaritan woman,19 and the disciples in the upper room.20 Some scholars suggest that John had no knowledge of, or exposure to, the other three gospels; while others consider that he had no need to repeat what the other gospel writers had already written, but rather aimed to include aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry not already written about.
At the end of his gospel, John specifies his purpose for writing this gospel:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.21
While the identities of the Gospel writers are debated among scholars, in this series I am referring to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as being the authors in order to avoid having to use phrases such as “the author of Luke’s Gospel,” etc.
The Fourfold Gospel
Within the first half of the second century, perhaps within a decade or two of the writing of John’s gospel, the four gospels began to be circulated together, and came to be referred to as the Fourfold Gospel. This was made possible due to the adoption of the codex, a form of publishing which came into use at the end of the first century, replacing scrolls. A codex is similar to books today, with pages of papyrus sheets or vellum sewn together at the spine. With scrolls, the papyrus sheets were glued together side by side to make a continuous roll. The beginning and end of the scroll were often connected to wooden rollers to make it easy to roll the scroll from page to page, moving horizontally from left to right. It wouldn’t have been convenient or even manageable to have all four of the gospels written on one scroll, but it was convenient to have them all in one codex.22
At the time that the gospels began to circulate together, the Acts of the Apostles, which was a sequel to Luke’s gospel, was separate and not included with the gospels. During this same period, there was also another collection of writings which were circulating among the churches—the body of Paul’s letters, referred to as epistles. In time, Acts became the connector between the gospels and Paul’s letters, which when combined with the other epistles eventually became the New Testament.23
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.
Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.
Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah Vols 1,2. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Charlesworth, James H., (editor). Jesus’ Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.
Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.
Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.
Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27–16:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.
Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.
Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 2007.
Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1997.
Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.
Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.
Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1976.
Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1957.
Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.
Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 2010.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company, 1992.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.
Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.
Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1958.
Spangler, Ann, and Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.
Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Stein, Robert H. The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, Revised Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.
Stott, John R. W. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978.
Wood, D. R. W., I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman, eds. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
Yancey, Philip. The Jesus I Never Knew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.
Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.
1 Of the 1,068 verses of Matthew, about 500 contain the substance of 606 verses of Mark, while out of the 1,149 verses of Luke some 380 are paralleled in Mark. Only 31 verses of Mark have no parallel in either Matthew or Luke. Upon comparing Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, they each have up to 250 verses containing common material not paralleled in Mark; sometimes this common material appears in Matthew and Luke in practically identical language, which indicates that they used some of the same reference material. About 300 verses of Matthew have no parallel in any of the other Gospels; the same is true of about 520 verses in Luke. F. F. Bruce in New Bible Dictionary.
2 Hurtado in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels.
3 Blomberg in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels.
4 Mark 1:38–39, Luke 4:40.
5 John 20:30–31.
6 Blomberg in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels.
7 Luke 1:1–4 NIV.
8 The church fathers were church leaders who chronologically came next after the 12 apostles and who are known to have written material during the first five centuries. These include Clement, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, Justin Martyr, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Jerome, and others.
9 1 Peter 5:13.
10 Colossians 4:10.
11 Acts 13:5.
12 Acts 12:12–14.
13 2 Timothy 4:11 NIV.
14 Luke 1:2.
15 “Ministers of the Word” were most likely the apostles.
16 Colossians 4:14.
17 Bock in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels.
18 John 3.
19 John 4.
20 John 13–17.
21 John 20:30–31.
22 When the Gospels were first written, they did not contain chapters and verses, like the rest of both the Old and New Testaments. Chapter and verse divisions were added many centuries later. The Bible was divided into chapters in AD 1227 by Stephen Langton, a professor at the University of Paris, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury. A French printer, Robert Stephanus, divided the Greek New Testament into verses in AD 1551. The first entire Bible which included chapters and verses was the Latin Vulgate version, printed in 1555. The first English New Testament with both chapters and verses was the Geneva Bible, printed in 1560.
23 Bruce, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels.