The Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are their own category of literature. They contain teaching sections (“discourses”) and historical sections (“narratives”). They are not the same as a biography (as they focus on the ministry of Jesus, not his complete life) and they are not the same as a history (as they focus on the overall message, rather than on chronology and events only).
They are four witnesses to the life and teaching of Jesus, to present him as the Savior to be received by faith.
They are divided into two groups.
The Synoptic Gospels (the word means “see together”) share many of the same events and words. There is a long standing debate about which gospel preceded which and what other sources were used. Luke speaks of using sources (Luke 1:1-4).
The Fourth Gospel, John, is an independent witness containing much that is not in the other three.
Matthew, Mark and Luke = the Synoptic Gospels
John = the Fourth Gospel
Each gospel gives an account of the historical Jesus, and yet each is addressed to different readers. This is how Fee and Stewart summarize the theme of each Gospel.
- Matthew – Jesus is the King
Key Verses: Matthew 1:1, 28:18-20
Mark – Jesus is the Servant
Key Verses – Mark 1:1, 8:29, 10:45
Luke – Jesus as the Son of Man
Key Verse – Luke 19:10
John – Jesus is the Son of God
Key Verses: John 20:30-31
The writing of the Gospels was a process. Jesus lived on the earth. Witnesses and “ministers of the word” told his story by word of mouth. About 30 years later the first Gospel was written. The remaining three Gospels were recorded later. The later authors may have had access to the former writers.
Is it a problem that the wording varies from Gospel to Gospel?
The actual wording of the Gospels, even when they record Jesus’ teachings will vary. There are two reasons:
They are summaries. Any reporter will have to record a summary of the main points of a speech or an event. They can not record every detail. So there will be differences in what is selected to be included.
They are translations from Aramaic, the language of Jesus, to Greek, the language of the first churches. There is often more than one way to translate from one language to another. (e.g. “Forgive us our sins”. The word “sins” can be accurately translated by the words “sins”, “debts” or “trespasses”. The may reflect different Aramaic or Greek words used for sin.)
Is it a problem that the Gospels are not strictly chronological?
In reading you may discover that events are arranged in a different order in one gospel than in another. For example the material in Matthew 10 is gathered into one location, but the same content is spread throughout Luke.
The Gospels are not meant to be Chronologies. The emphasis is on the message. The Gospel writers felt free to arrange teaching and events to highlight the points they are making. Gospels are not histories or biographies, written by modern standards. They are presentations of the life and teaching of Jesus.
Also, sometimes a translation will use a word like “then” or “later” which may not accurately reflect the Greek text, which may simply be a word like “and”.
What is the best way to read the Gospels?
Side by Side. Many people like to read through the life of Jesus by comparing the Gospel accounts side by side. You can find books and computer programs that lay out the four books in this format. The comparison helps us draw out all the details and to develop a chronology of the Life of Jesus.
Each Gospel as a Unit. Since each Gospel is a literary unit, and has its own emphasis, it is important to read each gospel alone. If you only read side by side, you will miss some of the themes of particular authors. For example, Mark depicts Jesus’ actions (often with the most narrative detail), while Matthew is structured around the teachings of Jesus Luke pays attention to Jesus’ humanity and issues of wealth and poverty, while John presents Jesus divinity with an emphasis on eternal life.
The answer is to do both. I prefer to study the Gospels individually before comparing them. But as long as you remember the literary quality of the text when you compare them side by side, you are doing well.
What is a pericope?
The Gospels were told before they were written. Each event in Jesus life and each section of teaching forms a section, sometimes called a “pericope”. This Greek word refers to each literary unit. The importance is that the immediate context for interpreting a verse is the story or event in which that verse is found. John 3:16 is found in the section John 3:1-21 and it should be read together with its pericope.
Compare these Discourses: Matthew 5:1-12 and Luke 6:20-23
Compare these Events: Matthew 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12 and Luke 5:17-26