The word gospel means good news, and is a term used to define the written accounts of Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament. The four widely known gospels are the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. However the term can also refer to the apocryphal, non-canonical, the Jewish, and the gnostic gospels. There are several accounts of Jesus that are not recognized or accepted by orthodox Christians, however the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are going to be my primary focus.
Despite the gospel of Matthew being the first book in the new testament the majority view today, is that Mark was actually the first gospel followed by Matthew and then Luke. It is believed that Matthew and Luke borrowed passages from Mark’s gospel and one other source lost to history. This view is known as the two-source hypothesis. The two-source hypothesis came out around the 19th centruy.
Due to Matthew and Luke borrowing passages from Mark these three gospels are known as the synoptic gospels. Synoptic means having the same view, and if you read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke you will understand why they are considered the synoptic gospels. John was the only author who actually knew Jesus and his gospel takes a different view than the first three. John’s gospel follows a very different time line and does not share much content with the other gospels in general. The gospel of John uses different verbiage, and style of writing and was actually rejected by the orthodox Christians for a long time. Today, it is widely accepted and is the favorite gospel by most conservative Christians.
Below you will find a comparison table that helps to better visualize the differences and similarities between the four gospels.
This table is a great way to see the similarities between the three synoptic gospel authors, as well as see how they differ from each other and the apostle John. Learning about the authors can greatly help us understand how and why they wrote their gospels the way they did.
The gospel of John was the only gospel written by a follower of Jesus. The other three writers were followers of Jesus’s apostles, and likely never met Jesus for themselves. John’s message was a personal account of his following closely with Jesus. Therefore, John’s message is for all ethnic groups and his whole purpose for writting is to bring evidence to prove that Jesus is Christ and truly the Son of God.
Throughout John’s work one will find that John’s focus is on emphasizing the divine status of Jesus. This can be seen through Jesus’ statements of “I am” that will be found in John’s gospel. From the very first verse to the end of the book John’s message of divinity is clear. In John 1:1 he lays the foundation for the entire gospel, and one will find that he continues to show how Jesus is the word made flesh; ” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. In John 20:31 the message of his entire book is layed out in black in white; “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name”.
Matthew was writting to and for the Jews and focuses his work around the idea that Jesus is the King of the Jews; “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2). There were two main reasons Matthew wrote his book. The gospel of Matthew was written as a message of encouragement and strength for Jewish Christians. Despite Jesus being killed by Jews, Matthew’s first message is to strengthen Jewish Christian’s faith in the knowledge that Jesus was the Messiah. To prove that Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Old Testament, Matthew quotes the Old Testament more than any other synoptic writer.
The second reason he writes his book is to show that Jesus was truly the Messiah. He shows this by recording Jesus’ geneology and quoting the old testament. “A record of the geneology of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham:” (Matthew 1:1). This verse fulfills the prophecy from 2 Samuel 7:12-14 “When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son.”.
Mark focuses on the idea that Jesus was a servant. This can be seen by his lack of geneology of Jesus throughout his gospel. Mark’s work is meant to encourage Christians throughout Rome, despite being persecuted for their faith. He goes on to say that persecution is the price that Christian’s must pay for following Jesus. In the book of Mark, Jesus says exactly that “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.'” (Mark 8:34-35).
Luke was known to be an accurate historian, and as a result he carefully researched everything. Luke approaches his work by making Jesus the Son of man. He shows how Jesus was a real person and how He showed a genuine interest in people from all walks of life. Luke spends ample time focusing on Jesus’ birth and childhood as well as His human traits. The first two chapters are dedicated to the history and geneology of Jesus.
Many of Luke’s other versus portray a Jesus who was able to feel human emotions as well as express other human traits. “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry” (Luke 4:1-2). Jesus is portrayed to have feelings such as pain and sorrow. “He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:41-44).
- Covenant: Agreement between God and His people
- Testament: Bears witness to
- Canonical: Official 27 books of the New Testament
- Non-Canonical: Books deemed unnecessary for the New Testament; separate from the apocalypse
- Apocrypha: Anonymous Jewish or Christian texts containing prophetic or symbolic visions that did not make it into the bible
- Theophilus: Lover of God
Despite each gospel being written in different time periods and in completely different historical situations and locations, they have similar story lines and ideas of Jesus’ life. Jesus’ character and history is portrayed different in these works, yet they do not contradict each other. The different works compliment each other and provide a harmonious detailed description of Jesus’ life.
Below is a map that shows where each of the gospels was most likely written. Despite the time frame between each gospel and distance between each location the gospels are uniquely similar yet tell their own portrayal of Jesus and His story.