Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from T.D. Alexander's Discovering Jesus (Crossway, November 2010).
Chapter One: A Brief Overview of the Four Gospels
Jesus Christ stands apart from every other religious leader who has ever lived. Underlining his importance, the Bible contains four remarkable accounts of his life. These four books are known to us by the names of their authors who, according to ancient Christian tradition, are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. For centuries these four accounts of the life of Jesus have been called Gospels, the word gospel being derived from the Old English term godspel meaning “good story.” The English word gospel translates the Greek word euangelion, meaning “good news.” This term was used initially to denote the message that Jesus proclaimed. As Mark 1:14 states, “. . . Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel [good news] of God.” The term, however, soon came to be used of the four accounts of the life of Jesus, probably due to its presence in the opening verse of Mark’s Gospel: “The beginning of the gospel [good news] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
One thing is immediately striking about the four Gospels. Three of them have a substantial amount of material in common. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke frequently share the same contents and, as you shall see, often use exactly the same words. For this reason, most readers find it very difficult to remember in which Gospel a particular incident is narrated. Because they share much in common, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are sometimes referred to as the Synoptic Gospels; the word synoptic comes from the Greek termsunopsis meaning “seeing together.” John’s Gospel stands out as the black sheep of the family, lacking the family characteristics found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
In order to give a general picture of how the four Gospels differ from each other, this chapter provides a short overview. In later chapters we shall explore more fully their distinctive themes.
The shortest of the Gospels is Mark’s. Today most scholars believe that it was the first to be composed; the reasons for this are discussed in chapter 11. Mark’s compelling record of the life of Jesus exhibits a number of noteworthy features.
Mark’s Gospel focuses on the adult ministry of Jesus. It tells us nothing about the birth of Jesus, unlike Matthew and Luke. Mark mainly records the actions of Jesus, rather than his teaching. Jesus is portrayed as a very dynamic individual, an image underlined by Mark’s style of writing. He often uses the present tense (historical present) to describe past events, giving the impression of immediacy. This perception is reinforced by his frequent use of the term “immediately” (it appears forty-one times; e.g., Mark 1:10, Mark 1:12, Mark 1:18, Mark 1:20, Mark 1:21).
The structure of Mark’s Gospel follows a clear geographical itinerary which takes the reader from Galilee to Jerusalem. The turning point in the story comes at Caesarea Philippi, north of Galilee, where Peter makes the important affirmation that Jesus is the Christ (Mark 8:27-29). From there the story moves to Jerusalem.
Reflecting the geographical movement of the story, Mark’s Gospel displays a relatively straightforward structure, as shown in the chart below: