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:
|1:14-6:13||Ministry in Galilee|
|6:14-8:26||Wider Ministry in the North|
|11:1-13:37||Confrontation in Jerusalem|
|14:1-16:8||Passion and Resurrection|
This geographical movement from Galilee in the north to Jerusalem in the south is mirrored by a dramatic development in the plot of Mark’s Gospel. The story moves from the enthusiasm of the Galilean crowds to the hostility of the Jerusalem authorities. This shift in location plays an important role in explaining why Jesus is eventually put to death. However, as we shall see in chapters 3 and 4, Mark’s Gospel has something much more profound to say about the reason behind the crucifixion of Jesus.
Matthew’s Gospel is almost twice the length of Mark’s and contains about 90 percent of Mark’s material. Not surprisingly,strong similarities exist between the two of them. As the following chart illustrates, Matthew keeps the general geographical-chronological structure used by Mark.
|Ministry in Galilee||1:14-6:13||4:12-13:58|
|Wider Ministry in the North||6:14-8:26||14:1-16:12|
|Confrontation in Jerusalem||11:1-13:37||21:1-25:46|
|Passion and Ressurection||14:1-16:8||26:1-28:20|
While Matthew has much in common with Mark, there are two important structural differences. First, Matthew adds new material to the beginning and the end of Mark’s account.
At the start of his Gospel, Matthew introduces additional information concerning the birth of Jesus. In chapter 1, he reveals how Joseph adopts Jesus as his own son, making him heir to the royal line of David. Subsequently, Matthew records the hypocritical reaction of King Herod to the news that learned strangers from the East have come to honor the birth of a new king. By adding this new material to Mark’s account, Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ royal status. At the end of his Gospel, Matthew includes new information about events that occur after the resurrection of Jesus, emphasizing in particular his return to Galilee. This frames Matthew’s account of the adult life of Jesus by bringing the story back to Galilee.
Second, Matthew adds into Mark’s mainly action-packed story five blocks of teaching by Jesus.
Although Matthew takes over almost all of Mark’s material, he is not constrained by Mark’s order. Matthew adopts a more topical arrangement and sometimes significantly changes the order in which Mark describes things. While he reorders many of the episodes in Mark’s account, Matthew ensures that the five additional blocks of teaching by Jesus are carefully integrated into the whole account. Consequently, the content of these five speeches harmonizes well with the overall development of Matthew’s story.
We shall say more about these features when we look at Matthew’s Gospel in chapters 5 and 6.
Luke’s Gospel is the first of two volumes, the sequel being the book of Acts, an account of how the early church expanded, eventually reaching Rome. Luke’s account of the life of Jesus falls into a number of distinct sections.
Like Matthew, Luke follows Mark by having the same basic geographical structure for his account of Jesus’ adult life. After a period of ministry in Galilee, Jesus travels to Jerusalem where he is crucified. Although Luke borrows much material from Mark, no Markan material is used in the “Travel Narrative” in Luke 9:51–18:14.
Luke incorporates about half of Mark’s Gospel into his biography of Jesus. Like Matthew, he adds new material relating to the birth and resurrection of Jesus.
Luke’s additions at the start of his Gospel, however, are quite different from those of Matthew. Matthew’s introductory chapters focus on the theme of kingship and do so by linking Jesus to the royal line of David. Luke, in marked contrast, records quite different events.
First, Luke has a special interest in the Jerusalem temple. He begins with Zechariah’s encountering an angel in the temple. Luke later mentions how Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple to consecrate him to the Lord. Then, as a youth, Jesus views the temple as his “Father’s house.” Having highlighted the temple in his early chapters, Luke concludes his Gospel with the observation that the disciples “were continually in the temple blessing God.”
Second, in his opening two chapters, Luke gives prominence to certain women and also, to a lesser degree, to some shepherds. Remarkably, from a first-century Jewish perspective, God reveals his purposes to these groups. This reflects Luke’s special interest in those who were considered to be of lower status within society.
At the conclusion of his Gospel, Luke places Jesus near Jerusalem, whereas Matthew ends with the resurrected Jesus returning to Galilee. Luke is particularly interested in the ascension of Jesus. Not only does Luke conclude his account by mentioning that Jesus “parted from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51), but he repeats this at the start of Acts (Acts 1:9-11). Significantly, Luke makes the same point earlier in Luke 9 as Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem:
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. (51)
At the very start of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, Luke wants to highlight the idea of his being “carried up into heaven.”
Whereas Mark’s Gospel concentrates on the crucifixion of Jesus, Luke’s Gospel and the book of Acts emphasize the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. As Peter expresses it in Acts 2:36, (following a long passage on the topic of the resurrection) “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” For Luke, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus confirms his true status as the Savior of the world.
Luke’s Gospel contains much material that is not found in the other Gospels. Of the twenty-eight parables that he records, fifteen are unique to him. These include such well-known parables as the good Samaritan (the good man from Samaria) and the prodigal son(s). Although Luke includes a considerable quantity of Jesus’ teaching, he does not gather it together in blocks as Matthew does.
We shall explore Luke’s Gospel in more detail in chapters 7 and 8.
John’s Gospel is the most distinctive of the four Gospels and shows none of the obvious similarities that exist between the
Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John does not adopt the geographical-chronological structure that is so apparent in the Synoptic Gospels. Although John notes Jesus’ connection with Galilee, he concentrates on Jesus’ time in Jerusalem. Unlike Mark and the other Synoptic Gospels, John records three journeys by Jesus to Jerusalem (John 2:13; John 5:1; John 7:10). Jesus’ presence in Jerusalem is always linked to a festival (e.g., chapter 5 deals with Passover; chapters 7–8 deal with the Feast of Tabernacles). Furthermore, John differs from the Synoptic Gospels by having fewer parables and no exorcisms. By dropping the geographical-chronological structure of the Synoptic Gospels, John has the freedom to shape his account in a very different way. Consequently, the structure of John’s Gospel is unique. This also reflects the fact that much of his content has no parallels in the Synoptic Gospels.
John’s Gospel falls into two halves. The first half of the Gospel is dominated by two features. First, John draws attention to seven signs (or miracles). These go from the changing of water into wine through to the resurrection of Lazarus. Second, John records a number of dialogues between Jesus and a handful of individuals (e.g., Nicodemus, the woman of Samaria, the man who was ill for thirty-eight years, the man born blind). None of these conversations appear in the Synoptic Gospels.
John differs from the Synoptic Gospels by having fewer but longer episodes. Professor Graham Stanton notes that they tend to follow a similar pattern: an incident (often a miracle) leads into a dialogue, which in turn is followed by a long monologue (e.g., Nicodemus [John 3], the Samaritan woman [John 4:1-42], the man lying ill by the pool of Bethesda [John 1:1-47; some manuscripts read Bethzatha], the feeding of the five thousand [John 6], Jesus at the feast of tabernacles [John 7–John 8], and the man born blind [John 9]).1
The second half of John’s Gospel is dominated by the Farewell Discourse of Jesus to his disciples (13–17). John differs in his presentation of the Last Supper and the events following it. He does not describe the agony of Jesus in Gethsemane, but rather focuses on the calm and reassured way in which Jesus greeted his captors (John 18:4). When Jesus affirms, “I am he” (John 18:5), they draw back and fall to the ground (John 18:6). Throughout John’s Passion Narrative, Jesus is in control of events.
We shall look in more detail at John’s Gospel in chapters 9 and 10.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are highly fascinating documents and the relationship between them is complex. Each author has clearly given careful thought to his composition.
In looking at the Gospels we should not lose sight of their overall intention. As the term gospel reminds us, they are good news. This good news centers on Jesus Christ. As we shall explore in more detail in subsequent chapters, the four Gospels give us different, but complementary, perspectives on Jesus. The end result is a very compelling and rich description of a most extraordinary and unique individual.
1. Why do you think that the early church preserved and valued four accounts of the life of Jesus Christ?
2. Which Gospel do you feel most drawn toward? Why?
3. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke have much material in common. What makes John’s Gospel so different?
4. The Gospels are “good news.” How are they still “good news” today?