Introduction to the Books of the Bible
Introduction to the Gospels
For the person approaching the Bible for the first time, the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, at the beginning of the New Testament – are without doubt the most exciting accounts (for the person with an open mind) in the Bible, as they record the activities of Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God. Gospel simply means ‘good news' so these four books reveal the good news about Jesus Christ.
If you read them through (but they're a bit long!) at one sitting you would be struck by the similarities of the first three, which are thus referred to as the ‘Synoptic' [meaning ‘the same'] Gospels, and then the amazing difference in the last Gospel, John's.
One older scholar has written:
John's Amazing Gospel
Scholars (often depending on their starting belief positions) argue about who John was. We are going to adopt the position held by the Early Church Fathers (respected leaders of the church in the first centuries of the church) as follows:
May we quote from one of our own meditations on this Gospel:
“Down through history many scholars have made many suggestions as to why John's Gospel is so different to the other three. The reason, we believe, that stands out above all others is the suggestion that John wrote many years later than the others when he was in old age. Once we accept this, various other things fall into place.
For instance, if the Synoptic Gospels had been around in the church for a number of years, accepted as reliable sources of what had happened, there would be little reason to produce a further Gospel covering the same things.
If John had reached old age, it is likely he would have had those many more years experience of the Lord and time to dwell on the things he had experienced. They do say that elderly people find their memories functioning best for things in the far past rather than the recent past. It would be quite natural for God to take this natural process in John to take him back to those most vivid days of his life and to rerun various things that had happened, and to see them in the light of all the wisdom and experience that he has accumulated over the years. John now realizes Jesus is far more than they had originally thought. He recalls phrases and things happening that the others had not picked up on in those earlier years. As he ponders on those things he realizes with a new sense of significance, that Jesus was seeking to convey so much more to those who had ears to hear and who would reflect on what he was saying.
Thus we find John picking up on things the others hadn't covered or putting fresh emphasis on some of the things that they had observed. John realized that the healings and the miracles weren't simply just good acts in themselves; they were ‘signs' for whoever would see them and think about them, and come to realize the wonder of who Jesus was.
But John was writing in a world that had moved on – culture never stays the same – and John himself has a much wider world view now than his fellow disciples had had years before. John is writing for the whole world, not just for the Jewish people as Matthew had been, for the world that had a greater Greek flavour to it. He's also writing in an age when heresies are starting to flourish as fewer and fewer of the original apostles are left alive. So, with his wider world view, his understanding of Greek culture and thinking, and countering the heresies that were growing, we find that John comes with a very much more philosophical Gospel to the other three. It's a Gospel full of ideas and concepts, so… you will find such words as light, life, love, grace and truth, and concepts such as Son of God, Son of Man, King of Israel, the gate, the good shepherd. There is no doubt that John ‘saw' Jesus more clearly and understood who he was more clearly than the earlier writers. They sought to simply recount the things that had happened. John wants you to realise WHO Jesus was and as you realise so you will believe in him and receive a new life. That is his intent.
In Purpose, John writes
In Content, John writes
In saying these things we should never convey that John presents a different Gospel.
See more on John's Page
The Order & Makeup of the SYNOPTIC Gospels:
These Gospels, we said above, have a lot of similarities and scholars through the ages have suggested the following reasons for that. Note this is not an exact science, just suggestions, for when we consider ‘verses', for example, these are divided up according to the early translators or publishers and some may be short and some long. Nevertheless they give an idea of what is suggested.
Mark writes first. 661 verses.
Matthew & Luke appear to have drawn from Mark
(It should be noted that those verses from Mark have often been adapted with slight variations by the other two to meet their various personal criteria).
Theory has it that there was a source of sayings and discourses of Jesus that was prior to Mark which has been called ‘Q' from the German Quelle meaning Source. Some suggest it was Matthew who compiled these (see more below).
The evidence for this is that in both Matthew & Luke (both roughly double the size of Mark) there are about 250 verses that show close parallelism and similarity.
There are verses from ‘other sources' in those two Gospels –
There are also a good number of verses unique to each of these two Gospels. We may show this graphically in the following rough way:
Mark = 661 verses
Matthew = 1068 verses
Luke = 1149 verses
It is the unique verses that shed light on the anticipated readership.
In Matthew they are of Jewish tone, e.g. Ch.1 & 2, 9:27-34, 14:28-33, 17:24-
In Luke they are of Gentile tone, e.g. 7:11-16,36-50, 10:25- , Ch.16, 18:1-14
Mark is thought to be young protégé of Peter who shared the story with him in Rome
There are many indications that it is an eyewitness account and evidence that Peter was the originator comes from
Being as short as it is, and compared with the other three, there is a lot left out but it is nevertheless a good starting point
Mark probably wrote for Gentile readers but specifically Roman readers
In addition to that which we have noted above, note the following
Early tradition, Eusebius quoting from Papias, Bishop of Hieraolis not long after AD110, declared, “Matthew…. put together the Logia in writing.” Logia literally means ‘words'. Whether that meant ‘teachings' rather than the narrative accounts is uncertain. Hence the thought of possibly another document of sayings by Matthew in addition to his Gospel.
Some believe Matthew wrote down Jesus' sayings (being a tax collector who would have used a form of shorthand, he may have jotted down the things Jesus said – hence a number of longer teachings in his Gospel of which the Sermon on the Mount is the best known – Ch.5-7) This is the ‘Q' document referred to above.
There are six of these lengthy ‘discourses' Matthew – Ch.5-7, Ch.10, Ch.13, Ch.18, Ch.23, Ch.24-25
Five of the six end with, “When Jesus had finished” and the remaining one with a conclusion with a similar formula (23:39)
It is thought there was also a collection of Old Testament passages designed to show that Jesus was the fulfilment of Messianic prophecy known as ‘the Testimonies' widely used by Christian teachers in the second and third centuries. It is believed that Matthew used such a manual hence at least ten or twelve passages in his Gospel begin with the formula, “that is might be fulfilled”, or “then was fulfilled that which was spoken by the prophet.”
Matthew has a number of unique passages – e.g. the infancy passages at the beginning (Ch.1 & 2), and the resurrection references at the end (27:51-66, 28:1-15) – that may have come from oral tradition or from other traditional sources.
(NB. In Paul's letters it is obvious that there were ‘sayings' that were used by the early church to teach basics - 1Tim 1:15, 3:1, 4:9, 2Tim 2:11, Tit 3:8. There may have been many more than those he quoted in his letters)
Thus to summarise, it is probable that Matthew's Gospel is made up of:
The ‘Q' documents
A manual of messianic prophecy
Mark's Gospel verses
Sundry records now lost (see Lk 1:1)
Hs own recollections having travelled with Jesus.
Luke was not an eyewitness but had collected eyewitness accounts from others (Lk 1:1-)
The Early Church Fathers attest to his authorship.
Clearly he wrote this Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles (see the beginning of both)
In respect of materials common to the others
It would appear therefore that Luke's sources are:
Passion Week Narratives
It is interesting to note how much space each of the Gospel writers give to the arrest, death and resurrection accounts
This may suggest that John (with nearly half of his Gospel given to this period) might have felt the others had not given enough to cover it, Mark (with Peter) as the first writer placed a high priority on it, while Matthew and Luke had lots of other detail included in their Gospel (although note Matthew actually gave 8 chapters to it even though he did not have as much post-resurrection detail as John in his 10 chapters). However we may assess it, and these may be completely erroneous conclusions, one conclusion that must be correct is that ALL the Gospel writers felt it important to give a lot of space to that last vital week, as terrible as it had been, especially for the eye-witness apostles (thus excluding Luke). Is it significant that Luke who does not appear to have been an eye-witness gives the least amount of space on both measurements, chapters and percentage given.
We obviously could include a great deal more information about these Gospels, but we will content ourselves with just sufficient that, we hope, will stimulate readers to become students in their own right of these amazing books.
We conclude this page with a summary of a variety of aspects of these four books, as some scholars have suggested it: