The gospels (plural) are the writings, often called books, at the beginning of most Christian New Testaments. They’re commonly referred to as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but they might also be preceded by something like “The Gospel of” or “The Gospel According to.”
Generally, American Christians don’t distinguish between “the gospels” and “the Gospel,” even though the Gospel (singular) is often used to refer to something separate from the gospels (plural). You can read more about the Gospel in my other post, What Is the Gospel?, but I’ll mention more about the distinction later on.
The gospels, sometimes collectively called the canonical gospels, are four different accounts of Jesus’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection. They have many of the same stories and events, but even those aren’t always identical. They are all written to different people, at different times, in different places, and by different authors. Here are some general points about the Gospels.
- A.k.a. The Gospel of Mark or The Gospel According to Mark
- Written anonymously
- Possibly the first of the four gospels to be written. If you hear someone use the phrase “Marcan priority,” this is what they’re referring to, and it has to do with the idea that the gospel of Mark may have been used as source material for the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
- May have been written sometime around AD 77, right around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. If that’s the case, it’s possible it was written to the displaced Christian communities that fled Jerusalem’s destruction.
- Some major themes in Mark include Jesus’s identity as the Messiah, the struggle and transformation of the disciples as they learn who Jesus is, and the idea that Jesus is Lord and savior over all creation.
- A.k.a. The Gospel of Matthew or The Gospel According to Matthew
- Written anonymously
- The second or third of the four gospels to be written, possibly written sometime in the late first century. It may have been written after Mark but before AD 120.
- May have used the gospel of Mark as a source alongside a second source. This is often referred to as the Two-Source Hypothesis.
- Matthew may have been written to communities of Jewish Christians who were struggling to understand this new kingdom of God in light of their increasingly Gentile numbers.
- Some major themes in Matthew include Jesus as a distinctly Jewish Messiah, the kingdom of heaven, and the relationship between Jewish Christians and the law of Moses.
- A.k.a. The Gospel of Luke or The Gospel According to Luke
- Written anonymously
- The second or third of the four gospels to be written; the gospel of Luke is generally believed to have been written around the same time as Matthew using the same sources: the gospel of Mark and a second unknown source (“Q”).
- A two-part work written to someone named Theophilus. The second part is what we call the book of Acts (a.k.a. The Acts of the Apostles or simply Acts).
- Some major themes in Luke include discipleship as a transformed way of living in the world, God’s focus on the poor, Jesus’s identity as a prophet Messiah, and the Holy Spirit.
- A.k.a The Gospel of John or The Gospel According to John
- Written anonymously; there’s a reference in John 21:24 to the disciple who’s testifying, but it’s not agreed upon who, exactly, that disciple is and whether that disciple is also the one actually writing.
- Probably the last of the four gospels to be written.
- John doesn’t appear to use the same sources as any of the other three Gospels.
- Written in Greek, but Greek may have been the writer’s second language.
- Some major themes in John include Jesus as God’s logos, Jesus as the light of the world, unity with God, and God’s love for the world.
Anonymous Gospel Writers
Why did I say that the gospels were written anonymously; aren’t they named after their authors? Yes and no.
The canonical gospels are named according to early church tradition. That doesn’t necessarily mean the named individuals are the actual authors. It’s important to remember that first century cultures were different from, say, Western cultures in 2022. We have to be careful not to impose our cultural understandings and expectations on first century Christians.
Common American understandings of plagiarism, for example, don’t necessarily apply to the gospel writers. I’ve been told it wasn’t uncommon for first century authors to ascribe their work to someone they respected or under whom they discipled. It’s possible this is what happened with John.
This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.
John 21:24, NRSVUE
The statement indicates that the “disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them” is one of the apostles — specifically, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” who was following Peter and Jesus in John 21:20. However, the second half of the quoted verse might suggest that the actual author is someone else: “ we know that his testimony is true.”
It’s possible that the apostle is the author but is writing about himself from a different perspective. Perhaps he talks about himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” rather than “me” and “his testimony” rather than “my testimony,” but that isn’t clear from the writing.
It’s also possible that the person doing the physical writing is only a scribe and that the ones dictating are actually the people after whom the gospels are named. Again, though, that isn’t clear from the texts.
These are examples of why I say the authors are anonymous. Early church tradition titled the gospels after specific disciples, but the gospels themselves don’t mention any authors. Contrast this with some of the letters of Paul (Pauline epistles) where he might identify himself in the introduction, such as in Ephesians.
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus:
Ephesians 1:1, NRSVUE
Why Are the Gospels Different?
The gospels are different because they’re written to different audiences for different purposes. Just like with authorship, we need to be careful not to impose our cultural expectations about stories, history, or religious texts.
The authors of the gospels were probably not trying to provide a historical account of Jesus or Jesus’s ministry. That can be troubling for a lot of Christians, but that’s partly because we tend to categorize stories as either fiction or non-fiction. The categories reveal our primary concern: knowing if a story is literally true. Everything else is secondary to that.
First century wisdom literature and religious texts don’t seem to have that same primary objective. In other words, the writers of the gospels weren’t primarily concerned with whether the stories of early Christian traditions were 100% accurate. Their primary concern seems to be formational. What are the stories doing within communities? How are they helping to shape the Christian audiences to which they’re written?
Matthew connects with Jewish Christians struggling with their identity. Mark connects with displaced Christians who have lost their center of worship, Jerusalem. Luke connects the power of Jesus’s ministry with the ministry of Jesus’s disciples. John connects God’s work with Greek metaphors for a Gentile audience. Etc.
Gospel vs Gospels
Above, I mentioned a distinction between the Gospel and the gospels. One of the ways I distinguish between the two is with capitalization. The Gospel (capital G and/or singular) means I’m referring to whatever “good news” is at the heart of Jesus’s ministry. What was the underlying message — the core — that God is proclaiming?
The gospels (lower case g and/or plural) refers to people’s narrative about Jesus, such as canonical gospels.
It’s not a perfect system. Gospels sometimes gets capitalized or used as a singular (e.g. the gospel of John), but it helps to remind us that the Gospel is what we’re searching for, not gospels.
The canonical gospels are scriptural tools that, hopefully, are helping us uncover and understand the Gospel.
As always, these FAQ posts aren’t exhaustive. They’re just brief introductions to questions and topics — jumping off points to help you on your journey. You can contact me if you’d like to ask a question or request a more in-depth look at a particular topic, and you can check out some of the Bible Study or Theology posts for more.
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