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What Are the Gospels?

The term gospel translates the Greek word euangelion, which means “good news.” Prior to the New Testament, this word usually referred to good news of a political or military victory. In the New Testament the word denotes the good news proclaimed by Jesus (Mark 1:14–15) or the good news about Jesus (1 Cor. 15:1). It is easy to see why the early Christians would eventually refer to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the Gospels. But how did the Holy Spirit inspire the Gospel uthors (often called the “evangelists”) to present or communicate this good news? Correct interpretation depends on correct identification of the kind of communication taking place.

First and foremost the Gospels are stories. Everybody loves a good story, but why? What is it about stories that captures our attention as nothing else does? Stories are interesting. We find ourselves “entering” the story and relating to the characters. In this way we participate in the story. We can use our imagination to visualize the playing out of the story. The Gospels are powerful because they are stories. But what kind of stories are they?

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were viewed early on as stories of Jesus drawn from the personal experience of the apostles. In his First Apology, the early church leader Justin Martyr (ca. AD 100–165) characterizes the Gospels as the “memoirs” of the apostles. This sounds like the authors were writing biographies of Jesus. But when you read the four Gospels, you immediately notice that they are somewhat different from modern biographies. Can you think of specific ways that the Gospels seem to differ from most modern autobiographies or biographies?

Unlike most modern biographies, the Gospels do not cover the whole life of Jesus, but rather jump from his birth to his public ministry. Matthew and Luke include accounts of Jesus’ birth, while in Mark’s account we first encounter Jesus when he arrives at the Jordan River as a full-grown adult to be baptized (Mark 1:9). Mark tells us nothing about Jesus’ birth or boyhood.

Often the writers of the Gospels arrange Jesus’ actions topically rather than chronologically and report what Jesus says in a variety of ways. Another difference between the Gospels and most modern biographies is the comparatively large percentage of space the Gospels devote to the last week of Jesus’ life. For example, in John the last week of Jesus’ life begins in chapter 12. Also, you will not find anything like a detailed psychological analysis of Jesus or any other main characters in the Gospels. It is easy to see that the four Gospels differ considerably from most modern biographies.

Yet just because the Gospels differ from modern biographies does not mean they are not biographies; it simply means they are not modern biographies. Ancient biographers followed a different set of rules. Ancient biographies normally had a simple outline, beginning with the birth or arrival of the main character and ending with his death. (The authors commonly devoted a large portion of their work to the character’s death since the way a person dies says a lot about the person.) The material between the main character’s birth and death included stories and sayings selected and arranged by the author to tell the audience something important about the character. When we read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, it becomes obvious that they have a lot in common with the genre of ancient biography.

If you have spent any time at all reading the Gospels, you will notice that while all four tell essentially the same story, the details vary from one Gospel to another. We really have four different versions of the one story of Jesus. For those of us who seem fixated on chronological strictness, the variety can cause problems. For example, how do we understand Matthew and Luke switching the order of the second and third temptations of Jesus (cf. Matt. 4:5–10 with Luke 4:5–13)?

On a larger scale, you will sometimes find considerable variation in the order of the same events as presented in the first three Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are commonly called the Synoptic Gospels since they can easily be “seen together” when placed side by side (syn means togetheroptic means see). John often takes a different course altogether. In the chart below you can see how the Gospel writers place the same events and stories in slightly different order in their respective Gospels.[1]

Event Matthew Mark Luke
Cleansing of leper 8:1–4 1:40–45 5:12–16
Centurion of Capernaum 8:5–13 no parallel 7:1–10
Peter’s mother-in-law 8:14–15 1:29–31 4:38–39
Sick healed 8:16–17 1:32–34 4:40–41
Following Jesus 8:18–22 no parallel 9:57–62
Stilling the storm 8:23–27 4:35–41 8:22–25
Gadarene demoniac 8:28–34 5:1–20 8:26–39
Healing of the paralytic 9:1–8 2:1–12 5:17–26
Matthew’s call 9:9–13 2:13–17 5:27–32
Fasting question 9:14–17 2:18–22 5:33–39
Jairus and the woman 9:18–26 5:21–43 8:40–56

You will also find variety in wording in the Gospels. Compare “Blessed are the poor in spirit” in Matthew 5:3 with simply “Blessed are you who are poor” in Luke 6:20. Notice the difference in the interchange between Jesus and the high priest at his trial:

The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
“You have said so,” Jesus replied. (Matt. 26:63–64)
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
“I am,” said Jesus. (Mark 14:61–62)
“If you are the Messiah,” they said, “tell us.”
Jesus answered, “If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer. But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.”
They all asked, “Are you then the Son of God?”
He replied, “You say that I am.” (Luke 22:67–70)

It seems obvious that what we have in the four Gospels is not the result of four people following Jesus around with tape recorders or video cameras. What should we make of all this? We should begin by recognizing that the Gospel writers (like any reporter or historian) could not tell all that there was to tell about Jesus. John admits as much in the final sentence of his Gospel (21:25): “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” You can read Jesus’ longest speeches (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount) in a matter of minutes, yet he often spoke to the crowds for hours at a time. There was simply not enough time and not enough scroll space to tell the whole story. As a result, under the direction of the Spirit, the Gospel writers chose what to include (and omit) as well as how to arrange it in a way that effectively communicated the good news to their contemporaries.

As ancient biographers, the Gospel writers felt free to paraphrase or summarize what Jesus said and to arrange the events according to a particular theme rather than according to strict chronological sequence. In his prologue (Luke 1:1–4), Luke admits his use of eyewitness testimony and careful research in retelling the story of Jesus.4 The goal of the Gospel writers was to tell the story of Jesus in a faithful, yet relevant and persuasive manner for their readers. Rather than viewing the differences between accounts as errors in reporting, we should see them as illustrations of the different theological purposes and emphases of the Gospel writers.

Once we realize that the evangelists were operating under ancient rather than modern literary rules, many of the so-called discrepancies between the Gospels fade away. Take the difference in the order of the second and third temptation of Jesus as an example. A central theme in Matthew’s Gospel is the kingdom of God. It makes sense that Matthew would end his account of the temptations with Jesus seeing all the kingdoms of the world (Matt. 4:8–10). Because in Luke’s Gospel Jerusalem figures prominently, you can easily understand why Luke would want to conclude with Jesus being tempted to jump off the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 4:9–12). Matthew and Luke vary the details in telling the story of Jesus in order to make a theological point. This leads us to make one last important point about gospel genre.

We have seen how the Gospels are similar in genre to ancient biography. But there is an added dimension to the Gospels that we need to emphasize. The Gospels are not just biography, they are Christ-centered biography. The evangelists are telling us the story of Jesus, the Christ (or Messiah); they are not simply recording historical facts. They are telling the story to teach their readers something about the person and mission of Jesus. The Gospel writers selected and arranged their material about Christ to communicate theological truth to their audience. All storytelling is storytelling for a particular purpose, and the purpose of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is thoroughly Christ-centered!

Where does all of this lead us? We need to grasp the genre of gospel in order to read the Gospels properly. The four Gospels are similar in many ways to ancient biography, but they are more than ancient biography. By focusing on Jesus’ life and teachings we may describe the Gospels accurately as christological biography. This brings us to the two primary purposes that the evangelists had in mind when writing their Gospels. (1) They have selected and arranged material to tell the story of Jesus. (2) Through the story of Jesus, they are saying something important to their first readers (and to us). Since the Holy Spirit saw fit to inspire the Gospels in this way, we need to adopt a way of reading them that matches the method used by the Gospel writers.

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