Gospel: The Four Gospels

GOSPEL: THE FOUR GOSPELS. The word gospel is derived from the Anglo-Saxon godspell, meaning “good tidings,” and is a literal translation of the Greek euangelion, which meant originally a reward for bringing good news, and finally the good news itself. In the NT the term is applied to the revelation of God’s plan for reconciling man to himself by forgiving his sin and by transforming his character. The gospel is the message of God’s gift of salvation through the person and work of Christ that the church has been commissioned to proclaim (Mark.16.15; Acts.20.24; Eph.1.13). The impact of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ compelled his disciples to present his message to the public. By repeating the significant features of his ministry and his accompanying precepts, following the general order of his biography, they formulated a body of teaching that may have varied in detail with each recital, but that maintained the same general content.

The existence of this standardized message is confirmed by the NT itself. Paul, in the letter to the Galatians, mentioning a visit to Jerusalem that took place before a.d. 50, said: “I...set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles” (Gal.2.2). In 1Cor.15.1-1Cor.15.5 he defined it clearly. A similar presentation is afforded by the report of Peter’s address in the house of Cornelius, the Gentile centurion. After sketching the baptism, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Peter concluded: “[God] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts.10.42-Acts.10.43).

From such samples of apostolic preaching one may conclude that the facts of Jesus’ life constituted the gospel, which was interpreted and applied to suit the occasion on which it was preached.

This gospel, which was initially proclaimed in oral form, has been transmitted through the writings called the “Gospels.” Although Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John differ considerably in detail, they agree on the general outline of Jesus’ career, on the supernatural character of his life, and on the high quality of his moral precepts. From the earliest period of the church they have been accepted as authoritative accounts of his life and teachings.

I. Character of the Gospels. Reduced to writing, the gospel message constitutes a new type of literature. Although it is framed in history, it is not pure history, for the allusions to contemporary events are incidental, and the Gospels do not attempt to develop them. They contain biographical material, but they cannot be called biography in the modern sense of the word, since they do not present a complete summary of the life of Jesus. The Gospels are not sufficiently didactic to be called opinions of their writers. The chief purpose of the Gospels is to create faith in Christ on the part of their readers, who may or may not be believers. Nothing exactly like them can be found either in the OT, to which their writers referred frequently, or in the Hellenic and Roman literature contemporary with them.

Of the numerous accounts and fragments that were composed to perpetuate the ministry and teaching of Jesus, only four are accorded a place in the NT: Matthew, written by Jesus’ disciple Matthew Levi, the tax-gatherer; Mark, from the pen of John Mark, an inhabitant of Jerusalem and a companion of Barnabas and Paul; Luke, the first half of a history of Christianity in two volumes (Luke and Acts) by an associate of Paul; and John, a collection of select memoirs by John, the son of Zebedee. Although the traditional authorship of all four canonical Gospels has been disputed, there are strong arguments in their favor, even if, for one or two of them, the Evangelist’s relation to the finished work may have been indirect rather than direct. Other Gospels, such as The Gospel of Peter or The Gospel of Thomas, are later productions of the second and third centuries and usually represent the peculiar theological prejudices of some minor sect.

II. Origin of the Gospels. The existence of the oral gospel is attested by Papias, bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia, one of the earliest of the church fathers (c. a.d. 80-140). A quotation from the preface to his “Interpretation of our Lord’s Declarations,” preserved in a historical work by Eusebius, indicates that he still depended on the transmission of the gospel content by the living voice. “But if I met with any one who had been a follower of the elders anywhere, I made it a point to inquire what were the declarations of the elders...for I do not think that I derived so much benefit from books as from the living voice of those that were still surviving” (quoted in Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiae, 3.39). In the time of Papias, not more than two or three of the original band of Jesus' disciples would still be living, and he would be compelled to obtain his information from those who had heard the apostles. Nevertheless, he preferred the oral testimony to written record. Irrespective of the value of Papias’s judgment, his words indicate that the contents of the apostolic preaching were still being transmitted by word of mouth two generations after the crucifixion, simultaneously with the use of whatever written records existed.

A clue to the transition from oral preaching to written record is provided by explanatory statements in the Gospels of Luke and John. In the introduction to his Gospel, Luke asserts that he was undertaking to confirm by manuscript what his friend Theophilus had already learned by word of mouth (Luke.1.1-Luke.1.4). He spoke of facts that were taken for granted among believers and indicated that there had already been numerous attempts to arrange them in orderly narratives. Since his use of the word “narrative” (Gr. diēgēsis) implies an extended account, there must have been a number of “gospels” in circulation that he considered to be either inaccessible or else unsatisfactory. If his use of language permits deductions by contrast, these rival gospels were the opposite of his own. They were partial in content, drawn from secondary sources, and perhaps were not organized by any consecutive line of thought. They may have been random collections of sayings or events that had no central theme, or they may not have contained enough biographical material to afford an adequate understanding of Jesus’ life.

Luke affirmed on the contrary that he had derived his facts from those who “from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Luke.1.2). Not only had his informants shared in the events of which they spoke, but also they had been so affected that they became propagandists of the new faith. Luke had been a contemporary of these witnesses and had investigated personally the truth of their claims, so that he might produce an orderly and accurate record of the work of Christ.

John also committed his Gospel to writing so that he might influence others to faith in Christ as the Son of God (John.20.30-John.20.31). He did not profess to give an exhaustive account of Jesus’ activities, but took for granted that many of them would be familiar to his readers. The selective process that he used was determined by his evangelistic purpose and theological viewpoint.

Although Matthew and Mark are less explicit concerning their origins, the same general principles apply. The introduction of Matthew, “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt.1.1), duplicates the phraseology of Genesis (Gen.5.1) to convey the impression that, like Genesis, it is giving a significant chapter in the history of God’s dealing with the human race. Mark’s terse opening line, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark.1.1), is a title, labeling the following text as a summary of current preaching. Neither of these two offers any reason for its publication, but one may deduce fairly that all of the Gospels began in an attempt to preserve for posterity what had hitherto existed in the minds of the primitive witnesses and in their public addresses.

There has been some question whether the Gospels were first published in Aramaic (the language of Palestine, where the church began) or in Greek. Eusebius quoted Papias’s statement that Matthew composed his history in the Hebrew dialect and everyone translated it as he was able (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiae, 3.39). Without the original context, these words are ambiguous. Papias does not make clear whether by “Hebrew” he meant the speech of the OT, or whether he really meant Aramaic. He does not specify whether Matthew’s contribution was simply collected notes of Matthew from which others composed a Gospel, or whether Matthew had already formed an organized narrative that was translated. He does imply that before the Gentile expansion had made the literature of the church Greek, there was a body of material written in Hebrew or Aramaic.

Papias’s statement has aroused a great deal of controversy. There are Aramaisms in the Gospels such as Ephphatha (Mark.7.34); Talitha koum (Mark.5.41); and the cry from the cross, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani (Mark.15.34). They reflect Jesus’ use of his mother tongue and the perpetuation of his language in the memoirs of his followers. These, however, do not necessarily mean that the Gospels were originally written in Aramaic. C. C. Torrey (Our Translated Gospels, 1936) contended that all four Gospels were translations, but there is no agreement on the evidence. If they were translations, they must have been composed prior to the middle of the first century, when the churches were predominantly Palestinian. It is more likely that the Gospels originated in the evangelistic preaching to the Gentile world, and that they were written in Greek, though they contained an Aramaic background.

III. Composition of the Gospels. The personal reminiscences of the apostolic band, plus the fixed content of their preaching, constituted the materials from which the Gospels were constructed; and the purpose of the individual writers provided the method of organization. Both Luke (Mark.1.1-Mark.1.4) and John (20:30-Mark.1.31) pledge accuracy of historical fact before they proceed with interpretation, and the same may safely be assumed of Matthew and Mark. All the Gospels were composed for use in the growing movement of the church; they were not written solely for literary effect. Matthew obviously wished to identify Jesus with the Messiah of the OT by pointing out that he was the fulfillment of prophecy and that he was intimately related to the manifestation of the kingdom. Mark, by his terse descriptive paragraphs, depicted the Son of God in action among men. Luke used a smoother literary style and a larger stock of parables to interest a cultured and perhaps humanistic audience. John selected episodes and discourses that others had not used in order to promote belief in Jesus as the Son of God.

IV. The Publication of the Gospels. Where and when these documents were first given to the public is uncertain. The earliest quotations from the gospel material appear in the letters of Ignatius, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, and the Epistle of Polycarp. All of these are related to Antioch of Syria, and their quotations or allusions bear a stronger resemblance to the text of Matthew than to that of any other gospel. If, as Papias said, Matthew was first written for the Hebrew or Aramaic church in Jerusalem, it may have been the basis for a Greek edition issued from Antioch during the development of the Gentile church in that city. It would, therefore, have been put into circulation some time after a.d. 50 and before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70.

Clement of Alexandria (a.d. 200) described the writing of the Gospel of Mark: “When Peter had proclaimed the word publicly at Rome, and declared the gospel under the influence of the Spirit; as there was a great number present, they requested Mark, who had followed him from afar, and remembered well what he had said, to reduce these things to writing, and that after composing the Gospel he gave it to those who requested it of him. Which, when Peter understood, he directly neither hindered nor encouraged it” (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiae, 6.14). Irenaeus (c. 100), Clement’s contemporary, confirmed this tradition, adding that Mark handed down Peter’s preaching in writing after his death. If Mark’s Gospel represents the memoirs of Peter, it is possible that its content did not become fixed in literary form until a.d. 65 or later.

The Gospel of Luke may have been a private document, sent first of all to Luke’s friend and patron, Theophilus. The adjective “most excellent” (Luke.1.3) implies that he probably belonged to the equestrian order (perhaps holding some official position) and that the dual work (Luke and Acts) that Luke wrote was calculated to remove any lingering doubts that he may have entertained concerning the historical and spiritual verities of the Christian faith. Luke can hardly have been written later than a.d. 62, since it must have preceded Acts, which was written about the end of Paul’s first imprisonment.

The last chapter of John’s Gospel tries to correct a rumor that he would never die. The rumor, begun by a misunderstanding of Jesus’ remark to Peter about John, would have been strengthened by the fact that John had attained an advanced age at the time when the concluding chapter was written. It is possible that it can be dated before a.d. 50, but most conservative scholars place it about 85. Traditionally it has been ascribed to the apostle John, who ministered at Ephesus in the closing years of the first century.

V. The Synoptic Problem: The three Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called synoptic from the Greek word synoptikos, which means “to see the whole together, to take a comprehensive view.” They present similar views of the career and teaching of Christ and resemble each other closely in content and in phraseology.

The numerous agreements between these Gospels have raised the question whether the relationship between them can be traced to common literary sources. Almost the entire content of the Gospel of Mark can be found in both Matthew and Luke, while much material not found in Mark is common to the two other Gospels. On the other hand, each Gospel has a different emphasis and organization. The “Synoptic Problem,” as it is called, may be stated as follows: If the three Gospels are absolutely independent of each other, how can one account for the minute verbal agreements in their text? If they are copied from each other, or compiled freely from common sources, how can they be original and authoritative? Are they, then, truly writings inspired by God, or are they merely combinations of anecdotes that may or may not be true?

Numerous theories have been propounded to account for these phenomena. The most popular in recent years has been the documentary theory, which assumes that the Gospels were derived from Mark and a hypothetical document called “Q” (from the German Quelle, meaning “source”), containing chiefly sayings of Jesus. According to this theory, Matthew and Luke were composed independently by combining Mark and “Q.” B. H. Streeter (The Four Gospels, 1936) suggested also the addition of two special sources, M for Matthew, L for Luke, embodying the private knowledge or research of the two writers.

While this hypothesis seemingly solves the problem of the verbal resemblances, it is not entirely satisfactory. The existence of “Q” is at best only a probability; no copy of it has ever been found. R. M. Grant has pointed out that extant collections of the “Sayings of Jesus” dating from the second and third centuries should probably be assigned to the Gnostics, who in turn were dependent either on oral tradition or on the canonical Gospels for their text (The Secret Sayings of Jesus, 1960, pp. 29, 40-61). These documents, which have been considered analogous to “Q,” and therefore as justifying the hypothesis of its existence, are themselves secondary. It is more likely that the common didactic passages of Matthew and Luke are drawn from utterances that Jesus repeated until they became fixed in the minds of his disciples and were reproduced later in the Gospels.

In recent years the discipline called “form criticism” has advanced another alternative. In an attempt to ascertain the development of the gospel before the Gospels, it has suggested that they were composed out of individual reminiscences of Jesus’ deeds and bits of his teaching that were first preserved and circulated by his followers. Through repetition and selection these accounts took permanent shape and were incorporated into a general sequence that constituted the gospel narratives. Advocates of form criticism have separated the unitary sections of the Gospels into various classes: the passion story of Jesus’ last days; the paradigms, accounts of Jesus’ deeds that illustrate the message; tales of miraculous occurrences told to interest the public; morally edifying legends of saintly persons; sayings of Jesus that preserve his collected teachings in speeches or in parables.

This modification or oral tradition injects a greater uncertainty into the process of literary history. If the Synoptic Gospels are merely different arrangements of independent blocks of text, the problem of origins is multiplied. While sections of the Gospels may have been used for illustrative purposes, and while certain parts of them, like the Sermon on the Mount, might have once been a separate collection of sayings (or deeds, as the case may be), the fact that they were composed in the first century by trustworthy disciples of Jesus precludes fraud or unreliability.

Form Criticism is one branch of the wider discipline of “tradition criticism” that, when applied to the Gospels, has its counterpart in “redaction criticism.” Tradition criticism focuses attention on the Gospel material that each Evangelist received, whether it came to him orally or to some degree in written form; redaction criticism is concerned with the way in which each Evangelist handled the material he received. Redaction criticism reminds us that the Evangelists were no mere scissors-and-paste compilers, that each of them was an author in his own right, with his own interpretation and purpose.

Perhaps the best solution of the Synoptic Problem is the fact that all three Gospels are dealing with the life of the same Person, whose deeds and utterances were being continually preached as a public message. Constant repetition and frequent contact between the preachers tended toward fixing the content of the message. From the Day of Pentecost, the “apostle’s teaching” possessed some definite form, for it was used in instructing inquirers (Acts.2.42). As the church expanded, the written accounts were created to meet the demand for instruction, and they reproduced the phraseology and content of the oral teaching. Each Gospel, however, was shaped to its own purpose and audience, so that the variations in wording reflected the differences of interest and environment. Matthew was written for Christians with a Jewish background; Mark, for active Gentiles, probably Romans; Luke, for a cultured and literary Greek. All three, however, bear united witness to the supernatural character and saving purpose of Jesus Christ.

VI. The Problem of John’s Gospel: The Fourth Gospel differs markedly in character and in content from the Synoptics. Excluding the feeding of the five thousand and the Passion narrative, there are few points of agreement with the others. So radical are the differences that the veracity of the Gospel has been challenged on the grounds that if it is historical, it should coincide more nearly with the Synoptics.

For this reason some have held that the Fourth Gospel was written in the second century as the church’s reflection on the person of Christ, phrased in terms of the Greek Logos doctrine. The discovery of the Rylands Fragment—a small scrap of papyrus on which a few verses of John were written—demonstrated that by the beginning of the second century the Gospel of John was circulated as far as southern Egypt. Since the handwriting of the fragment can be dated about a.d. 130, the Gospel must have been written earlier. It could not have been a late product of church tradition.

The language of the Gospel does not necessitate a Hellenistic origin. The existence of the concepts of light and of darkness, truth and falsehood, living waters, and others in the Dead Sea Scrolls show that John need not have drawn his vocabulary from Hellenism, but that many of his terms were a part of contemporary Judaism (William LaSor, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament, 1972, pp. 191-205). The Gospel of John is the account of an eyewitness writing in his later years and interpreting the person of Christ in the perspective of his Christian experience.

VII. Canonicity: The Gospels were among the first writings to be quoted as sacred and authoritative. Individual passages are quoted or alluded to in Ignatius of Antioch (c. a.d. 116), the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas, which were written in the early part of the second century. Justin Martyr (c. 140) mentions the Gospels explicitly, calling them “Memoirs of the Apostles” (First Apology, 66). Marcion of Sinope (c. 140) included a mutilated edition of the Gospel of Luke in the canon of Scripture that he promulgated at Rome; he may have known the other Gospels but rejected them because of the presence of what he regarded as Jewish corruptions. Tatian (c. 170), an Assyrian who was converted in Rome under the ministry of Justin and later became an Encratite, produced the first harmony of the Gospels, called the Diatessaron. It included only the familiar four, weaving their text together into one continuous narrative. Only a few traces of the Diatessaron are still available in translations or in commentaries, but the existence of this work proves that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were already the chief sources of information concerning the life and works of Jesus in the first half of the second century.

Growing intercommunication between the churches and the need for strengthening their defenses against heresy and the attacks of pagan critics promoted the interest of the churches in a canon of the Gospels. By 170 the four Gospels were securely established as the sole authorities. According to Irenaeus’s contention, “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For since there are four zones of the world in which we live and four principal winds...it is fitting that she [the church] should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side...” (Against Heresies, 3.11.8). Irenaeus’s reasons are not cogent, but the fact that he acknowledged only four indicates the sentiment of his times. The Muratorian Canon, a fragmentary manuscript of the seventh or eighth century containing a list of accepted books earlier than 200, included in its original form the four Gospels; they were used by Tertullian of Carthage (c. 200), Clement of Alexandria (c. 200), Origen of Alexandria (c. 250), and Cyprian of Carthage (c. 250); and they appear in the manuscript texts of the Chester Beatty Papyri and of the Old Latin version, both in existence before 300. Eusebius (c. 350) and the fathers following him excluded all other Gospels from their official list, leaving these four the undisputed, supreme authorities for knowledge of the life and work of Jesus Christ. See also Gospel of Matthew; nodetitle; nodetitle; nodetitle; Canonicity.

Bibliography: Theodor Zahn, Introduction to the New Testament (ed. M. W. Jacobus), 1909, 2:307-617, 3:1-354; B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels (revised), 1936; E. B. Redlich, nodetitle: Its Value and Limitations, 1939; D. E. Nineham (ed.), Studies in the Gospels, 1955; R. M. Grant, The Secret Sayings of Jesus, 1960; N. B. Stonehouse, Origins of the Synoptic Gospels, 1963; X. Leon-Dufour, The Gospels and the Jesus of History, 1968; J. Rohde, Rediscovering the Teaching of the Evangelists, 1968; D. G. Buttrick et al. (eds.), Jesus and Man’s Hope, 2 vols., 1970-71.——MCT