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See Synoptic Gospels; John, Gospel of

GOSPELS. Christianity is a historical faith. It is rooted in the Incarnation and committed to Jesus of Nazareth. Understandably, there is a tremendous interest in the life and teachings of Jesus and in those primary documents that present Him.


Use of the term

Oral tradition

Criticism of the gospels has been concentrated recently on the shadowy area of transmission from event to its recording. Most of the material in the gospels existed for a time in an oral stage, when it was handed down by word of mouth, before being incorporated into a written gospel. Jesus was a preacher of the Good News. He gave His disciples close instruction privately (Mark 4:34), and they remembered His words and deeds long after His death. Form criticism is a method of analysis that seeks to trace this process of transmission. It arose out of some dissatisfaction with the fruits of source criticism, which could not penetrate behind the written materials themselves. Form criticism is, however, inevitably somewhat imaginary because it delves into the few decades after the Resurrection during which the gospel materials were handed down about which there is little historical information. Unfortunately, form criticism became allied to an attitude of historical pessimism. Although the investigation of the oral stage is itself quite worthy, form criticism has become synonymous with the attempt to discredit the historical integrity of the NT documents.

Form criticism treats the gospels as primary witnesses—not to the life of Jesus—but to the beliefs and practices of the primitive church. Although the attempt to find the life-situation of the materials in the gospels is legitimate, it is quite another matter to assume without proof that the accounts were invented to meet the needs of the church community. Therefore, the reconstruction of units of tradition is highly speculative. One scholar will find a totally different life-situation for a story or saying than another. If form critics would allow for more life-settings with a pre-Easter situation, their whole endeavor would look less suspicious. That the community should first frame its own traditions, and then convince itself of their historical integrity is hardly plausible. It is dangerous to start with a hypothetical theory of how the materials were handled, while ignoring the plain testimony in the text to the contrary. The presence of eyewitnesses in the Church certainly had a restraining effect on the free creation of historical traditions. The gospel accounts did not grow out of the Church’s need for them; rather the Church grew out of the facts they recorded. Primitive Christianity was stamped by the impact of the person and work of Jesus. The theory that the community wrote the first life of Jesus in isolation from all reliable recollections about Him, is a speculation without foundation and without probability. The Church was “colored” by Jesus, not Jesus by the community. Early Christians were interested in stories of Jesus during His historical ministry. The apostles who played a decisive role in the formation of the Church were in a position to supply such information. The idea of the free creation and flow of tradition unhindered by historical fact is fanciful and romantic. The presence of the apostles prevented the very situation the form critics assume. There is no positive evidence that the needs and problems of the Early Church were read back into the gospels. Certain of these problems are well known, such as the admission of the Gentiles, tongues, dietary laws, and church government; none of these problems received any significant treatment in the gospels. On the other hand, there are features in the gospels that do not reappear in Acts or the epistles, such as parables, the “son of man” title, and the “kingdom of God.” All the data suggests that a clear boundary existed between the history before and after Easter. There is just not enough time available for the developments assumed by the form critics. The “biology of the saga” requires a time lag of centuries for the development of a coherent cycle of myths. There was no time in the 1st cent. for the creation, collection, and collation of community sagas. The Gospel story broke into the light of history in a very short time. Form criticism as a method has been vastly overrated. Jesus gathered disciples around Him. These disciples treasured the deposit of His teaching and passed it down in the community that they led after His resurrection. A convincing parallel to what went on in the oral stage of the gospel material would be the rabbinic method of transmission, which was marked by a high degree of accuracy and continuity. The presence of eyewitnesses in the Church during the whole period of oral tradition puts a severe limiting factor upon all radical form criticism.

As long as the care employed in transmission is respected, form criticism can aid the understanding of the history of the gospels in their preliterary stage. The advance in knowledge from this source has not been great. Clearly, the early preachers gave prominence to the passion of Jesus, and presented the account in connection with the general shape of Jesus’ life. As converts were instructed, further stories and sayings of Jesus were added from the memory of the apostles to meet the needs at hand. The catechesis was no doubt largely oral in form, but possibly also accompanied with written accounts. Tradition connects an early tract with the apostle Matthew, and it may have been one of many (cf. Luke 1:1) primitive written gospels that assisted the teachers in their work.

Written gospels

The four gospels


The first gospel breathes the atmosphere of the OT, and makes the transition from the Old to the New a smooth one. At the outset, the writer provides a genealogy linking Jesus to David and Abraham through his legal father Joseph. His interest in connecting Jesus with messianic prophecies of the OT is apparent throughout. All the significant events in Jesus’ life—His birth, birthplace, home, ministry, and death—were in direct fulfillment of OT predictions. Most of the NT manifests the same concern with prophecy, but Matthew demonstrates it to a remarkable degree. Although he does not state his purpose, as Luke and John do, Matthew endeavors to prove that Jesus is the Messiah. To achieve this, the writer gave his gospel a strongly Judaic flavor. Numerous details about contemporary Jewish life and religion are included. Interest in the kingdom of heaven and the messianic king is sustained throughout. Matthew gives great prominence to the teaching ministry of Jesus. He preserved five long blocks, and inserted them into the Markan narrative. This feature made Matthew a handy teaching manual in the primitive Church. Since Mark is notably short of teaching, the inclusion in Matthew of extensive sermons is a distinct advantage. Narrative and discourse alternate. The pattern of act and word, of kerygma and didachē is striking. One of the curious features of Matthew is the tension between universalism and particularism. On the one hand, Jesus came exclusively to “the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24), and refused to go into the way of the Gentiles (10:5). Not a “jot” or a “tittle” would pass from the law (5:18f.), and the disciples were expected to observe Pharisaic instructions (18:2f.). Alongside this narrow particularism is a universalism. The coming of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, the Great Commission, all point to the universal implications of this gospel. The tension is resolved by observing the progress of saving history. Prior to His death, Jesus exhausted Himself in taking the Good News to the nation Israel who refused it. Near the end of His life, Jesus predicted, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it” (21:43). Out of His death and resurrection sprang a “new Israel,” a spiritual heir to the promises of God, drawn from every nation under heaven.

Matthew is a long edition of Mark. The writer incorporated almost the whole of Mark, abbreviated some of the stories, and added a large amount of non-Markan material. Whereas Mark gave Matthew his framework, Mark did not determine Matthew’s purpose. Matthew’s emphasis differs from Mark’s. The first gospel is an apologetic tract, and the note of fulfillment is prominent. An insistent tradition in the ancient Church ascribed to Papias held that the first gospel was originally written in Aramaic or Hebrew. Opinions differ widely over what this may mean. It would seem reasonable, however, to locate the underlying genius of Matthew’s gospel and its origins in the earliest Jewish Christian Church.


The second gospel is direct and to the point. It is a gospel, not a biography. Mark’s readers already knew the story. It is a passion narrative with a preface; the entire movement of the action is toward the cross. The absence of teaching material accents this fact. The gospel is a brief, simple record of our Lord’s life and ministry, which fills in some details in the apostolic preaching. In accord with apostolic preaching, it begins with John the Baptist and ends with the Resurrection (cf. Acts 10:36-43; 13:24-37). The skeleton, or framework, of Jesus’ life was given in sermons, but further detailed information was required for use in instructing the people. Obviously, the passion narrative was preserved in definite historical sequence, and it is likely that this was true also of the other material. Mark made no attempt to provide a tight chronology, but it is going too far to suggest he ignored it altogether. In the Early Church, the gospel of Mark was overshadowed by Matthew. Mark contained so little not found in Matthew, whereas Matthew had so much more than Mark. Few wrote commentaries upon it, and eventually the idea circulated that it was a mere abstract of Matthew. Not until recent times was its identity known as the kernel to the first gospel.

Mark begins and ends abruptly. The approach is blunt and direct. Mark is a gospel of action; movement is more important than discourse. The impression from Mark is a factual, eyewitness account of the life of Jesus. Fascinating details are included in the narration, without any hesitation to get directly to the action. Mark excludes the birth narratives. Jesus’ deeds are reported rather than His words. He repeatedly uses the adverb “immediately.” Frequently he notes that Jesus taught here and there, but does not pause to tell what He taught. The explanation of this vividness given by the primitive Church was to find Peter’s testimony behind Mark. “Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of things said or done by the Lord.” Mark derived his material from the public testimony of Peter the apostle. This would indeed explain the living character of Mark’s work. Many have pointed out the Aram. influences on the second gospel. Mark may well have drawn upon Peter’s sermons and lectures, and used them along with other material to construct his gospel. His work has a freshness and confidence of detail that is hard to explain in any other way.

From all indications, Mark was written from Rome for Gentile readers. A comparison of Mark 15:21 and Romans 16:13 makes a Rom. origin probable, as does the presence of an unusual number of Latinisms in the Gr. text. There is also an absence of the Judaic atmosphere so noticeable in Matthew. A comparison reveals that almost every instance of Jewish coloring in Matthew is lacking in the Markan parallel. Mark had Gentile readers in mind in writing his gospel. Where he had to include Palestinian customs, he took pains to explain them (e.g., Mark 7:3f.), although this would be extraneous for a Jewish audience. Similarly, the Aram. expressions that Mark did retain are given a Gr. tr. (e.g. 14:36). Mark is “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1) His central aim was to present the person of the Messiah. Jesus is the Son of God, the glorious Son of man, and the Redeemer. Mark presents a high Christology throughout.


The third gospel is the longest and the most comprehensive in range and scope. Luke and Acts constitute the largest contribution to the NT of any single writer. Renan called the gospel of Luke the most beautiful book in the world. It is an attractive account that leaves a deep impression on the reader of the personality of Jesus. To have the intention of the writer expressly stated in a prologue (Luke 1:1-4) is fortunate. Without doubt, the aim of the author was primarily historical accuracy and integrity. His own statement of purpose takes precedence over any speculative theory. He was dominated primarily by a historical concern. The prologue indicates that the writer was well educated, as his excellent prose reveals, and possessed critical historical judgment. He was of the deep conviction that the believer needed to have a solid historical foundation for his faith in Christ, and this he sought to provide. Although in the last cent. scholars doubted the trustworthiness of Luke’s work, recent research has vindicated his integrity in a spectacular way. At numerous points, Luke ties his account in the gospel and Acts, to secular history, and his accuracy has repeatedly been proven. He did not, however, write a secular history as such. His aim, in common with all the evangelists, was to trace the ministry of a unique Person. Like the others, Luke presents history that contains important theological significance. The author presents the beginnings of a movement that in the short space of three decades established itself in the capital of the Rom. empire. It began quietly in Judea, and extended itself to the center of the world’s stage. History itself gave Luke his theme.

Luke’s universalism is evident in numerous places. The good news the angels brought was for all men (2:14). Simeon foresaw that Christ would be a light for the Gentiles (2:32). John the Baptist was the voice of one crying in the wilderness in fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3-5, which includes a line Luke cites, “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). Non-Israelites are on a par with the Jews (4:25-27; 9:54; 10:33; 17:16). Luke shows that he is interested in all manner of people. Numerous individuals emerge in his narrative unknown elsewhere—Zechariah, Elizabeth, Zacchaeus, Cleopas. Luke presents several case studies of social outcasts being transformed by the Gospel. He mentions thirteen women not found elsewhere in the gospels. Children, also, often appear in his record. This is a gospel of the manhood of Jesus. Everywhere His teaching attracted wide popular interest, and His compassion for the poor and the destitute shone through. The entire ministry of Jesus was an outworking of the saving purpose of God in history.


John, as does Luke, gives a clear statement of his purpose (20:30f.). John is presenting to the believer and unbeliever alike, the historical data upon which saving faith rests. The gospel was intended to be both an evangelistic and a pastoral instrument. John selected a set of signs that he believed would convince his readers of the divinity of Jesus Christ and led them to place their trust in Him. He was concerned that the messianic faith of the Church should be filled with the proper content. There are indications in the gospel that its writer was in a good position to provide this content; the narration gives constant hints of being recorded by an eyewitness. On several occasions, John reveals a detailed knowledge of Jewish life and custom in the period before the fall of Jerusalem. He was aware of the political situation in Pal. He had an intimate knowledge of the geography of the land. His account abounds with personal allusions and details absent from the synoptic narratives. Undoubtedly, the author intended his readers to take his gospel as real history, not as mere symbol or allegory. The fourth gospel is fully as trustworthy historically as the other three, and at certain points more precise and detailed than they. It is reasonable to assume the historicity of the whole account since historical errors cannot be demonstrated in the fourth gospel. The present state of Johannine criticism represents a complete reversal to that of earlier times. John’s style is as simple as his thought is profound. He regularly uses only common words and paratactic constructions. Although John purposely limited the range of vocabulary, the effect is dignified and compelling. It abounds with theological theme words that recur again and again (i.e., water, light, bread, love, truth).

The first half of the gospel (1:1-12:50) presents the revelation of Jesus to the world, and is structured around seven signs. The words of Jesus are for the most part occasioned by the miracles in the narrative. The discourses are rather long, often argumentative, and frequently set in the southern ministry of Jesus, in Judea. Jesus’ activity around Jerusalem was more directly polemical because the hostility to him was greater there than in Galilee.

Like Matthew, John presents Jesus as the Messiah of OT hope. Jesus approached Israel with a rightful claim to her loyalty. He was disturbed that His own people did not receive Him (1:11; 5:39, 45f.). The imagery of bread, shepherd, and the Spirit, all root back to OT prophetic passages. John does not quote texts in the way Matthew does, but OT texts continually underline his thought. All the Scriptures point to Jesus. He is the fulfillment of the OT longing.


The synoptic problem.

The first three gospels are called the “synoptic” gospels because they can be viewed together, their similarities noted and their differences examined. A considerable amount of material is common to all three, or to two out of three. Some 606 vv. out of Mark’s total of 661 appear, although somewhat abridged, in Matthew, and 380 reappear in Luke. Only 31 vv. in Mark have no parallel in either Matthew or Luke. In addition, there are some 250 vv. common to Matthew and Luke that have no parallel in Mark. Obviously, this synoptic relationship can be viewed in different ways. Many solutions have been proposed, but none has won unanimous agreement.

One of the stable findings of synoptic criticism has been the priority of Mark. It is a striking fact, that whereas the order of Mark and Matthew may agree against Luke and the order of Mark and Luke may agree against Matthew, the order of Matthew and Luke never agrees against Mark. In other words, Mark is the stable factor. Most prob., Mark was the source common to the other two, which they generally followed, but sometimes altered. This common material is almost entirely narrative. The non-Markan material common to Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, almost entirely comprise the sayings of Jesus. This observation has lead to a further hypothesis—the existence of a sayings source, represented by Q. Once the theory of Markan priority is accepted, the existence of Q follows. The 250 vv. of common material between Matthew and Luke possess a considerable measure of verbal agreement, and occur in much the same order in each gospel. Scholars differ as to the extent of this proposed second source. It might conceivably have contained narrative itself originally. From the data now available, it seems to have been a sayings source only. The need for Q could be bypassed if it is assumed that Luke used Matthew directly; but his alteration of Matthew’s careful ordering of the sayings is difficult to explain, unless he had access to information that informed him of their rightful historical sequence. The purpose of Q can easily be imagined in the Early Church. As a collection of Jesus’ teachings, it would have been a useful manual of church order and teaching.

Some scholars have gone on to detect some homogeneity in the material peculiar to Matthew and Luke. Matthew’s special material has a Judaistic tone, however; its existence as a source is highly speculative. Luke includes even more special material, which he doubtless collected during his historical research.

The synoptics and John.

The independence of John from the other three gospels is significant. There are few incidents in the life of Jesus common to the synoptics and John. Major events and extensive speeches are peculiar to John alone. The presentation of the style of Jesus’ ministry is different. There are certain chronological tensions.

What is the explanation of these differences? John may either be supplementary to, independent of, interpretive of, or a substitute for, the synoptic gospels. If John’s readers knew Mark, for example, John could afford to pass over Mark’s account, and include stories and sayings not found there. If he wrote independently of Mark, on the other hand, it seems improbable that John could have failed to mention certain historical events, even if he wrote at a very early date before the synoptic gospels circulated. Nevertheless, the theory is gaining popularity. It is argued that John knew the oral tradition behind the synoptics, but wrote independently of them. The fact that John wrote about Jesus’ activities in different locations than those mentioned in the synoptic gospels, would explain the lack of parallels. Besides, it is quite possible to harmonize the chronology of John with that of the other three, as Stauffer has recently shown.

The gospel of John preserves an excellent historical tradition of the life of Jesus, which is increasingly being appreciated.

The fourfold gospel

From the first, the four gospels were considered to be various accounts of one gospel. Soon after the composition of John, the four accounts began to circulate as a fourfold corpus of Scripture. The reply to Marcion (Marcion repudiated Matthew, Mark, and John), called the anti-Marcionite prologues, prove that the four gospels were accepted as one collection. About a.d. 170, Justin’s disciple Tatian composed a harmony of the gospels called the Diatessaron, which became a favorite in the Assyrian church for some years. To Irenaeus, the fourfold gospel was as fundamental as the four corners of the world or the four winds of heaven. Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen all agree that these four accounts are the only authentic accounts of the life of Jesus from apostolic times.

Historical value

The Christian faith rests upon historical foundations; the four gospels are primary evidences for its authenticity and validity. An attack on their historical integrity is an attack against the credibility of Christianity itself. Many NT critics still regard the gospel tradition as community fiction handed down by anonymous and miscellaneous individuals. In the light of the evidence, such attempts to discredit the gospel records must be discounted. Historical pessimism is utterly unwarranted. The textual witness for the NT documents is incredibly good, surpassing any comparable instance in Greek or Latin lit. The internal data indicates that all of the gospels were written inside the 1st cent., and contain eyewitness accounts of the highest veracity. The concerted attempt of form critics to undermine their integrity is based upon huge speculation. The Christian faith could scarcely rest upon a more secure basis than what the four gospels provide. See each gospel account.


B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels (1924); V. Taylor, The Formation of the Gospel Tradition (1933); T. W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus (1949); F. C. Grant, The Gospels (1957); K. Aland et al, Studia Evangelica (1959); R. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition (1963); C. H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (1963); N. B. Stonehouse, Origins of the Synoptic Gospels (1963); B. F. Harrison, Introduction to the New Testament (1964); W. G. Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament (1965); D. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, Gospels and Acts (1966).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)