Lecture 04: Introduction to the Gospels
Course: Understanding the New Testament
Lecture: Introduction to the Gospels
Lesson 4 ■ Introduction to the Gospels
This is lecture four of twelve in our New Testament survey series. We are finally ready to come to an introduction and overview to each of the four Gospels themselves. Because a sizable majority of scholars believes that Mark was the first one written, we will begin with that Gospel and then proceed to follow the canonical sequence of the remaining Gospels, Matthew, Luke, and John, which may well correspond to the chronological order of those three documents, though it must be admitted that Matthew and Luke were probably written so close in time to one another that it is difficult to know which came next after Mark.
Definition of Gospel
To introduce the Gospel of Mark we need to begin with some observations about the word Gospel itself. The Greek word behind this English term is euangelion, which is formed from two Greek words meaning “good news.” Roman emperors regularly announced proclamations with the term euangelion. Their decrees, they wanted others to believe, were good news. Mark’s writing about Jesus contains the oldest known references to euangelion as an expression for the good news that Jesus preached. But when titles were affixed to the four Gospels, probably early in the second century when they first started being brought together into a four-fold collection, euangelion was used in a second way, not merely to describe the good news from Jesus, but also to identify accounts of his life and ministry as themselves good news. In other words, the Gospels are now good news about Jesus. Christians believe that God even more so than any Roman emperor was acting uniquely in the God-Man, Jesus Christ, to benefit humankind in such a way that the story of Jesus of Nazareth could be considered the supreme good news.
The Gospels as Ancient Biographies
As we have already suggested from our surveys, however briefly, of the various critical or analytical approaches that have often been taken to the New Testament in general, and the Gospels in particular, these four documents are in many ways like ancient biographies, but because of that fact in many ways different from modern biographies, at least in western cultures in that they tend to be very selective in the events and episodes of the life of the person they treat and spend a, from our vantage point, surprisingly long period of time discussing the events that led up to the individuals death. In the case of Jesus a disproportionate amount of Mark from chapter 11 onward is devoted entirely to the last week of Jesus’ life. But by ancient standards the way someone died and the events that precipitated their deaths were often as crucial as any to indicating the significance of their lives and this is certainly true in the case of Christian biographies of Jesus of Nazareth. Mark 10:45, in the verses immediately before Mark’s treatment of the last week of Jesus’ life, deals with Jesus’ own perspective on the significance of his death as he declares, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."
THE GOSPEL OF MARK
What are the circumstances surrounding the writing of the Gospel of Mark? The traditional understanding of the title – The Gospel According to Mark – identified Mark as the John Mark that we read about in the Book of Acts as a companion of Paul remembered unfortunately sometimes most for his having left the first missionary journey of Paul along with Barnabas for some unknown reason long before its completion and this in turn precipitated a sharp division between Paul and Barnabas concerning whether Mark should accompany them on their second missionary journey, a sharp enough division that Barnabas eventually took Mark and went off on their own ministry and Paul gathered new companions, Acts 13–15. But there is indication in references at the end of Paul’s letters and also at the end of 1 Peter that Mark continues to have a significant ministry, that Paul comes to think of him as a valuable coworker for the Gospel and that, at least by the sixties, he and Peter are together in Rome where early church tradition suggests that Mark wrote up what one ancient writer called the memoirs of Peter about the life of Jesus.
Within the Gospel of Mark, however, and this is true for all four of the Gospels, there is no place in the text now identifiable by chapter and verse where Mark’s name ever appears, and so if the Christian doctrine of inspiration attaches solely to the original manuscripts one could certainly be free to question whether or not the early church was correct in writing – The Gospel According to Mark – across the top of copies of this document at some early stage in its transmission. Many modern scholars, particularly less conservative ones, have in fact made this question a prominent one for a variety of reasons that time forbids us from discussing here, but there were no competing traditions in the first centuries of Christianity and if Mark were not known to be the actual author of this Gospel his choice is a strange one. Why select a seemingly somewhat minor character from the Epistles, many of which would have already been written, and from the narrative of the Book of Acts, whether or not it had yet been written down, why select someone who was often best remembered for his one act of desertion? And as a result of all of these factors conservative scholars maintain that the ascription of authorship to Mark is indeed reasonable.
If it is true that Mark wrote first and that Matthew and Luke each depended on him to one degree or another, then as we will see a good case can be made for dating Luke no later than A.D. 62, which means that Mark must be dated to sometime prior to that date in the first century. Luke from the Book of Acts we learn was indeed with Paul in Rome up to A.D. 62 and so if the evidence from the end of 1 Peter suggests that Mark and Peter were also together in Rome in the early 60s, we need not postulate a long period of time between the composition of Mark and the composition of Luke. Sometime in the early 60s, therefore, or perhaps very late 50s may be the best guess.
If on the other hand we opt for a later date for the Gospel of Luke, more on that to come, then it would appear that sometime one side or the other of the Zealot rebellion against Rome in A.D. 67 to 70 would make the best guess for dating this Gospel.
Either way it seems most likely that the circumstances surrounding the writing of Mark had to do with the circumstances facing Christians in Rome in the 60s, or just one side or the other of that decade, which was the period in which they were experiencing growing hostility and persecution from Rome, not least because it was recognized that they were no longer just a Jewish sect protected by the privilege of not having to worship the emperor and, therefore, Mark is concerned to emphasize aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry that can bring encouragement and comfort to Christians in Rome in these circumstances.
If we turn to then the themes that Mark seems most to emphasize we begin with views of Jesus. Immediately in 1:1 he is identified as both “Son of God” and “Christ” and these can be seen as two crucial titles for Mark’s Gospel. The title “Son of God” must be viewed against the Greco-Roman background of many emperors, great heroes of old, one or two philosophers who were viewed as divine men, whereas Christians claimed that Jesus was the unique Son of God, not a literal biological progeny of God, but God in human form in a fashion which is left unspecified with respect to any further detail. We see in Mark 15 at Jesus’ crucifixion that the Roman centurion also says, “Truly this man was the Son of God,” creating a framework around the Gospel even though the title is used only a handful of times in between to suggest that this is an important lens for viewing Jesus.
But he is also the Christ, the Jewish Messiah, God’s promised deliverer for his people. The problem is that in Mark, Jesus frequently tells people to keep this information quiet, what has come to be called the Messianic Secret. Someone recognizes that he is the Messiah, or he works a powerful miracle demonstrating his spiritual kingship, and he then commands people to not tell anyone. Liberal scholars, particularly a hundred plus years ago, developed the theory that this was an addition to the Gospel tradition because Jesus never really claimed to be the Messiah and this was Mark’s way of explaining how he indeed could have been the Messiah even though none who heard his earthly ministry remembered him specifically making that claim.
Conservative scholars, on the other hand, have consistently maintained with considerable plausibility that Jesus simply recognized his claim to be the liberator of Israel would be readily misunderstood by many in political and military terms as the one who would come to be a literal king in Jerusalem and perhaps also the general leading Jewish troops into battle and overthrowing the Romans. John 6:15 shows how this was indeed a genuine danger.
If one wants to add a third view of Jesus as a central emphasis of the Gospel of Mark it may indeed be one which is not so much based on the frequency of a specific title but can embrace the entire flow of thought of the book and the emphases found in
numerous passages, namely that of Jesus as suffering servant based on the imagery of Isaiah 53 and recall again our quotation of Mark 10:45.
Other key themes in the Gospel of Mark include the frequent inability of the disciples and other followers of Jesus to understand or understand fully what Jesus was teaching climaxed in Peter’s remarkable confession of Jesus as the Christ in 8:27-29, followed immediately by the so-called Messianic Secret in verse 30, Jesus telling him to tell no one, followed by Jesus beginning to predict his suffering, so that we have all three views of Jesus classically illustrated back-to-back in this particular passage. But then Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about suffering showing that he really does not have anywhere close to complete understanding of the one he has confessed to be the Christ.
If one thinks about contemporary application of a Gospel writer producing a document to this kind of audience with even just these few key themes that we have highlighted, we get the picture of one who is concerned to present in succinct fashion, a basic outline of those aspects of Jesus’ ministry that he deems fundamental to the Gospel, able to correct frequent misunderstandings about who Jesus is, but perhaps most importantly to encourage Christians in the midst of adversity. To remind us that despite our failures, the times we misunderstand and deny and even betray our Lord, that if we, like Peter as we read so powerfully in the Book of Acts repent, can be restored to as great or even greater a relationship, a role of ministry, of leadership, of service among God’s people, that God is never finished with us until he brings us home to glory and that repentance and restoration and powerful reuse in Christian living and ministry always remain possible.
THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Secondly, we want to reflect some on the Gospel of Matthew. Here tradition has ascribed the Gospel to Levi, also known as Matthew, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples and a converted tax collector. Again there have been questions about the legitimacy of this ascription and it is certainly true that as one of the twelve apostles Matthew could have made a natural candidate for attribution of authorship trying to convince others of the authority of this document even if that tradition were not true. But again, as a converted tax collector perhaps next only to Judas among the twelve, after the fact he may have been the least likely of the twelve to be such a candidate. Later apocryphal Gospels were regularly attributed to characters such as Peter and James, and from those not among the twelve, Mary or even Nicodemus, not some of the less well known or more suspect of the twelve like Matthew.
Ancient church tradition dates Matthew to somewhere in the early 60s, of course such numbers were not yet in use, but putting together the information about who was where doing what at the time, perhaps a date of about 63 is most probable, just shortly after Mark having been written. It is often asked whether one of the Twelve would rely on the choice of passages and wording that Matthew does to such an extent, even though he then adds almost double the amount of information to what Mark included, but if indeed Mark was writing up Peter’s memoirs to a large degree as the leader of the early church at one stage and as the disciple during Jesus’ ministry who was the ring leader of the Twelve, it would be very natural for Matthew to want to see how Peter chose to write a Gospel about Jesus.
Tradition as well as the contents of Matthew also suggests that he was writing to primarily if not exclusively Jewish Christians somewhere in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, perhaps in Jerusalem itself, or another common more recent suggestion
has been in Syria particularly in its major city with a sizable Jewish minority of Syrian Antioch.
Theological emphases Matthew under our category of views of Jesus include Jesus as a teacher particularly like Moses. If one asks what does Matthew add most notably to Mark’s basic structure of powerful miracles followed by that pivotal scene of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ but misunderstanding of Jesus’ prediction of his sufferings which then leads inexorably to the cross? The answer is that Matthew adds five major blocks of teaching, some of which have short partial parallels in Mark, some of which do not, but all of which create large segments of discourse or sermon punctuating Matthew’s narrative with key ethical teachings and also teachings on the Second Coming of Christ.
These five blocks appear in chapters 5 to 7 of Matthew, the famous Sermon on the Mount; chapter 10 as Jesus commissions the twelve to send them out on mission; almost all of chapter 13, Jesus teaching in parables; chapter 18, Jesus teaching the disciples on themes of humility and forgiveness, and chapters 24 to 25 perhaps to be grouped also with chapter 23, Jesus woes to the scribes and Pharisees followed by his teaching about his return.
A title, which is comparatively distinctive to Matthew’s Gospel, which may summarize much of his emphasis even beyond the shear frequency of the title, is the title “Son of David.” Jesus is descendent of the lineage of kings. He thus fulfills Old Testament
prophecy a key feature of Matthew’s Gospel. He thus stands in a position to be able to interpret what in the law and in the Old Testament more generally applies unchanged and what must be understood as applying in a new way as a result of his mission and he demonstrates that he is a legitimate candidate to be the Christ or Messiah even if he redefines some of that role as well.
Other key themes include the progress as indicated by the structure of Matthew’s narrative from a Gospel that is offered first exclusively to the Jews, see 10:5-6 and 15:24, but eventually culminates in the Great Commission in the closing verses of Matthew’s Gospel as Jesus sends the twelve out to the entire world. Thus, along the way Matthew’s Gospel, as we have already suggested, more emphasizes Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law and Prophets, see especially Matthew 5:17-48 in the Sermon on the Mount, but he also looks ahead to a time when the kingdom will be taken from the current tenants of the vineyard, the current leaders of Israel, see Matthew 21:43, a verse in the parable of the wicked tenants unique to Matthew’s version of it and an entire passage or parable unique to Matthew’s Gospel about the sheep and the goats envisages a coming judgment of all nations.
Matthew’s Gospel clearly in its day was best used with those from Jewish backgrounds and/or familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, best used to stimulate the universal evangelistic mission of the church and very beloved in the early centuries of Christianity and most commonly cited of all four Gospels because of its key ethical teachings and all of those emphases remain crucial in our modern world as well.
THE GOSPEL OF LUKE
The Gospel of Luke is traditionally ascribed to Luke the beloved physician and companion of Paul as he discloses in the closing verses of Colossians. It is also alleged from earliest days on that Luke wrote the book known as the Acts of the Apostles. The issue of authorship has been challenged, but again as with Mark one wonders if someone mentioned only in a couple of greetings at the ends of letters of Paul would ever have been chosen as the alleged author of a Gospel if there was not good reason for believing that tradition in fact to be accurate.
We mentioned that we would come back to the question of date as we discussed the circumstances of Mark and here is the place to do that. Acts ends by many readers’ perspectives, ancient and modern, very puzzlingly and very abruptly at the end of what we call now Acts 28 with Paul in house arrest in Rome for a two-year period awaiting the outcome of the appeal of his sentence to the Roman emperor. Luke has gone out of his way from chapter 21 of Acts on to highlight in detail Paul’s struggles with first Jewish and then Roman authorities and the imprisonments that they led to and the hearings in which he defended himself but was unable to secure his release from prison. It would appear that Luke is building toward the climax to tell us what indeed did happen to Paul, but then his Gospel followed by the Acts simply ends with the Kingdom of God being preached as people are free to come and visit Paul under house arrest and then go out and proclaim the message to others, but that is where the story ends.
A common explanation throughout church history for this puzzle is that Luke told us nothing further about Paul’s perils because he was writing precisely at the time with which his narrative ended and therefore he had nothing further to tell because it had not yet happened. If this explanation is the correct one, then the chronological indications given of how much time elapses at different points throughout the Book of Acts enables us to date, with the possible margin of error of a year or two in one direction or the other, the events of the end of the Book of Acts to A.D. 62. And thus as we noted earlier, if Luke used Mark, because again much as with Matthew there are a large number of passages that are selected identical to those Mark chose and often, though not always, in the identical sequence even when shear chronology does not demand it and again as with Matthew considerable additional material supplementing Mark which would make little sense if one imagined Mark to be later than either Matthew or Luke, why then does Mark merely abbreviate without adding much of anything distinctive and indeed preserving passages which within themselves are often longer than their parallels in Matthew and Luke even as his Gospel is overall more abbreviated than Matthew and Luke. A very odd way of creating a digest or summary if that had been Mark’s intentions. So if we are correct in assuming that Mark is first and that Matthew and Luke both used him and came later, then Luke has to be dated to before Acts. But it is quite possible that the two volumes were conceived of together. Each fills about the maximum size of any known scroll of antiquity and so we may date Luke to 62 or ever so slightly before.
If, however, our explanation of the seemingly abrupt end of Luke-Acts as a two-volume work is not correct, then the door remains open to date Luke considerably later and many believe that his rewording of Jesus’ teaching about the end times in Luke 21 (see the parallels in Mark 13 and Matthew 24) suggest a level of familiarity with the exact events of the fall of Jerusalem to Rome in A.D. 70 whereas Matthew and Mark word Jesus’ prophesies much more vaguely. Could this be Luke interpreting after the fact for his readers the meaning of Jesus’ prophesies? Notice particularly language such as that surrounding Mark and Matthew’s cryptic phrase, “the abomination of desolation,” or “the desolating sacrilege,” which Luke calls Jerusalem surrounded by armies.
So we must leave the question somewhat open and again as we noted under our introduction to Mark, if we allow for Luke and Acts to come from a time after A.D. 70, then Mark does not have to be dated as early and then neither would Matthew have to be dated as early since we were concerned to put Matthew later than Mark, and the dates of the other Gospels would now be placed later as well.
Whatever the dating, Luke is clearest of all four of the Gospels as to his purpose. In his prologue in the opening four verses of Luke 1 as he describes for his patron, some otherwise unknown but probably well-to-do Greek or Roman interested in Christianity, perhaps a young convert commissioning this work, Luke writes that it seemed good to him, and then he addresses most excellent Theophilus to compose this Gospel so that he might know the certainty of the things about which he had been taught. In route Luke describes that he is aware of other Gospels or Gospel portions circulating in writing or orally, not all of which he finds equally adequate, at least for his purposes, and therefore he wants to create his particular version and provide his selection of key themes.
Major Themes and Application
Some of the most crucial key themes of Luke then, with respect to views of Jesus, include his humanity and his compassion for the outcasts of society, such as Gentiles, Samaritans, those who were the descendants of the unlawful intermarrying between Jew and Gentile centuries earlier, tax collectors and other notorious sinners, the poor, and even women.
He is portrayed as a teacher much as in Matthew’s Gospel, but not so much interpreting ethical or legal material but as a teller of parables. Luke includes approximately twenty not found in any other Gospel, dramatic illustrations of the in-breaking reign of God using clear, well-understood analogies from common, everyday life of first-century Israelites yet always with some surprising twist.
Other key themes include the power of prayer, the importance of the Holy Spirit, and clearly Luke is the best Gospel in our world today to focus our attention on the importance of the rich to be good stewards and care for the poor, to give generously or
sacrificially from their material possessions and to recognize Jesus’ humanity and concern more generally for all the dispossessed and marginalized and those who have less materially or spiritually or socially than we do.
THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
Finally, we want to make a few brief introductory comments about the fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John. Here we do have authorship attributed to a very central figure, John, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, one of the inner three along with his brother James and Peter. He is never referred to by name in this Gospel any more than any of the other Gospel authors are, but he is called the beloved disciple at the end of John 21. This disciple is the one who testifies and then apparently one or more of his followers have appended a seal of approval that they know that this testimony is true.
Five different occasions particularly throughout the events of the last week of Jesus life, his so-called passion narrative, one called “the disciple whom Jesus loved” plays a prominent role. And intriguingly in the fourth Gospel the character that the other three know as John the Baptist is never called the Baptist, is just called John. Surely this would lead to confusion among the readers of this Gospel as to which John the writer had in view at any point, John the Baptist or John the Apostle, unless it was known that John the apostle was indeed the author, that he had chosen not to refer to himself by name, and therefore that each reference to a John by name was referring to the Baptist.
What we can deduce from early church tradition, or at least its majority strand, suggests that John was written in the late 80s or even more probably in the decade of the 90s when John was a very elderly man ministering in and around the cities of Asia Minor and particularly Ephesus on the west coast of what today we would call Turkey. Here we have a majority of Gentile Christians but still a key core of those from Jewish backgrounds.
Key theological emphases include under views of Jesus, intriguingly again Son of God and Christ exactly as in Mark as disclosed in the key purpose statement of John 20:31, that “these things are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have life in his name.” So, even more than in Mark where beleaguered Christians are particularly in view, even more than in Matthew where primarily Jewish Christians are in view but with the key emphasis that evangelism moves on beyond them to the Gentiles, even more than in Luke where the one Gentile writer of the four Gospels is addressing primarily a Gentile inquirer and probably a church with whom he is associated, however loosely made up primarily, if not exclusively of Gentiles, here we have in John’s Gospel a document that is very evangelistic in its focus. If it was indeed first delivered to Christian churches in and around Ephesus it was not meant merely to address situations that they faced as believers, but to encourage them in their evangelistic mission with those in their midst.
Jesus is also uniquely in the Gospel of John the Word of God, the logos, the Greek word for “word,” the Word who in John 1:1 was indeed God, God’s creative expression of communication to humanity. He is in John’s Gospel uniquely the Lamb of God, the
Passover sacrifice, and he is God Incarnate, the Word become flesh, John 1:14. And it is only John who contains the “I am” sayings of Jesus. “I am the light of the world,” “the resurrection and the life,” “the way and the truth and the life,” “the gate,” “the true vine,” “the Good Shepherd.” And it is only in John 8:58 where we read that Jesus simply refers to himself as the “I am,” probably an illusion to Exodus 3:14 and the name God revealed of himself to Moses in the burning bush. And passages like John 10:30 are also important where Jesus says, “I and the Father are one,” one in such a unique way that it is viewed as blasphemy, Jesus equating himself with God in the eyes of Orthodox Jews who attempt to take up stones to stone him.
Other key themes include the presence of eternal life beginning already when a person becomes a believer in this life, of miracles as key signs pointing to who Jesus is, of Jesus’ private teachings for his disciples particularly in his farewell discourse the last night of his life in John 13-17 emphasizing the theme of unity, unity between the Son and the Father and between the Son and his followers and then praying for unity among the Son’s followers, a vision the church has far too poorly too often carried out. John 6:39 is indicative of a number of passages that likewise stress the eternal security of the believer.
So perhaps John’s Gospel is best applied today and in every age to the widest variety of settings in the church as the best Gospel for a non-Christian to learn about Jesus’ unique claims to divinity that call for a response and the hoped for response is to believe and to follow and to become a disciple.
But also an excellent place for a new Christian to begin to study in most detail, perhaps read next after the Gospel of Mark so that Mark gives the succinct overview and then John moves into fuller detail about Jesus who is both fully human and fully God and in settings that emphasize, or that need to emphasize, God’s important promises about the assurance of salvation for those who continue in their belief.
These are just whirlwind overviews of the four Gospels. Much more could be said, but we must move on in our next lecture and turn to a harmony of the life of Jesus as we put the information from the four Gospels together and look at key highlights that
emerge in route.