We continue our series on…
The A- Z of the Christian Faith
G for Gospels.
Mark, Luke, and John – Acts and Romans follow on!
That’s a little rhyme for children to remember the order of the first New Testament books. The first four books, the Gospels, tell us the story of the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. They also give us his teaching. Each one, if you like, is also putting across answers to questions that people would have asked about him.
Just imagine for a moment that, after the Ascension, after the day of Pentecost, the apostles started on their ministry, teaching and preaching all over the place. People would be bound to say – Who was this Jesus? Where did he come from? What did he teach? Why was he so special? If he was who you say, why did the religious leaders turn against him? Why did the Romans put him to death? And why do you say he’s alive?
The people who knew Jesus personally were scattered and they were starting to die off. So began the business of writing down stories about him, accounts of his teaching, and so on, so that these questions could be answered. Writing about him was also another way of spreading the message.
St. Mark’s gospel, which is the shortest, is also the earliest, though this hasn’t always been appreciated. It was probably written about 30 years after Jesus’ death. St, Mark had close connections to St. Peter, and that was important for the gospel’s acceptance. Quite a few gospels were written, and the ones that had good connections to the Apostles were seen to be the most trustworthy.
The gospel of Mark was probably written in Rome. It is very realistically and vividly written. It is full of action, and has great descriptions of scenes and peoples. Read it through at one go, and you’ll see what I mean. It pulls no punches, about Jesus, or about the disciples.
St. Matthew’s gospel was, for most of Christian History, assumed to be the first written, though not for the last 300 years. But it was also seen, in the church, as the most important and almost all the readings on Sundays and Holy days were taken from it. It was written between 30 and 40 years after Jesus’ death.
It is now seen as based on St. Mark, plus another source which St. Luke also used. It may have been written the way it was so that it could be used as a teaching manual, and also to be read in churches.
It is perhaps the most Jewish gospel, and tries to make clear that what Jesus taught is a fulfilment of the Old Testament. It sees Christianity as a development from Judaism, rather than as a break.
St. Luke’s gospel was written about 50 years after the death of Jesus (none of these dates are certain). And it seems to have been written for Gentile reading. The story in St. Luke’s gospel, however, is continued in the Acts of the Apostles, and the hinge of the two books is the Ascension! He shows how Jesus, rejected by his own people, soon attracts people from outside the Jewish faith who acknowledge him as Saviour. St. Luke, in his stories about Jesus, and stories told by Jesus, has great sympathy with, and emphasis on, the outcast. He writes very sympathetically about all “outsiders” – sinners, foreigners, and women – all who were considered second best – so he is very popular in our times when we value inclusiveness.
St. Luke shares material with Saints Matthew and Mark, but seems to have had another source of stories and teaching as well. It is a tradition that he had a link to the Virgin Mary. St. Luke has a story of Jesus’ birth, which is centred around Mary and her experiences. The only other account of Jesus’ birth is in St. Matthew, and it is quite differently presented.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all give us parables of Jesus, telling us the images he used to describe God’s Kingdom. Together they are known as the synoptic gospels.
St. John’s gospel is very different from the other three. There is hardly any teaching about how to live, how to behave. “Love one another” is all. St. John gives us Jesus’ life from the appearance of John the Baptist, as does St. Mark. He gives us a very different set of miracles from the other three gospels (although the feeding of the 5,000 is in all four).
There are no parables – no teaching about the kingdom. The time scale is quite different – 3 years are covered of Jesus’ ministry, not one. Things happen in a different order, and there are long sermons by Jesus which appear nowhere else: “I am the light of the world”, or “the good shepherd”, or “the bread of life”. All are only in St. John.
St. John wrote his gospel around 100AD (probably) so it was the last to be written. He is thought to have known St. Mark’s gospel and to have written his gospel in Ephesus. St. John’s gospel is best appreciated if you read it right through, and try to appreciate it as a whole. He has put his stories, themes, and speeches in a certain order, and they are picked up, then hidden, and then picked up again. If you only dip into this gospel you will never get the best out of it.
It is most centred on “Who is Jesus?” much more than on details of Christian life. John wrote as he did because of his great mystical and theological gifts, but also because of the needs of his church at the time.
Well, to sum up about the gospels. If they were all the same, we’d merge them into one. But the church has selected the “big four” to give us four brilliantly written, inspired testimonies to the significance of Jesus.
They have enough in common with each other that we recognize the same Jesus. But just as they emerged from very different writers aiming at different groups, so now particular individuals will be perhaps inspired by a certain gospel. Our Sunday readings use Matthew, Mark and Luke for one year each, in turn, and St. John gets read around the ‘big’ feasts of Christmas and Easter
Whichever your favourite is, read the gospels, if you never read any other part or book of the Bible. They are the best available access to the evidence of Jesus and an endless source of inspiration.