Gospel is a Greek word for “Good News” and has been adopted as the official name for the ancient written accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. There are supposedly over 20 separate Gospel manuscripts in existence today, but only 4 of these were complete enough and believed to be the most accurate accounts of Jesus Christ. These accounts consist of the book of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and have been included as the first 4 books of the New Testament in the Bible. I have debated and talked with many Christian scholars, believers, non believers and have studied the conservative and liberal view points of each of them. I have personally read and studied all four Gospels in multiple translations. In this article I will briefly discuss the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the differences I have found between them, and some of the conservative and liberal interpretations of each of them.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke The Synoptic Gospels
The first 3 Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all share the same accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. They all have about the same story line, content and in some circumstances, the exact same wording. It is because of this similarity that Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels; Synoptic is Greek for the work “similar”.
Although all four Gospels are technically anonymous, early patristic writings dating back to 125 AD indicate there authorship. Matthew is documented to be written by Jesus’ disciple Matthew, also referred to in the bible as “Levi” the Galilean tax collector. Mark is believed to be written by John-Mark a missionary that worked closely with Paul. The book of Luke is documented and believed to be written by Luke, a Greek physician who also worked closely with Paul.
Expert scholars believe that both of the authors of Matthew and Luke used the book of Mark as a reference when writing them. In fact, it is even stated in the book of Luke in chapter 1:1-3 that, “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mightiest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed”.
Most Christians agree that Matthew and Luke used the book of Mark and other (now lost) writings that were floating around back then to help reconstruct the life of Jesus. However there are some, like my stepfather an evangelical Christian, who believe that Matthew and Luke wrote every account entirely led by the “holy spirit”. Growing up I simply took my stepfathers word as truth on these subjects. However, much later in my life I started to read for myself and couldn’t help but believe that Matthew and Luke had simply copied straight from the book of Mark. Except for a few small differences, the accounts that they share are strikingly similar. I find it interesting that Matthew and Luke, which were believed to be written much later than Mark, tended to use the exact same wording as Mark, except for words that portrayed Jesus as less divine and more mortal.
The Book of Mark
The Gospel of Mark is the shortest of the gospels and believed to be one of the oldest accounts of Jesus’ adult ministry. The book of Mark doesn’t discuss the birth, childhood, and some of the sermons and teaching that are written in the other gospels. Mark simply cuts to the chase, quickly summarizing through Jesus’ ministry and highlighting the death and crucifixion of Jesus.
Mark makes a point from the beginning to emphasize that Jesus is the prophesized messiah of Israel. From the very beginning of the book he states in verse 2, “As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee”. This is a clear indication that he not only knows Jewish law but that he is writing to others that hold the same beliefs. Many experts believe that Mark was a Roman. However, Marks knowledge of Jewish law and prophecies would suggest that he is of a Jewish background, possibly a Roman Jew.
In the book of Mark, Jesus is portrayed more like a mortal human being than in any of the other gospels. For example, in one story shared by all three writers, Jesus is asked a question that Mark presents one way and Matthew the other. In Mark 10:17-18 Jesus is asked, “‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone'”. In Matthew’s account the question is positioned as “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life? And he said to him, why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good'”. Notice how Matthew chose to use the word “good” in front of deed instead of teacher and instead of Jesus saying, “why do you call me good”, he states, “why do you ask me about what is good?” One interpretation of this would be that Jesus’ answer according to Mark sounds as if he is distancing himself from being one with God. Other example of this is when Jesus was in his hometown of Nazareth. In Mark 6:5 it states, “And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them.” This scripture suggests that Jesus tried to heal some people and couldn’t. In Matthew 13:58 the writer chooses to state this passage as follows, “And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.” The book of Matthew doesn’t say that Jesus “could not” perform miracles but rather implies that because of the people’s lack of faith he chose not to.
There are plenty of other passages in which Matthew and Luke have word for word similarities except for words that could lead the reader into doubt of the infallibility of Jesus. There are some that believe Matthew and Luke’s writings were slightly altered and influenced by early Pauline Christianity. Pauline Christianity was based on the writings and teachings of Paul. Paul is considered one of the original founders of the Christian Faith. He is known as the Apostle of Christ to the Gentiles and is responsible for spreading Christianity outside of Jewish circles. Since the book of Mark was written before the spread of Pauline Christianity many believe it is the most accurate account of Jesus’ life.
The Book of Matthew
Matthew is the first book of the New Testament. The book of Matthew is believed to be written by a Jewish Roman hired tax collector that was a Disciple and Apostle of Jesus Christ. Regardless of who really wrote the book, it is certain that the writer was familiar with Jewish history, customs, and prophecies. The Gospel of Matthew starts off with the birth and genealogy of Jesus. I have concluded that Matthew was clearly written for the Jewish people. Matthew goes to great lengths to prove that Jesus is the Messiah prophesized about by Old Testament prophets. In reading Matthew, I have found over ten direct references to ancient Jewish prophecies. Throughout the book you will read things like, Jesus did this so “that it might be fulfilled” or “which was spoken of the prophet”. From the very beginning to the very end of the book, Matthew references back to ancient Jewish prophecy. For example, all of the gospels recall Jesus teaching in parables. Matthew makes sure that the reader is aware that the Messiah was prophesized to speak in these parables. In chapter 13:35 Matthew states, “That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.” Here he is obviously making reference to Psalms 78:2-4 where it states that in the generations to come, God will speak to man in parables, “I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old: Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us.”
The Book of Luke
Luke was written for more of an international audience. At the time Luke was written Christianity was already spreading across the Mediterranean. Luke spends less time writing about Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in Jesus Christ and spends more time focusing on Jesus as a “Savior” to all mankind.
Luke gives a more detailed account of the life of Jesus than that of Matthew and Mark. After reading Matthew and Mark and then digging into Luke you will not only read a more detailed account of the life and ministry of Jesus but additional aspects of it from a non-Jewish perspective. Luke confirms the same timeline of events and basic story as Matthew. However, there are a few problems that should be addressed. Both Matthew and Luke list Jesus’ genealogy from King David however, it is David’s son Solomon that Matthew traces Jesus’ ancestry whereas Luke traces it from David’s son Nathan. This has always bothered me and in fact, it has been a highly debated subject between Christians and non-Christians.
In order for Christ to be the prophesied Messiah he has to be a direct descendant from David. Both Luke and Matthew make sure to let you know he is, but why is there such a difference between them? Christian scholars that I have talked with suggest that Luke was actually describing the genealogy of Mary, whereas Matthew used Joseph (Mary’s husband) and that both Mary and Joseph were descendents of David, thus Jesus is also a descendant of David from both Mary and Joseph. Why would they write so closely on so many accounts but differ on this one? I have always had a hard time swallowing this inconsistency. I do not see how Luke could have possibly thought he was writing about Mary’s descendants. Luke makes it clear in chapter 3:23 stating, “And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli” and so on and so on. If the genealogy Luke wrote was from Mary why would the author of Luke state this?
The Gospel of John
The Gospel of John is much different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Many Christians I have talked with believe that John was written by one of Jesus’ beloved disciples. John makes it a point more than all of the other Gospels to show the reader who he believed Jesus to be, where he came from, and what he came to do. Matthew, Mark, and Luke do a good job time lining the life and ministry of Jesus, but none of them make it clear who Jesus actually was. The book of Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not actually state that Jesus was anything more than the “son of God”. One can argue that we are all technically “sons of God”. John attempts to make clear that Jesus was more than just a son to God and some suggest that John claims Jesus was God. In fact, if it wasn’t for the book of John many experts say Christianity wouldn’t be where it was today.
One of the most frequently recited passages Christians recite comes from the book of John. In John 3:16 it states that, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”. This is the common theme throughout the entire book. John makes it clear that the only way to heaven and the only way to reach God is through Jesus. John also makes it quite clear that he believed that Jesus was God in the flesh. John 1:1-14 states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”
There are debates that go on claiming that Jesus didn’t mean he was God. None of the other gospels make it as clear as John. Another example is in John 10:28 where Jesus says, “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one. Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him.” If Jesus wasn’t claiming to be one with God, why then did the Jews try to stone him? Was John making this up? Did Jesus really say these things? Why doesn’t Matthew, Mark or Luke mention Jesus saying these things? They do mention a few accounts of Jesus barely escaping before being stoned. If what John has written is true, it’s no wonder the Jews wanted to stone Jesus. He was claiming to be God; this would have been against everything that Judaism was built on at that time.
Christianity builds its strongest case for the divinity of Jesus Christ through the book of John. From my readings of the Synoptic Gospels I can conclude that Jesus was a prophet of God, a miracle worker, and a man of compassion and love. I cannot however, find any scripture that clearly places Jesus’ as more than a great prophet except for the Gospel of John. It is only in John that you begin to see Jesus as being more than a prophet and more like a God. Even critics that do not believe that Jesus was more than a miracle worker agree that from John’s point of view, Jesus was far more than a miracle worker. John is believed to be the beloved disciple of Christ that lived with him during his ministry years. If this is true, there could be no one more qualified to write on the accounts of Jesus than John. The question is why don’t the other Gospels make it as clear as John?
There are differences among the four Gospels in the way each book interprets who Jesus was. One of the major beliefs Christians hold is that Jesus was more than a man. Christians believe that Jesus was actually God in the flesh. Christians also believe that the bible is the inerrant word of God and that it was entirely written under the influence of his Holy Spirit. They believe that all four Gospels are free of error and that the differences between them such as the genealogy of Jesus, words that are in Mark and omitted from Luke and Matthew, and Johns unique portrayal of Jesus are simply different viewpoints that together give us a more complete image of Christ.
Everyone has experienced stories and events that have been retold by different people. Take any one event experienced by more than two people and you will hear a slightly different story from all of them. It’s what the Gospels share in common and agree on that make them so amazing and believable. Every myth stems from a truth. Every rumor was birthed from some form of fact. The question however, is what the truth is? Was Jesus simply a prophet, a great healer, or was he God in the flesh? The only answers we have lay in the written records of Jesus’ life in the Gospels. Jesus says, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Luke 11:9-10 & Matthew 7:7-8).