Each of the four “gospels” (derived from an Old English term meaning “good news”) of the New Testament was conceived and written independently, with no original intention that they be read collectively. Separately, each of these texts utilizes a lyrical narrative history that seeks to testify to the divinity of Jesus, and invites readers to believe in the miracle of Christ’s resurrection. But in comparing the gospels with each other, it quickly becomes apparent that the four gospel authors did not share a unified understanding of the events they were describing. Interesting similarities and differences between these books reveal each author attempting to tell the story of Jesus while conveying a particular political agenda.
The Gospel According to Mark is almost universally believed to be the oldest of the four books, and is thought to have served as a primary source for the writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Virtually all of the contents of Mark appear somewhere in Matthew or Luke, which lends these three books the label “synoptic” (from a Greek term meaning “seen together”). The author is believed to have been a Gentile, writing from Rome in the late 60’s CE, a man who did not personally witness the events he describes. His gospel is well noted for supporting the Pauline perspective that salvation was not solely intended for Jews, and depicts the disciples of Jesus as consistently failing to understand Christ’s message – a viewpoint that is “corrected” in the pro-disciple works of Matthew and Luke.
What is perhaps most unique to the Gospel of Mark is its portrayal of Jesus as a believable human being. A single, short passage (6:3) describes Jesus as a carpenter and the “son of Mary,” and refers to His “sisters” – all references that do not appear anywhere else in the gospels. In 8:22-26, the story of the blind man of Bethsaida portrays Jesus as struggling with His power to heal. And in 6:5, Mark attests that in Jesus’ hometown He “could not” perform any major miracles at all. It is in this earliest gospel, more than anywhere else, that readers are encouraged to identify with the humanity of Jesus as He poignantly wrestles with profound knowledge.
Though The Gospel According to Matthew is believed to have been taken in part from Mark’s text, it presents a strikingly different political position. Believed to have been written around 80 CE, the author’s identity remains unknown, although his writings show him to be a Jewish Christian (like the Apostle Peter and Jesus’ brother James), and as such is much more sympathetic to the disciples than Mark. In Matthew, Jesus declares that He “was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (15:24), and instructs His disciples, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans” (10:5-6). Clearly, Matthew sees Christ’s message as intended only for Jews, which implicitly underscores the continued validity of Mosaic Law.
As opposed to Mark, Matthew emphasizes Christ’s divinity over His humanity, and seeks to indisputably establish His identity as Savior by carefully demonstrating the fulfillment of ancient messianic prophecies. Chapter 2 tells of the visit of the Magi, who declare that the birth of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem fulfills a prediction in Micah 5:2. And Matthew describes the Holy Family’s flight from Herod and their safe return as an event foretold in Hosea 11:1.
Matthew also sought to lay important groundwork for the nascent Church, being the sole author to provide significant portions of the Sermon on the Mount, as well as the more familiar version of the Lord’s Prayer. And it is in this gospel alone (16:18) that Jesus addresses Peter as the rock upon which the Church will be built, establishing the concept of apostolic succession that would ultimately create a good deal of political dissension in the centuries to come.
The Gospel According to Luke is the only book to begin with a literary preface. The author is presumed to be a Christian Gentile because his text supports the Pauline position of Christianity’s universal scope. In chapters 22 and 23, Luke lays responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus squarely upon the Jews, apparently appealing to a target audience of non-Jewish Christians.
While Matthew and Luke share features not found elsewhere, Luke incorporates information that is unique, and intended as ultimate, irrefutable proof of Jesus’ divinity. For example, though both books contain birth stories, Luke adds an astounding recognition of Christ’s greatness by the yet-to-be-born fetus of John the Baptist (1:41). Though Matthew and Luke include genealogies of Jesus (both assuming a legal or symbolic paternity on the part of Joseph), Matthew’s list is carried forward from Abraham, while Luke’s is extended backward, beyond Adam, to God Himself.
Luke also resolves an eschatological problem stemming from an apparently unfulfilled prophecy in Mark 13:30 that “this generation will certainly not pass away until … heaven and earth will pass away.” Instead of connecting the old prediction to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Luke chose to present the final days as a stretch of time that is impossible to calculate (17:20-21). This retooling may have facilitated Christianity’s survival into the new era.
One of the most formative texts in the New Testament is The Gospel According to John. Written later than the synoptic gospels, John demonstrates a refined understanding of the theological issues relating to Christ, and immediately presents Him as more deity than man. His writings suggest knowledge of Hebrew, and familiarity with Jewish holidays and tradition, although he also expresses an anti-Semitic belief in the failure of the disciples to understand Jesus. Such seemingly contradictory factors imply that John may have been a Jewish convert to Christianity.
This work omits many of the stories and parables that are featured in the other books. Lacking in John is any birth story of Jesus, or account of His baptism; there is no Last Supper, and no Eucharist. Instead, John delivers extended teachings of Jesus, and offers critical insight into the divine nature of Christ. His opening chapter, identifying Christ as the “Logos” or Word of God became central to Christianity’s understanding of Jesus and His relationship to God.
The differences between John and the other gospels hint that this author intended for his work to provide essential theological information that is missing elsewhere. John disregards the “Kingdom of Heaven” that is the focus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, preferring to concentrate on the promise of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. Of all the gospels, it is John’s that demonstrates a comprehension of Christ’s ultimate meaning as Savior of the human race.
Independently, the gospel of John, like those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is a beloved literary masterpiece that makes a unique and inestimable contribution to Christianity. Taken as a group, these works also serve to illustrate that early Christians (Jews and Gentiles, conservatives and liberals) understood their faith in radically different ways. That the gospels have managed to work together to enliven and propel Christianity forward for over two millenniums is perhaps their greatest achievement.