Questions and Answers
How did the four Gospels come to be?
The New Testament paints a fourfold picture of Jesus with the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The first three are known as the Synoptics, a term derived from a Greek word that means, "seeing together". The three Synoptics agree in their general historical arrangement. All three focus heavily on Jesus' Galilean ministry and His final journey to Jerusalem. They also agree to a large extent in choice of words. However, they also vary. Because events may be organized topically rather than chronologically, the order of events will sometimes differ. There are also select differences of wording. In Matthew, Jesus said "Blessed are the poor in spirit." In Luke, He said, "Blessed are the poor." In reality, He probably said both. Therefore, both Gospels are right.
The Gospel of Mark is compact, action-oriented and would have appealed to the practical Roman mind. It sometimes translates Greek words into their Latin equivalents, and his Gospel explains the meanings of Jewish customs to an audience that would have found them foreign. The Gospel of Matthew emphasizes Jesus' fulfillment of the Law and shows that Jesus was superior to Moses. It was very possibly written to show the Jew that Jesus is the Messiah promised by the Hebrew Scriptures. Luke's Gospel was written to the world at large. Luke, himself, was probably a non-jew, and he addressed both the Gospel of Luke and Acts to a non-jew named Theophilus. Luke was the most interested in Jesus' contact with those considered to be on the outside; "Gentiles", sinners, women and the poor.
The Apostle Matthew was the first to write. The second century Christian Papius said that "Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able." Jesus and His Apostles spoke primarily in Aramaic, which was a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew. In all likelihood, Matthew was the group's recorder, and wrote the sayings of Jesus in Aramaic. It should be mentioned that Jesus may have also given some sermons in Greek since He and most of His disciples were from Galilee of the Gentiles. Jewish Galileans would have been multi-lingual, knowing Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, and possibly some Latin. Matthew's record of the sayings of Jesus must have been distributed widely among the Jewish Christians. Matthew's record of Jesus' sayings, however, was not the same as his Gospel, which was written entirely in Greek.
It is likely that Mark was the first to write a complete Gospel. In his book, "The New Testament: Its Background and Message", Dr. Thomas Lea gives four arguments for Markan priority:
Matthew contains nearly all of Mark's material, and Luke contains about half of the material.
Matthew and Luke often repeat the exact words of Mark (Matt. 8:1-3; Mark 1:40-42; Luke 5:12-13).
Matthew and Luke do not depart together from the Markan sequence of events.
Matthew and Luke sometimes appear to alter the wording of Mark in order to clarify or smooth out difficult or grammatically awkward statements in Mark.
Papius said this of Mark, "Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not indeed in order, whatsoever he [Peter] remembered of the things said or done by Christ." It is believed that Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome, sometime during the 50s AD, while he was with the Apostle Peter.
It is likely then that the Apostle Matthew then took Mark's Gospel as his model for organization. To Mark's Gospel he added the teachings of Jesus. Dr. Lea points out that Matthew does not read like a translation from Aramaic to Greek. Therefore, Matthew did not simply translate the sayings of Jesus into Greek. Instead, he knew the teachings of Jesus by heart, and was able to write them with freshness and clarity in the Greek language.
The Bible's only Greek writer, Luke, would also use Mark as his source, plus Matthew's original "Sayings Gospel", whether that Gospel was then in Aramaic or Greek. Luke writes in his dedication, "Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed." As can be seen, Luke freely admits his reliance on existing sources.
Both Matthew and Luke were probably written during the late 50s to early 60s AD. The fourth Gospel, however, was written by the Apostle John at a much later date, circa 90 AD.
The Apostle John organized his Gospel differently than the Synoptics and presented the more philosophical/mystical sayings of Jesus. For John was the most philosophically minded of the Apostles. The Apostle Matthew wrote down the statements of Jesus, which were oriented toward everyday life. Statements such as "Blessed are the poor", or parables involving vineyards and the sowing of seed, resonated with the whole group. But statements such as "I and the Father are one" and "Before Abraham was I Am", resonated most distinctly with John.
Dr. Lea points out that there are Johannine-like passages in the Synoptics such as in Matthew 11:25-30 and Luke 10:21-22. "In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight. All things are delivered to me of my Father: and no man knoweth who the Son is , but the Father; and who the Father is , but the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him." The other Apostles heard Jesus' more philosophical statements and remembered them. But it was left to John to expound on these for the world.
The Apostle John anticipated and influenced the philosophy developed in later centuries known as Christian Neoplatonism. God the Father is unseen and cannot be known directly. (John 1:18; 5:37) He can only be known through Jesus Christ His only begotten Son. (John 14:9) The Father's begetting of Jesus did not occur in a point of time, but exists in eternity. For Jesus said, "Before Abraham was I Am", not "I was". (John 8:58) John also quotes Jesus' statement that the Spirit proceeds from the Father. (John 15:26) (The Holy Spirit is also part of the Logos - see the essay on the Trinity.) The Father is the Infinite. He breaks forth into time and space through the Logos. Because Jesus is begotten of the Infinite Father, He is One with the Father. He is also immanent and exists with us on our level, which the Infinite Father does not.
All four Gospels are important. Matthew shows us the Messiah Who fulfilled the Mosaic Law. Mark shows Jesus taking direct action. Luke shows us the compassionate Lord Who took pity on the downcast. John shows us the philosophical side of Jesus. They are all perfect and inspired of God, and, together, help bring us to a knowledge of our Lord.
As an important note, some liberal enemies of Christianity have claimed that only John proclaims the divinity of Christ, while the Synoptic Gospels do not. This claim is patently false as shown below:
In Mark 2:1-12, Jesus stated His authority to forgive sin while healing a paralyzed man. "When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee." The pharisees were incensed because only God can forgive sin (v. 7). Jesus was clearly telling them that He is God.
Jesus demonstrated His authority over nature in Matthew 8:26-27 when He calmed the storm. No mere mortal could have done this. The Apostles were moved to say, "What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him!"
Throughout the Synoptics, Jesus is declared to be the Son of God. For the Gospel writers, Son of God, means more than a religious man. The phrase means God, Himself. In Matthew 11:27, Jesus stated that only He knows the Father. In phraseology reminiscent of the Gospel of John, Jesus said "All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him." As such, the statements throughout the Synoptics that Jesus is the Son of God indicate that Jesus possesses the very nature of God. We are sons of God through Christ, Who has adopted us into the divine family. Jesus, though, is the only Begotten Son of God as the divine Logos (or Word) Who proceeds forth from the Infinite Father. The Synoptic attribute "Son of God" and the Johannine "Logos" mean the same thing.
All three Synoptics portray the Resurrection and Jesus' power over death.
Jesus accepted worship in the Synoptics - Matthew 15:25 and Matthew 28:8-9. "And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word. And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him."
Jesus proclaimed Himself as the final judge of all mankind - Matthew 25:31-46. "When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left." Only God has such authority. Thus, Matthew recognized that Jesus is God.
The divinity of Jesus is proclaimed as clearly in the Synoptics as in the Gospel of John. The differences in wording are due to the fact that the writers of the Synoptics were practical men, while John was a philosopher.