The Bible: gospels

There are four accounts of Jesus’ life in the New Testament.  They are known as gospels (gospel means ‘good news’).  Little was written about Jesus during the thirty years following his resurrection.  He was expected imminently to return in triumph, so a written account was not deemed necessary by his (largely illiterate) followers.  However, when a new generation of children was born who had not met Jesus, a record was vital.

Mark, writing about thirty years after Jesus, raced through Jesus’ life and filled it with action.  Matthew, ten or more years later, based his account on Mark’s.  He copied parts word for word, enlarged it by explaining how these events fulfilled what the Old Testament had anticipated, and expanded the account of Jesus’ resurrection.  Luke also used Mark’s account, approaching the task as a teacher explaining the salvation that Jesus had brought about.  Some stories appear both in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark.  It is possible that they both took these from an anthology of Jesus’ sayings that no longer exists.  (Academics call it ‘The Source’ or ‘Q’.)

These three gospels are very similar, so they are known as ‘Synoptic gospels’ (it means ‘eye-to-eye’).  They were written in Greek, like the remainder of the New Testament.

John’s gospel, written later, is rather different.  This is not a comprehensive account of Jesus’ life.  Instead it focuses on several key incidents, making their significance clear with a theological commentary.

The writer of Luke’s gospel went on to produce a sequel which describes the way the Christian church expanded.  The first followers of Jesus are reinvigorated by God’s Holy Spirit after Jesus’ departure.  A church forms in Jerusalem led by Peter, who had been with Jesus constantly for the last three years of his life.  During a time of persecution the Christians are scattered, but cannot stop talking about Jesus wherever they go.  This results in new communities of Christians wherever they take shelter.  Later, Paul takes prominence, becoming the first great missionary of the Christian faith.  The story comes to a climax in Rome where Paul announces the good news of Jesus at the heart of the empire.

What the Bible says about it

An extract from the Bible:

Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Where to find it:

John 20:30-31.

About these words:

John’s was the last of the gospels to be written.  It retells many of the stories of Jesus’ life that the other gospels recount, and reflects on their significance with the benefit of several decades of thought and discussion.

And they said…

Henry Ward Beecher, 1813-1887, North American journalist:

St John’s Gospel is God’s love letter to the world.

Alec McCowen, actor:

Something absolutely marvellous happened in Galilee two thousand years ago.