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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary
Traditionally, the first four books of the New Testament have been called Gospels, probably because they record the gospel, or good news, of the coming of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. Questions that naturally arise are why there should be four such books and why three of those books should contain so much material that is similar.
Preserving the message
After the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, his followers spread the good news of salvation through him, firstly in Jerusalem, and then throughout Palestine and neighbouring countries. They taught the stories and teachings of Jesus to their converts, who memorized them and passed them on to others (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:42; 2 Timothy 2:2).
As the years passed, those who had seen and heard Jesus became fewer in number and more widely scattered. To preserve what these men taught concerning Jesus, various people began making written collections of things Jesus had said and done (Luke 1:1). There is no certainty concerning how or when the four Gospels were written. There is, however, enough evidence from within the books and from other first century sources to make the following explanation a possibility.
Three related accounts
Mark’s Gospel appears to have been the first written. Mark had assisted the apostle Peter on missionary journeys that took them through the northern parts of Asia Minor and brought them eventually to Rome (cf. 1 Peter 1:1; 1 Peter 5:13). When Peter left Rome, Mark stayed behind, and was still there when Paul arrived as a prisoner, accompanied by Luke and Aristarchus (about AD 60; Acts 27:2; Acts 28:16; Acts 28:30). (In letters Paul wrote from Rome, he mentions that Mark, Luke and Aristarchus were all with him; Colossians 4:10; Colossians 4:14; Philem 24.) The Roman Christians asked Mark to preserve Peter’s teaching for them, and this resulted in the writing of Mark’s Gospel (see MARK, GOSPEL OF).
Meanwhile Luke also had been preparing an account of the life of Jesus. No doubt he had done much of his research during the two years he had just spent in Palestine with Paul (Acts 24:27). Others had already written accounts of the life of Jesus (Luke 1:1), and Luke was able to gather material from these and from people still living in the region who had seen and heard Jesus. Upon meeting Mark, Luke took some of Mark’s material and added it to his own to fill out his record and so bring the book to completion.
Luke wrote his Gospel for a person of importance (perhaps a government official) named Theophilus, to give him a trustworthy account of the origins of Christianity (Luke 1:1-4; see LUKE, GOSPEL OF). (Luke continued the story with a second volume, which recorded the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem to Rome; Acts 1:1; see ACTS, BOOK OF.)
Matthew’s Gospel appears to have been written about ten years later. It was intended for Christians who were of Jewish background but who read Greek freely. The book shows a strong interest in the fulfilment of God’s purposes concerning Israel’s Messiah, and the responsibility of the Messiah’s people to spread his message to the Gentiles. The place most commonly suggested for the writing of such a book is Antioch in Syria, which was closely connected with the Jewish churches of Palestine and with the mission to the Gentile nations (Acts 11:19-22; Acts 11:27-29; Acts 13:1-4; Acts 14:26-27; Acts 15:1-3; Acts 15:22; Acts 15:30; see MATTHEW, GOSPEL OF).
By this time, Mark’s Gospel had become widely known. Since it represented Peter’s account of Jesus’ ministry, it was well respected, and Matthew saved himself a lot of work by using material from it extensively in his own book. (About 90% of Mark is found in Matthew.) There is also a lot of material common to Matthew and Luke that is not found in Mark. This material is commonly referred to as Q and probably came from one or more of the many writings that had appeared over the years (Luke 1:1). It consists mainly of teachings and sayings from Jesus, in contrast to stories about him.
Because of the parallels between Matthew, Mark and Luke, the three books are often referred to as the Synoptic Gospels (meaning Gospels that ‘see from the same viewpoint’). However, each contains material of its own that has no parallel in the other Gospels. In Mark this amount is very small, less than 5%. In Matthew the amount is about 28% and in Luke about 45%.
A different kind of book
John’s Gospel bears little similarity in form or style to the other three Gospels, though the general sequence of recorded events is the same. John wrote within the last decade or so of the first century, by which time the other three Gospels were widely known. His purpose was not to produce another narrative-type account of Jesus’ ministry, but to use selected stories of Jesus, particularly his teachings, to instruct people in basic truths concerning Jesus’ unique person and ministry.
Many people in the region where John lived (probably Ephesus) were troubled by false teachers. Some of these teachers denied that Jesus was fully divine, others that he was fully human. John wanted people to be convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and to find true life through him (John 20:30-31). John’s Gospel therefore consists mainly of teaching, much of which comes from the recorded words of Jesus himself. In contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, action stories are comparatively few. Less than 10% of John’s material is found in the Synoptics (see JOHN, GOSPEL OF).
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Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Gospels'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/bbd/g/gospels.html. 2004.