What Are the Gospels, and Why Are There Four of Them?
When people talk about “the gospel,” there’s only one thing they mean: the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the four books of the Bible that record almost everything we know about Jesus. If we want to learn about the things Jesus said and did, we have to turn to these ancient texts, believed to have been written by eyewitnesses or people who spoke with them during the first century.
So why are there four separate versions of the story of Jesus? Or maybe you’re wondering, why are there only four, if he was such an influential figure?
Those are valid questions, but before we can answer them we have to know what constitutes a “gospel” and how they differ from other written works.
What does the term “gospel” mean?
While Jesus probably spoke Aramaic, the New Testament was written in Greek. The English term gospel comes from the Old English godspell, a translation of the Greek noun euangelion.
Euangelion means “good tidings” or “good news,” and it eventually became a term for the good news about Jesus Christ.
In the New Testament world, this term accompanied announcements about victory in battle, or the enthronement of a Roman ruler. An inscription for the birthday of the Roman emperor Augustus reads, “Good news [euangelia] to the world!”
In the Old Testament, “good news” sometimes referred to God’s deliverance of his people:
- “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news . . . who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” —Isaiah 52:7 NIV
- “‘You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”’” —Isaiah 40:9
- “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.’” —Isaiah 61:1
- “Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day.’” —Psalm 96:2.
Euangelion soon became a technical term for the good news about Jesus Christ. In 1 Thessalonians 1:5, Paul writes that “our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” This is one of the earliest New Testament letters, and Paul uses euangelion for the oral proclamation of the good news about Jesus Christ.
Eventually, euangelion was used to describe the written versions of the good news about Jesus Christ. Mark introduces his work with the words, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1, emphasis added). The church eventually came to call all four of these accounts gospels.
The term “gospel” tells us how the early church viewed these works. These weren’t dry historical accounts of the life of Christ, but written versions of the greatest news ever shared. The gospels were meant to be proclaimed . . . and believed.
The genre of the gospels
How we classify a text determines how we read it and what we can expect from it:
- When we pick up the newspaper, we expect to read news.
- When we pick up a tabloid, we expect gossip.
- A novel is a story, and we know it’s fiction the moment we begin reading.
In order to answer questions like “why are there four gospels” and “why are there only four gospels,” we need to know the type of literature we’re dealing with.
The gospels are historical literature
Three things tell scholars that the gospels are historical literature:
1. They have a history of composition. The authors drew on traditions and sources available to them to compile their works.
2. They’re set in a specific historical context. Each of the four gospels take place in first-century Palestine during the Roman occupation.
3. They are meant to convey historically-accurate information. The details included in the gospels, the way the writers organize them, and the similarities in composition implies a conscious effort to include the correct information. John and and Luke explicitly state their intentions, and Luke leaves no doubt that he intends to write history:
“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” —Luke 1:1–4
Luke claimed to be writing accurate history. We could question whether he was a reliable historian, or whether his sources were reliable, but the point is that his intentions were historical.
Whether or not these events actually happened confirms or denies the truth of Christianity. Christianity rises or falls on the historical accuracy of key gospel events:
- Jesus’ words and deeds
- His death on the cross
- His resurrection
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” To some degree, we have to consider these historical literature—but that’s not all they are.
The gospels are narrative literature
The gospels are not merely collections of reports or sayings of Jesus. They’re also narratives with plot, characters, and setting. While all four gospels are concerned with the same historical events—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—they present different versions of these events. They portray characters from different perspectives, sometimes using the same event to highlight something different about Jesus. They develop plot in different ways, occasionally rearranging the order of events. They emphasize different settings, including accounts not recorded by the other writers.
But the gospels aren’t just a collection of stories, either.
The gospels are theological literature
The gospels have an agenda. They record historical events, but they’re also theological documents. Through the narrative of Jesus’ ministry, the gospels instruct and encourage believers, and attempt to convince unbelievers. This is why we call the gospel writers evangelists (from euangelizō, “to announce good news”). They are proclaimers of the good news about the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the coming of the kingdom of God.
Notice John’s statement of intent in John 20:30–31:
“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.”
The recognition that the gospel writers are theologians in their own right is one of the most important contributions of recent gospel research. Each evangelist has a story to tell and a perspective to emphasize. Each brings out unique aspects of Jesus’ identity. See how each gospel introduces his work:
|Matthew 1:1||Mark 1:1||Luke 1:3||John 1:1|
|“A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.”||“The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”||“Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account.”||“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”|
Mark emphasizes Jesus as the Christ and Son of God. Matthew jumps into Jesus’ Jewish ancestry, focusing on how Jesus fulfills the promises made to Israel. Luke tells us he wants to write an accurate historical account. John introduces Jesus as the pre-existent divine Word, the self-revelation of God.
Seeing the gospel writers as theologians has important implications for the way we read their accounts. We ought to read each gospel seeking to discern these theological themes.
Are the gospels ancient biographies?
There’s a consensus growing among scholars today that while the gospels are unique, they also have a lot in common with Greco-Roman works, especially the genre known as “biographies” (bioi), or “lives.” These works were written to preserve the memory and celebrate the virtues, teachings, or exploits of famous philosophers, statesmen, or rulers. Examples of this genre are Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars, and Jewish philosopher Philo’s Life of Moses. Since the gospels arose in the Greco-Roman world of the first century, it helps to compare them with other writings of this era to identify common literary features and narrative techniques.
At the same time, we have to remember that the gospels are unique. They arose in the context of the needs and concerns of the early Christian communities. And they weren’t written to memorialize the teachings of a great leader. The gospels were written to proclaim the good news of salvation and to call people to faith in Jesus Christ, the risen Lord and Savior.
So what genre are the gospels?
The gospels are historical narrative motivated by theological concerns. Their intention is to convey accurate historical material about Jesus and also explain and interpret these salvation-bringing events. The gospels were written not by detached, uninterested observers but by evangelists, “proclaimers of good news,” announcing the good news of Jesus Christ and calling people to believe in him.
Why do we have four gospels?
Each of the four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—paints a unique portrait of Jesus. They show us the same Jesus but portray him from different perspectives.
What are these four unique portraits?
1. Matthew presents Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, the fulfillment of Old Testament hopes.
2. Mark portrays him as the suffering Son of God, who offers himself as a sacrifice for sins.
3. Luke’s Jesus is the Savior for all people, who brings salvation to all nations and people groups.
4. In John, Jesus is the eternal Son of God, the self-revelation of God the Father.
Having four gospels gives us a deeper, more profound understanding of who Jesus is and what he did.
Why did the church keep four gospels in the canon?
But why did the church retain all four in the canon of Scripture? Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so similar—is it worth keeping all of them?
The most famous early attempt to synthesize the four gospels into one is the diatessaron (“through four”), compiled by the church father Tatian around AD 170. Tatian brought portions of all four gospels together into one story. There have been many attempts to synthesize the gospels into a single story since then, but in the end, the church recognized each gospel as a unique literary account and an inspired, authoritative work of the Holy Spirit.
Why are there only four gospels?
There are more than four ancient documents which claim to be gospels, or which contain stories of Jesus, including works like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and a number of “infancy gospels”—fanciful accounts of Jesus’ birth and childhood. So why aren’t they included in the Bible?
The value and historical reliability of these “apocryphal gospels” is highly debated. These gospels may preserve an occasional authentic saying or story about Jesus, but there are three reasons scholars find them unreliable:
- They were written too late to be reliable accounts
- They were falsely written under an assumed name (pseudepigraphic)
- They’re dependent on the canonical gospels
The greater value of these later gospels is in providing information about the first three centuries of church history, especially the second-century movement known as Gnosticism. Some people claim that the orthodox church suppressed and silenced apocryphal gospels, which depict the “real Jesus”—but the argument doesn’t hold up under critical scrutiny. Like most modern scholars, the church rejected these later writings because they failed the test of historical veracity and because they lacked the spiritual power and authority that indicated the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
In short, there are other “gospels,” but they didn’t make the cut.
The gospels we have were carefully vetted against a body of early church literature—and the four gospels in the Bible are the most historically accurate, divinely inspired accounts of Christ.
The good news of Jesus Christ is only good news if it’s true.
For two millennia, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have been used to inspire billions of people to believe in Jesus and the salvation he brings. Each of them has unique things to show us about his life and ministry and what it means to follow him. And each of them has stood the test of time.
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Image by Edal Anton Lefterov, used under Creative Commons License.
This post is adapted from material found in Four Portraits, One Jesus, an online course on Jesus and the Gospels taught by Mark Strauss.