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.
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The 3 “Quests” for the Historical Jesus
The gospels give us the most detailed descriptions of Jesus’ life and ministry we have. They’re believed to have been written by eyewitnesses (or at least based on eyewitness accounts), and they all clearly claim that Jesus Christ is the son of God.
If you believe the gospels are historically accurate accounts of the things Jesus said and did, there’s little room for interpretation about who he really was. C.S. Lewis made famous the Lord, liar, lunatic trilemma to explain the challenge of dismissing Jesus’ divinity.
But those aren’t the only three options. The fourth option is much more appealing to skeptics: the gospels are unreliable, non-historical representations of a man known as Jesus.
The quests for the “historical Jesus”
Over the centuries, numerous Bible scholars have suggested that the gospel accounts can’t be trusted. These scholars argue…
Who Wrote the Gospels, and How Do We Know for Sure?
The Bible gives us four accounts of Christ’s life. Each records a unique perspective of the most significant event in history—the crucifixion and resurrection. All four gospels are named after men who lived during or shortly after Christ’s early ministry. Tradition considers these men the authors, but there’s one problem: not one of these books names its author.
The gospels are anonymous—so how do we know who wrote them?
None of the gospels came with an “about the author” section. The closest we get to a claim of authorship is at the very end of the Book of John, where the author implies that the book was written by “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:24 NIV).
Are there other context clues we can use to determine the authors? Can we trust tradition’s assumptions about who wrote the gospels? Did…
Bible Contradictions Explained: 4 Reasons the Gospels “Disagree”
The story of Jesus stands or falls on the trustworthiness of the Gospels. That’s why skeptics pay so much attention to the Gospels’ apparent contradictions. Christianity’s critics cast doubt on the New Testament’s reliability by pointing out disparities in the Gospels. This puts well-meaning—but often unprepared—Christians in a difficult position of trying to reconcile these potential inconsistencies.
So how do we account for the apparent discrepancies in the Gospel accounts? A lot of the problem stems from our expectations. If we expect a level of historical precision that the Gospels didn’t intend to provide, we’re going to run into problems. The truth is that it’s completely normal for ancient (and modern) historical accounts to summarize, paraphrase, omit details, and explain events in a way that highlights their specific points and perspectives.
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What Are the Synoptic Gospels, and Where Do They Come From?
The Bible’s four gospels paint four portraits of Jesus. While each gospel follows him on the same journey, they recount it a little differently. They had their own methods, styles, purposes, audiences, and (probably) sources—making each portrait of Jesus uniquely valuable.
Despite their unique qualities, the first three gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—share many of the same accounts of Christ, often shared in the same order and with the same wording. Because of their similar perspectives on Jesus’ ministry, together they’re known as the synoptic gospels. (The word “synoptic” comes from the Greek word synoptikos, meaning “able to be seen together.”)
While the differences between the gospels can be a challenge for us, these similarities can be problematic, too. The parallel passages between the synoptic gospels have left scholars with pressing questions about their origins. If Matthew, Mark, and Luke…
Did Jesus Know When He Was Going to Die?
Did Jesus expect to die? Did he intend to? If so, how did he view his death?
According to the Synoptic Gospels, from Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi onward, Jesus warned his disciples of his impending fate.
Historical evidence for the passion predictions
Some have argued that these passion predictions are prophecies created after the fact by the church, since Jesus could not have predicted his own death. Yet there is good evidence for their historicity:
Jesus uses the title Son of Man, which…
Who Killed Jesus? The Historical Context of Jesus’ Crucifixion
Much of the scholarly discussion about the circumstances of Jesus’ death relates to the question of who was responsible for his arrest and crucifixion.
Who was responsible? The Jews or the Romans?
Historically, the primary responsibility has been placed on the Jewish leadership and the Jews in Jerusalem. Throughout the centuries, this has sometimes had tragic consequences, resulting in anti-Semitism and violence against Jews.
More recent trends in scholarship have shifted the blame to the Romans.
The tendency to blame the Jews, it is said, arose in the decades after the crucifixion with the church’s growing conflict with the synagogue and its desire to convince Rome that Christianity was no threat to the empire.
Most contemporary scholars recognize that there is not an either-or solution to this question, but that both…
20 Questions You Never Thought to Ask about the Gospels… But Need to
Have you ever wondered…
1. Why isn’t there just one account of Jesus in the Bible? Why four?
2. Why not more than four? Other gospels were written, such as the famous Gospel of Thomas. Why aren’t they included in the Bible?
3. Who were the Gospels written for? Not just us. We as twenty-first century readers aren’t the only audience. How did the first readers experience the message?