The word ‘Gospel’ means ‘good news’. It is the message Jesus proclaimed – the good news of the Kingdom of God – and the written accounts of it developed within the Christian communities of the first century CE. The Gospels are the most important books of the Bible.
The apostles and disciples widely proclaimed their faith in Jesus and over time Christian communities sprang up across the Roman Empire. The earliest Christians passed on their faith in Jesus by telling and re-telling stories of Jesus’ words and actions. The Gospels are the product of a long process of this mainly oral sharing within the Christian communities, over three or more decades, generally known as the oral tradition. It was many years before they were organised into the written Gospels.
The Gospels are testimonies of faith in Jesus Christ of the various Christian communities that produced them. The Gospel writer, or evangelist, is writing from within and for a faith community.
There are three stages in the formation of the Gospels (cf, Catechism of the Catholic Church n.126):
- The words and actions of Jesus in his lifetime, especially in his public life, around 28-30
- The oral tradition of the proclamation (kerygma) of the apostles and early communities in preaching, teaching, prayer and liturgy (between about 30 and 70)
- The writings themselves, recorded from and for the communities of faith (between about 70 and 100).
In the first century, most important information was passed on orally as few people could read. There were set language patterns to preserve the accuracy and recall of the message. In the early years of the oral tradition there were still eyewitnesses to what Jesus said and did. Furthermore, the early Christians believed that Jesus was going to return at any moment. Therefore, there was less reason to record a full account in writing, even though some individual parts of the story began to be circulated in writing as separate units. As the decades passed the eyewitnesses were dying out and Jesus’ second coming was no longer considered imminent, so it became necessary to write extended accounts that express the distinct emphases of the believing communities and their evangelists.
In recent decades there has been increased understanding of the importance of the first century Jewish context of the Gospels. Scholars and archaeologists have uncovered an increasing amount of information about first century Jewish culture, beliefs and writings and have come to understand more deeply the setting of the Gospels.
The death and resurrection of Jesus is the ‘starting point’ of the Gospels, not the end. The oral tradition and the written Gospels depict the life of Jesus through the lens of his resurrection. They are not simple biographies recounting in exact order the words and deeds of Jesus. The Gospels are works with theological depth written from within the heart of the faith community to strengthen the faith of believers. The Gospels witness to Jesus, instruct the community and set out to change the reader forever (cf, Monaghan, p.2).
The Church came before the Gospels. The communities of believers preserved the memories and traditions about Jesus. The Gospels come from the Church. As the Pontifical Biblical Commission (1993) stated, the New Testament “took form within the Christian Church, the existence of which preceded the composition of the texts” (Section I, F). Likewise, the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “the first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition” (n.86).
The Synoptic Gospels
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels because when ‘looked at together’ they have similarities and parallel texts. Some similarities are only in two of the Gospels (but not always the same two) and there is unique material in each one. The question of how to explain the similarities and differences is known as the Synoptic Problem.
Scholars do not all agree but the most common ‘solution’ recognises that Matthew and Luke knew Mark’s Gospel but also are independent of each other. The author of Mark wrote first, assembling materials from the oral tradition and early written sources. Scholars hypothesise that there is another unknown written source of the material that is in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. It is called the Q source (from the German word for source, Quelle). Finally, Matthew and Luke have material of their own which must have come from separate oral or written sources.
This kind of study is an example of historical-critical exegesis, specifically source criticism.
The Four Gospels
Each Gospel is ‘according to’ an evangelist but biblical scholars do not know the identity of the actual writers. They are also uncertain about the dates of composition but there is a consensus which is set out below.
The Gospels are not the first New Testament writings. The letters of Paul to various communities, started from around 51CE.
Each of the Gospels has its own unique ‘stamp’, its own theological emphasis about Jesus developed from the faith life of that particular community.
The Gospel according to Mark was written around 65-70, most probably in Rome for a community of Gentile Christians (believers who had not been Jews) who are suffering persecution. It is a short, vivid account that reflects the teaching of Peter and presents Jesus as the son of God and suffering Messiah.
The author of Matthew’s Gospel is writing in the 80s for a community of Jewish Christians. It presents Jesus as the fulfilment of the prophesies made in the Hebrew Scriptures, as the Son of God, the new Moses, and as a teacher and law-giver.
The author of Luke is writing for Gentile Christians in the 80s. More details on Luke are in the next section. The author also wrote a companion volume, The Acts of the Apostles.
The Gospel of John is written at the end of the first century and is very different to the other Gospels. It is rich in symbolism. Jesus is God among us, the Incarnate Word, and those who believe will have life in his name.