The Gospels were written a few decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ by believers of that day. Thanks to their accounts of Jesus’ story, His life, His words, His actions, and His promise of salvation have been preserved and shared over and over throughout the centuries. Two thousand years later, we continue to read and study the same Gospel as did the first readers.
Historians date the writing of the first three gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—between AD 45 and 69, and the last one, John, at about AD 90. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels, as when they are placed side by side in three parallel columns, their many similarities, as well as their differences, can be easily examined.
While no one knows for certain, the Gospel of Mark is generally considered by scholars today to be the first gospel written, with Matthew and Luke being written later. The general scholarly consensus is that Matthew and Luke had access to Mark’s gospel when they wrote theirs, and that they each had another common source of written material which they both used. On top of that, Matthew had some independent material or resources which Luke didn’t have, while Luke had his independent sources as well. This is why much of the material in the Synoptic Gospels is similar.
The Gospel of John, written decades after the other three, doesn’t follow the same pattern as the Synoptic Gospels. It’s similar to them in a broad sense, but contains distinct features of content, style, and arrangement differing from the other gospels. Instead of telling the birth account or listing the genealogy as Matthew and Luke do, John’s account explains Jesus’ birth as the manifestation of God’s Word becoming incarnate (embodied in human flesh). Instead of the parables, he records Jesus’teachings in the form of lengthy dialogues. He also arranges events in a different order than the Synoptic Gospels.
The focus of the gospel writers wasn’t to provide a detailed account of Jesus’ life. Rather than presenting Jesus’ actions in detail, these are often summarized in phrases such as “He healed them all,” or “He travelled through all the towns and villages teaching and preaching.”1 John wrote at the end of his gospel that there were many other things Jesus did that weren’t included in his gospel.2 The gospel writers only described those parts of Jesus’ life which they felt would best inform the readers who Jesus was, what He preached, and what it all meant in terms of His death and resurrection and our salvation. The main purpose was to share the good news, to call others to faith in Jesus, and to provide a means of teaching new believers about Him and the message He preached, so that they could in turn share it with others.
Prior to the writing of the gospels, much of the content contained in them would have been circulated orally. The general method of education in antiquity, especially in Israel, was rote memorization, which enabled people to accurately recount large quantities of teachings, far lengthier than all of the gospels put together.3
Besides orally sharing the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry, there were apparently also some written accounts of things Jesus said and did, as evidenced by what Luke wrote at the beginning of his gospel:
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.4
It became important for the information about Jesus and His teachings to be put into written form at that time. This was for two reasons: One was that the original eyewitnesses were getting older, and some of them were dying; the other was that the gospel had been spread throughout much of the vast Roman Empire of the day. This meant it was no longer possible for the apostles and other early believers to travel to the remote corners of the empire to personally share what they had learned at Jesus’ feet. The story of Jesus, His life, and teachings needed to be written in order to be preserved and shared beyond the capabilities of the people who were delivering it orally.
None of the gospels explicitly state the name of their authors within the gospels themselves. There are Christian writings from the early part of the second century which have served as a basis for identifying the authors. Some scholars dispute it, but there are historical arguments for the claims that the authors are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The earliest reference to Matthew as the author of the book that bears his name came from Papias (died c. AD 130), the bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia (near Pamukkale in modern-day Turkey). Other church fathers—Irenaeus (c. 120–203), Origen (c. 185–254), and Eusebius (c. 260–340)—all attest to Matthew’s authorship.
Papias is also the earliest source for identifying the author of the Gospel of Mark as being John Mark, who as a young man had traveled with Paul. Other early church fathers attest to this as well. Papias wrote that “the presbyter,” who is understood to be the apostle John, said that Mark, who had worked with the apostle Peter, accurately wrote down what Peter had told him and what Peter had preached about the things said and done by Jesus. Mark hadn’t been an eyewitness, but he wrote Peter’s account of the life of Jesus. He worked closely with Peter, who called him his “son.”5 Mark was the cousin of Barnabas,6 a traveler with Barnabas and Paul,7 and the son of a wealthy family in Jerusalem.
Luke’s gospel is the longest of the four gospels and the only one which has a sequel—the book of Acts. Luke was not an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, but the opening statement in his gospel makes it clear that he gathered information from early believers, checked his evidence with eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word,8 and arranged the material in order. Luke was a doctor9 and most likely a Gentile (non-Jew), who knew Paul and sometimes traveled with him. Numerous early church fathers point to Luke as the author of the gospel.
Scholars generally believe that Luke had access to Mark’s gospel and that he also had a great deal of oral and written material from other sources, as over forty percent of his gospel is different, including the information he gives about the birth of Jesus as well as sayings and parables which are not included in the other gospels.
Because Luke wrote both his gospel and the book of Acts, which ends with Paul in prison but not yet executed, this gospel most likely predated Paul’s execution, and was probably written sometime in the late 50s or early 60s AD.
The authorship of the Gospel of John has been widely debated in the last century. The ancient church fathers understood the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, to be the author of this gospel. In more modern times, his authorship came into question because of how different this gospel is from the Synoptics. The historical support for John’s authorship is found in the writings of a number of church fathers in the second century. Irenaeus (c. 180) wrote that John published a gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. Much of what Irenaeus wrote was derived from Polycarp (c. 69–155), who was a follower of John.
The date traditionally attributed to the writing of John’s gospel is between AD 90 and 100. It was likely written in Ephesus, in present-day Turkey.
John’s gospel differs from the Synoptics in that it doesn’t include the parables that appear in the other gospels; there are no exorcisms, no healing of lepers, and no breaking of the bread and drinking of the wine at the Last Supper. At the end of his gospel, John specifies his purpose for writing this gospel:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.10
Within the first half of the second century, perhaps within a decade or two of the writing of John’s gospel, the four gospels began to be circulated together, and came to be referred to as the Fourfold Gospel. This was made possible due to the adoption of the codex, a form of publishing which came into use at the end of the first century, replacing scrolls. A codex is similar to books today, with pages of papyrus sheets or vellum sewn together at the spine. With scrolls, the papyrus sheets were glued together side by side to make a continuous roll.
At the time that the gospels began to circulated together, the Acts of the Apostles, which was a sequel to Luke’s gospel, was separate and not included with the gospels. During this same period, there was also another collection of writings which were circulating among the churches—the body of Paul’s letters, referred to as epistles. In time, Acts became the connector between the gospels and Paul’s letters, which when combined with the other epistles eventually became the New Testament.
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1 Mark 1:38–39, Luke 4:40.
2 John 20:30–31.
3 Blomberg in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels.
4 Luke 1:1–4 NIV.
5 1 Peter 5:13.
6 Colossians 4:10.
7 Acts 13:5.
8 Luke 1:2. “Ministers of the Word” were most likely the apostles.
9 Colossians 4:14.
10 John 20:30–31.