G is for Gospels
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John - Acts and Romans follow on!
Thatâs a little rhyme for children to remember the order of the first New Testament books. The first four books, the Gospels, tell us the story of the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. They also give us his teaching. Each one, if you like, is also putting across answers to questions that people would have asked about him.
Just imagine for a moment that, after the Ascension, after the day of Pentecost, the apostles started on their ministry, teaching and preaching all over the place. People would be bound to say - Who was this Jesus? Where did he come from? What did he teach? Why was he so special? If he was who you say, why did the religious leaders turn against him? Why did the Romans put him to death? And why do you say heâs alive?
The people who knew Jesus personally were scattered and they were starting to die off. So began the business of writing down stories about him, accounts of his teaching, and so on, so that these questions could be answered. Writing about him was also another way of spreading the message.
St. Markâs Gospel, which is the shortest, is also the earliest, though this hasnât always been appreciated. It was probably written about 30 years after Jesusâ death. St. Mark had close connections to St. Peter, and that was important for the Gospelâs acceptance. Quite a few Gospels were written, and the ones that had good connections to the Apostles were seen to be the most trustworthy.
The Gospel of Mark was probably written in Rome. It is very realistically and vividly written. It is full of action, and has great descriptions of scenes and peoples. Read it through at one go, and youâll see what I mean. It pulls no punches, about Jesus, or about the disciples.
St. Matthewâs Gospel was, for most of Christian History, assumed to be the first written, though not for the last 300 years. But it was also seen, in the church, as the most important and almost all the readings on Sundays and Holy days were taken from it. It waswritten between 30 and 40 years after Jesusâ death.
It is now seen as based on St. Mark, plus another source which St. Luke also used. It may have been written the way it was so that it could be used as a teaching manual, and also to be read in churches. It is perhaps the most Jewish Gospel, and tries to make clear that what Jesus taught is a fulfilment of the Old Testament. It sees Christianity as a development from Judaism, rather than as a break.
St. Lukeâs Gospel was written about 50 years after the death of Jesus (none of these dates are certain), and it seems to have been written for Gentile reading. The story in St. Lukeâs Gospel, however, is continued in the Acts of the Apostles, and the hinge of the two books is the Ascension! He shows how Jesus, rejected by his own people, soon attracts people from outside the Jewish faith who acknowledge him as Saviour. St. Luke, in his stories about Jesus, and Stories told by Jesus, has great sympathy with, and emphasis on, the outcast. He writes very sympathetically about all âoutsidersâ - sinners, foreigners, and women - all who were considered second best - so he is very popular in our times when we value inclusiveness.
St. Luke shares material with Saints Matthew and Mark, but seems to have had another source of stories and teaching as well. It is a tradition that he had a link to the Virgin Mary. St. Luke hasa story of Jesusâ birth, which is centred around Mary and her experiences. The only other account of Jesusâ birth is in St. Matthew, and it is quite differently presented.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all give us parables of Jesus, telling us the images he used to describe Godâs Kingdom. Together they are known as the synoptic Gospels.
St. Johnâs Gospel is very different from the other three. There is hardly any teaching about how to live, how to behave. âLove one anotherâ is all. St. John gives us Jesusâ life from the appearance of John the Baptist, as does St. Mark. He gives us a very different set of miracles from the other three Gospels (although the feeding of the 5,000 is in all four).
There are no parables - no teaching about the kingdom. The time scale is quite different - 3 years are covered of Jesusâ ministry, not one. Things happen in a different order, and there are long sermons by Jesus which appear nowhere else: âI am the light of the worldâ, or âthe good shepherdâ, or âthe bread of lifeâ. All are only in St. John.
St. John wrote his Gospel around 100 AD (probably) so it was the last to be written. He is thought to have known St. Markâs Gospel and to have written his Gospel in Ephesus. St. Johnâs Gospel is best appreciated if you read it right through, and try to appreciate it as a whole. He has put his stories, themes, and speeches in a certain order, and they are picked up, then hidden, and then picked up again. If you only dip into this Gospel you will never get the best out of it.
It is most centred on âWho is Jesus?â much more than on details of Christian life. John wrote as he did because of his great mystical and theological gifts, but also because of the needs of his church at the time.
Well, to sum up about the Gospels. If they were all the same, weâd merge them into one. But the church has selected the âbig fourâ to give us four brilliantly written, inspired testimonies to the significance of Jesus. They have enough in common with each other that we recognise the same Jesus. But just as they emerged from very different writers aiming at different groups, so now particular individuals will perhaps be inspired by a certain Gospel. Our Sunday readings use Matthew, Mark and Luke for one year each, in turn, and St. John gets read around the âbigâ feasts of Christmas and Easter.
Whichever your favourite is,read the Gospels, if you never read any other part or book of the Bible. They are the best available access to the evidence of Jesus and an endless source of inspiration.
Folio 27 verso from the Book of Kells;
the Four Evangelists.