An Introduction to the GospelsWritten over the course of almost a century after Jesus' death, the four gospels of the New Testament, though they tell the same story, reflect very different ideas and concerns.
by Marilyn Mellowes
A period of forty years separates the death of Jesus from the writing of the first gospel. History offers us little direct evidence about the events of this period, but it does suggest that the early Christians were engaged in one of the most basic of human activities: story-telling. In the words of Mike White, "It appears that between the death of Jesus and the writing of the first gospel, Mark, that they clearly are telling stories. They're passing on the tradition of what happened to Jesus, what he stood for and what he did, orally, by telling it and retelling it. And in the process they are defining Jesus for themselves."
These shared memories, passed along by word of mouth, are known as "oral tradition." They included stories of Jesus' miracles and healings, his parables and teachings, and his death. Eventually some stories were written down. The first written documents probably included an account of the death of Jesus and a collection of sayings attributed to him.
Then, in about the year 70, the evangelist known as Mark wrote the first "gospel" -- the words mean "good news" about Jesus. We will never know the writer's real identity, or even if his name was Mark, since it was common practice in the ancient world to attribute written works to famous people. But we do know that it was Mark's genius to first to commit the story of Jesus to writing, and thereby inaugurated the gospel tradition.
"The gospels are very peculiar types of literature. They're not biographies," says Prof. Paula Fredriksen, "they are a kind of religious advertisement. What they do is proclaim their individual author's interpretation of the Christian message through the device of using Jesus of Nazareth as a spokesperson for the evangelists' position."
About 15 years after Mark, in about the year 85 CE, the author known as Matthew composed his work, drawing on a variety of sources, including Mark and from a collection of sayings that scholars later called "Q", for Quelle, meaning source. The Gospel of Luke was written about fifteen years later, between 85 and 95. Scholars refer to these three gospels as the "synoptic gospels", because they "see" things in the same way. The Gospel of John, sometimes called "the spiritual gospel," was probably composed between 90 and 100 CE. Its style and presentation clearly set it apart from the other three.
Each of the four gospels depicts Jesus in a different way. These characterizations reflect the past experiences and the particular circumstances of their authors' communities. The historical evidence suggests that Mark wrote for a community deeply affected by the failure of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome. Matthew wrote for a Jewish community in conflict with the Pharisaic Judaism that dominated Jewish life in the postwar period. Luke wrote for a predominately Gentile audience eager to demonstrate that Christian beliefs in no way conflicted with their ability to serve as a good citizen of the Empire.
Despite these differences, all four gospels contain the "passion narrative," the central story of Jesus' suffering and death. That story is directly connected to the Christian ritual of the Eucharist. As Helmut Koester has observed, the ritual cannot "live" without the story.
While the gospels tell a story about Jesus, they also reflect the growing tensions between Christians and Jews. By the time Luke composed his work, tension was breaking into open hostility. By the time John was written, the conflict had become an open rift, reflected in the vituperative invective of the evangelist's language. In the words of Prof. Eric Meyers, "Most of the gospels reflect a period of disagreement, of theological disagreement. And the New Testament tells a story of a broken relationship, and that's part of the sad story that evolves between Jews and Christians, because it is a story that has such awful repercussions in later times."