Understanding the Four Gospels

We do not know who wrote the “Gospels” of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John which are in the New Testament. When these books were written, it was a common practice for authors to attribute their writings to well-known persons to lend “authority” to the writings. Matthew and John were two of the original disciples of Jesus. Luke was a physician who accompanied Paul on some of his missionary journeys. Mark, who was also named John, was the son of a woman named Mary who had a house in Jerusalem. Mark, who was an acquaintance of the disciple Peter, also accompanied Paul and Barnabas on some of their missionary journeys.

Since it is customary to refer to the writers of the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John by these names, I will follow this custom. We know that Mark wrote his book first because both Matthew and Luke quote Mark in their books, sometimes word for word, and sometimes with editorial changes and additions.

Mark and Matthew wrote their books strictly from a Jewish point-of-view, claiming that Jesus was the Jewish messiah (“anointed one”) whom the Jews were expecting to liberate the Jews from their Roman rulers and reestablish an independent “Kingdom of Israel” (also known as the “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of Heaven”) on earth.

Luke (who also wrote the book called “The Acts of the Apostles,”) wrote “The Gospel According to Luke” reflecting the viewpoint of Paul who was a “hellenized” Jew (a Jew whose views reflected a mix of Greek culture and Jewish culture). Although Paul viewed Jesus as the Jewish “messiah,” Paul invited Gentiles (non-Jews) to accept Jesus as God’s “anointed” ruler (“lord”) of the entire world, not just the Kingdom of Israel.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke apparently wrote their books after 70 C.E. (Christian Era or Common Era) because all three books make reference to the destruction of Jerusalem which occurred in 70 C.E. after the Jews revolted against the Romans beginning in 66 C.E. These books were written at a time of crisis in the Christian movement. Most of the earlier followers of Jesus were dead. Peter and Paul are believed to have died between 60 and 65 C.E. These early followers had expected Jesus to reappear on earth as the “messiah” during their lifetimes.

Paul expected Jesus to return during Paul’s lifetime to transform the world. About 53 C.E., Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealing with it. For the form of this world is passing away” (I Corinthians 7:29-31).

About 50 C.E., Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica, “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that WE WHO ARE ALIVE, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those (Christians) who are asleep (dead). For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; and THEN WE WHO ARE ALIVE, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (I Thessalonians 4:15-17).

It appears that Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote their books between 70 C.E. and 80 C.E. These books were written at a time when some of the Christians had begun to wonder why Jesus had not returned as expected. Mark (in the 13th chapter) addresses this question, and Matthew (in the 24th chapter) and Luke (in the 21st chapter) give the same explanations, based on what Mark had written.

If you will consult a good “Harmony of the Gospels**” showing Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21 in parallel columns, you will see that these chapters describe conditions that existed after the Romans had destroyed the Jewish temple and Jerusalem in 70 C.E. In reading these chapters, always read Mark first, and then Matthew and Luke. The changes and additions by Matthew and Luke will become apparent to the reader, and the fact that Matthew and Luke are largely copying Mark will be evident too. (**A Harmony of the Gospels by Ralph D. Heim, Fortress Press)

The destruction of the temple and Jerusalem had made some of the Christians wonder whether Jesus was truly the Jewish messiah. The chapters, mentioned above, begin with Jesus “predicting” the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and claiming that this was an event that would precede the return of Jesus as messiah.

Then Jesus “predicted” that there would be “wars and rumors of wars,” the persecution of the Christians by the Jews and civil authorities, conflicts within families, and the appearance of “false messiahs” before the return of Jesus as the true Jewish messiah. Of course, these things were already happening at the time Matthew, Mark, and Luke were writing their “gospels.” At the end of these chapters, Matthew, Mark, and Luke claim that Jesus reassured his disciples with these words, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

Then the statement is added (by Mark and Matthew), “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Whether this last sentence was intended to be from Jesus, or was a commentary by the writer, is not known. Nevertheless, the intent of adding this sentence is clear: the Christians should continue to expect Jesus to return during “this generation,” but the exact day and hour were unknown.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote their books to reassure the Christians that Jesus was the messiah expected by the Jews, so the Christians should remain steadfast in their belief. By the time that John wrote his book (probably between 90 C.E. and 100 C.E.), all of the original followers of Jesus were probably dead, including the “beloved disciple” who apparently was a resource to the writer of John. This is implied in the closing chapter of John, where the writer states, “The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, (Jesus said) ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’ This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” The “I” refers to the writer of the book, and distinguishes the “writer” from the “disciple” who provided “his testimony” as a source of information to the writer.

Since Matthew and Luke had the book of Mark as a resource, these three books show a similarity and are known as the “synoptic” (see-alike) gospels.” The central theme of Jesus’ teachings in these books concerned the “Kingdom of God” on earth, as described in the parables of Jesus. The book of John appears to have been written later, after the Christian movement had become established in the “hellenized” (Greek-influenced) part of the world, where Gentiles (non-Jews) were predominant. The books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke make a few references to “eternal life” (Matthew 19:16; Mark 10:17, 30; Luke 10:25, 18:18) but it was Paul who introduced the hellenized (Greek-influenced) part of the world to the idea that “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

The writer of the book of John interprets Jesus from a Greek viewpoint. The writer is obviously familiar with Greek philosophy because Jesus is presented as the incarnation of the “logos.” Six hundred years before the time of Jesus, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus used the Greek word “logos” to refer to the “mind” or rational power of God that created the world by bringing order out of chaos (as reflected in John 1:1-3). Other Greek philosophers viewed the “logos” as giving “intelligence” to human beings (as reflected in John 1:4 and 1:9). (NOTE: Unfortunately, in John 1:1 and 1:14, the Greek term “logos” is translated as “word” which is its literal meaning in English but the Greek philosophical meaning of “logos” as the “mind of God” is lost by such an English translation.)

The book of John describes Jesus as teaching God’s “truth” which human beings should follow in living as God intends for people to live. It is by following this truth or “light” that human beings experience life which Jesus described as “eternal” and “abundant.”

Although John viewed Jesus from a non-Jewish viewpoint, John claims that a disciple who was an eyewitness to Jesus was a resource for the book of John. The writer referred to this disciple as “the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had lain close to his breast at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you'” (John 21:20). The book of John refers several times to this disciple “whom Jesus loved” but never names him.

Although the book of John interprets Jesus in terms of Greek philosophy, it is evident that the writer had “inside information” that could have come only from an eyewitness to Jesus. The book provides specific details about the disciples of Jesus and the events in Jesus’ life that appear to be more realistic than the descriptions given in the synoptic books. For example, Matthew, Mark, and Luke report a “voice from heaven” came at Jesus’ baptism, declaring that Jesus was God’s “beloved Son.” But John wrote that it was John the Baptist who declared that Jesus was “the Son of God” when Jesus was baptized. John’s version of this story is obviously more realistic. There are other examples like this to support John’s claim to having an eyewitness as a resource.

Although Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John write from different viewpoints, what is consistent in the four books is the message of Jesus that it is God’s will for people to love God and love each other as we love ourselves. Jesus refers to this message as God’s word, or truth, or commandment, or will, and those who accept this, as evidenced by how a person lives, will experience life as it is intended to be, and is described by the concept of “entering the Kingdom of God” on earth.

It is important to know the different viewpoints or perspectives from which Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John write because by knowing this, we can identify and disregard some of the writers’ own commentaries and interpretations that only give their personal views about Jesus.

As we read the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we must focus on discovering the “message” of Jesus that has relevance for us as we live today. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not agree on who Jesus was, but the truth that we should live by love for God and each other cannot be missed by anyone who does not get lost in the writers’ personal views about who Jesus was.

As you read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you should be aware that much of what is written was intended to convince readers about “who Jesus was.” Matthew, Mark, and Luke intended to “prove” that Jesus was the “messiah” expected by the Jews. They used stories of “miracles” performed by Jesus as “signs” of his messiahship, and they quoted writings (taken out of context) from the Hebrew Bible to show that Jesus fulfilled alleged “prophecies” concerning the expected messiah. There is no need to believe that these “miracles” really happened or that these alleged “prophecies” related to Jesus because history has proved that Jesus was not the Jewish messiah. The miracle stories and the alleged prophecies have become irrelevant.

John used Greek philosophy concerning the “logos” in an effort to convince readers to believe that Jesus was the one and only divine “Son of God” with the power to grant “eternal life” to his followers (John 17:1-2). John has Jesus describe himself as having lived before the world was created (John 17:5) because, in Greek philosophy, the “logos” existed as the mind of God that created the world. All of this is found in the book of John when Jesus spoke at his “last supper” with his disciples. But the writers of the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke record nothing of such words by Jesus at that “last supper.” The idea that Jesus was the incarnated “logos” was totally foreign to Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

History has proved that Jesus was not the Jewish messiah expected by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul during their lifetimes. And there is no reason to believe that Jesus was the “incarnation” of the “logos” found in Greek philosophy, as proposed by John who wrote “And the Word (logos) became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). But in their collection of parables and other sayings attributed to Jesus, the writers of the “four gospels” have preserved many “truths” that can be confirmed by our own observation, experience, and reasoning. And many of these “teachings of Jesus” have provided guidance and inspiration for many persons who have discovered for themselves what Jesus meant by “the truth will make you free.” As Christian Deists, we are followers of the human Jesus who described himself simply as “a man who told you the truth” (John 8:40).

There has never been agreement on “who Jesus was,” among New Testament writers, church councils, and theologians, and it is not likely that there ever will be agreement. Fortunately, from a Christian Deist viewpoint, the importance of Jesus is in his teachings. The “truths” that Jesus taught must stand (or fall) on their own individual merits. And you, the reader, must judge that for yourself.

As you read the “four gospels,” Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, I hope that this essay will help you “separate the wheat from the chaff.”


Brother John

January 13, 2003

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