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.
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel according to Luke is the first of two works by the author, its companion volume being the Acts of Apostles. Tradition from the second century has given the name of Luke to the author. There is no certainty that this was the author’s name. It may have been the Luke mentioned in the Acts of Apostles and the Letters of Paul. (The use of ‘we’ on several occasions in Acts implies that the author was a companion of Paul on some of his missionary journeys.) According to the tradition Luke may have been a Syrian from Antioch which may have been the location of the community for whom the author wrote.
Scholars generally agree that the Gospel was written in elegant Greek some 50 years after the death of Jesus. The Gospels incorporates about 65 percent of Mark’s Gospel and so was written after it. The author seems to know that Jerusalem has been destroyed (Lk 19:41-44 and Lk 21:20-24), an event that happened in 70. Scholars generally date it in the 80s.
Most scholars conclude from elements in the Gospel that the author was a Gentile writing for a community predominantly made up of Gentile Christians. This is evident from one of his main themes – salvation is for all, not just Jews. He also omits material overly reliant on knowledge of Jewish religion and culture. For example, at times Jesus is called ‘saviour’ instead of messiah.
Luke – Acts is well designed as a literary work. Jerusalem has a central place and the idea of journey is a paradigm. The Gospel begins and ends in Jerusalem. While Jesus’ preaching begins in Galilee, much of the Gospel (9.51 – 19.28) is one long journey to Jerusalem. The Risen Lord shows himself only in Jerusalem, including in a journey to nearby Emmaus. The second volume, Acts is one long journey from Jerusalem as the disciples bear witness to Jesus to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Key themes in Luke
Universality of salvation
Jesus is the saviour of all people. Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Adam, the parent of all. Jesus is “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk 2:29-32) and “all people will see the salvation of God”. (Lk 3:4-6). A Samaritan, an ethnic and religious outcast, is the hero of a parable and a model of mercy (Lk 10: 25-37). A Gentile Roman centurion is praised for his faith (Lk 7:1-10). The Risen Lord commands that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Lk 24: 45-47).
Concern for the poor and marginalised
The Gospel is full of Jesus’ preference for the poor and the oppressed. Mary’s song praises God who lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, scatters the proud, brings down the powerful and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:46-55). After Jesus’ birth he is laid in a feeding trough for animals. The first witnesses are the lowest class of shepherds who live in the fields (Lk 2:1-20). In the synagogue at Nazareth Jesus proclaims his mission to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4:18-18). In Lk 6: 20-26 he teaches that God’s blessing is on the poor, “for yours is the Kingdom of God” and the rich are condemned. Luke is the only Gospel that recounts the parable of the rich man who is eternally condemned for his neglect of poor man, Lazarus (Lk 16: 19-31). Women, marginalised in that society, play prominent roles in showing faith and witnessing to Jesus (see below).
Compassion and forgiveness
In the key sermon in Luke 6 Jesus urges his disciples to be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Lk 6:36). Some translations use ‘be compassionate’ but the message is the same: Jesus displays acts of mercy and forgiveness throughout the Gospel. Examples include the pardon of a sinful woman (Lk 7:36-50), the story of Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10), forgiveness of his executioners (Lk 23:34) and the promise of immediate Paradise for the good thief (Lk 23:39-43).
The Holy Spirit
The Spirit is a key player in the Gospel. The Spirit comes upon John [the Baptist] even before he is born (Lk 1:15), and Mary in the annunciation (Lk 1: 35), Simeon (Lk 2:27) and upon Jesus himself at his baptism (Lk 3:22), leading him into the desert (Lk 4:1) and to begin his public ministry (Lk 4:14). He proclaims his ‘mission statement’ in the synagogue with “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”. Jesus rejoices in the Spirit (Lk 10:21) and tells his disciples to pray for the Spirit (Lk 11:9-13). The Holy Spirit, given at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-12) empowers the spread of the Gospel throughout the Acts of the Apostles, which is sometimes referred to as the gospel of the Holy Spirit.
The power of prayer
Jesus is constantly seen at prayer, especially at critical moments of his ministry such as when his reputation spreads (Lk 5:15-16), before he chose his apostles, heals and gives his principal teaching (Lk 6:12-13), and on the cross (Lk:23:34 and Lk 23:46). The Gospel also has parables about prayer (Lk 18: 1-14).
The place of women
Women play key roles in the Gospel. Mary, Jesus’ mother assents to God’s will, sings God’s praise, identifies with the poor and ponders things deeply in her heart (Lk 1:26-56; Lk 2:19; Lk 2:51). Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-45) and Anna (Lk 2: 36-38) proclaim Jesus’ true identity; women disciples are faithful to his death and Mary Magdalene and other women announce his resurrection (Lk 24:1-12). Women feature in other settings as well: the widow of Nain (Lk 7:11-17), a sinful woman (Lk 7:36-50), Mary and Martha (Lk 10:38-42), a crippled woman (Lk 13:10-17), and the parables of the lost coin (Lk 15:8-10) and the widow and unjust judge (Lk 18: 1-8).
A Gospel of Joy
The Gospel radiates joy. The promised birth of John [the Baptist] will bring great joy (Lk 1:14) and the baby leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb (Lk 1:44). Mary proclaims, “my spirit rejoices” (Lk 1:47). Jesus’ birth is “good news of great joy” (Lk 2:10-11). Those who are persecuted should “rejoice and leap for joy” because of their reward in heaven (Lk 6:20-23). Jesus rejoices in the Holy Spirit (Lk 10:21). The disciples are joyous at the appearance of the Risen Jesus (Lk 24:41).