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):

  1. The words and actions of Jesus in his lifetime, especially in his public life, around 28-30
  2. The oral tradition of the proclamation (kerygma) of the apostles and early communities in preaching, teaching, prayer and liturgy (between about 30 and 70)
  3. 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).

The Gospel of Matthew

Who was Matthew?

The gospel of Matthew, although placed chronologically first in the New Testament, is most likely a revised and expanded version of Mark. By supplementing Mark’s writing with accounts of the life of Jesus he himself has heard, (among them the Infancy narrative and the Sermon on the Mount), Matthew writes a Gospel with a new focus and flavour. For many years Matthew was believed to be the tax collector named in the Gospel as Matthew (Mt 9:9); indeed the Gospel is named after this man, but scholars now believe that the actual composition of this Gospel took place well after the lifetime of Jesus and through a complex process.

Who did Matthew write for?

In the absence of a definitive answer, who this work might have been written for is deduced by examination of the work itself; by the interests which dominate the writing, by writing style, terminology and explanation of cultural events and practices the author uses and by the way they allude to other texts and events.

By examining Matthew scholars are able to propose the following:

  1. Matthew’s community were Jewish. An important feature of Matthew’s Gospel is his presentation of Jesus as fulfilment of scripture, a recurring phrase throughout this Gospel (e.g. Mt 1:22). Matthew sprinkles his infancy narrative with quotes from the Old Testament, making it clear that the expectations of the messiah have now been fulfilled. In following Jesus then, Matthew’s community were not abandoning their heritage but discovering its full meaning.
  2. Matthew wrote around 85-90 CE. This dating places the gospel after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD, in the midst of conflict between the Jewish synagogue leaders and the emerging community, interested in who Jesus was.

The earliest community practised their Jewish faith as they explored their memories and recollections about Jesus. Increasingly, there were a number of Jews wondering about who Jesus was, and their growing claim to be the inheritors of the promises of the Hebrew scriptures led to a sharp divide and animosity with the local Jewish community in the 80s. While it seems that the majority of members of Matthew’s community had come to believe in Jesus, they had not set aside their Jewish heritage. These ‘Jewish Christians’, under attack from their former Jewish community members, were asked to decide: would they continue their faith within or outside traditional Judaism. This Gospel attempts to reconcile the community’s Jewish heritage with the reality of Jesus’ life. 

Who is Matthew’s Jesus?

First and foremost, Matthew’s Jesus is the promise messianic fulfilled. Jesus is the messiah that Judaism had waited for, the one who ushers in the Kingdom of God. Matthew has more parables of the Kingdom (Matthew calls it the Kingdom of heaven out of reverence for the name of God [Mt 13]) than Mark, thus reassuring his community that, in Jesus, God’s reign has come; the Kingdom has been restored.

Matthew adds to his case by showing Jesus as a new Moses, a new leader for the Jewish people.  Matthew writes to show how Jesus imitates the key actions of his ancestor in faith; being kept from an untimely death as an infant, being called out of Egypt as an adult, and being the bringer of a new law on a mountain, this time beside Lake Galilee.

In his Infancy narrative Matthew bookends his view of Jesus calling him ‘God with us’, the child who will be known as ‘Emmanuel’ (Mt 1:23) At the end of the Gospel, the risen Christ continues this promise to be with his people always, ‘to the end of the age’ (Mt 28:20).

Finally, Matthew adds greatly to Mark’s account, of Jesus as teacher by in including many teachings of Jesus that Mark was not aware of. A significant example of this is the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Mt 5-7) where Matthew collects 18 lessons into one teaching scene. For Matthew, Jesus is powerful in both word, (as teacher), and deed, (as the divine God present in the miracles).

What about the disciples?

The disciples,  are presented more kindly in Matthew than in Mark, with Jesus responding more gently to their failures. Although they sometimes struggle to understand him, they follow Jesus faithfully. In the end they are commissioned by the risen Christ and sent on mission. Notable among the disciples are a number of women disciples.Four women appear in the genealogy, along with Mary of Nazareth (Mt 1:1-18). Women are noted as having followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem in the Passion, and of course women disciples are the first to come to the tomb, receive news of the resurrection and take this ‘Gospel’ to the others.


The arrangement of Matthew’s Gospel into five books is often noted by scholars as further evidence of the Jewish nature of his community. By mirroring the five books of the Torah Matthew aligns his ‘books’ with those of the Law. Each ‘book’ consists of a discourse and narrative with the entire Gospel beginning with an introduction, and ending with a conclusion.

Introduction: Mt 1-2. The Preparation of the Kingdom in the person of the child-Messiah.

Book 1: Mt 5-8. The formal proclamation of the charter of the Kingdom to the disciples and the public – the Sermon on the Mount.

Book 2: Mt 8-10. The preaching of the Kingdom by missionaries – the ‘signs’ of miracles and instructions coming from Jesus himself.

Book 3: Mt 11:1-13:52. The obstacles which the Kingdom will meet – expressed in parables.

Book 4: Mt 13:53-18:35. The group of disciples with Peter as their head; rules for this emerging church.

Book 5: Mt 19-25. The crisis, provoked by the hostility of the Jewish leaders, preparing the way for the coming of the Kingdom.

Conclusion: Mt 26-28. Finally, the coming itself, a coming brought about through suffering and triumph, in the Passion and Resurrection:  The great commissioning.


Together on the Mountain
John McKinnon has titled his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel ‘Together on the Mountain, following the frequent choice of that location to highlight significant moments in the ministry of Jesus.

  • It was on a high mountain that Matthew situated Jesus’ encounter with Satan. There, Satan showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour and promised him they could all be his, provided Jesus would fall down and worship him [Mt 4:8-9]. Jesus chose God’s Kingdom.
  • It was ‘on the mountain’ that Jesus delivered what is frequently referred to as the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, his outline of the life of discipleship in the new community [Mt 5:1].
  • Before presenting Jesus walking on water, and hinting at his unique relationship to God, Matthew said that, first, he went ‘up the mountain’ by himself to pray [Mt 14:23]
  • Jesus went ‘up the mountain’, somewhere in Galilee, and sat down. He exercised his ministry of healing, and fed the crowd of four thousand [Mt 15:29-39].
  • Similarly, it was ‘up a high mountain’ that Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John, and that his message of suffering preceding death was confirmed by the Father [Mt 17:1-8].
  • ‘Sitting on the Mount of Olives’, he delivered his apocalyptic discourse to his disciples (Mt 24:3-44). Later in Gethsemane, situated on that same mountain, he entered into his time of trial and prayed earnestly to his Father (Mt 26:36-46).
  • Finally, it was on a mountain in Galilee that the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples and commissioned them to bring the Good News to the whole world. (28:16-20)

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