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The Gospels

By Mike Ruffin I’m in the middle of teaching a college course on the New Testament, and we just finished talking about the Gospels. I’m also about to start teaching another course, this one on just the Gospels. So I’ve had the Gospels on my mind. This is a good thing. Here are a few fun facts about the Gospels. First, they were all written well after Jesus lived, died, and rose again. The Gospel of Mark is probably the oldest of the Gospels, dating to around 70 A.D. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke were probably written ten to twenty years after Mark, and John a few years later than Matthew and Luke. During the years between Jesus’ departure and the first written Gospel, preachers and teachers shared the stories about and teachings of Jesus orally. Second, the Gospels are all anonymous. None of them say who wrote them. The titles (‘The Gospel According to Mark,’ for instance) were added later. Third, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are close kin. We call them the Synoptic Gospels; ‘synoptic’ means ‘seeing together.’ We call them that because of their similarities. Most of what’s in the Gospel of Mark is also in Matthew and Luke, so most scholars think that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source. (By the way, Luke tells us right up front that he used sources. It’s in Luke 1:1-4.) Matthew and Luke also contain a lot of sayings of Jesus that Mark doesn’t have. Most scholars think they had access to a ‘Sayings Source’ (we call it Q, abbreviated from the German Quelle, which means ‘source’). No such document exists, but scholars infer its one-time existence from the texts of Matthew and Luke. For example, most of what Jesus says in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5’“7) is also in Luke’s Gospel, but the sayings are scattered all over the book. So it seems that Matthew and Luke both had a source that contained those sayings, but each of them organized and presented them in different ways. Fourth, the Gospel of John is a much different kind of book than the other three Gospels. Most of what is in John’s Gospel isn’t in the other three. Only John has Jesus’ ‘I am’ sayings (‘I am the bread of life’; ‘I am the light of the world,’ etc.). On the night Jesus is betrayed, John tells of Jesus’ washing his disciples feet, but not of his establishing the Lord’s Supper. Fifth, there are four Gospels in the New Testament. They tell the story of Jesus in different ways. You may or may not have wondered why we have four stories of Jesus rather than just one. Some folks have tried to construct a single story out of the four New Testament Gospels. In the second century, a fellow named Tatian compiled a harmonized version of the Gospels called the Diatessaron (‘Harmony of Four’). It was popular for a while, but it fell out of favor. By their ongoing use of the four Gospels, the early Christians decided that four were better than one. (You can acquire a modern version of a harmony of the Gospels, but I agree with the early Christians: four are better than one.) So why do we have four Gospels? Each Gospel comes from and addresses a different community in a different setting. The writers present the story of Jesus in ways that address the situation of the community for which they are writing. They interpret the story of Jesus in varying ways in order to proclaim the same truth to different communities: the crucified and resurrected Jesus is the Messiah and Savior. Sixth, two thousand years later, the Gospels continue to challenge, convict, inspire, and instruct us. Christians should read them because they teach us of Jesus and of what it means to follow him. Everyone should read them because they are utterly fascinating. Seventh and last, the word ‘Gospel’ means ‘good news.’ The four Gospels contain the best news that has ever been told. So I encourage you to read them. We sure could use the good news today.

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