Robert Holkerboer PhD

The Gospels and Acts, which together comprise over half of the New Testament, are as close as we get in the Bible to historical/chronological narrative.  It is selective history with plenty of gaps and unanswered questions.

The Greek word for gospel is ‘evangelion.’  “Gospel” is an English translation, from the ME ‘godspel,’ “good news.”

Thomas Cahill says the purpose of the gospels was “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” [1]

Numerous non-canonical (apocryphal) gospels circulated among the early Christian churches.  Only the Gospel of Thomas survives complete; fifteen others survive in fragments. There were many others that are now lost.  Only four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – made it into the NT canon, and even they were not canonized until the 4th century CE.

Mark, written about 70 CE – roughly 40 years after the death of Christ – is the first complete gospel available to us.

The Synoptic Gospels

Matthew, Mark, and Luke constitute the “synoptic gospels.”  (‘Synoptic’ comes from two Greek words meaning “view together.”)  We look at these three gospels together because they are so similar; comparing them with each other is instructive.  Their relationship is literary:  with some exceptions, they tell the same story, sometimes in almost the same words (the Sermon on the Mount/Plain – found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark – is  a good example), suggesting that one gospel used another as a source, or that they all had access to one common source.  Scholars refer to this hypothetical “common source” as Q (from the German ‘Quelle,’ meaning ‘source’).  Determining the precise nature of their relationship is called the Synoptic Problem. 

Markan Priority

The most common solution of the problem today is that Matthew and Luke used Mark as their source (this theory is called Markan Priority), as well as another body of source material called Q (the Two Source theory).  This Q source, if it ever existed, has since vanished.  Matthew and Luke have 230 verses in common, but most scholars do not believe Matthew and Luke knew of each other’s gospels or collaborated in any way.  This suggests the common source Q.  Matthew and Luke had their own sources as well; these are called M and L.

Here is just one example of the arguments engendered by the theory of Markan Priority.  In Mark 8:29, Mark’s version of Peter’s confession is “You are the Christ.”  Matthew (16:16) has Peter say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  If Matthew used Mark as a source, then Matthew must have added the extra words, which would have been in keeping with the emphasis on Christ as God’s Son throughout his book.  If Mark used Matthew, on the other hand, he must have taken out the reference to Jesus as the Son of God.  Why would he have done this, given his clear interest in divine sonship elsewhere in his book?

Similarities and Differences Among the Synoptics and John

Here are some of the noteworthy similarities and differences of the Synoptic Gospels, along with some comparisons with John – a late gospel very different from the other three.

Mark (16 chapters)
The earliest gospel (c. 66-70 CE) written (according to tradition) in Rome by a Gentile author for a Gentile audience
No genealogy for Jesus
Jesus is an adult at the beginning of the story
Jesus tries to keep his identity concealed (the “Messianic Secret”)
No Sermon on the Mount (no Golden Rule, no beatitudes, no Lord’s Prayer)
Only book in which Jesus is called a carpenter (Gk. teknon); Jesus is called the “carpenter’s son” in Matthew and in the earliest ms. of Mark
Jesus has sisters and at least 4 brothers
Tends to discredit the disciples as slow-witted, dazzled by miracles, inept, unreliable, and cowardly
Feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:30-44); feeding of the 4,000 (Mark 8:1-10; 14-21) [2]

Matthew (28 chapters)
Author is a Greek-speaking Christian Jew writing to a Jewish audience some time in the 80s CE [3]
Uses about 90% of Mark, enlarging on it

Provides a genealogy for Jesus going back to Abraham
Includes the story of Jesus’ birth and one story of his adolescence (from Q?)
Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount from atop the mountain (evoking Moses)
Only gospel to use the word ‘church’ (Gk. ekklesia); two chapters (10 and 18) provide guidance to church members

Luke (24 chapters)
Written 85-90 CE, 5-10 years after Matthew appeared
Author of Luke also wrote the Book of Acts (both addressed to “Theophilus”)
Only gospel writer to state his authorial intentions and methodology
Reproduces about 35% of Mark
Provides a genealogy for Jesus going back to Adam and God himself
Includes the story of Jesus’ birth and one story of his adolescence (from Q?)
States there were 12 disciples but only identifies 11 (Luke 6:13-16)
Jesus descends to “a level place” to deliver the Sermon on the Mount (inclusive message – Jesus is on our level, a savior for all people)

John (21 chapters)
Written 90-100 CE
Few parallels with other 3 gospels; 90% is unique to John
Only gospel to record Jesus turning water into wine at wedding in Cana (Jesus’ mother has an active role in this story) and the resuscitation of Lazarus [4]
Four trips to Jerusalem rather than one as in the Synoptics
No casting out of demons by Jesus
No reinterpretations by Jesus of Mosaic Law
No Lord’s Supper (meal takes place on the day before Passover)

The “Great Exclusions”

The Johannine community de-emphasized the human aspects of Jesus, which are emphasized in the synoptic gospels.  In the other gospels, Jesus’ divinity evolves.  In John it is fundamental to his identity from the beginning of the book.  Jesus is a heavenly being:  his moral and physical struggles are not relevant.  Any suggestion of human weakness is downplayed or eliminated.  So the “great exclusions” in John are:

No Messianic Secret – Jesus is explicit in identifying himself as God incarnate
No nativity account – John wanted to de-emphasize Jesus’ physical origin
No baptism by John the Baptist – Jesus had no sins to wash away
No temptation by Satan in the wilderness – would have implied human frailty
No parables (Jesus speaks in long philosophical discourses about his own nature and relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit)
No transfiguration – would have implied a stage in Jesus’ divinity
No agony in Gethsemane – too human
No Sanhedrin trial – would have been unseemly
No announcements of a Second Coming (Jesus already present as the Paraclete Comforter, Holy Spirit, his surrogate or double)

Other Differences


Jesus’ ministry takes place almost Ministry takes place in Galilee, Judea,
completely in JerusalemSamaria, with final week in Jerusalem

Disciples chosen from among disciplesDisciples called from fishing jobs by the
of John the BaptistSea of Galilee

Cleansing of the Temple occurs at the Cleansing occurs at the end of his ministry
beginning of Jesus’ ministry

Ministry covers at least three yearsMinistry of perhaps a year

Jesus teaches using long discourses,Jesus uses short sayings, parables, proverbs
sustained argument, metaphysical

Jesus crucified before PassoverJesus crucified on Passover

Narrative Point of View

The gospel authors are omniscient – not first-person – narrators.  None identifies himself by name.  None states the place and date of composition. None claims to be inspired by God or inerrant.  And there is no evidence that any of the four was an eyewitness to the events he describes.  The traditional authorial names assigned to the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – were added long after they were written – sometime in the late 2nd century CE. 

Extrabiblical Testimony to the Gospel Account

Although many ancient texts contain extensive information about other Jewish claimants to messiahship, including Theudas, Menachem ben Judah, et al., there are no non-Christian accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry.  Even bare references outside the Bible to Jesus are few and terse.  The best known is by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. He did not live during Christ's time but he records Jewish history from before Jesus' birth, presumably using good sources although he wrote c. 90 CE. Josephus is important for Christians because he is one of the few extra-biblical sources to confirm that Jesus really did exist.  However, textual scholars are now convinced that Josephus’ mention of Jesus is in a section of manuscript that is a late addition by a Christian scribe, probably in the 3rd century CE.

Tiberias and Sepphoris – Intentional Omission

According to the synoptic gospels, Jesus spent his entire itinerant ministry around the Sea of Galilee except for the final week when he went to Jerusalem and was crucified. Bible scholars are puzzled by the fact that Jesus appears never to have visited the two largest cities of the Galilee area -- Tiberias and Sepphoris.  (Sepphoris was only 4 miles from Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, an hour’s walk.)  Jewish nationalists and Jewish aristocratic merchants dominated both Tiberias and Sepphoris during Jesus’ day. Sepphoris especially (the largest city in the Galilee) was regarded as the Jerusalem of the North.  Why aren’t these cities mentioned in the gospels?

The synoptic authors could argue along the lines of, “Why mention them if Jesus never went there?”  But they were major cities and if Jesus avoided them for whatever reason, that in itself is significant.  All mention could have been omitted because Jesus avoided the cities and the conflicts he would have encountered there. It is also possible that the gospel writers knew of unflattering and serious problems Jesus had in those cities and chose not to include them because they hoped that the Jews would embrace Christianity and did not want to include narrative that showed an early rejection of Jesus by those two cities. In any case, it appears to be a conscious and strategic omission. If Jesus had taken his revisionist view of Jewish law and claims of messiahship to Tiberias or Sepphoris, the Jews would likely have executed him.  The failure to mention that Jesus visited either of these cities is seen as an intentional omission by the gospel writers because he would not have been welcomed there as he was among the Gentiles in the fishing villages and farming communities around the other areas of the Galilee.

Why Do the Gospel Accounts Differ?

1.Different sources were available to them
2.They wrote for different audiences and responded to differing community needs
3.They had their own unique personalities and viewpoints

Church Traditions, Legends, and Symbols

As the Christian church grew and evolved over the centuries, legends and symbols came to be associated with the gospel writers, and they all were made Roman Catholic saints.  Note that these are legends, not facts:

St. Matthew.  Wrote his gospel in Judea.  Later preached in Ethiopia, where he died.  In Christian art he is portrayed holding a cherub (he depicts Jesus’ human ancestry), a purse or bag of money (indicating his early profession as tax collector for the Roman government), or a book or a pen (indicating his literary gifts), or standing next to a winged man (Christ).

St. Mark.  Became the patron saint of Venice (supposedly he was shipwrecked and had a vision that a great city would someday be built there; 400 years later, mainland Italians fleeing Attila the Hun settled among the islands and lagoons of NW Italy and founded the city of Venice).  Preached for 12 years in Libya; later founded the church at Alexandria, where he was martyred.  Centuries later his body was brought from Alexandria to Venice by sailors; St. Mark’s cathedral was built over his burial place.  Venetians adopted his symbol, a winged lion [5]

St. Luke.  Continued preaching alone after his companion Paul’s death.  Crucified in Greece (according to the Greeks he died peacefully there.)  Known as “the beloved physician.”  According to legend, he was a skilled painter and won many converts by showing them his portraits of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.  His symbol is the winged ox because he emphasized the priesthood of Christ in his gospel (the ox was a symbol of sacrifice).

St. John.  According to tradition, after Jesus’ crucifixion he lived with Jesus’ mother Mary until her death.  Supposedly founded the seven churches in Asia Minor referred to in Revelation.  Moved to Ephesus where the Emperor Domitian, twice tried to kill him (with a cup of poisoned wine and by being thrown into a kettle of boiling oil), but John escaped unharmed.  Exiled to the island of Patmos.  Died a natural death in Ephesus at the age of 100.  His symbols are the eagle (loftiness, inspiration) and a book.

Notes and References:

[1] Desire of the Everlasting Hills, p. 78.

[2] As an example of the disciples’ slow-wittedness, as Jesus prepares to feed 4,000 people with a few loaves and fishes, having just witnessed him feeding 5,000 people with similarly limited rations, they ask, “How can anyone provide all these people with bread in this lonely place?” (Mark 8:14).  The source of the feeding miracle is a similar miracle performed by Elisha in II Kings 4:41-42.

[3] Whereas Luke merely pities Jesus’ Jewish enemies, Matthew condemns them as vicious hypocrites.  Ironically, the book of Matthew – written by a Jew – was frequently cited to justify 2000 years of Jewish persecution by Christians.

[4] John describes 7 miracles, compared to 21 in Matthew and 20 in Luke.

[5] Christ was called “the lion of Judah.”  The lion was a symbol of royalty.