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The Gospels

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Matthew Mark Luke John Miracles table

Origen said that there are three ways to read the Gospels. Simple people will read them as charming stories containing direct instructions for holy living. Wiser people will think in terms of stories with moral parallels. Those with real nous will find a mystic meaning through hidden symbolism. Presumably Origen saw himself as a mystic.

People see "the historical Jesus" in different ways. Protestants try to understand a very human Jesus, while the Orthodox concentrate on the signs of his divinity in the Transfiguration and John's Gospel.[4]

John Stott[6] gives five reasons for believing the Gospels:

  1. the Evangelists were Christians to whom truth matters;
  2. they show their impartiality by including incidents they would have liked to omit (such as the fallibility of Peter, then a key church figure);
  3. they claim either to have been eye-witnesses or to have got their information from eye-witnesses;
  4. Jesus adopted styles of teaching (such as Parables) that are easy to remember, particularly for someone brought up in a culture with a strong oral tradition, and promised that the Holy Spirit would help them to remember;
  5. God, having done something special, would not allow it to be lost.

Most of my comments appear against Matthew's Gospel, simply because where the same event is recounted in several Gospels it seems sensible to comment on it when it first appears.

The differences between the Gospels are interesting. Matthew seems to want to show Jesus as a truer Judaism than that of his contemporaries, and starts his Gospel with a genealogy starting at Abraham; Mark seems to emphasize Jesus as widening salvation to include the Gentiles, and starts without any genealogy at all; Luke seems to want to show Jesus as a perfection of humankind and starts with a genealogy going back to Adam, yet also includes in chapter 22 references to Jesus as a suffering servant, echoing Isaiah 52:13–14 for example; while John wants to show Jesus as divine and starts with the creation. "Many have been puzzled as to why there are four gospels, especially when they are so repetitive...when the same story occurs in all of the gospels, it is used by each evangelist to make a quite different point. The emphasis is different. We miss a writer's message entirely if we simply transfer the meaning of a story in one gospel to the same story in another gospel" [3 p.15].

Since a few decades after they were written, the four Gospels have been associated with the four living creatures in Ezekiel 1:4–28 and Revelation chapters 4–6. "The symbols often appeared in early frescoes across the ancient Mediterranean and lavish illustrations in Celtic manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells. While the four symbols are popularly thought to refer to the evangelists themselves, I was struck by the fact that the frescoes and Celtic Manuscripts depict the symbolic animals alongside each gospel writer, or even hovering above them, inspiring them as they write. Writing in the middle of the second century, Irenaus of Lyons describes them as 'images of the disposition of the Son of God', aspects of the mission and purpose of Jesus—​the lion his royal power, the ox his sacrifice, the human his human coming, and the eagle his Spirit (Against the Heresies, III.11.8–9).[7]

Matthew, Mark and Luke (the "Synoptic" Gospels) tend to tell the same stories, often using almost identical words, while John has a lot of material not found in the Synoptics. There are particularly strange differences between the Synoptics and John regarding the timing of events; the temple in Jerusalem used a different calendar from the Qumran sect[2]. The fact that different calendars were in use, and hence the various sects celebrated feasts such as the Passover at different times, may explain the differences between the timing of events between John and the Synoptics. Overall, it is said that the synoptics emphasize Jesus's humanity, while John emphasizes his glory (e.g. see comment on John 20:13). The Synoptics use scripture to validate Jesus's ministry, while John uses miracles[5]. And John's Gospel is the only one to use the word grace, linking its theology with that of the Epistles.

Overall, we need to find a balance that is consistent with Jesus's "Summary of the Law" in Matthew 22:37–40, and its parallel Mark 12:29–31. All four gospels move from Jesus's teaching and healing ministry to the crucifixion and resurrection, but the Synoptics make the link via the Last Supper, while John uses the washing of the disciples' feet, which is associated with a "new commandment" to love one another. It appears than that John was concerned that the Synoptic Gospels lead Christians to emphasize individual relationship with God over serving other people. St Basil used John's Gospel in this way; when someone mentioned to him their intention to become a hermit, he replied "but whose feet will you wash?" [1 p.16].


  1. Fr George Guiver CR (Brother Superior, Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield, Yorkshire) Pursuing the Mystery (Community of the Resurrection, revised edition 2016)
  2. Brooke, George J The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament (London: SPCK, 2005) p295f (quoting A Jaubert)
  3. Ord D. and Coote R. Is the Bible true? New York: Orbis, 1994
  4. Brown, D and Loades A (eds) The Sense of the Sacramental (London: SPCK, 1995) p.97
  5. Satlow
  6. Stott, Revd John Understanding the Bible Reading: Scripture Union, 1993 edn, p.87–88
  7. Burridge, Revd Dr Richard Four Ministries, One Jesus? London: SPCK 2017 (sampler edition) p.6

© David Billin 2002–2021