Four hundred years after the death of Jesus Christ and following three centuries of debate, Christianity settled on 27 books and letters it would commonly accept and bind together as the New Testament. Of these, the first four books, the Gospels (“good news”), gave us our only accepted, ancient accounts of the ministry and miracles of Jesus Christ, chosen from dozens of contemporary gospels; including Thomas' account of Jesus' childhood. Those accepted are attributed to four individuals known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; and though early Christianity attempted to specifically identify these individuals, they remain almost completely unknown.
Matthew directs his Gospel at early Jewish Christians, emphasizing Christ’s Jewish lineage and linking him squarely with ancient Jewish religion and Law in a successful attempt to prove Christianity a continuation of the Jewish faith rather than something brand new. Writing around A.D. 80 to 90, Matthew would have been familiar with Mark’s Gospel and apparently found it rather important; he enfolded nearly the entire document into his own, much longer work. Matthew (also Levi) is traditionally seen as the tax collector (later, apostle) with whom Jesus shared a meal (Mark 2:13-17, Matthew 9:9, Luke 5:27).
Earliest of the Evangelists, writing around A.D. 70 to a Gentile audience, Mark is said to be Peter’s interpreter; a later disciple rather than apostle. Mark had limited capability in the Greek in which he wrote, but supreme command of narrative; the technique of the “Markan Sandwich” (bookending a story with two halves of a second story to enforce and clarify meaning) is named for him. Mark wrote near the time of Nero’s persecution of Christians; barely following the failed Great Revolt and the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.
Luke was the latest writer of the synoptic trio (whose works can be “seen together” with obvious structural similarity). Judging by the style and competence of his writing, “the beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14) was well educated in Jewish and Hellenistic tradition. Luke wrote for the Gentile audience and is heir to Paul’s ministry in this regard. Luke did not stop with the Gospel, however, and continued to document the Apostolic Age in Acts of the Apostles. He is traditionally identified as the first painter of icons, specifically painting Mary Theotokos (Christ-bearer).
John makes extensive use of esoteric symbolism, identifying Jesus as divine in a way the others did not, calling him the Word of God (“Logos”) and Light. Traditionally, Jesus, at the end of his life, entrusted his mother to John, his “beloved disciple” (John 19:26-27, 21:24). Latest of all the Evangelists, John is concerned with the continuation of Christianity. This can be seen most vividly in the story of Doubting Thomas (notably absent from the three earlier Gospels) wherein the titular apostle will not believe Christ has risen until he has seen for himself. The story ends by praising those who have not seen, yet still believe.
- Frontline: The Gospel of Matthew
- Frontline: The Gospel of Mark
- CCEL: NPNF2-01. Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine
- Four Gospels, One Jesus?; Richard A. Burridge
- Italian Renaissance Learning Resources: Saint Luke Paints the Virgin and Child: Genealogy of an Image
- Frontline: The Story of the Storytellers
- The Apocryphal Gospels; Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Plese
- Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels; Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh
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