The Gospels

An Overview

Bible books contents
| Introduction  |   Authorship & dates| the Synoptcs | summary |

1. Introduction

The first four books of the New Testament are referred to as  the 'Gospels'. Of course there is only but one Gospel, but what is meant is that these four books are accounts of the earthly life of the Lord Jesus Christ. But why four, and not say five? Each book is written from a different a perspective and to a different initial audience. In them we see different aspects of the Lord's  life and ministry emphasised.

1. Authorship and dates

The modern view that the gospels, particularly the synoptics,  were written quite late after the events is designed to discredit the gospel accounts. Some place the dating of the gospels 50-60 years after the crucifixion! The traditional  dating of  the gospels still holds up and has yet to be disproved beyond doubt by those who question it.  It is beyond the scope of this page to deal with the technical details, but we will give an outline of  the arguments for an early dating.  For a more detailed study the reader is directed to the book  Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke (Hodder & Stoughton) 1991  John Wenham

1.2  Authorship

As far as authorship goes  the testimony from the second century is unanimous that the four gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The dating is early because  we know  that the  so called ' church fathers'  quoted from  the NT in their writings. For example Clement of Rome quoted the gospels in his letter to Corinth in 95 AD. Why does this matter? Simply because if they were written early   we have first hand witness accounts of the life of Jesus.

1.3 Dates

1.3a Luke

The key is the dating of Acts. We know from the opening  verses that it was written by the same person as the third gospel. This is accepted as being Luke the beloved physician. Luke finishes his account when Paul was at Rome and had spent two years there. He never mentions Paul's first  appearance before Nero (II Tim.4:16) as Paul did in his letter to Timothy, let alone his martyrdom.

So we can conclude that Acts was written  c. AD 62.

This would also mean that  the third gospel was written   pre- AD 62.  Now let us consider  the following scripture:

For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward.

 I Tim. 5:18

Notice that Paul says that these two quotes are scripture! The first one is found in Dt. 25:4.However where is the second one to be found? The ONLY place in our Bible where  this is found is in Luke's Gospel!

And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the labourer is worthy of his hire. Go not from house to house.

Thus we conclude that at the time of the writing of  I Timothy, Luke's gospel was already in circulation and was accepted by  apostolic authority as being scripture. It is also believed by some critics that the scripture below  is a reference to Luke and the third gospel:

And we have sent with him the brother, whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches;

II Cor. 8:18

If that be the case then  we have a mid AD 50s  dating for Luke's gospel. So we can safely say that  that the third gospel  was written c. 50 - 60 AD, giving a wide margin for error. But note it is still an early date!

1.3b Matthew & Mark

Matthew and Mark can not be dated by  the internal evidence of the NT. unless one takes Luke's  introduction as meaning Matthew and Mark, we can not determine if this be the case or not.

Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;

Lk. 1:1-2

We are left to consider external historic evidence; this is  technical and  controversial . However  we note that Eusebius, a church historian, places Matthew  at about 40 AD.  The second gospel account  was , according to Eusebius,  written by  John Mark  under the direction of Peter whilst in Rome, which would put its dating at  c. 45 - 50 AD.  The fourth gospel is accepted as being written by John the apostle at the end of the  first century.

Whilst acknowledging the debate surrounding  the issue, it is interesting to note that the above scenario  was accepted  until the 19th. century.

2. The synoptics

The first three gospels are called the synoptics, because they give a similar  view to the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus. Because of this many academics have proposed that they used a same source, called Q, in preparing  their accounts. No such document has  been found to date; in any case such discussion is irrelevant to the message and is an unnecessary distraction anyway. The fact is that these books are inspired and are therefore part of God's written word.

3.  Summary

Initial audience
Approx. date
Jesus portrayed as :
The Jews
40 AD
The Messiah
John Mark
The Romans
45 - 50 AD
The Servant
Luke the physician
The Hellenistic world
50 - 50 AD
The Son of man
John the beloved disciple
The whole world
90-100 AD
The Son of God