Introduction to the Gospels
Among the earliest Christians the word “gospel” was not used as the title of a book or as a designation for a class of literature. Instead, it was a term which meant “Good News” and referred to the message of salvation which those Christians proclaimed.
The gospel as proclamation was about Jesus Christ whose crucifixion and resurrection were at the center of the message, which also included stories about his deeds and reports of his teaching. As the Christian movement grew, a considerable body of tradition about Jesus developed and circulated in the first decades of the church's life. While that tradition was made up of individual units (e.g., single stories, independent sayings), there were soon collections and short accounts useful for instruction, liturgy, and other purposes in the church.
Between 70 and 100 C.E., several authors employed these elements to compose connected narrative accounts which came to be known as Gospels. The title “Gospel” probably derives from the opening words of one of these narrative documents, that attributed to Mark (“The beginning of the gospel…”); the title certainly reflects the fact that all of these books focus on Jesus Christ in whose life, death, and resurrection the church found the hope of salvation. Four of these narrative documents are found at the front of the New Testament where they were collectively identified as “The Gospel” and where in ancient manuscripts they were distinguished by the headings “According to Matthew,” “According to Mark,” “According to Luke,” and “According to John.”
Scholarly opinion varies about the type of literature to which these books belong. Some regard them as representative of a specific type of ancient biography, while—at an opposite pole—others regard the Gospel form as new and distinctively Christian. There were diverse types of biographies in the Graeco-Roman world for which praise of the subject was characteristic, and a citizen of that world who came upon our Gospels probably would have understood them in the context of ancient biographical literature. Other books with the word “gospel” in their titles circulated among early Christians, some similar in type to the canonical four, some quite different in form (see articles, “Literary Forms of the Bible,” p. *12, “Early Christian Literature,” p. *112).
That Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John bear a general resemblance to each other is clear. All are developed narratives which culminate in passion and resurrection accounts; they agree in beginning their story of Jesus' public career with the activity of John the Baptist. Between the Baptist's appearance and the passion, they relate encounters, mighty deeds, and teaching. Such similarities suggest that these books are connected. In fact, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so closely related that they are usually regarded as being interdependent. However, in spite of the general resemblances mentioned above, there are also significant variances which separate John from the others. John's stories of wondrous deeds are largely different stories and appear to serve a different purpose; John presents Jesus' teaching in extended thematic discourses, in contrast to the collections of sayings and parables which characterize the other Gospels; in John, Jesus' ministry oscillates between Galilee and Jerusalem, while in the other Gospels the ministry is concentrated in Galilee until one fateful journey to Jerusalem at its close. Most scholars believe that, though certain common traditions lie behind the four Gospels, John is best understood as basically independent of the others.
For Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the similarities are pronounced. The narrative outlines hang on the same events reported in essentially the same order. So close are these three Gospels to each other that they are commonly called the “Synoptic Gospels,” which means that they “see or view (their subject) together.” A useful tool for understanding these Gospels is a Synopsis: a book in which Matthew, Mark, and Luke are each printed in its own order, but in a parallel column format which reveals the unified outline they possess. In fact, the agreement between the Synoptics is such as to be explicable only in terms of a literary relationship. When documents are said to have a literary relationship, that means that one has used the other as a source or that they have used a common source. The assertion of dependence between Gospels is not made lightly or arbitrarily, but only when very specific circumstances are present. Literary relationship is not demonstrated merely by the authors' knowledge of some of the same stories or by coincidence in general arrangement of materials. On the contrary, what is minimally required is the recording of a significant number of passages (1) with the same basic content, (2) in substantially the same sequence, and (3) with a very high incidence of the same words. By such demanding criteria, John simply does not relate to Matthew, Mark, and Luke in the way they relate to each other. The relationship between the Synoptic Gospels can best be understood on the basis of literary dependence.
The relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke is clearly literary, but it is also complicated. Not only are there compelling agreements which must be recognized, but occasional divergences in order appear, Matthew and Luke share considerable blocks of tradition not found in Mark, and each Gospel has distinctive materials. This complex set of data constitutes what is called the “synoptic problem,” which is the need to explain both the similarities and differences between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Any hypothesis advanced to deal with the problem must reckon with the fact that Mark is, in some sense, the “common denominator.” Mark's position is such that the most natural way of describing synoptic relationships is to speak of the degree of agreement with Mark. For example, one theory is that Mark drew upon both Matthew and Luke; another hypothesis is that both Matthew and Luke were dependent on Mark. Notice that in either case Mark is the “common denominator.”
For most scholars, the solution which recommends itself most strongly is commonly known as the “two-source” or “two-document hypothesis.” Mark, on this view, is the prior Gospel and was used by Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke are also believed to have drawn from a second source which contained teaching materials not found in Mark: a “Sayings Source” which is usually given the designation “Q” (for German Quelle, “source”). On any theory each evangelist (as the Gospel authors are called) is seen to have utilized unique traditions as well.
Though broad, general similarities characterize all four Gospels and the Synoptics have literary ties, the evangelists have unique points of view, so that each Gospel has its distinctive message. The Introductions to the Gospels (pp. 1267 , 1304 , 1327 , 1365 ) provide suggestive indications of these special perspectives and purposes. In the interplay of likenesses and differences, we are able to sense the vibrant, changing, growing faith of the early Christian communities.