Examining the Four Gospels

Why are there four gospel accounts that cover so much of the same material? Are the records harmonious or do they conflict?
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

When one opens the New Testament, he is introduced to four narratives which are concerned with the activity and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. These records are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Why are there four accounts that cover so much of the same material? Are the records harmonious or do they conflict?

When Jesus was crucified, a superscription was placed above his head proclaiming, “This is Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” It was written in three tongues—Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. These languages represented the three dominate cultures of the Mediterranean world when the New Testament was produced.

It is not without significance that there is a Gospel record designed for each of these societal elements. Matthew was directed to the Hebrews, Mark was written for the Romans, and Luke was designed to address the Greeks. John’s narrative, however, was cosmopolitan in its thrust. Each of these works deserves careful reflection.

The Gospel of Matthew

Though the book does not bear his name, early Christian tradition is unanimous in affirming that Matthew was the inspired author of the first Gospel account.

Matthew Levi was a Jew who had been called from his position as a tax collector to become an apostle of Jesus Christ (Matt. 9:9). There are indications within the book that the author was very familiar with finances. There are more references to money in this account than in the other three Gospel records. The selection of Matthew was a courageous move on the Lord’s part, for tax collectors were a despised class.

The purpose of the Gospel of Matthew is twofold: First, it is an apologetic, i.e., a defense of the proposition that Jesus is the promised Messiah of Old Testament prophecy. It was penned especially to convince the Jews of this fact.

It is no surprise, therefore, that this divine writer relied so heavily on Old Testament Scripture to establish his case. Matthew has about fifty direct quotations from the Old Testament; in addition there are some seventy-five allusions to Old Testament events. This would constitute powerful evidence to the Hebrew people, who viewed the Old Testament as a revelation from God.

It also would be important to the Jews to learn that the Messiah was about to initiate his reign, and so Matthew called attention to that kingdom in more than thirty-five passages. He likewise identified Jesus as the promised “son of David” (nine times).

Second, the book was doubtless intended as a message of encouragement to Jewish Christians. While it is true that the Jews had crucified their own Messiah, there was still hope for the seed of Abraham. Whereas the physical nation would have to pay a horrible price for its rebellion, i.e., the destruction of Jerusalem, nevertheless a new Israel was in the making—the church (cf. Matt. 21:43; Rom. 2:28, 29)—and every Hebrew who obeyed Christ could be a part of that fresh system (Gal. 3:26-29).

While Matthew carefully discusses the miraculous works of Christ (he lists twenty miracles—three of which are peculiar to his book), he gives a predominate interest to the Master’s words. He records a number of the Savior’s major speeches (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount in chapters five through severn and the Olivet Discourse in chapter twenty-four).

Even though Matthew’s thrust is decidedly Jewish, he is also aware of the fact that the Gentiles have an appointed place in the kingdom of God. Accordingly, he attempts to condition Hebrew thinking with this concept. He alludes to those who will come from afar to sit with the patriarchs in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 8:11), and he plainly declares that the Gentiles have hope in the name of Christ (Matt. 12:21). And Matthew’s account of the Great Commission is universal in its scope (Matt. 28:18ff).

The Gospel of Mark

Mark was the son of a woman named Mary (Acts 12:12) and the cousin of the evangelist Barnabas (Col. 4:10). Apparently, Mark had a close relationship with Peter (1 Pet. 5:13), and there is considerable evidence that he wrote his Gospel account under the influence of that apostle.

The Gospel of Mark is remarkably different from that of Matthew. A survey of the information in this book reveals that it is for a non-Jewish audience. The writer has to explain Hebrew traditions (Mk. 7:2-4) and Palestinean conditions (Mk. 11:13).

The Latinisms within the book indicate that he was writing for Roman readers (see Mk. 12:42, where the Greek “two mites” lepta are converted into the Roman “a farthing” kodrantes [cf. Mk. 5:9; 15:16]). This, of course, explains why Mark does not appeal to the Old Testament as profusely (only nineteen times) as did Matthew.

His narrative was likely written to encourage Christians in Rome who were feeling the effects of tribulation for the cause of Christ. He mentions persecution as the cost of discipleship at a point where both Matthew and Luke, in parallel contexts, refrained from using that term (Mk. 10:30).

Whereas Matthew emphasized the words of the Lord, Mark, while recording only one major sermon (Mk. 13:3-37), underscores Christ’s deeds. He characterizes Jesus as a servant who came to do the Father’s will—and, servant-like, he did so with great urgency. Mark uses the servant’s word, euthus (“immediately”), fourteen times in describing the activities of the Savior.

Mark is a strong advocate of the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. To that end, he records the testimony of God (Mk. 1:11; 9:7), the Lord himself (Mk. 13:32; 14:61, 62), the demons (Mk. 3:11; 5:7), and the Roman centurion involved in the crucifixion (Mk. 15:39). Approximately forty percent of this shortest gospel account is devoted to the Lord’s final journey to Jerusalem and the events that culminated with his death (Mk. 10:32ff).

The Gospel of Luke

Luke is the solitary Gentile writer of the Bible, yet his dual books of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts constitute about one-fourth of the New Testament.

By training he was a physician (Col. 4:14). He joined Paul on the apostle’s second missionary campaign (Acts 16:10) and was with him periodically during the tireless preacher’s ministry (note the “we” sections in Acts).

As with the Gospel of Mark, it is clear that Luke is writing for non-Hebrew recipients. He explains, for example, that Capernaum is “a city of Galilee” (Lk. 4:31), that the country of the Gerasenes is “over against Galilee” (Lk. 8:26), and that the town of Emmaus is seven miles from Jerusalem (Lk. 24:13)—circumstances quite familiar already to Palestineans.

Though the book is addressed to “most excellent Theophilus,” with the purpose of confirming the faith of this Gentile in the matters wherein he had been taught (Lk. 1:3, 4), it is apparent that the intended audience was much wider. This is a treatise designed to reach the Greeks with the message of Jesus Christ.

The Greeks were preoccupied with a consideration of man. It is not without purpose, therefore, that Luke focuses upon Christ as the perfect example of humanity.

Luke’s goal in underscoring the human aspects of the Lord is revealed by the following factors:

  • He gives the most complete record of the Savior’s birth and childhood (chapters one and two).
  • The inspired historian traces Christ’s lineage all the way back to Adam, demonstrating Jesus’ solidarity with mankind.
  • He emphasizes many human traits of the Master, e.g., his weeping over Jerusalem (Lk. 19:41) and his sweating great drops of blood (Lk. 22:44).
  • Luke gives prominence to the prayers of Christ (a factor not unexpected in a consideration of the Lord’s humanity). Of the fifteen prayers of Jesus that are recorded in the four Gospel accounts, eleven are found in Luke’s narrative.

Luke provides first-rate testimony for the genuineness of Jesus’ miracles. A scientist by profession, he had thoroughly investigated the claims of Christ’s supernatural works (he mentions twenty of them, six of which are unique to him), and he treats them as historical reality.

Moreover, the evidence for the Lord’s virgin birth must have been overwhelming for a doctor to acknowledge it and argue the case as strongly as Luke did (Lk. 1:26-38).

Luke’s message is truly international in its thrust. He mentions that the angel who heralded Jesus’ birth brought “good tidings . . . to all the people” (Lk. 2:10). He records the words of Simeon, who declared that the Messiah would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk. 2:32). He alone mentions God’s interest in Gentiles during the Old Testament era—the cases of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman (Lk. 4:25-27). His account of Christ’s parable of the good Samaritan reveals that spiritual concern is to flow beyond the pale of Judaism (Lk. 10:25-37).

The Gospel of John

John, the son of Zebedee and brother of James (Mk. 1:19), was the author of the fourth Gospel. John was a part of that inner circle of disciples (Mk. 5:37; 9:2; 14:33). Of all the apostles, he was closest to the Lord (Jn. 13:23; 19:26, 27).

This inspired record is in a class by itself. It is designed to appeal to all ethnic groups. Its basic purpose is to offer the evidence of certain signs which prove that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, which facts lead to eternal life (Jn. 20:30, 31).

In presenting his case for the divine nature of Jesus, John is very selective in the material he includes. For example, the entire scope of Christ’s preaching ministry covers approximately three and one half years (as determined by the Passovers listed in the book [Jn. 2:13; 5:1; 6:4; 13:1]), yet John deals with only slightly more than thirty days of that entire time. Of the twenty-one chapters, containing 722 verses, about thirty-six percent of the material (seven chapters of 257 verses) involves only a twenty-four hour period.

Surely the abbreviated selectivity of one who was so close to his Lord is evidence of the fact that the Holy Spirit was guiding the production of the fourth Gospel.

No New Testament book is stronger in arguing the case for the deity of Christ. Three examples of this theme will suffice:

  • John begins his document: “In the beginning was the Word [an allusion to Christ (see v. 14)], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1).
  • Near the middle of the book, the apostle has these words of Jesus: “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30)—the neuter gender numeral suggests an identity of nature.
  • Finally, as the book concludes, the confession of “scientific” Thomas is recorded. After examining the wounds of the resurrected Lord, the once-doubting apostle confessed: “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20:28).

John’s record is characterized by a series of both word signs and work signs. The word signs are the famous “I am” declarations. Jesus affirmed: “I am ...”

  • “the bread of life” (Jn. 6:35),
  • “the light of the world” (Jn. 8:12),
  • “the door” (Jn. 10:7),
  • “the good shepherd” (Jn. 10:14),
  • “the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25),
  • “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6), and
  • “the true vine” (Jn. 15:1).

In addition, the use of the absolute “I am” in 8:58, affirms his timeless existence prior to the birth of Abraham.

Additionally, note these signs recorded by the apostle:

  • Jesus demonstrated his power over time by instantly changing water into wine (Jn. 2:1-11).
  • He showed his control of space by healing the nobleman’s son from a distance of several miles away (Jn. 4:46-54).
  • The Lord’s authority over infirmity was evinced by the cure of the man at the pool of Bethesda (Jn. 5:1-18).
  • Christ was the master of matter in multiplication of the loaves and fish (Jn. 6:1-14).
  • The Savior controlled the law of gravity by walking upon Galilee’s turbulent waves (Jn. 6:16-21).
  • He reversed the effect of congenital blindness by restoring the vision of a sightless man (Jn. 9:1-41).
  • And when Jesus called Lazarus from his tomb, he gave a preview of his power over death, to fully be revealed on the last day (Jn. 11:1-44).
  • John’s Gospel concludes with the apostle’s eyewitness record of the resurrection events (20:1-29) and the miracle of the fish-laden net (Jn. 21:5, 6).

Truly, the signs of this book establish the divinity of Jesus. Indeed, the Gospel narratives testify in eloquent concert.

Do the Gospel Accounts Clash?

Unbelievers are constantly hawking the tired refrain that the Gospel accounts contradict one another and thus cannot be viewed as inspired history. The fact of the matter is, those making such charges are either unaware of what constitutes a genuine contradiction or else they simply are unwilling to give the Bible a fair hearing.

Of course the Gospel documents display some differences, even when describing the same events. Actually, this is evidence of literary independence; it demonstrates a lack of collusion. This circumstance most certainly does not demand historical unreliability.

But let us consider an alleged contradiction in the Gospel records. The accounts of the resurrection of Christ are supposed to provide evidence of several discrepancies. Two of these alleged disagreements will be examined here.

The apostle John states: “On the first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, while it was yet dark, unto the tomb” (Jn. 20:1). Mark declares: “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Salome, brought spices, that they might anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, they come to the tomb when the sun was risen” (Mk. 16:1-2).

The critic sees two problems here. First, it is argued that John records that only Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, whereas Mark mentions other women as well. Second, John says it was dark when Mary arrived, yet Mark states that the sun had risen. What are the facts?

Actually, John does not claim that only Mary Magdalene came to the tomb. He merely mentions her specifically. Furthermore, her testimony, subsequently recorded by the apostle, clearly indicates that others were present. To Peter she exclaimed, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we know not where they have laid him” (Jn. 20:2). That “we” is entirely consistent with Mark’s account.

With reference to the sunrise, the records do not state that it was both dark and not dark (after sunrise) when Mary arrived at the tomb. In fact, neither account even uses the term “arrived.” In both cases the writers say that Mary, or Mary and the others, “cometh” (erchetai, erchontai [present tense forms]) to the tomb. The present tense of the verbs marks the progress of the journey.

Obviously, therefore, John was describing the early part of the trip (during the dark), which may have involved a considerable distance, whereas Mark speaks of the latter portion of the journey (after sunrise). There is no discrepancy!

The Gospel accounts are quite harmonious and they continue to enjoy unprecedented popularity as their critics progressively fade into oblivion.