The account of the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is recorded on four separate occasions, once in each of the four gospels. This repetition highlights the massive importance of those events as the thematic core of the Bible, and, indeed, of world history in the purpose of God (the only other episode recorded this many times in the Bible is the conversion of the apostle Paul, which may well be modelled on the death and resurrection of Jesus, as Paul metaphorically followed in the footsteps of his lord).
But if the existence of the four gospel accounts emphasises the importance of Jesus' work, it also presents a wonderful opportunity to see different aspects or perspectives on that work. The four gospels are clearly not identical. They each have their own nuances and emphases, their own particular tale to tell.
It is sometimes argued that they contradict one another. While this isn't the place to review all the evidence, it's worth remembering several points. Imagine a car accident. Different eyewitnesses of the same event might well describe it quite differently depending on their perspective and reading of what happened. It is the same event, but their experience of it is very different. Second, when events are placed in different order in the gospels, this may be for thematic reasons, not necessarily because there is a contradiction. Similarly, when 'identical' events are reported differently, this may because they are actually different events. It needn't be assumed, for instance, that Jesus used his parables only once - it's entirely natural that he might have re-used and modified material. There are various possibilities of this sort.
One way of studying the gospels is to compare events as they are recorded in the different gospels to create a composite picture - a comparative approach. Another method is to stay focussed on one gospel to get its particular angle on the way Jesus' ministry developed. Both approaches are valuable and yield important insights. The individual pages on each gospel within Bible Toolshed attempt to follow the second method by identifying what is distinctive about each gospel in the slant it presents on Jesus' life and work.
The synoptics and John
The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are generally referred to as the 'synoptic' gospels, because they present a synopsis of Jesus' life. That is to say, they give an overview, a snapshot of the many diferent events of his ministrym and a sense of his teaching as he went from place to place. They follow a broadly similar order and style, and there is a lot of common material within them, It's often assumed that Mark was the first, and that Matthew and Luke had Mark in front of them as a source and reference as they did their own writing.
The gospel of John is very different. It covers far fewer events, but it presents them in much greater detail, with each one serving as a springboard for an extensive example of Jesus' teaching.
The four gospels of the Bible are not the only early Christian works known as gospels; there are other so-called 'non-canonical' gospels which are not part of the Bible. Many of these are clearly later than the Biblical gospels, some are parasitic upon them, and some contain obvious mythical and fanciful additions. Given the rapid spread of Christianity in the First Century, it's not surprising that many documents were written about Jesus, and that some of these became increasingly embellished and that fiictional additions were made, some of them to suit the particular whims or inclinations of different sects and communities that became established.
However, there was never any serious doubt about whether these non-caonical gospels were to be included as part of the Bible. Many of them are clearly inconsistent with it, and given their non-inclusion in Scripture, there is little doubt that they should not be considered inspired writings.
What is a gospel?
It may seem like an obvious question, but it's worth touching on briefly. The gospels do not fit neatly into the standard literary genres of writing from either the ancient or modern world. They are not disinterested history, for instance, even though they do record what happened. They are not biography in any recognisable form - they leave out huge chunks of Jesus' life, and there is relatively little exploration of Jesus' inner psychology and personality in the way that might be attempted in modern biogrpahy. No, the gospels are unique.
They are also books with a clear purpose. They are intended to help create, support and sustain faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as the saviour of the world. They are intended to demonstrate that Jesus can brook no equal as a teacher, leader and saviour. They are intended to show that Jesus is the Son of God Once a reader truly confronts Jesus as the gospels reveal him, life may never be the same. He is the fulfilment of everything that God had promised in the Old Testament scriptures, and one of the most important functions of the gospels is to show how Jesus completes and fulfils that link.
The Acts of the Apostles
Finally, the gospel story is taken up in the Acts of the Apostles. Following Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension, his great work was continued by his closest followers, the apostles and disciples. The story of that continuing work and the establlishment of the early church in the First Century is recorded in Acts. Acts is in fact the sequel to Luke's gospel and it shows how the apostles followed closely in the footsteps of their Lord, as all believers should, in spreading the good news of God's saving work through Jesus.
Q: Questions coming soon!
A: And answers too...!