Were the Gospels written by eyewitnesses of the events, or were they not recorded until centuries later? As with the internal evidence, the external evidence also supports a first century date.
Fortunately, New Testament scholars have an enormous amount of ancient manuscript evidence. The documentary evidence for the New Testament far surpasses any other work of its time. We have over 5000 manuscripts, and many are dated within a few years of their authors’ lives.
Skeptics have criticized the Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament, as being legendary in nature rather than historical. They point to alleged contradictions between Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They also maintain the Gospels were written centuries after the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses. The late date of the writings allowed legends and exaggerations to proliferate, they say.
Are the Gospels historical or mythological?
The first challenge to address is how to account for the differences among the four Gospels. They are each different in nature, content, and the facts they include or exclude. The reason for the variations is that each author wrote to a different audience and from his own unique perspective. Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience to prove to them that Jesus is indeed their Messiah. That’s why Matthew includes many of the teachings of Christ and makes numerous references to Old Testament prophecies. Mark wrote to a Greek or Gentile audience to prove that Jesus is the Son of God. Therefore, he makes his case by focusing on the events of Christ’s life. His gospel moves very quickly from one event to another, demonstrating Christ’s lordship over all creation. Luke wrote to give an accurate historical account of Jesus’ life. John wrote after reflecting on his encounter with Christ for many years. With that insight, near the end of his life John sat down and wrote the most theological of all the Gospels.
We should expect some differences between four independent accounts. If they were identical, we would suspect the writers of collaboration with one another. Because of their differences, the four Gospels actually give us a fuller and richer picture of Jesus.
Let me give you an example. Imagine if four people wrote a biography on your life: your son, your father, a co-worker, and a good friend. They would each focus on different aspects of your life and write from a unique perspective. One would be writing about you as a parent, another as a child growing up, one as a professional, and one as a peer. Each may include different stories or see the same event from a different angle, but their differences would not mean they are in error. When we put all four accounts together, we would get a richer picture of your life and character. That is what is taking place in the Gospels.
So we acknowledge that differences do not necessarily mean errors. Skeptics have made allegations of errors for centuries, yet the vast majority of charges have been answered. New Testament scholar, Dr. Craig Blomberg, writes, “Despite two centuries of skeptical onslaught, it is fair to say that all the alleged inconsistencies among the Gospels have received at least plausible resolutions.” Another scholar, Murray Harris, emphasizes, “Even then the presence of discrepancies in circumstantial detail is no proof that the central fact is unhistorical.” The four Gospels give us a complementary, not a contradictory, account.
The term gospel is found ninety-nine times in the NASB and ninety-two times in the NET Bible. In the Greek New Testament, gospel is the translation of the Greek noun euangelion (occurring 76 times) “good news,” and the verb euangelizo (occurring 54 times), meaning “to bring or announce good news.” Both words are derived from the noun angelos, “messenger.” In classical Greek, an euangelos was one who brought a message of victory or other political or personal news that caused joy. In addition, euangelizomai (the middle voice form of the verb) meant “to speak as a messenger of gladness, to proclaim good news.” Further, the noun euangelion became a technical term for the message of victory, though it was also used for a political or private message that brought joy.
That both the noun and the verb are used so extensively in the New Testament demonstrate how it developed a distinctly Christian use and emphasis because of the glorious news announced to mankind of salvation and victory over sin and death that God offers to all people through the person and accomplished work of Jesus Christ on the cross as proven by His resurrection, ascension, and session at God’s right hand. In the New Testament these two words, euangelion and euangelizo, became technical terms for this message of good news offered to all men through faith in Christ.
The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia summarizes the gospel message this way:
The central truth of the gospel is that God has provided a way of salvation for men through the gift of His son to the world. He suffered as a sacrifice for sin, overcame death, and now offers a share in His triumph to all who will accept it. The gospel is good news because it is a gift of God, not something that must be earned by penance or by self-improvement (Jn 3:16; Rom 5:8–11; II Cor 5:14–19; Tit 2:11–14).”
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the story of Jesus Christ’s life and teachings from different perspectives, giving us a fuller view of our Savior. This lesson can only scratch the surface of what we can learn and apply from the four Gospels.
The Old Testament prophecies of a coming Messiah were very much on the minds of the first-century Jews, chafing under Roman rule. They were looking for a conquering King to liberate them from the Romans, but they generally misunderstood the prophecies of a suffering Savior. They did not understand that the Messiah would come twice.
The New Testament writers mention Old Testament messianic prophecies more than 130 times, proving clearly that Jesus was the Messiah or Christ.
The story of the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and helps show the seamless connection between the Old Testament and the New.
Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’
He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’
And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’
Then they said to him, ‘Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?’
He said: ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.’ ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now those who were sent were from the Pharisees.
And they asked him, saying, ‘Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’
John answered them, saying, ‘I baptize with water, but there stands One among you whom you do not know.’
‘It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.’
These things were done in Bethabara beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’
‘This is He of whom I said, After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me.’
‘I did not know Him; but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water.’
And John bore witness, saying, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him.’
‘I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’
“‘And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God'” (John 1:19-34).
The prophecies and the miracles fully convinced those who became Jesus’ disciples. The next day Andrew told his brother, Simon Peter, “‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated, the Christ)” (John 1:41).
Why Four Gospels? Do They Contradict Each Other?
Why are there four Gospels instead of just one? First, the Gospels are not purely biographies. Each of the four authors is describing what he considers the most spiritually significant elements of Jesus’ life and teachings. Of course, each author was inspired by God through His Holy Spirit.
There are no real contradictions among the four accounts. The four different perspectives complement each other and help to fill out the whole picture of His perfect life. Therefore, there is harmony, continuity and unity among the four accounts. It’s profitable to combine the perspectives into an overall view, but it’s also interesting and profitable to focus on one perspective at a time.
Summarizing the particular focus of each author can be challenging, but here is one simplified approach: Matthew announces Jesus as King, Mark presents Him as Servant, Luke focuses on Him as Man and John highlights Him as God. Jesus is our perfect model in each of those roles.
The multifaceted view provided by the four Gospel writers enriches our understanding of our Savior. Even seeming contradictions can be helpful in getting a fuller picture.
As an example of resolving supposed contradictions, let’s consider how the four Gospels record the words that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, ordered to be placed above Jesus’ head at His crucifixion.
Matthew 27:37 reads, ‘This is Jesus the king of the Jews.’
Mark 15:26 says, ‘the king of the Jews.’
Luke 23:38 reads, ‘This is the king of the Jews.’
John 19:19 states, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.’
At first glance it might appear none of the authors copied the words on the sign properly. But, when we read each account, we find every one adds a bit more information to the rest. From John we find that Pilate composed the message. From Luke we have additional information as to why these words are different: The inscription was originally written in three languages, Greek, Latin and Hebrew (Luke 23:38).
So the variation of the wordings logically would have to do with the three languages used as well as the different point of view of each biographer, stressing slightly different aspects of Christ’s life and ministry. Adding up the wording of the different accounts, we see that the complete message recorded by the signs was This is Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews. None of the Gospel accounts contradicts the others; they complement each other to provide increased understanding.
Matthew was one of the original 12 disciples of Christ. The Gospel of Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus Christ, intricately tying this first book of the New Testament with all that had gone before in the Hebrew Scriptures (known to Christians as the Old Testament).
Matthew’s genealogy answered the important question a Jew would rightfully ask about anyone who claimed to be King of the Jews. Is He a descendant of David through the rightful line of succession? Matthew answered yes!
Matthew appears to have written his account with the first-century Jewish audience in mind. Matthew’s Gospel cites 21 prophecies that were fulfilled in circumstances surrounding the life and death of Christ. Eleven passages point out these fulfillments using such introductions as that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of by the prophet, or then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet.
What responsibilities did Jesus give His followers as recorded by Matthew?
“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.”
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.
With this mission in mind, Matthew’s Gospel focuses on preaching about the coming Kingdom (Matthew mentions the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God 37 times) and teaching the Church.
The discipling process involves instruction in the words of Christ, and the Gospel of Matthew revolves around five of Jesus’ discourses (5:1-7:28; 10:5-11:1; 13:3-53; 18:2-19:1; 24:4-26:1). Instead of emphasizing a narrative of Jesus’ life as Mark does, Matthew uses the narrative elements in his Gospel as a setting for Jesus’ sermons.
Matthew is formal and stately. Mark is bustling with life; full of action. Matthew collects Jesus’ sayings. Mark concentrates on the marvelous things Jesus did and the places he went to.
Mark was not one of the original 12 disciples, but tradition says that the apostle Peter was influential in providing information for Mark’s Gospel. The outline of events in Mark follows the outline of Peter’s sermon to Cornelius (Acts 10:34-43). And Peter tells us that he loved Mark as his own son (1 Peter 5:13).
Mark’s Gospel was likely the first one written, and it is the shortest. Only four paragraphs in these 16 chapters are unique to Mark. All the rest appears again in either Matthew or Luke, or both. Yet to lose Mark would be to lose something beyond price. In Mark we see Jesus in action. And as we watch, the things he does convince us that he is the Son of God himself.
What was Jesus Christ’s message, powerfully summarized in Mark?
Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’
The good news of the coming government of God is a message that requires action. Mark’s Gospel ends with an additional call to action. Those who believe and are baptized are commissioned to assist in continually spreading the good news to others (Mark 16:15-16).
Luke never met Jesus, yet chose to follow Him. An obviously educated man who, as Col. 4:14 tells us, was a physician, Luke learned all that he could about Jesus and shared his findings with us. Thus his Gospel provides a ‘step back,’ a unique perspective on Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, and resurrection… Much of the material in chs. 9-19 appears only in Luke; in all, about one-third of the Gospel of Luke is unique.
Luke apparently talked with many eyewitnesses in researching this book (Luke 1:2). The apostle Paul probably also assisted Luke in understanding the life and ministry of Christ. It seems evident that Luke began to accompany Paul in his journeys after joining him at Troas, since it is there that Luke, the author of Acts, begins using the pronoun “we” (Acts 16:8-11). Paul had been directly taught by Jesus Christ during the years that he spent in Arabia (Galatians 1:12, 15-18; 2 Corinthians 12:1-6).
Luke shows Jesus as the Saviour of all men; his coming, a world-event. He lets us see Jesus the Man. And his selection of stories reflects his own warm interest in people, especially the sick and helpless, the poor, women, children, the social outcasts.
Luke wrote his Gospel and the book of Acts as a two-part history of Jesus Christ and the New Testament Church.
What did it take for the disciples to really understand what Jesus had done and the prophecies He had fulfilled?
Then He said to them, ‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.’
And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.
The Scriptures exhibit a wonderful unity, but it takes God to open our minds to truly see the connections. This understanding set the stage for the next big event that Luke recorded in the book of Acts: the giving of the Holy Spirit and the founding of the New Testament Church of God on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2).
John was one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus. John became an exceptionally loving person, and Jesus had a special love for him. It was John whom Jesus asked to take care of His aging mother after Jesus ascended to heaven (John 19:26).
The Gospel of John is a persuasive argument for the deity of Jesus. It concentrates on presenting Jesus as the Word, that is, God (1:1) who became a man (1:14). Thus John meticulously records the statements and describes the miracles of Jesus that can only be attributed to God Himself.
Jesus called Himself the bread of life (6:35, 41, 48, 51), the light of the world (8:12; 9:5), the door for the sheep (10:7, 9), the good shepherd (10:11, 14), the resurrection and the life (11:25), the way the truth, the life (14:6), and the true vine (15:1, 5). Each of these statements begins with the words, ‘I am,’ recalling God’s revelation of His name, ‘I AM,’ to Moses (see Ex. 3:14).
Then there are the signs of Jesus’ deity. Miracles in the Gospel of John are called ‘signs’ because they point to Jesus’ divine nature. John records seven such signs: changing water into wine (2:1-11), healing a man’s son (4:46-54), healing a lame man (5:1-9), multiplying bread and fish (6:1-14), walking on water (6:15-21), healing a blind man (9:1-7), and raising Lazarus (11:38-44). These miracles show that Jesus is God; He possesses power over nature.
Why did John write his Gospel?
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
John, writing long after the other Gospels had been circulated, did not try to cover the same ground, but chose his material carefully for a purpose. He wanted his readers, then and through the centuries, to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and to choose to follow Him—to enter the road to eternal life.
Jesus Christ is the most important person to have ever walked this earth, and He gave us four accounts of His life and teachings to help us understand Him. Yet He is perhaps the most misunderstood figure in history. He’s even been called “The Man Nobody Knows.”