It is safe to say that Jesus of Nazareth has been the most influential individual to ever live. This is a result of many things, one of which is the four canonical gospels in the New Testament, attributed to Matthew, John Mark, Dr. Luke and John. Most scholars posit that Mark’s gospel was written first, around AD 40-65, Matthew second (AD 45-70), Luke third (AD 45-62) and John last (AD 95-100). While these dates are hotly debated among scholarly circles, this response is based upon the premise that the Synoptic gospels were written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70), and that John was written late in the 1st century. Each gospel focuses on a different aspect of Jesus and His ministry. The Synoptic gospels are similar in much of their content, and both Christian and non-Christians generally contend that Mark’s gospel was used as a source for Matthew and Dr. Luke’s gospel.
There are various differences in these gospels, some of which take a bit of effort to reconcile, but are not beyond reconciliation. These are often flaunted as “contradictions,” however; they are rather multiple accounts which provide differing supplementary (and complementary) materials. The four portrayals, taken together, give us a more complete picture of Christ. Deuteronomy 19:15 conveys, “One witness is not enough [to establish a matter]… A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses,” which is good to bear in mind when we consider that we have four canonical gospels. It is also important to note, though, that not every Christian community had access to the four gospels, indeed, some had one, two or three of these gospels, and some chose to use only one. Marcion of Sinope (AD 85-160), for example, accepted only parts of Dr. Luke’s gospel, and took certain liberties with the text itself, adding passages (Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem 4.6.2), a view held by the majority of scholars.
It is, therefore, relevant to examine some of these differences, along with the historical-political context, starting with the prologues. Matthew begins his gospel with the “genealogy,” “historical record,” or “account of the origin” of “Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” For Matthew, Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the promised seed to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:15), Abraham (Genesis 12, 15, 17) and King David (2nd Samuel 7:12-16; 1st Chronicles 17:11-14; Isaiah 9:7, 11:1-10, etc). He focuses on prophecies throughout his gospel, and as such, it is important to establish the Jewishness of Jesus and the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham and David. Mark begins his gospel with a simple, matter-of-fact statement, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” or “Jesus the Messiah.” The phrase “Son of God” does not appear in all ancient Greek manuscripts, but it was most likely in the original (cf. 1:11, 9:7, 15:39). For Mark, Jesus is also the Messiah, the Son of God (cf. 2nd Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7; Proverbs 30:4, etc). Mark tends emphasize the authority of Jesus, as well as portraying him as the suffering servant.
Dr. Luke, on the other hand, has a very different prologue than Matthew and Mark. His prologue is typical of Greco-Roman literary works. He notes that other narratives have been written before his, and that these were from eyewitnesses. Much like an investigative journalist and careful historian, he writes that “I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (1:3), addressing the first of his works (the other being Acts) to “most excellent Theophilus.” There are various theories concerning the identity of this Theophilus, but as explained in the blog on Luke, I hold the position that this was Theophilus ben Annas, the Jewish high priest who reigned from AD 37-41, and that Dr. Luke was writing to Theophilus later (note that this high priest was also a Sadducee). As such, it is interesting to note that the third gospel places emphases on angels, the physical nature of the resurrection (Luke 24), among other things. Evidently, the intention of Luke was to establish the credibility of his narrative.
Next, we come to John’s gospel. Likely written toward the end of the 1st century, the fourth gospel begins with a kind of hymnic narrative about “the Word,” which is identified as Jesus. John begins his gospel by establishing the pre-existence (and divine) nature of Jesus. This is also seen in other Johannine works, such as 1st John 1:1-4 and Revelation 19:13. In summation, Matthew begins with Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, John Mark as Jesus the suffering servant, Dr. Luke with a typical Greco-Roman prologue establishing the orderly nature of his narrative, and John with Jesus as the pre-existent Word, God himself. Each gospel also has an introduction of John the Baptist (whom Luke shows to be Jesus’ cousin) and his declaration of Jesus’ status as Messiah. Matthew introduces John the Baptist as a kind of Elijah in the desert, and one who baptizes. Matthew 3:11 records his declaration, “after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” In Mark’s account, John’s words are similar, where he speaks of Jesus as “one more powerful than I” (1:7). Here, John is introduced in much the same way.
In Dr. Luke’s gospel, however, a different kind of introduction is shown. In fact, Luke begins his narrative not with the introduction of Jesus, but of Zechariah and the angel Gabriel, where Gabriel details how the birth of John the Baptist will come about, and that he would be born to Zechariah and Elizabeth in their old age (reminiscent of the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah). The angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that John “will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous - to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (cf. Malachi 4:6). John himself comes into play in Luke 3, where “the Word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:2-3). As with Matthew and Mark, John makes a similar statement about the one who is more powerful than he.
Subsequently, John 1:6-8 introduces John as, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.” When the Jewish leaders ask him, John denies being the Messiah, Elijah, the Prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15-19), and declares himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. A statement concerning the Messiah’s sandals is also made, as in the Synoptic gospels, though without the statement “one who is more powerful.” John later gives a testimony concerning Jesus, seemingly describing Jesus’ baptism (1:32-34), and John declares Jesus as “God’s chosen one” (some manuscripts have “the Son of God”) and “the Lamb of God,” names used in the common Jewish expectation of a kingly, militaristic ruler. Matthew, Mark and Luke also contain the baptism of Jesus, but not the passage where John describes the event. In all four accounts, the “Spirit of God” descends from heaven like a dove. The Father then declares the sonship of Jesus, although the exact wording is different in the gospels.
The cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem is a point of contention for some. Mark 11:15-17 has Jesus cleaning the temple during the last week of his life (cf. Matthew 21:12-17; Luke 19:45-46). Matthew’s account is a tad longer, but Luke’s is short. In John 2, however, there is another cleansing. Some have explained this is two cleansings – it is certainly feasible for there to have been two separate cleansings, one at the start and one at the end of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, the context of the cleansings appears to lend itself to the notion that there was two cleansings. Among the gospels, Jesus also mentions his “true family.” Matthew, Mark and Luke record similar statements, where Jesus mentions that those who do God’s will are His true family. Yet in John 15:14 we read, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” Contextually, the statements record in the Synoptic gospels are spoken in public, whereas when Jesus speaks in John, it is in private, the evening before His crucifixion. Could this be an indirect claim to deity?
Another interesting account found in all four gospels is the feeding of the 5000+. This account is where J.J. Blunt derives one of his infamous “undesigned coincidences.” Luke provides the detail that this miracle took place in Bethsaida (Luke 9:10) and that the people sat in groups of about 50 (9:14), Mark provides the detail that people were coming and going (Mark 6:31) and that the grass was green (6:39, the color of the grass, botanically speaking, is generally green in this region during a small window around Passover). Matthew provides the detail that there were not merely 5000 men, but men and women to (Matthew 14:21, placing estimates at 10,000-20,000 people), and John provides the detail that “The Jewish Passover Festival was near (John 6:4), along with Jesus asking Philip where bread could be bought for the people. Interestingly, John’s gospel does not provide the reason why Jesus asks Philip, but John 1:44 does reveal that Philip was from Bethsaida – and Luke 9:10 reveal that this miracle occurred in Bethsaida. Philip was asked because he was a local.
The declaration of Peter concerning the identity of Jesus is also an important point in the gospels. According to Matthew 16:16, when Jesus had asked the disciples who He was, Peter replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Matthew includes the words “Son of the living God,” but Mark excludes them. Evidently, Peter made the confession recorded in Matthew’s gospel, and each gospel recorded what was necessary for narrative purposes. As Matthew emphasized Jesus’ divine sonship throughout his gospel, it made sense for him to retain that statement. Mark reserved the confession of the divine sonship of Jesus for the close of his gospel (15:39) so that it was tied more explicitly to the cross. Luke 9:20 records Peter’s words as “God’s Messiah,” and seemingly on a different occasion but similar in nature, Peter declares in John’s gospel that “We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (6:69). Again, this is similar in nature, but given its context, is evidently a different instance.
The triumphal entry of Jesus is another matter of interest. Matthew’s account mentions a donkey and a colt, and the prophecy found in Zechariah 9:9. The beast was a donkey (onos), which is a beast of burden (hupozugion). However, this particular donkey, since it was a colt (polos) or a foal (hulos) had not yet carried a burden, as mentioned in Mark 11:2. Often, some point out Matthew 21:7, “They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on.” However, only Matthew’s account mentions a donkey and a colt. Interestingly, the Greek word used here for “and” does not always mean “and,” and in Judaism, a donkey and colt were inseparable. The mother probably accompanied the colt on its first ride to keep it calm. Matthew doubtless understood that only one animal was ridden, though, and Mark as well as Dr. Luke only mentions the colt, whereas John mentions the donkey. Mark and Luke also do not mention the prophecy, whereas it is partially quoted in John. In Luke’s account, as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he wept over it, and predicted the fall of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44), “because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” Both Luke and John’s account also records the Pharisees as present in the crowd, and John mentions the crowd which was present at the raising of Lazarus was present here as well.
The crucifixion of Jesus is yet another matter. Matthew’s account (27:45-54) has Jesus cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (see also Mark 15:34), harkening back to Psalm 22:1. With Jesus citing this passage, the context of the passage, it is worth noting, seemingly refers to details concerning His crucifixion. This was also likely the moment (theologically) where the Father placed all of the past, present and future sins on Christ and had to turn away, the first time in all of eternity where Jesus was separate from the Father. Also, while Jesus calls the Father “God,” the Father later calls the Son, “God” (Hebrews 1:8-9). Matthew’s account also mentions tombs breaking open and “the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.”
Tradition connects this event with the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ descended into the underworld for three days (cf. Matthew 12:40; Ephesians 4:8-10; 1st Peter 3:19). Luke’s account mentions that the sun stopped shining (as does Matthew and Mark), and Jesus statement, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (cf. Psalm 31:5). John’s account records Jesus as saying “I am thirsty” and “It is finished.” The most plausible explanation is that Jesus said all of these things during that day. It would have been difficult to speak at all, so the few statements recorded are historically and medically plausible. John mentions that the two rebel’s legs were broken, but when they came to Jesus, He was already dead. Hence, a soldier pierces Jesus’ side, “bringing a sudden flow of blood and water” (John 19:34), probably the result of His heart bursting or rupturing, or perhaps the lungs and heart were pierced.
It is interesting to note that this darkness mentioned in the Synoptic gospels is attested to by other works of antiquity. Thallus, in AD 52, wrote a history of the eastern Mediterranean world since the Trojan War. It was quoted by Julius Africanus in AD 221. In the quote, Thallus references the darkness that day. It was also visible in Rome, Athens, as well as other Mediterranean cities. Tertullian said that it was a “cosmic” or “world event,” and Phlegon, a Greek author, wrote that it occurred in the 202nd Olympiad (AD 33), and mentioned the hour it began, even that the stars appeared in the heavens. Finally, the women who appeared at the tomb are our last point of interest. In the four gospels, the order of events (and individuals noted as being present) at the tomb is slightly different, yet this is a testimony to their independent nature, demonstrating that there was no collusion among the writers. The order of events was likely as follows: a group of women, including Mary Magdalene (whom the New Testament never actually calls a prostitute), discover that the tomb is empty early on Sunday morning (Matthew 28:1-7; Mark 16:1-7; Luke 24:1-9; John 20:1).
Consequently, the women reported the discovery to the other followers, in particular Peter and John (Luke 24:10-11; John 20:2). Sometime after the report to the disciples, Jesus appears to the women (Matthew 28:8-10; John 20:11-18), and Peter and John then investigate the empty tomb for themselves (Luke 24:12; John 20:3-10). There are slight variations when attempting to order these events chronologically, but it is important to note that a non-mention of an individual does not negate their presence at an event. Also, Jesus evidently appeared to Mary Magdalene alone after Peter and John leave (John 20:11-18). The four gospels deliver fascinating treasures when compared.