Four portraits, no photo: every gospel tells a story

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The order of the biblical books is is not accidental but deliberate. The Old Testament ends with prophecy. The New Testament begins with the gospel that puts the greatest stresse on Jesus as the fulfilment of prophecy. This is Matthew’s version of the story of Jesus.

The canonical order is almost certainly not the order in which the gospels were written. In a rare instance of near universal academic agreement, biblical scholars think that this sub-genre of ancient biography was invented by Mark: the first person to write a gospel.

The four evangelists, gospel book cover. Photo © Philip Barrington

There is also universal agreement that the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are in some way interrelated. After that scholars begin to part company. The majority think that one key relationship between the gospels is that Matthew and Luke both adapt Mark in different ways. They tidy up his story (and his grammar!) and supplement it with a range of additional stories they value. There are other theories. However, these three gospels are recognisably not only talking about the same person, but telling similar stories about him.

Because of this similarity these three gospels together are often, for convenience’s sake, called the synoptic gospels. The word synoptic means they can be looked at together with a single eye or glance. By contrast John’s gospel tells the story of Jesus in a very different way. He leaves out most of the stories in the first three (for example, there are no exorcisms), and includes some different stories (for example, the weding at Cana). He also offers his own take on the stories he shares with the others, for example, making the feeding of the five thousand the context of a very long sermon.

In all the gospels, there is – in terms of the conventional approach to biography – a disproportionate amount of space given to the final events of Jesus’ life, and especially his last twenty-four hours. The cross casts a long shadow backwards over the earlier chapters. It is clear from the beginning that this is where the story is going.

The scholar who called Mark’s gospel (and the same applies to the others) “a passion narrative with an extended introduction”1 may have been exaggerating, but he catches something of how important the death and resurrection of Jesus is to the telling of his life. The stories are shaped by the ending, and it is the ending of the story that, for believing writer and listener alike, makes Jesus the teacher they need to follow. It is the ending that makes it “gospel”.

The gospel reading dominates the lectionary,2 and gives the lectionary its three year shape. Each of the synoptic accounts gets a lectionary year to tell the story of Jesus, and John’s gospel is used to supplement them at the main festivals, and also to fill out the lectionary year when Mark, the shortest gospel, is being read. This approach draws on a very old tradition of reading and preaching through one key book of the bible at a time,3 and combines it with the present understanding of the gospels as interrelated but distinctive.

Each gospel writer has their own emphases, and being aware of these can help the reader appreciate how a particular story is being told. The sense that there is one story being told in different ways is reflected in the traditional titles given to each gospel. We read “The gospel according to …”: one gospel, four diverse ways of expressing it. We have different and distinctive versions of the story from particular writers with their own theological beliefs and concerns.

As it stands, the text of each gospel manuscript does not include an author’s name. Whether they were written by the person whose name very quickly became associated with each, or at least had a connection with that person’s work, gives scholars something to write learned articles and books about. For the purposes of this blog series, however, I am simply going to use the received names for the gospel writers without much discussion of exactly what relationship each text has with its traditional author.


  1. A German scholar called Martin Kähler, in a now out-of-print book published in 1892.
  2. See this post for a longer discussion of how the lectionary is organised.
  3. Many of the early Christian teachers like St Augustine produced major sermon commentaries in this way.

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