Gospels are writings about the teachings and deeds of Jesus Christ. Gospels are a special kind of biography. Their primary concern is not to relate the life of Jesus as accurately as possible, the way a modern biography might do. Instead, they want to present the message of Christianity, and they tell the life of Jesus to do so.
As a result of this, most modern scholars have come to realize that it is not possible to write a modern biography of Jesus on the basis of the gospels. They do not provide the right kind of evidence.
The New Testament contains four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Many other gospels circulated in the ﬁ rst few centuries C.E. Several of them have survived. Recently scholars have given one of these other gospels a great deal of attention: the gospel of Thomas as preserved in the Coptic language. It consists entirely of sayings attributed to Jesus. A few scholars have argued that Thomas preserves some sayings more accurately than the gospels in the New Testament do. More traditional Christians ﬁ nd this assertion implausible.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke follow the same basic scenario in presenting the life of Jesus. For that reason they are known as “synoptic” gospels. The synoptics tell the same basic story from Jesus’ baptism to his cruciﬁxion and burial. They diverge when they tell about Jesus’ birth and his resurrection. Mark says nothing about Jesus’ birth. Matthew tells about the visit of the wise men and the massacre of infants under Herod. Luke tells of a journey to Bethlehem and a visit of shepherds; he associates these events with a census that took place when the Romans replaced Herod’s son as ruler of Judea and appointed a proconsul to rule the area. As concerns the resurrection, Mark only tells about a group of women discovering an empty tomb. Matthew adds appearances of the risen Jesus to his disciples in Galilee. According to Luke, the disciples stayed in Jerusalem and surrounding areas, and the risen Jesus appeared to them there.
Scholars have long debated how to explain these characteristics. Most now adopt the view that Mark was the ﬁ rst gospel of the three. Matthew and Luke, they suggest, wrote their gospels by following Mark, sometimes word for word. Matthew and Luke also report some sayings of Jesus that are not found in Mark, so they seem to have followed another common source. This source would have been similar in form to Thomas but certainly not identical with it. For the birth and resurrection of Jesus, Matthew and Luke used very different sources.
Each of the synoptic gospels has its own distinctive concerns. For example, Mark emphasizes what scholars call the “Messianic secret.” That is, in Mark Jesus continually tries to hide that he is the Messiah; this fact is revealed publicly only after Jesus’ resurrection. The synoptics also tell the story of Jesus in distinctive ways. For example, Luke is part of a two-volume presentation that continues in the book of Acts.
The gospel of John is in a class by itself. It does not follow the general order of events that the synoptic gospels use. It also does not report the same sayings. John presents Jesus as reﬂ ecting a great deal on his special identity. Many sayings begin with the phrase, “I am,” for example, “I am the light of the world” (John 8.12). These sayings include some that Christians cherish the most.
Tradition attributes John’s gospel to a disciple who was the closest to Jesus, a disciple whom Jesus loved. For centuries many Christians preferred it to the synoptics. The tendency today is to see John as the latest of the gospels in the New Testament. In this view, it does not present Jesus’ most intimate words. It presents the way a certain group of early Christians liked to think about him.