MANual Lessons: Introduction to The Gospels

This year-long journey through The MANual, my NIV Bible for Men, brings us to the most important set of books in the Christian Bible: The Gospels. In this post, I introduce you to the first four books of the New Testament that followed a time period after the Old Testament called the “400 years of silence.” 

Its “Good News”

The word Gospel comes from the Greek word ευαγγέλια (pronounced evangélia) which means “good news”. The Gospels are the written accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament. The Greek was later rendered into Latin as “evangelium” for use in the Vulgate, the late-4th-century Latin translation that became the Catholic Church’s official Latin Bible which is still used today in the Latin Church. In Old English, the Greek was translated as “gōdspel” (gōd “good” + spel “news”) and retained as “gospel” in many translations used in modern English. T

The Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy (the official name of the Orthodox Catholic Church in Europe’s three southern peninsulas, Middle East, and former Soviet countries), and Protestantism (from Martin Luther’s Reformation) all promote the good news of the coming Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15) as a fundamental part of their teachings about God’s plan to save us from eternal separation from Him.

Four Gospels (but One is Very Different)

The first books of the New Testament were written in the decades immediately following Jesus’ time on earth. The four Gospels are written from a different perspective, for a different (original) group of people. Each is written by a different author trying to accomplish a different purpose.

  • Matthew was primarily written for a Jewish audience.
  • Mark was primarily written for a Roman Audience.
  • Luke was primarily written for a Greek Audience.
  • John was primarily written for the People of the World.

The first three books: Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are referred to as the “Synoptic” Gospels meaning they are all written from a similar viewpoint. They can be “seen” or read together due to the many parallels that exist among the three. They include the historical narrative of Jesus’ life. 

The fourth book, the Gospel of John, is more unique. It’s more of a theological tome that examines the special significance and meaning behind Jesus’ messages. For instance, Mark’s Gospel quickly takes readers to the public ministry of Jesus with a genealogy, then the infancy of Jesus. In contrast, the first words in John, “in the beginning,” take readers back to the start of everything—Genesis 1:1.

All four Gospels portray Jesus as leading a group of disciples, performing miracles, preaching in Jerusalem, being crucified, and rising from the dead. I will write about each author, the timing, and its specific purpose in the separate posts for each Gospel. 

Sources for The Gospels

There is strong parallelism among the three synoptic gospels in content, arrangement, and specific language. The question of the precise nature of their relationship—what some call the synoptic problem. The texts of the synoptic gospels often agree very closely in wording and order, quotations and narration. This questions the timing and sources upon which each Gospel was written. 

Many scholars ascribe to the Marcan priority, a hypothesis that the Gospel of Mark, as the first written of the three synoptic gospels, was used as a source since both Matthew and Luke closely parallel the words of Mark. 

Another theory called the two-source hypothesis is that Matthew and Luke each independently drew from both Mark and another document called Q. From German Quelle, meaning “source”, Q is a hypothetical collection of sayings by Jesus. Burnett Hillman Streeter (1874–1937), an English Anglican theologian, biblical scholar, and textual critic, hypothesized Christian oral tradition as the second source, which became one of the foundations of most modern gospel scholarship. In his book, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (1924) Streeter later argued that a third hypothetical source referred to as M, lies behind the material in Matthew, with no parallel in Mark or Luke. Another four-source hypothesis posits that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are based on the Gospel of Mark and three lost texts: Q, M, and L

I recently found this chart in a Great Course lecture series by Bart D. Ehrman, former Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. While I am not a fan Ehrman, having watched one of his courses in our small group and knowing he has become an agnostic atheist, his chart does represent the overlap of content between the Synoptics well.

Is the Bible Historically Accurate?

Skeptics insist that the gospels are a type of mythology or folklore rather than reliable historical accounts. Popular skeptic scholars like Ehrman, who focuses on textual criticism of the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and the origins and development of early Christianity, claim that Jesus’ life and teachings were fabricated in whole or in part by his followers.

Though it’s not possible to independently verify everything in the Gospels, it is possible to find records that match up with first-century life in that part of the world. Everyone should personally investigate whether the Gospels are historically accurate or not and there are many great resources for study. Two I suggest are The Amazing Historical Accuracy of the Bible on Blue Letter Bible, the free online Bible reference library, and the popular, The Case for Christ by former atheist and Chicago Tribune writer, Lee Strobel. 

How to Read the Gospels

The Gospels, like many other books of the Bible, can be read in one sitting. To get to know them better by setting aside an hour or so to read the whole book. Get a feel for the general “flow” of the narrative. You’ll notice some recurring messages, shifts in tone, and different writing styles.

As you read the Gospels, ask these questions:

  • What does Jesus say about himself?
  • Whom is Jesus talking to? (This is vital. Is he talking to his disciples, his enemies, a massive crowd?)
  • What does Jesus say about God?
  • How does Jesus react to different situations? What pleases him? Upsets him?
  • What does Jesus tell people to do?

God Buddy Focus

Keep in mind that the Gospels are the inspired words of people who actually saw Jesus. They are also historically accurate records about when God became human. They describe Jesus’ ancestry, birth, resurrection, and His ascension back to Heaven. These give us the perfect example of how to live while we are here on earth. The biggest takeaway though is this: Christ died for our sins so we can live a life free of guilt. And that really is Good News!

This week:

  • Reread my post Between the Old and New Testaments to get a sense of the period after the prophets to better understand the reasons why God needed to send us a Savior. 
  • Recruit a group of your GodBuddies to discuss the important lessons in upcoming posts about each Gospel.

My next post will provide an overview of the Gospel of Matthew.


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