The term “gospel” means “good news” and has specific reference to the news of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The word came to be applied to histories of the life of Christ because Mark began his account with the words, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).
A large number of gospels were circulating in the early centuries of Christianity, as Luke 1:1 attests. Some of them have been rediscovered only in the last century. Not all of them deal with the mortal life of Jesus; some describe his post-resurrection visits to the apostles and what he taught them. Of the many “gospels,” only four were accepted as part of the New Testament, those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. To Latter-day Saints, there is another canonized gospel, the book of 3 Nephi in the Book of Mormon.
Three of the New Testament gospels are termed “synoptics” (from the Greek word meaning “seeing together”) because they cover basically the same story. These are Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Of the gospel writers, only twoBthe apostles Matthew and John had known Jesus (Matthew 4:21; 9:9).
The apostle John was the last to write an account of Jesus’ life. He included stories not found in the synoptics and deliberately avoided repeating most of the stories found in all three synoptics. John’s approach is essentially his testimony of the divinity and power of the Savior. Thus, he begins with the premortal Christ (John 1:1).
One of the synoptic gospels was also written by a man named John, whose Latin name was Marcus, generally known as Mark. He is said to have been the nephew of Mary, the sister of Barnabas (Acts 12:12; Colossians 4:10), which would explain why he accompanied Barnabas and his friend Paul on missionary journeys (Acts 12:25; 15:36-40; 2 Timothy 4:11). He later traveled with the apostle Peter, who called the young man “my son” (1 Peter 5:13). In fact, several early Christian writers indicated that Mark’s gospel comprised a collection of stories about Jesus that he heard from Peter. Barnabas, a native of Cyprus, was an early convert to the church (Acts 4:36), but there is no indication that either he or his nephew Mark had known Jesus. (Despite the popular attempt to identify Mark with the “young man” of Mark 14:51-52, there is no evidence for this assertion.)
Luke or Lucas, a physician by trade, was one of Paul’s later missionary companions (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 1:24). He is the author of both the gospel that bears his name and the Acts of the Apostles (compare Luke 1:1-4 with Acts 1:1 and note the use of Awe in Acts 16:10-13, 16; 20:6, 13-15; 21:1-8, 10, 12, 14-17; 27:1-5, 7, 15-16, 18-20, 26-27, 29, 37; 28:10-14, 16). Luke was at least a second-generation Christian and had not known Christ. His is the only account of the calling of the Seventy (Luke 10), which may reflect his concern for missionary work. Quite likely the only gospel writer who was not Jewish, Luke is our only source for information on the good Samaritan, the Samaritan leper cured by Jesus, and the conversion of the first Samaritans (Luke 10:30-36; 17:16; Acts 8:25). Matthew, on the other hand, has Jesus telling his disciples not to preach to the Samaritans (Matthew 10:5-6; compare Matthew 15:24).
Scholars disagree about which of the gospels was written first, but many accept that Mark was the first, followed by Matthew and Luke. This is suggested by the fact that both Matthew and Luke include in their accounts most of the stories told by Mark. They differ in their treatment, however. Luke typically accepts Mark’s version, while Matthew, who was an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry, often corrects Mark’s record. This accounts for some of the variants in the stories.
Matthew and Luke share some information, such as the sermon on the mount (or, according to Luke 6:17, “in the plain”). Some scholars believe that the material common to these two gospels but missing in Mark came from a now-lost collection of sayings of Jesus that they call Q, from the German word for “source,” Quelle. The fact that Matthew places many of Jesus’ teachings in a totally different context than Luke again suggests that he may have been correcting an earlier account.
Matthew and Luke must have had other sources as well, for each included some stories that are unique to his gospel. Thus, only Matthew wrote of the visit of the wise men, while only Luke tells of the shepherds finding the infant Jesus in the manger. Indeed, the nature of some of Luke’s account suggests to me that he may have interviewed members of Jesus’ family, for he seems privy to some rather intimate family stories. He alone wrote of the angelic appearances that announced the forthcoming birth of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ and that the mothers of these two men were cousins (Luke 1-2). Only Luke recounted Jesus’ visit to the temple at the age of twelve (Luke 2:41-51) and the attempt to kill him in Nazareth, where he had been raised (Luke 4:16-30). Another reason to believe that Luke may have interviewed members of Jesus’ family is that he was privy to Mary’s thoughts (Luke 2:19, 51).
As one reads the various gospel accounts, one is struck by the fact that, even when telling the same stories, they do not always agree on the facts. While nonbelievers might see this as a strike against these New Testament accounts, I consider them to be evidence of the sincerity of the writers. Had they been trying to perpetrate a fraud, it seems likely that they would have agreed with each other on all points. The diversity among the gospels reflects the different perspectives of the early witnesses of Christ and the emphasis each of the writers placed on various aspects of his mission.