The Gospel Writers
This is the first of four articles that look at the writers behind the four gospels
in the New Testament.
Part 1 – The Gospel According to St Mark
In contrast to their order in the New Testament, the first of the four gospels to
be written was that according to Mark. It was probably written between AD 65 and
75, at least thirty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Mark’s gospel
was not the earliest book of the New Testament to be written. Paul’s letters to
the churches he founded were written much earlier.
Mark was not a disciple of Jesus and we are not really sure of his true identity.
Some think he was the young man who ran naked from the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark
14:51) or the companion of Barnabas and Paul on one of their journeys (Acts 12:25)
or the friend of the writer of 1 Peter (1 Peter 5: 13) However, as Mark was the most
common name in the Roman Empire at that time, we have no way of definitely identifying
him. It appears that he was most probably a member of a Christian community in Rome
and that he very likely knew the disciple, Peter, very well.
Before Mark wrote his gospel, stories about Jesus circulated in the Early Church
both orally and in writing. The main source of these would, of course, be the disciples.
The reason Mark decided to bring these together into a gospel was, probably, the
passing of many of the original twelve disciples, in many cases through martyrdom.
Mark took these stories and wove them together into his gospel. Rather like a seamstress
making a bedcover out of different coloured or patterned squares of cloth, Mark assembled
them in the way he felt they would go together best, acting both as an editor and
Mark’s gospel is very short - you can read it all in a couple of hours. It is not
a life story of Jesus and has little chronology except for the last week of Jesus’
life, to which Mark devotes a quarter of his gospel. It starts with Jesus, as a
man, being baptised by John the Baptist and ends abruptly at chapter 16 verse 8 with
the women fleeing from the empty tomb. The rest of chapter 16 - verses 9 to 20 -
is an addition to the gospel, written by someone else at a much later date. Scholars
are divided in their opinions as to whether Mark originally finished his gospel on
such an abrupt note. Some think Mark’s original ending was lost, others that he
died before he could complete it while others feel that was the way Mark intended
to end it, leaving the reader to draw the conclusion, through faith, that Jesus had
been raised from the dead. What do you think?
By writing the first gospel, Mark paved the way for the others. Indeed, as we shall
see, his gospel acted as a blueprint, particularly for the writers of Matthew and
Luke who copied great chunks of Mark’s gospel into their own writings.
The Gospel Writers
This is the second of four articles that look at the writers behind the four gospels
in the New Testament.
Part 2 – The Gospel According to St Luke
Luke, the writer of the third gospel was also the author of the Acts of the Apostles.
He is linked to Paul as a ‘fellow worker’ (Philemon 24) and is also described as,
‘the beloved physician.’ (Col. 4 :14) Both of Luke’s writings have an introductory
dedication to someone called, Theophilus, from whom Luke appears to have received
patronage for his work. The name ‘Theophilus’ literally translates as, ‘lover of
God’, which links neatly with the universal appeal of both books.
Luke was a Gentile and has the unique distinction of being the only non Jewish New
Testament writer. He probably wrote his gospel sometime during the last two decades
of the first century. Tradition suggests he was part of a Christian church in Antioch.
In his introduction to the gospel, Luke acknowledges the existence of a number of
sources that were available to him as a gospel writer. One of these was Mark’s gospel
upon which he draws heavily and often verbatim. Another was, probably, a collection
of oral and written tradition which was also available to Matthew. About two hundred
verses, in some form or another, of Luke’s gospel can also be found only in Matthew’s
gospel. Scholars have, not too creatively, identified this source material as ‘Q’!
Luke’s third source appears to have been material known only to him and is unique
to his gospel. This material includes Luke’s account of the birth of John the Baptist,
the witness of the shepherds and the ancient Christian hymns we know as the Magnificat
and the Nunc Dimittis.
As a gentile writer, Luke demonstrates little interest in particularly Jewish matters,
though he sees Jesus’ birth as part of a divine plan revealed through the Old Testament.
He comes across as a keen historian of that time and anchors his gospel in the mainstream
of Roman history. However, for Luke, history is a vehicle of theological interpretation
and not an end in itself.
Luke has been described as, ‘the gospel of the poor and disadvantaged’. While Matthew
writes, Blessed are the poor in spirit, Luke, significantly writes, Blessed are the
poor,! The feeling one has is that this concern for the poor was not just a feature
of Luke’s gospel but of the Christian community in which he lived. Luke’s gospel
is universal and he, alone among the gospel writers, portrays the Samaritans in a
favourable light. (Luke 10:25 - 37 and 17:11 – 19) Although Luke puts women in the
traditional roles of prayer, almsgiving and supporting the missionary labours of
men, he, nevertheless, has a special place for them in his gospel as the interplay
between Mary and Elizabeth in chapter 1 illustrates.
Unlike the ending to Mark’s gospel, Luke clearly identifies a number of resurrection
appearances by Jesus, including the full account of the story of the appearance on
the road to Emmaus which is unique to his gospel. However, Luke goes even further
and includes a reference to the Ascension both at the end of his gospel and at the
beginning of the Acts of the Apostles.
The gospel of Luke has been called, ‘the loveliest book in the world’. Luke himself
has been adopted as the patron saint of both doctors and artists. Tradition clearly
identifies him as a physician while legend suggests he was a skilled painter. There
is a portrait of Mary in a Spanish Cathedral which is said to have been painted by
him. However, it is as the writer of two books that remind us of the basis and origins
of our faith that we shall remember him.
The Gospel Writers
This is the third of four articles that look at the writers behind the four gospels
in the New Testament.
Part 3 – The Gospel According to St Matthew
As with Luke’s Gospel, Matthew’s Gospel has the Gospel of Mark at its core. Indeed,
it has been calculated that 93% of Mark’s Gospel can be found somewhere in either
Matthew or Luke’s Gospels. The fact that Matthew based his Gospel on that of St
Mark rules out early beliefs that the writer was the disciple, Matthew. If the writer
were the disciple of Jesus, why would he have to use another Gospel as the basis
for his writing? He would surely have had his own recollections upon which to draw.
In addition to Mark’s Gospel, Matthew also had available the material which is common
to both him and Luke. This comprises around 200 verses and, as mentioned earlier
in Part 2, has been given the identification, ‘Q’, by scholars. Finally, Matthew
also had material available to him which is found only in his Gospel. This includes
his version of the story of Jesus’ birth, including the visit of the Magi, some sayings
of Jesus and the parables of the Ten Virgins and the Talents in the Gospel in chapter
As with Luke’s Gospel, Matthew’s Gospel was probably written during the last two
decades of the 1st Century and even as late as during the first five years of the
2nd Century. It is thought it may have been written in Antioch in Syria, by a member
of a Christian Community of Jewish origin. The writer appears to have been educated
in the tradition of the Jewish Scribes. By the time Matthew’s Gospel was written,
Judaism had undergone great changes. Following the Jewish uprising against the Romans
and the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, religious power rested very much in the
hands of the Pharisees, rather than in the Temple based religious hierarchy. They
were keen to maintain the purity of the Jewish Religion and, as a result, tensions
between Jews and Jewish Christians arose, with the result that, by AD 85, Jewish
Christians were excluded from worshipping in the synagogues. These tensions come
to the surface in Matthew’s Gospel in Chapters 6 and 23 where the tone is clearly
Matthew’s Gospel is full of references to the Old Testament and one of his purposes
is to show clearly how Jesus was the fulfilment of all of God’s promises revealed
through the scriptures. Matthew alone uses the title ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ instead
of ‘Kingdom of God’ and this may have been due to his strict Jewish education which
forbade the writing of the word, ‘God’. He sets out Jesus’ ethical teaching in his
wonderful portrayal of the Sermon on the Mount and his gospel is one of reconciliation
and forgiveness. While, in Luke, forgiveness is demanded seven times, in Matthew
it is demanded, ‘seventy times seven’! Matthew’s Gospel has always been the favourite
in the Church’s use of the gospels and that is, perhaps, because Matthew’s prime
concerns are pastoral and ecclesiastical rather than theological.
Matthew, Mark and Luke, the three gospels considered so far have been termed the
‘Synoptic Gospels’ because of their similarities. As we shall see in the final article
on, ‘The Gospel Writers’, the fourth Gospel according to John takes a very different
approach to the Christian Message.
The Gospel Writers
This is the last of four articles that look at the writers behind the four gospels
in the New Testament.
Part 4 – The Gospel According to St John
Scholars are divided about whether or not the writer of the Fourth Gospel knew of
the Synoptic Gospels and, perhaps, especially that written by Mark. However, whether
or not the writer was aware of any other gospels, his gospel is markedly different
from all of the other three - both in structure and in some content.
Tradition suggests the Fourth Gospel was written in Ephesus, the capital of the Roman
province of Asia, towards the end of the first century by the disciple John, the
son of Zebedee. There is a clear link in the gospel with the disciple, John, who
is identified in it as ‘the beloved disciple’ just as there appears to be a link
in Mark’s Gospel with the disciple, Peter. However, it is doubtful whether John
the fisherman would have had the ability to write in such a learned manner. This
is reinforced by the story in Acts 4 of the account of Peter and John before the
Council where the disciples are described in verse 13 as, ‘uneducated, ordinary men.’
John, the disciple, may well have had the same influence over the gospel as we think
Peter had over the gospel of Mark but is unlikely to have written it. Certainly,
the gospel betrays an intimate knowledge of Palestinian geography and culture which
the writer clearly gained from someone familiar with that region.
While Mark started his gospel with the story of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist
and Matthew and Luke with stories of Jesus’ birth, John hearkens back to the beginning
of time with his introduction. His prologue begins with the same opening words as
the book of Genesis, ’In the beginning…’ as he proceeds to identify Jesus Christ
with the ‘Word’, the ‘Logos’ in the original Greek. Because John never returns to
this idea again in his gospel, some scholars feel the prologue may have been written
earlier than the gospel itself and may even have been an early Christian hymn. Its
form is certainly beautifully poetic.
John’s Gospel is full of contrasts as between light and darkness, life or death,
truth or falsehood, heaven above and the earth below. In John’s Gospel miracles
are called, ‘signs’ but, while in the other gospels they herald the Kingdom of God,
in John they validate Jesus as the Son of God. John does not include any exorcisms
(the driving out of demons) or the healing of leprosy in his miracles but he alone
tells of the story of the changing of the water into wine at the wedding in Cana.
Like Matthew’s Gospel, John’s Gospel was written at a time when there was fierce
conflict between the Christian Church and the ‘Synagogue’. However, while the other
gospels always talk specifically of the ‘Scribes and Pharisees’ opposing Jesus, John
often uses the general term, ‘Jews’ instead. (John 9:22)
It is generally agreed that the Fourth Gospel is one of the most important books
ever written. Its influence in the Christian Church is probably incalculable. Its
strength, perhaps, lies in the way it can speak to us on so many levels whether we
are scholars or ordinary men, women and children seeking the truth of, ‘the Word