Introduction to the Gospels and Acts
Although ancient manuscripts of the Greek New Testament arrange the NT books in a variety of orders, the four Gospels and the book of Acts consistently come first. This is appropriate since these historical narratives document the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus’s continuing ministry through the infant church. Jesus is the central figure of the NT. These five books are essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the rest of the NT documents.
The Gospels have been aptly described as “theological biographies.” They are biographical but they are not mere biographies. They recount sayings and deeds of Jesus, not just to satisfy historical curiosity, but to guide people in forming an accurate theological view of Jesus. On the other hand, they are theological, but they are not mere theologies, for their accounts are not imaginative stories only intended to teach theological truths—they are factual accounts of real events.
The introductions and/or conclusions of each of the Gospels clearly state their purposes. Mark 1:1 shows that Mark writes to highlight Jesus’s identity as the Messiah, the Son of God. Not surprisingly, the first half of Mark’s Gospel focuses on the first aspect of Jesus’s identity and climaxes with Peter’s confession, “You are the Messiah!” (Mark 8:29). The second half of Mark’s Gospel focuses on the second aspect of Jesus’s identity and climaxes with the centurion’s confession, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). Matthew’s introduction emphasizes Jesus’s identity as (1) Son of David who fulfills the Davidic covenant by reigning as king over God’s people forever; (2) Son of Abraham who fulfills the Abrahamic covenant by being the promised descendant of Abraham through whom all nations on earth are blessed (Matt 1:1); and (3) the virgin-born Immanuel (Matt 1:23) who will save his people from their sins (Matt 1:21). Luke writes so that Theophilus, and other readers, “may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:4). His second volume, Acts, begins by summarizing the content of the first volume and shows that this “certainty” was “about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up” (Acts 1:1–2). John writes so “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
The Gospels are decidedly Christo-centric. They are all about Jesus. Thus, modern strategies for reading that place the reader in the narrative as if he or she were the focal point are wrong-headed. The Gospels were primarily written as testimonies about Jesus that reveal his identity as God, Savior, and King. Thus, when reading an account in the Gospels, the primary question must be “What does this tell me about Jesus?”
The Book of Acts continues this focus on Christ. Acts begins with numerous references to Jesus’s words at the end of the Gospel (Luke 24:44–49). Jesus’s fulfillment of the OT (Luke 24:44), his work of enabling sinners to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:45), his sacrificial death and resurrection (Luke 24:46), the responsibility of his disciples to bear witness to these truths (Luke 24:48), the mandate to proclaim the gospel to the nations (Luke 24:47), and the necessity of the Spirit’s empowerment for effective ministry (Luke 24:49) will reverberate throughout the Book of Acts. In fact, when Luke speaks of the content of his Gospel as “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1), he implies that Acts records the continuation of Jesus’s deeds and words. Although Luke’s second volume is often called “the Acts of the Apostles” or “the Acts of the Holy Spirit,” a title that better expresses Luke’s purpose might be “the Acts of the Risen Jesus.”
The Gospels also serve as manuals of discipleship. Jesus’s command “Follow me!” (Mark 1:17) urges people to follow his example, to pattern their lives after his life. Disciples are to love others like Jesus did (John 13:34) and serve others like Jesus did (John 13:14–15). When reading about Jesus’s life in the Gospels, readers should ask, “How does Jesus’s life serve as a model for my own?” Acts serves as a manual of discipleship too, but the focus is more on the disciples as a group (the church) than the disciples as mere individuals. The churches in Acts often serve as helpful models for the church to follow today.
A “genre” is a particular kind of literature that communicates its message in a specific way. Understanding the genre of a book is a necessary step to interpreting the book correctly. Most scholars today argue that the Gospels belong to a genre called Greco-Roman biography. Luke-Acts, a single two-volume work, has a closer resemblance to Greco-Roman biography than the other three Gospels. In particular, his introduction in Luke 1:1–4 resembles contemporary biographies. Greco-Roman biographies were normally written to herald the qualities of an admirable figure in hopes that readers might imitate them or denounce the character flaws of a deplorable figure in hopes that readers might avoid them. If the Gospels are Greco-Roman biographies, they obviously fall in the first of these two categories. Jesus, the focus of the Gospels, is not only worthy of respect and imitation; he is worthy of worship and adoration.
Although this view is the current consensus, OT historical narratives provide a closer parallel. These narratives have rich biographical material and detail events in the lives of figures such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. Gospel writers were clearly familiar with these narratives. The Gospels and Acts make frequent allusions to these OT narratives, but not Greco-Roman biographies. In fact, Matthew, Mark, and John may not have had enough familiarity with Greco-Roman biography to use it as a model for their accounts of Jesus’s life.
Persuasive evidence supports the historical reliability of the Gospels and Acts. Objections to the reliability of these books are often prompted by philosophical presuppositions rather than any real historical evidence. Those who hold to naturalism deny the very possibility of supernatural events like virginal conception or resurrection. In their view, many of the events recorded in the first five books of the NT did not happen simply because they could not have happened. A naturalist must dismiss these books as myths or legends that evolved as they were passed from one generation to another or adopt a different worldview.
Theists (those who believe in an eternal and omnipotent Creator) recognize that the supernatural events recorded in these books are plausible. Thus they are free to explore the claims of these books and evaluate the historical evidence supporting them rather than automatically dismissing them.
Luke 1:1–4 explicitly claims that Luke’s Gospel was written after careful investigation that involved interviews with eyewitnesses. John 21:24 also claims that John’s Gospel was written directly by an eyewitness. Papias, who wrote very early in the 2nd century, added that the Gospel of Matthew was written by an eyewitness, Matthew the apostle, and that Mark’s Gospel was based on the Apostle Peter’s accounts of Jesus’s life and teaching. Papias says that he received that testimony from Aristion and John the Elder, two of Jesus’s personal disciples.
The church would not likely have embraced the Gospels and Acts if they were mere myth or legend, since early Christians strongly objected to myth (1Tim 1:4; 4:7; 2Tim 4:4; Titus 1:14; 2Pet 1:16). Texts like Acts 1:21–22 and 1 Corinthians 15:3–8 show that the apostolic church was deeply concerned to preserve eyewitness testimony and based its teaching on such testimony.
In light of these considerations, Christians are justified in trusting the accounts of the Gospels and Acts to record events that actually happened and preserve teachings that Jesus actually delivered.
Principles of Interpretation
Although it is impossible to reduce principles for correctly interpreting the Gospels and Acts to a few simple steps, these guidelines for interpretation are especially important. First, read the book all the way through with as few breaks as possible. Note important details in the narrative by asking the kinds of questions that an investigative reporter would ask such as who, what, when, where, why, and how. Second, interpret each narrative considering the purpose of the entire book. The purpose can be found in the introduction, conclusion, or thesis statement of the book. Since the Gospels were written to bear testimony about Jesus, proper interpretation will keep the focus on Jesus. Third, pay special attention to themes, titles, and phrases that are repeated in the book. Jesus and the NT writers did not waste words so if they repeat something, it is especially important. Fourth, seek to interpret events in light of OT teaching. The OT was the book (or collection of books) with which Jesus and the apostles were most familiar. They constantly quote or allude to the OT and the OT background is often key to properly understand Jesus’s actions and words. Finally, look at parallel accounts in other Gospels and consider how they complement and supplement each other.
These principles apply to the Book of Acts as well as to the Gospels. The reader, however, must grapple with another question in Acts. When does Luke intend the early church to serve as a model for other churches to follow and when does he not? Not everything that Luke describes does he intend to prescribe. The reader can distinguish what is prescriptive from what is merely descriptive by asking questions such as: “Does the church abandon this practice (casting lots to make decisions) or continue this practice through the book?” “Is this practice supported by clear affirmations in the NT letters?” “How does this practice relate to the primary purpose of the book?”
Anyone who has read the Gospels closely has noticed that they have similarities and differences. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the “Synoptic Gospels” since they offer very similar presentations of Jesus’s life and teachings. John on the other hand usually records events and sayings of Jesus not found in these other Gospels.
The similarities between the Synoptic Gospels include their wording, their order, their parenthetical and explanatory material, and their OT quotations. The similarities are so great that most scholars are convinced that they share some kind of literary relationship in which later Gospels depended on an earlier Gospel(s). The study that attempts to identify the sources used by the Gospel writers is called “source criticism.” The earliest position seems to have been that Mark wrote first and apparently without reliance on the other Gospels. Papias claimed that Mark’s Gospel was based on Peter’s testimony and this was later affirmed by Clement of Alexandria and Origen (Eusebius, Church History, 3.39.15; 6.14.5–7; 6.25.5). When Eusebius quotes Papias (whose writings have only survived in quotations in other works), he places his discussion of the composition of Matthew after his discussion of the composition of Mark which may imply that Papias believed Mark’s Gospel was the first.
Augustine suggested that the popular canonical order of the gospels reflected the chronological order in which they were written and that each Gospel writer used the earlier gospel(s). Thus Matthew was written first, then Mark used Matthew to write his own Gospel, then Luke used Matthew and Mark to write his Gospel. This order appears to have been accepted earlier by Irenaeus but, unlike Augustine, Irenaeus does not suggest that the later Gospels depended on the earlier ones (Against Heresies, 3.1.1).
Clement of Alexandria claimed that Matthew and Luke were written first, then Mark (based on Peter’s testimony), and then John. J. J. Griesbach favored the order affirmed by Clement. He argued, however, that Mark’s Gospel summarized the content of Matthew and Luke. The theory that Matthew wrote first, then Luke, and Mark summarized Matthew and Luke, is known as the Griesbach or two-Gospel hypothesis.
Most scholars today affirm an alternative theory called Markan priority, the view that Mark’s Gospel was the first to be written and served as an important source for Matthew and Luke. Those who affirm Markan priority, however, are divided on how to explain the similar content in Matthew and Luke not shared by Mark. Many argue that Matthew and Luke used another source (called Q, apparently an abbreviation for the German Quelle meaning “source”) in addition to Mark. This theory is known as the two-document hypothesis. Others suggest that Luke used Mark and Matthew (the Goulder-Farrer hypothesis). The issues are complex. Though scholars have debated them for several centuries, no clear consensus has emerged. Fortunately, settling the issue of the order of the Gospels is not necessary for understanding the message of the Gospels.
Although readers of the Gospels cannot help but notice the remarkable similarities between many of the accounts in the Synoptic Gospels, they also cannot miss the differences between the Synoptics and John. The accounts of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus’s anointing by the woman, and the account of the events surrounding Jesus’s arrest, trial, and execution are the only larger blocks of material that John shares with the Synoptics. John does not have, for example, an account of Jesus’s birth, the Sermon on the Mount, an account of the transfiguration, and he does not record any of Jesus’s exorcisms. Jesus’s “I am” sayings that are so prominent in John do not appear in the Synoptics. On the other hand, the differences should not be exaggerated. Statements appear in the Synoptics that sound very much like the Gospel of John (e.g., Matt 11:27), and statements appear in John that sound very much like the Synoptics (e.g., John 6:62). When the Synoptics and John do overlap (e.g., John 6:1–15), John’s Gospel agrees in all details with the Synoptics even though his vocabulary and expressions are his own. Careful comparison of the accounts in the four Gospels shows that they may differ, but they did not disagree. Their accounts are complementary, not contradictory.
The order of the four Gospels known today (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) is called the “Eastern order” and was probably the result of careful reflection by the early church. The order probably is not based on the presumed order of composition but instead serves a theological purpose. Matthew formed the best segue between the OT and the NT since his introduction, genealogy of Jesus, and frequent quotation of OT prophecies fulfilled by Jesus so closely tied the story of Jesus to the OT. John was probably placed last because his final verse served as an appropriate ending to the four Gospel collection: “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which, if every one of them were written down, I suppose not even the world itself could contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
But another sequence known as the Western order appears in some early manuscripts: Matthew, John, Mark, Luke. This order prioritized the two Gospels written directly by apostles by placing them first and putting those written by companions of the Apostles second. Luke was placed last in this sequence, probably in order to avoid disrupting the connection between Luke and Acts, the two volumes of a single work by the same author and addressed to the same person, Theophilus. Two of our earliest extensive NT manuscripts, Codex Bezae (5th cent.) and Codex Washingtonianus (4th or 5th cent.), place the Gospels in their Western order.
The Importance of These Five Books
The most important of all religious questions is simply “Who was Jesus of Nazareth?” The NT insists that our eternal destiny depends on the answer to that fundamental question. No portion of the Bible answers that question as extensively as these first five books. Although some important details about Jesus’s identity, life, death, resurrection, and teaching are given in other books of the Bible, our understanding of Jesus would be terribly impoverished without these five books.
A theologian once told me “It is not what you know about Jesus, but that you know him that really matters.” He argued that knowledge of Jesus’s miraculous conception, teachings, signs and wonders, death and resurrection was ultimately irrelevant as long as a person “knows” Jesus is some vague mystical way. This is pure nonsense. The fact is that if you do not know some basic facts about a person, you cannot reasonably claim to know that person. These five books enable us to know about Jesus so that we can know Jesus. In the pages of these books, we have the opportunity to eavesdrop on Jesus’s instruction of his disciples, experience his amazing miracles, kneel weeping at the foot of the cross, and witness the exhilarating discovery of his empty tomb. We have the privilege of seeing Jesus’s power unleashed through his church as they propagate the gospel to the nations. What a tragedy it would be to neglect these precious treasures of divine revelation! Surely anyone who understands the importance of Jesus and these five testimonies to him will want to pore over the pages of the Gospels and Acts every day.
Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.
Craig Blomberg and Robert B. Steward, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs.
David Wenham and Steve Walton, Exploring the New Testament: A Guide to the Gospels & Acts.
Andreas Köstenberger, Scott Kellum, and Charles Quarles, The Cradle, The Cross, and The Crown.
Mark Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus.
John Polhill, Acts (NAC).
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