Fairy tales begin with “Once upon a time.” Great novels begin with an extraordinary and compelling sentence or two: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”; or “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Even timeless poems begin in a way that urges us to keep on reading: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”; or “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.” One and all, these opening lines invite us into a new world of imagination even as they offer us insights into our own lives and the world around us.
By contrast, the New Testament opens in a rather plain way: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). Especially to our modern ears, an introduction like this doesn’t sound like an invitation to intrigue, adventure, or insight. It sounds more like a factual account of the background of a Jewish religious leader with an impressive family tree. And yet the New Testament is the most read of all the books in the whole world.
What is it about Scripture that people are drawn to it? What is it about a book that opens so unceremoniously that people can’t seem to put it down? In this article, we want to take a look at how the books of the Bible—in particular the gospels—were written and why they have such power not only to intrigue and enlighten but to transform us and lift up our hearts as well.
The Seeds of the Gospels. In the last few centuries, many scholars have delved into the question of how the gospels were written and why they have come down to us in the way they have. Some aspects of this question remain unanswered, but many have become quite clear. One aspect just about everyone agrees on is that from its first generation, the early church had a recognized and authoritative body of teachers. St. Paul, for instance, was careful to check his own revelations in prayer with apostles like Peter and elders like James (Galatians 1:12,18-19). These leaders were recognized as guardians of the teachings of Jesus and as the ones called to guide the church as it proclaimed the gospel to the world.
What was the message that these apostles and elders were charged to protect and proclaim? The wonders that God has accomplished through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. From the earliest days, various accounts of Jesus’ passion and resurrection were held in high esteem among believers and were passed from church to church by the apostles. Likewise, stories about Jesus’ public ministry and teachings were told and retold by eyewitnesses and made their way to all the churches that the apostles had established. Even as all these stories and teachings were being passed on by word of mouth, they were also being written down in various forms and began circulating from church to church.
A Complex, Beautiful Mosaic. At a certain point, these written and oral traditions were gathered in major churches like Antioch and Rome, and set down in a more orderly fashion. It is these writings that became the basis for the four gospels as we have them. The first three of these gospels, because they can be seen “at a glance” (synopsis) to resemble one another, are called the Synoptic Gospels. The question of how they resemble one another so closely and still vary in many important aspects has never been fully answered, but we can make a couple of important observations.
First, as far as the similarities are concerned, it is generally understood that very early on the church had adopted certain key stories about Jesus as being vital to the preaching of the gospel: miracles such as the multiplication of the loaves and the calming of the storm; parables such as the lost sheep and the sower and the seed. There were also certain key phrases from Jesus that had been handed down and that the church considered essential in describing the Lord and his mission: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” and “the kingdom of God has come,” for example.
Second, it has become clear that the authors of the gospels were all working with previously written accounts that had already been set down in some standardized form. Each evangelist took this original material and, while they preserved the same core stories, each writer shaped these stories to reflect their own insights from the Holy Spirit and to meet the needs of the people for whom they were writing.
For example, when Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, we can discern several differences (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22-). In Matthew’s Gospel, John is at first hesitant to baptize his kinsman, while in Luke’s account, Jesus seems to be simply another person whom John had baptized. In both Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, it appears that only Jesus sees the Holy Spirit descending upon him—as if to emphasize how this was a profoundly interior and even private event in Jesus’ life. By contrast, Luke depicts this as something visible for everyone to see—a more public proclamation of Jesus’ special role.
If we find these differences surprising, or even a bit unsettling, it’s probably helpful to know that ancient authors didn’t consider it important to report the same event with the exact same words every time they told it. There were no cameras or tape recorders in first-century Israel, and people were not as concerned with detailed factual accuracy in the way that we tend to be today. Instead, they accepted every report of an event as an “interpretation” of one form or another. For the gospel writers, the tradition of recounting one event in different ways became a means of emphasizing various aspects of who Jesus is and what he had come to do. And the result is one beautiful, detailed mosaic of the Son of God presented in four different books called gospels.
Words for Today. In this whole process of collecting material, praying about its meaning, and writing each of the gospels in its own unique way, we can’t help but marvel at the level of insight that these authors had, as well as the depth of their knowledge about God and his ways. Clearly, the gospel writers were not simply recounting stories about Jesus that had been handed on to them. They were not giving us facts alone. They were using these stories about Jesus to convey eternal, spiritual truths as well. Inspired by the Holy Spirit and moved by their own experience of Jesus in prayer and in their churches, these evangelists were telling us not only what Jesus said and did in a.d. 30 but also what he wants to say and do today.
This is the unique blessing of the gospels—of all Scripture, in fact. It is true that the Holy Spirit worked in a particular place at a particular time with a particular set of writers. Yet as they cooperated with the Spirit, these writers produced something that cuts through the barriers of time, place, culture, and language and breathes the very life of God upon anyone who reads or hears it.
This means that Jesus’ healing power can reach out to us as we read about the healings he performed two thousand years ago. It means that Jesus’ parables of conversion and reconciliation can move us to make profound changes in our lives. And most of all, it means that we can all experience his love firsthand as we read about how he gave up his life for our sakes and rose again to usher in a new life for all of us.
In the centuries immediately following the writing of the New Testament, the church began to assemble the four accounts about Jesus (now called gospels), the letters of Paul, John, and the others, and the Book of Revelation and to regard them as the authentic expression of what the Holy Spirit had taught. Thus, this final list of canonically recognized books is the result of the prophetic instinct of the body of believers and the guidance given by the Holy Spirit to the pastors and teachers in the church.
The Word of Life. Throughout this article, we have focused on the way in which the gospels came to be written. It can all seem rather technical and uninspiring. But whatever biblical scholars may uncover, one thing remains true: The Holy Spirit has been behind the whole project. He is the one who prompted the first believers to begin gathering their recollections about Jesus. He is the one who moved the early church to collect these stories and preserve them. He is the one who inspired the evangelists to tell these stories in the particular way that each of them did.
Why did the Spirit choose these stories and not some others? Why did he give the gospel writers the insights they had and move them to write four different accounts of Jesus? Perhaps John’s Gospel sums it up the best:
“Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
May we all come to believe in Jesus more deeply and find life in his name more fully as we dedicate this year to meeting the Lord in Scripture!