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The first books of the New Testament scriptures are the four gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The word gospel literally means good news or glad tidings. The gospels tell of the life and teaching of Jesus, but none of them is a biography in the classical sense of the word. The gospels were not written merely to tell the story of Jesus. They were written by the disciples of Christ, who were filled with the Holy Spirit after the Lord’s resurrection, to bear witness to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the promised Messiah-Christ of Israel and the Savior of the world.
In the Orthodox Church, it is not the entire Bible, but only the book of the four gospels which is perpetually enthroned upon the altar table in the church building. This is a testimony to the fact that the life of the Church is centered in Christ, the living fulfillment of the law and the prophets, who abides perpetually in the midst of His People, the Church, through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the synoptic gospels, which means that they “look the same”. These three gospels are very similar in content and form and are most probably interrelated textually in some way, exactly how being an ongoing debate among scriptural scholars. They each were written sometime in the beginning of the second half of the first century, and the texts of each of them, as that of St John, have come down to us in Greek, the language in which they were written, with the possible exception of Matthew which may have been written originally in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Each of the synoptic gospels follows basically the same narrative. Each begins with Jesus’ baptism by John and His preaching in Galilee. Each centers on the apostles’ confession of Jesus as the promised Messiah of God, with the corresponding event of the transfiguration, and the announcement by Christ of His need to suffer and die and be raised again on the third day. And each concludes with the account of the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord.
The gospel of St Mark is the shortest, and perhaps the first written, of the gospels, although this is a matter of debate. Its author was not one of the twelve apostles and it is the common view that this gospel presents the “tradition” of St Peter. The gospel begins immediately with Jesus’ baptism, the call of the apostles, and the preaching of Jesus accompanied by his works of forgiveness and healing. In this gospel, as in all of them, Jesus is revealed from the very beginning by His authoritative words and His miraculous works as the Holy One of God, the divine Son of Man, Who was crucified and is risen from the dead, thus bringing to the world the Kingdom of God.
The gospel of St Matthew, who was one of the twelve apostles, is considered by some to be the earliest written gospel. There is also the opinion that it was originally written in Aramaic and not in the Greek text which has remained in the Church. It is a commonly-held view that the gospel of St Matthew was written for the Jewish Christians to show from the scriptures of the Old Testament, that Jesus, the son of David, the son of Abraham, is truly the Christ, the bearer of God’s Kingdom to men.
The gospel of St Matthew abounds with references to the Old Testament. It begins with the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham and the story of Christ’s birth from the Virgin in Bethlehem. Then recounting the baptism of Jesus and the temptations in the wilderness, it proceeds to the call of the disciples and the preaching and works of Christ.
The gospel of St Matthew contains the longest and most detailed record of Christ’s teachings in the so-called Sermon on the Mount (5-7). Generally, in the Orthodox Church, it is the text of the gospel of St Matthew which is used most consistently in liturgical worship, e.g., the version of the beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. Only this gospel contains the commission of the Lord to His apostles after the resurrection, “to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (28:19).
The gospel of St Luke, who was not one of the twelve apostles but one of the original disciples, a physician known for his association with the apostle Paul, claims to be an “orderly account… delivered by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word” (1:1-4). Together with the book of Acts, also written by St Luke for a certain Theophilus, this gospel forms the most complete “history” of Christ and the early Christian Church that we have.
The gospel of St Luke, alone among the four canonical gospels, has a complete account of the birth of both Jesus and John the Baptist. Traditionally, the source for these events recorded by St Luke is considered to be Mary, the mother of Christ. We must mention at this point that in addition to the four gospels called “canonical” in that they alone have been accepted by the Church as genuine witnesses to the true life and teachings of Christ, there exist many other writings from the early Christian era which tell about Jesus, and especially His childhood, which have not been accepted by the Church as authentic and true. These writings are often called apocryphal (not to be confused with the so-called apocrypha of the Old Testament), or the pseudoepigrapha which literally means “false writings.”
St Luke’s gospel is noted for the detail of its narrative, and especially for its record of Christ’s great concern for the poor and for the sinful. Certain parables warning against the dangers of riches and self-righteousness, and revealing the great mercy of God to sinners, are found only in the gospel of St Luke, for example, those of the publican and the pharisee, the prodigal son, and Lazarus and the rich man, There is also a very great emphasis in this gospel on the Kingdom of God which Christ has brought to the world and which He gives to those who continue with Him in His sufferings.
The post-resurrection account of the Lord’s presence to the two disciples on the road to Ernmaeus in which only one of the disciples is named, an account found only in St Luke’s gospel, gives rise to the tradition that the unnamed disciple was Luke himself.
The gospel of St John is very different from the synoptic gospels. It is undoubtedly the latest written, being the work of the beloved disciple and apostle of the Lord at the end of his life near the close of the first century. In most Orthodox versions of the Bible, this gospel is printed before the others as it is the one which is first read in the Church’s lectionary beginning at the divine Liturgy on Easter night.
The gospel of St John begins with its famous prologue which identifies Jesus of Nazareth with the divine Word of God of the Old Testament, the Word of God Who was “in the beginning with God,” Who “is God,” the One through Whom “all things were made.”(1:1-3) This Word of God “became flesh,” and as Jesus, the Son of God, He makes God known to men and grants to all who believe in Him the power of partaking of His own fulness of grace and truth and of becoming themselves “children of God” (1:14ff).
From the first pages of this gospel, following the prologue, in the account of Jesus’ baptism and His calling of the apostles, Jesus is presented as God’s only begotten Son, the Messiah and the Lord. Throughout the gospel, He is identified as well, in various ways, with the God of the Old Testament, receiving the dd vine name of I AM together with the Yahweh of Moses and the prophets and psalms.
The gospel of St John, following the prologue, may be divided into two main parts. The first part is the so-called book of “signs,” the record of a number of Jesus’ miracles with detailed “commentary” about their significance in signifying Him as Messiah and Lord (2-11). Because the “signs” all have a deeply spiritual and sacramental significance for believers in Christ, with almost all of them dealing with water, wine, bread, light, the salvation of the nations, the separation from the synagogue, the forgiveness of sins, the healing of infirmities and the resurrection of the dead, it is sometimes thought that the gospel of St John was expressly written as a “theological gospel” for those who were newly initiated into the life of the Church through the sacramental mysteries of baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the eucharist. In any case, because of the contents of the book of “signs,” as well as the long discourses of Christ about His relationship to God the Father, the Holy Spirit and the members of His faithful flock, in the latter part of the gospel, the apostle and evangelist John has traditionally been honored in the Church with the title of The Theologian.
The latter half of St John’s gospel concerns the passion of Christ and its meaning for the world. (11-21) Here most explicitly, in long discourses coming from the mouth of the Lord Himself, the doctrines of Christ’s person and work are most deeply explained. As we have just mentioned, here Christ relates Himself to God the Father, to the Holy Spirit and to His community of believers in clear and certain terms. He is one with God, Who as Father is greater than He, Whose words He speaks, Whose works He accomplishes and Whose will He performs. And through the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds from the Father to bear witness to Him in the world, He remains abiding forever in those who are His through their faith and co-service of God.
The account of the passion in St John’s gospel differs slightly from that of the synoptic gospels and is considered by many, in this instance, to be a certain clarification or correction. There are also accounts of the resurrection given which are recorded only in this gospel. The final chapter of the book is traditionally considered to be an addition following the first ending of the gospel, to affirm the reinstatement of the apostle Peter to the leadership of the apostolic community after his three denials of the Lord at the time of His passion. It may have been a necessary inclusion to offset a certain lack of confidence in St Peter by some members of the Church.
In the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, a tradition often expressed in the Church’s iconography, the four gospels are considered to be symbolized in the images of the “four living creatures” of the biblical apocalypse, the lion, the ox, the man and the eagle, with the most classical interpretation connecting Matthew with the man, Luke with the ox, Mark with the lion and John with the eagle (Ezek 1:10, Rev 4:7). The four gospels, taken together, but each with its own unique style and form, remain forever as the scriptural center of the Orthodox Church.