Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word have handed them down to us, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. (NAS, Luke 1:1-4)
Nearly everything we know about the life and ministry of Jesus comes from the Bible's four Gospel books - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.1 The Gospels existed in oral tradition in the young Christian communities for some time before they were finally set in written form. As the eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus' life began to pass away in the latter part of the first century, it probably became more urgent that these events be preserved in writing.
The Bible's New Testament, which includes these four Gospels, was originally written entirely in Greek, the common language of the Mediterranean lands in Roman times. The first of the Gospels was probably Mark, written around 70 A.D., about 40 years after Jesus was crucified. Matthew and Luke were written between 80 and 90 A.D. Finally, The Gospel of John appeared in its final form around 95 A.D.
All four Gospels are anonymous in the sense that none includes the author's name. The traditional names - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - did not become associated with these writings until the second century. In the early centuries of Christianity, our four Gospels coexisted with a number of other Christian writings, many of which have not been preserved. Finally, the Synod of Carthage adopted the present twenty-seven New Testament books, including the four Gospels, as the canon of the New Testament in the year 397.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels because they are strikingly similar. Bible scholars believe the authors of Matthew and Luke were aware of the Gospel of Mark and incorporated much of it in their own writings, along with material from another common source that has not been preserved, plus unique material of their own.
The Gospel of John is very much different from the Synoptic Gospels in the way it presents and interprets the events of Jesus' earthly life. The Synoptics portray Jesus traveling about and preaching in parables about the coming kingdom of God, while John presents a more spiritual and meditative picture of Jesus. Both John and the Synoptics present many of the same events of Jesus' life, including His trial, crucifixion, and resurrection.
Because of the differences among the Gospels, we are tempted to ask which, if any, is the correct portrayal of the events of Jesus' life. However, each of the four is a unique view of Jesus, drawn from different eyewitnesses and different traditions, and we are fortunate to have these four "windows" to see four views of these central events of Christianity.
1Much of the information on this page comes from Marshall and Lockyer (see references).