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The Gospels and Acts

The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) present various accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Acts gives a detailed report of what happened to some of Jesus’ early followers as they carried the message about Jesus from Jerusalem to the other areas of the Roman Empire.

The word “Gospel” comes from an Old English word that means “good news.” The Greek word that is translated as “gospel” or “good news” is euangelion (see Mark 1.1). The English words “evangelist” and “evangelism” also come from this word. An evangelist is one who tells good news.

The Gospels were probably written down in their present form between thirty and sixty years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Since Jesus himself left no writings, the Gospels record stories and eyewitness descriptions that had been passed on by word of mouth for a number of years. At first, Jesus’ followers were so eager to tell the message about him that they didn’t think it was necessary to write down what he had said and done. But as Jesus’ first followers and eyewitnesses grew older and died, it became more important to have a written record of what Jesus did and taught, and to describe his death and how God brought him back to life.

Although other “gospels” about Jesus were written and circulated, the only ones accepted as reliable by the whole church were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It is not certain who actually wrote these Gospels, since the names of the authors are never given in the books themselves. Most likely they were written by early followers of Christ who heard about Jesus from one or more of Jesus’ first disciples. For more about how these four Gospels became part of the New Testament, see the article called “What Books Belong in the Bible?”

Many sources were used to write the Gospels. These sources probably included various collections of Jesus’ sayings and stories that were available to the Gospel writers. For example, a number of Jesus’ sayings are similar in Matthew and Luke, so the authors of these Gospels may have been working with the same source. Both of them also appear to have used Mark for their basic outlines. But Matthew and Luke also used different sources to describe the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, since Mark has nothing to say about Jesus’ childhood. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have so much material in common and follow the same basic outline, that they are sometimes referred to as the “Synoptic” Gospels (from the Greek word synopsis , which means “seeing together”).

The three Synoptic Gospels are more like each other than any of them is like John. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke focus on Jesus’ public teaching and miracle working in Galilee, John contains information about Jesus’ early work in Judea.  John also contains some of Jesus’ sayings that are not found in the other Gospels. These include the so-called “I am” sayings, such as “I am the bread that gives life!” (John 6:35) and “I am the light for the world!” (John 8:12). The order of events in John does not follow the order shared by the Synoptic Gospels. And John does not include any of Jesus’ stories (parables) that are found in the other three Gospels. For more about what makes each of these accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry unique, see the Introductions to Matthew,

Although the identity of the author of Acts is not known, scholars agree that it was written by the same person who wrote Luke. Besides being addressed to someone known as Theophilus (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1), these books share a written style of Greek that is more formal than the Greek used in the other Gospels or in any other book of the New Testament. A number of common themes also tie these two books together as the work of one author. These themes are listed in the Introductions to the individual books of Luke and Acts.