Canonical Gospels

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The canonical gospels are the first four books of the New Testament. the Christian canon, texts approved—canonized--by general consensus in the church.

The formation of the 27 books of the New Testament and their acceptance as the definitive body of scripture took place over a period of several centuries. In 367, Athanasius of Alexandria gave the list of the New Testament scriptures used today in one of his festal letters, and this list gradually came to be generally accepted. However, different parts of the New Testament had become canonical at different times, and the four gospels were already firmly canonical before Athanasius' list.

The New Testament and the Old Testament are the ultimate source of authority for most Christian denominations and encompass central beliefs or dogma of the Christian Churches.[1] However, the Roman Catholic Church, which according to most authorities includes the majority of Christians, has never definitively decided whether all its teachings are implicit in the Bible.

History of the Four Gospels

According to mosts cholars, the Biblical Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written within the first century.

Matthew, Mark and Luke are also referred to as the synoptic gospels (from the two Greek words meaning to see together) (Barclay, 1975. p. 1) [2] in that they incorporate much of the same materials and can be closely compared. (Barclay, 1975. p. 1) [3] There are several complex theories about how these texts relate to one another, but it is broadly agreed that Mark was the first to have been completed, since Mark has significantly less material than the other two, and Matthew and Luke appear to draw upon Mark as a source (Barclay, 1975. pp 4-5). [3]

The Gospel of Matthew

Matthew: the person and his sources

Matthew the Apostle, was a former tax collector. He is said to have collected the sayings of Jesus during his time with Jesus. However it may be that the final version was not entirely his own hand (Barclay, 1975. p. 5). [3]

The Gospel of Matthew frequently uses the phrase “This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet.” It is thus fundamentally a gospel written to the Jews by a Jew.

The main teachings of Jesus reported in Matthew are collected in five sections:

  • The Sermon on the Mount, or the law of the Kingdom (chapter 5-7);
  • The duties of the leaders of the Kingdom (Chapter 10):
  • The parables of the Kingdom (chapter 13)
  • Greatness and forgiveness in the Kingdom (chapter 18)
  • The coming of the King (chapter 24, 25) .(Barclay, 1975. p. 8) [3]

The Gospel of Mark

Mark, the first Gospel to be completed, was the primary source for the writers of Matthew and Luke to which they added additional information (Barclay, 1975. p. 2). [2]

St. Mark, the traditional writer, was the son of Mary, an affluent woman in Jerusalem in whose house the early church members frequently met (Acts 12:12) and Mark would have been present from the beginnings of the Church. Mark was a nephew of Barnabas who accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys and Mark went along as a secretary (Acts 12: 25). Mark left their company when they were approaching a dangerous passage and Paul did not take it kindly. Eventually Paul and Barnabas split over Mark’s withdrawal (Book of Acts 15: 37-40) (Barclay, 1975. p. 3). [2]

Mark did not show up again in Scripture for some time but tradition holds that he went to Alexandria, Egypt where he founded a Church. (Barclay, 1975. p. 3-4) [2] He next appears in the Scripture with the Apostle Paul who is a prisoner in Rome (Book of Colossians 4:10). Paul’s attitude toward Mark had changed remarkably by that time in his life (Book of Philemon, verse 24, 2 Timothy 4: 11).

Mark’s Sources for the Life of Jesus

Mark’s years amongst the early Church would have brought him into contact with others who had known Jesus personally and their related experiences. Papias, a second century source (circa 130 A.D.), relates that Mark’s gospel is the record of the teachings of the Apostle Peter to whom Mark was very close. Peter in 1 Peter 5:13, referred to Mark as his son. (Barclay, 1975. pp 4-5 [2]; see Authorship[4]; Eusebius, Book III, Chapter xxxix “The Writings of Papias” p. 127 [5])

Jesus of the Canonical Gospels

The Christian Church's recognition of books of the Old Testament and the New Testament and of the four gospels- the four "canonical gospels", (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) occurred gradually during the first four centuries. The writings that we have from the second century leaders show that local churches and leaders preferred one or more gospels. Most often quoted were Matthew and Luke. Mark and John were also quoted from as well. The Gospel of Peter was quoted in the church at Rhossos and by their bishop. Irenaeus of Lyons was particularly outspoken, writing in 170 AD, in support of the proposition that there must be four--no more, no less--partly by analogy with the four regions of the world and the "four universal winds." He was the first catholic theologian and he believed that these four gospels were the only gospels written by first century church leaders, apostles. He wrote that they present the direct record of the apostolic record. By the year 200 most church leaders had accepted that only these four Gospels were to be accepted. By Tertullian, the great theologian and writer, who lived from 155-230 AD, the OT and NT were settled except for the inclusion of Hebrews and Revelation. (The Formation of the Christian Bible by Hans Von Campenhausen) The popular Christian-inspired image of Jesus is derived mainly from these four, but other apocryphal works have also influenced traditional Christian beliefs, including the Apocalypse of Peter, Protevangelium of James, Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and Acts of Peter. Several Christian traditions (such as Veronica's veil and the Assumption of Mary) are found not in the canonical gospels, but in these and in other apocryphal works.


Matthew 1:1 ff and Luke 3: 23 ff give accounts of Jesus's genealogy which appear contradictory (e.g. Joseph's father is called "Jacob" in Matthew, and "Heli" in Luke), though several theories attempting to harmonize them have been proposed. Matthew traces Jesus's ancestry to Abraham and King David; Luke, to God by way of Adam. Cross-culturally, such geneaologies are often fictitious; and many of the characters listed here appear to be mythical. Although, these gospels affirm that Jesus's true father was God rather than Joseph, they also recount the exact ancestry of Joseph. This might be explained by the importance of a legal relationship (as with adoption), that existed during Jesus' lifetime.


The Gospels of Matthew and of Luke contain nativity stories, which are often merged for popular commemoration. Matthew 2 (perhaps recalling Isaiah 45) has the infant Jesus reverenced by magi (rather than kings), who expected the imminent birth of the Messiah based on the appearance of a "star". Its nature is unclear, as no known celestial phenomenon precisely matches Matthew's description. The number of magi is traditionally assumed to be three, based on the three gifts which they present. In Luke 2, angelic choirs announce the Messiah's birth to shepherds in the fields.

Both Matthew and Luke report that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, although the gospels usually refer to him as a Galilean. Matthew explains that Jesus's parents lived in Bethlehem, but fled to Egypt to escape the Massacre of the Innocents, returning to Nazareth after after the death of Herod the Great. (Matthew's account may recall the stories of Moses and Joseph from the Book of Genesis.) According to Luke, the couple were residents of Nazareth, who were required to travel to Bethlehem for tax purposes (the Census of Quirinius). The two accounts seem contradictory, and each fails to refer to events in the other. External historical sources such as Josephus do not record Herod's massacre, and the only known census of Quirinius was after Herod's death, and would have applied only to Judea, not Nazareth. Many historians suspect that the story is an attempt to link Jesus to Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David, to bolster his messianic claim.

Perhaps the most striking claim of the Nativity stories is that Mary conceived Jesus while a virgin. Matthew explicitly cites this as a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:4, an interpretation which relies on the (Greek) Septuagint translation. The original Hebrew text could mean various things, including "a virgin shall conceive"; the Septuagint tends towards this meaning with its choice of parthenos as the Greek term. Among scholars who reject the possibility of the supernatural, some assume Joseph to have been Jesus's true father (making Jesus legitimate according to then-prevailing standards), while others (e.g. Jane Schaberg) propose that Mary was impregnated by rape. The gospels have Jesus's enemies, the Pharisees, pointedly introduce the topic of illegitimacy, as if alluding to a familiar scandal.

Baptism by John

Temptation in the Wilderness

Sermon on the Mount


Miracle Stories

Conflicts with the Pharisees

The "Little Apocalypse"

Messianic Claims

Farewell Discourses

Last Supper




Great Commission



  1. Timothy Ware (1997) The Orthodox Church. London: Penguin Books (pp. 199-201)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 William F. Barclay (1975) The Gospel of Mark Revised Edition. Phladelphia: Westminster Press
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 William F. Barclay (1975) The Gospel of Matthew (vol. 1) Revised Edition. Philadelphia: Westminster Press
  4. Gospel of St. Mark J. MacRory (1910) The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IX. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York. Quotes Eusebius, "Hist. Eccl.", III, xxxix)
  5. Eusebius Pamphilus (circa 312 A.D.) Ecclesiastical History, in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (1990, 14th printing) Fredrick Cruse Translator. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House