The importance of the Gospels

Quick revise

After studying this section you should:

  • know why the Gospels were written
  • know the different interpretations of the Gospels
  • understand how the Gospels were spread
  • know the key groups in Jesus’ lifetime and the environment he worked in
  • understand how the Gospels are important to Christians today

The Gospels are your most important resource in a study of Christianity. Christians obtain most of their knowledge and understanding of Jesus from the Gospels.

Christians regard the Gospels as the Word of God and often treat them with more awe and reverence than other parts of the Bible.


Gospel means ‘good news’. It comes from the Greek word evanglion; hence the Gospel writers are called evangelists because they are proclaiming the Good News: the Good News that Jesus is the Messiah and came to show people a new way of living.

The bulk of the Gospel texts are concerned with the last three years of Jesus’ life, when he was teaching, and they also give much space to a description of his arrest, trial, death and resurrection.

The Synoptic Gospels
  • The Gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew are called the Synoptic Gospels because they are all similar to one another, containing much information that is common to all three.
  • Mark was written first, but Matthew and Luke share information not contained in Mark; this information is believed to have come from a source now lost but known as Q.
  • Similarly, information that is unique to Matthew or Luke is respectively referred to as arising from sources known as M and L.
The context in which Jesus lived

The geography of Palestine has not changed. It contains both desert and fertile areas.

  • The people at the time were mainly farmers and manual workers, keeping sheep or providing simple services like carpentry and pottery.
  • Palestine was occupied by the Romans and was multi-racial, with many languages and cultures.
  • Jesus was born a Jew and therefore is identified with that culture.
  • When Jesus began his ministry he came into contact with the influential people of Palestine and of his own community. The Gospels show how conflict arose between them because he was declaring a completely new and radical way of looking at life.
Key Gospel Groups
  • Pharisees - In the Gospels, they are shown by Jesus to be Jews who put the letter of the law above the needs of men. They were completely committed to observance of the oral law and the Torah but also accepted the Prophets and writings as Scripture. Jesus often challenges them and calls them hypocrites.
  • Sadducees - A politically influential group who recognised only the Torah as law and colluded in compromising with the Roman authorities to keep their influence.
  • The Sanhedrin - The Jewish Council which decided religious matters. It had 70 members and was presided over by the high priests.
  • Herodians - Supporters of Herod the Great. Mainly wealthy Jews who wanted a nationalist party.
  • Zealots - Jews who wanted to overthrow Roman rule by terrorism.
  • Tax collectors - Jewish employees of Rome regarded as outcasts by the rabbis.
  • Samaritans - A race of people living between Judea and Galilee who accepted the Torah but were not regarded as Jews and were much despised.

The Synagogue was the place of worship for the Jewish community and the Sabbath was the Holy Day.

Some Christians interpret the Gospel literally. They are ‘fundamentalists’ who accept every word as it is written. Others interpret the Gospel liberally, which means more freely, accepting that although the basic facts never change, some interpretations change with society.

Mark's Gospel

The Lion is the symbol of Mark’s Gospel. It represented strength and courage to the early Christians and disciples.

  • Mark’s Gospel is ascribed to a certain Mark, or John. Although it is not certain who wrote it, it is accepted that this Gospel was written in about AD 60 in Rome.
  • It is likely that Mark got his information from Peter.

Mark wrote his Gospel because:

  • key people who knew Jesus and remembered the stories were dying
  • the stories needed to be preserved
  • persecuted Christians needed strength from Jesus’ life
  • it was important to have a written record of the events of Jesus’ life

There are good reasons to believe that Mark’s Gospel is written for a non-Jewish readership:

  • Words are translated from Aramaic.
  • There is strong emphasis on the suffering of Jesus and on the necessary acceptance of possible suffering on the part of the disciples.

Mark’s Gospel was spread by:

  • word of mouth
  • people living by the teachings of Jesus
Interpreting the Gospel
  • Literalist Some people interpret every word in the Gospel as literally true. Hence there are some groups in America who pick up venomous snakes during their services and drink poison (Mark 16:18).
  • Fundamentalist Some people believe the Gospel to be the Word of God. Events happened just as they are written to show that Jesus is God.
  • Conservative A conservative interpretation is one where the reader considers carefully the context in which the Gospel is written and takes account of different versions of miracles.
  • Liberals Other people interpret the Bible as a more flexible way of exploring the message of God. Liberals believe the stories represent God’s love for humanity through the person Jesus.