New Testament Introduction

Louis Berkhof

The Gospels in General


The shortest form of the title is κατὰ Ματθᾶιον, κατὰ Μάρχον, etc. The Textus Receptus and some of the Mnn. have τὸ κατὰ Ματθᾶιον εὐανγγέλιον; but the greater part of the Mjj. read εὐανγγέλιον κατὰ Ματθᾶιον, etc.

The word εὐανγγέλιον passed through three stages in the history of its use. In the older Greek authors it signified a reward for bringing good tidings; also, a thankoffering for good tidings brought. Next in later Greek it indicated the good news itself. And finally it was employed to denote the books in which the gospel of Jesus Christ is presented historic form. It is used very extensively in the New Testament, and always in the second sense, signifying the good news of God, the message of salvation. This meaning is also retained in the title of the gospels. The first trace of the word as indicating a written gospel is found in the didache, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, discovered in 1873 and in all probability composed between the years 90 and 100 A. D. This contains the following exhortation in 15: 3: “And reprove one another not in wrath but in peace, as ye have it in the Gospel. Here the word ευανγγελιον evidently refers to a written record. It is very explicitly and repeatedly applied to a written account of the life of Christ about the middle of the second century. The plural euanggelia, signifying the four Gospels, is first found in Justin Martyr, about 152 A. D.

The expression κατὰ Ματθᾶιον, κατὰ Μάρχον, etc., has often been misinterpreted. Some maintained that κατὰ simply indicated a genitive relation so that we should read: the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, etc. But if this is the idea intended, why was not the simple genitive used, just as it is employed by Paul, when he expresses a similar idea, τὸ εὐανγγέλιὸν μου, Rom. 2:16; 16:25? Moreover, it cannot be maintained that the preposition kata is equivalent to the Hebrew Lamedh of possession, for the Septuagint never renders this by κατὰ. Others inferred from the use of this expression that the Gospels were not written by the person named but were shaped after the Gospel as they preached it. But on this interpretation it seems very peculiar that the second and third Gospels were not called κατὰ Πέτρον and κατὰ Παῦλον, seeing that they were fashioned after their type of preaching. The expression must be explained from the Church’s consciousness that there is but one Gospel of Jesus Christ, and indicates that in these writings we have that Gospel, as ti was shaped (i. e. in writing) by the persons whose names they bear.

That the early Church caught the idea of the unity of the Gospel is quite evident. It is true, the plural of ευανγγελιον is sometimes employed, but the singular prevails. Justin Martyr speaks of the Memoirs that are called Gospels, but he also expresses himself thus: “the precepts in what is called the Gospel,” “it is written in the Gospel.” Irenaeus in one of his writings states his theme as: “The Gospel is essentially fourfold.” Clement of Alexandria speaks of “the Law, the Prophets and the Gospel,” and Augustine, of “the four Gospels, or rather, the four books of the one Gospel.”

The English word Gospel is derived from the AngloSaxon godspell, composed of god=God and spel=story, thus indicating the story of the life of God in human flesh. It is not improbable, however, that the original form of the Anglo-Saxon word was godspell, from god=good and spel=story, this being a literal translation of the Greek εὐανγγέλιον. It denotes the good tidings of salvation in Christ for a perishing world.


In view of the fact that the first Christian century produced many Gospels besides those which are included in our canon, and that many at the present day deny the authority of some or all of our Gospels, it is important to know, how many the early Church received as canonic. The apostolic fathers, though often quoting the Gospels do not mention their authors, nor do they enumerate them. They testify to the substance and canonicity of the Gospels therefore, but not, except indirectly, to their authenticity and number. In all probability the earliest evidence that the Church of the first ages accepted the four Gospels that we now possess as canonic, is furnished by the Peshito, which most likey dates from the first half of the second century. And being a translation, it points to the fact that even before its origin our four Gospels were received into the canon, while all others were left out. Another early witness is found in the Muratorian Fragment, a mutilated work of which the real character cannot now be determined, and that was probably written about 170 A. D. It commences with the last words of a sentence that seemingly belongs to a description of Marks Gospel, and then tells us that “Lukes Gospel stands third in order, having been written by Luke, the physician, the companion of Paul.” After making this statement it proceeds to assign the fourth place to “the Gospel of John, a disciple of the Lord.” The conclusion seems perfectly warranted that the first two Gospels, of which the description is lost, are those of Matthew and Mark. An important witness, really the first one to a fourfold Gospel, i. e. to a Gospel that is four and yet is one, is Tatian, the Assyrian. His Diatessaron was the first harmony of the Gospels. The exact date of its composition is not known; the meaning of its name is obviously [the Gospel ]by the Four. This, no doubt, points to the fact that it was based on four Gospels, and also implies that these four were our canonical Gospels, since they constituted the only collection in existence that needed no other description than “the Four.” The testimonny of Eusebius is in harmony with this when he says “Tatian, the former leader of the Encratites, having put together in some strange fashion a combination and collection of the Gospels, gave it the name of the Diatessaron, and the work is still partially current.” Church History, IV, 29. Very important testimony to our four Gospels is found in the writings of Irenaeus (c. 120-200) and of Tertullian (c. 150-130). The former was a disciple of Polycarp, who in turn had enjoyed the personal instruction of the apostle John. He preached the Gospel to the Gauls and in 178 succeeded Pothinus as bishop of Lyons. In one of his books he has a long chapter entitled: “Proofs that there can be neither more nor fewer than four Evangelists.” Looking at the Gospels as a unit, he called them “the Gospel with four Faces.” And he searched to find mystic reasons for this quadruple form, thus showing how strongly he and his age were persuaded that there were but four canonical Gospels. He compares the quadriform Gospel (τετράμορφον) to the four regions of the earth, to the four universal spirits, to the cherubim with four faces, etc. The testimony of Tertullian is equally explicit. This famous church father received a liberal education at Rome, lived on in heathen darkness until about his thirtieth or fortieth year, when he was converted and entered the ministry. Embittered by the treatment he received at the hands of the Church, he went into the fold of the Montanists about the beginning of the third century. He wrote numerous works in defense of the Christian religion. In his work against Marcion he says, after stating that the Gospel of Luke had been maintained from its first publication: “The same authority of the apostolic churches will uphold the other Gospels which we have in due succession through them and according to their usage, I mean those of [the apostles] Matthew and John; although that which was published by Mark may also be maintained to be Peters, whose interpreter Mark was: for the narrative of Luke also is generally ascribed to Paul: since it is allowable that that which scholars publish should be regarded as their masters work.” Just as those that went before him Tertullian appealed to the testimony of antiquity as proving the canonicity of our four Gospels and the other Scriptural books; and his appeal was never gainsaid. Another significant testimony is that of Origin, the great teacher of Alexandria of whom Eusebius records that in the first book of his commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew he asserts that he knows of only four Gospels, as follows: “I have learnt by tradition concerning the four Gospels, which alone are uncontroverted in the Church of God spread under heaven, that according to Matthew, who was once a publican but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, was written first; . . . that according to Mark second; . . . that according to Luke third; . . . that according to John last of all.” Church History VI, 25. Eusebius himself, who was the first historian of the Christian Church, in giving a catalogue of the New Testament writings, says: “First then we must place the holy quaternion of the Gospels.”

From the testimony which we have now reviewed the conclusion seems perfectly warranted that the Church from the earliest times knew four and only four canonical Gospels; and that these four are the same that she has recognized ever since. It is true that the heretic Marcion acknowledged only the Gospel of Luke, and this in mutilated form, but his attitude toward the Gospels finds a ready explanation in his dogmatic bias.


The Gospels have a literary character all their own; they are sui generis. There is not another book or group of books in the Bible to which they can be compared. They are four and yet one in a very essential sense; they express four sides of the one εὐαγγέλιον of Jesus Christ. In studying them the question naturally arises, how we must conceive of them. Now we need not argue that they are not mere collections of myths and fables, with or without a historical basis, as many Rationalists would have us believe. Nor is it necessary to show at length that they are not four biographies of Jesus. If their authors intended them to be such, they would be very disappointing indeed. There is, however, another misconception against which we must warn, because it is quite prevalent in the circles of those who accept these writings unquestionably as a part of the Word of God, and since it is a positive hindrance to a true understanding of these priceless records. We refer to the conviction that the writers of the Gospels were minded to prepare for following generations more or less complete histories of the life of Christ. In reading these writings we soon find that, looked at as histories, they leave a great deal to be desired. In the first place they tell us comparitively little of that rich and varied life of Christ, of which they knew so much, Cf. John 20: 30; 21: 25. The historical facts narrated by John f. i. only represent the work of a few days. His Gospel would thus be a life of Jesus with yawning gaps. The same is true of the other Gospels. In the second place the materials, except those at the beginning and at the end of Christs life are not arranged in chronological order. Any possible doubt that we may have on this point is soon dispelled, when we compare the Gospels. The same facts are often narrated in altogether different connections. Closely allied with this is a third feature that deserves attention. The casual relation of the important events that are narrated is not traced, except in a few instances, and yet this just what one expects in histories. And finally if they were really meant to be histories, why was it necessary that we should have four of them?

The harmonists generally proceeded on the erroneous conception to which we refer. They were aware indeed that there were great lacunae in all the Gospels, but thought they might remedy matters by supplying from one Gospel what was wanting in the other. Thus the relation of the Gospels to one another was conceived of as supplemental. But their work was doomed to failure; it did violence to the exquisite compositions on which they operated, and marred the characteristic beauty of those literary productions. They were always uncertain asa; to the true order of events, and did not know which one of the evangelists was the best chronological guide. Some preferred Matthew, others chose Mark, and still others followed Luke. And after all their efforts to combine the four Gospels into one continuous narrative with the facts arranged in the exact order in which they occurred, their work must be pronounced a failure. The Gospels are not histories of the life of Christ, nor do they, taken together, form one history.

But what are they, if they are neither biographies nor histories? They are four pen-pictures, or better, a four fold portraiture of the Saviour a fourfold representation of the apostolic κήρυγμα; fourfold witness regarding our Lord. It is said that the great artist Van Dyke prepared a threefold portrait of Charles I for the sculptor, that the latter might fashion an absolutely faithful likeness of the king. These three portraits were necessary; their differences and agreements were all required to give a true representation of the monarch. So it is in the case of the Gospels. Each one of them gives us a certain view of the Lord, and only the four taken together present to us his perfect likeness, revealing him as the Saviour of the world. The apostolic χήρυγμα had taken a wide flight. Its central content was the cross and the resurrection. But in connection with this the words and deeds of the Saviour and his history also formed the subject of the apostles preaching. And when this apostolic χηρυγμα was reduced to writing, it was found necessary to give it a fourfold form, that it might answer to the needs of four classes of people viz. to those of the Jews, to those of the Romans, to those of the Greeks and to those of the people who confessed Christ as Lord; needs that were typical of the spiritual requirements of all future ages. Matthew wrote for the Jews and characterized Christ as the great King of the house of David. Mark composed his Gospel for the Romans and pictured the Saviour as the mighty Worker, triumphing over sin and evil. Luke in writing his Gospel had in mind the needs of the Greeks and portrayed Christ as the perfect man, the universal Saviour. And John, composing his Gospel for those who already had a saving knowledge of the Lord and stood in need of a more profound understanding of the essential character of Jesus, emphasized the divinity of Christ, the glory that was manifested in his works. Each Gospel is complete in itself and acquaints us with a certain aspect of the Lords life. Yet it is only the fourfold Gospel that furnishes us with a complete, a perfect image of him whom to know is life eternal. And it is only, when we grasp the different features that are mirrored in the Gospels and see how they blend harmoniously in that noblest of all lives, the life of Christ, that we have found the true harmony of the Gospels.


The first three Gospels are known as the Synoptics, and their authors are called the Synoptists. The name is derived from the Greek σύν and ὄψις, and is applied to these Gospels, since they, as distinguished from the fourth, give us a common view of the life of our Lord. But notwithstanding the great similarity by which these Gospels are characterized, they also reveal very striking differences. This remarkable agreement on the one hand, and these manifest dissimilarities on the other, constitute one of the most difficult literary problems of the New Testament. The question is, whether we can account for the origin of these Gospels in such a manner that we can explain both the close resemblances and the often surprising differences.

In the first place the general plan of these Gospels exhibits a remarkable agreement. Only Matthew and Luke contain a narrative of the infancy of our Lord and their accounts of it are quite distinct; but the history of Christs public ministry follows very much the same order in all the Synoptics. They treat successively of the Lords preparation for the ministry, John the Baptist, the baptism, the temptation, the return to Galilee, the preaching in its villages and cities, the journey to Jerusalem, the entrance into the Holy City, the preaching there, the passion and the resurrection. The details that fit into this general plan are also arranged in quite a uniform manner, except in some places, especially of the first Gospel. The most striking differences in the arrangement of the material results from the narrative of a long series of events connected with the Galilean ministry, which is peculiar to Matthew and Mark, Matt. 14:22— 16:12; Mark 6: 45—8: 26; and from the history of another series of events related to the journey to Jerusalem that is found only in Luke 9: 51—18:14.

But there is not only similarity in the broad outlines of those Gospels; the particular incidents that are narrated are also in many cases the same in substance and similar if not identical in form. The amount of agreement that we find in this respect is represented by Norton, Genuineness of the Gospels p. 373, and by Westcott, Introduction to the Study of the Gospels p. 201, in the following manner: If the total contents of the Gospel is represented by 100, the following result is obtained:

Mark has 7 peculiarities and—93 coincidences
Matthew has 42 peculiarities and—58 coincidences
Luke has 59 peculiarities and—41 coincidences

If the extent of all the coincidences be represented by 100 their proportionate distribution will be:

Matthew, Mark and Luke 53
Matthew and Luke 21
Matthew and Mark 20
Mark and Luke 6

Still another estimate, viz, that by verses, is suggested by Reuss, History of the New Testament, I p. 177:

Matthew out of a total of 971 verses has 330 peculiar to him.
Mark out of a total of 478 verses has 68 peculiar to him.
Luke out of a total of 1151 verses has 541 peculiar to him.

The first two have 170 to 180 verses that are lacking in Luke; Matthew and Luke, 230 to 240 wanting in Mark; Mark and Luke about 50 wanting in Matthew. The number common to all three is 330 to 370.

The preceding statements refer to the subject-matter of the Synoptics. Taken by itself this might give us an exaggerated idea of the similarity of these Gospels. As a corrective it is necessary to bear in mind that the verbal coincidences, though they are remarkable indeed, are nevertheless considerably less than one would expect. Dr. Schaff and his son, after some calculations based on Rushbrookes Synopticon, get the following results:

“The proportion of words peculiar to the Synoptics is 28,000 out of 48,000, more than one-half.
In Matthew 56 words out of every 100 are peculiar.
In Mark 40 words out of every 100 are peculiar.
In Luke 67 words out of every 100 are peculiar.
The number of coincidences common to all three is less than the number of divergences.
Matthew agrees with the other two gospels in 1 word out of 7.
Mark agrees with the other two gospels in 1 word out of 4.
Luke agrees with the other two gospels in 1 word out of 8.

But comparing the Gospels two by two, it is evident that Matthew and Mark have most in common, and Matthew and Luke are most divergent.

One-half of Mark is found in Matthew.
One-fourth of Luke is found in Matthew.
One-third of Mark is found in Luke.

The general conclusion from these figures is that all three Gospels widely diverge from the common matter, or triple tradition, Mark the least so and Luke the most (almost twice as much as Mark). On the other hand, both Matthew and Luke are nearer Mark than Luke and Matthew to each other.” Church History, I p. 597.

In connection with the preceding we should bear in mind that these verbal agreements are greatest, not in the narrative, but in the recitative parts of the Gospels. About one fifth of them is found in the narrative portion of the Gospel, and four fifths in the recital of the words of our Lord and others. This statement will create a false impression, however, unless we bear in mind the proportion in which the narrative parts stand to the recitative element, which is as follows:


From what has now been said it is perfectly clear that the Synoptics present an intricate literary problem. Is it possible to explain the origin in such a manner that both the resemblances and differences are accounted for? During the last century many scholars have applied themselves with painstaking diligence to the arduous task of solving this problem. The solution has been sought along different lines; several hypotheses have been broached, of which we shall name only the four most important ones.

In the first place there is what has been called (though not altogether correctly) ~the mutual dependance theory (Benutzungshypothese, Augustine, Bengel, Bleek, Storr). According to this theory the one Gospel is dependent on the other, so that the second borrowed from the first and the third from both the first and the second. On this theory, of course, six permutations are possible viz.:

Matthew, Mark, Luke.
Matthew, Luke, Mark.
Mark, Matthew, Luke.
Mark, Luke, Matthew.
Luke, Matthew, Mark.
Luke, Mark, Matthew.

In every possible form this theory has found defenders, but it does not meet with great favor at present. True, it seems to account for the general agreement in a very simple manner but serious difficu1ties arise when one seeks to determine which one of the Gospels was first, which second and which third. This is perfectly evident from the difference of opinion among the adherents of this hypothesis. Again it fails to account for the divergencies; it does not explain why one writer adopts the language of his predecessor(s) up to a certain point, and then suddenly abandons it. Of late it is tacitly admitted, however, that it does contain an element of truth.

In the second place the hypothesis of oral tradition (Traditions-hypothese, Gieseler, Westcott, Wright), should be mentioned. is theory starts from the supposition that the Gospel existed first of all in an unwritten form. It is assumed that the apostles repeatedly told the story of Christs life, dwelling especially on the most important incidents of his career, and often reiterating the very words of their blessed Lord. These narratives and words were eagerly caught up by willing ears and treasured in faithful and retentive memories, the Jews making it a practice to retain whatever they learnt in the exact form in which they received it. Thus a stereotyped tradition arose which served as the basis for our present Gospels. Several objections have been urged against this theory. It is said that, as a result of the apostles preaching in the vernacular, the oral tradition was embodied in the Aramaic language, and hence cannot account for the verbal coincidences in the Greek Gospels. Again it is urged that the more stereotyped the tradition was, the harder it becomes to account for the differences between the Synoptics. Would anyone be apt to alter such a tradition on his own authority? Moreover this hypothesis offers no explanation of the existence of the two-fold, the triple and the double tradition, i. e. the tradition that is embodied in all three of the Gospels and that which is found only in two of them. The majority of scholars have now abandoned this theory, although it has ardent defenders even at present. And no doubt, it must be taken into account in the solution of this problem.

In the third place we have the hypothesis of one primitive Gospel (Urevangeliums-Hypothese) from which all three of the Synoptists drew their material. According to G. E.Lessing this Gospel, containing a short account of the life of Jesus for the use of traveling missionaries, was written in the popular language of Palestine. Eichhorn, however, following him, held that it was translated into Greek, worked over and enriched in various ways, and soon took shape in several redactions, which became the source of our present Gospels. There is very little agreement among, the defenders of this theory regarding the exact character of this original source. At present it finds little favor in scientific circles, but has been discarded for various reasons. There is absolutely no trace of such an original Gospel, nor any historical reference to it, which seems peculiar in view of its unique significance. And if the existence of such a source be postulated, how must the arbitrary alteration of it be explained, how did these different recensions come into existence. It is evident that by this theory the problem is not solved, but simply shifted to another place. Moreover while in its original form this hypothesis accounted very well for the agreement, but not for the differences found in the Synoptics, in its final form it was too artificial and too complicated to inspire confidence and to seem anything like a natural solution of the Synoptic problem.

In the fourth place the so-called double source, or two document theory (Combinations-hypothese, Weisse, Wilke, Holtzmann, Wendt) deserves mention since it is the favorite theory of New Testament scholars today. This hypothesis holds that, in order to explain the phenomena of the Gospels, it is necessary to postulate the existence of at least two primitive documents, and recognizes the use of one Gospel in the composition of the others. The form in which this theory is most widely accepted at present isthe following: The Gospel of Mark was the first one to be written and, either in the form in which we now have it, or in a slightly different form was the source of the triple tradition. For the double tradition, which is common to Matthew and Luke, these writers used a second source that, for want of definite knowledge regarding it, is simply called Q (from the German Quelle). This Q may have been the λόγια of Matthew mentioned by Papias, and was probably a collection of the sayings of our Lord. The differences between Matthew and Luke in the matter of the double tradition finds its explanation in the assumption that, while Matthew drew directly from Q, Luke derived the corresponding matter from Q and other sources, or from a primitive Gospel based on Q.

But even so the use of some inferior sources by both Matthew and Luke must be assumed. The double source theory presupposes the existence of a rather large precanonical literature.

There are some evident objections to this theory also. The assumption that the λόγια of Matthew was anything else than the Hebrew or Aramaic original of our Greek Matthew is a baseless supposition; it has no historical foundation whatever. Furthermore the theory offers no explanation of the fact that the writers in some cases faithfully copied their original and in others altered the text rather freely or even departed from it entirely. And by postulating the development of a somewhat extensive Gospel literature previous to the composition of Matthew and Luke, it has naturally led to the position that our Gospels were written late, and therefore in all probability not by their reputed authors. Moreover it also requires us to believe that Luke included the Gospel of Mark in the number of the attempted Gospel stories which his Gospel was meant to supercede.

None of the theories broached up to the present time has proved satisfactory. There is still a great deal of uncertainty and confusion in the study of the Synoptic problem; we do not seem to be nearer to its solution now than we were fifty years ago. The great aim has always been to explain the origin of the Synoptics without taking into account the supernatural factor that entered into their composition. Now we do not doubt the value of these studies; they have already taught us a good many things regarding the origin of these Gospels; but they have proven themselves insufficient to lead to a final solution of the problem. It is, of course, folly to rule this problem out of existence by simply appealing to the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit. It is true, if one believes in the mechanical inspiration of the Bible, there is no Synoptic problem. This is quite different, however, for those who believe that the Scriptures have been inspired in an organic way. The more naturally we conceive of the origin of these writings, the better it is, if we only do not lose sight of the operation of the divine factor, of the directing, the guiding influence of the Holy Spirit. Cf. Kuyper, Encyclopedie III p. 51 f. It is hardly sufficient to say with Urquhart, New Biblical Guide VII p. 357, that the key to the problem is found in the fact that the Synoptic Gospels are all the work of one author, and that each book is serving a distinct purpose. Yet this statement contains two important truths that we should continually bear in mind.

In any attempt to account for the similarities of the synoptics great allowance should be made for the influence of oral tradition It is very natural to suppose that, since the apostles for some time labored together at Jerusalem with Peter at the head, a particular, perhaps Petrine type of tradition became the common property of these early preachers and of their first hearers. And because the life of Christ entered as a very important element into the life of his apostles, and they felt the supreme significance of his words, it is also reasonable to assume that they aimed at inculcating the teachings of our Lord on their hearers in the exact form in which He gave it. It is equally rational to suppose that, at a comparatively early time, the desire to escape the uncertainty that always attends oral transmission, led to the composition of brief gospel narratives, containing especially the sayings and discourses of our Lord. These suppositions are entirely in harmony too with the opening verses of the Gospel of Luke: “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as they delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, etc.” Some of these early documents may have been written in Aramaic and others in Greek. The groundwork thus furnished and drawn upon by the writers of our Gospels, explains in a very natural way most of the agreements that are found in the Synoptics. And those that cannot be accounted for in that manner may have resulted directly from the guiding influence of the Holy Spirit, who led the writers also in the choice of their words. These three Gospels are in a very real sense the work of one Author.

In seeking to explain the differences that are found in the Synoptic Gospels, we should bear in mind first of all that they are no histories, but memoirs, historical arguments. In composing them each one of the writers had his own purpose. Matthew, writing for the Jews, made it his aim to present Christ as the King, the great Son of David; Mark, intending his Gospel for the Romans, endeavored to draw a vivid picture of the powerful Worker, conquering the forces of evil; and Luke, addressing the Greeks and adjusting his Gospel to their needs, sought to describe Christ as the universal Saviour, as a person with wide sympathies. This diversity of aimaccounts to a great extent for the variations exhibited in the Gospels, i. e. for omissions on the one hand and additions on the other, for differences in the distribution and arrangement of the material, etc. The writers of the Gospels selected from the great mass of early traditions the material that was suited to their purpose and used it to advantage. The difference between the Synoptics is not accidental, is not the result of the chance use of certain sources. And where the identical teachings of Christ are sometimes found in different forms, we should remember, first, that the Lord may have uttered the same truth at different times in varying forms; and secondly, that the Synoptists do not always give the identical words of the Saviour, but were so guided by the Holy Spirit that they do give an exact representation of the Lords teachings, perhaps in a form better adapted to their purpose than the original would have been. Cf. Kuyper, Diet. Dogm., Locus de Sacra Scriptura II p. 131 f.; Gregory, Why Four Gospels; Van Leeuwen, Literatuur en Schriftuur p. 14 ff.; Urquhart, New Biblical Guide VII p. 328-428.

For further study of the Synoptic Problem we refer to; Norton, Genuineness of the Gospels; Westcott, Introduction to the Study of the Gospels; Arthur Wright, A Synopsis of the Gospels in Greek; Holdsworth, Gospel Origins; Buckley, Introduction to the Synoptic Problem; Hill, Introduction to the Life of Christ; Reuss, History of the New Testament I p. 163-218 (where the most important German literature is referred to) ; and the various Introductions of Davidson, Weiss, Zahn, Julicher, Salmon, e. a.


After pointing out the remarkable agreement between the synoptic Gospels and referring to some of the attempted explanations of this feature, we must consider the equally striking difference that exists between the Synoptics on the one hand and the Gospel of John on the other. This difference is so great that even untrained minds immediately feel it. Hence the question naturally arises: How can we account for it? This is in substance the Johannine problem. The differences that are found may conveniently be arranged under two heads: 1. Differences touching the external course of events in the Lords ministry; and 2. Differences in regard to the form and contents of Christs teaching.

I. Differences touching the external course of events in the Lord’s ministry.

a. According to the Synoptics the principal scene of the Lords activity is Galilee. He repairs to this Northern province soon after the imprisonment of John the Baptist, and apparently does not return to Judea until the last Passover. The representation that is found in the Gospel of John is quite different. Very little is said about the Galilean ministry, while the activity of Christ in Judea looms large on his pages. Most of the work of which John speaks was done at Jerusalem.

b. The first three Gospels mention but one Passover in their narrative of Christs public ministry, viz. that at the end of his life. This led many to the conviction that the Lord’s public ministry was limited to a period of one year. In the Gospel of John, on the other hand, we find three Passovers definitely mentioned, while a fourth is probably refferred to in 5:1. Judging by this the length of the Lords ministry was at least two and possibly three years.

c. The people with whom Jesus deals primarily are not the same in the Synoptics and in the Gospel of John. In the first three Gospels we see Jesus moving along the Galilean peasantry and preaching to them the gospel of the Kingdom, while in the fourth the Jews (by which John means the leaders of the people, i. e. Chief Priests, Scribes and Pharisees) are generally in the foreground, and certain individuals, that are not named, or are merely names, in the Synoptics, are very prominent, such as Philip, Nathanael, the Samaritan woman, Mary Magdalena and Thomas.

d. The attitude of the Jews towards Jesus appears to be quite different in the synoptic Gospels and in the Gospel of John. According to the Synoptics Jesus meets with great success at first. The multitudes flock unto him, are delighted to hear him and marvel at his teachings and work. And it is only after He has clearly shown that He had not come to establish an earthly kingdom that their enthusiasm dies away, and that He begins to prepare his disciples for his coming suffering and death. The Gospel of John makes it appear that from the beginning of Christs ministry at Jerusalem the hearts of the Jews were filled with a hatred that gradually grew, reaching its highest pitch after the raising of Lazarus, and that finally issued in the crucifixion of the Lord of glory.

e. There are also several details in which the Gospel of John does not agree with the Synoptics. We shall only mention a couple of the most important examples. In the synoptic Gospels we find the cleansing of the temple at the end of Christ’s public ministry, while John places this at the very beginning. Then there is also a the representaion of the of the Lord’s death. The Synoptics convey the impression that Christ ate the Passover in the evening of the 14th of Nisan, and was therefore crucified on the 15th; while the Gospel of John seems to say with equal explicitness that He ate it a day in advance of the regular time and died at the very hour, when the symbolic Paschal lamb was slain.

II. Differences in respect to the form and contents of our Lord’s teaching.

a. There is a striking diversity in the form in which the teaching of Jesus is cast. In the Synoptics we have short incisive sayings of the Lord, which in some cases are and in others are not connected with what immediately precedes or follows. In the Gospel of John, on the other hand, we find long and labored discourses, closely connected with the signs, the miracles of our Lord. The first three Gospels contain a goodly number of parables, which are strangely absent from the fourth Gospel, where we have have instead a few allegories, such as the Door of the Sheepfold, the good Shepherd, and the true Vine. The style of the Gospel of John too is quite different from that of the Synoptics. It is a more Hebraic style, in which the statements are brief, the construction is simple and the sentences are usually connected with the conjunction and. This style is carried through also in the discourses of Christ, so that in some cases it is very hard, if not impossible, to tell just where the words of the Lord come to an end and those of the evangelist begin, or vice versa. Notice this especially in the third chapter.

b. There is an equally great difference in the contents of the Lords teaching. In the Synoptics the central theme on which Christ dwells is the Kingdom of God. He speaks of its origin, its nature, its subjects, its King, its requirements, its righteousness, its enemies and its future glory. In vain do we turn to the fourth Gospel for a corresponding line of thought. The Kingdom of God is mentioned but once there, viz, in the conversation of our Lord with Nicodemus. Christ himself is the main theme of the discourses found in the Gospel of John. The Lord speaks of his heavenly origin, of his essential character and of his return to glory. He presents himself to the Jews as the Messiah, the Son of God, the heavenly manna, the water of life, the true liberator, the light of the world, the good Shepherd, the resurrection and the life, etc. In the Synoptics we find that Jesus only occasionally, and then towards the end of his ministry, speaks of himself. In connection with this we may remark that the self-revelation of Christ both by his words and works differs greatly in the Synoptics and in the fourth Gospel. In the former Jesus begins by speaking of the Kingdom and makes little mention of the King. Only gradually does He reveal his true character and it is not until He is well along in the course of his public ministry that Peter is led up to the confession: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Only in the last week of his life does Jesus throw off all reserve and speaks clearly of himself as the Messiah sent from God. In the Gospel of John however, everything is quite clear from the beginning. John the Baptist points to Christ as “the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world ;” to the Samaritan woman Jesus says: “I am He ;” and to the Jews attending the unnamed feast he speaks clearly of the unique relation in which He stands to the Father. This is closely connected with another fact. In the synoptic Gospels the humanity of Christ is made very prominent. We behold him there primarily as the Saviour who is taken on our nature, shares in our infirmities, and is tempted even as we are, though without sin. The fourth Gospel, on the other hand, brings the divinity of Christ into strong re1ief. We notice this at the very beginning of the Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It strikes us in the signs which Christ gave to reveal his glory, and in the discourses that speak at length of his essential nature, of his descending out of glory, his being in glory, and his returning to the glory that He possessed from the foundation of the world; and it rings in our ears as we listen to the confession of Thomas: “My Lord and my God.”

There are many critics at the present time who magnify these differences into discrepancies, and find in them a ground on which to reject the authorship of John. They maintain that the fourth Gospel is a treatise written with marked theological bias, inspired by the controversy about the person of Christ in the second century. The great stumbling block for them is the very clear teaching contained in this Gospel respecting the divinity of Christ. This, they hold, could only be the fruit of theological preconceptions. And the great desire on the part of the author to establish this beyond the shadow of a doubt is said to explain a good many of the other special features that characterize this gospel. This explanation contains both a falsehood and a truth.

A careful study of the Gospel of John, a study that takes its true character in consideration, does not bear out the contention that several of the differences between the Gospel of John and the Synoptics amount to discrepancies. Neither does it reveal differences that cannot be accounted for in a perfectly natural way. We desire to point out first of all that there are not only dissimilarities but also correspondences between these Gospels. The incidents that we find mentioned in all the Gospels are the following: The baptism of John , the feeding of the five thousand, the walking on the sea, the anointing at Bethany, the triumphal entry, the last supper, the betrayal, the trial, the crucifixion, the burial and the resurrection. Of course in some cases the details of the narrative vary. Besides these parallel narratives there are many passages in which we find imagery, sayings or words that find their counterpart in the synoptic Gospels. Davidson says that about one-third of the matter in John agrees with that in the Synoptics.

It is evident from the foregoing that the diversity is greater than the similarity, and the great question is: How must we account for the differences? In pointing out the way in which we must look for a solution of this problem we call attention to several particulars.

1. We should not lose sight of the true character of John’s writing. Neither it nor the other Gospels are meant to be complete histories of what the Lord did and said during his life in the flesh. If this were its claim, it would be disappoint in the extreme, since all that John narrates happened in a few days. Like the Synoptics the Gospel of John is a pen-picture of the Lord, is a witness to him from a particular point of view, and represents a phase of the apostolic χήρυγμαι. We must allow for the principle of selection and of selective arrangement in the composition of this work. It was John’s aim to describe the Lord from a particular point of view. Hence he chose from the great mass of apostolic tradition, whether oral or written, the materials that suited his purpose best, and arranged them in the most effective way, taking in consideration as much as possible the chronological order in which the events occurred. This general truth must be borne in mind continually, if we would understand the differences between the Gospel of John and the Synoptics.

2. The great controlling factor, however, in the construction of this Gospel, was the aim of the writer. Therefore it is necessary that we have some understanding of this. Happily we need not guess at it, because John himself tells us what purpose he had in writing his Gospel. He says in 20: 31: “But these things are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name.” According to this statement the apostle had a twofold aim, the one theoretical and the other practical, the one his proximate, the other his ulterior aim. The theoretical aim of the evangelist was twofold: he wanted to show in a convincing manner that the historical Jesus was the Christ sent from God for the salvation of the world; and that this Christ was not a mere man, but the very Son of God, who in his pre-existent state shared in the divine glory, a glory which He radiated even while He dwelt among men in the form of a servant, and that would again shine forth in heavenly splendor after He had finished his task. It was the desire of the writer further, to present this Christ, this Son of God, to his readers in such a manner that they might be led to believe in him, and that they, being united to him the fountain of life by faith, might have life everlasting. With this end in view John, of course, selected those signs and discourses of the Lord that were best adapted to bring out his glory and to lead others to faith in him. He almost seems to tell us this himself, when he concludes his narrative of the first miracle performed by our Lord at Cana with the words: “This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed on Him.” John views the miracles of which he speaks as shmeiathat exhibit the divine greatness of Christ. And he limits himself almost exclusively to those of which he can say definitely that they led men to believe on Christ, or of which Christ himself points out the symbolic significance in His discourses, as:

  • The changing of water into wine at Cana (“and his disciples believed on Him.”) The healing of the rulers son at Cana (Capernaum) (“and himself believed and his whole house.”)
  • The healing of the impotent man at the pool Bethesda (Christ the restorer of life).
  • The feeding of the five thousand near Bethsaida (Christ the spiritual food, the heavenly manna).
  • The restoring of the blind mans sight at Jerusalem (Christ the light of the world).
  • The raising of Lazarus at Bethany (Christ the resurrection and the life).

In harmony with his aim too the evangelist records such discourses of the Lord as serve to explain the shmeia to bring. out the unique relation in which Christ stands to the Father, to accentuate Christs authority, to emphasize the divine character of his mission. etc. Moreover he introduces several individuals to show us how Jesus labored tol bring them to the conviction that He was the Christ, the Sons of God, as f. i. Nathanael, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman and Thomas.

Now if we bear these things in mind, many of the differences between this Gospel and the Synoptics are immediately explained. The aim of John being what it is, he naturally speaks of Christ rather than of the Kingdom of God, introduces whatever accentuates the divinity of our Lord, and brings out as much as possible that Christ revealed himself as the Messiah from the very beginning of his public career. But doing this in a historical way, he cannot represent the Galilean peasants but only the eaders of the Jews at Jerusalem as the recipients of this revelation, for it was only to them, who were versed in the Scriptures, that Christ spoke so explicitly from the outset, and it was primarily for them that He expressed his thought in profound discourses rather than in parables. This in turn determines the time of which John speaks in his gospel and also explains how it is that he mentions so many feasts, because it was almost exclusively on these occasions that Jesus visited Jerusalem and came in contact with the Scribes and the Chief Priests. It also sheds light on the difference in the attitude of the Jews toward Jesus. For a long time the Galileans were attached to Christ and marveled at his words and works; the spirit of opposition was aroused in them especially towards the end of Christs labors among them and mostly by the machinations of the Pharisees that came from Jerusalem. The leaders of the Jews in Judea, on the other hand, hated Jesus almost from the beginning of his public ministry. Their hatred kept pace with the knowledge they received of Christ.

3. Every attempt at solving the Johannine problem must also make allowance for the fact that John was acquainted with the other Gospels and avoided as much as was conistent with his aim the repitition of facts that were already generally known. We have no doubt that John had read the other Gospels before he wrote his own. There are certain features in his Gospel that we can understand only on that supposition. According to 21:19 John wrote his Gospel after the death of Peter and therefore comparatively late. Now he certainly would not be such a stranger in his own world of thought as not to know the Gospels that had already been composed. Then we find that in several places the evangelist trusts to the previous knowledge of his readers. He does not describe the institution of the Lords supper in his Gospel; yet he clearly assumes in 6: 5 1-58 that his readers were acquainted with it. Though he does not give a description of the ascension, he proceeds on the assumption that this fact is well known, 6:62; 20:17. Cf. further 1:40; 3:24; 6:70, etc. In several cases in which the persons introduced in the Gospel misunderstand the Lord, the writer does not deem it necessary to explain for his readers what Jesus really meant, because he knew that they themselves were able to correct the mistake, Cf. 7: 35, 36; 3:4; 4:15; 6:52. It is a very weighty consideration in this connection too that John does not deign to answer objections that are brought against the Messiahship of Christ. Notice f. i. 1:45, 46; 7:41, 42; 7: 52. The evangelist does not give a single hint of the solution of the difficulty thus raised repeatedly. We can understand this only on the supposition that he was aware of the fact that his readers knew from the other Gospels how to solve the problem. John evidently read the other Gospels and this explains how he could avoid to such a great extent what they had already brought to the knowledge of the people.

4. Finally we must also bear in mind that the individuality of the author is stamped his literary production. John was a profound meditative spirit, who drank deeply at the fountain of life. He searched for the mainspring of action in the career of our Saviour; he pondered on the hidden background of the mysterious, the wonderful life of his Master. He was the best qualified of all the apostles to describe the divine greatness of the Lord. And it was no small achievement of his, that he presented the profoundest truths in the most simple manner. The simplicity of its language is a very striking feature of the fourth Gospel. It is due in part, no doubt, to Johns idiosyncracy, and in part to his habit of contemplating Christianity in its most fundamental relations. It need not surprise us that we find the same style in the discourses of Christ, for in these also the style is to a great extent Johns. Neither John nor the other evangelists always give us the exact words of Jesus. It is true that he generally employs direct discourse in introducing the words of the Saviour, but this is merely an oriental custom and does not imply that the words were used exactly in that way. But the Spirit of God so guided the writer that he reproduces, though possibly in a slightly different form, the exact truths which Jesus sought to inculcate on his hearers. And this Spirit, which is also the Spirit of Christ, vouching for these words, makes them just as really the words of Christ, as if they had been an exact reproduction of the words Jesus had used in addressing the Jews.


During the past century the human origin of the Gospels has been carefully investigated. With a great deal of patience and ingenuity every chapter and verse of these writings has been scrutinized and referred to its supposed ultimate source. The discussion of the divine factor that operated in the composition of these books, however, has been conspicuously absent from these studies. And this neglect is not the result of chance, but of a very deliberate plan. A large number of scholars today do not believe in any special inspiration of these writings; others, who do not wish to deny their divine inspiration, nevertheless maintain that their claim to this prerogative should be waived in the historical investigation of their origin.

In the preceding century many were wont to label the Gospels sneeringly as fictitious narratives, written by a few religious fanatics, who deliberately lied about Jesus. This crude and baseless opinion does not meet with great favor today. People intuitively recoil from that position and feel that they must take a more respectful attitude towards the Gospels. They now regard these as the product of the reverent and in part unconscious invention of the Church; or as the expression of the corporate consciousness and the corporate mood of the first Christian community. Even so, of course, they are simply human productions that contain besides a large quota of truth a great deal of mythical and lengendary matter.

Over against this position we hold that the Gospels were written by men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that they are therefore absolutely trustworthy and authoritative accounts of the life of our Lord. They are inspired records. They constitute one of the most precious fruits of the apostolic inspiration, since they are one and all the literary embodiment of the apostolic chrugma. The substance of what the apostles preached is contained in these writings. Now as well as the prophets in the old dispensation, the apostles in the new were inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is quite evident from the New Testament. Consider the promises which our Lord gave to His disciples: Matt 10:19,20 ”.... for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak; for it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you.” John 14:26, “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, He shall teach you all things and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” John 16:13,14, “Howbeit when the Spirit of truth is come, He will guide you into all truth; for He shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever He shall hear, that shall He speak; and He will show you things to come. He shall glorify me; for He shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you.” Notice too that these promises found their initial fulfilment on the day of Pentecost. We read in Acts 2:4: “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and ‘began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” And after this day the apostles were conscious of being guided by the Spirit of God. Paul says in I Cor. 2:11-13, “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God; that we might know the things which are freely given us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which mans wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” And in II Cor. 13: 2b, 3, ”—and being absent now I write to them which heretofore have sinned, and to all other, that, if I come again, I will not spare; since ye seek a proof of Christ speaking in me, which to you-ward is not weak, but is mighty in you.” These few passages, which might easily be multiplied, must suffice for the present.

Some who admit the inspiration of the prophets, do not believe the apostles were also inspired, because in their case they do not hear the familiar formula “thus saith the Lord,” nor behold the characteristic phenomena that accompanied the inspiration of the prophets. They do not distinguish between different kinds of inspiration. There are especially three points of interest between the inspiration of the prophets and that of the apostles.

1. Under the Old Covenant the Holy Spirit did not yet dwell in the Church, but operated on believers from without. So it was also in the case of the prophets. The Holy Spirit took possession of them, sometimes suppressed their personality to a. certain degree, and then employed their consciousness for his purpose. In the new dispensation, however, He took up his abode in The Church, and first of all in the apostles, who were to be the Churchs foundation; and then, identifying himself to a great extent with their conscious life, used them as instruments to produce his revelation.

2. In the case of the prophets it was the entrance of a foreign element, a foreign power into their lives, and something extraordinary in their career that impelled them to prophesy. It was a power that they could not resist, because it became as a fire burning within them. With the apostles, on the other hand, it was the indwelling Spirit in connection with their official task that led them to speak the Word of God. The inspiration of the prophets was intermittent; that of the apostles, continuous in the performance of their regular apostolic duties.

3. The prophets often spoke of unknown and unseen things, while the apostles discoursed on things which they knew and saw. In connection with this the Holy Spirit did not operate through the same faculty in both the prophets and the apostles. In the former it was the imagination, in the latter the understanding, especially memory and reflection, that constituted the medium of divine revelation. Hence the prophets generally spoke in poetic and in symbolic language, while the apostles as a rule clothed their thought in ordinary prose. In the case of the Gospels the inspiration of the apostles has above all the character of a ὑπόμνησις. Cf. John 14:26.

This apostolic inspiration gave birth to the χήρυγμα of the apostles, but does not yet account for the infallible records we have of this in the Gospels. Besides the apostolic we must take into consideration a seperate graphical or transcriptive inspiration, if we would fully understand the divine origin of the Gospels. The authors were led by the spirit of God in composing these writings, in giving to the preaching of the apostles a definite written form. They were guided in the selection of their material and its proper arrangement, and in the choice of their words and expressions, so that their records are truly a part of the Word of God for the Church of all ages.

The question naturally arises, whether we have any reasons to think that the Gospels were so inspired. In answer would say that we have, though we do not flatter ourself with the idea that these reasons would convince anyone who is disinclined to accept the Scriptures as the very Word of God.

1. The contents of the Gospels testify to their divine origin. We find in them a fourfold portraiture of the Saviour. There are many differences in the individual pictures, yet together they form a grand unity. Four writers, each one portraying the life of Christ in his own way, to a great extent without knowing each others writings or drawing on them, so that their individual portraits blend perfectly into a harmonious whole,—it is marvelous, it can only be understood, if we assume that these four writers were all guided unerringly by the same superintending Spirit. The Gospels are really the work of one author. And the life that is pictured in them is a divine life, unfathomable, mysterious, far surpassing human understanding. And yet that incomparable, that divine life has been so faithfully portrayed, with such a profound insight into its real character and hidden depths, in such a simple, natural, artless manner, that it has been the marvel of ages. Could man, unaided by higher power, describe such a life? No, only they who were inspired by the Holy Spirit, were equal to the task.

2. Taking for granted the inspiration of the Old Testament, which is conclusively proved by the words of Jesus and the apostles we feel that it calls for an inspired complement. It covers the period of preparation that is prophetic of a future completion, the time in which the Church was in its infancy, that points forward to the maturity of a coming age. It is filled with prophecies that await fulfilment; it contains the shadow that is cast before the coming body, growing more distinct as the ages roll on, until at last it seems as if the body will presently appear, yet it does not—the Old Testament requires a compliment. And in harmony with it this too must be inspired. Of what avail would the inspiration of the Old Testament be, if that in which it culminates is not inspired. The divine surety would be wanting.

3. At least two of our Gospels were written by apostles who in speaking to their contemporaries, were inpired by the Spirit of God. Now it would be an anomaly that they should be guided by the Holy Spirit in their oral witnessing to Christ, and be without that divine guidance in perpetuating their testimony for all future ages. It was the will of God that people until the end of the world should believe on him through the word of the apostles, John 17: 20; I John 1: 3. Hence it was of the greatest importance that there should be an infallible record of their testimony.

4. There are some Scripture passages that point to the inspiration of the gospel records. The older Lightfoot, (Works IV p. 1193, 114; XII p. 7, and following him Urquhart, The Bible its Structure and Purpose I Ch. 5), find a proof for the inspiration of Lukes Gospel in 1: 3, where they would translate the words παρηχολουθηχότι ἄνωθεν by “having had perfect understanding of all things from above.” This interpretation is favored by the fact that ἄνωθεν has this meaning in eight of the thirteen times that it occurs in the New Testament, and in three of the remaining instances means again, while it is translated “from the beginning” only here and in Acts 26:4. The expressed purpose of Luke in writing his Gospel also falls in exceedingly well with the rendering from above. It is, he writes to Theophilus, that you may have the certainty of those things in which you have been instructed.” Yet the verb παραχολουθέω, meaning, to follow up carefully, and thus, to obtain knowledge, argues decisively against it. What is of greater significance for us, is the fact that the Gospel of Luke is quoted as ὴ γραφή in I Tim. 5:18, where we read: “For the Scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn, and, The laborer is worthy of his hire.” The only place in the entire Bible where the last words are found, is Luke 10: 7. Finally we call attention to II Peter 3:15, 16, where the apostle says: ”. . . even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, unto their own destruction.” Here we find that the writings of Paul are placed on a level with other inspired writings, which Peter calls, “the other Scriptures.” There is good reason to believe that this expression refers to the books of the Old Testament, and to those of the New Testament that were already composed, when Peter wrote his second epistle, among which we may also reckon the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

5. The fact that the early Church from the very beginning accepted these Gospels as canonical, is also a proof of their inspired character, for in it the communal consciousness of the Church expressed itself in regard to these writings; and it is said of believers in their corporate existence that they, taught by the Holy Ghost, know all things. Dean Alford says: “The apostles being raised up for the special purpose of witnessing to the gospel history,—and these memoirs having been universally received in the early Church as embodying that their testimony, I see no escape left from the inference that they come to us with inspired authority. The Greek Testament, Vol. I, Prolegomena Section VI.

6. Finally the Holy Spirit testifies in the heart of every believer to the divine character of the Gospels, so that they feel assured that these writings contain the veryWord of God. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit they realize that these Gospels too minister to the deepest needs of their spiritual life, they realize their infinite value, marvel at their exquisite beauty and find in them ever increasingly the words of everlasting life. Thus they cannot but speak their “Amen” to the contents of these books.


The Gospels are of course, closely related to the Old Testament Scriptures. They describe in a vivid manner the initial stage of the fulness of time, showing how all the prophecies that pointed to Christ and to a new and more spiritual dispensation began to be fulfilled. Rather than enlarge on this relation, however, we shall here briefly describe the peculiar function of the Gospels in the New Testament revelation. These writings are related to the rest of the New Testament, as the Pentateuch is to the following books of the Old Testament. Both are of a fundamental character, laying foundations on which an imposing superstructure is raised. In the case of the Gospels this is clearly indicated by the opening words of Luke in the Acts of the Apostles: “The former treatise have I written, Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and to teach.” In this passage the word ἤρξατο is not pleonastic, as was held by some, but emphatic. According to this word the Gospel contained the narrative only of what Jesus began to do and to teach, which would prove to be the solid foundation and the germinating principle of all that He would continue to do on earth (through His apostles) and in heaven. The Gospels mark but an initial stage in New Testament revelation; they lack finality.

The form, the method and the substance of Christs teaching in the Gospels,—it all bears the stamp of an incipient stage. Everyone that reads the Gospels and compares them with the epistles is struck by the simple manner in which Christ presents his teachings to the multitude. He gave his instruction primarily in the form of parables and proverbial sayings. Now it is the essence of proverbial speech that it detaches itself from particular occasions, and is therefore best adapted to the expression of general fundamental truths. Because parables and proverbs set forth the truth in a lively and concrete way, they were very appropriate in teaching those that were just initiated in the spiritual truths of the new dispensation. Since they generally disclose the truth but partially, they stimulate the spirit of inquiry. A very suitable way of instructing beginners indeed! We notice that the disciples gradually longed for a different form of instruction, and towards the end of his life Christ says to them: “These things have I spoken unto you in proverbs, but the time cometh, when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall show you plainly of the Father.” John 16:25.—The method of Jesus’ work points to the same general conclusion. His teaching has a fragmentary character. He speaks a word here and a word there, discourses now with this person and then with that one, just as a missionary among the gentiles is apt to do, expressing the deepest truths in a sporadic way. Important doctrines were thus uttered without any attempt to relate them to other truths. All this is in perfect harmony with the initial character of Christ’s work.—The contents of Christs teaching also are primitive and fundamental. Many of the most important truths are indeed taught in the Gospels, but they are not elaborated, nor set forth in all their significance, as f. i. the doctrine of the atonement, of justification by faith, of the forgiveness of sins, of the Kingship of Christ, etc. Other truths were suppressed, because, as the Lord himself says, even the best of his hearers were not yet able to bear them, John 16:12. The works of Christ were also initiatory. His miracles contained within them. the promise of still greater works in the future. He says to his disciples: “He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also, and greater works than these shall he-do, because I go unto my Father,” John 14:12.

Now the writers of the Gospels simply narrated this initial work of Christ, as they remembered it. They do not make mention of the greater works that followed after Christ had gone to heaven, nor do they (except in very rare instances) reflect on or seek to interpret the life and teachings of the Saviour. This remains to be done in later writings.