It sounds like the beginning of a bar joke, but it’s actually the guys who wrote the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Each of these authors brings a different perspective to their record of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. While you don’t need to know their different perspectives, understanding the point of view from which each wrote will enrich your reading and understanding of the Bible.
Matthew was a Jewish tax-collector. His original name was “Levi,” which is about as Jewish a name as you can find. The name “Matthew” means gift of God. It is possible that Levi changed his name as part of becoming Jesus’ disciple and ultimately one of his Apostles.
The Gospel of Matthew is written with a Jewish audience in mind. Matthew writes to convince his readers that Jesus is in the promised Messiah of the Old Testament. He begins with the genealogy of Jesus of Nazareth to demonstrate that he is of the appropriate lineage. Matthew makes frequent reference to prophetic fulfillment and uses the phrase, “Kingdom of Heaven,” which assumes a Jewish worldview.
So when you read the Gospel according to Matthew, keep in mind that you are not his target audience. He writes assuming Jewish knowledge that you likely do not have at your fingertips.
I call Mark the “teenager” because he was likely a young man when he heard Jesus preaching. The Gospel account that bears his name is written in a very rapid-fire style. Mark frequently tells us that Jesus did something “immediately.” It’s the kind of rush-rush you might expect from a younger man. He wrote succinctly and to the point.
Mark is a Latin name. Mark was also called John, a Jewish name. Sometimes he was called, unsurprisingly, John Mark. Mark is a young man who is used to crossing the cultural divide between Jews and Romans. He takes time to explain Jewish customs in his Gospel.
He was probably not so young by the time he composed his Gospel, but the simple language and quick movement of his writing are part of what set Mark apart.
So when you read the Gospel according to Mark, keep in mind that this is newspaper-style and newspaper-level writing. It’s quick and to the point. Other Gospel authors flesh things out more completely.
A doctor is a trained observer. Dr. Luke’s vocation may help explain why he felt compelled to write his account of Jesus (and the subsequent growth of the church in the bo0k of Acts). Luke begins his Gospel by saying that because other people had been writing about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (implied: not always accurately), he felt compelled to write an orderly account of what happened in order that people mind know with certainty what took place.
Of the four Gospels, Luke is closest to what people currently think of as writing history. He writes carefully. He tends not to embellish and interpret. He records what happened and what Jesus said. People who know say that Luke is the highest of the four Gospels in terms of literary style.
Luke was not an Apostle. When you read Luke (and Acts), be aware that you are reading history carefully researched and written by an observer and man of science (such as ‘science’ was at that time).
This is going to be disconcerting to some, but John appears to place less emphasis on factually recording the history of Jesus than the other Gospel writers. Perhaps this is because there are several accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection already circulating. John wants us to see the big picture. He wants us to never forget the movement of the hand and Spirit of God in the midst of the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth.
John is not afraid of applying abstract philosophical concepts to help us get a better hold on what was happening when this baby was born, grew up, died, and rose again. He calls Jesus the “logos” of God, a philosophical term that indicates the thing, the central matter or idea. John includes 7 miracles of Jesus, calling them “signs,” to indicate that they show Jesus’ divinity. John may have felt no reservations about reordering the events of Jesus’ life to build his case. His ultimate goal was that we may “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (Jn 20:31).
So when you read John, dig deep. The Gospel according to John is an onion to be peeled apart layer by layer.
So, a Jew, a teenager, a scientist and a mystic walk into a bar. The bar tender looks up, sees who just came in, and shouts, “It must be Good News!” Ha! I know that’s a bad joke.
It’s a real blessing to have the account of Jesus written from four distinct perspectives. One of them may have more resonance with your soul. Seeing Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as real people writing from their own perspectives, none of which is the modern perspective, will enrich your Bible reading and understanding.