The Modern Reader's Guide to the Gospels
by William Hamilton


Matthew and Luke are treated together as a single story. In so doing, some sacrifice of completeness has been made, but by this means the reader will be able to understand that both these writers have a single purpose: to declare the meaning and content of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This section includes a number of references to Mark's gospel, and though it is not necessary that a study of Mark be made prior to this study, the reader may want at another time to look carefully at Mark, for both Matthew and Luke depend heavily on it.

Mark was the earliest gospel; it appeared sometime between AD. 65 and 70. Shortly after, two new gospels appeared: Luke, probably written for the church in Rome in the 80's or 90's; and Matthew, written in Syria, perhaps Antioch, between 90 and 100.

As you go through Matthew and Luke, you can see that they both make ample use of Mark. Long passages are taken over almost verbatim, others are used only slightly revised, and Mark's order is usually followed. Matthew and Luke, however, have access to a collection of Jesus' teachings not found in Mark. This collection is called the "Q" source. And, in addition, Matthew and Luke each has a body of material which the author of the gospel has collected himself, used only by him, called respectively "M" and "L" by scholars. If you imagine Matthew or Luke sitting down to compile his gospel, he will have Mark before him; he will be using a document or collection of early church notes on Jesus' teaching; and he will have his own independently collected source.

Luke's gospel is the first volume of a two-volume work (Acts being the second) addressed to a certain Roman official named Theophilus (Luke 1:3). He may have been a pagan interested in Christianity for its own sake; or be may have been an official involved in the persecutions of the Christians. We can be fairly certain that the author was the Luke mentioned by Paul as a physician and as one of his early associates (Colossians 4:14, Philernon 24).

There are some special characteristics that distinguish Luke. He is anxious to prove that Christianity is not dangerous to the state, and he shows this by proving that Christianity is the true successor to the synagogue, deserving of the protection that the Romans offered to Judaism. Luke stresses the universal claims of Christianity, its absence of racial limitations. In the life of Jesus, he underlines a number of things that Mark merely notes: the importance of prayer in Jesus' life; the proper use of wealth; sympathy for the poor. Luke, like Matthew, takes Mark as a basis. He adds extra material on Jesus' birth and resurrection, and he includes far more material on Jesus' teaching ministry. He is the most skillful writer among the authors of the synoptics, and the most responsible historian of the three.

It is generally agreed that the author of the Gospel according to Matthew is not the Matthew who was the disciple of Jesus. It would be hard to understand why a disciple and an eyewitness would be so dependent on Mark, who was not an eyewitness.

The one fact that is important to notice about Matthew's gospel is its strong emphasis on Christianity as a new law. Matthew seems directed to Jews or to recently converted ex-Jews, showing them that Christianity is the true fulfillment of the Jewish religion. Matthew again and again points out places in the New Testament story that can be seen as fulfillments of the Old Testament. The Sermon on the Mount begins with the beatitudes, and we recall the earlier ten commandments, also delivered from a mountain. The division of Matthew into five sections, each beginning with a distinctive discourse of Jesus, suggests a new version of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.

But this attempt to relate Christianity to the old law had very practical value. There is evidence that the Christian freedom that Paul had defended was beginning to degenerate into lawlessness and complacency. Jewish persecution of the Christians had begun alongside the Roman, and everything pointed to the need to see the new covenant as a fulfillment of the old, to stress the new righteousness as not less but more demanding than the old. So in Matthew w can see the struggling church beginning to live its life of discipline and danger in a hostile world. To Mark's message of a new Gospel of salvation, Matthew adds the further emphases on the new law and the new community of believers.

Let us now turn to the contents of the two gospels. The events they describe are claimed by Christians to be not only human occurrences, but also, taken together, a single drama that is God's gift of salvation to man. But we dare not claim that they mean this to us until we have observed, as carefully as we can, what they meant to the participants and to the authors.