Introduction to the Gospels and Acts


Introduction to the Gospels and Acts


Introduction to the Gospels and Acts

Historical Background

Herod the Great, who died soon after the birth of Jesus, had designated his son Archelaus to succeed him as ruler of Judea and Samaria (Matt. 2:19-22). Having inherited the faults of his father and none of his virtues, Archelaus was banished within ten years. As a result, Judea and Samaria came under the direct rule of Rome through a series of governors or prefects (later known as "procurators"), including Pontius Pilate, who held that position during the ministry of Jesus.

Herod had granted the provinces of Galilee (where Jesus spent most of his life and ministry) and Perea to another son, Herod Antipas, who is mentioned briefly in the Gospels (e.g., Matt. 14:1-12; Luke 23:6-15). Antipas' reign was lengthy, but in A.D. 39 a grandson of Herod the Great named Herod Agrippa succeeded in having Antipas banished and took over Galilee and Perea. Two years later his childhood friend Claudius, then the Roman Emperor, made him king of Judea and Samaria as well. Agrippa was well loved by the Jews, but his reign was short. Having persecuted some of the apostles, and after receiving adulation as though he were a god, he died in A.D. 44 (Acts 12:1-4, 19-23).

At that time, the land reverted back to Roman governors, though Agrippa II was given rule over a small portion (Acts 25:13-26:32). The tensions between Jews and Romans became severe during this period and led eventually to a revolt in A.D. 66. This war proved disastrous for the Jewish nation, and Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70.

The Character of New Testament Narrative

Apart from the Pentateuch, the major historical books of the Old Testament (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings) are called the "Former Prophets" in Jewish tradition. Their primary purpose was to serve, not as national archives, but as prophetic messages of rebuke and comfort. Similarly, the Gospels and Acts do not provide us with all of the historical details that might interest modern readers, nor can they rightly be called biographies of Jesus or the apostles. Rather, they record events that have been selected and arranged to present the message of the gospel.

When reading New Testament narratives, therefore, we should make a special effort to determine why events were included, described and arranged they were. Details that may seem insignificant at first sight (e.g., Paul's vow recorded in Acts 18:18) may subsequently prove quite important (Acts 21:20-24). Similarly, when an event in Jesus' life is recounted by more than one Gospel, we can discern more of its significance by reading the perspective of each account.

The Synoptic Problem

Even a quick reading of the four Gospels reveals that three of them (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are very much alike, especially when contrasted with John. With a few important exceptions, the events included in John (e.g., John 3, 9, 11, 14) do not appear in the first three Gospels. For these reasons, the first three Gospels are often referred to as the "Synoptics" (having one point of view).

A more detailed comparison, however, reveals differences as well as similarities among the Synoptics. Sometimes the material recorded is exactly the same; other times there are verbal differences. In some cases the order of events is the same, but often it is not. From a literary point of view, these facts create a problem. How did these Gospels originate? Did their authors make use of each other's work? Did they draw on other materials?

The most common answer to these questions is that Mark was the first Gospel to be written and that Matthew and Luke followed its basic outline (Mark 2:1-22; cf. Matt. 9:2-17; Luke 5:18-38). But Matthew and Luke have in common some important material not found at all in Mark (e.g., Matt. 7:24-27; Luke 6:47-49), so scholars suppose that a second document, no longer extant, was used by these two writers. This solution is known as the "Two Source Theory." In addition, Matthew and Luke clearly each had access to much information found only in their respective Gospels.

This proposal cannot account for all the facts, and so alternate theories have been suggested. Some argue for the priority of Matthew rather than Mark; a few suggest instead that Luke was written first. A number of scholars place much emphasis on the oral tradition that must have preceded the writing of these documents and downplay their literary interdependence. Most New Testament specialists continue to use the Two Source approach as a working hypothesis but recognize that many questions remain unanswered.

Although many questions remain unresolved in the study of the gospels, our confidence in the truth of the gospels should not rest on the ability of specialists to sort out literary developments, but on divine inspiration (2 Tim. 3:16-17). See WCF 1.5, BC 5.

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Related Resources:

Overview of the Book of Matthew
Overview of the Book of Mark
Overview of the Book of Luke
Overview of the Book of John
Overview of the Book of Acts

Articles on Gospels and Acts
Q&A on Gospels and Acts
Sermons on Gospels and Acts


Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.