Gospels and Church History

Intertestamental Period (About 400 Years)

Major changes from the Old and New Testament are political, cultural, geographical, and religious. Israel becomes Palestine, ruled by the Romans instead of the Persians, with a large Greek influence. The land of Palestine is divided up into five major sections instead of the divided kingdom to the north and south. Several religious groups exist in the New Testament that did not exist in the Old Testament because of the exile and other historical developments.

The Persian Period (430-332 BC)
Judah is a Persian province at the end of the Old Testament, around 430 BC. King Cyrus allows the people to return to Jerusalem in 536 BC. The Persians treated the Jews fairly well.

The Greek Period (331-167 BC)
Although the Greeks had been around probably since the times of the Judges, they rose to power and began amassing an empire to Alexander the Great, a young Prince who became a great general. At the age of 20, he began to conquer the world and make a great empire. But he did not move everyone around in the Empire as previous emperors did.

Alexander sought to bring a lasting vision of the Greek empire to reality. Instead of moving everyone around, he taught everyone Greek culture and language. This common Greek language was easier than ancient Greek, called Koine Greek (common Greek). It became the lingua franca, the language of commerce, communication, and community, like English today.

Greek culture was so ingrained in the Greek empire that when the Romans took it over years later, they left Greek culture in place rather than try to get everyone to switch to Roman culture. At the time of Jesus, Common Greek is still the language of the day for commerce and communication. That’s why the New Testament is written in Greek. It was easy to spread the gospel message with one language throughout the Roman Empire.

He also influenced cultures around the Empire with Greek culture, art, philosophy, and even athletics. That’s why the Olympics are still a world-binding event today. These changes also took root in Palestine. The Jews were greatly affected by the Greek culture, it’s spread and influence called Hellenism. Some of the Jews with outright reject it while others would incorporate it. This is how we get some of the political and religious leadership we see in the Gospels.

Alexander showed great kindness to the Jews when he took over Palestine. But he offered for many of them to go to Alexandria in Egypt and a number of them went. They would later be responsible for the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures used in Jesus’ day.

But Alexander’s reign was short-lived, dying at age 33. He left behind a mighty empire and four generals who divided it up between themselves. Two of them impacted Palestine. The general Ptolemy ruled Egypt and was peaceful toward the Jews.

The Seleucids began in Syria with tolerance toward the Jews until Antiochus IV Epiphanes was frustrated by the Jews’ refusal to fully adopt Greek culture. He went into the Jerusalem Temple and sacrificed a pig on the altar (sacrilege to the Jews) and directed a statue of Zeus in the Temple. He was the first to partially fulfill Daniel’s prophetic vision of the “abomination of desolation.”

The Maccabean (Hasmonian) Period (167-63 BC)
A man named Mattathias was so infuriated by Antiochus IV that he raised an army. He had five warlike sons. When he died, his son, Judas Maccabeus, was named, “The Hammer” and captured the city of Jerusalem 165 BC. He purified and we dedicated the Temple. The whole family ruled today after 100 years in peace and independent from rule by outsiders.

The Roman Period (63 BC-636 AD)
When there was a dispute in Jerusalem as to which of two high priests should be elected, the Roman general Pompey settled it by making Palestine part of the Roman Empire. The line of the Herod’s began their rule. The King Herod we know from the account of Jesus’ birth (who killed children in Bethlehem) was the second in this line.

He expanded the Temple Mount and build on to the Temple so it was larger even then in the days of Solomon. But he was a brutal and ruthless man. He had his wife and three of his sons killed to maintain his throne. The high priest was no longer a direct descendent of Aaron, but elected by other priests or placed as head of the Sanhedrin (Israel’s religious court) by the Romans.

Geographical Changes
Palestine at the end of the Old Testament was a Persian province. It became a Roman province by the time of Christ. It was divided into Galilee in the north, Samaria in the center, and Judah in the south.

Galilee was resettled by pagan immigrants (Galilee of the Gentiles). This is where Jesus did most of His ministry. Samaria was full of half breeds (half Jewish and half Gentile), and was not socially acceptable to the Jews. Judah in the south was much like Judah at the end of the Old Testament. It still had Jerusalem and the Temple.

Many Jews chose to stay in the nations the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians migrated them to. They are called the Diaspora, meaning “scattered ones.” These visited Jerusalem for some of the feasts and festivals as required by Jewish law. They are there on the Day of Pentecost, showing how dispersed they were throughout the Roman Empire.

Religious Changes

  • The Pharisees. The liberal group of the bunch. They believed in all 39 books of the Old Testament as authoritative. They had teachers who went out among the people, especially in the synagogues, and taught about the Word of God. Jesus was closest to them in religious philosophy. But He was more harsh on them because of their practices and hypocrisy
  • The Sadducees. Stayed near the Temple and taught from there. They did not reach out to people like the Pharisees. They also only trusted the Torah, the first five books, as authoritative. When the Temple fell in 70 AD, the Sadducees died out for lack of a place to worship and sacrifice animals.
  • Teachers of the Law (Scribes). They were people who copied the Scriptures, but beginning in the Babylonian exile, they became religious leaders and authorities on the Scriptures. They added to the law to defend it, creating a fence around it that actually violated it.
  • The Priests. During the Maccabean Period, the high priest was both religious and political leader. The high priest in Jesus’ day was usually placed by the Romans, not even elected by other priests. We don’t know exactly where the chief priests come into play that the Gospels mention.
  • Rabbis. A rabbi was considered a great one, a great teacher, in Israel. They usually came from the Pharisees. The people looked to them to teach the Scriptures. Each rabbi had his own “yoke,” his rule for understanding the Scriptures. When Jesus talks about His yoke being easy, He is referring to His rule for how to understand the Scriptures, the Kingdom of God.
  • The Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin is the religious ruling class of Israel. They heard matters in a court of religion. Anyone who is not following the lead of the high priest and priests would be taken before the Sanhedrin for religious judgment. They had no political power to punish people with the prescriptions of the law, such as stoning. That’s why they had to get the Romans to crucify Jesus.
  • Synagogues. Beginning in the Babylonian exile after the Jerusalem Temple was sacked and looted, the Jews in foreign lands replaced sacrifice of animals with zealously studying the Scriptures. They built synagogues as places of worship. The Church used the same worship forms in their gatherings. Even when they returned and rebuilt the Temple, synagogues still appear in the Gospels and in Palestine. They still use synagogues today.
  • Zealots. A political party that wanted to get rid of the Romans no matter what. Simon the zealot, one of Jesus’ disciples, may have been part of this party. Judas Iscariot (Jesus’ betrayer) may have been named as part of a statement of zealots who used a siccari (a thin sword almost like a dagger) to kill Romans and Roman collaborators.
  • Herodians. A political group that often sided with the Romans like King Herod did. They were Roman collaborators who believed in Roman culture and principles.

New Testament Canon

Written by nine different people, the New Testament Canon spends about 40 years from the late 40s AD to around 95 AD. It has Gospels, Church history, Paul’s letters, the general letters written by various writers, and the prophecy of Revelation. The epistles (letters) serve as commentary on the Gospels and Acts.

The New Testament Canon contains many literary genres and helps to interpret the Old Testament. A strong understanding of the Old Testament will be very useful to the reader of the New Testament. These books are written so that we might understand Jesus’ life, ministry, death and burial, and resurrection. These books guide a person to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament.

Writers of the New Testament
Paul (13 Books)John (5 Books)Peter (2 Books)
Luke (2 Books)MatthewMark
Writer of HebrewsJamesJude

Cannon Arrangement
The New Testament Canon has five sections. The first contains the Gospels, a biographical collection concerning the life, ministry, death and burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The following book of Acts describes the history of the Church in the first century. The third section contains the Pauline Epistles, written during his ministry as a missionary to the Gentiles. The fourth section contains the General Epistles written by several writers. The final section has New Testament prophecy in the book of Revelation.

Much scholarly debate centers around dating the New Testament books and their inclusion in the Canon. I have a series of articles on my website concerning the origins of the Old Testament and New Testament Cannons. It goes into much more detail than we can here. We take by faith the inspiration of Scripture by the Holy Spirit. But we have a lot of historical and scientific data that backs it up. No other book in human history has the interconnectedness of its books like the Bible.

Gospels (4 Books)

Four witnesses join together from different perspectives to testify to the life, teachings, death and burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All four witnesses come from eyewitness accounts and apostolic authority. They recount the historical accounts of Jesus' time on earth.

Gospel is a unique literary genre. It comes from old English Godspell, “good news,” from the Greek euangelion. It comes from the Old Testament idea of the good news of the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One of God to save His people. The evangelists, the writers of the New Testament, proclaim the good news of God’s salvation through Jesus the Messiah.

Gospels are historical theological narratives. They have historical accounts of Jesus’ life. They are theological, telling parts of the story with a purpose in mind to their individual audiences. And they are narratives, taking story form to tell the historical accounts, having the elements of story from plot two characters to setting.

Each Gospel has a different audience and theme about Jesus. The first three, called the Synoptic Gospels, are similar in the accounts and wording of Christ’s story. The Gospel of John written last in the Gospels, focuses on Christ from a different historical perspective Tell Christ's life story in the same veins while John, writing later in history.

Scholars debate about which of the Synoptic Gospels came first, and whether they are using the material from other Gospels because they are so similar. This is called the Synoptic Problem. It is not a problem, but a puzzle to some. Most believe Mark was written first, and Matthew and Luke are using some of its material. But they expand on it for their own audiences and historical situations.

Critical scholarship (liberal scholars) suggests a common document of Jesus’ historical sayings and events, called the “Q Document.” They disagree that the apostles and their eyewitness accounts could remember everything recorded in the Gospels so similarly. The reason I disagree with this idea is that the Aramaic (similar to Hebrew) Jesus spoke in makes the teachings memorable to their hearers. His teaching and life left the biggest impact on them.

The Gospels have several subgenres, including parables, miracle and healing narratives, didactic so I keep in mind that you read and study (teaching) material, passion narratives (crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus), and passages of divinity like the baptism and Transfiguration of Jesus.

Why four Gospels instead of just one? The historical reason is that each gospel has a different community and situation to address. Believers in each community where facing different circumstances and needed to hear about Jesus in their situation. The theological reason is that they give us different perspectives of the same Jesus. This provides a richer, fuller vision and understanding of who Jesus is.

Church History (Acts)

Acts gives us the history of the Church as it begins. Luke, who wrote the companion volume in the third gospel, now shows us how the Church fulfilled the same ministry that Christ engaged in while He was on earth. Luke does not attempt to tell us everything that happened and when it happened, but focuses on historical accounts that help us understand the theology of how the Church effectively perpetuated the gospel about Jesus.

Although Paul wrote the most books in the New Testament, the content of Luke’s writing between the Gospel of Luke and Acts is the largest amount of text among individual writers. Church history outlines the birth of the Church after Christ’s ascension, its spread across the ancient world, and the barriers broken by the Gospel.

Most of the letters written in the New Testament from the Pauline epistles to the general epistles were written within the timeframe of the book of Acts. Scholars can trace the writings to the places and times they were written during the missionary journeys.


Author: Matthew
Date: 50s AD
Purpose: To show Jesus as the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament to the Jewish people.
Key People: Jesus, John the Baptist, disciples, Pharisees, Pontius Pilate
Key Passages: Matthew 5:13-16; 6:33; 28:18-20


I. Jesus’ Genealogy and Birth (1-2)
II. John the Baptist’s Ministry and Jesus’ Preparation (3-4:11)
III. Jesus’ Teachings, Miracles, and a Public Ministry (4:12-18)
IV. Jesus Goes from Galilee to Jerusalem (19-20)
V. The Passion of Jesus (21-27)
VI. Jesus’ Resurrection and Commission to His Disciples (28)


Written by one of Jesus’ disciples, Matthew (Levi), the tax collector organizes the book as an evangelistic Gospel aimed toward the audience of unbelieving Jews. His theme is that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament Scriptures. He has more references to prophecies and the prophets than any other gospel.

Theologically, Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, and Matthew builds a typological image of Jesus as the new Moses who brings a new perspective to the law and is the new Israel. Matthew thinks as a tax collector, organizing the book in neat categories. He puts all the miracles together, the parables together, Jesus’ teaching subjects together, and so forth.


Author: John Mark
Date: 57-59 AD
Purpose: To show Jesus is the obedient suffering Servant, the Son of God.
Key People: Jesus, John the Baptist, disciples, Pharisees, Pontius Pilate
Key Passages: Mark 8:34-37; 10:45


I. The Beginning of Jesus’ Ministry (1:1-20)
II. Jesus’ Public Ministry in Galilee (1:21-6:29)
III. Jesus Withdraws from Galilee (6:30-9)
IV. Jesus’ Ministry in Perea (10)
V. The Passion of Jesus (11-15) VI. Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension (16)


Most scholars believe Mark is the first Gospel written. Mark focuses on the audience of the Romans and unbelieving Gentiles. The book contains a heroic flavor where Jesus challenges everything from the unyielding wilderness to the unknowledgeable Jewish religious leaders. Jesus takes on every facet of society with the strength of a hero. Mark’s theme is on suffering and persecution, for Jesus is ultimately headed to the Cross.

stopWritten by John Mark. He is the same person Paul rejected on a missionary journey for turning away instead of following Barnabas and Paul. He was later reconciled to Paul. He might have written his Gospel under Peter’s direction and with Peter’s eyewitness accounts.

Theologically, Mark presents Jesus as the suffering Messiah and Servant of the Lord from Isaiah 53. Jesus is the mighty Messiah and hero of the Gospel, but His mission is to suffer and die for the sins of the people (Mark 10:45).

Mark covers Jesus’ ministry from His baptism by John the Baptist until His resurrection and includes a final section challenging Christians to minister in the Spirit of Jesus. It is the shortest of the four Gospels.


Author: Luke
Date: 58-60 AD
Purpose: To show Jesus is God’s Anointed One for the whole world and came to save anyone who believes in Him.
Key People: Jesus, John the Baptist, disciples, Pharisees, Pontius Pilate
Key Passages: Luke 1:3-4; 4:20-21


I. Luke’s Introduction (1:1-4)
II. Jesus Prepares for Ministry (1:5-4:13)
III. Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (4:14-9:50)
IV. Jesus’ ministry in Perea (9:51-19:28)
V. Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection (19:29-24)


Luke is a Gentile doctor who travels with Paul in the book of Acts. He tells his reader that he took great pains to present historically accurate material about Jesus, probably using apostolic eyewitness accounts. His theme is the inclusion of Jesus for everybody.

Luke is the first of two volumes. The Gospel of Luke focuses on the ministry of Jesus until His ascension while the second volume (Acts) focuses on the Church continuing Jesus’ ministry as His body on earth until He returns.

Theologically, Jesus is the Messiah but also the Savior of all people. No matter their social or political status, Jesus reaches out to them. Jesus is God’s love for the lost and the outcasts of society. Luke’s theological niche is the inclusion of women, the poor and outcast, Gentiles, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the most episodes of Jesus’ healing and deliverance ministry. Luke outlines his book according to a historical approach that follows each event as it happened in chronological order.


Author: John
Date: 85-90 AD
Purpose: To give evidence for the unbeliever to believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have eternal life.
Key People: Jesus, John the Baptist, disciples, Pharisees, Pontius Pilate
Key Passages: John 3:16; 14:6


I. Prologue (1:1-18)
II. Book of Signs and Statements (1:19-12)
III. Jesus’ Farewell Olivet Discourse (13-17)
IV. Jesus’ Arrest, Trial, and Crucifixion (18-19)
V. Jesus’ Resurrection and Appearances (20-21)


As the last writer of a Gospel, John approaches the life of Jesus differently. After years of seeing the impact of the other three Gospels, John shows the full deity and full humanity of Jesus. He gives us his purpose at the end of his book (John 20:31). Jesus is God’s Son. John’s Gospel adds 90% new material the Synoptic Gospels don’t include.

John shows Jesus’ divinity and humanity in the first half of the book. Through seven signs and seven “I AM” statements, John shows Jesus as divine. In the last half of the book, chapters 13-21, John focuses on Thursday night before Jesus’ death on the Cross through Sunday morning.

He covers Jesus’ speeches to the disciples in the Upper Room, His arrest and trials, His crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection. The final chapter deals with a day after Jesus’ resurrection in which He encourages the apostles to move forward and carry on his ministry.


Author: Luke
Date: 60-65 AD
Purpose: To show the spread of the gospel through the Holy Spirit’s power and the Church.
Key People: Jesus, apostles, Ananias (disciple), Peter, Paul, Stephen
Key Passages: Acts 1:8; 4:12; 16:30-31


Summary Statements
I. Peter, Apostle to the Jews (1-12)
II. Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles (13-28)
I. Gospel Expansion (1:8)
II. Jerusalem (1-7)
III. Judah and Samaria (8-12)
IV. Ends of the Earth (13-28)
I. Jewish Community in Jerusalem (1:1-6:7)
II. Fringes of Judaism (6:8-9:31)
III. Gentiles (9:32-12:24)
IV. Gentile World (12:25-16:5)
V. Europe (16:6-19:20)
VI. Center of Gentiles World in Rome (19:21-28:30)


Acts serves as the second volume to Luke’s Gospel. While his Gospel highlights the ministry of Jesus in His physical body, the book of Acts highlights Jesus’ ministry through the body of Christ, the Church. It shows that the Church advances the gospel in the same power Christ showed during His earthly ministry. The church then continues Jesus’ ministry after his ascension.

Upon receiving the power to witness through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the Church fearlessly moves forward in the same way Jesus did through healing, salvation, and deliverance of evil spirits. We meet several characters, such as Paul, who go on missionary journeys. The gospel expands throughout the world, breaking down ethnic, lingual, and power barriers. The gospel moves geographically from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, and ethnically from Jews to Gentiles.