Jews and Christians living at the time the gospels were written believed that the end of history was at hand, that God would very soon come to punish their enemies and establish his own rule, and that they were at the center of his plans. The gospels were written to confirm the identity of Jesus as the deliverer who would appear at the end of the age to usher in a new kingdom – hence the use of terms such as Messiah, Son of Man, and Son of God to refer to Jesus. In the Old Testament the term messiah, meaning “anointed one”, described prophets, priests and kings, but by the time of Jesus, it had come to mean an eschatological king. (Eschatology means the study of the end-times.) The term “Son of Man” has its roots in Ezekiel and Daniel, where the Son of Man is assigned royal roles of dominion, kingship and glory. Early Christians expected Jesus to return as Messiah in their own lifetime; when he did not, they had to adjust their expectations.
I hope you have read the books of the OT prophets; if not, you’ll be looking them up as we go. There are lots of references to them in the gospels, because the gospel writers wanted to associate Jesus with the fulfillment of these old prophesies. In fact, some scholars go so far as to claim that the gospels were actually created around these OT prophesies. (And although I am no scholar, I agree.)
The three synoptic gospels – Mark, Matthew, and Luke – tell the story (synopsis) of the life of Jesus. Mark is second in the bible because it was originally thought to be an abridgement, or ‘highlights’ of Matthew. However, this is now believed not to be the case; it was actually written first. I have decided to read the 4 gospels in the order they were written because it’s easier to see the relationships between them this way. A diagram will help visualize this – for example, only 3% of Mark is unique and much of its content is common to all 3 gospels. Obviously, Matthew and Luke used Mark’s writing and then added to and embellished it. (Matthew dates to around 80-90 CE and Luke to 80-100 CE, although all dates are estimates.) In addition to noting the common material, the other trend to watch for throughout the 4 gospels is the increasing sophistication and divinity of Jesus – similar to the way a trophy fish gets bigger each time the fisherman retells the story of his catch.
Mark is the most basic of the four gospels. Its unknown author wrote in Greek, for a gentile audience, likely around 66-70 CE during Nero’s persecution of the Christians in Rome or the Jewish revolt. It’s the shortest gospel and does not include any genealogy or birth narrative for Jesus, nor, in the original ending at chapter 16, any post-resurrection appearances. About a third of it consists of accounts of miracles and healings; however, unlike the other gospels, the miracles in Mark are described more like magic tricks than evidence for God. Its earliest complete manuscripts date from the 4th century, and end, at 16:8, with the discovery of the empty tomb. But almost all bibles now have the “longer ending” (16:9–20), with accounts of the resurrection and ascension, possibly written in the early 2nd century.
The author of Matthew was probably a Jew familiar with the legal aspects of scripture. He wrote in polished Greek, drawing on 3 sources – Mark, the unknown source referred to by scholars as “Q”, and some source unique to his own community. It’s Matthew who connects Jesus’ divinity to OT prophesy and places added emphasis on Jesus’ teachings.
Here is a map that might help locate the places mentioned in the gospels.