The Gospels are one of the centerpieces of Christian worship.  If you attended the Byzantine Divine Liturgy every day, you would hear the Gospels proclaimed in their entirety.  All four Gospels were composed in Greek and were attributed to men close to Jesus during their lives. They were all written in the First Century A. D. after many of the Letters of St Paul, which are the earliest books in the New Testament. 

The Gospel of Matthew is the first Gospel in the Bible and is traditionally attributed to the Apostle Matthew, the former tax collector.  While it is the first Gospel in the New Testament, most scholars now believe this Gospel was in fact the second written.   This is known at the so-called “Q” hypothesis and scholars believed these passages came from another, lost gospel named Q, after the German word Quelle, or Source.   Scholars noticed the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew contained much of the same material as the Gospel of Mark.  They also contained other similar passages that were identical but were not contained in Mark.   These were sayings of Jesus.   Finally, the third part of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew was unique to each Luke and Matthew.  Therefore, Matthew had three sources under the Q theory:  Mark, Q, and Matthew’s unique material.  Luke had three sources as well: Mark, Q, and Luke’s unique material.  The second, much more ancient theory held Matthew was written in Aramaic and then translated to Greek later.  Currently, that is the minority opinion amongst scholars and theologians. Matthew is concerned with connecting Jewish prophecy to Jesus.   His symbol is the ox—easy to remember since this was an animal of sacrifice under the Jewish Law.   The Gospel of Matthew is read after Pentecost until September 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross in Byzantine churches.

The Gospel of Mark is the second Gospel in the Bible but was most certainly the first written.  He was the traveling partner of Saint Peter. This is the shortest Gospel and the most dramatic.  Mark often makes use of the word “immediately”, showing continuity of action. The Gospel of Mark begins with Saint John the Baptist coming out of the desert and preaching.   The symbol of the Evangelist Mark is the   lion because Saint John comes out of the desert, roaring like a lion as he preaches about Jesus. (It is hard to imagine lions in the desert, but there were indeed many lions located in the desert at that time.  In fact, a Roman Emperor once had the idea of populating the desert with more lions as a way of policing the imperial borders in that area.)  The Gospel of Mark has two endings; the first, original ending is that of the women running from the tomb, being scared.  The remaining part of the Gospel was added later. Eventually, this ending was declared canonical by the Church.   For centuries, the Gospel of Mark was underappreciated.  Recently, form critics have reevaluated this Gospel as being a great piece of literature.  This Gospel focuses on the question of who you think Jesus is.  Under this premise, the original ending of Mark was a dramatic masterpiece.  The Gospel of Mark is read during Lent in the Byzantine rite.

The Gospel of Luke was the third Gospel written.  Luke was the traveling partner of Paul and thought to be a physician. This Gospel has been called the most beautiful book ever written as it contains the parables of Jesus we are most familiar with, including the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. The Gospel of St. Luke is read in the Byzantine Church after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross until the Great Fast.  The symbol of St. Luke is a man reminding us Gospel of Luke is the most humane of the Gospels.   Luke is read from the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross until the Great Lent.  

The Gospel of John is the fourth Gospel in the Bible.  It was certainly the last Gospel written and in many ways is much different than the other Gospels. Scholars believe this gospel could be a supplement to the earlier gospels or could have originated from another source.  The Gospel of John has an extremely high Christology (belief in the divinity of Jesus) so it is very easy to remember the symbol of St. John, an eagle.  His writing and theology soar like that of an eagle.  The Gospel is well known for its Prologue (In the Beginning was the Word…) which plainly speaks about the divinity of Jesus, and the seven famous “I am” statements by Jesus.  There is no nativity narrative, like the Gospel of Mark.   The Gospel of John is read in the Byzantine Church during the period of Pascha (Easter).  The Prologue is read on Easter, where it is proclaimed in as many languages as possible.

There were many other Gospels that were not included in the canon of the New Testament.  These were rejected because they failed the basic requirement of inclusion in the Bible; they had to be accepted at all ties, at all places, by all people.  We will discuss the three most interesting of these.  

The Protogospel of James has a special place of honor in the Byzantine world. Though it is not part of the Bible, it was considered so in any parts of the East.  Any of the Traditions about the Theotokos come from this book.  Among these are the traditions associated with the birth of the Theotokos and her Entrance into the Temple.  This is the Gospel that explains the brothers of Jesus were sons of Saint Joseph from a previous marriage.   While this Gospel was highly venerated in the East, Saint Jerome, the great translator of the Bible into Latin, did not think much of this Gospel. Hence, it was never very popular in the Western Church.  The Western Church regards the brothers of Jesus as cousins of Jesus rather than stepbrothers. 

The Gospel of Peter has fascinated scholars for a long time. The modern biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossan believes it contains an authentic witness to the trial of Jesus.  This gospel was accepted for many years in the East but was rejected for just one line.  The gospel implies in one sentence that Jesus did not suffer on the Cross, so it was deemed to be Docetic (a heresy that Jesus did not suffer on the Cross).  Orthodox Christianity believes Jesus did suffer for our sins.

The Gospel of Thomas has also fascinated scholars as this is a so called “sayings Gospel”.  There is no narrative and the Gospel contains only sayings of Jesus.  Scholars are divided over the date the Gospel was written, with many scholars believing it was written as early as the canonical Gospels, and other scholars thinking it was much later.  Q, which was discussed earlier is thought to be another “sayings gospel”.  

There were many other Gospels, including the Gospel of Judas that was recently discovered.   All of these were thought to have been written much later and therefore failed the inclusion test.