Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

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5. The Gospels


This chapter should enable the student to

  • identify the basic genre of the Gospels as “ancient biographies” and to offer caveats that prevent such an identification from being misleading or simplistic.
  • describe the key features of five types of material found in the Gospels: parables, miracle stories, pronouncement stories, individual sayings, and narratives of Jesus’s passion and resurrection.
  • summarize what is meant by “the Synoptic Puzzle” (or “Synoptic Problem”) and diagram two important solutions that have been offered for this quandary.
  • report what scholars have proposed concerning the nature and origins of the Q source and indicate why this is significant for New Testament study.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. Advertising the Gospels

For homework, have students “find” (or compose) four images, one to advertise each of the four Gospels. You might introduce this assignment with a look at box 5.1 and the way in which Irenaeus chose to imagine each of the four evangelists (text p. 90). While Irenaeus chose an image from the book of Revelation 4:6–8, on the principle that scripture interprets scripture, encourage students to take a different approach. They might choose an image from the Internet, a magazine, photos, etc., something not originally intended as a biblical image. Using Powell’s characterizations of the four Gospels, students should aim to promote the main idea, theme, or picture of Jesus in each Gospel. Further analysis and application of this advertising or marketing form to the Gospels can help students understand how the Gospels function to “sell” a particular view of Jesus to each audience. Students should (print and) bring the advertisement images to class (or share them digitally for electronic classroom use). In small groups, have students present their findings and say why they chose a particular image to represent and market each Gospel. Then, call the groups back together as a single class. Ask them to do some secondary reflection on what they learned from the exercise. What did they see or hear when listening to another member of the group? Were the characterizations of each Gospel consistent among the group members? Are there common themes that arise in the image choices? Were there concepts or themes that were hard to find expressed in a visual medium?

What does this exercise suggest about the four Gospels? About the tradition in Christianity to canonize four Gospels, instead of one or two?

Have students keep these visual encapsulations of Powell’s presentation of the four Gospels. When students then read the Gospels themselves, they can compare the image of Powell’s interpretation with their own reading of each Gospel assigned.

An alternative exercise is to use music instead of visual images. Ask students to identify the song or band that most embodies or resembles the Gospel writer or characterization of Jesus portrayed. Ask students what they learned during this exercise.


This exercise asks students to do basic analysis on a variety of levels and to apply their analysis to the visual culture in which they live. The more open the possibilities for a representative “visual image,” the more creative the students will be. For example, if you ask students to identify an advertisement that conveys the core of each Gospel, allow them to use magazines, YouTube, Google images, TV spots, posters, etc. In a sense, each of the Gospel writers is “marketing” their Jesus to a specific audience.

2. Directing the Film

Assign students to groups of four or five. This is a team of stage directors who will create a short movie clip on the last moments of Jesus’s life on the cross. Each group should work on one Gospel only (Matt. 27:32–56; Mark 15:21–41; Luke 23:26–56; or John 19:17–37; see also text pp. 101–2). Ask students to consider what kind of lighting they would use to stage the passage, what tone the music (or silence) will have and why. Where is the climax of the passage? How should Jesus say his lines? What do the costumes look like? What color and lighting is used? How do they imagine the set? After returning to the larger group, ask: what have you learned? Do students now have any insights into why there are four different Gospels?


Students often find it easier to interpret written material into a visual or interactive medium. This exercise asks them to analyze a written text and to build that scene in three dimensions. Addressing questions such as casting (or lighting) invites students to think about the tone and mood created by the language of the written text. Once they have created the scene, it is easier for them to then articulate what they have understood about tone, emotion, pace, character, etc.

3. Written Sources

First, have students compare the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (5:1–12) with Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (6:17–31). What similarities and differences can they identify in language, tone, characters, space, movement, etc.? Ask students to reconstruct the hypothetical text from which both Matthew and Luke may have drawn. What decisions do they have to make in their reconstruction? How do they make those decisions? Can they see the ways Luke and Matthew may have edited their common source?

Second, have students look at the baptism and temptation of Jesus in Mark 1:9–13. When they have read the passages in Mark, have half of the class read the same stories in Matthew 3:1–17 and 4:1–11, and the other half of the class read the passages in Luke 3:21–22 and 4:1–12. (You may want to tell students that the chapter and verse demarcations were added to the text under King James in the seventeenth century; these numbers have nothing to do with original use of sources.) How have Luke and Matthew used Mark as a source? What do they change or add to the story?

Finally, have students turn from Luke to Matthew and from Matthew to Luke. Once they have read and compared the texts a third time, ask what the students observe. How might students now account for the added material to Mark’s temptation narrative? Can one posit what lines the “Q” text contained, the order of the Q sayings? What kinds of material does the hypothetical Q source seem to contain?


The goal of this exercise is for students to see how scholars have reconstructed the hypothetical source Q and to identify some of the decisions scholars have made in this reconstruction hypothesis. Exercise suggestions in successive chapters aim to help students see how specific Gospel authors have edited the source texts.

Discussion Prompts

  1. How is a Gospel different from a biography? What is the purpose of an ancient biography, and how do these differ from contemporary biographies (text pp. 91–93)? One way to understand the four biblical Gospels is as ancient biographies. “The point of ancient biographies was to relate accounts that portrayed the essential character of the person who was the subject of the work. Indeed, the purpose of the biography was to define that person’s character in a manner that would invite emulation” (text p. 92). Given this definition of an ancient biography and its purpose, what can we understand about the Gospels and their portrayal of Jesus?
  2. Looking at the final words of Jesus on the cross from each Gospel (box 5.8), how does each set of words portray Jesus? How different are these portrayals of Jesus’s death? Using the information in chapter 4 of the text, how might scholars explain these differences in the portrayal of Jesus’s words from the cross? How do these four portrayals help scholars understand the use of sources and the process of writing these Gospels?
  3. Why do scholars think Matthew expanded Mark (text pp. 103–7)?
  4. What is the Diatessaron, and why did Tatian construct it (pp. 107–9)? Why might this kind of a gospel have been so popular in the early Eastern churches? How do we still see this tendency to unite all four Gospel perspectives at work in the Christian Church today? What can one infer from the choice of Christianity to preserve four distinct voices and perspectives on Jesus and his ministry?

Explore Readings

These readings provide a chance for your students to explore the New Testament in more depth. The boxes from the text are included here, as well as bibliographies and outlines for the books of the New Testament.

All the Explore readings can also be downloaded as PDFs here.