Human beings have been created with an insatiable desire to retell stories and write them down. By the time of Jesus, in the Roman Empire of what we now call The First Century AD, the Jewish Scriptures were in wide circulation across the empire. Jesus and His followers assumed a familiarity with them in their audiences. As the teachings of Jesus spread, they were written down; fragments have been found that have been dated to within a generation of Jesus' death and resurrection. Like the earlier Jewish Scriptures that we now call the Old Testament, this is a collection, not a single narrative.
We find four different kinds of literature in this collection.First, the “Gospels” (Good News), the story of Jesus, the fulfillment of God’s Promise, from four different angles.
"The Gospel of Matthew" written by a well-educated Jew with a thorough familiarity with the traditional Scriptures; refers constantly to examples and prophecies.
"The Gospel of Mark", Jesus in action. This is considered by many scholars to be Peter's preaching as collected and retold by John Mark, a young man from a good Jewish Christian family in Jerusalem, who was later associated with Peter, Paul, and Barnabas.
"The Gospel of Luke", written by a Gentile to a Gentile friend. Luke is considered by many scholars to be a first-rate historian. This is the first of two writings by the same author. It was written for a wider, Greek-speaking audience, and includes more of Jesus’ parables.
These three are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels, because they share a framework and chronology, and may have drawn on a common source, although each has material unique to itself.
"The Gospel of John" appears to have been written later, when the Synoptics were in wide circulation. John does not repeat them, but gives more material and spiritual truths that go deeper, and which shows the uniqueness of Jesus, within the Jewish tradition but not limited to it.
The second type of writing is historical. "Acts of the Apostles", the continuation of Luke’s Gospel, carries the story of Jesus through the first generation of the early church. Luke traveled with Paul in his later missionary journeys, and spent several years in Galilee when Paul was in prison in Caesarea while the various authorities tried to figure out what to do with him. It is likely that Luke took this opportunity to visit people who had known Jesus and the apostles and collected their recollections.
(to be continued next week: The Epistles (Letters), and the final drama.)