In the first century, numerous written accounts about the life and activity of Jesus Christ existed. (Luke 1:1-4) Only four of these gained the acceptance of the community of believers and were preserved throughout the centuries by copying and recopying. Although the writers do not identify themselves by name, the four accounts have been attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History, provided information about what was commonly believed regarding the accounts that became part of the recognized Scriptures. He quoted Origen (c. 185 to c. 254 CE) as accepting the tradition that there were only four authentic evangels, the first being written by the former tax collector Matthew, the second by Mark (as Peter instructed him), the third by Luke, and the last one by John.
The earliest comments identifying Peter as the primary source of Mark’s account come from Papias (c. 60 to c. 135 CE), who also said of Matthew (as quoted by Eusebius) that he “collected the words [lógia] in the Hebrew language.” The comments of Papias regarding Matthew, however, are not specific enough to identify the apostle as the writer of the evangel.
Only Luke’s account, in being directed to Theophilus, provides a possible clue respecting the time it was written. According to Acts 1:1, Theophilus had received the first book about what Jesus did. The Acts account ends with the statement that Paul lived for two years in Rome under house arrest. If Acts was written shortly thereafter, the evangel would have been composed before 61 CE. For the most part, the various dates suggested for the four evangels are nothing more than conjectures, based chiefly on opinions respecting Jesus’ words about the destruction of Jerusalem.
Fragmentary papyrus manuscripts (P66 [thought to date from the second century] and P75 [believed to date from late in the second century or early in the third century]) contain the following superscription for the account traditionally attributed to the apostle John, “evangel according to John” (euangelion kata ioannen [P66]; euangelion kata ioanen [P75]). At the end of the third Gospel, P75 (one of the oldest extant manuscripts of this evangel) reads, “evangel according to Luke” (euangelion kata loukan).
Luke’s Prologue (1:1-4)
In his prologue, Luke indicates that the many then-existing narratives were based on what eyewitnesses had handed down. As for his own account, Luke carefully investigated everything and then wrote down the information in orderly sequence. His objective was to establish for Theophilus, whom he called “most excellent,” the certainty of the teaching that had been imparted to him orally. The designation “most excellent” may indicate that Theophilus occupied a high position or was held in high esteem. (Luke 1:1-4)
The Unanimous Testimony of All Four Accounts
All four accounts are unanimous in identifying Jesus as the unique Son of God. Comparatively brief as the evangels are, they have provided millions of believers throughout the centuries the basis for their faith in Jesus Christ and have had a significant influence on their lives. The consideration that follows combines the information from all four accounts and presents it, with some exceptions, in chronological order.
The Word (John 1:1-5)
In the Septuagint, the opening two words of Genesis are the same as in John 1:1 and 1 John 1:1 (en arché [“in (the) beginning”]). The first chapter of Genesis portrays creative works as progressively coming into existence in response to what God says. This direct link of God’s speaking to the coming into existence of the creation appears to be preserved in the designation “the Word.” The reference to the Son as “the Word” suggests that God communicated through him and by means of him brought into existence the realities of his expressed will and purpose.
“In the beginning the Word was.” Before the countless ages that had passed since the universe came into existence the Word already “was” with the Father. The prophecy of Micah about Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem similarly pointed to his prehuman existence as reaching back to the infinite past. The Septuagint text of Micah 5:2 reads, hai éxodoi autoú ap’ archés ex hemerón aiónos (his goings forth [are] from [the] beginning, from [the] days of eternity.)
“The Word was with God [literally, the God].” In this case, the Greek preposition prós (“with”) may be regarded as indicating an interrelationship. “God” (theós) appears in the emphatic position as the opening term of the next statement. As the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), being “in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6) and his very “imprint” (Hebrews 1:3), the Word is identified as theós, the only single Greek term that can adequately describe his nature. In the Greek text, the Word’s being distinct from the Father is evident from the absence of the definite article. (See the Notes section for an illustration of the structure of John 1:1.)
From the infinite past, the Word and God proved to be in a close mutual relationship. This aspect is revealed in his being with God in the beginning or prior to the start of creation. (John 1:2)
Everything came into existence through the Word. Apart from him, not a single creation came to be. (John 1:3)
Depending on the punctuation, life was in the Word or life came to be “in” or through the Word. The text could be understood to mean that the Word possessed life-giving power or that he imparted life to the creation. In the case of humans, this “life” was more than mere existence; it was “light,” or a life inseparably associated with an inner light that made moral decisions possible. That inner light or faculty of conscience is so powerful that it continues to shine in a morally corrupt world of darkness. Although surrounded by darkness, this light has not been extinguished. (John 1:4, 5)
Note: To illustrate the way theós, as applying to the Word is used, the following sentence preserves the order of the Greek words and substitutes “child” and “male”: In [the] beginning was the child, and the child was with the male, and male was the child.