Basic features of the four Gospels

What are we reading when we open, say, Luke’s Gospel in the Christian Bible? Building on what we learned in the previous study, four literary features deserve mention. The Gospel of Luke is:

    • historical literatureThere is evidence of a history of composition. Luke drew on oral tradition and sources available to him as he compiled the narrative. The story of the life of Jesus is set in a specific historical context: first-century Palestine during the period of Roman occupation. It is not religious myths with symbolic meaning, nor a collection of abstract teachings by a philosopher-guru, but narrative prose intended to convey accurate historical information. 

See, for example, Luke 1:1-4 (CSB): 

Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. So it also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in an orderly sequence, most honourable Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed.

Note the layers of historical veracity that Luke claims to have discovered through diligent research.

    • narrative literature. Luke’s Gospel is not merely a collection of reports, sayings, or diary entries relating to the activities of Jesus, but “narratives with features typical of stories, including plot, characters, and setting.” This is where a large part of the diversity lies with the four Gospels: each one presents characters from different perspectives, develops the plot in different ways, and emphasises different settings. Strauss, 28
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    • biographical literature. Luke’s focus on Jesus’ infancy, and his public ministry from his baptism to his death, and especially on his words and deeds, is not unlike other ancient biographies. There is a very strong focus on the main character, as understood and interpreted by Luke. The same is true for Matthew, Mark and John. DJG, 338.
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    • theological literature. The four Gospels are also “theological documents written to instruct and encourage believers and to convince unbelievers of the truth of their message … This is why we call the Gospel writers Evangelists.” Strauss, 29. 

Consider John 20:30-31 (CSB):

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Mark L. Strauss writes, “The identification of the Gospel writers as theologians has important implications for the way we read the Gospels. We ought to read each Gospel seeking to discern these theological themes.” Strauss, 29.

Next study: Why are there four Gospels?


Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister presently working as Research Support Officer at Moore Theological College, Sydney. He enjoys preaching, cooking, snorkeling, and reading a good book. These notes were written by Rod Benson for a small group study on the Gospel of Luke, March 2021. Comments welcome.


References: DJG, “Gospel: genre” (2013); Strauss, Four Portraits (2007).

Image source: Getty Images