John the Apostle


Mary Magdalene

Three Gospels

The New Testament starts with the three Gospel books of Matthew, Mark and Luke. These three are known as the Synoptic Gospels. Gospel means “Good News”, and Synoptic refers to the fact that all three give an account of the same general events from the same point of view. The fourth book, John, is distinctly different from the three Synoptic Gospels, and includes much information not in the other three Gospels.

The four gospel books differ in what stories they include and how the stories are told. None of the four Gospels are meant to be a complete, detailed life of Jesus. Rather, as John wrote, “Jesus truly did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God; and that by believing you might have life through his name.” “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which, if they should all be written, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.”

Together, the four Gospels comprise the vast majority of the direct information we have about the life and teachings of Jesus.

Backdrop of The Gospels

The writers of the New Testament didn’t spend much time writing about the economics, cultural, political, and geographical facts of their time. Their original readers knew these things.

However, modern readers often get lost while reading the Gospels, since they are not familiar with the geography of Israel, the culture of New Testament times, or the politics surrounding different time periods of the New Testament. Its events are not always placed in chronological order, making it even more difficult for modern readers to understand.

Back then, just as we see today, business dominated much of daily life. The most important trade route across Israel was the Via Maris. This was a main route with many spurs branching from it—travel across this route and its spurs critically impacted many Gospel narratives. The Via Maris explains many things, like why Jesus located his headquarters in Capernaum, how Herod the Great got so rich and influential, and how the Christians would quickly fulfill Jesus’ command to make disciples in other nations. (see Reference 5 for a map of trade routes)

The Gospels are set in a time of economic prosperity in the Roman Empire, a prosperity brought about by the policies of the first Roman emperor, Augustus. He ruled from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD, making him emperor when Jesus was born in about 5-3 BC. Under his effective leadership, the Roman Empire expanded and there was internal peace throughout the Empire. This period was known as the Pax Romana, which lasted almost two centuries.

During the time of the Gospels, Israel was occupied by the Roman Empire. The vast majority of the citizens of Israel were Jews, and they greatly resented paying taxes to the Romans and obeying their laws. The Romans controlled Israel through their representatives who lived at Caesarea, their soldiers, and various “kings” who ruled under the largesse of Rome. The Jews were led by the Sanhedrin, made up primarily of the two powerful parties, the Pharisees and Sadducees. There was always political tension during the time of the Gospels.

When you read the Bible, you get the sense that Israel is an important country around which all important things revolve. During the time of the Gospels, Israel was a tiny country in a vast empire. Israel and its inhabitants were insignificant. Except for one of them. He would change everything.

Primary Scriptures:
Mark 1-5
Story Summary:
Culture, political, and geographical background of the Gospels
Kingdom of Judea (Israel)
Circa 30 AD