Who wrote the Christian Gospels? Exploring the 4 Evangelists

We all know about the Gospels, but who are the Four Evangelists, the bearers of the Good Message? Let's find out more about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John!

Jan 20, 2023By Vedran Obucina, PhD History, MA Political Science and Theology, BA Philosophy

four evangelists who wrote christian gospels


The New Testament, the foundation of the Christian teachings, contains four accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; they are called the Gospels, which is the Old English translation of the Greek word “evangelion” and the Latin word “evangelium” meaning “good news”. They were written by the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. When reading their accounts, we would guess they were all Jesus’ companions, however, only two of them met Christ. Let us explore who these men were!


Saint Matthew: The First Among the Evangelists

calling of st matthew
The Calling of Saint Matthew, by Hnedrick ter Brugghen, 1616, via acatholic.org


According to the Christian tradition, St. Matthew was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, a tax collector from Capernaum called Levi, who, at Jesus’ invitation, readily left his previous life and followed his Master. It was Matthew’s service as a publican, a service that was regularly associated with corruption, dishonesty, and cooperation with the occupying Roman authorities, that shows that Jesus was open to everyone and, unlike others, looked deep into the heart.


On the other hand, at the invitation of Jesus, Matthew himself readily broke with his previous way of life and began to follow the path of Jesus wholeheartedly. After that, when Jesus was sitting at the table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat at the table with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees noticed this, they asked his disciples: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he answered: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Mt 9:12).


four evangelists painting
Four Evangelists, by Frans Floris, 16th century via artvee.com


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We don’t know much about Matthew (now a very popular saint) apart from what is in the Gospels. Of the little we know, the report of the church historian Eusebius is essential. He says that before his departure on a long missionary journey, Matthew first preached to the Hebrews and, before leaving them, wrote the Gospel in their language around the year 70. It was in the Aramaic language, then spoken by the Jews in Palestine. In his report, Eusebius relies on older information from the writings of the priest Papias, who, as a researcher, is very reliable. He identifies the apostle Matthew with the writer of Matthew’s Gospel.


The original of Matthew’s Gospel has not been preserved, only the Greek translation, created between the years 80 and 90. The oldest testimonies and traditions of the Church assume that the translation is entirely faithful to the original. The Pontifical Biblical Commission also confirmed its sameness on June 19, 1911.


According to tradition, after Judea, St. Matthew continued his missionary work in Arabia and Ethiopia, where he suffered a martyr’s death, and his relics are kept in Salerno. In iconography, he is most often depicted with the symbol of an angel; that is, he writes his Gospel in the presence of an angel. He is revered as the patron saint of tax collectors, customs officials, accountants, bankers, and guards.


The Gospel of Matthew: Receiving Angelic Help

inspiration of st matthew caravaggio
The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, by Caravaggio, via artvee.com


Matthew wrote his Gospel for the Jews in Palestine who were well versed in the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament. He wanted to prove to them that Jesus is the Messiah promised by God and that all the prophecies and promises of the Old Testament came true in him. This feature is evident in Matthew’s Gospel from beginning to end. In the beginning, he proves that Jesus is a descendant of David according to the flesh. The virginal conception of Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy, and the birth in Bethlehem is that of Micah.


Matthew’s Gospel is a kind of catechism about the Kingdom of Heaven. It is built on five great speeches and therefore gives us lessons on how to enter God’s kingdom, how to accomplish the mission, how to behave in the Church, and finally, and it confronts us with the ultimate goal and the end of time. In this sense, the Gospel is systematic, organized, and serves to give us solid catechetical instruction. But in Matthew’s Gospel, not only are the speeches of Jesus grouped, but also the deeds. Thus, from the 8th to the 10th chapter, collected in one place are the miracles of Jesus, which are again divided into three internal groups as miracles of mercy and power.


st matthew guido painting
St Matthew and the Angel, by Guido Reni, 17th century, via thenewliturgicalmovement.org


The Gospel of St. Matthew is also called the “church” gospel because, when describing five great speeches, he also describes five significant steps in shaping God’s kingdom, thereby showing a particular interest in the inner life of the Church. His main concern is the development of the dimensions of ecclesiasticism. This is evident in some incidents he cites, especially those in chapter 14 and beyond.


We may note the story of Peter walking on water for example, which is mentioned only by Matthew. It serves to bring the reader step by step to the promise of primacy that is particular to Peter. Only Matthew includes the line “I will build my Church.” In this sense, and due to the presence of these elements that the other evangelists do not have, Matthew’s Gospel is called “church gospel”.


If we want to enter even more into the mentality of Matthew, the writer of the first Gospel, then it is good to look at his last page, which describes how Jesus sends the apostles into the world. That page is the key to the entire Gospel of Matthew because it shows the Easter mystery, the power of Christ, who died and rose again, and his power in the Church. There, indeed, is the supreme moment of Jesus’ life. He stands between the history of Jesus up to that moment — from his genealogy, birth, preaching, passion, death, and resurrection — to the life of the Church that will preach, teach and baptize until the end of time.


Saint Mark: The Lion Among the Evangelists

saint mark by boulogne
Saint Mark, by Valentin de Boulogne, 17th century, via learnreligions.com


Saint Mark was, by all accounts, a Jew who followed Jesus and accepted Christianity. It is mentioned ten times in the New Testament. It is possible that as a young man he followed the arrested Jesus, covered with a sheet, and when they wanted to catch him, he left the sheet and ran away naked. In another place in the Holy Scriptures, it is stated that St. Peter, miraculously freed from his shackles, comes to the house of Mark’s mother.


st mark evangelist with lion
Mark the Eveangelist, by Il Pordenone, c. 1535, via fineartamerica.com


The tradition that followed the New Testament texts is much richer because Mark was considered the founder of one of the most prestigious churches from early Christianity, the one in Alexandria. According to this tradition, Mark converted to Christianity under the influence of St. Peter, to whom he served as an interpreter because Peter did not speak Greek.


With his cousin, St. Barnabas, and St. Paul, he traveled from Jerusalem on his first journey to Antioch. Mark accompanies Barnabas around the age of 50 on his trip to Cyprus. Paul did not want to take him on further journeys (this is also reported in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles). During Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome around the year 60, Mark, who was preparing for his trip to Asia Minor, met Paul, and then they reconciled. According to legend, Paul persuaded him to write the Gospel; he first sent him to Agilia and then to Alexandria to preach the Gospel.


Tradition says that around the year 65, he went to Alexandria and founded the Church. As the bishop of Alexandria, on April 25th 68, he was attacked at the altar by hostile residents, who dragged him around by his neck until he died. A storm prevented the murderers from burning him, his body remained intact, and the Christians buried him.


saint mark evangelist icon
Icon of St Mark, from St Mark’s Parish, Phoenix, via catholicsun.org


The remains of St. Mark were transferred from Alexandria to Venice in the 10th century and were first buried in the Doge’s Chapel, where the Cathedral of St. Mark was built between 1063 and 1073. According to legend, a mason fell from the scaffolding during construction, but after some prayers to St. Mark, he was left unharmed. That is why St. Mark is the patron saint of masons and of Venice. St. Mark is usually depicted in images with a winged lion, as it emphasizes the power of resurrection and overcoming death. He is also the protector of lawyers, construction workers, masons, glassmakers, basket weavers, notaries and scribes, prisoners, and Egypt. He is invoked against storms, lightning, hail, untimely death, and for good weather and a good harvest.


Gospel of Mark: The Oldest Among the Evangelists

gospel of mark
Gospel of Mark, via the Unitedchurchofosoro.org


According to some ancient records that are still debatable today, Mark wrote the Gospel, which is based on Peter’s sermons in Rome, and named after him the Gospel of Mark, the oldest of all the Gospels. Mark emphasizes Jesus’ humanity more than other evangelists. Other evangelists also emphasize that Jesus is indeed a real man, but they observe him in the light of the glorified Lord. His Gospel was probably composed before 70 AD since it does not show that the writer knew about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. The evangelist Mark gradually introduces us by revealing the messianic secret that is fully manifested in the death and resurrection of Jesus, that Jesus of Nazareth is a real man and a real God.


Although we do not know much about him, the Gospel certainly bears witness to this saint the most. Of course, we don’t find any biographical information there either. His written work speaks of him as an excellent folk storyteller. He clearly describes the events of Jesus’ life and is supported by details that other evangelists do not notice. He obviously had a keen eye, a deep sense of perception, and what others did not deem so necessary. In the Gospel, it can be felt that he was influenced by Peter’s catechesis, which he listened to as his companion and put on papyrus for the needs of the faithful in the Roman municipality.


Saint Luke: The Doctor Among the Evangelists

saint luke evangelist stained glass
Saint Luke the Evangelist, stained glass, via Catholic Digest


According to Eusebius, Saint Luke was a Syrian native of Antioch. He came from a pagan, not Jewish, background, as testified by St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and indirectly St. Paul, who does not place him among those who came from circumcision. According to Muratori’s canon, he did not see or follow Jesus during his earthly life.


Paul’s epistles and the Acts of the Apostles show that he was a companion and disciple of Saint Paul. We find him with Paul for the first time on the apostle’s second missionary journey, from Troas to Philippi. There is a possibility that he stayed in Philippi until 57, establishing the apostle’s missionary work there. In the spring of 58, we find him again in the same city next to St. Paul, whom he accompanies on his return to Jerusalem. There he immediately established a relationship with the apostle Jacob.


saint luke visari painting
St Luke, by Giorgio Visari, 16th century, via The National Gallery of Art, Washington


In Jerusalem, Luke also had the opportunity to meet at least some of those women whom he is the only evangelist to mention in the Gospel. He could also meet those “officials of the word” who are one of the sources of his evangelical writings. He himself writes in the preface of his Gospel as follows: “Since many have tried to arrange the narration of the events that happened among us, as they were handed down to us by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word from the beginning, it was also good for me, since I carefully examined them all from the beginning, so that I may write them down for you, most exalted Theophilus, so that you may convince yourself of the certainty of the teachings you have received” (Lk 1:1-4).


St. Luke followed St. Paul on his trip to Rome, leaving us a precious travel diary about it in the Acts of the Apostles. He was with the apostle of the people during his first Roman blackout and also during the second one when everyone left him. The apostle sadly writes to Timothy: “Luke is the only one with me” (2 Tim 4:11). Luke probably met both Peter and Mark in Rome, but Paul still had the greatest influence on him. We know nothing for certain about the life of St. Luke after Paul’s death. St. Epiphanius made him the apostle of Dalmatia, Italy, and Macedonia, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus as the evangelizer of Achaia, Metaphrastus, Egypt, and Thebaid, but all of this is historically unreliable.


bull of st luke the evangelist
Bull of st Luke, stained glass, Ohio, photo by Nheyob, via Wikimedia Commons


The place of St. Luke’s death is also uncertain. Likewise, the manner of his death. Some believe that he died a natural death, while others think that he died a martyr. The Church celebrates him as a martyr in worship and uses red liturgical vestments for his feast day.


Some information says that he was a doctor, and it is also attributed to him that he was a painter and painted the image of Jesus and the Mother of God. Several paintings are believed to have been painted by St. Luke, including the one in his chapel above the sarcophagus. After his death, his body was buried in the city of Thebes, in the Greek province of Boeotia. At the beginning of the 4th century, his body was transferred to Constantinople in the Basilica of the Twelve Apostles. It is not known how and when it was brought down to earth.


During the 11th and 12th centuries, many relics and bodies of saints were found in the cemetery next to the Basilica of St. Giustina in Padua. Inexplicable phenomena that happened during these excavations are mentioned. Among the excavated bodies was one placed in a chest with the name and symbol of the three bulls. This original sarcophagus can be seen in the Hall of Martyrs as the body of St. Luke. The sarcophagus was opened on September 17, 1998, and thorough professional processing was conducted to determine its authenticity. After a two-year study, a team of experts confirmed at the International Congress in Padova in October 2000 that these are indeed the actual remains of St. Luke the Evangelist. Saint Luke is honored as the patron saint and spiritual leader of doctors and painters.


The Gospel of Luke: The Richest of the Evangelists

an icon of saint luke
An icon of Saint Luke, via the Manila Bulletin


Luke’s Gospel is quite philosophical and intellectual in nature. Luke shows himself as a beloved disciple of the Savior and an evangelist who described his holy history; having once followed the Lord, he collected the testimonies of his first servants and received inspiration from above. As an evangelist, he told the secret of the messenger Gabriel, sent to the Virgin to announce joy to the whole world.


He described the birth of Christ so clearly: he shows us the newborn sleeping in the manger and describes the shepherds and angels announcing joy. He relays to us miracles that surpass all that can be imagined and with such love for the truth and with such beauty; thus, he shows himself rich in language worthy of the richness of his thought. He provides instruction in parables, presenting them in a greater number than the other evangelists do. And just as he describes the descent of the Word to earth, he also describes its ascension to heaven, its return to the Father’s throne.


st luke with winged bull
St Luke the Evangelist, by Vladimir Borovikovsky, 19th century, via launcestoncarmel.com


But with Luke, his language is not limited only to the service of the Gospel. After the end of Christ’s miracles, he also describes the Acts of the Apostles: first of all, the divine ascension of the Savior to heaven; then the descent of the Spirit to the apostles in the form of tongues of fire; then the stoning of Stephen and the conversion of Paul, his call and transition, and his imprisonment and suffering. Luke was not only an eyewitness to all of this but also an actual participant, which is why he takes so much care to teach us everything.


Even though he was not an eyewitness to the events described in Jesus’ time, his was a worthy and faithful ministry of the Gospel message. That is why the Church gratefully celebrates him as an evangelist, one of the four who, under God’s inspiration, wrote the most precious message for Christians.


Saint John: The Eagle of the Evangelists

saint john the evangelist berruguete
Saint John the Evangelist, by Pedro Berruguete, 15th century, via art-prints-on-demand.com


According to the Christian tradition Saint John was born around the year 6 in Bethsaida in Galilee, his father Zebedee was a fisherman, and his mother’s name was Saloma. He had a brother Jacob. He was a disciple of John the Baptist. Together with his brother, he helped his father to fish. He responded to Jesus’ call together with his brother and his friends Peter and Andrew.

John was the youngest Apostle. He was present at the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter, the young man from Naim, and Lazarus from Bethany. Together with Jacob and Peter, he was there for the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. Starting with the preparation for the Passover dinner together with the Apostle Peter, St. John was in the closest proximity to Jesus at the Last Supper, the pains in the Garden of Gethsemane, the trial by the high priest, and all the torments during the crucifixion and death of Jesus on the Cross. He was the only one of the Apostles who was not only a witness but also a companion in Jesus’ Blood Sacrifice.


chalice of st john
Chalice of St John the Evangelist, by Hans Memling, 15th century, via National Gallery of Art, Washington


Under the Cross, he received from Jesus the duty to care for the Mother of Jesus, to rule as a son. Saint John was then the first of the Apostles to see the empty tomb, and the first to recognize the resurrected Jesus. After Christ’s resurrection and ascension to Heaven, the Apostle John was with Saint Peter while healing a man lame from birth in front of the temple gates. Together with Saint Peter, he shared the Sacrament of Confirmation in Samaria. During the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem, around the year 50, along with Peter and James the Younger, he was counted among the pillars of the original Church.


Due to the fierce persecution of Christians in Jerusalem, St. John accompanied the Mother of Jesus to Ephesus. He had the honor and grace to regularly present the Holy Mass under which he offered Holy Communion to the Mother of God. Under the Roman Emperor Domitian (81-96), as an old man, the Apostle John was first brought to Rome and thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil. Nothing harmed him.


On another occasion, the emperor ordered St. John to drink poisoned wine. When John obeyed and took the cup in his hands, the poison came out of the wine in the form of a snake. He was sent back to Asia Minor and exiled to the island of Patmos. John was released from captivity during the reign of Emperor Nerva, and returned to Ephesus, where he wrote his Gospel and three epistles, and died there at the advanced age of about 100 years. Today he is worshiped as the patron of theologians, writers, composers, and painters; he is called upon for burns and fire victims and is also revered as the patron of friendships.


Gospel of John: The Flower Among Evangelists

saint john the evangelist with eagle
Saint John the Evangelist, by Vladimir Borovikovsky, 19th century, via the Archdiocese of Malta


John’s Gospel does not portray Christ from His birth but from the “beginning” as the “Word” (Logos) which, as Deity, was involved in every aspect of creation and which later became Flesh so that He could take our sins as a blameless sacrificial Lamb. John chose to use spiritual talks to show that Jesus is the Messiah and to explain how a man can be saved by His sacrifice on the cross. He explains how the Jewish leaders were repeatedly angry with Him for correcting them and for healing on the Sabbath. Jesus prepared His disciples for His coming death and their ministry after His resurrection and ascension. Then He willingly died on the cross in our place, fully paid for our sins so that whoever believes in Him as their Savior from sin will be saved. He then rose from the dead, thereby convincing even the most skeptical of his disciples that he is God and Lord.


evangelists book of kells
The four evangelist symbols, part of the Book of the Kells, via Trinity College Dublin


Artists usually depict John with a feather, and his symbol is an eagle, which should be seen in the light of the unique depth of his thought. There is a well-known sentence by the early Christian writer Origen, who says: “The flower of the Bible is the Gospels, and the flower of the Gospel is John’s Gospel.” His epistles are often called “epistles of love” because love is mentioned over 50 times in them. John was not only a great favorite who felt the beating of Jesus’ heart at the Last Supper but also a participant in the most perfect way. He is called the disciple “whom Jesus loved,” and the Gospel he composed says that he “leaned on Jesus’ breast” at the Last Supper.


St. John the Evangelist wrote down the Revelation on Patmos. There, Jesus gave him a prophetic vision of Revelation, which St. John recorded in an exemplary manner. During the reign of Emperor Nerva (96-98), Saint John was allowed to return to Ephesus. At that time, Saint John probably composed his testimony about Jesus Christ. Apostle John is the only one to provide us with Jesus’ priestly prayer at the Last Supper, as well as the details of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He was a witness and a companion, a priest of the New Testament.

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By Vedran ObucinaPhD History, MA Political Science and Theology, BA PhilosophyVedran is a Croatian political scientist, historian, and theologian. He is an Old-Catholic priest and is interested in the history of religions and philosophy. He is also very active in religious peacebuilding. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Regensburg; an MA in political science from the University of Zagreb; and an MA in Theology with a BA in philosophy from Old-Catholic Seminary. He writes about world religions, their histories, and rituals, as well as the history of philosophical ideas.