Why did the gospel authors wrote their accounts of Jesus?
August 1975

“Why did the gospel authors wrote their accounts of Jesus?” Ensign, Aug. 1975, 25

What do we know concerning why the gospel authors wrote their accounts of Jesus—especially if they knew the Church would soon become apostate?

S. Kent Brown, assistant professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University The four gospels have been described as passion narratives with long biographical introductions. In a sense, this caricature oversimplifies the nature of the gospels, but it does point up the essential fact that their central message was the death and resurrection of Jesus. This key message underscores their purpose.

Among the early Christian writings that still exist are a number of so-called gospels whose messages are quite different from those of the gospels in the New Testament. Whereas the four gospels focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus, these other apocryphal writings feature Jesus either as a great miracle worker or as a teacher of hidden wisdom, the interpretation of which will give one eternal life.

From investigations of the entire body of gospel literature, there exists substantial reason to believe that very soon after Jesus’ death various attempts were made to collect in writing not only stories of the miracles worked by Jesus but also the words that he spoke. We can see one kind of result of this collecting effort in the apocryphal stories about Jesus.

In the four gospels, on the one hand, we possess accounts of Jesus’ miracles and instructions that were intended to edify both disciples and others. But unlike the apocryphal stories, they fit the pattern that the gospel writers sketched: the importance of Jesus’ words and deeds are to be understood in terms of his death and resurrection. (See, for example, John 12:16 and John 13:7.)

The apocryphal gospels, on the other hand, do not focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus as being the key to salvation. Rather, they view either Jesus’ miraculous power or his allegedly veiled teachings as being the basis for salvation. My own conclusion is that this tendency to see Jesus almost exclusively as a worker of powerful deeds or as an instructor in mysterious teachings had already arisen by the time the gospel writers set about narrating Jesus’ ministry. In other words, Christians had already begun to misunderstand that Jesus’ mission was to effect an atonement through his suffering, death, and resurrection. Thus, part of the motive of the gospel writers was to set the record straight. For them, Jesus was not merely a great worker of miracles or merely a great teacher. There was more to the picture. They were already attempting to correct false notions about Jesus that were growing up in the early church.

With this in mind we can ask a slightly different question: Why did the gospel authors seek to provide a correct picture of Jesus if they knew that within a few decades the church would be apostate anyway? Why should they be concerned to set the record straight? I feel that we can describe the gospels as “brink documents” written at the edge of the period of apostasy. This seems especially true in the case of John’s gospel, which was possibly composed near the end of the first century A.D. Since the gospel writers knew the prophecies that the church would soon become apostate, my own conclusion is that only in a limited sense did the gospel authors write for the people of their day. Their records then stood as testimonies of the true mission of Jesus for those who sought to know the real nature of Jesus and his mission. Since that knowledge has become available more particularly in this, the last dispensation, I would hazard the suggestion that the gospel writers were writing partly for our own day.