The gospels were written a few decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ by believers of that day. Thanks to their accounts of Jesus’ story, His life, His words, His actions, and His promise of salvation have been preserved and shared over and over throughout the centuries. Two thousand years later, we continue to read and study the same gospels as did the first readers.

Historians date the writing of the first three gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—between AD 45 and 69, and the last one, John, at about AD 90. While no one knows for certain, the Gospel of Mark is generally considered to be the first gospel written, with Matthew and Luke being written later, and the Gospel of John being written decades after the other three.

The focus of the gospel writers wasn’t to provide a detailed account of Jesus’ life. Rather than presenting Jesus’ actions in detail, these are often summarized in phrases such as “He healed them all” (Luke 4:40), or “He traveled through all the towns and villages teaching and preaching” (Mark 1:38–39). John wrote at the end of his gospel that there were many other things Jesus did that weren’t included in his gospel (John 20:30–31).

The gospel writers only described those parts of Jesus’ life which they felt would best inform the readers who Jesus was, what He preached, and what it all meant in terms of His death and resurrection and our salvation. The main purpose was to share the good news, to call others to faith in Jesus, and to provide a means of teaching new believers about Him and the message He preached, so that they could in turn share it with others.

Prior to the writing of the gospels, much of the content contained in them would have been circulated orally. There were apparently also some written accounts of things Jesus said and did, as evidenced by what Luke wrote at the beginning of his gospel:

“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1–4 NIV).

It became important for the information about Jesus and His teachings to be put into written form at that time for two reasons: One was that the gospel had been spread throughout much of the vast Roman Empire of the day. This meant it was no longer possible for the apostles and other early believers to travel to the remote corners of the empire to personally share what they had learned at Jesus’ feet. The other reason was that the original eyewitnesses were getting older, and some of them were dying. The story of Jesus, His life, and teachings needed to be written in order to be preserved and shared beyond the capabilities of the people who were delivering it orally.

Within the first half of the second century, perhaps within a decade or two of the writing of John’s gospel, the four gospels began to be circulated together. During this same period, there was also another collection of writings which were circulating among the churches—the body of Paul’s letters, referred to as epistles. In time, Acts became the connector between the gospels and Paul’s letters, which when combined with the other epistles eventually became the New Testament.