Orthodox tradition placed Matthew’s Gospel first. Irenaeus describes it as originally composed in “Hebrew”- i.e., Aramaic; but it has come down to us only in Greek. Since in this form it apparently copies Mark, and probably also the Logia, criticism inclines to ascribe it to a disciple of Matthew rather than to the “publican” himself; even the most skeptical students, however, concede to it as early a date as A.D. 85-90. Aiming to convert Jews, Matthew relies more than the other evangelists on the miracles ascribed to Jesus, and is suspiciously eager to prove that many Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in Christ. Nevertheless, it is the most moving of the four Gospels, and must be ranked among the unconscious masterpieces of the world’s literature. The Gospel according to St. Luke, generally assigned to the last decade of the first century, announces its desire to co-ordinate and reconcile earlier accounts of Jesus, and aims to convert not Jews but gentiles. Very probably Luke was himself a gentile, the friend of Paul, and the author of the Acts of the Apostles. Like Matthew he borrows much from Mark. Of the 661 verses in the received text of Mark over 600 are reproduced in Matthew, and 350 in Luke, mostly word for word. Many passages in Luke that are not in Mark occur in Matthew, again nearly verbatim; apparently Luke borrowed these from Matthew, or Luke and Matthew took them from a common source, now lost. Luke works up these candid borrowings with some literary skill; Renan thought this Gospel the most beautiful book ever written.
The Fourth Gospel does not pretend to be a biography of Jesus; it is a presentation of Christ from the theological point of view, as the divine Logos or Word, creator of the world and redeemer of mankind. It contradicts the synoptic gospels in a hundred details and in its general picture of Christ. The half-Gnostic character of the work, and its emphasis on metaphysical ideas, have led many Christian scholars to doubt that its author was the apostle John. Experience suggests, however, that an old tradition must not be too quickly rejected; our ancestors were not all fools. Recent studies tend to restore the Fourth Gospel to a date near the end of the first century. Probably tradition was correct in assigning to the same author the “Epistles of John”; they speak the same ideas in the same style.
In summary, it is clear that there are many contradictions between one gospel and another, many dubious statements of history, many suspicious resemblances to the legends told of pagan gods, many incidents apparently designed to prove the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, many passages possibly aiming to establish a historical basis for some later doctrine or ritual of the Church. The evangelists shared with Cicero, Sallust, and Tacitus the conception of history as a vehicle for moral ideas. And presumably the conversations and speeches reported in the Gospels were subject to the frailties of illiterate memories, and the errors or emendations of copyists.