The four Gospels are often read together to provide a composite portrait of Jesus that informs Christian faith and religion. According to this portrait, Jesus is a Jew, miraculously born to a virgin in Bethlehem but raised as the son of a carpenter in Nazareth. Throughout his life, he fulfills numerous ancient prophecies, indicating that he is the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God.
As an adult, Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist, calls disciples, and conducts a traveling ministry among the villages of Galilee. He announces that God’s kingdom is imminent and tells memorable parables to illustrate what this means. He also proclaims a radical ethic that calls people to renounce material possessions, love even their enemies, and reassess biblical interpretations that make God’s commandments burdensome. He identifies himself as the Son of God and claims unprecedented authority for revealing God’s nature and will. His teaching is accompanied by a number of provocative acts, such as dining with tax collectors, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, and turning over tables of money changers in the temple court.
The Gospels report that Jesus heals many sick and disabled people. He often does this through exorcism, forcing evil spirits to leave so that people they have been afflicting might be cured. Jesus also works miracles that seem to defy the laws of nature: he walks on water, multiplies a limited quantity of food, and changes water into wine.
Jesus’ ministry brings him into conflict with the religious leaders of Israel. They disagree with him over many matters, and he often speaks harshly of them. Ultimately, his career comes to a climax when he is arrested and crucified in Jerusalem. The Gospels present that event as the result of a total breakdown of justice and righteousness: high-ranking religious leaders collaborate with a predictably unjust political ruler (Pilate), and even Jesus’ disciples betray, deny, and desert him. Nailed to a cross, Jesus suffers and dies; his body is placed in a tomb; then, just as he predicted, he rises from the dead and appears to a number of his followers.
New Testament scholars are often interested in reading the individual Gospel portraits of Jesus to see what each author—or the community behind each Gospel—considered to be particularly important or distinctive. For example, Matthew’s Gospel presents Jesus as insisting that all commandments of the law remain valid until the end of time (Matt 5:18), though this is not something one would gather from reading the other Gospels (for example, Mark 7:19). Likewise, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is unable to work miracles for people who do not have faith (Mark 6:5), but that is not the case in Matthew, Luke, and John.
Scholars are interested in these individual portraits in order to make better sense of each Gospel on its own terms. Knowing that Luke’s Jesus frequently condemns the wealthy and blesses the poor establishes a context for interpreting texts in that particular Gospel. Realizing that Jesus does not tell parables or exorcize demons in the Gospel of John encourages a more deliberate focus on the aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching that are significant for that Gospel author.
Many historians are interested in discerning what can be affirmed about Jesus apart from religious interpretation. Rather than taking the Gospel accounts at face value, they subject them to analysis, employing the same sort of criteria that would be used with other ancient writings when studying historical figures. They also supplement what is found in the New Testament with material from nonbiblical writings, such as the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas and the writings of the Jewish Roman historian Josephus.
Such historians are skeptical of miracle stories and are reticent to accept reports of Jesus saying things that would provide later Christians with proof texts for their doctrinal beliefs. Still, much of what is reported of Jesus in the Gospels (especially the Synoptic Gospels) is widely accepted as reliable. In particular, the significance of Jesus as a moral teacher and social reformer is often attested in a purely secular vein, apart from any perspective of faith or religious devotion. Some historical scholars also accept the Synoptic portrayal of Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher of the end-times, though some dispute the accuracy of this portrayal.