What are the best ways to study the gospels? The following suggestions are not mutually exclusive. You might participate in more than one method:
READING IMMERSION METHOD: Read Mark first. Then Matthew. Then Luke. Then John. This is the very likely order in which the gospels were written. Notice that Mark ends at 16:8. Anything after 16:8 printed in whatever translation of the Bible you are reading is based on late manuscripts and was added by scribes. Did Mark ever have an ending beyond 16:8? No one is sure. Notice what Mark does not have that Matthew and then Luke add: infancy narratives and resurrection narratives (Mark ends with the empty tomb). Notice that Luke’s infancy and resurrection narratives are quite different from Matthew’s. Notice how John’s gospel is largely stories near Jerusalem, how the sayings of Yeshua are long discourses, and how his is the only gospel which does not follow Mark’s basic outline.
READING HABITUAL METHOD: Make it your habit to read a bit of the gospels daily, in order either Mk-Mt-Lk-Jn or Mt-Mk-Lk-Jn. You might read one chapter a day. Or you might get a good commentary and read one section or subsection from its outline every day. If you are a Torah reader, following the parashot of Torah, you might read Matthew with Genesis, Mark with Exodus, Luke with Leviticus, John with Numbers, and Acts with Deuteronomy (I have an email list called the Daily D’var that provides these readings daily with my commentary — to request it email me at yeshuaincontext at gmail).
CHECK VARYING TRANSLATIONS: It is good to give preference to translations such as RSV (Revised Standard Version) and NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) and ESV (English Standard Version) and NASB (New American Standard Bible). The DHE (Delitzsch Hebrew English Version) is a good supplement (based on Franz Delitzsch’s Hebrew translation of the gospels and recently translated into English by Vine of David). Loose translations such as NIV, NLT, CEV, and TNIV may give you some false impressions of certain sayings and narratives.
HARMONY: Some narratives and/or sayings in the gospels are parallel passages. In many cases, the section in Mark will be repeated in Matthew and Luke. Some material in Matthew is shared by Luke and not in Mark. Only a few parallels exist between John and the other gospels. It is often helpful to check a Harmony of the Gospels or Synopsis of the Gospels. There is a free online Harmony of the Gospels available a BlueLetterBible (click here). A very helpful printed Harmony is A Harmony of the Gospels: New American Standard Edition by Thomas and Gundry (available at amazon). The advantage of a printed harmony is that the passages are laid out in parallel columns for easy comparison and contrast. A Greek synopsis is also available: Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum: Locis Parallelis Evangeliorum Apocryphorum Et Patrum Adhibitis Edidit by Kurt Aland. Notice the ways Matthew and Luke change Mark. Notice also similarities. And in the double tradition (Mt-Lk) material, compare and contrast Matthew and Luke.
HEBREW BIBLE: A.K.A., Old Testament. You need to understand the first five books of the Bible to get past a basic level of understanding in the gospels. If you are somewhat Pentateuch illiterate, habitual daily reading is a great idea. The Jewish readings (called parashot — singular is parashah) bring you through the Pentateuch in a year (see HebCal.com for the readings of the day). If you need a Torah course (recommended), First Fruits of Zion’s Torah Club is a great one (start with Year One). My book, A New Look at the Old Testament may be helpful also (available at amazon or at my site here: MountOlivePress.com).
ALLUSIONS AND REFERENCES TO THE HEBREW BIBLE: Look them up. You will often find that Yeshua’s way of using the Hebrew Bible (or the way the gospel author uses the Hebrew Bible) is unusual, perhaps different than the ways you have seen people use the scriptures. Yeshua’s methods are very Jewish. Also, see the category here: “Hebrew Bible as Testimony.” Certain themes from the Bible are very important: Creation, Covenant, Temple, Wisdom, Messianic Age, Messiah (Son of David), Son of Man.
ASSUME A POSITIVE VIEW OF TORAH AND JUDAISM: You will find it more illuminating to read Yeshua as positive about the Mosaic Torah, Temple, Law, and customs of Judaism than negative. Keep in mind that the Pharisees were a small sect and did not at this time dominate Jewish practice. Keep in mind that various Jews differed on the best way to keep Torah and that Yeshua is teaching how to do it, not arguing whether it should be done. And, Yeshua is Galilean, while Sadducees and Pharisees are Judean (and Galileans mistrust Judeans).
COMMENTARIES: If you want commentaries that combine readability and scholarship, the Sacra Pagina Series (Catholic) is hard to beat (so, for example, if you search “mark sacra pagina” at amazon, you will find the commentaries I am talking about).