Why Four Gospels?


Have you ever paused and pondered why the New Testament features four gospels – four separate accounts of the life of Jesus? This phenomenon came about in the very early days of the church and is shared by Christians in all branches and traditions, so we may very well take it for granted and not give much thought to it.  But when you step back and think about it, you realize how unusual it is. Nowhere else in the Bible do we have four accounts of the same event; at times we may have two accounts, but largely there is only one. Often people come up with one “authorized” version or authoritative account, but rarely (if ever) do four exist, side-by-side. In fact, having four accounts has created some problems for Christians over the years. Some note that the gospels (especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are too similar, causing them to wonder if they have copied from each other or causing us not to look at each of them. Others note that the differences between them (both the differences between John and Matthew, Mark, and Luke as well as the differences between Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are too great to be accurate. Yet the Christian church has long held that all four are not just useful, but inspired by God and to be used by the church. 

When you compare Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with other gospels not found in the Bible, you can see why the church has viewed these four and not the others as being from God. The other gospels are later and feature many details that present widely divergent ideas as well as details that don’t fit the first century. While that may answer the question of why these rather than other gospels have been received by the church, it still does not answer the question of why four rather than one (or even two or three). 

As you might imagine, writers over the years have tried to answer the question of why there are four gospels. In the early church, Irenaeus of Lyons noted there were four because that reflected the corners of the earth and the four winds; the number four also had symbolic connections to various places in Scripture (like the beasts in Ezekiel). While I am not sure if those are logical reasons there are four instead of one, two, or three, I do think there are some practical implications of this phenomenon that may, in part, stand as reasons for why we have multiple gospels in the collection of authoritative writings for Christians.

By this term, I am referring to our knowledge and understanding of Jesus Christ. Having multiple accounts of Jesus’s life causes us to have a more developed understanding of who Jesus is, as we have a wider knowledge of what he did and taught. If any of the gospels were missing, we would not have the unique elements that they stress and highlight. Therefore, we have a greater amount of material about Jesus because of our need for a greater understanding of who he is – although there is still much that we don’t know (John 21:24)!

This word means “the study of the church,” and I think the presence of four gospels has an important impact on how we think about the church. These four gospels emerged from different authors for different audiences pointing to the fact that there is both unity and diversity in the Christian faith. There is one gospel, but this gospel is worked out in various ways through people and communities. 

Sometimes I wonder if the different gospels may reflect the diversity we see within the church today. Matthew’s high structure and extended teachings of Jesus remind me of the Presbyterian tradition. Mark’s fast-paced and action-packed narrative reminds me of churches (Baptist, Church of Christ, Salvation Army, Methodist) that at times, can be moved to action and seek not to get bogged down in developing extensive confessions and theological statements. Because of Luke’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit (which is carried out in its sequel, Acts), this may be the gospel of Pentecostalism/charismatic movements. John is so different – we might think of it as connecting to whatever tradition you find is very different from yours and you don’t understand. 

You could make cases for connecting other traditions with each of these gospels; however, this was just an attempt to show how the diversity of the gospels can point us to the diversity we see in today’s church and also encourages us to embrace the different traditions that stand connected on the same essential truths. If we only had one gospel, we would likely need to focus on greater uniformity, while four gospels lead us to see the beauty (and divine affirmation) of diversity. 

Because the same message about Jesus was written by various people to help their intended audience in different ways, I think we need to remember the pastoral value of the gospels. Each gospel has some pastoral value, and then the multiplicity of these works shows that the gospel does not just connect with one set or type of people, but a wide variety of people. It continues to meet new challenges and minister in various ways. The gospel is not just good news about what happened back then…it is good news that is for us and our lives today!

Having multiple gospels can sometimes be viewed as a historical problem, as at times, there are details that may seem at odds with each other. Some may view these as contradictions – undercutting the historical reliability of the gospels – while others think these can be harmonized, particularly when we apply the categories of ancient rather than modern history writing to them. What I have often found interesting is that these differences were not hidden until modern times; people have been aware of them for a long, long time. The early church did not find them to be contradictory. It would have been easier if there was only one gospel – these questions would not emerge. But the fact that we have four, I think, strengthens the historical value. These differences are what we would expect to see in the reporting of the events by multiple eyewitnesses and shows that early Christians were not trying to cover anything up or simplify things. Rather than creating historical difficulties, the four gospels offer great assurance that what we have is history.

These observations are not exhaustive of the value of having four gospels; there are other values that may also stand as reasons for why we have multiple gospels. If you have other thoughts on the benefits of having four gospels, I’d love to hear them as well.

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