Why four Gospels?

Most of us are familiar with the story of Jesus, as told in the biblical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But why are there four Gospels? Why only four? Why not one super-Gospel?

When compared and contrasted with the apocryphal gospels that began to circulate, each of the four canonical Gospels was found to corroborate the other three, yet each provided a distinctive perspective on the person and work of Jesus. Leon Morris observes that “Jesus was such a gigantic figure that we need all four Gospels to discern him.” Morris, 107.

At first, each Gospel circulated alone in its own papyrus scroll. We know very little of how and when the canonical Gospels began circulating as collections. All that we can say with certainty is that, at some time between the production of John’s Gospel (the last of the four to be written) and the middle of the second century, “the status of these Gospels was so entrenched that they were bound and circulated together.” Köstenberger, 24.

One of the most significant early copies, Papyrus 75, dated around 200 CE, contains a large portion of Luke and John, including the page where Luke ends and John begins. This suggests that the Gospels were circulating as a collection by that time. 

Moreover, wherever there is manuscript evidence of more than one Gospel that includes a canonical Gospel, the other Gospel is always one of the four. Manuscript evidence for non-canonical Gospels is extremely scarce (e.g., there is only one known full copy of the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, and just two fragments of other editions). 

The church father Irenaeus (c.130–c.200) refers to a four-gospel codex (the ancient equivalent of a book, consisting of sheets of papyrus bound together). Some sects were favouring one or excluding others: the Ebionites accepted only Matthew; the Docetists only Mark; the Marcionites only Luke; and the Valentinians preferred John. Irenaeus argued that the church should accept all four Gospels – no more, no less.

There were early attempts to harmonise or synthesise the four Gospels into one, e.g., Tatian’s Diatessaron (“through four”), written around 170 CE, and Augustine’s treatise, The Harmony of the Gospels. “Yet in the end, the church chose to preserve the four distinct Gospels, recognizing each as a unique literary account and as an inspired and authoritative work of the Holy Spirit.” Strauss, 32.

Another early Christian leader, Justin Martyr (c.100–165), gives us a beautiful glimpse into the world of the early church community, in his Apology:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the overseer verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things …

Next study: What is distinctive about Luke’s Gospel?

Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister presently working as Research Support Officer at Moore Theological College, Sydney. He enjoys preaching, cooking, snorkeling, and reading a good book. These notes were written by Rod Benson for a small group study on the Gospel of Luke, March 2021. Comments welcome.

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