Why Are There Four Gospels?

Updated Feb 14, 2024
Why Are There Four Gospels?

Our most significant source of information about Jesus Christ comes from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the New Testament. Yet the four gospel accounts should not be taken as an exhaustive narrative of the life and work of Jesus. John, for example, explicitly states that his account does not contain everything Jesus did (John 21:25).

Instead, the four writers had a specific audience in mind to address a defined issue. To that end, each one selected and arranged the factual historical data of Jesus's life in a way best suited for their chosen aim.  Chronology and exhaustive coverage of specific events was secondary. However, this does not negate the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit in shaping and directing the writers of the gospels through divine inspiration.

Because the gospels serve more as Spirit-drawn narrative portraits, any "harmonizing" of the four accounts falls to the student of the Bible. Weaving the gospels together is possible, but the gospels should never be taken as an exhaustive biography in the modern sense. Instead, the accounts follow the common ancient method of highlighting key events and themes. Each telling presents a distinct perspective on the same life.

Matthew: Christ is the Son of David, rightful heir to the Messianic throne. Here we see Christ's royal genealogy, the visit by the magi from the East to announce His kingly birth, and the proclamation of His laws in the Sermon on the Mount.

Mark: Here we find Jesus as the Servant of God. Although Jesus came as God to earth, He completely submitted Himself to the will of the Father in heaven and took on the form of a servant. Anything extraneous to that theme is excluded, which is why the narrative contains no references to Jesus's birth or youth.

Luke: To Luke, Jesus is the Son of Man—fully human but unlike any other human being in His perfect submission to God's will. For this reason, Luke traces the genealogy back to Adam (the first human).

John: John presents Jesus as the Son of God—fully divine. Jesus is not only flesh and bones, but He is also the Creator of all things in the beginning (John 1). Jesus reveals His nature as "I am," a title God gave as His own.

In many cases, claims concerning the "contradictions" between the gospels ignore the different purposes of the four writers. The focus helps us understand what each intended to emphasize in the character of Christ. One account could never capture the complete picture.

Adapted from Why Four Gospels? by A.W. Pink (Introduction) and the lecture notes of Dr. Doug Bookman, professor of New Testament Exposition at Shepherds Theological Seminary (used by permission).

Do the Four Gospels Have Four Different Audiences?

The Gospels record Christ's ministry to the four groups of people then and now in the world. The Jews who loved the Scriptures and the prophecies of God. They would only listen to one of their own. So Matthew speaks to the Jews and the deeply religious of our day.

Mark spoke to the Romans. These were the leaders and leadership and action impressed them. They knew nothing of Scriptures but everything of power. So to this group comes the action-packed Gospel of the powerful ministry of Christ. Mark uses the word and 1,375 times to tie together the endless actions of Christ. Like our modern successful business men and women, they want a God who can powerfully meet their deepest needs.

Luke was a Greek speaking to the Greeks. The Greeks loved culture, beauty and ideas. Happiness could be found in the pursuit of truth. Luke fills his book with insights, interviews, songs, and details that fascinate the inquiring mind. So today the truth seekers find Jesus in Luke!

John wrote to everyone, because everyone needs to meet God and only Jesus can reveal Him. In this book we meet an absolutely powerful God in human flesh who controls and rules the Universe He created. So the best known verse is the best of all offer that God loves all and offers all - His Son as their only hope!

Taken from "The Gospels in Harmony" by Discover the Book Ministries (used by permission).

Are the Four Gospels Reliable?

In comparison with the remaining manuscripts of any other ancient Greek or Latin literature, the New Testament, or Gospel, suffers from an embarrassment of riches. It is almost incomprehensible to think about the disparity. When it comes to the number of copies, the New Testament has no peer. More than 5,700 Greek NT manuscripts are still in existence, ranging in date from the early second century to the sixteenth century. To be sure, the earliest ones (i.e., through the 3rd century) are all fragmentary, but they cover a substantial amount of the NT. And Greek manuscripts do not tell the whole story. The NT was translated early on into a variety of languages, including Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Gothic, and Arabic. All told, there are between 20,000 and 25,000 handwritten copies of the NT in various languages. Yet if all of these were destroyed, the NT text could be reproduced almost in its entirety by quotations of it in sermons, tracts, and commentaries written by ancient teachers of the church (known as church fathers or Patristic writers). To date, over a million quotations from the NT by the church fathers have been cataloged.

How does this compare with the average classical author? The copies of the average ancient Greek or Latin author's writings number fewer than 20 manuscripts! Thus, the NT has well over 1,000 times as many manuscripts as the works of the average classical author.

When it comes to the temporal distance of the earliest copies of the NT from the original, NT textual critics again enjoy an abundance of materials. From 10 to 15 NT manuscripts were written within the first 100 years of the completion of the NT. To be sure, they are all fragmentary, but some of them are fairly sizable fragments, covering large portions of the Gospels or Paul's letters, for example. Within two centuries, the numbers increase to at least four dozen manuscripts. Of manuscripts produced before A.D. 400, an astounding 99 still exist—including the oldest complete NT, Codex Sinaiticus.

The gap, then, between the originals and the early manuscripts is relatively slim. By comparison, the average classical author has no copies for more than half a millennium.

Taken from the ESV Study Bible copyright ©(2008). Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.

How Do We Know the Gospels Show Us the Real Jesus?

We live in a culture that loves a good conspiracy theory. Whether it’s in the realms of news, entertainment, or even history, many people are convinced the real truth of a particular matter is always hidden. When it comes to understanding who Jesus really was, some people are convinced that we cannot trust the four gospel accounts in the Bible. In recent years the discovery of various “gospels” not found in the Bible have led some to believe that we must look outside of the Bible to know the real Jesus. So how do we know that the four Gospel accounts found in the Bible show us the real Jesus?

If we want to know the real Jesus, the place to start is with those who knew him best. Each of the four biblical gospels was either written by an apostle or in close conjunction with one. Both Matthew and John were members of the original twelve apostles, firsthand eyewitnesses of what Jesus did and said. As a tax-collector Matthew was accustomed to keeping detailed records, so it is even conceivable that during Jesus’ earthly ministry he began recording various sayings and events from Jesus’ life. John was the “beloved disciple” who faithfully wrote down his testimony so that people would believe that Jesus truly is the Christ (John 20:31).

According to our earliest evidence, Mark wrote his gospel under the authority of the Apostle Peter to capture the basic content of Peter’s preaching about Jesus. Luke, who was a traveling companion of the Apostle Paul, begins his Gospel account by stressing the research behind his account (Luke 1:1–4). Each of the Gospel writers gives clear evidence of drawing on eyewitness testimony to construct their accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus.

From the earliest days of the church these four Gospel accounts were recognized by Jesus’ followers as expressing the truth of who Jesus was, what he did, and its significance. Writing early in the second century, Papias detailed the origins of the four canonical gospel, emphasizing their value as eyewitness accounts. About 30–40 years later, Justin Martyr consistently referred to the four biblical gospels as the “memoirs of the apostles.” Towards the end of the second century, Irenaeus argued forcefully for the authority of the fourfold Gospel in such a way that indicates this was the position long held by the church.

So, even though other so-called gospel accounts were known by some in the early church, the fact that they were not rooted in eyewitness testimony meant that they could not be trusted to give reliable information about the real Jesus. Those who knew Jesus best ensured that their eyewitness testimony was recorded in the four gospel accounts that were passed down by the earliest followers of Jesus. If you want to know the real Jesus, the place to look is Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

"How Do We Know the Gospels Show Us the Real Jesus?" by Matthew Harmon first published on Christianity.com on June 9, 2014.

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