One of the places where our intentions to read the Bible from cover to cover often meet a big challenge is at the beginning of the New Testament. No, I’m not referring to the genealogy that begins the Gospel of Matthew, though many have seen that as a less-than-inviting opening (“…Abihud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor, Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim…”). There’s something else. Just as the supposedly easier half of the Bible begins, we have what looks like the same story—the telling of Jesus’ earthly life, his death, and his resurrection—told four times in a row. Four gospel stories. If you’ve ever accidentally touched the “repeat”” button while listening to a song on Spotify, you might recognize the feeling. Haven’t we already been here? Didn’t we just hear that?
Matthew. Mark. Luke. John. Not four identical books, to be sure, but there are sections where three of them seem almost like carbon copies of one another. And as far as their endings go, well, they all find themselves in the company of the astonished followers of Jesus, now alive again even though he was recently dead in a tomb.
Faced with this repetition, a Bible reader might be advised to break up her reading of the Gospels with readings from other books. On the other hand, if you take it as a given that we should always be reading through Gospels, so that we’re never far from a story about Jesus or the actual words of Jesus, you could just be thankful that we even have this much variety.
But why do we have four gospels and what are we supposed to do with them?
If you’ve ever asked the question, “Why are there four gospels?” you can be consoled that you aren’t the first person to ask this. It’s been asked since around the middle of the second century (about a hundred years after the majority of the New Testament was written), when a man named Tatian thought that it would be more useful for Christians to have all their Jesus-stories in one place. Tatian put together the first “harmony” of the gospels, taking all the different stories in the gospels and rolling them into a single narrative. All (or most) of the repetition was gone, and he was able to work at the fascinating task of figuring out what to do about the order of events.
But despite the hard work that must have gone into creating such a book, the church ultimately wasn’t convinced. They didn’t find the gains of Tatian’s Diatessaron (as it was called, meaning “out of four”) to be worth the losses. More was missing than just redundancy. This bigger gospel was less rather than more. The four gospels seemed each to have their own contributions to make, their own treasures to give us.
If you ask why there aren’t more than four gospel stories in our Bibles, you’re hitting on a different question. In some ways it’s an easier question to answer. Other accounts of Jesus’ life were in fact written at roughly the same time period as our New Testament Gospels. None are as early as our four, but the others certainly appeared during the first couple of centuries after Jesus’ life.
However, it doesn’t take a very close reading before you realize why these gospels were likely rejected. Some of them have different, more dubious concerns than the ones we know from our Bibles. (The Gospel of Thomas includes a line about the value of every woman making herself into a male which might raise your eyebrow.) Some seem like wish-fulfilling fantasy stories, as in a few of the tales of Jesus’ childhood: the Infancy Gospel of Thomas finds the young future Saviour proving especially useful to his carpenter father Joseph as he stretches a beam of wood that his dad needs for a bed he’s building. These stories are amusing, but it’s also pretty easy to see why these other gospels weren’t going to displace Matthew or get squeezed in between John and Acts.
The consensus of the early church was that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not merely good stories or sober-minded pieces of history, but were the Word of God for a world in need of good news about Jesus as well as for a church in need of formation in the way of Jesus Christ. So these are the books we have. We don’t have more than these four, but neither do we have the option of simply choosing our favourite. So what do we do with these four books that seem so similar to one another?
What to Do With Them
The first thing to do with these four books is to read them. One way to get to know them as different books is to approach them as separate books, even if it’s obvious that much of the content is shared material. But it’s also useful to have some tips about what kinds of differences we’ll find among the four, and the distinctive contributions each can make to our life as followers of Jesus.
“One of these things is not like the other…” went the famous Sesame Street refrain, and so it is with the gospels. The first thing we will notice is that the first three gospels are different than the fourth. Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a basic outline and use the same basic language. In these gospels we will hear about a public ministry that included not only physical and spiritual healings and tremendous miracles in the natural world but also a distinctive kind of teaching: little illustrative stories called parables that talked about the “kingdom of God” (in Matthew he calls it the “kingdom of heaven,” which is really just a slightly different way of saying the same thing in a different culture). These first three gospels show us the interactions of Jesus with his disciples and seem to come to a turning point when Jesus’ disciples recognize him as the Messiah of Israel and Jesus starts to talk about the necessity of his suffering and dying in Jerusalem. Jesus finally enters Jerusalem and an escalating series of events leads to that suffering and death, which occupies a sizable proportion of these gospel accounts.
Because these three gospels line up so well in both their outlines and many of the actual sayings and events, they are called the synoptic gospels, meaning that you can “see” them “together.”
These broad distinctives of the three, then, are the first thing we might pay attention to: as we read the synoptics—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—we will prepare ourselves to learn from Jesus about the kingdom of God, and will consider how we will deal with recognizing Jesus as the King/Messiah with full awareness of his suffering and death. Here we are back to the “upside-down” or “right-side up” kingdom that I’ve written about in another post.
And in John’s gospel, we will notice that Jesus talks less about the kingdom of God and more about “eternal life” than he does in the others. There is some overlap between the two ideas but they have a different accent. To oversimplify it, in the kingdom of God we are focused on the action of God to restore and renew his world, while in eternal life the focus is on our welcome into and enjoyment of the blessing of life with God now as we wait for its fulfillment in the future.
The parables of the synoptic gospels will also be a focus for our reading in those three books, and we will understand that the parables are Jesus’ primary teaching about the kingdom of God. We will learn the ways of the kingdom, which we can put into practice in our lives even now. By contrast, the long discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John are intended to lead us into the mystery of who Jesus is and what his relationship is to his Father, because “eternal life” is about our entering into that relationship in a special way. Jesus often speaks about us coming to know the Father as he does, and being loved by God and each other the way that the Father and Son love each other. True, the parables can be baffling, and the long talks from John can be overwhelming, but if we understand that we are to relate them to Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom and eternal life, respectively, we will be alert for some of what God wants to teach us there.
In Part Two: Guidance for reading each of the four gospels.