How many gospels are there?
Some will answer with a tone of caution: “One…” nervous that this is a trick question.
Others will answer with great certainty: “Four!”
And still more people will respond with balance and nuance: “there is one gospel, but four gospel accounts.”
It’s not a trick question, but it’s also not completely certain. If there is only one gospel message why canonize four different accounts of it? If what matters was what the gospel said not necessarily how the gospel said what it said, would we really need the Gospel of Mark?
Mark is, after all, the shortest gospel and almost everything that is in Mark is also found in Matthew or Luke. In fact, the early church father Augustine basically ignored Mark because he viewed it as simply an abridgment of Matthew’s gospel!
Why four? Why these four gospels? Why only four? There were other gospels floating around it seems (“many” in Luke 1:1-2).
Why not compile the four canonical gospels (or any of the other gospels) into one complete gospel? Actually, there were attempts to do these very things very early on in church history! And they were either condemned as heresy or just did not stand the test of time:
- In the middle of the second century, Marcion claimed that the four gospels reflected a corrupt Judaizing of the more accurate pure gospel of Paul. He attempted to edited Luke’s gospel (which he thought most closely matched Paul’s presentation of the gospel) into a “pure form.” Marcion was condemned as a heretic.
- Around the same general time period, the Gospel of Peter showed up. We do not have any complete copies of it, but what we have of it and what we know about it seem to indicate that it was an attempt to combine parts of all four canonical gospels with some additional material into one single narrative.
- Justin Martyr, an early church father, had a pupil named Tatian who wrote a harmony of the four gospels called the Diatessaron. It was widely popular, but was not accepted as canonical.
So attempts to compile or edit the four canonical gospels into one more complete gospel were rejected early on in Church history as heresy. That is why, by the way, I strongly detest readings of the Gospels that overly harmonize every detail. If the earliest church – if the Holy Spirit! – thought it was wise to keep four gospels as four separate gospels without harmonizing the details of every minute point maybe we are the ones with the problem rather than the gospels!
The textbook for my first class on the Gospels was Four Portraits, One Jesus by Mark L. Strauss. The book is more on the academic side and thus not super helpful for most church members. But the title alone says a lot. There was one Jesus, but we have been given four portraits of him. I like the idea of “portraits” here. Artists have a healthy amount of flexibility in their presentation of the person they are painting for a portrait. Different artists can use different colors, contrasts, backgrounds, etc. to faithfully and truthfully represent the same person.
This is what we have in our Bibles! There is one gospel message, but there are apparently four different ways to faithfully tell it in written narrative form.
This is why I encourage people to read each gospel on its own before comparing them. Read them each, whole, and in one setting if possible. A great popular-level quality work on the four gospels that I recommend to average church members is Andreas J. Kostenberger’s The Jesus of the Gospels: An Introduction. He does a good job of helping provide basic overviews of each of the four gospels on their own terms.