Why Four Gospels?
When Dan Brown penned his best-selling novel The Davinci Code, he gave us a rudimentary, if historically inaccurate, account of how the Christian New Testament was formed. In the book, Brown suggested that the Council of Nicea, convened by Emperor Constantine in 325 AD, is where the contents of The New Testament were assembled and set into doctrine. While that is not exactly what the Council did, it is a fairly accurate, if simplified, description of how the NT came to be what it is today.
In the years following the death of Jesus of Nazareth there were many scrolls, numbering in the hundreds as far as we can tell, written about and sometimes even in the names of Jesus and his followers. When the Christian Church was formalized and doctrine established, many of these scrolls were discarded because they didn’t meet one of three basic criteria. The first was whether it was believed to have been written by one of Jesus’ apostles, by Paul of Tarsus or by someone close to them. The second was antiquity, with older texts taking priority over newer ones. Third was orthodoxy, or how well the text conformed with current Christian teachings.
In the ensuing years many of the scrolls which were excluded have been found, with some notable examples being the Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Phillip and the Gnostic Gospels. These all paint very different pictures of Jesus from the one generally drawn from the four gospels we find in The New Testament, but it is also important to point out that there are variances between the NT gospels, as well.
Does that surprise you? It wouldn’t surprise me if it does. We very rarely encounter an entire Gospel in one sitting, as what happens in churches is almost always a cross-reading between similar stories about a particular event. Christmas is a classic example, in which the quite different stories told in Luke and Matthew are conflated to the point that much of what we commonly associate with Jesus’ birth is not one of those stories, but a conglomeration of both. What becomes clear when you did really deep into the history of the Jesus of Nazareth is that probably neither of the stories is true. We don’t have any credibly biographical stories about Jesus until he is baptised by John The Baptist at age 30.
What we “believe” about Jesus’ birth is derived from a mistranslation and/or misunderstanding of the prophet Isaiah (7:14). There are exhaustive works devoted to this, such as this article in the Washington Post, which summarizes it nicely. My favorite and most often referenced source on this subject comes from Bart Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His blog on this exact topic is quite thorough. This is precisely why we study the Bible and ask questions. We have been taught things in our Christian churches that are not exactly accurate.
With that in mind, we take a look at the four gospels which are included in The New Testament, focusing on the similarities, the differences and what we can make of both.