Why are there Four Gospels?

The Gospels describe Jesus’s ministry, death and resurrection, but why are there four Gospels? Why didn’t one person write a comprehensive biography of Jesus’s life?

Suppose that today four men should undertake to write a “life” of ex-president [Theodore] Roosevelt, and that each one designed to present him in a different character. Suppose that the first should treat of his private and domestic life, the second deal with him as a sportsman and hunter of big game, the third depict his military prowess and the fourth traced his political and presidential career. Now it will be seen at once that these four biographers while writing of the life of the same man would, nevertheless, view him in four entirely different relationships. Moreover, it will be evident that these biographers would be governed in the selection of their material by the particular purpose each one had before him: each would include only that which was germane to his own specific viewpoint, and for the same reason each would omit that which was irrelevant.1

Just like the hypothetical biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, each of the Gospels has a different purpose, and were written for different audiences.

Matthew

The Gospel of Matthew was primarily written to the Jews, to show Jesus is King of the Jews. Matthew 1:1-16 (ESV)2 gives the genealogy of Jesus, with Joseph as Jesus’s legal father345. The genealogy starts with Abraham, the person God made a promise to concerning building a great nation6, and shows Jesus is a descendent of King David, to whom God promised an everlasting kingdom78. God did put a condition on his promise to King David, though: the King had to keep God’s commandments and rules910.

There is only one person who has ever lived who is able to perfectly keep the commandments and rules God gave, Jesus Christ1112. Matthew mentions the wise men (Magi) who came from the East to worship baby Jesus, King of the Jews13, so even foreigners believed he was King of the Jews.

Mark

The Gospel of Mark was written to the Christians in Rome, many of whom were not Jews. In a few places, Mark had to describe the traditions and rules people in Jerusalem lived under, such as ceremonial washing before meals.14. One of the main themes in Mark is showing Jesus as a servant of God, and the Gospel was written to benefit servants of Christ. There are several ways Mark distinct from the other Gospels:

  • There is no genealogy of Jesus, which may not have been of much interest to gentile readers in Rome.
  • There is no record of the birth of Jesus, since most masters weren’t concerned about the birth of their servants.
  • Mark spends more time on the miracles of Jesus than on the parables of Jesus, as a servant should be “doing” rather than”teaching”.
  • More than 40 times in the Gospel, Mark uses Greek words which mean “immediately” or “as soon as”1516. As a servant, Jesus immediately did his father’s will.
  • Mark translated some Hebrew and Aramaic terms, since his readers in Rome may not have understood those languages1718.

Luke

Luke 1:1-4 (NIV)19 clearly states this Gospel was written based on careful investigation, although there was also divine inspiration in writing the book. This Gospel was written to all people, not just Jews or Romans, so the genealogy in Luke 3:23-38 (ESV)20 traces Jesus’s ancestors back to Adam, the son of God. The family trees in Matthew and Luke are different, because Matthew traces the genealogy through his legal father Joseph, while Luke uses his mother Mary21.

The main theme in Luke is Jesus’s humanity. Jesus was laid in a manger when he was born22, which would have been in a stable of some sort. A stable would have been accessible to everyone, even dirty, smelly shepherds23, but those same shepherds would probably not have been welcome if Jesus had been born in a palace. Jesus is accessible to everyone, not just the Jews or the rich or the powerful.

In the Gospels, Jesus most frequently refers to himself as the Son of Man2425, although it is only used four other times in the Testament (and one of those is an Old Testament quotation)26272829, and the early church didn’t use that term about Jesus.

In the Old Testament, the phrase Son of Man has several different uses. In some cases it contrasts God with humanity3031, but the most common use in the Old Testament is in the book of Ezekiel, where Ezekiel is often called the son of man32. Most of the Old Testament uses of the phrase Son of Man reflect the human condition.

One unique use of the phrase is by the prophet Daniel in reference to the Messiah, for whom the Jews had been waiting, in Daniel 7:13-14 (ESV):

I [Daniel] saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man [Jesus], and he came to the Ancient of Days [Father God] and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14 ESV)

When Jesus was on trial before the religious leaders, they understood the Son of Man as being the same as the Son of God33. So the designation Son of Man is meant to show both Jesus’s human nature and his divine nature.

John

 Scholars generally believe the Gospel of John was written last, after the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) had been in circulation for awhile. The author likely knew about the other gospels, and wrote this one to fill-in-the-blanks, where the Synoptic Gospels leave information out. Approximately 90 percent of the Book of John is unique; it contains material not found in any of the other three Gospels. The audience for John is all Christians, and the book emphasizes Jesus as the Son of God, and God himself.

  • In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. (John 1:1-2 ESV)
  • Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58 ESV)
  • I and the Father are one. (John 10:30 ESV)
  • Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9 ESV)

There is no genealogy of Jesus in John, because John’s emphasis is that Jesus is God and existed for eternity before being born as a baby. “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:3 ESV)

The Gospel of John ends with the words  “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose thatthe world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25 ESV)

Summary

In medieval Eastern Orthodox Churches, a manuscript with just the four Gospels was called a Tetraevangelion; tetra from the Greek word for four, and evangelion for Good News. These four perspectives of the Good News were written by different authors, to different audiences for different purposes, but together they apply to every person who has ever lived. The Gospels describe the fulfillment of a promise God made to the serpent in the Garden of Eden:  “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15 ESV) Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the promise.

Irenaeus of Lyons, a second-century church father, wrote about the four Gospels:

It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. 34

 

In his [Irenaeus’s] treatise, Against Heresies, III, ii, 8, it is evident that by AD 180 the idea of the fourfold Gospel had become so axiomatic throughout Christendom that it could be referred to as an established fact as obvious and inevitable and natural as the four cardinal points of the compass (as we call them) or the four winds.35

Resources

  • Pink, Arthur W. Why Four Gospels? (Swengel, PA: Bible Truth Dept, 1921; Wordsearch Book) (Logos) (Wordsearch)

Footnotes

  1. Pink, Arthur W. Why Four Gospels? (Swengel, PA: Bible Truth Dept, 1921; Wordsearch Book) Emphasis in original. (Logos) (Wordsearch)
  2. This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife, Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asa, Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram, Jehoram the father of Uzziah, Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon. After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, Zerubbabel the father of Abihud, Abihud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor, Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim, Akim the father of Elihud,  Elihud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah (Matthew 1:1-16 ESV)
  3. Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? (Matthew 13:55 ESV)
  4. And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22 ESV)
  5. They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:42 ESV)
  6. And I [God] will make of you [Abraham]  great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (Genesis 12:3 ESV)
  7. Your [David’s] house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever. (2 Samuel 7:16 ESV)
  8. Once for all I [God] have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David. His offspring shall endure forever, his throne as long as the sun before me. Like the moon it shall be established forever, a faithful witness in the skies.” Selah (Psalm 89:35-37)
  9. He [God] said to me [King David], ‘It is Solomon your son who shall build my house and my courts, for I have chosen him to be my son, and I will be his father. I will establish his kingdom forever if he continues strong in keeping my commandments and my rules, as he is today.’ (1 Chronicles 28:6-7 ESV)
  10. I [God] will establish his [King David] offspring forever and his throne as the days of the heavens. If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my rules, if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with stripes, but I will not remove from him my steadfast love or be false to my faithfulness. (Psalm 89:29-33 ESV)
  11. Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. (Jeremiah 23:5 ESV)
  12. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:7 ESV)
  13. Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1-2 ESV)
  14. Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his [Jesus’s] disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) (Mark 7:1-4 ESV)
  15. In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-10 ESV)
  16. Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him. (Mark 1:16-20 ESV)
  17. Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” (Mark 5:41 ESV)
  18. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). (Mark 15:34 ESV)
  19. Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4 NIV)
  20. Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph, the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai, the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein, the son of Josech, the son of Joda, the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel,the son of Neri, the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er, the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim, the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Sala, the son of Nahshon, the son of Amminadab, the son of Admin, the son of Arni, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalaleel, the son of Cainan, the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God. (Luke 3:23-38 ESV)
  21. Mary’s father was probably Heli, making Joseph the son-in-law of Heli, thus not creating a contradiction between Matthew 1:16 (ESV) (…and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.) and Luke 3:23 (ESV) (Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli….).
  22. And she [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son [Jesus] and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7 ESV)
  23. When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. (Luke 2:15-16 ESV)

  24. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil,on account of the Son of Man! (Luke 6:22 ESV)
  25. And I [Jesus] tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God…. (Luke 12:8 ESV)
  26. And he [Stephen] said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:56 ESV)
  27. It has been testified somewhere [Psalm 8:3-4 ESV], “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him?” (Hebrews 2:6 ESV)
  28. Then I [John] turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. (Revelation 1:12-13 ESV)
  29. Then I [John] looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. (Revelation 14:14 ESV)
  30. God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Numbers 23:19 ESV)
  31. When I [David] look at your [God’s] heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3-4 ESV)
  32. And he said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.” And as he spoke to me,the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. And he said to me, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, tonations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. (Ezekiel 2:1-3 ESV)
  33. When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people gathered together, both chief priests and scribes. And they led him away to their council, and they said, “If you are the Christ, tell us.” But he said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe, and if I ask you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” So they all said, “Are you the Son of God, then?” And he said to them, “You say that I am.” Then they said, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips.” (Luke 22:66-71 ESV)
  34. Irenaeus of Lyons. Against Heresies (On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis) (A.D. 175-190) Book III, Chapter XI, Paragraph 8. (Early Christian Writings)
  35. Bruce, F. F. The Books and the Parchments: How We Got Our English Bible, rev. ed. (Old Tappan, NJ: F. H. Revell, 1984)  100. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh and Sean McDowell. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 30. (Amazon)

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  1. […] but still have differences? Each of the Synoptic Gospels was written for a different audience (Why are there Four Gospels?), and the authors wanted to include an overview of Jesus’s ministry, and add information […]

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