Note 5 – An Overview of The Four Gospels

Note 5.1 - Why Are There Four Gospels?

So significant was the impact of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ on Judaism and the Roman, now western world, that within one hundred years after His death, more than thirty accounts had been written about His life, His sayings, teachings, and miracles.  Many of these were reportedly written by, or ascribed to men who had been with Jesus during His ministry.  Then as now, in addition to the four familiar Gospels of the New Testament, there exists a Gospel of Peter, of Philip, of Thomas, of Mary, and yes, even a Gospel of Judas; as well as a Gospel of the Apostles, of the Twelve, and of the Hebrews, and so on...

         Some 120 years after the life of Jesus, a Syrian named Tatian created an account in Greek called the Diatessaron, meaning "of /from/out of" "four".  In this work Tatian used 96% of the Gospel of John, and added to it from 50-85% of the content from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  To eliminate the duplication between their stories, where the three accounts parallel each other but do not parallel John, Tatian generally selected the wording of the verse(s) from one Gospel over the other(s).  When given a choice, it appears that Tatian generally chose to include the text of the longest, or most detailed version, of the saying or event.

        Tatian likely chose to combine the essentials from these particular four Gospel accounts as they had all been accepted and read by the church(es) for more than sixty years by that point in time (160 CE).  And while they were sometimes read together, most groups and churches preferred one Gospel’s version of events over all of the others.

        Perhaps Tatian chose to use Matthew, Mark and Luke because they were so similar, and yet each also often contained important details and information not mentioned by the others; and perhaps Tatian’s use of the three was also partly to be all inclusive, and more importantly, not to offend any group or church if he were to exclude their favorite Gospel.

        That Tatian used the Gospel of John as the backbone for his work shows that he thought that it was authentic, and either John was his favorite, or he recognized the problem of the differing chronologies of the other three, and therefore decided to use John as the timeline against which to order the events from the other Gospels, and choosing one version of events from one Gospel over the other(s) in those places where their wording or storylines are parallel.

        As to why Tatian chose to combine four of these Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, and not three or five, from among all of the many “gospel” records of the life of Jesus that existed by his time, was likely because John was so good, and the other three were so similar, that to leave one of them out, even Mark which only contributes 7% unique, unparalleled content, would perhaps seem to have produced an incomplete record of the life and teachings of Jesus.  Perhaps another reason why Tatian combined four accounts, and not fewer or more, is because the number four represented a form of completeness; as in four corners, or the four directions, the four seasons of a year, and of course, the four elements from which everything was, at that time believed by some, to have been be composed (earth, water, wind and fire).  Perhaps Tatian saw the complete Gospel of what Jesus said and did and taught as a structure that required four legs upon which to stand.

        Despite its editorial shortcomings, Tatian's more complete account of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ was used throughout the early church, and exclusively by the Syrian churches for more than two hundred years, until the Latin Vulgate Bible was completed by Jerome on appointment from the Catholic church in 405 CE.  Significantly, the Vulgate version of the New Testament opened with the same four Gospels as chosen by Tatian, but with John being the fourth, as all Catholic and most Protestant Bibles still present them today.

         Despite the early use of these particular four Gospel accounts in favor or lieu of any and all others, the matter was discussed and debated within the church until being "officially" settled more than one thousand years later, at a session of the Ecumenical Council of Trent, held in 1546, at which the Catholic church finally sanctioned the four books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as inspired, faithful and true records of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

        As each of these four Gospels has long been considered authentic and inspired accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, their texts were combined to produce The Synoptic Gospel.