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 collections of the sayings of Jesus, and stories about His life, 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, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, 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, along with many others.

Some 120 years after the life of Jesus, a Syrian student of Justin Martyr named Tatian created a type of unified account of the four Gospels known from the Greek as Diatessaron, meaning "of /from/out of" "four".  In his work Tatian used 96% of The Gospel of John, and added to it from 50 to 85% of the content from each of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  To eliminate the repetition and duplication between their stories, where two or more of the three accounts parallel each other but do not parallel John, Tatian generally selected the wording of the verse(s) from one of the Gospels 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.  To this he included any additional details that were found within the other Gospels.

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

Perhaps Tatian chose to include Matthew, Mark and Luke because they were so similar, and he sought to be inclusive, and to not offend any Church or group 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, but possibly John was his favorite Gospel, or he recognized that only John mentions the teachings and events from the ministry of Jesus that occurred in Judea and Jerusalem during the Feasts and the festivals, where Jesus came into conflict with the Pharisees and the scribes of the Law, as He taught in The Temple.

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 and sayings of Jesus that existed by his time, is likely because  the three accounts were so similar in wording and content, that to leave one of them out - even Mark which only contributes about 7% unique, unparalleled content - would have produced a very incomplete record of the teaching life and healing ministry of Jesus.

Another reason as to why Tatian chose to combine four of these Gospel accounts, and not fewer or more, is perhaps because at that time, as anciently before, 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, air and fire).  Perhaps Tatian saw the complete Gospel of what Jesus Christ said and did and taught as a structure that required four legs upon which to stand firmly, even as the testimony of four witnesses is better than that of one person, or three.

Despite its editorial shortcomings, Tatian's more complete Gospel account of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ was used throughout the early Church, and exclusively by the Syrian, Eastern and Coptic 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 that had been chosen by Tatian, but with John now being the fourth Gospel, as all Catholic and most Protestant Bibles still present them today.  In the east, toward the end of the fifth century, the use of the unified Gospel Diatessaron was eventually replaced by the four Gospels of the Syriac Peshitta.

Despite the early use of these particular four Gospel accounts in favor or lieu of any and all others, the matter continued to be 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 have long been considered authentic and inspired accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, the words of their texts were combined to produce the Four Gospel Harmony of FIVE COLUMN, and the word-for-word Merger of their texts as The Synoptic Gospel.

For more information about the history and the formation of the four Gospels of the New Testament, watch the nine part Overview of The Gospels series at: