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Official Website of the
Catholic Diocese of Little Rock
Published: April 17, 2010
This is the first column in a 13-part series
By Clifford M. Yeary
Associate Director, Little Rock Scripture Study
Most of us are aware that there are four Gospels in our New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Recently, news stories, books, movies and television shows have reported the existence of other ancient writings that also claim to be Gospels, but which are not in the New Testament. As a result, a number of people might be wondering why there are only four Gospels in the Bible.
The answer is simple. The vast majority of Christian communities spread throughout the Roman Empire of the first three or four centuries after Christ found little in the other so-called Gospels that resonated with their faith in Jesus. The Jesus of these other books was not the Jesus they recognized so clearly in the four Gospels that did become part of the New Testament.
More frequently, however, the question is asked, why are there four — shouldn’t there just be one? In recounting the life of Christ, there has always been a tendency among Christians to take everything we read about our Lord in the four Gospels and to lump all the information together. This is most noticeable when we retell the Christmas story.
Only Matthew and Luke tell anything about Jesus’ birth and they each tell the story from different perspectives. Matthew focuses on Joseph’s role and Luke on Mary’s. The details of their accounts are very different in some respects, yet on certain matters very similar. There is no journey to Bethlehem, no manger and no shepherds in Matthew’s account and no Magi in Luke’s. Both have angels but in Matthew an angelic annunciation is made to Joseph, while in Luke, Gabriel appears to Mary. Mary’s virginity is emphasized in both.
The discovery that many of the details described in the Gospels of the same event differ slightly from one Gospel to another sometimes bothers Christians, who naturally read the Gospels with faith in their divine inspiration. The assumption is sometimes made that divine inspiration would prevent differences from occurring in various Gospel accounts of the same event.
Divine inspiration works in and through the human authors of sacred Scripture in such a way that the truth of God’s saving deeds and God’s will and plan for our salvation are communicated without error or confusion. God is truly the author of Scripture. The humans involved in writing, however, are no less the authors of Scripture than any other human who authors a work of literature (see Dei Verbum §11).
What is becoming clear to faithful Bible scholars is that the differences between the four Gospels are there, not because the Gospels are in conflict with each other, but because each Gospel is concerned with communicating its own special insights into our Lord’s life and mission. Father Francis Moloney’s “The Living Voice of the Gospels” is a very readable exploration by a noted biblical scholar of each Gospel’s special perspective.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all have accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mount where he spoke with Moses and Elijah, but only in Luke do we hear that Jesus was transfigured while he was praying. Jesus’ prayer life is highlighted in many places in Luke. Other things are highlighted in Matthew and Mark.
Many of the differences between the Gospels arise from their being written to meet the spiritual needs of the original communities for whom they were written. Mark wrote for a community (perhaps in Rome) that needed courage to face persecution. His Gospel emphasizes the importance of the cross in ways that no other Gospel does. Matthew was written for a community that included many Jewish believers in Jesus. Jesus’ respect for Jewish law and his stature as a prophet greater than Moses are both emphasized in a special way in Matthew.
Each Gospel’s highest purpose is not to be a strict historical document but to be a theological testament to the meaning of Jesus’ life. They were inspired to bring us the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ and that good news is like a multifaceted diamond. Each Gospel brings us a special encounter with Christ. The encounters are different but real. Each is important and each is told in a special way in order to make the encounter possible. They are each true in the best possible sense of the word.
Good biblical commentaries and Bibles with good introductions and footnotes (like the New American Bible) help modern readers discover the rich theological insights proper to each Gospel. The differences between the Gospels are sometimes challenging but when studied carefully, they reward us with a clearer vision of our Savior.
This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic April 17, 2010. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.