The Gospels: Why Are There Four? Why Different?

 •  8 min. read  •  grade level: 8
It has been a standing problem in the Church of God to account for the various differences which are found in the four gospels—a problem too that has been very seldom satisfactorily answered. Many have been the attempts to form "harmonies" of the gospels; but these attempts have the more brought to light the great differences which unquestionably exist, and have proved the extreme difficulty of forming, from t h e whole, one continuous narrative. Scarcely two of those who have made the experiment are agreed in every particular. These harmonies seem to have established very little more than that the four gospels may all be inspired because they may be made to harmonize; and it should be remembered that that these harmonies can only be formed by many transpositions, accommodations, and studied conjectures, while they leave the main problem totally unsolved.
Some, however, have boldly met the question, How are the differences in the four gospels to be accounted for? The usual answers may be mainly said to be two; namely,
1. That the evangelists copied from one another, or from a common written document to which they all had access. Thus a well known writer says, "Mark, however, presupposes the existence of Matthew and, as it were, supplies his omissions; Luke does the same for both of them; John for all three. Matthew, an apostle, wrote first, and thus established an authority for both Mark and Luke. John, also an apostle, wrote last, and confirmed to mankind more fully the words of Mark and Luke, already sufficiently firm in themselves. Matthew wrote especially to show the fulfillment of the Old Testament scripture, and to convince the Jews. Mark produced an abridgment of Matthew, adding at the same time many remarkable things which had been omitted by his predecessor, and paying particular attention to the noviciate
of the apostles."—Bengel's Gnomon.
Is it not strange that any one should have stated such a theory as this to account for the differences of the gospels? We can easily understand that if two or more persons copied from one an-
other, or from some one original, they would agree in most if not all parts thus copied; but that the copying can account for the differences is manifestly inconsistent.
But there is a graver question at issue than this; and that is, Is God the author of the gospels? and if so, Is it worthy of Him that Mark should supply the omissions of Matthew—that he should have made an abridgment of Matthew? Is it not a marvelous fact that no book was ever written that is so full and comprehensive in such a condensed form as the Bible? And yet we are told of one repeating what the other had written and supplying his omissions; then a third doing likewise; and then a fourth! Again I ask, Is all this worthy of God's being the author of the four gospels? Assuredly it is not.
2. But there is another theory; namely, that the apostles in preaching and teaching related, from time to time, the incidents connected with Christ's life, together with His discourses; and that the evangelists (or at least the first three) wrote what they had thus heard; the differences in the gospels are accounted for on this theory by our having them secondhand. Thus says a distinguished writer: "This common substratum of apostolic teaching—never formally adopted by all, but subject to all varieties of diction and arrangement, addition and omission, incident of transmission through many individual minds, and into many different localities—I believe to have been the original source of the common part of our three gospels [Matthew, Mark and Luke].... With regard to those parts of our gospels which do not fall under the above remarks, there are various conceivable sources whence they may have arisen. As each evangelist may have had more or less access to those who were themselves witnesses of the events, whether before or during the public ministry of our Lord, or as each may have fallen in with a more complete or a shorter account of those events, so have our narratives been filled out with rich detail or confined to the mere statement of occurrences." -Alford's Greek Testament.
Now is not a good deal of this merely accidental? An evangelist wrote what he may have heard! or what he "may have fallen in with!" Again the, questions must be pressed, Isaiah this worthy of God? It is consistent with God being the author of the gospels? Assuredly it is not.
But why are we obliged to have any such imaginary theories? We know from Scripture that Matthew and John were apostles; we know from Scripture also that besides the twelve apostles there were men who had "companied with" them all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among them, beginning from the baptism of John unto the day that He was taken up from them (Acts 1:21, 2221Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection. (Acts 1:21‑22)); and Mark may have been one of these. And of Luke, we know from the Scripture that he "had perfect understanding of [or, was accurately acquainted with] all things from the very first." Luke 1:33It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, (Luke 1:3). Surely then we have sufficient facts recorded in the Scripture itself as to those who wrote the gospels that render it altogether unnecessary to elaborate human systems, let them be never so cleverly wrought.
But another question here arises: Suppose any one of these theories were correct, would it at all account without direct inspiration for the things recorded in the gospels? Suppose, for a moment, that oral teaching was the foundation of our first three gospels, and that oral teaching was by the apostles; how could the apostles know accurately what took place before they were apostles? the conversation, for instance, between the angel and Mary, and the angel and Elizabeth? And then, when they were apostles, how did they know what took place at the temptation of Christ? Who was there to hear? How did they know the conversation that took place between. Christ and the woman of Samaria? How did they know what Christ uttered in the garden of Gethsemane? Simply being apostles would not tell them these things; and how then could they record them? In John there are still deeper things: "In the beginning was the Word,... All things were made by Him," etc. How did he get this information? We cannot answer
these questions satisfactorily without bringing in divine inspiration. If God is the author, of course He could use any means that might exist, or He could make to the writer a direct revelation. He who revealed to Moses the account of the creation could as easily reveal to the evangelists what no human eye had ever seen, and what no human ear had ever heard.
But here these grave questions must be pressed: Is God the author of the four gospels? and if He is, has He done the work perfectly or imperfectly? Now it is to be feared that many a Christian would shrink from answering these questions. As a theory they hold of course the inspiration of the Scriptures, but if pressed with a few plain questions (for instance) as to the differences and apparent discrepancies of the four gospels, they bring in at once the human element, and alas, give that the prominent place; and, one is bold to say, that as they bring the human element into prominence, so they virtually shut God out, and virtually declare (though they would shudder to say so in so many words) that God has done the work imperfectly! We must let a writer speak for himself—one too, observe, who holds with the inspiration of the Scriptures:
"The men were full of the Holy Ghost—the books are the pouring out of that fullness through the men—the •conservation of the treasure in earthen vessels. The treasure is ours in all its richness; but it is ours, as only it can be ours, in the imperfections of human speech, in the limitations of human thought, in the variety incident first to individual character, and then to manifold transcription and the lapse of ages." -Alford's Greek Testament.
Alas, alas, for us! Must we then give up the perfect inspiration of the gospels? Must we admit that we have them only "in the imperfections of human speech," and "in the limitations of human thought?" Our blessed Lord often referred to His "words," and many simpleminded Christians thought they had in their New Testament the very words Christ uttered; are they now to believe that this is a mistake, and that much is uncertain? Christians have been in the habit of resting for comfort on single words; such as, "He that believeth on the Son bath everlasting life." Is this true or is it an "imperfection"? "My sheep... shall never perish": is this true, or is it a "limitation"? "The Word was God": is this true, or is it a "variety incident to individual character"? May we not exclaim, "If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?" But, thanks be to God, His foundations are not destroyed, and He has given us an assurance that answers fully and completely all these objections.