A question that is logically posed by readers of Scripture is, why are there four gospels? The question becomes more interesting when one begins to read the four evangelists; a striking feature is both their similarity and dissimilarity. Are these biographies of Jesus? If the Holy Spirit inspired these records, surely there should be one story, one official biography? These questions can sometimes trouble new believers, and unsettle them when they encounter the differences. They begin to wonder, what Jesus actually say? But it tends to be an unformed view of both Scripture and inspiration that is behind these questions. If we approach the gospel records with the right frame of mind, this transforms our view, and most importantly, they transform us. It has helped me to bear several things in mind when I read the gospels.
The Holy Spirit is an editor. The four evangelists were not simply stenographers who followed Jesus around Palestine with quill and scroll, recording every utterance. Two of them, Matthew and John, were themselves apostles, and so kept company with Jesus. Mark and Luke were not among the Twelve, and so they relied on other sources. It’s clear when reading the gospels that all of them bear slight differences to one another, even in the synoptics – the first three that share a similar viewpoint. Imagine if four directors, four cinematographers, filmed an event. The resulting films would no doubt differ from one another, in what each director chose to highlight, where to cut and edit. But would these differences cause one to say, “The second director was not there, because his version differs from the first”? That would be a naive conclusion, and it is similar with the gospels. The differences between them do not indicate a failure to corroborate the evidence, but the subtleties of each gospel writer.
There is a theological purpose in each evangelist. Matthew is commonly regarded as the more Jewish gospel, appealing to the seed of Jacob. For example, the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter is found in Mark 7. Jesus answers the entreaties of the woman to heal her child somewhat abruptly “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Matthew’s account is a bit different. He identifies her as a Canaanite, while Mark calls her a Gentile, a Syrophoenician. Matthew also records Jesus as saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Why these differences? Matthew’s gospel consistently has this Jewish perspective, a focus on Israel, while this is far more muted in Mark. The Holy Spirit, through Matthew, is accomplishing a different theological emphasis from Mark, and the other evangelists. When we study the individual incidents themselves (often called periscopes), we again see differences and similarities among the gospels. The question of why some are included, some are omitted, is often called redaction, but it simply means that the evangelists choose the material they include, what they omit, and the ordering of it. This process is not at all inconsistent with a high view of inspiration. The Holy Spirit can choose the methods he uses to move the writers of Scripture.
Jesus’ common language was not Greek. The New Testament was written in koine (common) Greek, due to economic and political conditions that prevailed in the first century. But the Jews of Palestine did not speak Greek among themselves. They spoke Aramaic, a dialect of Syriac. The gospels are therefore already at one level of remove from the words that Jesus spoke. This, too, is not at all problematic if one remembers that the Holy Spirit is behind these records. He inspired the writers of the gospel records to write what they did, and human language is no barrier to him. He inspired what he wanted recorded about Jesus, with all the rich theological significance that the four gospels give us. If this requires you to adjust your view of inspiration, you shouldn’t fear this honest assessment of the material. Recognizing that even in the act of writing the gospels, a translation took place, in no way undermines their authority of accuracy.
Scholarship is not the enemy of truth. There has certainly been a lot of nonsense published in the name of scholarship, (the Jesus Seminar of several years back, for example), but close study of the gospel records, their sources, and textual criticism is nothing that believers should fear. Indeed, the more one does study the gospels closely, the more amazing they prove themselves to be as God-breathed documents on the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve found a couple of books very helpful in gospel study. The first is The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Craig Blomberg. Blomberg is a first-rate scholar, and a Christian – something that is not a given in New Testament studies. His book is a careful analysis of why the gospels are trustworthy. The other book is W. Graham Scroggie’s A Guide to the Gospels. Scroggie’s book is a series of studies on various aspects of the evangelist’s records. It Luke’s use of Mark, Features of Matthew’s Gospel, for example. Traversing the material from several different approaches like this yields much benefit. No matter how one approaches them, the gospels deserve the attention of every believer.