Episode 9: Why are there four Gospels?
The title of this episode is a question from one of our listeners. Dan Weatherall and Jon Davies explore what’s behind it and find that there are even bigger questions to consider, like why are there differences between the Gospels? How we answer that gets to the heart of what the Gospels are for and how we read them. Listen in and see what you think!
Apologies that the sound quality is not quite as good in this episode.
Dan and Jon start with framing the problem. If the four gospels are indeed significantly different from each other, then this may call into question their reliability. Can we trust them if they give different details? Why don’t they agree, for example, on how many women were at the tomb of Jesus?
Cannot agree on anything?
Jon brings out a quote from the notable writer Christopher Hitchens who said that the four Gospels:
“cannot agree on anything of importance.”Hitchens, C. (2007), God is Not Great, p. 111
If that was shown to be the case then it would really shake the foundations of the gospels as conveying any kind of reliable historical data.
However, things are rarely that straightforward and this is no exception. The very core of the four gospels is shared by each of the four writers. They all make the same claims about Jesus; they have the same locations and other characters in the narrative; each of them have Jesus teaching about the kingdom, asking people to follow him and teaching in parables. The four gospels show Jesus riding into Jerusalem and being killed by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. These are not unimportant details – these are the main claims of the four gospels and they all agree.
The four Gospels each have a purpose
When you read the different gospels it becomes clear that they each have a purpose for writing. They are not simply recording history for the sake of recording history and in fact they are close to an ancient genre of biography because they show similar features. One New Testament scholar, Michael Licona, identified lots of similarities between how the Gospels portray Jesus and how Plutarch wrote about historical people in his biographies.
Jon and Dan discuss the ways that ancient biographical authors (and indeed some modern authors!) tend to group events together by particular themes, rather than strictly chronologically. This would explain why stories in different gospels which seem to be the same event are in different orders, for example when Jesus cleared out the temple.
Taking another example, Matthew has structured lots of Jesus’ teaching into five key discourses, and these are on different themes. The Sermon on the Mount is one such example (Matthew 5-7) and this ends with the crowds amazed at his authority, (Matthew 7:28-29). What follows in Matthew 8 and 9 is a series of amazing stories that prove that Jesus has authority to teach in the way he did, (for example, Matthew 8:23-27 and Matthew 9:6-8). The differences in order and chronology do not matter because Matthew has organised his work thematically.
Minor difference are evidence for historicity
Another matter addressed by Jon and Dan is how that smaller differences between the gospels are actually evidence for the larger events being trustworthy. That’s how normal historical investigation works. If there are multiple sources for the same event that have large agreement but with minor differences then this is very strong evidence that the main event happened broadly speaking along the lines of how all the sources explain.
All these factors come together to suggest that the differences we see between the gospels are not only understandable, they are to be expected. Once we enter into the purpose of the gospels we can more easily see that these differences do not damage their credibility. But there is also so much more going on than simple history.
What do you think about the four Gospels?
Hitchens, C. (2007), God is Not Great, p. 111
Licona, M. (2017), Why are there difference in the Gospels