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Why Four Gospels?

Okay, so I promised you guys a series on the Four Gospels, which I’m moving to this blog from my old blog. Before we jump into it, though, there are a few things we need to clear up. For example, this question: Why are there four Gospels and not some other number? Why not five, two, or even just one? In order to answer that question, we’ll have to turn to the early Church.

Many people have the misconception that the Church has always had the Four Gospels we know today–not true. In the early Church, the community faced the problem of having multiple Gospels, some of which contradicted each other. How should we decide which ones to keep? This is a two-fold question.

The first thing you must understand is how Scripture is linked with Tradition. The early Church had no written records of the life and death of Jesus Christ. What they did have, however, was oral tradition–the stories that were passed down to them that ultimately came from the Apostles, the men with whom Jesus traveled. So, when different written accounts or even different stories began to circulate, how did the faithful measure their truth? They compared it with the Tradition they already knew. If the gospel that came to them or the story someone told them was against what they themselves had already been taught, they rejected it.

Still the problem remains: we have these Four Gospels (the ones that the faithful have not widely rejected as being contrary to Tradition), which do we use for instruction?

That question was approached many different ways, most notably by three different men: Marcion, Tatian, and Irenaeus.

Marcion’s Idea

Marcion was a businessman from modern-day Turkey. As such, he was very objective and what many would call reasonable. Around the year 150, he proposed that the Church have one Gospel–just pick one. Marcion himself advocated the Gospel of Luke and felt that it was the best choice for the Church. This idea, however, was widely rejected because different Christian communities had grown up around different Gospels and didn’t like the idea of having to toss out their tradition. The Church felt that the people had to accept something in order for it to become doctrine, so Marcion’s idea was (politely, I’m sure) rejected.

Tatian’s Unity

And along comes Tatian. In the year 160, he proposed that the Church simply combine the Four Gospels into one Gospel to be used for the instruction of the faithful. This concept, called “Gospel harmony”, sought to combine the Gospels by picking and choosing the best parts from each. The idea, believe it or not, was actually highly popular among the faithful. It was, however, as you may have guessed, ultimately rejected. The concept would not do because the people and Church authority felt that it was necessary to maintain the different viewpoints found in the Gospels. So, bang goes Tatian’s theory. Who’s left standing?

Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons (Thank Goodness)

Here we have it! This is the man we have to thank for the Four Gospels rather than just one or some combination. Around the year 180, Irenaeus spoke up and said that the Church should keep each of the Four Gospels separately and preserve their fullness–they tell the same story in different ways. Why did we listen to Irenaeus? Well, first off, his theory seemed to be the most popular of all of them. Secondly, however, he was a bishop. As such, he listened to the faithful and heard them calling out for all Four Gospels, not just one and not a combination. Irenaeus felt that this desire should be brought to the attention of everyone in the Church. Thanks to him, the Church saw the need to keep all four accounts. This decision has held firm for roughly 2,000 years and (in my not so humble opinion) has worked out quite well.

So, that’s the story everybody. That’s how the Four Gospels we have were chosen, why there isn’t some other number, and why the other early Gospels were rejected.

But, you might still want to know what was in those other Gospels. Am I right? Well, if you’re thoroughly curious, you can read Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make it Into the New Testament by Bart D. Ehrman. This book offers a few of the texts that were not put into the canon of the New Testament and has one section dedicated to the Gospels that were rejected by the early Church. So, have a look if you’re curious.

Let’s Do Another Series!

One of my favorite topics we covered in the theology classes I took this past year was the Gospel message and how it is presented in each of the four gospel accounts. And I got to thinking…you guys might find this interesting, too.

This is part of the material that I told you I’d be moving over from my other blog, but I’m going to tweak it and spice it up a little so that it’s not just a glob of information. I’ll add some pictures, a little music…and, of course, the complimentary dry humor and sarcasm :D

So you guys can be looking forward to that. In the meantime, however…

I’d really like some recommendations!

It’s really hard to write a blog when you’re not sure what your topics for posts should be, so if you guys could see fit to comment/email and tell me what you want to hear about, I’d really appreciate it.


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