The Truth of Four Gospels


I’ve learned to appreciate the diversity among and tension between the four canonical gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ live, death, and resurrection. But I admit that the differences used to disturb me. An important component of making my peace with the differences between the gospels was the realization that the early church recognized the differences and still chose to include all four in the New Testament canon. Luke T. Johnson provides a helpful, if somewhat scholarly, summary:

Apparently scandalized by the plurality of the Gospels, Tatian [c. 120–180, before the formation of the New Testament Canon] composed the Diatessaron (literally, “through the four”), which wove together the four [now] canonical versions into a single consistent narrative. Tatian seemed to be assuming that a single “story of Jesus” should be normative for Christians. … Tatian’s work was enormously successful in some areas for several centruies. But even in those regions, it was eventually supplanted by the four Gospels it had been intended to replace. The rejection of Tatian’s option represented the affirmation of the fourfold Gospels in all their factual diversity and disagreement. By implication, the Gospels are valued as witnesses to and interpretations of the “real Jesus” rather than as sources for the “historical Jesus.”

the church canonized separate literary compositions called Gospels. These texts as texts are read in the assembly as the word of God, are debated in council for the direction of the church, are used in theology for the understanding of faith. By canonizing four such versions of gospel, the church obviously also accepted them in all their diversity as normative. That is to say, their normative character is not found outside the texts and apart from their diversity, but within these texts in all their diversity.

Luke T. Johnson, The Real Jesus, 147-149.

Johnson also asserts, and I agree, that the truth of of Lord and Savior is too great to be contained in any one account. Actually, it’s too big to be completely contained in four, but four is better than one.