Why Four Gospels?

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Puzzling to anyone opening the pages of Scripture is the fact that there are four books, all of them differing from one another to varying degrees, that bear the name ‘gospel’.  From the earliest generations of the church, there have been attempts to harmonize these accounts to form a single ‘life of Christ’. To some degree, this is an unavoidable and even desirable task. Harmonies of the gospels, e.g. by Augustine and Calvin, both attempt to make sense of the welter of events within the life of Christ and account for the nature of his ministry. So long as these harmonies acknowledge the diversity of the sources and do not attempt to flatten them, these can be helpful. After all, we do not actually have four gospels, but one gospel pronounced by four sources – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. There are worse ways to harmonize, however. Tatian and Marcion in the early church both attempted to harmonize the gospels in order to declare the fourfold gospel of the church anomalous, to privilege one flattened account as the gospel that suited their own theological purposes.

There is yet another way to do injury to the gospels – to see the particularity and diversity of the gospels as mutually exclusive and as evidence of fissiparous tendencies in the early church so as to undermine the cogency of the single gospel expressed in four sources. The church has always acknowledged the close similarity between Mathew, Mark, and Luke and the divergence of John, but it has also always seen these four accounts as the revelation of God and hence as complementary rather than competitive. Modern higher criticism sees them as texts among others in the late antique world and hence evaluates them solely as human productions. Hence the rise of the so-called ‘synoptic problem’ in which dating Matthew, Mark, and Luke become a key focus. Source criticism in particular can fragment the unity of the gospel by positing diverse communities that produced the material shared between Matthew and Luke but not in Mark (Q) and the material in Luke but not in Matthew (L). Despite the fact that there is no manuscript evidence to back up this claim, as Philip Jenkins has argued, scholars have attempted to reconstruct the content of these texts, imagining that the Q community, for instance, possessed a theology similar to that expressed in the Gospel of Thomas.

What would happen if we returned from scholarly skepticism, not by ignoring the insights of historical criticism, but in order to see these texts freshly as God’s revelation to the church? We might see merit in the third century church father Irenaeus’s proposal of how we should understand the way the gospels fit together. Irenaeus argued, in a complex weaving of biblical texts, that one should see in the four faces of the cherubim an image of how the gospels fit together. The faces of the cherubim – a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle (Rev. 4:7) – reflected salvation history which was gathered together and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Scholars have struggled to find the meaning of Irenaeus’s argument here, and have often stated it only to dismiss it as infantile or argumentatively feeble (one is reminded here of Charles Augustus Briggs’s quip that the church fathers should really be called the ‘church babies’ since they didn’t have access to historical critical textual methods).

The reality, however, is that Irenaeus is on to something in this exegetical insight.  Peter Leithart has recently made a profound argument for its retrieval in The Four: A Survey of the Gospels. Leithart notes that ‘the ox is a ‘priestly’ animal, associated with sacrifice and especially with the priests’ sacrifice (cf. Lev. 4). The lion is a symbol of the Davidic dynasty, the ‘lion of the tribe of Judah’ (Gen. 49.9; Rev. 5.5), a kingly beast. The eagle is an unclean animal, representing Gentiles, and in some prophetic passages the eagle symbolizes swift invaders (Jer. 48.40; 49.22; Lam. 4.19)’. Matthew as the Jewish gospel is the ox, Mark is the lion, Luke is the eagle, and John is the man. The man sums up all of the other three emphases but goes further to give cosmic grounding to the work of Christ. Jesus is the word made flesh, God with us. (113). Thus it is a not a bowdlerized version of the life of Christ that we need to see the whole Christ. Each perspective is ‘symphonic’ in Leithart’s felicitous phrasing, and we need to see each as enhancing the other three: ‘When we read the gospel as a symphony in four movements, we see a growth and maturation. Jesus is the Jewish Messiah; and yet more, Jesus is the Crucified Messiah; and yet more, Jesus is the universal savior; and more, Jesus is the Word made flesh’ (114).