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Why There Are Four Gospels?

The question of why there are four Gospels is an interesting one.  There are actually more than four Gospels circulating in the first and second centuries.  We have attestation of things like the Gospel of Thomas, which is a collection of sayings of Jesus.  We have reports in Church Fathers about other Gospels, Gospel of the Nazarenes, or the Gospel of the Hebrews.  So there are a number of people who are telling their stories of Jesus and recording memories of him.  I think what happened by the end of the first century the Church, and into the second century, the Church decided that there were four ones that represented the things that they, the Church wanted to transmit. 

All of these Gospels, the ones that have been canonical, that have been the authoritative stories of Jesus within the Christian tradition, have one key element, and that’s the focus on the death and resurrection.  And so, there was a process of sifting through all of these stories and reminiscences of Jesus that were generated by the early Church, that took place in the first and second centuries that focused, I think primarily, on certain kinds of doctrinal affirmations.  And that’s what the four Gospels share, while preserving some of the diversity in the memory and recollection of the followers of Jesus.

  • Harold W. Attridge

    Harold W. Attridge is the Sterling Professor of Divinity at Yale Divinity School. A graduate of Boston College, Cambridge University, and Harvard University, he served on the faculties of Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, the University of Notre Dame, and Yale Divinity School, where he was dean from 2002 to 2012. Among his publications are Essays on John and Hebrews (Mohr-Siebeck, 2010; repr., Baker, 2012).