We take it for granted that there are four New Testament Gospels, but consider for a moment: Why four and not just one?
Why would God inspire varying versions of Jesus' life? Why didn't the first-century church assign some editor to blend the accounts into a single narrative?
Robin Griffith-Jones, 43, Master of London's venerable Temple Church and formerly a New Testament teacher at Oxford University, said in an interview that the Gospels' parallel accounts continue a practice from the Old Testament. God decided to give us a complex story, he remarked.
There's also the human side: Four influential communities "had their own Gospel that they wanted to keep" and lobbied successfully when the early church selected the New Testament books.
Why don't we have five or six Gospels? Because the church rejected writings from hardline Jewish Christians who were "quite incapable of absorbing the Gentiles," he said, and from Gnostic teachers who wanted a purely "spiritual" savior and "didn't understand the fleshiness of Jesus."
Dr. Griffith-Jones has a new book about the Gospels, The Four Witnesses, from HarperSanFrancisco.
None of the Gospels is attributed (the four titles we use were added later), so Dr. Griffith-Jones calls the anonymous authors the Rabbi, the Rebel, the Chronicler and the Mystic.
Some of his other observations:
This highly Jewish Gospel, produced around A.D. 80, was attributed to the apostle Matthew - but would a tax collector have been this sophisticated? It was probably written in Antioch, Syria, a major Christian center, and reflected bitter division between Jews who followed the great teacher Jesus and those who didn't.
The Gospel begins with Isaiah's promise of Emmanuel, "God with us," (1:23) and ends with Jesus assuring believers, "I am with you always" (28:20). In Matthew, "God with us is disclosed as Jesus with us. Everything falls into place."
Early tradition said the material came from the apostle Peter. This Gospel, skeptical toward the social elite, was written for persecuted Jewish Christians in Rome who were blamed for the fire of A.D. 64 under the Emperor Nero.
Mark is "one giant parable of the kingdom of God" and an "invitation to present experience," Griffith-Jones said. It concludes by telling the apostles to go to Galilee and meet Jesus (16:7), which all believers must do, again and again.
This Gospel, also from around A.D. 80, was attributed to Paul's companion Luke. The author's audience was educated Gentiles at a time when Christians wanted to show they posed no threat to Rome.
One key comes when the risen Jesus meets his followers traveling to Emmaus (24:13-35). Judas Maccabeus had won a great Jewish battle there and the disciples still expected a political Messiah, but Luke teaches that Jesus' revolution is spiritual.
This Gospel, Dr. Griffith-Jones' favorite, probably came from Ephesus toward the end of the first century. It's possible the apostle John had a hand in it. The "long and spiraling dialogues are John's way of teasing us into a completely new way of thought" about Jesus.
The author wanted each reader to identify with the characters. Like Nicodemus, he needs to be born again from above. Like the cripple and blind man, he needs restoration. Like Lazarus, he will rise from the dead.
John begins echoing Genesis, where the light of creation emerged from darkness, and ends with discovery of the empty tomb while it's still dark. And, there's a garden in both cases.
Dr. Griffith-Jones observes, "We're back in Eden, but without the serpent. All creation has been renewed."