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Why Four Gospels?

“And why have we only four Gospels in the Bible testifying to Jesus instead of a dozen or more? Because Irenaeus, the real founder of the Canon, was explicit in the matter: there are four quarters of the earth, four universal winds, and animals have four legs. This bright boy of the Church should have added one more: a roller skate has four wheels.”
-Woolsey Teller

Why Four Gospels? Four Corners of the Earth
On Mon, 26 Apr 2004, Rob wrote
Subject: Four Gospels
Hi, I was wondering if you know where I can find those quotes from the early church on why there are *four* gospels. Do you know what I am speaking of? I think, for example, that one church father said four were chosen because of the “four winds”; another mentioned the “four cardinal virtures”; while yet another said something about the four rings that held the poles on the ark of the convenant! Iʼm on a debate board an I would like to bring this up.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004, Ed Babinski wrote:
Why are there only four gospels?

Dear Rob,

I think the idea of four Gospels being equivalent to “the earthʼs four corners, the four living creatures mentioned in Revelation, the four winds, and the four covenants mentioned in the Bible” was a later rationalization made by the early church father, Irenaeus.

The four Gospels we possess are probably the earliest known, Mark being the first written, with over 90% of Mark being reproduced in Matthew and Luke, and John being a later stage of Gospel development that the first three, since it represents a more highly defined theology and added resurrections miracles (raising of “Lazarus,” who appears as merely a begger in a parable in Luke), added resurrection appearances of Jesus in both Galilee (as in Mark and Matthew) and Jerusalem (as in Luke), and drops any and all the parables of Jesus in favor of having Jesus talk about himself constantly (all those “I ams”). Most scholars agree that the words of Jesus in the fourth Gospel (Gospel of John) are the least reliable and least authentic out of all of the Gospel sayings attributed to Jesus.

The Fourth Gospel ended with the verse about “many more things Jesus did, which if written down, I suppose the world could not contain all the books.” That verse reveals that MANY more stories about Jesus had arisen by the time the Fourth Gospel was being written, hence the many additional Gospels that came afterwards. But the church basically recognized the four we have in the Bible as being the earliest. Today, scholars point to the first three Gospels as being the earliest (Mark, then Matthew and Luke) and even argue about which verses inside those Gospels most likely reflect the original teachings of the historical Jesus rather than reflect teachings superimposed onto the story of Jesus by the church.

If you want to learn more about “Why there are only four Gospels” hereʼs a suggestion, go to the google search engine site at and type into the search box:

“Why are there only four gospels?”

or try…

“Why only four gospels?”

[Make sure you added the quotations marks for an EXACT match of those words in that order.]

Here are some matches and further answers to your question:

Why are there only four gospels? In fact there were others written, such as the gospels of Thomas, Philip, Peter, Ebionites, Hebrews, Nazarenes, James etc. The fact of four gospels rather than just one gospel also allowed Christianityʼs early opponents to point out the clashes between them. Indeed one heretical rival form of Christianity led by a man called Marcion (who was extremely influential and founded over 100 churches) banned Matthew, Mark and John and only wanted part of Luke! Another great and this time orthodox Christian teacher, Tatian, produced a harmony of the four gospels to avoid these difficulties and iron out the differences between them. His ‘harmony’ was called the ‘Diatessaron’ which means ‘through the four (and into the one gospel)’. Christianityʼs critics also pointed out the inconsistencies.

In these ways the early church was forced to say why it wanted four and only four gospels. Why not more? Why not less? Irenaeus the great Christian Bishop of Lyon in 180AD answered in a way which to us is not very persuasive. He said that the earth has four corners, there are four living creatures, there are four winds and there are four covenants. So there should be four gospels to match! Not a very strong argument for us now! The interesting thing is that the early church did stick by its four portraits despite the difficulties. There were three main criteria they used to select our four gospels from possible rivals. First, each of the four gospel writers was in some sense ‘apostolic’. Secondly, they were probably the gospels of four leading churches, the church in Rome, the church in Antioch, possibly the church in Ephesus and probably the church in another of the great Greek cities. Thirdly, almost all the churches valued, liked and used these four in preference to any others. In this booklet we look mainly at just one gospelʼs portrait, Matthewʼs.

B. Why Four Gospels?

1. Three answers (see the introductory letter from the calendar for more detail on this).

a. A content-oriented answer: In light of John 21:25, a better question is why only four gospels!?
b. A geographical answer: Four corners of the earth, or four people groups of the Gospel era:

  1. For the Jews-Matthew.
  2. For the Romans-Mark.
  3. For the Greeks -Luke.
  4. While John is for the world-the universal “kosmos” or cosmos, or world of the “whosoever”.

c. A Biblical-theological answer from Ezekiel 1 and 10, and Revelation 4-The Four Cherubim:

  1. The lion-Matthew who presents Jesus as the King of Israel.
  2. The ox-Mark who presents Jesus as the busy servant of the Lord.
  3. The man-Luke who presents Jesus as the perfect man who is the measure of all things
  4. The eagle-John who presents Jesus as the One who comes from the heavens to earth.
  5. This reflects the ancient church tradition of Irenaeus, a second century church father.

Why Only Four Gospels?

Canon- “reed” or “standard”. Books that define the faith.

By AD 180, the four gospels had clearly established themselves as the key witnesses to Jesus as several ancient witnesses make clear. All these witnesses date to the late second century, early third century (125-100 years before Nicea)

  1. Irenaeus- the “Four-fold Gospel” as the Gospel
  2. Tatian- The Diatessaron
  3. Muratorian Canon- only 4 Gospels listed
  4. Origen

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