Christians put a lot of emphasis on the life of Jesus, which is reported through four different sacred writings, the gospels of the New Testament. Why do you think the tradition has four different reports on the life of Jesus? Why not just choose the one that is most authoritative? What does the fact that the early Christians included four reports in their sacred writings suggest about how they understood their knowledge of the life of Jesus?
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I would say that there are two main reasons why there were different accounts of Jesus’ life in the traditional canon. First, when the Christian faith was in its infancy, the world was a very different place than it is now in that travel and communication were very slow. Second, the nascent church was trying to reach out to many different kinds of people in different circumstances. These two factors combined to create a need for more than one tradition.
In the early Common Era, the Christian church was trying to reach out to many different groups. These groups would have had different attitudes and different needs. When people wrote accounts of Jesus’ life, they naturally tailored their accounts to appeal to their target audiences. For example, we believe that the Gospel of Matthew was written to appeal to Jews and that the Gospel of Luke was written to appeal to Greeks. This diversity of audiences meant that a diversity of gospels would be produced.
In addition, conditions in the ancient world made it very hard for one single account of Jesus’s life to come to the fore. It would have been very hard, in this time before fast travel and communication, to get people to come together and agree on one single narrative of the life of Jesus. Instead, different traditions were created and those traditions differed in some ways.
When the early Church Fathers were deciding which gospels to accept, there would have been diversity of opinion among them. We know that there were serious differences of opinion about various aspects of Christian doctrine for centuries after the death of Christ. It would have been very hard for the leaders of the early church to agree on which narrative was most authoritative. I believe that this is why they kept four gospels instead of selecting just one.
We can argue that the selection of four gospels instead of one suggests that Christians felt that the overall message was more important than the details. It is likely that they thought that the important thing was to broadcast the idea that Jesus was a divine being who came to this world to sacrifice himself for our sins. They would have thought that disseminating this idea was more important than coming to agreement on the details of Jesus’ life so long after that life had ended.
The Gospels, while they report roughly the same things have some discrepancies. For instance, the gospel of John says nothing about the birth of Christ. It is for this reason, I believe, that all four accounts were included.
They also have very different voices. Luke was a physician and his account is generally more descriptive but concise. He seemed to be concerned with accuracy and efficively communicating the events that took place. John's account, however is much more poetic and seems concerned with capturing the reader's attention.
All four accounts are important in painting the most complete picture we can hope for of the life of Jesus Christ.
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