It’s no accident that there are four gospels. God intentionally gave us four records of the life of Jesus. More so, God gave us four records that are fairly similar (obviously), and they were canonized as the first four books of the New Testament. This means that the faithful, diligent reader must read through the same material four times.
This means that thinking through the literary and theological effects of four gospels seems a worthy pursuit. Assuming that the Bible is meant to be read straight through, we run into repetition in a few places in the Old Testament. Chronicles is a retelling of Kings, and there are portions of stories that are retold such as 2 Kings 18-20 and Isaiah 36-39 as well as songs (compare 2 Sam. 22 and Psalm 18). Deuteronomy recaps various portions of Exodus and Numbers and Leviticus. Judges overlaps with Joshua. And the instructions of the building of the tabernacle are repeated at the end of Exodus as those instructions are carried out. We might also point out the genealogies that repeat names and family lines in various places of Scripture.
But when a reader comes to the gospels there is something even more obvious and startling going on. The three synoptics with John’s fourth gospel piling on top emphasize, underline, and echo with various stories, parables, sermons, teaching, miracles, and of course the passion narratives in particular. If there are various portions of Old Covenant Scriptures that repeat themselves, the gospels are way over the top.
What kind of readers/hearers does this kind of repetition create? What is usually called the “synoptic problem” with regards to sources and dissimilarities seems rather actually to be something of an intentional solution, part of the plan. As the Word has its way with God’s people, there are a number of tracks that are meant to be played repeatedly. If God wanted us to have to plow through the same material four times every time we started the New Covenant Scriptures, we might ask ‘why?’.
What does a fourfold repetition of very similar stories do to us? For example, the repetition makes minor characters closer to major characters. Mary, the mother of Jesus is important as the Virgin Mother of Jesus, but she really does not play much of an explicit role elsewhere in the New Testament, but her presence in the gospels gives her a four-fold standing in the story. By the time we get to John, and she is asking Jesus to help with the wine-shortage problem at the wedding in Cana, we feel like we really know this woman a bit more than when we began in Matthew’s gospel. A relatively minor character (in terms of time on stage) grows and expands and matures over the course of four gospels.
But this works not only by repetition, but also by absence. Because of the similarities, there is a constant invitation to compare the gospels, and therefore especially the first three. And then not only do the similarities stand out, but so do the dissimilarities. Like, who’s that naked guy running in the garden after Jesus is arrested in Mark’s gospel? A seemingly tiny detail becomes huge, startling, and seemingly important. We might not remember a random event like that in Judges as well as we ought to if we’re regularly reading straight through the four gospels.
What else does having four gospels do to readers? What kind people does a fourfold repetition of the central story of our faith create?