Imagine your four favorite meals. Now imagine them cut into bite-sized pieces and combined into one dish. That’s how we usually read the story of Jesus: we take four distinct stories and combine them into one. While the nutritive value is still there, whatever interesting textures or flavor combinations or visual appeal they once had is lost.
Most scholars recognize the following unique emphases in each gospel:
Matthew seems focused on showing how Jesus fits into Jewish prophecy and the Old Testament. This is done through frequent references to the fulfillment of OT prophecy as well as, some scholars believe, structuring the gospel in a way to suggest that Jesus is a new Moses (more on this in a future post perhaps).
Mark is focused on the theme of discipleship: What makes a good disciple? Why do some people stay true?
Luke is the gospel that Thomas S. Monson would have written had he had the assignment to write a gospel: it is wall-to-wall widows and orphans.
John is philosophical and cosmological and, paradoxically, full of simple concrete nouns (light, bread, water) that make first-year Greek students sigh in relief. (Interestingly, Luke’s concern for the down and out is paired with the most sophisticated Greek in the New Testament.)
My completely unsubstantiated suspicion is that, historically as well as today, the differences (many of which are not easily, if at all, reconcilable) between the four gospel accounts leave most readers feeling more comfortable ignoring the fact that there are four separate accounts and treating them as one. I’m sure our modern historicist biases contribute to this as well. But it’s worth remembering that there are four separate, distinct, unique accounts of Jesus’ life in the scriptures, not one.