I'm getting very close to being done with my Great Bible Readthru of Lent 2018. I have just read three of the four gospels; all three synoptic gospels down, John to go. Which begs the question that has occurred to me from time to time: why are there four gospels? And why are three so similar, while the fourth is so different? When you read them all in a row, it becomes very clear how similar Matthew, Mark, and Luke are to each other. And then you reach John, and things get really different. It's still kind of amazing and confusing to me that someone in the early days didn't sit down and just compile all of the gospels into one super-gospel. Don't get me wrong, I'm kind of glad they didn't; it's more interesting to have the New Testament as it is. But it doesn't really make a whole lot of sense, does it?
The most common modern answer tends to be the old "car accident" analogy: if there is a car accident witnessed by several different people, who saw it from different angles, wouldn't you want all of the reports? And wouldn't they all be slightly different? This one has always struck me as being a little silly. Of course you would get several different reports, but wouldn't you eventually want to compile those disparate reports into a coherent narrative? To extend the car accident metaphor: if you were a reporter who had interviewed all the witnesses, you would probably collate the reports into one narrative, perhaps quoting from the different witnesses. You wouldn't just write down all the different reports, one after another. This analogy also doesn't explain why John's gospel is so different from the other three, and why the synoptics obviously borrow material from each other, down to specific wordings.
I've also read about how the four gospels examine Jesus' life and ministry in different ways: Matthew appeals to the Hebrew Scriptures more often, Mark's account is really concise, Luke's gospel is more meticulously researched, John's is more "spiritual" in its approach. I agree with this analysis, but it still doesn't explain why there are four, and not, say, five...or twelve. And while I agree that it's useful to be able to view Jesus from different perspectives, it still doesn't explain why the canon developed in this way. I guess it's a little like the way the narrative from Samuel and Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures were reinterpreted in Chronicles. It's still weird, though...
I can't find it online right now, but I've also read that, in the early days of the development of the canon, some church fathers said there have to be four gospels, just as there are four points of a compass. In other words, there was a mystical kind of numerological significance to the number four. I imagine it could have been related to the ancient concept of four elements: earth, air, fire, water. Or the "four corners" of the earth. This strikes me as a little more accurate than a lot of the modern analogies. Our forefathers were more concerned about the meaning of the canon, and there are probably some questions about how that canon developed that we'll never really know the answer to. (After all, we don't find many New Testaments that include the Didache or the Shepherd of Hermas, do we?)
I guess, in the end, the answer to my question is simply..."just because." We have four gospels because we have four gospels. (And despite the Jesus Seminar's attempt many years ago to get the Gospel of Thomas accepted into the canon, there's not a significant movement to expand Scripture in that way.) As I said above, I'm actually glad there are four gospels; I think the New Testament is a richer tapestry because of it. But if anyone has any other perspectives on the topic, I'd love to hear from you! Feel free to comment...
(adj.) wild and frenzied; from Greek κορυβαντες (Korybantes)