As for the four canonical gospels, those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, perhaps we should begin by pointing out that today most biblical scholars believe that they, along with sixteen other books and documents in the New Testament appear to be pseudepigraphical—that is, not written by the people to whom they were originally attributed by the early Church, but by unknown others.
Indeed, the ultra-conservative Catholic Encyclopedia notes that, “The first four historical books of the New Testament are supplied with titles that however ancient, don’t go back to the respective authors of those sacred texts. [While both] Clement of Alexandria, and St. Irenaeus bear distinct witness to the existence of those [titles] in the latter part of the second century . . . and imply that [by then] they’d been in use for a considerable time—[from which we may infer] that they’d been prefixed to the evangelical narratives as early as the first part of that same century—the position generally held at present is that they don’t go back [as far as] the first century, or at least that they’re not [the] original texts. [It’s also] felt that [the same is true] for the four Gospels, [that] although the four were composed at some interval from each other, the titles were not prefixed to each individual narrative before the collection of the four Gospels was actually made.”
Moreover, the general consensus among scholars is that the first to have been written wasn’t Matthew, but Mark, which is found to date from around 65 or 70, or only a generation or so after Jesus’ death; while Matthew and Luke appear to have been written about 85 or 90—a full half century after the events that they purport to describe—and John, even later, or sometime around 120. Which might cause one to wonder just why the four authorized Gospels appear in the New Testament in the order that they actually do.
So now let’s take a look at them one at a time.
Mark is often described as reading like an ordinary, dispassionate newspaper account, simply beginning with young Jesus being baptized in the Jordan and ending with his death, burial, and the discovery of his empty tomb.
For those who might be a little confused by the last part of that statement, you should know that according to just about everyone who’s studied the composition of this Gospel in its original Greek finds that the wording, grammar, syntax and so forth of its final twelve verses is such that this portion—in which a few individuals are reported to have seen Jesus alive following the discovery of the empty tomb—was almost certainly added by someone else at a later date. And most modern churches agree; which is why in today’s Bibles you’ll see a small, special editorial mark after the eighth verse of chapter sixteen: the point at which the original manuscript appears to have ended.
Meanwhile, Matthew and Luke, written about the same time and seemingly, or dare we say, rather conviently supporting each other—albeit Luke is known to have undergone a series of revisions lasting well into the second century—appears at the outset to be preoccupied, alone among all the Gospels canonical and otherwise, with tracing Jesus’ geneology and confirming the many popular rumors and various stories in those days of his miraculous virgin-birth.
And then, only in Matthew do we find the purported statement by Jesus, “ . . . thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven . . .” (Matthew 16:18-19)
Surely such an important declaration by Jesus—authorizing Peter to lead his Church as the first Pope, if he really made it—would have been reported somewhere in all those other Gospels; but it wasn’t. Now you know why I used the word purported.
Which of course, may be precisely why Matthew, rather than Mark, was chosen by the early Church to lead off the Gospel parade.
And finally, just how did Christianity wind up with only four Gospels—an incredibly low number when you consider that at least some of the others must have had something going for them to have been regarded as credible accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings in their respective communities.
Well, our answer to that one begins with the fact that around the end of the Stone Age, when people would appear to have first become aware that the world not only had four seasons, but four main, or ‘cardinal’ compass points, they soon became so enamoured of that number as an important integer of their world that they ultimately incorporated it into many of their everyday affairs.
Thus the world has come to be described by some as made up of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire—in this case, referring to the burning heat of the sun.
While the Diné, or Navajo people of the American Southwest claim that when they first emerged from the earth in the Beginning, they found the part of the world that had been given to them by the Earth-mother delimited by four sacred mountains: to the east, Sisnaajini, or as we know it, Mt. Blanca in the eastern Colorado Rockies; to the south, Tsoodzi
l, or Mt. Taylor in the Jemez Mountains of southern New Mexico; to the west, Dook’o’s tiid, or the San Francisco peaks in Arizona; and to the north, Dibé Ntsaa, or Mt. Hesperus in the San Juan Mountains of far western Colorado.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles across the Pacific, the ancient Chinese too came to describe their land as delimited by four sacred mountains—to the east, Tài Shān, or Tranquil Mountain; to the west, Huà Shān, or Splendid Mountain; to the south, Héng Shān Nan, or Balancing Mountain, and to the north, Héng Shān Bei, or Permanent Mountain—plus a fifth squarely in the middle, Sōng Shān, or Lofty Mountain.
The Taoist Chinese confine themselves to the more typical four: Wǔdāng Shān, literally Military Wherewithal; Lónghŭ Shān, or Dragon and Tiger; Qíyún Shān, Neat Clouds; and Qīngchéng Shān, Misty Green City Wall.
While the Buddhist Chinese also have four: Wûtai Shān, or Five-platform Mountain; Éméi Shān, or High and Lofty Mountain; Jǐuhuá Shān, or Nine Glories Mountain; and Pǔtuó Shān, or Mount Potalaka.
And then, the Incas came to speak of four divine Mothers: Mama Pacha, the Earth-mother; Mama Cocha, the Sea-mother; Mama Sara, the Corn-mother; and Mama Quilla, the Moon-mother; while some Native American peoples traditionally executed their less respectful captives by staking them out on the ground with their head, feet, and arms pointing in the four cardinal directions—thereby forming a ‘cross’—and simply leaving them there to die; and the first Christian missionaries to make contact with the Zapotec people of southern Mexico found that they traditionally buried their dead in four-chambered, cross-shaped graves carefully oriented to the cardinal compass-points—of course, which caused more than a few among the missionaries to scream, “Blasphemy!”, no matter that peoples in both the Old World and the New had for many centuries oriented their numerous pyramids, i.e. artificial ‘mountains’ in the same fashion.
And those four recognized Gospels? Well, Hindus would tell you that remarkably enough, they too have exactly four sacred texts, or Vedas: the Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda, and Atharva-Veda. That their own religion speaks of the Four Aims of one’s life: purpose, order, pleasure, and ultimate release from the endless cycle of being. Of the Four Stages of life: student, worker, retiree, and finally the life of a wandering ascetic seeking that final experience of oneness with the universe. Of the Four Castes: the Brahmanic priests and other teachers; warriors, including the politicians who fought for causes; farmers and other entrepreneurs; and servants, including manual laborers.
While Buddhists speak of the Four Sights—an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and an ascetic—that affected Prince Siddartha so deeply that he subsequently sought out and achieved Buddha-hood. Of the Four Noble Truths: desire, suffering, the eventual cessation of desire, and the right path to take in order to finally be done with that endless cycle of re-birth. Of the Four Foundations of mindfulness: contemplation of one’s body, then of one’s feelings, of one’s mind, and finally of one’s mind’s pesky, illusory objects. Of these Four Heavenly Kings, each of whom watches over the world at one of the main compass points. Of the Four Divine Abidings: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Of Buddhism’s Four Important Pilgrimage Sites: Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, and Kusinara.
While along with those four recognized Gospels, there’s Judeo-Christianity’s own Four-letter Tetragrammaton, YHWH, from which the name ‘Yahweh’ is speculatively derived. And its Four Matriarchs: Sarah, Rebeka, Leah, and Rachel; And Ezekial’s vision of Four Living Creatures, with their Four Faces—that of a man, a lion, an ox, and a Four-winged eagle—oriented to the four directions. And the Four Sacred Cities of Judaism: Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias. And the Four Sacred Steps that must be performed on the Jewish Passover: Four Glasses of Wine to be drunk, Four Questions to be asked, Four Sons to be dealt with, and Four Expressions of Redemption to be said. And finally of course, there are Christianity’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death.
Not to forget Islam’s Four Archangels: Gabriel, Michael, Azrael, and Raphael. Or its Four Rightly Guided Caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali ibn Abi Talib. Or Sunni Islam’s Four Great Teachers: Abū Ḥanīfa, Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi’i, Malik ibn Anas, and Ahmad ibn Hanbal. Or Islam’s Four Sacred Books: the Torah, Zaboor, Injeel, and Qur’an. Or its Four Months during which war is not permitted: Muharram, Rajab, Dhu al-Qi’dah, and Dhu al-Hijjah. Or the Respite of Four Months that was granted to the mushriks at Surah At-Tawba so that they might consider their position and then decide whether to make preparation for war, emigrate from the country, or accept the religion of Muhammad. And even the Four-month Period that Islam ordains as the proper amount of time for those who might take an oath of sexual abstention to stay away from their wives.
Or at the beginning of all this, we could have simply noted that no less an ancient authority than the Church’s own, now-sainted Iraneus is found to have once stated, “There must be four gospels and only four, because there are four corners of the Earth and thus the Church should have four pillars.” But then we’d have completely missed the fact that the whole world—scarcely excluding the ancient Romans, with their odd, seemingly laborious method of affixing their own enemies to an upright, four-pointed cross and leaving them to die—is known to have eventually fallen under the mystique of that number.
(Wikipedia, Pseudepigrapha) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudepigrapha
(Wikipedia, Gospel of Mark) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Mark
(Wikipedia, The Decolonial Atlas, The Four Sacred Mountains of the Navajo) https://decolonialatlas.wordpress.com/contact/
(Wikipedia, Sacred Mountains of China) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred_Mountains_of_China
(Wikipedia, 4, In religion) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/4