Why are there four such accounts instead of one? Jesus wrote no autobiography, nor did he designate any of his followers to write an “official” biography. Rather, the primary mission he gave his apostles was to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19) through preaching, teaching, and providing the sacraments of the Church (see also Mk 16:15-18; Jn 20:21-23; 21:15-17). This first “witness” to Christ (see Acts 1:8) was thus oral rather than written, with an emphasis on the demonstration of its truth through the holy lives of believers and the wonders worked among them (see 1 Cor 2:1-5).
In time, however, several of the first Christians concluded that it would be useful for the new community to have a written account of Jesus’ life and works. Luke’s statement of method and intention in producing his gospel suggests how they went about the task:
Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you… so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received. [Lk 1:1-4]
Not surprisingly, the four evangelists (gospel authors) used some of the same sources. But each seems to have drawn as well from sources not employed by the others, and each seems to have drawn as well from sources not employed by the others, and each arranged his material in a distinctive way. At the same time, no one of them could tell the whole story; as John’s gospel notes: “There are also many other thins that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25).
The result is that the four gospels, though telling essentially the same story, differ in many ways in content, perspective, emphasis, and style. The resulting variety provides the Church with a wonderful richness of insight that would be lacking if only one of the gospels had come down to us.