Why does the church have four separate accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus? And in what order were they written? In my book Why Four Gospels: The Historical Origins of the Gospels, I voice a theory first espoused by New Testament scholar Bernard Orchard in the mid-twentieth century called the Fourfold-Gospel Hypothesis.

Four Stages in the Writing of the Four Gospels

In preparing this book, I produced my own fresh translations of the church fathers from the original Greek and Latin. My view, based largely on the statements of these fathers, is that the Holy Spirit guided first Matthew, then Paul and his companion Luke, then Peter and his companion Mark, and finally John the apostle to hand on to the church during their own lifetimes the gospel given them by Jesus. This Spirit-directed process of inscripturating the fourfold gospel involved four main phases – four turning points at each of which a suitable gospel account was found to be necessary for its proper growth. These stages were the following:

1) The Jerusalem phase (Acts 1-12) under the leadership of Peter.

2) The Gentile mission phase (Acts 13-28) under the leadership of Paul.

3) The Roman phase requiring joint action by Peter and Paul.

4) The Johannine phase.

Matthew is the fundamental gospel, but each was written and published in response to a particular need of the church in a particular historical situation. Matthew was composed to meet the urgent needs of the primitive church of Jerusalem (the church established by Peter and the original apostles), which needed a manifesto defending its integrity and its right to exist in the earliest days of the church. Indeed, in the earliest canonical lists, Matthew always heads the list. The Spirit-directed process of inscripturating the fourfold gospel involved four main phases – four turning points at each of which a suitable gospel account was found to be necessary for its proper growth. Click To Tweet

Luke was written at the behest of the apostle Paul to meet the urgent needs of his church to have their own manifesto to prove their full equality with Jewish Christians. Clement of Alexandria stated that the gospels containing genealogies came first, i.e., Matthew and Luke.

Mark was the result of the collaboration of Peter and Paul to make sure that the spiritual unity of the universal church was not impaired as a result of the appearance of Luke beside Matthew in the churches of both. The external evidence is clear that Peter himself was responsible for the text of our Gospel of Mark and that it was composed not only after Matthew and Luke but also with their aid.

Finally, John answers the fundamental question: Who is Jesus?

The Fourfold-Gospel Hypothesis, as summarized above, has several advantages, I believe, over the widely held Two Source Hypothesis (stating that Mark and a hypothetical document called Q lay behind Matthew and Luke). It needs no hypothetical documents to support it. It has practically the total support of the patristic and historical evidence. The vivid details that Mark often adds to the stories of Matthew and Luke suggest an eyewitness (Peter) who knew both of the other gospels.

Of even greater significance, the Fourfold-Gospel Hypothesis respects and accepts the real life situation of the early church in the years 30-67 and agrees with the known history of the apostolic churches at all key points. Matthew’s gospel is the product of the earliest determination of the primitive church in Jerusalem to preserve the teaching of its Founder and to justify its separation from old Israel. On the other hand, the Gospel of Luke is the product of the crisis caused by the emergence of the Gentile churches alongside the primitive Jewish church. These were churches that needed to develop their own interpretation of the Christian mission as a sign and proof of their full and equal status. And it was the need to fuse together these two traditions – and the Gospels that symbolized them – into an unbreakable unity that led to the Gospel of Mark as the bridge between them.

To summarize the stages in the writing of the four gospels:

Stage 1: The apostle Matthew is chosen to set down in a single commercial-length scroll the apostles’ witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This “Gospel of Matthew” is published before the apostles separate under the persecution of Herod Agrippa I in 42.

Stage 2: Luke produces a “Gentile edition” of the Gospel of Matthew in 58-60. However, publication of this “Gospel of Luke” is withheld until apostolic approbation can guarantee its truthfulness and accuracy.

Stage 3: Paul, during his Roman detention, asks Peter to authorize Luke’s Gospel so that it can be published for use in the Gentile churches. Peter’s lectures are recorded by John Mark, Peter’s assistant.

Stage 4: The Gospel of John is published in Ephesus in 96 as the indispensable supplement to the other Gospel accounts.

For some readers, this hypothesis will seem not so cut-and-dried. But I hope to have shown that the patristic testimony is a friend rather than an enemy of gospel research. I have no desire to disturb contemporary views of biblical scholarship for the sake of novelty. But when any “solution” to the synoptic problem threatens to obscure important evidence, it seems to me that we must pause and reassess the situation. The traditional answer – that Mark’s Gospel is our very earliest – is no longer foolproof, if it ever was to begin with.


For more, please see my:

Why Four Gospels? Second Revised Edition. Gonzalez, FL: Energion, 2010.

Rethinking the Synoptic Problem. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001 (with David Beck).

Perspectives on the Ending of Mark. Nashville: B&H, 2008.

“Some Dissenting Notes on R. Stein’s The Synoptic Problem and Markan ‘Errors.’” Filologia Neotestamentaria 1 (1988): 95–101.

“The Historical Origins of the Gospels.” Faith and Mission 18 (2000): 21–42.

“Discourse Analysis, Synoptic Criticism, and the Problem of Markan Grammar: Some Methodological Considerations.”

Pages 90–98 in Linguistics and New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Discourse Analysis. Edited by David Alan Black, with Katharine Barnwell and Stephen Levinsohn. Nashville: Broadman, 1992.