Mike’s note: This is part of a guest series by Alexander John Shaia, sharing his insights gleaned from a lifetime of studying (and living) personal transformation, closely based on his explosive book Heart and Mind. Want to meet him in person? Join Alexander, Mona Haydar, Jasmin Morrell, Bushi Yamato Damashii, myself and others at Wisdom Camp this July 12th! Details and registration here. In the meantime, enjoy this reflection!
In 315 CE, Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. As Roman oppression lifted, communication became easier among various Christian communities; as a result, Christians realized that wide differences in belief existed between them. Theological arguments erupted. Over the fourth century, various councils were held, beliefs were standardized, and practices were developed, refined, and formalized. Gospel texts were one of the many things systematized. At the time, there were at least fifty texts called a gospel!
A number of historians have suggested that sexism, power, and privilege had a great hand in the winnowing to four texts. And of course all of these could have been factors.
Nonetheless, one question remains a puzzlement:
Why were multiple gospels selected?
If the point was to tell the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, one account would be sufficient to accomplish that purpose. Or, if more than one account was desired for some reason, one would think they should substantially agree with each other. However, four texts – Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke – were affirmed as “true” gospels, and they have significant discrepancies. Why were four accounts chosen, and why these four? There are no written documents that definitively answer these questions, but there are some significant clues.
We do know that Irenaeus, the bishop of Lugdonum (Lyon, in today’s France), attached divine and universal significance to the number four. In 180 CE, he pronounced, “The Gospels could not possibly be either more or less in number than they are. Since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds…it is clear that the Word…gave us the gospel, fourfold in form but held together by one Spirit.” The four texts together were entitled Euaggelion, which means “the good news of the kingdom.” Furthermore, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea and a church historian, labeled Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke “the holy quaternion of the gospel” (singular) in about 300 CE.
Most importantly, as Christian evangelists walked from village to village in those early centuries, it seemed that these four gospels (of all the accounts then available) were the ones most often shared to open new hearts and minds. Believers chose to pray and pass these words on to others. The early communities appear to have found a power in these four gospels that was not present in the other texts. It is my belief that the efficacy of these particular gospels in the transformation of people’s lives, transmitted using the vitality of the oral ‘here and now’ gospel form, went hand-in-hand with the rapid and powerful spread of a new path of living called The Way.
Subsequent to the various councils, five lectionaries (books of mandatory Sunday readings) were adopted—one in each region of Christendom. While each region had variations in the chosen text from Sunday to Sunday, the five were broadly consistent. From the fourth through the seventh centuries, in Sunday services throughout the Christian world, all four gospels were chanted or read aloud in a similar progression over a three-year cycle. This also maintained a Judaic custom called the Palestinian Cycle that called for chanting the entire Torah over three years of Shabbat.
The widespread use of this reading progression meant that hearing the four gospels in a sequence was a bedrock element of early Christian practice. The first year was dedicated to the Gospel of Matthew, the second to Mark, and the third to Luke. These gospels have clear story lines, and are called ‘synoptic’ gospels. John’s gospel—less a story and more a series of thematic meditations—was reserved for a special purpose. From the late second century onward, major portions of the Gospel of John were read primarily during Lent and Easter. However, during the Seasons of Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sundays after Pentecost, small portions of John were interspersed amongst readings from the other three gospels to more deeply illuminate and complete their messages.
Exactly how did the idea of combining a general belief in the fourfold journey with the selection of specified gospels in a clear sequence occur? Did they see the journey reflected in these four gospels, as I have? Maybe this was a customary way the four were already read? Were lots drawn? I do not pretend to know.
Happenstance or calculation, an individual or a committee? My belief is that people who were charged with discernment and decision-making converged with a sequence of spiritual practices already known to work well. The pressures, realities, and needs of the society at that particular point in history played their part, as they always do. Then grace intervened and the pattern was set.
I doubt we will ever be certain how the pattern came to be created, but undeniably the four-gospel journey set in the three-year Sunday cycle held a great design, and that design went far beyond the stories and lessons told by the individual gospels. This great pattern seemingly worked very well for hundreds of years. Then, abruptly it was cast aside.
Sometime in the 600s, the Christian church apparently decided that it needed a simpler story. Christendom had been under attack for two centuries from northern warlords, and its cities were crumbling wrecks. Weakened churches were largely the only remaining centers for education, food distribution, and often law and order. I don’t know which of the several popes who ruled very briefly and followed the long reign of Gregory the Great actually changed the reading cycle, but one ofthemdid.
I suspect that the impulse came from Gregory’s influence, which derived from his reliance on the views of the holy monk Benedict of Nursia, the founder of the Benedictine Order. Benedict believed in and taught “nothing too harsh and nothing too burdensome.” It is easy to see that in a time when few people could read and when the church was totally overcome with demands and was focused on peoples’ survival, a short, straightforward Jesus story would seem very appealing, and this is the probable basis for the change.
Regardless of the precise history and the exact theological reasons, which we will never know for certain, both the beautiful and complex three-year cycle, and the four-gospel journey it held were abandoned. To replace them, the first uniform lectionary for Western Christendom was issued: fifty-two Sunday lessons selected from all four gospels that, in combination, told a succinct sacred and linear biography of Jesus’ life and teachings. Gradually, understandably and unfortunately, Christianity became concentrated on the details of Jesus’ personality and life, a focus which remains today.
Subsequent centuries saw the rise of education, the invention of the printing press, the wide dissemination of books, and the Protestant Reformation. People began reading the scriptures, fresh translations appeared, and many Reformation congregations returned to reading the entirety of the four gospels at Sunday services, although none of them followed the ancient sequence except inadvertently. Sadly, no one seemed to know of the ancient three-year reading sequence. The great design had been lost.
More centuries passed. In the 1940s, the Roman Catholic Church re-opened its immense library for general research. The ancient three-year cycle was rediscovered; and after much study, but seemingly without grasping the pattern’s deeper significance, the Roman Catholic Church reinstated the three-year cycle in 1969. They saw it as a way that all four gospels would be read, communicated, used for worship—and that a more complete text of the gospels might aid their members’ spiritual lives. Within ten years, the Episcopal, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and Methodist churches followed suit. Today, these Christian churches, with minor exceptions, all read the same gospel passages on Sunday mornings, yet lack connection to the deeper intention in the cycle and its transforming potential.
Unknown to me at the time of that long ago “aha!” in the high desert, the pattern disclosed then was only a beginning. My studies since have led me to discover its long history and the five keys, which when understood together, offer us a deep perspective that might entirely transform the gospels—even for those of us who know the words by heart.
The great name of Jesus the Christ and the ‘here and now’ witness of Paul keep the living presence of the Christ awake and vital in our understandings and our practices. The historical dilemmas of the four early Christian communities lovingly answered in the texts of Matthew, Mark, John and Luke speak with equal compassion as they help us forge a deeper life as we journey along each of the four paths today.
The Followers of The Way become our early predecessors, laying out the steps we can be guided by now, following in a practice that joins heart and mind. And the early leaders of Christianity? What gifts of foresight, practice and inspiration blessed them to formally choose these four texts and establish the Sunday cycle? Though that mystery will likely never be fully explained, our thanks and blessings can certainly be prayed.
In the pages of Heart and Mind: The Four-Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation, we examine this history, and then turn to an overview of the four gospel paths themselves.
Alexander John Shaia, PhD,is a thoughtful and poetic man, living the ancient rhythms of his Lebanese and Aramaic heritage. With deep conviction, he invites us into a practice of spirituality (and Christianity) for the twenty-first century—one that crosses traditional boundaries, encourages vital thinking and inhabits a genuine community of the heart. As a spiritual director, educator, anthropologist, psychologist, ritualist and Sandplay therapist, Alexander is a holistic, cross-discipline visionary and passionate professional speaker. He founded The Journey of Quadratos, as well as the Blue Door Retreat in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Now he travels internationally, speaking, leading seminars and conducting retreats on Quadratos, the Four-Gospel Journey and Gateway to Oneness (The 72 Hours of Easter). Each autumn Alexander guides an intimate band of pilgrims on the Camino, the West’s most ancient path of transformation. He’s just released the updated edition of Heart and Mind: The Four-Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation, which this post is based on. See Quadratos.com for more about his work and offerings.