Why are the Gospels so incomplete on the details of Jesus’ life?

“Why are the Gospels so incomplete on the details of Jesus’ life?” Ensign, Sept. 1974, 75

Why are the Gospels so incomplete on the details of Jesus’ life?

Dr. Richard Lloyd Anderson, professor of history and ancient scripture, Brigham Young University: Only one Gospel begins with Jesus’ greatness in the preexistence. Only two Gospels tell of his miraculous birth. Three Gospels give only one passover in his life, leaving the full three-year ministry to be mentioned by the fourth Gospel. Obviously these short records were never intended to be biographies. If not, what are they supposed to be?

Joseph Smith gave an illuminating answer by using a new title: “The Testimony” of Matthew and John. These changes in the Inspired Version highlight the special nature of each Gospel.

Each writer had the same fundamental purpose as John. John was the last surviving apostle chosen personally by Jesus, and his language is characterized by “testimony” and “testify.” Of the whole New Testament, 70 percent of these words of personal knowledge (maturía and marturéo) are in the writings of John, who is preoccupied with his mission to witness that he knew for himself. One need only compare the opening chapter of John (“we beheld his glory”—John 1:14) with the opening verses of 1 John (“we have seen with our eyes … and our hands have handled”—1 Jn. 1:1). This last Gospel writer spoke for all, emphasizing that he wrote “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” (John 20:31.)

Many have concluded that John’s writing is only testimony and not history. In reality, John writes history organized around his testimony, as the name Gospel shows. Evidently from the first the lives of Jesus were called Gospels—but why? The Greek term euangélion is compounded from angeliía, a “message” or “announcement” plus the prefix meaning “good” or “favorable.” The meaning of gospel is “good news.” The accounts about Christ were called Gospels because they preached the gospel, the wonderful message that he had overcome death and sin. Although all Gospels differ in how they lay the background for this conclusion, all are detailed on the conclusion itself, the story of the death and resurrection. For instance, a third of Mark and nearly half of John are devoted to the last week of Christ’s life.

Every fact we can learn of Christ compels our interest, but what he did for us purchased our salvation. The Gospels were not designed as life stories. Instead they report the facts about Christ that preach his gospel to us: that he was sent by God, showed God’s power in his life and teachings, gave authority to his church, willingly sacrificed life itself for our eternal life, and finally was resurrected to pioneer the resurrection of us all. This magnificent story is the outline and testimony of the four New Testament Gospels.