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Luke 1:1-3 (NIV)

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,

We have only 4 Gospels in the Bible Canon. From the words of Luke it seems there were many people who recorded the life of Jesus. If only three were written before him, Luke should have mentioned it by number or simply say "few" or "some" instead of "many".

Was Luke referring to more than 3 Gospels?

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The word 'Gospel' is never applied to the records of Jesus' life by the Bible its self, rather it seems that the word is used of the message proclaimed, see for example: Matt. 4:23, Matt. 9:35, Matt. 11:5, Matt. 24:14, Matt. 26:13, Mk. 1:1, 14-15, Mk. 13:10, Mk. 14:9, Mk. 16:15, Lk. 4:18, Lk. 7:22, Lk. 9:6, Lk. 20:1, Acts 8:25, Acts 14:7, 21, Acts 15:7, Acts 16:10, Acts 20:24, Rom. 1:1, 9, 15-16, Rom. 2:16, Rom. 10:15-16, Rom. 11:28, Rom. 15:16, 19-20, 29, Rom. 16:25, 1 Co. 1:17, 1 Co. 4:15, 1 Co. 9:12, 14, 16, 18, 1 Co. 15:1, 2 Co. 2:12, 2 Co. 4:3-4, 2 Co. 8:18, 2 Co. 9:13, 2 Co. 10:14, 16, 2 Co. 11:4, 7, Gal. 1:6-9, 11, Gal. 2:2, 5, 7, 14, Gal. 3:8, Gal. 4:13, Eph. 1:13, Eph. 3:6, Eph. 6:15, 19, Phil. 1:5, 7, 12, 17, 27, Phil. 2:22, Phil. 4:3, 15, Col. 1:5, 23, 1 Thess. 1:5, 1 Thess. 2:2, 4, 8-9, 1 Thess. 3:2, 2 Thess. 1:8, 2 Thess. 2:14, 1 Tim. 1:11, 2 Tim. 1:8, 10, 2 Tim. 2:8, Phlm. 1:13, Heb. 4:2, 1 Pet. 1:12, 25, 1 Pet. 4:6, 17, & Rev. 14:6. So Luke did not intend to write a 'Gospel'.

Luke intended to write an orderly and well researched account of the life of Jesus for a man called Theophilus and he opens his account by saying that others have undertaken the same task - what he means by the word 'many' is unclear. R J Dillon for example suggests Luke is referring to "two or three" other records [Previewing Luke’s Project from His Prologue (Luke 1:1–4)," CBQ 43 (1981):207] but then he might be more influenced by his resolution to the synoptic problem.

Personally I just think this is rhetorical preface that Luke employs to begin his account, the NAC reads:

Since “many” and its related expressions are frequently found in rhetorical prefaces, the term should not be taken as an exact reference to a specific number. It probably is best to understand it as meaning others. [Stein, R. H. (1992). Luke (Vol. 24, p. 63). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.]

The reference to 'many' as a rhetorical device would be to focus the readers mind on just how important the events Luke is recording are. It is, as if he is saying "look, it is just me that is writing about these events, everyone is at it. So you had betetr natice of what I am saying.'

So, yes other people were writing accounts of the life of Jesus, but these were not 'Gospels' because that name was given to them later and most of extant books that have also been labelled 'gospel' that have been discovered since have not been demonstrated to be written before Luke so, even if Luke was aware of writings that existed then, they have not stood the test of time which suggests the early church did not find then valuable.

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There were indeed many gospels, although this is not really what the author of Luke's Gospel is saying. He knew of Mark's Gospel, as it has been established by critical scholars that this was a major source used in compiling Luke. He also knew of the hypothetical 'Q' document, sometimes known as the 'Q' Gospel, as that was also a source he used. Matthew's Gospel had already been written, although most scholars believe he did not know of it (A minority, such as Dennis R. MacDonald, author of Two Shipwrecked Gospels, believe he did know, and used Matthew's Gospel). He apparently did not know of the Gospel of Thomas, which is widely regarded as written before Luke.

What the author of Luke was explaining was that he knew that others had written about Jesus, and he believed that the earliest of these must have been eyewitnesses. Having investigated everything known to him, and using these existing accounts, he was writing an orderly account of his own.

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