One thing that I have observed over the years is that major media outlets love apocryphal gospels. Whenever the person of Jesus is discussed–usually at Easter and Christmas–there is always a discussion about how the real story of Jesus has been suppressed and can only now be found in these lost gospels. Sweeping claims are then made about how there was no agreement on much of anything in the first four centuries of the faith and that other stories of Jesus circulated by the thousands. Only after Constantine came along does the church decide which books to accept (and then subsequently denies all other books admission to the club).
When you think about it, this sort of historical reconstruction makes for an attractive magazine article or newspaper story for our modern media. The public loves a good conspiracy theory. People want to believe that there are “secret,” “hidden,” “lost,” or “forgotten” (the four most common words used in such stories) accounts of Jesus that will finally reveal the truth once and for all. And, of course, everyone likes to believe that the Church is just like all institutions–corrupt, authoritarian, and concerned only about preserving its own power.
In a recent blog article, Phillip Jenkins has pointed out that a major media outlet (the UK Daily Telegraph) has followed the apocryphal gospel playbook step by step. The Telegraph, when discussing the death of NT Professor Marvin Meyer, gives this assessment of gospels in early Christianity:
What we know as the New Testament – the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles, and the Book of Revelation – was actually born of thousands of texts and gospels circulated among the early Christians. Members of the new faith were subject to persecution, and the Church fathers felt that for the faith to survive, there had to be a unified belief system. Some time around AD 180, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon denounced all gospels but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as heretical. Later, about 50 years after Constantine’s conversion early in the fourth century, the New Testament became Christianity’s official text.
This sort of assessment is packed with misconceptions, many of which I dealt with in an article here. There were not “thousands” of gospels in early Christianity. Irenaeus was not responsible for oppressing these other gospels and choosing the canonical four. And the fourth century was not the time when Christianity first considered the New Testament books to be their Scriptures. Jenkins also provides a response:
Contrary to the Telegraph account – and good grief, this is a conservative paper – the reason early church leaders privileged those particular four gospels was that they were so evidently the earliest and most authoritative texts, without serious competition. No body of cranky patriarchs sat around and said, “Well, we have to vote out Mary because it’s, um, a tad sexual. John can stay because it spiritualizes everything, and that’ll be useful in a century or so when we get political power.” If you read the actual church debates over which texts should be canonized or excluded, you will be deeply impressed by the historical logic and good sense they demonstrate, and their powerful sense of history and chronology.
The bottom line is that the earliest Christians didn’t really have to “choose” the four gospels from among all the others. Rather the four canonical gospels were simply the ones that had been there from the very beginning. The early church didn’t pick the gospels, but inherited them.
When it comes to these sorts of questions, I like to remind my students of a very simple (but often overlooked) fact: of all the gospels in early Christianity, only Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are dated to the first century. Sure, there are minority attempts to put books like the Gospel of Thomas in the first century–but such attempts have not been well received by biblical scholars. Thus, if we really want to know what Jesus was like, our best bet is to rely on books that were at least written during the time period when eyewitnesses were still alive. And there are only four gospels that meet that standard.
When this fact is kept in mind, the early church’s reception of just these four gospels doesn’t seem so arbitrary. Indeed, it seems to make perfect sense.