As promised, this week we begin looking at our historical sources for the life and teachings of Jesus. Which ones do we trust, and which ones should we reject? To help us understand why followers of Christ refused to accept some gospels we need to understand why they embraced the ones they did. Once we’re familiar with the standards they used in evaluating the gospels that became part of the New Testament, we’ll be able to better consider why they rejected the “alternative” gospels.
(A good preliminary question is: How can we even know we’re reading what they originally wrote in these gospels? I’ve addressed this previously in the post: The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote? The New Testament is actually the most well-attested document we have from antiquity.)
You may have heard the claim that the Roman emperor Constantine is the one who decided which books would be included in the Bible and which ones would not. This idea may have spiced up a fictional novel or two, but it has no basis in reality. The truth is that by the second century church leaders were already listing the books they considered to be Scripture. These lists aren’t exactly the same, but they’re strikingly similar. Christians immediately accepted most of the New Testament books as divinely inspired, including the letters of Paul and—most relevant to our current study—the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Now we’re not yet trying to determine whether these gospels were actually divinely produced or not, just that the early Christians accepted them as the definitive accounts of Jesus. I should clarify that there were a few books (especially 2 Peter and 3 John) that had to be discussed awhile before they were universally accepted. This hesitation seemed to be mostly due to a lack of familiarity with certain books in some geographical regions. By the fourth century there was widespread agreement among church leaders as to which books were authentically biblical. When leaders later agreed in various councils on a list of scriptural books, they were simply affirming what had been commonly accepted for a long time. Most important for our discussion is the observation that the four biblical gospels were never in doubt and were accepted from the very beginning.
So why were these books embraced by Christian believers? What criteria were used to evaluate the authenticity of gospel accounts of Jesus?
When was it written?
The early Christians wanted to rely on the earliest, most reliable accounts of Jesus. This makes perfect sense to us today. The four biblical gospels were all written in the first century. Everyone agrees that John’s gospel was the last written. Most scholars believe that Mark’s was first, with Matthew and Luke following soon after. There is compelling evidence suggesting that Mark’s gospel was written as early as the 40s AD, which would have been very soon after Jesus’ death and the early spread of the Christian faith. Many scholars don’t accept this date, but most feel Mark was written by the 60s and all agree his gospel was finished by the 70s AD. If an alleged account of Jesus was written too late to be credible, it would have been viewed with suspicion. The New Testament gospels passed the test of being written early enough to be authentic.
Who wrote it?
The early Christians were very concerned with how apostolic the writings were. Remember the apostles were men Jesus had personally commissioned to be his formal representatives or ambassadors. They were to speak his words with his authority. We know this understanding of the prominent role of the apostles of Christ goes back to the earliest followers of Jesus after his death and resurrection. So these believers wanted to accept only gospel accounts and letters written by the apostles or people closely associated with them. And the content had to have the ring of authenticity as apostolic writing.
This doesn’t mean they were desiring only books written by the “superstars.” They weren’t demanding the sensational, but the authentic. We can see this by looking at the accepted authors for the four biblical gospels. Only John was well-known as an apostle, although he had nothing like the notoriety of a Peter. Matthew was also an apostle (and both he and John were eyewitnesses of the events of which they wrote), but he was neither famous nor prominent. He didn’t have the name recognition that someone would want if they were marketing a gospel of Christ. And Mark and Luke were not widely known at all. They were both closely associated with apostles, and were known by the churches where they had ministered, but their names were definitely not sensational attention-getters.
The relative obscurity of these gospel authors testify to their authenticity. There would have been no reason to attribute these writings to these little-known authors unless they actually wrote these gospels. And one of the fastest ways to get your writing rejected was to attribute it to another (usually famous) author. These kinds of writing are called “pseudonymous,” and were considered acceptable by most people in the first few centuries after Christ—but not by Christians considering whether a writing should be accepted as definitive Scripture. If they became suspicious that a writing was not really written by the alleged author, it would be immediately disqualified.
This doesn’t mean a letter or gospel written in someone else’s name couldn’t be produced with good intentions (possibly to honor an admired apostle), or that it couldn’t contain any material that might be spiritually helpful. But these early believers refused to accept pseudonymous writings as part of the New Testament Scriptures. The biblical gospels were not only written early enough to be authentic, but the early Christians verified them as being written by men who were either apostles or closely associated with the apostles.
Had it been widely accepted and used by the churches?
Were many churches, over a broad geographical span, actually using this writing? Were church leaders universally accepting this writing as apostolic? Were pastoral leaders invested in studying and teaching this writing? Did it have the ring of apostolic truth to them? Was there general agreement that the content of this writing was in harmony with other accepted apostolic teaching?
These questions were commonly asked. While some books, such as 2 Peter and Revelation, took longer to reach this kind of universal usage (which is why their inclusion in the New Testament was discussed longer than the rest), the four gospels were widely used and accepted from extremely early in the history of the Christian faith. There was never any controversy among Christians as to whether Matthew, Mark, Luke and John should be accepted as authentic, reliable (even inspired) accounts of Jesus Christ.
We haven’t established yet whether we should accept these New Testament gospels as historically reliable accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. But we have seen the reasons why the early Christians accepted the four biblical gospels as genuine. So why didn’t they accept other writings that claimed to be gospel accounts of Jesus? What were the problems with these “alternative” gospels? We’ll look at this next week.
The historical Jesus series:
Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament gospels? [see above]