Why Only Four Gospels?

P52 Image

In my last post to a seeking college student, I outlined the evidence for books currently included in what we call the “Old Testament.”  There I argue that human beings did not arbitrarily create the list.  They evaluated the evidence before them and came to logical conclusions.

In this post, I would like to make the same point about the Four Gospels in our New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Many in our culture maintain a critical perspective on this point. This critical view assumes that many versions of the Jesus story circulated within the early church, and that a collection of powerful leaders, well after the death of Jesus, arbitrarily selected the four works that ended up in our New Testament, setting aside other accounts that that did not meet their subjective criteria.

Let’s look at the evidence. Do the facts support this critical theory?

Critical Assumptions

In its simplest form, this critical view is based upon a series of assumptions.

First, it assumes that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not actually written by these men.  According to this theory, the actual authors remained anonymous, writing instead under “pseudonyms”; i.e., assumed names.  (While some authors certainly adopted this practice, it is important to recall that this was not true of every author, not even of most authors from this period.)

By assuming that the actual authors were anonymous, the composition dates of these works likewise remain a mystery. Most critical theories assume that the four Gospels were not written until well after 150 AD or 175 AD, more than a hundred years after Jesus died.  This would mean that the Gospels do not contain actual, eyewitness accounts of Jesus; rather, they are simply a record of what later generations thought and believed about Jesus.

Proponents of this view therefore regard Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as just four of many interpretations of Jesus, written in the second or third century. They exist along side other works, like, for example, the Gospel of Mary or the Gospel of Thomas. These “other” gospels, in this view, hold the same degree of reliability as the four authorized Gospels. Each of them give us a perspective on Jesus, but none provide an actual, eyewitness account.

This presupposition in turn invites another critical assumption. These varying accounts of Jesus presented a practical challenge to the early Church. When leaders sought to unify the church under one organized confession, they were compelled to standardize on selected, authorized versions of these stories.

These leaders, of course, were fully human, heavily influenced by their own political and cultural perspectives. The critical view therefore assumes that a few powerful leaders subjectively selected the four Gospels that best fit their perspectives and objectives. They arbitrarily included these four, and only these four, works in their “Canon,” or “rule book”. Because they rejected the “other” gospels available at the time, these works eventually, disappeared from the authorized Christian tradition.

(Note that the critical view does not acknowledge the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding these deliberations.)

One common suggestion is that the leaders at the First Council of Nicaea, in 325 AD, were primarily responsible for this abritrary and subjective decision. There is, however, no record of such discussions or decisions emerging from Nicaea.  This too must be assumed.

P52 – An Extraordinary Find

But let’s look at the evidence, begining with an extraordinary fragment innocently known as P52. “P” stands for the type of “paper” on which it is written, and “52” is just a number, the 52nd fragment identified in this numbering system.

This tiny fragment only measures about 3.5 X 2.5 inches, but it packs a powerful punch. The fragment records a few verses from the Gospel of John, John 18:31-33 on one side, and John 18: 37-38 on the other. These verses describe a conversation between Jesus and Pilate just before the crucifixion.  The fragment was discovered in Egypt in 1920 and is currently kept in the John Rylands Library, Manchester, England.

According to most scholars, we can date this fragment between 125 AD and 150 AD, in other words, within 100 or so years after Jesus and Pilate spoke to one another. Within this window of about 100 years, this account had been written, copied and distributed … all the way to Egypt.

The well-known Bible scholar, Bruce Metzger, compares this tiny fragment to a single footprint discovered in the sands of a deserted island.  (The Text of the New Testament, 4th ed., 56)  This one footprint proves that another human being exists on the island. In a similar way, this tiny fragment shows that a written account of Jesus existed within 100 or so years of his death.  And, apparently, this account was highly regarded, since it was faithfully copied and distributed beyond the immediate vicinity of Judea.

Traditional views maintain that the Apostle John did in fact write his Gospel somewhere between 70 and 90 AD.  The P52 fragment supports this view.  The fact that John was an apostle would tell us why the fragment was copied and distributed.  It would also allow some 50 or 70 years for the original work to be copied and distributed as far away as Egypt.

Other Manuscript Evidence

While P52 is probably the earliest Gospel fragment we have (a few scholars suggest other candidates), it by no means stands alone.  For example, we also have fragments of Matthew (P64, P67) and Mark (P137) that date from around 200 AD, and fragments of all four Gospels (P45) that date from around 250 AD. We have a full manuscript of the Gospels (Codex Vaticanus) from around 300 AD, and another one (Codex Sinaiticus) dated between 330 AD and 360 AD.  (I have actually saw this document at the British Library in London!)

In all, I believe we have about 50 fragments or manuscripts of the New Testament dated around or before 300 AD.  Given the early date of these manuscripts, therefore, it is clearly not the case that a group of leaders in 325 AD decided which Gospels to include in the New Testament.  The four Gospels we have were already recognized as authoritative well before this date.

Compared to other manuscripts…

One more point about the manuscripts.  A comparison is often drawn between the New Testament manuscripts and those preserving other ancient works.  These comparisons often draw upon data found in Josh McDowell’s book, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, which recently appeared in a 2017 edition.  But even without referring to this decidedly Christian work, we can make this point.

The Greek poet, Homer, lived around 800 BC, though some scholars doubt that he existed at all.  In any case, according to Casey Due, an expert in the field of Homer study, the earliest fragments we have of his works date somewhere in the 3rd century BCE; i.e., between 300 BC and 200 BC. (See web article, here).  Complete copies of Homer’s work do not appear until the Medieval period.

In other words, there are some 500 years between the time of the supposed origin of these works and the earliest known fragments of these works.  And, there is a gap of almost 1800 years between the time of Homer and the first full copies of his work.  

Let’s put these numbers into a chart to compare them:

Work\Date WrittenDate of First FragmentsYears between Original and FragmentsDate of full copiesYears between Original and Full Copies
NT Gospels, completed. before 90 ADBetween 125 AD and 150 ADBetween 35 and 60 yearsAround 300 ADAbout 310 years
Homer, Iliad & Odyssey, originated around 800 BCBetween 300 BC and 200 BCBetween 500 and 600 yearsAround 1000 ADAbout 1800 years

In other words, existing manuscript evidence for the New Testament is exponentially stronger than the evidence we have for Homer’s works.  We could also make the same comparison with many other writers, like Plato, Herodotus, Suetonius, Josephus, etc. 

There are in fact more than 5,800 Greek manuscripts available for New Testament study, in addition to other ancient translations and citations. This far exceeds the number of texts available for other works in similar periods. For example, Graeme D. Bird, another Homer scholar, counts some 1900 available texts of the Iliad. (See the charts on this web site.)

All this manuscript evidence prompted Bruce Metzger, whom I mentioned above, to famously declare that “The textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of material.…” (The Text of the New Testament, 4th ed., 51)

Early Witnesses

There is one more line of evidence that we should consider, the testimony of early church leaders.  As we have argued throughout these reflections, we want to listen to their evidence and decide for ourselves whether their testimony seems reliable.  It would be unfair for us to reject their testimony, simply because they lived a long time ago.  Smart, truthful people lived in that age as well. (In fact, based on what I see and hear today, I sometimes wonder if they weren’t just a bit smarter and more truthful!)

To keep this short, I will just mention two sources.

Papias, c. 100 AD

Papias was an early church leader who probably knew and studied under the Apostle John.  Around 100 AD, he wrote a work we now know as “The Sayings of our Lord.”  While we don’t have his original work, later authors cite it.  Here is one of his statements, written some 60 years after Jesus died:

“If, then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings — what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord’s disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice.” Cited in Eusebius, Church History, 3.39.3-4.

While a few of the names in this quote may raise some questions (“Aristion”, for example), the overall tenor the statement is clear. This early church leader wanted truth, actual eyewitnesses who knew Jesus and spent time with Him.  He was not looking for a fabricated Jesus, a version of Jesus or a myth about Jesus.  He did not wish to invent a new Jesus.  Quite the reverse.  He wanted to know the real Jesus.

Irenaeus, c. 200 AD

Irenaeus was a fiery bishop who spend a lot of energy arguing against what he regarded as false teaching.  In fact, his best-known work is called, “Against Heresies”.  He occasionally says some outrageous stuff, but we still can get a sense of history from him.  Look at this statement, for example:

“Now the Gospels, in which Christ is enthroned, are like these. ….. Matthew proclaims his human birth, … But Mark takes his beginning from the prophetic Spirit who comes on men from on high … That according to Luke, as having a priestly character, … For that according to John expounds his princely and mighty and glorious birth from the Father….” Against Heresies, 3.11.8.

Here we have an early church leader, over 100 years before Nicaea, reporting the accepted truth concerning the number of Gospels.  This list of four had already been decided by this point, some 120 or 130 years after the original works were written.  He and many others were not doing something new.  They were not creating a new list.

In fact, they were opposing others who were trying to create new lists.  Marcion, for example, rejected the Old Testament entirely and would only accept a modified version of Luke in his rule of faith.  Against these new efforts, most church leaders pushed back with what they regarded as established fact.  These four Gospels alone had been recognized, even at this early date, as authentic witnesses to the historical Jesus, what He said and what He did.

Conclusion

These are just few thoughts on why we have only four Gospels in our New Testament.  On one hand, it is because the evidence has brought us to this place.  More importantly, however, I would argue that we are here because God wants us here. He has led His Church through a cloud of ideas, assumptions and speculations. In His grace, He helps us to see the truth. He is not asking us to sacrifice our intellect to follow him.  He gives us abundant evidence to trust Him.

If you want more information on all this, I did a video class some time ago called Who Wrote the Bible?.  It’s still available on the Bethany Church YouTube Channel.  If you are looking for a good book, I highly recommend Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, and F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture.

May God bless you in your quest.

In His Service,
Dirk

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