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The Four Gospels and the Other Gospels... Is our Canon Right?

Introduction: Listen to 'The Four Gospels and the Other Gospels' by Professor Richard Bauckham

When was it decided that there would be just four gospels?

In the classic conspiracy books it is usually maintained that the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were chosen in the fourth century. This is said because it was the fourth century when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and it is also in the fourth century that we get the first complete list of the 27 books of the New Testament.

Gospel symbolsHowever, it would be quite wrong to think that the four gospels were chosen at a time of political power hundreds of years after Christianity began. In fact there is plenty of evidence showing that during the second century, when Christians lacked political power and were being persecuted, the four gospels were accepted as a collection.

In fact, it seems likely that the authors of the other gospels (the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, etc.) used some of the four gospels in the Bible as sources.

Here we list a few indications that the four gospels were viewed as a collection in the second century.

1. In Dublin there is a copy of the four gospels from around AD 225.

2. In Rome there is a copy of Luke followed by John from around AD 225. The fact that manuscripts found in different places bring these gospels together shows that this was probably occurring considerably earlier than AD 225.

3. Writing around the year AD 185, Irenaeus bishop of Lyons, spoke of the four canonical gospels, of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

4. Theophilus of Antioch (second century) probably treated all four gospels as a collection (pp.117-118).

5. Tatian made a harmony (continuous narrative) of the four gospels, probably around the year AD 172.

6. Ammonius of Alexandria (who may have been from the second century) made a harmony of the four gospels.

7. According to Dr Darrell Hannah (Oxford University) the Epistula Apostolorum, written before AD 150 uses all four gospels.

8. Heracleon the gnostic writing around AD 170 expounds Luke and John as scripture.

9. Papias writing around AD 130 accepts the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John. According to Armenian manuscripts he also accepted Luke. If so, he is probably the earliest person known to have accepted all four gospels.

Summary: It is hard to maintain that the decision to have four gospels was made in the fourth century. If Papias' evidence is reliable, people were treating the four gospels as authoritative within one generation of the writing of the last of the four gospels (probably John).

Details: It should be noted that strictly speaking these different pieces of evidence show different things. The evidence of Irenaeus or Tatian shows that the four gospels and only the four gospels were in a particular category. This is probably the case for Papias, but this is not so clear. The evidence of the Epistula Apostolorum is less clear as it depends upon the interpretation of some minor details.


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