Who Chose the Gospels?

“But the Solar System!” [Watson] protested.

“What the deuce is it to me?” [Holmes] interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

A Pennyworth of Difference

The above exchange comes from the uncanny crime-fighting duo of Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick, Dr. John H. Watson. Here the good doctor voices his shock that “any civilized human being in this 19th century should not be aware that the earth travelled around the sun.” Holmes, of course, is equally shocked that anyone would bother themselves with knowledge trivial to their work. Of course, any chance one gets to reference the boys from Baker Street should happily be seized, but why their mention here in a review about the selection of the canonical Gospels? What has 19th-century London to do with 4th-century Laodicea?

Every now and then a headline storms the press with promises of exposing the conspiracy of ecclesial cover-up and captivity of the real Jesus who is truly revealed in Gospels long silenced by church synods and councils. This best-selling storyline of the dubious origins of Christianity is as tired as it is repeated, but the many reincarnations of this Verballhornung is owing, in part at least, to some of the drivel published in response. Questions surrounding the church’s “selection” of Gospels are perennial and can neither be dismissed with simple and trite declarations of the Spirit’s preservation nor dodged with Holmesian nods of irrelevance.

The role of providence in the selection of the canonical Gospels may be well and true, but outside of a confessional framework its demonstration is hardly convincing. The grammar of our cultural discourse is increasingly becoming a pragmatics of suspicion with respect to the historical veracity of a four-Gospel canon. Why “should we simply assume that the church chose the best ones? Shouldn’t we in fact presume that the church simply selected the Gospels that best promoted its own causes to the detriment of its competitors? Who was it that conspired to give us the books we have? Who chose the Gospels anyway?” (1). The Copernican theory of heliocentrism may have little to do with Holmes’s understanding of the makings of detective work, but ministers and Christians alike cannot afford a similar stance toward the relationship between their public witness and the messy history surrounding the “selection” of the Gospels—not even a pennyworth.

Four Is the Loneliest Number

The sticky wicket surrounding the “selection” of the canonical Gospels can be illustrated in a quote from James M. Robinson.

When Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Thomas were written there was no New Testament canon, and hence no distinction between canonical and non-canonical (qtd. p. 10).

The trouble with this statement is that it is both true as well as profoundly misleading. On the one hand, it is absolutely true that many Gospels were written before the establishment of the NT canon. Another way of saying this is that several Gospels, perhaps as many as nine, were composed and circulating in some communities before the fourth century. This is true. What is misleading, however, is that this reality doesn’t mean that a distinction between what was later termed “canonical” did not exist in practice beforehand. In other words, this doesn’t mean, necessarily, that all Gospels were created—or, at least received as being—equal.Textual and archeological evidence suggest that “Christians read books besides the four Gospels and the other books now in the New Testament” (99). And, yes, it was in the late fourth century when through councils and the work of bishops and scholars that the church “produced” a NT canon. And—gasp!—some of the contingencies that factored into these councils were indeed political. These factors, however, have been “rather carelessly interpreted to imply that even the four Gospels did not achieve wide recognition until roughly the same time” (226–27).

As a result from this best-selling narrative, the four Gospels have been skewered upon the exotic edges of such Gospels as the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Judas, and other texts as examples of a wider diversity alive in the makings of early Christianity. Within the current popular imaginary, to confess but the canonical four is a show of marginalizing power and colonial maneuvering. The cry of the media these days is “Out with the four, in with the new!”

Four, it seems, is the loneliest number.

Charles E. Hill and His ‘Co-Conspirators’

Or is it? Charles E. Hill, New Testament professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, has written Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy in order to show how this narrative is empty and “bordering on disingenuousness” (227). Who Chose the Gospels? “intends to examine critically some of the foundational scholarship used to support and promote this now popular narrative of how the church ended up with four, and only four, Gospels” (4).

Part of the difficulty surrounding the issue of Gospel “selection” is in properly constructing the question. Asking when the four Gospels were received as canonical, for example, doesn’t really allow for an answer to the question it asks. Hill, in contrast, takes a more nuanced approach we might describe as “functional canonicalism,” asking “how early a four-Gospel collection was being received as authoritative in the church” (5). When the four Gospels attained this status and who “selected” them as such is “what the rest of this book is all about” (6).

It is in this sense of “functional canon” that Hill’s counter narrative is so convincing. For example, one would suspect a fluctuation of ratios in papyrus finds between the canonical Gospels and non-canonical Gospels in the third century as compared to the second century. Though simply counting papyri is hardly adequate, it is interesting that the ratios more or less remain constant—13/32 or 10/38 in favor of the canonical Gospels (18).

Moreover, Hill has an extended discussion of the phenomenon of Gospel packaging. “Beginning with the third-century codex P45 in the Chester Beatty collection, which contains all four Gospels plus the book of Acts, over 2,000 written codices survive which contain the four Gospels bound together in a single codex” (116). Why, then, the codex? Hill suggests, though with proper understatement and caveat, that it just might be that the “codex form was adopted by the early Christians precisely because it, unlike the scroll, could accommodate all four Gospels together” (120). In other words, as early as the late second century, the four Gospels were being packaged and intended to be read together.

Hill’s volume is also something of a PR campaign for the oft-maligned Irenaus. The hapless heresiographer has been slanderously portrayed as a fire-breathing bishop atop his treasured four Gospels whilst destroying the questing knights of free inquiry. The good bishop, however, not only prayed for the “heretics” he examined (Against Heresies 4.25.7), but he also encouraged leaders of the church to read their writings in order to be familiar with them (AH 4.praef.2). Not quite the book-burning fiend after all. What is more, as often as Clement of Alexandria is pitted against Irenaeus as a model of tolerance, the data is simply lacking. It is true, for example, that Clement uses the Gospel of the Egyptians (8x), the Gospel of the Hebrews (3x), and the Traditions of Matthias (3x) in his writings. It is also true, however, that he uses Matthew (757x), Luke (402x), John (331x), and Mark (182x). And for those keeping score, the number of times Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, Egerton Gospel, Gospel of Judas, and Gospel of Mary factor into his writings is a grand total of—wait for it—zero (72).

Irenaeus, Hill suggests, is hardly the blip on the canonical radar screen that he is made out to be. Even spurious Gospels such as Gospel of Peter, Gospel of the Ebionites, and whatever is represented in P. Oxy. 840 reveal a familiarity with the canonical four. Celsus, to whom Origen responded, seemed to attack the existence of four as a “concession of weakness” (p. 229). Writers as diverse as Tertullian, Hippolytus, Serapion, and Justin all demonstrate in their writings a sort of functional authority shared by the canonical four.

So who, then, chose the Gospels? Here is where Hill is most constructive and controversial. Guided by Irenaeus’s claim that the Gospels were “handed down” (AH 3.1. Praef; 3.1.1–2) and the “missing link” of Eusebius’s EU 3.24.5–16 (225), Hill suggests that Papias is aware of all four Gospels around 120 CE (215) and is quoting from the teaching of “the elder” (219). The teaching of the elder passed down to Papias, so runs the theory, is that the Beloved Disciple, John, welcomed and received the three previous Gospels which were only lacking in “what was done by Christ at first and at the beginning of the preaching” (223). What is more, in his Homilies on the Gospel of Luke, Origen speaks of John collecting “the written Gospels in his own lifetime in the reign of Nero (54–68 CE)” (224). Though such a story is a “long, long way from historical verification,” if “there was any authoritative figure who endorsed the four Gospels, the most viable option would have to be” the aged apostle John (228).

Though this bold reconstruction should be tempered with the bristles of Richard Bauckham in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (433–37), Hill certainly produces significant circumstantial evidence in support of seeing John as the “earliest ‘chooser,’ endorser, or ‘canonizer’ of the four Gospels” (224). Regardless of what one thinks of this provocative proposal, it is fundamental for Hill that “we have no evidence that the church ever sat down collectively or as individual churches and composed criteria for judging which Gospels (or other literature) it thought best suited its needs.” In this sense, “the church essentially did not believe it had a choice in the matter” (231).

Yes but . . . As mentioned earlier, so much of what is published and popularized in the press about the “selecting” of the canonical four is partially true and misleading at the same time. One such problem is the sociological riddle of whether the church “produced” the Gospels or the Gospels “produced” the church. The Gospels clearly arose from cultural pressures and communal concerns, so in this sense they were “produced” by the church(es) to fit their needs. But these communal concerns were guided by a “canon of memories” or what Justin called “memoirs of the apostles.” So in this sense, the Gospels “produced” the church.

There is also, of course, the adjacent issue of what we mean by church. There is good reason to think that the various non-canonical Gospels were also driven by communal concerns. And these communal concerns appropriated the surrounding memories of Jesus in ways that provided communal direction. To dismiss them altogether as spurious or non-historical would be to miss the resonance of what Origen alludes to in his Commentary on John as “mixed writings” (cf. 77). It therefore might prove fruitful to consider discussions of canon together with theological reflection upon the horizons of election. It was along these lines that Irenaeus criticized those who did not acknowledge the four Gospels: viz., they did not teach doctrine that was acceptable in the church (cf. 40). It is precisely this collection of documents that the covenant God provided for communal direction to this body. Canon, therefore, might be thought of as the artifact of the elected community’s struggle for self-definition.

Another thought worthy of further theological reflection is on the rationale of a four-Gospel canon. The church seemed consciously against a canonical harmony of the likes of Theophilus or Tatian’s Diatessaron. But why? Even if a four-Gospel tradition can be established, it begs the question, Why so many? Why so few? Why four? Hill raises this question (229) but doesn’t offer any substantial answer. Irenaeus claimed that the number four was determined by the “four zones of the world, the four principal winds” (cf. Ezek. 37.9; AH 3.11.8). This argument, of course, is one of “aesthetic necessity, of harmony, beauty, or proportion” (37), but more can be done here.

A Great Place to Start

Though Hill seems to creep out from underneath his own question at the end, (e.g., 231), his volume is laudable for its attention to the details and complexities surrounding the messy history of canon. Questions of canon, authority, and the “whos” and “whens” of the selection of the Gospels appear to be where the contested fronts of Christian testimony and public witness will continue to be. Students, ministers, and Christians concerned with the public witness of the church will certainly benefit from this welcome volume. Who Chose the Gospels? is trenchant, clear, funny, clever, and timely. It is a great place to start in attempting to answer—or, at least, properly asking—the questions of “when” and “by whom” the Gospels received their canonical status.

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