July 24, 2017

Who Chose the Gospels?

A review by Brian Collins

Hill, C. E. Who Chose the Gospels?: Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracyclip_image001. Oxford University Press, 2010.

The fictional claims of Dan Brown, the sensationalized claims of Bart Ehrman, and the more scholarly arguments of Lee Martin McDonald, Ehrman, and others have promoted the idea of an early Christian movement notable for theological diversity. According to this storyline, the imposition of orthodoxy and a church-dictated canon of Scriptures stifled the creative diversity of the early church. Hill challenges this view by demonstrating that it is based on a faulty methodology, overstatements, and a sloppy handling of the evidence.

For instance, one scholar claims that “gospels were breeding like rabbits” (2). Yet that scholar finally lists only nine non-canonical gospels that have been discovered. This scholar calls his listing “partial.” Hill notes, “It is not unlikley that more Gospels might have circulated before 175. But if they once existed, they have left no record, even in later lists of books to be avoided” (8).

Since Irenaeus provides an early testimony to the four-gospel canon, scholars promoting a late canon must marginalize him as an aberration (and not very nice, to boot). But Hill documents at least eight theologians (some of note) close to the time of Irenaeus who share his four gospel canon (Hill also argues that Irenaeus wasn’t as mean as some people make him out to be).

Having established that Irenaeus and the church of his era did have a four-gospel canon, Hill then works his way back by looking the citations of the four gospels and non-canonical works in the church fathers, gospel harmonies, and even the writings of the non-orthodox to demonstrate that evidence for the four gospel canon extends back to the early second century. Hill is fair in his interpretations of the evidence, noting when some of it is not as clear or a certain as other evidence.

So, to restate the title question, Who chose the Gospels? Hill’s answer to that question toward the end of the book is worth quoting at length:

Who, then, first chose the Gospels, if it wasn’t anybody in the fourth century? It wasn’t Origen, Tertullian, or Hippolytus in the first half of the third century, or Clement of Alexandria or Serapion at the end of the second. It wasn’t even Irenaeus or anyone writing in the last quarter of the second century. All these had inherited the same four Gospels from previous generations.

It wasn’t Tatian in Rome or Syria or Theophilus in Antioch. . . . It wasn’t Justin Martyr, who by the early 150s in Rome was using the same four Gospels, and treating evidently only these four as ‘Memoirs of the Apostles,’ composed by the apostles and their followers . . .

The evidence brings us, then, to an earlier time. But how much earlier? While the date prior to 150 are not quite so clear, the four Gospels are known as authoritative sources in the Epistle of the Apostles and the Apocryphon of James in the 140s. Papias, probably in the 120s, knows all four; Aristides, at about the same time, knows ‘the Gospel’ in multiple individual written expression, including Luke and John, and a decade earlier Ignatius knows at least Matthew and John. And sometime around the year 100 Papias’ elder discusses the origins of Matthew and Mark, and, if the argument summarized in chapter 10 is near the mark, Luke and John as well.

How is it that these four Gospels came to be known so widely from such an early time? There was certainly no great council of Christian churches before 150 which laid down the law on which Gospels to use. No single bishop, not even the bishop of Rome, should he ever have made such a proclamation (and there is no reason to think he did), had the clout to make it stick. If there was any authoritative figure who endorsed the four Gospels, the most viable option would have to be, as a tradition known to Origen and possibly Papias’ elder said, the aged apostle John. Such a story is a long, long way from historical verification, though that fact in itself does not make it impossible.

But if we set aside that story as likely to be legendary, our search appears to have reached a dead-end. We cannot find who chose the Gospels. It looks like nobody did. They almost seem to have chosen themselves through some sort of ‘natural selection.’ And this at least concurs with the conclusion of Bruce Metzger, one of the last generation’s premier scholars of the New Testament canon, who wrote, ‘neither individuals nor councils created the canon; instead they came to recognize and acknowledge the self-authenticating quality of these writings which imposed themselves as canonical upon the church” (227-29).

The idea of self-authenticating Scriptures may not sit well with some, but Hill notes that this best with the way the early Christians spoke about the gospels: “Christian writers of the second century do not speak of choosing the Gospels or of the criteria they might have created for making such choices. This is not the way they thought. When speaking of the church’s part in the process they instead use works like ‘receive,’ recognize,’ ‘confess,’ ‘acknowledge,’ and their opposites” (231).

In sum, Hill’s believing stance, tight argumentation, and engaging writing style made this one of the best books I’ve read this year. As an added benefit, I think it makes a marvelous case study in presuppositional apologetics that makes good use of evidences (though I must admit that I do not know how Hill would self-identify in terms of apologetic method).


Brian Collins recently completed a Ph.D. in theology at Bob Jones University and is currently employed at the BJU Press. This review originally appeared at Brian’s blog, Exegesis and Theology.


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