I don't listen to Glenn Beck's radio program much, but I heard about half an hour of it this past Friday. He was responding to the claims being made about Christianity in light of the discussions of the Gospel of Judas and The Da Vinci Code. During the discussion, Beck made some misleading claims, such as suggesting that Constantine arranged for the choosing of the Biblical canon in the fourth century. I don't know whether Beck corrected himself or was corrected by a caller later in the program. But comments like his probably will be common in the coming months, given the attention that will be received by the Gospel of Judas and the Da Vinci Code movie, for example.
What I want to do in this article is address Christianity's choice of the four gospels. Why were those four documents accepted, while others were rejected? The answer isn't as unclear or as disreputable as a lot of people suggest.
The early church viewed the apostles as having unique authority, so books written or approved by the apostles would have such authority. We see apostolic books referred to as scripture from the earliest church fathers onward. If the gospels attributed to Matthew and John were written by those men, and Mark and Luke had apostolic approval, whereas other gospels didn't have such an apostolic status, then that fact would explain why the early church accepted the four gospels of the Biblical canon while rejecting others.
None of this is meant to say that other factors weren't involved. Some people would accept a document because of church tradition, without knowing much about its history. And documents would sometimes be evaluated according to whether their content was consistent with what was perceived to be apostolic doctrine. But these various standards for evaluating the documents co-existed. Even if we disagree with what some source or another tells us about his reasons for accepting document X as part of the canon of scripture, we can still trust what other sources say about the document, and we can still have good reason to accept the document as apostolic. The issue here isn't whether every source who commented on the selection of the four gospels gave reasons we would agree with for accepting those four documents and rejecting others. Rather, the issue is whether the process of selecting those books in general is credible. I believe it is. Even if church father X or church council Y had some bad reasons for accepting the four gospels, the fact remains that we have good reason to believe that all four documents are apostolic. We don't have comparable evidence for other gospels, such as the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Thomas.
We should keep in mind that the recognition of four gospels is explicitly advocated long before the time of Constantine. We find it mentioned explicitly in sources of the late second century, and it surely dates even earlier. Martin Hengel, one of the foremost New Testament scholars in the world, writes:
"the knowledge of a widely recognized collection of the four Gospels which is used in worship is certainly substantially older than Irenaeus...Evidently Clement [of Alexandria] took it for granted that the collection of four Gospels was based on recognized church tradition and was unchallenged, since he does not have to defend it anywhere." (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], pp. 14, 16)
Around the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr writes about the gospels being read in church services along with the Old Testament scriptures (First Apology, 67). He refers elsewhere to "the memoirs which I say were drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them" (Dialogue With Trypho, 103). Notice the plural: "apostles" and "those who followed them". The use of the plural matches our four gospels: apostles (Matthew, John) and those who followed them (Mark, Luke). Justin doesn't cite the number four anywhere, but his comments are consistent with the collection of four gospels that sources living just after Justin's time refer to. In another place, Justin refers to the apostles composing gospels (First Apology, 66), so he can't just be referring to the apostles as the subject matter of the gospels. Justin isn't as explicit as a source like Irenaeus, but what he reports is consistent with what Irenaeus and other sources tell us.
Justin, like other early sources, tells us a lot about the content of the documents he's relying on, and that content is consistent with the four gospels of the Bible. Justin refers to the magi (Matthew's gospel), Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus (John's gospel), and other material that we can identify with the canonical gospels. The same is true of other sources who lived earlier than Justin.
Regarding Papias, a contemporary of the apostles who probably was a disciple of the apostle John, Eusebius writes:
"But now we must add to the words of his which we have already quoted the tradition which he [Papias] gives in regard to Mark, the author of the Gospel. 'This also the presbyter said: Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord's discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.' These things are related by Papias concerning Mark. But concerning Matthew he writes as follows: 'So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.' And the same writer uses testimonies from the first Epistle of John and from that of Peter likewise. And he relates another story of a woman, who was accused of many sins before the Lord, which is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews. These things we have thought it necessary to observe in addition to what has been already stated." (Church History, 3:39:14-15)
Notice that this section of Eusebius comes at the end of the third book of his church history. And notice that Eusebius abruptly moves from one topic to another. It seems, from other sources, that Papias gave more information relevant to the Biblical canon than Eusebius mentions, much as we know that Irenaeus said more about the canon than Eusebius tells us when writing about Irenaeus and the canon. Apparently, Eusebius was trying to close out his third book, so he didn't take the space to describe everything Papias said relevant to the canon. Nobody should conclude that Papias must not have known about other books Eusebius doesn't mention, such as Luke and John. There would be no need for Papias to mention every book he was aware of, and there would be no need for Eusebius to mention everything Papias said relevant to the canon. However, from what Eusebius does tell us about Papias, we can see that the gospel of Mark and its apostolic character were known early on, and we can see that Matthew was known to have been involved in writing about Jesus in some manner.
Aristides, another source of the early second century, refers to how non-Christians could read about facts such as the virgin birth and the resurrection in what he calls "the gospel" (Apology, 2). (The earliest church fathers often refer to the gospels collectively as "the gospel". Even some of the sources who distinguish between different gospels sometimes refer to more than one document together as "the gospel", so we shouldn't assume that the people using such terminology only knew of one document.) Notice that the gospels are, at the time of Aristides, not only available to Christians, but also to any non-Christian who wants to read them. Similarly, in Justin Martyr's Dialogue With Trypho, which is about a debate set in the 130s, Justin's opponent Trypho (a non-Christian) refers to how he had read the gospels (Dialogue With Trypho, 10). Thus, we once again see that the gospels were widely available, including to non-Christians, early on. Eusebius tells us that Christians of the early second century distributed copies of the gospels as they traveled (Church History, 3:37:2).
Notice, again, that we can tell what some of these documents were even if the early sources don't name them. Aristides refers to a document (or documents) that contains an account of the virgin birth, so he seems to be referring to Matthew or Luke or both together. When Justin Martyr cites Jesus' comments in His discussion with Nicodemus, we know that the gospel of John contains such an account. Thus, although the pre-Irenaeus sources aren't as explicit as Irenaeus, they don't have to be as explicit in order to give us information that supports Irenaeus' conclusions. Whether in something more explicit, like Papias' reference to Mark's gospel, or in something less explicit, like the comments of Aristides, we have a lot of early evidence supporting Irenaeus' acceptance of the four gospels. Thus, when commenting on Matthew's gospel, Martin Hengel can refer to how, several decades before Irenaeus wrote, "the First Gospel [Matthew] already established itself quickly and tenaciously in the church at the beginning of the second century" (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], pp. 71-72).
Notice, also, that sources like Papias and Justin Martyr put the issue of gospel authorship in a historical context. Papias is attempting to describe the historical origin of Mark's gospel. Justin is describing how the apostles are the historical source of the gospels. The early Christians weren't just speculating about what seemed philosophically appealing, nor were they just associating documents with whatever names they associated with the principles contained in those documents. Rather, they were trying to identify the historical authorship of the gospels. Thus, we see with the gospels what we also see over and over again in other contexts: the early church was highly concerned with historical events and eyewitness testimony.
What we have, then, is a situation in which a wide variety of sources from a wide variety of backgrounds give us evidence leading to the conclusion that the early church made a good decision in choosing the four gospels and rejecting other documents. Critics who cast doubt on the choice of the four gospels do so on the basis of unlikely speculations about how the early sources could have been wrong. But historical conclusions are matters of probability, so coming up with possible alternative theories doesn't have much significance. We have four gospels because the evidence warrants it. Martin Hengel is correct in writing (and these comments are all the more significant when you consider that Hengel isn't a conservative):
"They [the gospels] exercised a unique influence in the history of the church, indeed of humankind. At the same time, according to all our historical knowledge and an impartial, sober comparison between the apocryphal Jesus traditions and the four Gospels, indeed the New Testament generally, the church of the second century could hardly have made a better choice....To emphasize the point once again: in its selection and ordering the church of the second century showed historical and theological understanding. I would like to repeat emphatically here the remark made above (33): the church really could not have made a better choice." (ibid., pp. 115, 140)