I recently finished reading C.E. Hill's Who Chose The Gospels? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), which Steve Hays posted about earlier this year. It's a very good book that argues for tracing the four-gospel collection found in modern Bibles back to at least the time of Papias (late first and early second centuries). He refutes a lot of popular, false claims made by scholars like Lee McDonald and Bart Ehrman. Much of the evidence he cites is seldom discussed. The book is somewhat reminiscent of, though better than, Martin Hengel's The Four Gospels And The One Gospel Of Jesus Christ (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000). Hill's material has some overlap with what I discussed here. But he addresses some evidence that I didn't discuss, and some of my evidence isn't mentioned by Hill.
I want to make two observations that Hill either doesn't bring up or doesn't emphasize enough in his book:
- Hill establishes that there was a widespread consensus on the gospels among sources of the second half of the second century (Tatian, Irenaeus, Theophilus of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, etc.). Once that point has been established, there are implications that go back further than the late second century. Men like Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria were born decades earlier than the time when they wrote. When they claim that their view of the gospels is what was handed down since the time of the apostles, it's highly unlikely that all of these sources were honestly mistaken or lying when they date their view of the gospels significantly earlier than the time when they were writing. If Irenaeus writes in, say, the year 180, it's not as though his comments only have implications for that year. The implications go back much further. While it's helpful for Hill to document agreement with Irenaeus' view of the gospels in earlier writings, Hill's conclusion that the four-gospel collection goes back at least to the time of Papias is implied already by what he documents about later sources.
- Where's the external evidence for the alternatives? Critics look for ways to dismiss the external testimony supporting a traditional view of the gospels, but they can't cite any external testimony in support of their own view. A scholar advocating the traditional view, like Hill, will cite dozens of external sources in support of his conclusion and defend his interpretations of those sources. But a critic of the traditional view often can't cite even a single external source to support his own position. If the fourth gospel was initially written by some sort of Johannine community rather than John himself, circulated anonymously for several decades, was initially rejected by what we today would call orthodox Christianity, etc., then why are such critical views of the fourth gospel not mentioned by any of the ancient sources who comment on that gospel's origins? I know that liberals and other critics of traditional Christianity are accustomed to neglecting external evidence and largely getting away with it in the circles where they're prominent. But the widespread absence of external evidence for so many of their theories is pathetic.