Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Origin Of The Four-Gospel Canon

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.


  1. Your last point (about absence of external evidence for alternative views) is a good one, but cannot be pressed too far. As Martin Hengel notes in Four Gospels, roughly 85% of the literature of the first Christians has been lost. We certainly do not have a representative sampling of literature from all the various Christian communities, heretical or otherwise. The Church Fathers we do have access to commented on some heretics and some pagan challenges, but still only those they were familiar with. I'm not saying that I expect to find evidence that GJohn was composed anonymously and was originally considered heretical, but we need to be careful in extrapolating from our extant sample of early Christian literature.

  2. JD Walters,

    There's some truth to what you're saying, but I'm not satisfied with leaving things were you've left them. There aren't many people today who are "pressing too far" in the way you've mentioned. In the atmosphere of our day, the bigger problem is on the other side of the spectrum.

    As Hill mentions in his book, and as I've noted in my series of posts linked above and elsewhere, the patristic, heretical, and non-Christian sources we have come from a wide variety of backgrounds, personalities, theologies, and locations. Some of them lived in multiple locations and were often in contact with individuals and groups elsewhere. A large number of individuals and groups are mentioned in the early extra-Biblical literature, and their beliefs are often described, sometimes in a lot of detail. Often, even minor figures and movements receive some attention.

    Since so many of the modern critical theories have little or no external evidence in their favor, the critic's appeal to the incompleteness of the historical record would have to be wide and deep. The more somebody has to make that sort of appeal, the worse the implications for his theory.

    And some of the critics' claims have to do with what was popular in the ancient world, not what might have been believed by a few individuals or one small group. When a critic of Christianity suggests that the gospels didn't acquire widespread acceptance until the late second century, or suggests that a heretical or apocryphal gospel was about as popular as the canonical gospels early on, those aren't just claims about a lone individual or a small movement that might have gone unmentioned in our extant records.

    The nature of historical claims varies from case to case. The incompleteness of the historical record has different degrees of significance in different contexts. I'll repeat some examples I cited above. If the fourth gospel had been composed by some sort of Johannine community, and it circulated without John's name attached for a few decades or longer afterward, would we expect such a series of events to not only leave no external evidence in the historical record, but also be contradicted so early and so widely? So often, the critical theories have a lack of external evidence where we'd expect to have some. An appeal to the incompleteness of the historical record can only go so far. And it doesn't go far enough, nowhere near far enough, to sustain the sort of critical theories I've referred to. It's a major problem for those theories, even though it's often treated as if it's just a minor problem, if it's even mentioned at all.

  3. Andreas J.Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger, in 'The Heresy of Orthodoxy', Crossway, 2010 have a section on how the canon came to be and conclude that canon is inherent to and derives it's function from the concept of covenant; that the canonical writings are God's documentation, as it were, of his covenantal relationship with His people, laying out the nature of their relationship, the terms and conditions, and the blessings and curses.

    They write, 'the canon is not simply an idea created by fourth-century Christians or some after-the-fact concept that the church devised to battle early heretics like Marcion. Rather, the canon is a concept that has been indelibly part of the life of God's people from the very start of the nation of Israel, and thus continues to be part of his people in the life of the Church'.

    They further go on to document the use of apostolic writings in the life of the early church in the first century and conclude that there is 'no doubt that the early church understood that God had given a new set of authoritative documents that testified to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, and that those documents were the beginning of the New Testament canon.

    The book is well researched and documented.