The Four Gospels as Reliable Testimony, Part 1: How Were the Gospels Selected?

Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code has confused many people about the life of Christ and the reliability of the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Many other writings, internet posts, films and documentaries have added to the confusion. Sadly, these things have even confused some Christians. However, much of what is communicated about the Gospels contained in our Bibles is simply not true. Ditto the other ‘gospels’ offered as alternatives. This is the beginning of a series of posts that will give evidence for the Bible’s trustworthiness. We will find that the facts of Christ’s life and teachings can be know and relied upon.

The set of books that we have in our Bible is called the “canon.” This word comes “from the Greek, and it originally meant “a measuring rod” or, as we might say, “a ruler.”” It was the standard to see if something was straight. [1] Books were admitted into The New Testament canon based on:

Apostolic authority—their association with Christ’s Apostles or those close to them,

Antiquity—whether the book was written during the time of the apostles,

Orthodoxy—if the book’s teachings were in line with the teaching of the apostolic writings know by the people who learned from the Apostle's and the churches which the Apostles founded,

Catholicity—if the book was accepted by many churches from many different places. [2]

The church recognized books that were historically trustworthy. Eyewitness testimony of Christ’s life was guaranteed by the early church because of the way the cannon was recognized. The church required each gospel to be associated with an Apostle, and the Apostles were eyewitnesses to the events described. But what were the specific books recognized to be authoritative by the early church? In addition, were the four gospels recognized early?

A canon is the name given to a list of books believed to hold authority by the church. The Muratorian Canon, an early list of books that the church held as authoritative, was put together in 170 A. D. The Apostolic Canon and the Cheltenham Canon were listed in 300 and 360, respectfully. The Council of Hippo in 393 listed all 27 of the New Testament books, and the Council of Carthage in 410 listed all 27 as well. [3] A manuscript of the Muratorian Canon contains portions from all four gospels[4].

Several other types of writings show the church’s esteem of the gospel accounts. A gospel harmony is an attempt to place all of the sayings and events in the Gospels in chronological order, with accounts from each gospel of the same event side by side. A harmony was formed very early by “a Syrian Christian named Tatian.” It was put together in the late 100s. [5]

Many leaders in the early church also quoted Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The four gospels were cited by Polycarp (c. 110-150 A. D.), Justin Martyr (c. 150-155), Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215), Tertullian (c. 150-220), and Origen (c. 184-254). Irenaeus listed them as authoritative as early as 130-202. [6]

F. F. Bruce is clear, “It is evident that by A. D. 180 the idea of the fourfold Gospel had become so axiomatic throughout Christendom that it could be referred to as an established fact as obvious and inevitable and natural as the four cardinal points of the compass (as we call them) or the four winds”[7].

[1] Bruce L. Shelley. Church History in Plain Language, Second Edition (Dallas, Texas: Word Publishing 1995) 58.

[2] F. F. Bruce. The Cannon of Scripture (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 1998) 254-262.No line between footnotes.

[3] Norman L. Geisler. Systematic Theology Volume One: Introduction / Bible (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House, 2002), 535-536.

[4] J. Ed Komoszewski and M. James Sawyer and Daniel B. Wallace. Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2006) 127.

[5] Craig L. Blomberg. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 28.

[6] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, 538.

[7] Josh McDowell. The DaVinci Code: A Quest for Answers (Holiday, Florida: Green Key Books, 2006), 26


Vinny said...

Clement of Rome knew both Peter and Paul, but his letter to the Corininthians in 95 A.D. doesn't indicate any familiarity with the gospels of Luke or Mark. Doesn't that suggest that these gospels were not actually written by the traveling companions of Peter and Paul?

J. K. Jones said...

Good to hear from you.

I am not very familiar with Clement of Rome, so I'll do a little research. One quick question before I start:

How do you know that Clement of Rome did not know about Luke or Mark? Did Clement say that they were not written, or just not mention them?


Vinny said...

Clement cites everything but the kitchen sink in his letter to the Corinthians including the legend of the phoenix rising from the ashes, but he does not cite a single story about Jesus' life death, or resurrection. I find it hard to believe that he would have resorted to pagan mythology to illustrate the concept of the resurrection if he knew the gospels and believed them to be authentic.

J. K. Jones said...


I had the chance to do some research. Some observations.

I skimmed 1 Clement. He does not say those gospels did not exist, so you are arguing from silence. This is not wise. There are many things I know that I have not written anywhere on my blog, but I still know those things. Maybe Clement just did not think he needed to bring up those particular subjects.

Clement did know the gospel of Matthew (http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=1688). Clement cited Matthew and John in AD 95-97, so he does cite Christ’s teaching in other contexts (http://www.bethinking.org/resource.php?ID=233).

Clement mentions Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians in the same period. 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 contains one of the earliest attestations of the resurrection of Christ in Chapter 15:1-8. It mentions something about “500 [witnesses], most of whom are still alive.” Clement also refers to Christ as being alive. ( http://www.4truth.net/site/c.hiKXLbPNLrF/b.2902789/k.446A/The_Trinity__Jesus__Apologetics.htm).

Another site (http://www.mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/mark.html) had this quote:

"The ending of the Gospel of Mark is a classic problem in New Testament textual criticism. The scholarly consensus is that Mark originally ended with the abrupt stop at 16:8 … The earliest Patristic evidence (Clement of Rome, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome) give no indication of any text beyond 16:8.” – “The Compete Gospels,” Robert J. Miller, Editor (1994), pp. 453-454.

Miller, hardly carrying a brief for conservative New Testament scholarship, thinks that Clement mentioned Mark. (And yes, for the record, I do think either Mark ends at 16:8 or we have lost the original ending.)

Lastly, Clement was not the only person around during that period. Quoting from this site (http://www.inplainsite.org/html/dating_the_nt.html):

”…. in letters written between A.D. 95 and 110, three early church fathers – Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp – quoted passages out of 25 of the 27 books in the New Testament…Since Clement was in Rome and Ignatius and Polycarp were hundreds of miles away in Smyrna, the original New Testament documents had to have been written significantly earlier; otherwise they could not have circulated across the ancient world by that time. Therefore, it is safe to say that all of the New Testament was written by A.D. 100.” - “I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist” by Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek (2004) p. 235-248.

I think you should re-evaluate your position.


Vinny said...

The argument from silence depends on the likelihood that the author would have mentioned a fact had he known about it. While an author is not going to not include everything he knows in everything he writes, some facts so naturally and compellingly fit into the subject matter of a particular discussion that their omission may strongly suggest that the author is not aware of them. Clement does affirm the resurrection, however, in order to explain his understanding of the event, he resorts to stories from pagan mythology rather than stories of the empty tomb and Easter morning. I recognize the inherent limitations of an argument from silence; however, this seems to me to be the kind of situation where it carries some weight.

Clement does quote Jesus twice, but the quotes don’t follow the formulation of any of the canonical gospels although they are similar. Clement may have had access to a written collection of Jesus’ sayings or he may have been quoting from oral tradition. Unfortunately, Clement does not disclose his source for these quotations. I would be interested to know Miller’s reasons for concluding that Clement is quoting Mark.

Ignatius wrote around 110 A.D. His letters never explicitly mention any of the gospels nor do they name their authors, but they contain so many passages that track the gospels so closely that it is clear he had was familiar at least with Matthew and John. Writing some time within a decade or so after Ignatius, Polycarp quotes many sayings of Jesus that also closely track the gospels, but like Ignatius, he does not explicitly identify his sources.

I think the quote from Geisler and Turek is misleading in the way that it mixes together the three apostolic fathers as well as the books of the New Testament. Clement demonstrates that Paul’s letters were generally known and regarded as authoritative as early as 95 A.D. but he is at best silent regarding the gospels. Ignatius and Polycarp demonstrate that the gospels were generally known by 110-125 A.D., but not that they were yet considered authoritative or authentic eyewitness accounts. It is not until Justin Martyr in 150 A.D. that we have evidence that these texts were deemed to be “memoirs” of the apostles and not until Irenaeous writing in 180 A.D. that we have a specific identification of the authors of the gospels. (In 125 A.D., Papias mentions Mark and Matthew writing accounts, but he does not quote from either book.)

I realize of course that different scholars reach different conclusions on all these matters and I don’t pretend that I am qualified to pronounce the final word on any point. Nevertheless, I think it is important to recognize that each of the books of the New Testament has its own pedigree that should be considered individually.

J. K. Jones said...


I have looked at your blog, and I agree with much of what I find there. We evangelicals should be embarrassed by our sub-culture’s impact on culture as a whole. I appreciate the time you have taken to leave detailed, thoughtful comments, but you have overlooked some things.

You are still arguing from silence in a dangerous way. What if Clement was writing to a particular group of people at Corinth who he felt would be convinced by arguments drawn from the pagan culture? Some of the Corinthians were not known for their morality or their doctrinal purity, as Paul’s two letters to them attest. What if he was trying to convince in a way that Paul had not tried before. Paul appealed strongly to the Apostles’ teaching, maybe Clement wanted to try something else.

I use philosophical and historical arguments on this blog that are drawn from “pagan” philosophy and method. That doesn’t mean I am not familiar with what the Bible says. I am just considering my intended audience. (By the way, I don’t blame them. I would not be convinced by a mere appeal to the Bible as God’s Word without some form of argument either.)

Also, paraphrasing was acceptable during the first century. Craig Blomberg notes that authors had “considerable freedom to paraphrase, abridge, expand, explain and stylize … All this was considered perfectly acceptable by the historiographical standards of the day and would not have been viewed … as errant.” What you are dismissing because of paraphrase most likely does indicate dependence in the least and quoting at the most. Geisler and Turek are correct in the above quote, and their book gives tables which outline who quoted what. (Quotes are from http://www.4truth.net/site/c.hiKXLbPNLrF/b.2903871/k.1218/The_Historical_Reliability_of_the_Gospels.htm)

There are other mentions of the gospel accounts that you don’t seem to be aware of, most notably Papias’ comments on the Gospel of John. I would recommend a recent book by a guy named Baucham called “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.” Papias’ comments play a major role in his argument. I don’t agree with all of Baucham’s points, but the book’s primary argument is sound. Another good book is “The Historical Reliability of the Gospels” by Craig Blomberg. These two authors are academically rigorous, and they reach intellectually satisfying conclusions. You have shown on your own blog a willingness to study diligently on these topics, and I hope you won’t stop now.

I would also like for you to put yourself in the shoes of someone who is writing in the late first century or very early second century to Christians. A significant number of these people could conceivably have sat at the feet of the apostle’s themselves to hear their teaching first-hand. Many of them had access to the Apostle’s teaching through at most one intermediary. You are also in an oral culture that has well-defined ways of preserving oral tradition. You would assume a certain familiarity with Christ’s teachings in your audience. You could assume that they would be familiar with the gospels and the authors of those gospels.

If you were in the mid second century forward, your emphasis would change. You would now be writing to an audience less familiar with the apostles, having not seen them in person. You night also be faced with heretical groups such as the Marcionites and the Gnostics. You would then need to establish your authority based on the written documents the apostles had left behind. Now you would cite the gospels in a way that established their authority based on authorship. Now you would need to start making lists of what was authentic and what was not.

I will present more evidence and more expert opinion on the gospel’s dating as this series of posts unfolds. I hope you will continue to read these posts.

Lastly, and most importantly, you have not addressed what Clement of Rome does affirm: the content of 1 Corinthians. 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 clearly states that Christ “died for our sins,” was raised from the dead, and His resurrection was witnessed by many who were still alive at the time Paul was writing. (See http://www.4truth.net/site/c.hiKXLbPNLrF/b.2903691/k.A7F4/The_Resurrection_Appearances_of_Jesus.htm)

What are you going to do about what Clement does affirm? What difference will Christ’s death and resurrection make in your life? Have you trusted Christ’s death to pay the penalty for your sins and set right your relationship with God? If you don’t have this trust in Christ, I invite you to consider following the search labels “Extra Nos” and / or “Christ’s Cross” in the sidebar.


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