No Other Gospel

I believe I am one of the few literate adults living who has not read Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. But I did listen to it as an audiobook. The problem with audiobooks, in my experience, is that at points my mind wanders and the words momentarily stop registering. This happened as I listened to The Da Vinci Code. Sometimes when I caught my mind drifting, I would rewind; at other times I would just let it go and try to piece it all together. I confess: This is no way to do justice to a book. I felt that I owed Dan Brown better. After all, we graduated from high school together.

There was, however, a place in the book when I did stop the tape and hit rewind—several times. It was a turning point in the plot that involved the protagonists in a conversation with a character named Leigh Teabing. Brown had styled Teabing as a kind of expert on things early Christian. The point that really caught my attention (and not just me but, I'm sure, millions of readers) was Teabing's very matter-of-fact statement: “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament and yet only a relatively few were chosen for inclusion—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John among them.”

“Wow!” I thought to myself, “talk about provocative.” The statement had the sound of being altogether authoritative. And for that reason, it is all the more unsettling for the Christian who is accustomed to thinking that there are only four gospels, the canonical gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Brown is right about the fact that there were other gospels. What needs a closer look is how the “other gospels” were related to the four in the early church. In order to do this, one has to understand how and when these four came to be regarded as a finalized list of authoritative gospels.

Old and reliable

One of the most important factors in the early church's canonization of the four gospels is their shared antiquity. Though occasionally some scholars argue that the fourth gospel was written c. 110, it is usually dated shortly before the year 100. Matthew and Luke seem to have been written 10 to 30 years earlier than that. Mark is usually supposed to have been earlier still. This puts all four gospels between the years 50 and 100. This also makes the four gospels the earliest extant records of Jesus' life, a fact not unimportant for the early Christians.

A second crucial element in the early church's decision to ascribe the four gospels special status is their apostolicity. This means that each of the four gospels was perceived as either having been written by an apostle or under the supervision of an apostle. The Gospels of Matthew and John were identified with the apostles by the same names. There was a strong tradition that Peter stood behind the writing of Mark, who, according to the early church father Papias (c. 60-130), “interpreted” him. Finally, Luke was recognized as the traveling companion of Paul. The apostolicity and antiquity of the four-fold gospel, more than any other factors, ensured the collection a secure and central place in early church life.

Early consensus

There is evidence that Christians held a high view of the four gospels very early on. Around A.D. 95, we find Clement, a bishop in Rome, authoritatively citing words reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount (1 Clement 13:1-2). The only question is whether he is drawing on Scripture or on oral tradition that preserved Jesus' teaching independently of the gospels. In my view, because Clement's citations come from the same passage in the Gospel of Matthew, it makes most sense to surmise that he is using the written gospel itself, with some admixture of Luke.

Around the same time, if not slightly later, there are intimations that Papias knew the gospels, perhaps even all four. The so-called “longer ending of Mark” (Mark 16:9-20), which most text critics regard as a spurious addition tacked on around A.D. 125, seems to reflect bits of Matthew, Luke, and John—and of course Mark itself. At the very least, this demonstrates that the four gospels were in broad circulation. It may even be the case, although it is impossible to prove, that the four gospels by this time constituted a collection in its own right, a sub-canon within the slowly emerging New Testament canon.

Firmer evidence for the four-fold gospel's authoritative status comes from the apologist Justin Martyr around the year 150. Following the philosophical terminology of his day, Justin preferred to call the gospels “memoirs.” Justin records that the church used these “memoirs” regularly in their weekly services. This would seem to indicate that the four gospels had achieved a de facto canonical status.

Around this time the famed heretic Marcion of Sinope, convinced that it was necessary to eradicate any Jewish elements from the Christian Scriptures, took it upon himself to pare down the received collection of Christian books. The only gospel that “made the cut” was Luke, but only in an edited-down version. It has been widely argued (notably by Adolf von Harnack) that the Christians first began to think about the concept of a biblical canon only in response to Marcion. But given the evidence of Justin, this seems very unlikely. We are better off maintaining that it was actually Marcion who was reacting to an established de facto canon.

A fragmentary list of New Testament books known to us as the Muratorian Canon can, despite some scholarly opinion, be reasonably dated to around 170. This provides an important piece of second-century evidence for the gospels' canonicity. Unfortunately, the beginning of the Muratorian list is broken off. The fragment begins, “The third book of the gospel, according to Luke.” It later continues, “The fourth gospel is by John.” Interestingly, Luke is presented as the third gospel and John, the fourth—exactly the canonical order as we have it today. It is hardly a stretch to suppose that the missing first and second gospels were Matthew and Mark, respectively. Matthew, being the favorite gospel of the early church, was almost always positioned first in similar such lists and whenever the four-fold gospel was brought together in one volume.

The power of four

The first church father to mention all four gospels by name was Irenaeus some time around 170. He strenuously objected to the various heretical sects (including that of Marcion) who had latched on to only one of the four gospels in order to substantiate their teachings. In Against Heresies, Irenaeus wrote:

The Gospels could not possibly be either more or less in number than they are. Since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is spread over all the earth, and the pillar and foundation of the Church is the gospel, and the Spirit of life, it fittingly has four pillars, everywhere breathing out incorruption and revivifying men.

While this may not seem the most convincing line of argument today, Irenaeus's statement needs to be understood against the backdrop of a larger argument, which presupposed a theological correlation between creation (made up of four zones) and the new creation, Jesus Christ (revealed by four gospels). While certain scholars have accused Irenaeus of originating this policy of “these four and no more” in order to squelch competing sects with their gospels, the evidence for a much earlier four–fold gospel canon is more compelling.

Apocryphal tales

This is not to deny that there were other gospels in existence at the end of the second century. There were. The Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Thomas were among them. Many similar gospels continued to be written during the next two centuries. Most of these were composed and used by Gnostic believers who were deeply critical of the beliefs and practices of the Great Church. Like their orthodox opponents, these sects also typically attributed their gospels to apostles or other well-known Christian figures. This was no doubt a bid for authority, as if to say, “Okay, if you say your gospels go back to the apostles, we can say the same thing about our gospels.”

Historically speaking, those touting the apostolic origins of the apocryphal gospels had little to stand on. These texts came much later than the four-fold gospel collection. The canonical gospels were all first-century documents; all four offer credible eyewitness accounts of Jesus of Nazareth. The apocryphal gospels, written generations later, can barely compete with this claim.

In addition to these factors, the apocryphal gospels' often surreal narrative and/or patently suspect Christology marked them off decisively as unacceptable for church use. Contrary to some scholarly opinion, the boundaries of the canon were largely determined by the criterion of right belief. Even though a few non-canonical gospels proved to be of passing interest to an equally few church fathers in the East, these texts were never seen as being on par with the four evangelists. The canonical gospels had established themselves in church tradition so firmly and at such an early point that it comes as no surprise that they have remained utterly uncontested as the church's only gospels. That is, until very recently.

Therefore, when Brown's Leigh Teabing says, “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament and yet only a relatively few were chosen for inclusion,” this may make for good fiction, but this is no way to do justice to history. Yes, there were other gospels written over the course of early church history (although nowhere near “eighty”), yet Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John remained in a league by themselves. When the church began to draw lines in a more self-conscious way after the second century, it didn't have to think hard about adding to or subtracting from the gospels. The era before the four-fold canon was a time out of mind. They knew no different.

Had all this come up with Dan Brown at our 25th high school reunion this past spring, I just might have mentioned it. But if I had done so, I would have also had to thank him. Now that the hype and the furor surrounding The Da Vinci Code have subsided, Christians can be thankful that Brown has prompted us to listen carefully to early Christian history, to rewind, and to be reminded that there is no other gospel.

By Nicholas Perrin

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #96 in 2007]

Nicholas Perrin is assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College.
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