Christian History Home > Issue 96 > No Other Gospel
No Other Gospel
Despite the appearance of Gnostic "gospels," the early church decided that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were without rival.
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.
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.
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