Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy

Professor Craig Blomberg reviews C.E. Hill's book, Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy.

by C.E. Hill on November 10, 2010

Book Cover -CE HillC. E. Hill, Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. £14.99.  xi + 295 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-955123-1

People have frequently asked me what I recommend they read for a sane introduction to the formation of the New Testament canon, and I have regularly referred them to F. F. Bruce’s The Canon of Scripture, published by IVP in 1988.  It continues to be an outstanding resource, but what about all of the revisionist theories of the last twenty years?  Finally, we have an accessible work, delightful to read, yet painstakingly accurate, that debunks so much of the nonsense passing as scholarship in canon studies these days. 

Hill, who is professor of New Testament at Reformed Seminary, Orlando, has already distinguished himself with several works, most notably on the reception of the Gospel of John in the second century.  Here, Hill begins with the oft-heard claim that numerous non-canonical Gospels often competed for acceptance in second- and third-century Christianity with the four we know best.  His rebuttal begins with the number of existing papyri of the various texts from those two centuries—with the canonical material winning by a three-to-one margin.  When one realizes that a disproportionate number of these come from Egypt, where Gnostic and apocryphal works particularly flourished, it becomes apparent that the ratio empire-wide could have been even more favorable for the canonical texts.  When one observes no material difference in the ratio from second to third century works, doubt is cast on those who claim that A.D. 200 was a watershed for when orthodoxy began to “suppress” heterodoxy.  When one realizes the close relationship between the use of the codex to bind together multiple Gospel copies and then finds no collection anywhere that adds anything to the four New Testament texts, and only rare uses of codices for single non-canonical gospels, it would appear that even their proponents did not try to put forward the apocryphal or Gnostic Gospels on a par with the other four.

Many people have made the case that Irenaeus around A.D. 180 was a lone outsider who first made the claim that there had to be four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, just like there were four winds or four corners of the earth.  So Hill turns to him next.  First, Irenaeus’ argument depends on there already being four established Gospels, because he is not trying to give a rationale for their selection, simply justifying why four of so unique a quality emerged.  From all over the empire, early third century support for the fourfold canon of Gospels comes from Hippolytus, Tertullian, Origen, Dionysius, Cyprian and Victorinus, not all attributable just to the influence of the Bishop of Lyons, and in any event demonstrating he was scarcely a lone voice.  Those who wish to discount Irenaeus’ views because they find his positions on other topics at times morally objectionable (most notably his labeling others as heretics) commit a fundamental logical fallacy by thinking he cannot simultaneously be reporting accurate Christian history.  Plus, when one reads some of the vitriolic anti-orthodox rhetoric, particularly among the Sethian Gnostics, to which the revisionist historians never seem to object, Irenaeus seems tame by comparison.  It is also the height of hypocrisy that most of the revisionists, otherwise properly sensitive to the abuse of women in today’s world, discount the testimony of women that Irenaeus records concerning their abuse at the hands of some of these sectarians as so much more specious libel on the part of Irenaeus.  Perhaps he actually had good reason for his strong words of condemnation!

Most of the rest of the book works backward from the time of Irenaeus to provide massive disproof of the notion that he was the one who invented a fourfold Gospel canon.  His contemporaries, Clement of Alexandria, Serapion of Antioch and the compiler of the Muratorian fragment (not to be dated to the fourth century, as a few have recently alleged) all provide corroboration.  Tatian’s Diatessaron demonstrates the same unique role given to the four New Testament Gospels, and what little information that appears in it not directly taken from one of the four is hardly enough to prove awareness of any other Gospel.  But was creating a consecutive narrative out of the four a rejection of the diversity of the fourfold canon?  No more so than Gospel harmonies today are, and Theophilus of Antioch, who created a harmony about the same time as Irenaeus, also wrote a commentary on Matthew showing that he did not do so.  The four Gospels are regularly bound together in codices, including at times noticeably larger ones than others, probably used for public reading.  Interestingly, existing copies of other Gospels are never “packaged” in this larger form.

Why then do the Apostolic Fathers and Justin Martyr, writing in the first sixty years or so of the second century make no explicit reference to a privileged position for Matthew through John?  Presumably because they are adopting the common apologetic posture of the time of arguing from common ground with their opponents, and privileging texts not so treated by outsiders would gain them no currency in their argumentation.  But in fact, quotations and allusions of the Gospels abound in this literature, whereas virtually nothing attributable to any of the other Gospels emerges, probably because they hadn’t even yet been composed.  If they had been, they certainly weren’t given the same credence.  It is also interesting that there are no known apocryphal Gospels attributable to followers of Jesus’ apostles, like Mark and Luke were.  Apparently, even the composers of the Gnostic and other later Gospels recognized that they had to make the strongest possible case for their documents by ascribing them to those closest to Jesus.  Those Gospels themselves, including the newly discovered Gospel of Judas, show many signs of dependence on information already in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, thus demonstrating their parasitic nature.

Was Marcion then, in the mid-second century, the first canonizer, albeit a heretical one?  However one answers that question, he certainly didn’t invent the fourfold canon of the Gospels, since he was creating a canon of one Gospel, the Gospel of Luke, over against the four.  Can we perhaps then credit (or blame!) Papias in the first quarter of the second century with the ill-advised privileging of the four?  No, because his work bears explicit and often overlooked implicit testimony to the influence of John the Elder, taking one well back into the first century.

Who chose the Gospels?  Hill concludes that no one did; in a very real sense they imposed themselves uniquely with the ring of truth, with apostolic connection, with a qualitative difference to their contents, and by what in a different context evolutionists would call “natural selection.”  “The question ‘why did you choose these Gospels?’ would not have made sense to many Christians in the second century, for the question assumes that the church, or someone in it, had the authority to make the choice.  To many, it would be like the question, ‘why did you choose your parents?” (p. 231)!  Those who take up the Gospels even today and read them with a truly open mind will often come to the same conclusion.

Hill’s work comes as a breath of fresh air after reading both the radical revisionists like Bart Ehrman and the more conservative revisionists like Lee McDonald.  If anything, Hill could have made his case a bit more forcefully at times.  Read the Gnostic and apocryphal corpora through from start to finish and you will not find a claim made anywhere by the authors of those Gospels that demonstrates that they were even wanting them to be accepted on a par with the canonical texts.  Nor do the early orthodox heresiologists ever allege that the sectarians made such claims, as one would have expected to read if they had done so, if only for the sake of denouncing such those claims as a key reasons for rejecting the writings.

There is, of course, some irony in Oxford University Press publishing this work, inasmuch as they have become the exclusive publishers of Bart Ehrman’s consistent propaganda to the contrary over the last decade.  Read Hill’s book jacket hype about debunking implausible conspiracy theories (the very ones that most of what Oxford publishes on the topic promotes) and it becomes clear that the editors and marketers are scarcely trying to be even-handed or balanced; they know that both kinds of books will sell, even if, sadly, often to mutually exclusive audiences.   But we should be grateful that at least this one sensible volume made it into the Oxford collection on the canon.

Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
November 2010


Tags: new testament, gospel, bible

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