Book Plunge: Who Chose The Gospels?

What do I think of Charles Hill’s book on the Gospels? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.


It has been said by some scholars that there was a sea of Gospels. Often we’re told that there were eighty or so up for consideration into the canon and yet, only four was chosen. Conspiracy theorists begin immediately looking at the data and see that somehow, a church being persecuted regularly by the Roman Empire and without any real power in the world, managed to control enough to make sure that their books came out on top. There were several Christianities that were vying for the spot of being the authentic one, but lo and behold, the party deemed today as orthodox won out and silenced all the others!

This is a narrative taught as gospel itself on the internet and in sources such as “The Da Vinci Code”, yet is there really any accuracy to it? Could it be that programs with such conspiracies such as one can find on the History Channel are really inaccurate and the truth is a lot more tame than that?

Charles Hill in “Who Chose The Gospels?” looks at this question and while there were other canon disputes, his main area he wants to look at is the Gospels. If you’re wanting to see how the church decided which epistles to include in the canon, you will be disappointed. If you want to see how the church arrived at four Gospels, you will not be.

Hill starts with the claim about multiple Gospels and says really, there weren’t as many as thought. These were Gospels that might pop up somewhere and be a flash in the pan and then just go off. They are harder to find because they just weren’t deemed as valuable.

An interesting way of showing this is that Hill takes us to Egypt where heterodoxy was most prevalent and shows that even there, if we look among the findings that we have, the canonical Gospels come out far and above on top! This means that even where heterodoxy was the leading contender, orthodox Gospels were still the primary Gospels that were being copied.

Of course, we need more to demonstrate the claim. The first person we go to is Irenaeus who wrote in the second century. Irenaeus gave an argument that there can only be four Gospels since there are four zones of the world and four principle winds, etc. He speaks about how the four Gospels represent the four creatures in the vision in Revelation, which no doubt has shades of Ezekiel there.

Now the modern person scoffs at this argument, and indeed if this was Irenaeus’s only reason we could understand it, but Irenaeus is not making an argument from reason so much as he is making one from aesthetics and as an aesthetical argument, it would be seen as quite good in Irenaeus’s day. Hill points out that to meet the argument, one would have to argue that “There is no harmony, proportion, or beauty to creation.” (p. 38) If someone wants to make such an argument, good luck. I hope such a person is not married. Their spouse will not be happy hearing there is no beauty in creation.

The main point to get is that early on, the second century, Irenaeus is already saying that there are four Gospels. This goes against the idea that the idea of four Gospels was suddenly foisted on the church in the fourth century. (No doubt with Constantine, who as we all know is the cause of all the problems in the church.)

But maybe Irenaeus is a lone example.

Except Hill shows later fathers who held to the four. Hippolytus, Tertullian, Origen, Dionysius, Cyprian, Victorinus, Marinus, and Euplus. If Irenaeus was acting alone, he sure tricked a lot of people into going along with the scheme.

Of course, if you can’t deal with Irenaeus’s arguments, there’s always one route you can take. You can just go after his character. Hill spends the next chapter looking at the way Irenaeus’s modern opponents paint him as a mean-spirited and aggressive bully.

What’s neglected by these people is that Irenaeus was speaking in the common style of his day. Do we do this today? Not often, though some do still. What does that mean? Does that mean we’re better? No. Whether the language is appropriate or not is not determined by the reigning zeitgiest of the day.

Furthermore, Irenaeus does also make charges of some of his opponents of sexual misconduct. Hill says it’s a surprise the feminists of today aren’t siding with Irenaeus, but alas, they’re more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the offender when Hill makes an excellent case that there’s good reason to think this charge was an exception for Irenaeus and one he made because he had good reason to think it was true.

Yet still, one could say Irenaeus was late second century. Fair enough. What if he had some co-conspirators who worked with him on this plot to foist four Gospels on the church? Hill looks at a teacher, preacher, and canon-list maker.

Enter Clement of Alexandria. Living in the Egypt area, Clement would have been familiar with the non-canonical Gospels and indeed he did read them, but if you want to know where his devotion lies, it’s to the Canonical ones. The ratio of citations of the canonicals to the non-canonicals is about 120 to 1. He speaks much more favorably of the canonicals saying they are acknowledged and handed down to us. This is not said of the others.

Well sure, but didn’t a community use the Gospel of Peter? For a time, yes, as approved by Serapion, until he got to read the Gospel for himself and then banned it from public reading. (Note that it is not recorded that he ordered it to be destroyed) Also, it’s important to realize that this Gospel was just being put forward when Serapion arrived. It was new and thus not one of the handed down ones.

As for the canon-list maker, this refers to the Muratorian Fragment which dates to the second century, to be fair, it only mentions two Gospels as the part that lists the first two is missing, but the two mentioned are Luke and John. No scholar doubts Matthew and Mark are the others.

But what if we went even earlier? How about Justin Martyr and the memoirs of the apostles? Hill shows there’s good reason to think Justin knew all four Gospels. Why not name them? For one thing, he was writing to the emperor and citing his own authorities would not be a convincing case. Is a Christian convinced when an atheist cites the God Delusion? Nope. Is an atheist convinced when a Christian cites Scripture? Nope. Are either convinced when a Muslim cites the Koran? Nope.

Well what if in this conspiracy Justin also had co-conspirators? If so, he had awfully strange bedfellows for a Christian.

The first would be Trypho. While Trypho never names the Gospels, there is assumed a familiarity with the Gospel between Justin and Trypho. (Gospel could refer to the message but also, all four Gospels could be spoken of singularly as the Gospel) There is no indication of material from non-canonical Gospels. The same applies in fact to the Emperor and Senate Justin wrote to. Justin refers to written records which record what happened, namely acts, and why not think that this refer to the Gospels? Justin also indicates these memoirs would not be hard to obtain.

Next would be Crescens, an early Christian opponent. Justin says Crescens has likely not read the Gospels and if he has read them, he has not understood them. What does this tell us? It tells us that there was a written source where Justin thought one could find the truth of Christianity.

After that is Celsus who tries to use the Gospels to disprove Christianity and points to items in there like the supposedly contradictory genealogies and which Gospels is it that have those genealogies? Only two! Matthew and Luke! Canonicals! Celsus also refers to other claims that are only found in the other canonical Gospels. Even the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Judas show a dependence on the canonicals and in fact that they are responding to the canonicals.

But what if the case for the four can go back even earlier!

Now Hill takes us to the Apocryphon of James which is in fact, a response to material in the Gospels, such as the Gospel of John. Another work, the Epistle of the Apostles, responds to that, which means that it too had to know about the Gospels.

Hill also asks here if Marcion invented the canon and concludes that he did not. In fact if anything, he was dependent on a prior idea of a canon. He had to edit some materials in order to begin to have a canon.

Finally, he points to Aristides who wrote to the emperor and pointed to written sources the emperor could obtain and included references to Jesus that come out of the Gospels.

The trend continues. Polycarp shows familiarity with the Gospels. So does Clement of Rome and the Epistle of Barnabas has a reference to Matthew in it that many scholars to this day have tried to deny.

Finally, we come to Papias. Hill points out that when Papias lists the apostles, he lists them in the order they are found in John. It’s either an amazing coincidence, or else Papias was familiar with John. He also goes to Eusebius at this point with further testimony from a source Eusebius does not name but Hill makes a fascinating case concerning. In fact, Hill argues that it could be the apostle John was the one who collected all the Gospels after writing his own and passed them on.

So this still leaves the question.

Who chose the Gospels?

For Hill, it would be like asking how you chose your parents. You don’t. You just recognize them. The Gospels essentially chose themselves. They were recognized on the basis of what they were and the church could not deny it. There were no grand conspiracies. There were no power plays going on to push these to the front. This was just the natural order at work.

I have here given a brief synopsis, but if you are interested in this debate, you owe it to yourself to read this book. It is difficult for me to think of a way someone could hold to the crazy theories often put on the internet today in the light of Hill’s research and we owe him a great debt of gratitude for putting together a fine and engaging work.

In Christ,
Nick Peters


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2 Responses to “Book Plunge: Who Chose The Gospels?”

  1. Frail Says:

    Found this off of the CAA FB page, thanks for reviewing this book! Been a topic of discussion with some atheist and Catholic friends.

  2. Deeper Waters Podcast 3/22/2014: Charles Hill | Deeper Waters Says:

    […] there, we’ll be talking about the book “Who Chose The Gospels?”. This one is a book that will be definitely much more accessible. In fact, I’ve even let a […]

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