Some who despise Christianity argue that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life are not credible. One was the 18th-century literary humor of the Enlightenment, Voltaire. Despite claiming to be a rationalist with at least a passing respect for the truth, he invented and promoted the myth that the early Christian church had fifty different gospels on the life of Jesus before coming out with only four that matched the story. That the church wanted to teach.
Oxford biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins has continued the theme in recent years. In his book, The God Delusion, he wrote: “The four Gospels that made it into official canon were chosen more or less at random from a larger sample of at least a dozen, including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Philip, Bartholomew, and Mary Magdalene.’
While Dawkins’s ignorance is surprising, behind his anti-Christian attack lies a good question, and it is this: How were the books now included in the New Testament chosen?
The writings collected in the New Testament were written 20 to 80 years after the death of Jesus. Historically, this is very soon after the event. (The first reference to Buddha was made by Ashoka (269-232 BC) over 200 years after Buddha died!). But the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life were not the first books of the New Testament to be written. The first was the earliest letters of the Apostle Paul. His letters were copied and distributed among the early church and soon became highly regarded. The apostle Peter even called them “Scripture” in his second letter (2 Peter 3:16).
Paul’s letters demonstrate a deep understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. At one point, he cites what most theologians recognize as an early creed that summarizes Jesus’ ministry (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). Paul claims he “received” his revelation directly from Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:11-12). This could be by direct revelation, but it could also mean that he received the words of Jesus from Jesus’ disciples. He speaks of ‘receiving’ and passing on this truth (1 Corinthians 11:23). Paul went out of his way to point out that his teaching was no different from that of the apostles (Galatians 2:6). He even traveled twice to Jerusalem and stayed with some of the apostles to make sure (Galatians 1:18; 2:14).
In the early decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the story of Jesus was told orally, especially by Jesus’ apostles and Paul. But in time, the apostles knew that their testimony to Jesus would end when they died. Therefore, writing an orderly account of Jesus’ life became important.
The Gospel of Mark was the first to be written (c. 60 AD), followed by Matthew and Luke (c. 80 AD), both of whom borrowed some of their material from Mark. The Gospel of John was probably written around 90-100 AD. Each of the four Gospels told the story of Jesus to a different audience. Each, therefore, has a slightly different emphasis and perspective. (By the way, it’s these differences that lend authenticity. Fictional accounts wouldn’t have them.)
Inevitably, the early church was plagued by heretics who wanted to use Jesus to promote their false ideas. One of the earliest of these was the Gnostics. They believed that God was far from us and that you could only get closer to God by learning secret knowledge (the Greek word for which was gnosis, from which they got their name). They thought God was too holy to come to earth and die on the cross. Their philosophy echoed some of Plato’s ideas about the physical world being corrupt and different from the spiritual world. The physical world must therefore be viewed with contempt.
This emphasis on gnosis can be seen in the Gospel of Thomas, part of the Nag Hammadi collection of largely Gnostic works discovered in Egypt in 1945. This fictional gospel was written about 100 years after the New Testament gospels. The other false gospels mentioned by Dawkins were written even later.
Significantly, the early church had no qualms about discovering this deception. The early Church scholar Origen of Alexandria (c. 184 – c. 253) referred to it as the “Gospel According to Thomas” as one of the heterodox (heretical) Gospels known to him. Similarly, Philip of Side (380-431) wrote that the ancient church leaders refused the gospel of the Hebrews, the gospel of Peter, and the gospel of Thomas, which they regarded as the work of heretics.
Significantly, Origen’s list of books he believed to be Scripture included all the books in the current New Testament except James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3, John. He also had the “Shepherd of Hermas”, later rejected by the wider church.[ii]
In his Easter letter of 367 AD. Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria listed all 27 books we now have in the New Testament. However, it was not until the Council of Carthage in AD 397 that the New Testament canon (the official list of authoritative scriptures) was closed, i.e., it could not be added to. (The Greek word “canon” literally means “to measure a reed”, i.e., a stick that measures the value of something.)
The early church decided which books would make up the New Testament canon based on two things:
1) How closely were they associated with Jesus’ apostles (the first eyewitnesses of Jesus)?
2) How revered was writing by the early church for its content’s integrity, usefulness, and power, for example, the book of Hebrews?
And now this truth has reached you.
[i] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (NY: Bantam Books, 2006), 121.[ii] Irenaeus also considered this a canonical work.
Dr. Nick Hawkes is a scientist, preacher, apologist, writer, and broadcaster. He also describes himself as an absent-minded, slightly obsessive man, pathetically weak from cancer and chemo, who has experienced and must experience the grace of God every day.
Nick has written a book, Soar Above the Storm, in which he draws on his experience with cancer to encourage anyone going through a storm to find peace and hope in God. It offers a 40-day retreat to be refreshed and strengthened and to find deep peace in God. Order it from Koorong.
He blogs and records podcasts at nickhawkes.net.
Nick told his life story to Eternity in Deadly Storms, Heroin Addicts, Cancer, and My Faith.