This week’s problem focuses on all of the gospel accounts that were written – not just the four in the Bible. So what makes these four (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) special enough to be included and not the others?
The selection of the gospels to be included in the Bible was made by a council of Christian bishops convened in Nicea in Bithynia by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in AD 325. At this council, four gospels were selected from a total of approximately 60 that were in use at the time. Three of the four gospels selected are called the Synoptic Gospels: Mark, Matthew, and Luke. These were not independent efforts but had many elements borrowed and shared among them. The fourth gospel, John, is very different from the other three and presents a somewhat contradictory theology.
The other 56 or so gospels that were discarded do not agree for the most part with the four that were selected. Examples are the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of the Nazarenes, the Gospel of the Ebionites, and the Gospel of the Hebrews.
It is likely that the truth of what happened lies buried amid the numerous tales told by all of these gospels, with various true and fictional elements scattered throughout. But what should be troubling to a questioning believer is that the council undoubtedly preferentially selected the gospels that were favorable to the Romans (i.e., the ones that made them look good) and excluded whatever did not flatter them. It is certain that this process resulted in a whitewashed portrayal of history.
Dr. Frank Turek talks about how it’s important to note that the Council of Nicea did not choose which books were to make up the Canon in the Bible. They set about themselves to discover which books were inspired by God – including the Gospel accounts. And the books they discovered had to meet a certain criteria in order to be considered part of the Canon. Turek outlines the criterion is as follows:
- Was it written by a prophet of God?
- Was the writer confirmed by acts of God or someone who was confirmed as an eyewitness (i.e. Paul confirmed Luke)?
- Was it accepted by the people of God?
Specifically regarding the confirmation of authorship and authority of the Gospel accounts, the council recognized these attributes:
- The Gospels and Acts are cited during the lives of the apostles
- They are quoted as authoritative and unique
- They were collected early in one volume
- They were publicly read and expounded
- Commentaries were written on these books (not the other “gospels”)
- Opponents of the central message of the Gospels admitted the Gospels were written by the disciples
- No other “gospels” were treated this way
The gospels of Peter, Thomas, Judas, etc. had some issues with them. Scholars at the time of Nicea knew that those gospels were written in the 2nd Century, more than 100 years after the events of Jesus based on what was written in them. Therefore, they are not eyewitness accounts and are rightly not given the same status as the four Gospels we know that were eyewitness accounts.
Because they were written late, it’s clear these other gospels were not written by the people whose names are on them. Just like when someone tries to plagiarize or forge a signature, the names are there as a way of trying to give credibility to these problematic accounts.
The four Gospel accounts are set apart in that they:
- Are confirmed to be eyewitness accounts
- They were written early and therefore vetted by other eyewitnesses
- Multiple parts of them have been corroborated by outside sources
- They have not changed over time
- The authors of the Gospels had no incentive to lie and make up everything they wrote
In fact, they had every incentive (to the threat of bodily harm and death) to recant what they wrote and keep quiet about it. But they refused to do so.