Who assembled the Gospels?

Last week we talked about the guys who wrote gospels about Jesus, and why we don’t have to be discouraged when “experts” cast doubt upon the validity, authenticity, and reliability of the New Testament. Today, we focus more on the trustworthiness of the Bible. While there is much to discuss, the canon of Scripture gets brought up often. The canon refers to the collection of books that make up the Christian Bible, and is an area of study that is interested in uncovering why certain books made it in, and why some did not. Are you curious?

I like to start by breaking this question down to the basics. What would cause me to trust that the Bible was assembled the right way? Well, let’s think about this…

If we needed information about a person like Jesus from a time without video technology or internet, a biographical sketch is the natural medium to choose. And who would be most reliable in doing that? Probably the twelve disciples, those men who were close to Him in proximity, ministry, and relationship.

The twelve disciples had the most relational currency with Jesus.

So what they said carries a lot of weight when it comes to replicating not only Jesus’ life and times, but also His teachings, transmitted by oral tradition as they were, since He never wrote anything down.

But by what sort of criteria can we use to decide if a set of writings are from his disciples? Well, think of it in more contemporary terms. If you wanted to know a few things about John F. Kennedy’s life, you could ask your friend (perhaps they know a few accurate things about that time period, or JFK himself). But what if your dad was alive during Kennedy’s life, and experienced his presidency? Well, now you have a slightly greater account, if for no other reason than your dad has an eyewitness account of Kennedy, and your friend has only second or third-hand knowledge. In fact, your friend may not have even been alive at the time anyway. But let’s take it up a notch. Let’s suppose you were able to speak to Kirk LeMoyne Billings, Kennedy’s best friend. That would be a drastic difference to which none of the first two options could compare. Not only was Billings an eyewitness, but he was also privy to knowledge about Kennedy being as close as he was to him. Now add to this hypothetical situation: Billings is commissioned by Kennedy to write his authorized biography about. Now you are beginning to grasp the nature of the New Testament gospels. These have all the characteristics you would expect from an authentic account of Jesus’ life.

Here are three things about the gospels that cannot be ignored.

1. An early date.

The gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were all written in the first century. Mark, the earliest gospel, was written somewhere in the mid- to late-50’s. If Jesus died in the early 30’s, as history tells us, then Mark’s gospel was penned within twenty years of Jesus’ life. At first mention, that may sound like a long time to you. But there are still throngs of people alive today who remember Kennedy’s life, presidency, and passing with vivid clarity, though it was over fifty years ago. A memorable event or person has the ability to burn itself into the memory as if it was yesterday. Twenty years is actually very early.

2. Eyewitnesses.

This one is easy. The gospel writers were there! Well, half of them were. John (the fourth gospel) was one of Jesus’ closest disciples, and Matthew was the former tax collector who became Jesus’ disciple. Eyewitnesses. The other two were not around to witness Jesus life. So how did they make the cut? Well, history tells us that Mark and Luke were directly connected to some important eyewitnesses, namely, Peter and Paul, the apostles. As early as AD 120, Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis, reported that Peter transmitted the words and deeds of Jesus to an assistant, named John Mark. Some traditions hold that the physician, Luke, was an associate of Paul’s (Col. 4:14).  So in other words, “Did the Gospel writers know Jesus personally? With confidence, we can say ‘no’ in the cases of the second [Mark] and third [Luke] Gospels. But these evangelists had access to reliable traditions about Jesus” (Mark D. Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels. 49).

3. Commission.

Jesus didn’t just have a cluster of eyewitnesses around him observing his life. He commissioned certain people to document his life, death, resurrection, and teachings (Luke 24:48; Matt 28:19-20). Consider the gravity of that. These men were the only people we know of who were authorized and capable of speaking on behalf of Jesus. It makes sense that their writings take precedence over any other writings, whether ancient or modern. Other writings came much later, were not based on known eyewitnesses accounts, and were certainly without the authorization of Jesus Himself. In fact, that’s why the original Twelve disciples (as well as Paul, and some others) are also called, apostles, which means “to commission.”

Why is all of this important?

Many people like the idea of Jesus, but not everyone accepts everything He said or affirmed. You can tell by the amount of playtime our culture has given to some so-called alternative gospels. The Gnostic gospels, as their often called, are a group of ancient writings from the Nag Hammadi library which was discovered in Egypt in 1945. They have their roots in Gnosticism, an ancient heresy centered around “secret knowledge” that sprung up around the birth of the Christian church. These writings have been offered as a viable alternative to the gospels found in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Making their case more alluring are each of their titles–The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Truth, The Gospel of Philip, and The Gospel of Judas–which seem to presuppose an apostolic authorship. This is a big deal, because the message in these writings are quite different from the gospels found in the New Testament (NT), and even flat-out contradictory. If the Gnostic gospels were written by Jesus’ apostles, we would have a serious problem on our hands. But they’re not.

Using the criteria we gave for the NT gospels, you can see that the Gnostic gospels fall short. Here are three immediate problems with attaching any kind of credence or authority to them.

  1. The Gnostic gospels have later dates than the NT gospels. Take the Gospel of Thomas, for example. This is the document that is famous for having multiple “authentic” sayings of Jesus. But Bart Ehrman, a more theologically liberal NT scholar, suggests that even though these sayings are indeed old, “the document as a whole probably came to be written sometime after the New Testament Gospels (although perhaps independently of them), possibly in the early second century” (Lost Scriptures, 20. Italics added). In other words, the book with all Jesus’ sayings? It was written around a century after the NT gospels were written. Remember, the closer to the source the better! It also means, the titles are wrong because the apostles all died within the first century. That makes the Gnostic gospels Pseudepigrapha (falsely attributed works).
  2. The Gnostic gospels were not by eyewitnesses (see last paragraph). To say that they represent Jesus is unconvincing. We have little idea who wrote the Gnostic gospels, and we cannot confirm any real connection from them to Jesus Himself.
  3. The Gnostic gospels were not commissioned by Jesus. I can say that with some degree of confidence, by doing a bit of logical reasoning: the Gnostic gospels are very different in message from the Gospels which Jesus did commission. Ergo, we cannot say that Jesus authorized them. Meanwhile, he did present us with authorized, apostolic accounts of his life, death, and resurrection. It would be silly, in light of all three of these reasons, to place the Gnostic gospels on the same tier as the NT gospels for representing Jesus Christ.

One of the reasons there was no “official canon” until the fourth century, is because there was not yet a need to differentiate between true and false gospels, until the Gnostic heresies because more of a problem. Then certain criteria was offered for followers of Christ to discern between the apostles of Jesus and false apostles. As you can see, that criteria really helped throughout the centuries, and continues to do so. Now, when you add to this the Christian’s belief that Jesus is God in the flesh, and rose from the dead, there is also an authority in the NT gospels that’s unparalleled by any other so-called “gospels.” As my mom used to say, “Laying down in the garage doesn’t make you a car.” In the same way, calling something a gospel doesn’t make it a gospel without evidence connecting it to Jesus Christ Himself.

Our New Testament carries the only authorized, connected, and commissioned accounts of Jesus’ life. And because they were commissioned by Jesus, who is our Lord and God, they are our authority in life along with the rest of the Biblical canon. Thank you God–you speak to your people!


Recommended Reading:

  • Can We Trust the Gospels, Mark D. Roberts. (for an easy, but comprehensive view of the Bible’s assembly, as well as it’s transmission, and textual reliability. I highly recommend!)
  • The Canon of Scripture, F.F. Bruce. (for a more in-depth and specific look at how the Bible was assembled, more detailed criterion, and the history of the whole Bible’s canonization, not just the gospels)

About Lazo

Lazo is the pastor for preaching and vision at Reality SB where he is committed to challenging Santa Barbara's independence by calling the city to follow Jesus. You might like these blog posts, 5 Wrong Ways To Comfort Hurting Peoples, or Daisy Love and the Magic Eraser. You can follow Chris on twitter at @LazoChris.

Posted on April 17, 2014, in Apologetics, realitysb, Scripture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Such great points! My Bible prof likes to make it clear as you have mentioned here that the books we now consider canonical Scripture are Scripture in part because they were considered Scripture from the time they were penned! The Apostles knew they were writing Scripture equal to that of the “other Scripture”, the OT (2 Peter 3:16). So he likes to say no one “chose” the books to use. They were viewed and read that way by the early church. Great post Lazo!


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