Challenge Response: The Gospels Were Selected for Political Reasons

Here's my response to this week's challenge:


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This week's challenge: The gospels were declared to be canon at the Council of Nicaea by a bunch of Christian bishops and there were 50 or 60 other gospels. They declared which four books were going to be gospels. That's the essence of the challenge. Of course, whole books have been written on this challenge, and I'm going to try and answer it in four and a half minutes.

Let me say three quick things. Number one, this is just patently false. That the gospels were determined to be Scripture at the Council of Nicaea had nothing to do with canonicity of Scripture. Nicaea was a response to the heresy of Arias, and the early church dealt with their view of Jesus and His divinity at Nicaea. There was nothing about canonicity there. No declarations on Scripture. This is false, and I just want to encourage people to stop getting their information from The DaVinci Code. 

In fact, there was no Christian Council that made an official declaration that the church followed about canonicity. There were some smaller regional councils like Leodicea and I think Hippo, Carthage that had talked about canonicity and the books of the canon. But it wasn't because they declared it, and then the church followed it, and therefore they deemed the gospels as the right gospels, and so then the church followed it. No, they were just affirming what was already in the early church, and that's the second thing we need to look at.

What did the early church think? The second key point is that there was recognition of the gospels as Scripture from the beginning. You have Paul in 1st Timothy 5:18 referring to Luke’s writing, quoting from Luke as scripture. So right from the get-go the early church fathers and guys like Justin Martyr, Pappias, Barnabas, and Clement [refer to the gospels as Scripture]. 

In the end of the second century you have a few key things. Irenaeus talks about and affirms the four gospels in his Against Heresies. You have Clement of Alexandria affirming the four gospels. You have the Muratorian canon, which is our first ancient list of scripture that lists 22 of the 27 books affirming all four gospels. So, you have early consensus of the early church on Scripture. Even the skeptic Bart Ehrman says that canon isn't recognized through some declaration of the church but by ancient consensus. 

Just a quick note about “other” gospels – Why would or wouldn’t we recognize other gospels? There are two lines of evidence, and I think they're pretty compelling. Number one is the manuscript tradition. The number of manuscripts we have of a document seems to point in the direction of its influence, authority, and importance. 

Our manuscript evidence for the gospels far exceeds manuscript evidence for any of these other so-called gospels. You have in the second century alone around 60 or so manuscripts of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Other gospels have maybe 15 or so. This huge discrepancy in the number of early manuscripts points to the fact that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were much more valued. 

Also, you look at the citations of the early church fathers. Who are they primarily quoting? They are quoting from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John primarily. That doesn't mean that they don't quote from any of these other alleged gospels but with far less frequency. Clearly the authority is given to the gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as Scripture. I think those three things answer this challenge pretty convincingly.

Brett Kunkle (@brettkunkle) is the founder and president of MAVEN, a movement to equip the next generation to know truth, pursue goodness, and create beauty. He has more than 25 years of experience working with youth and parents. Brett has a master’s degree in philosophy of religion and ethics from Talbot School of Theology and co-authored the book A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World.

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Brett Kunkle