If we’re not careful, we can begin to think of the Bible as one book. But it’s not one book; it’s a collection of books—sometimes referred to as the biblical canon. Of course, this correct understanding of the canon raises an important question: why these books and not others?
For instance, the New Testament includes four Gospels about the life of Jesus: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are called canonical Gospels because they are in the canon. But these weren’t the only Gospels about Jesus in the ancient world. In fact, we have discovered many other Gospels, like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, and so on.
Given the plethora of Gospels out there, why does the New Testament only include Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? What is so special about these four Gospels?
I want to give four reasons why the four Gospels stand out as unique among all other Gospels in early Christianity. Simply put, the four Gospels are the REAL Gospels of Jesus’ life because they were recognized widely in the early Church, they are the earliest Gospels we possess, they are apostolic, and they lack obvious embellishment.
First, they were recognized. Many people have a faulty understanding of how the New Testament canon was originally assembled. They mistakenly believe that individuals with authority used their authority to pick which books to include and exclude. On this view, the early church created the canon based on subjective feelings. In reality, it was the books with authority in themselves that just were the standard, or canon. On this view, the early church recognized the canon based on objective facts. This distinction is fundamental to properly understanding the formation of the canon.
Therefore, the church did not give authority to the books. Rather, it merely recognized the authority of the books. And the historical evidence backs this up. It can be demonstrated that the early church was using these four Gospels and ignoring—and even condemning—all the others. In fact, we don’t have a single canonical list from the ancient world that says, for example, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Thomas, or Matthew, Luke, John, and Peter. It’s always the four canonical Gospels without exception.
An evidence for the early recognition of the four canonical Gospels is the Muratorian fragment (also known as the Muratorian canon). Dating back to the late second century (AD 180), the Muratorian fragment lists 22 of the 27 books in the New Testament, including the four Gospels. This shows that the core canon was already present very early in the history of the church. Was there still disagreement about a handful of New Testament books? Yes. But, the church was absolutely unified on the four Gospels.
Second, they are early. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are all from the first century. Consequently, they are the earliest Gospels we have. All of the other Gospels date to the second century or later. The four Gospels take us closer to the events of Jesus’ life than any other Gospel. In fact, they were written when eyewitnesses to the events they recorded were still alive. This provides evidence of the reliability of the four Gospels.
Third, they are apostolic. That is, they were written by an apostle (as in the case of Mathew and John) or by a close companion of an apostle (as in the case of Mark and Luke). If we want a reliable Gospel, we want it to be written by an eyewitness or someone very close to an eyewitness. No one would have known Jesus’ life and ministry better than the apostles.
Furthermore, the apostles weren’t merely companions of Jesus; they were commissioned by Jesus.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18–20)
And He appointed twelve (whom He also named apostles) so that they might be with Him and He might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. (Mark 3:14–15)
But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:26)
This is the backdrop for understanding why the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20).
Therefore, if a Gospel is to be authoritative, then it must be closely related to an apostle. For example, Luke was not an apostle, but he was a protégé of the apostle Paul. So it is not surprising that Paul refers to Luke’s Gospel as Scripture (1 Tim 5:18; cf. Luke 10:7). By the way, this is why many later Gospels are falsely attributed to apostles (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter). Observing the influence apostolic writings had on the early church, forgers used names of apostles to try to gain acceptance.
Finally, they lack embellishment. The later, non-canonical Gospels include legendary and embellished stories, whereas the four canonical Gospels read like real history. Writing at his blog, Canon Fodder, New Testament scholar Michael Kruger writes,
Many of these apocryphal writings contain obvious embellishments and legendary additions. For example, in the Gospel of Peter, Jesus emerges from the tomb as a giant whose head reaches the clouds, and he is followed by the cross itself which then speaks.
Contrast this account with the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels. It is interesting that none of the Gospels actually give a description of the resurrection happening. We read about the crucifixion and burial, but we don’t get an account of the resurrection as it’s taking place. When the women show up Sunday morning, the tomb is already empty and the resurrection has already happened. The Gospel of Peter—written in the second century—tries to fill in the gap with an obvious later embellishment.
Can you see why the four canonical Gospels are included in the canon while other Gospels are excluded? There is something special about these books. Always remember why the four Gospels are the REAL Gospels. They are recognized, early, apostolic, and lack obvious embellishments.