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by Timothy Paul Jones
“The four Gospels that made it into the official canon were chosen,” Richard Dawkins declares in The God Delusion, “more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample of at least a dozen including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Bartholomew, and Mary Magdalene. … The Gospels that didn’t make it were omitted by…ecclesiastics perhaps because they included stories that were even more embarrassingly implausible than those in the four canonical ones.”
A few months ago, a Newsweek columnist claimed the four New Testament Gospels were not universally embraced in the churches until “political and theological councils voted on which of the many Gospels in circulation were to make up the New Testament”—and that Emperor Constantine was one of the key voices in the decision.
A Huffington Post columnist refers to Gospels other than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as “runners up” that were left on “the cutting room floor” when the books of the New Testament were finalized.
Such claims have multiplied in popularity over the past few years. The impression in certain segments of popular media seems to be that, at some point in the history of Christianity, church leaders were faced with a dozen or more competing Gospels. They selected the texts known today by the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—but they might just as easily have chosen a different set of texts.
The historical flaws in these popular claims are manifold. There is—for example–no hint of any moment in history when Christians did not embrace the four canonical Gospels as authoritative and true, and some of these texts were being traced to eyewitnesses of Jesus no later than the late first century.
What I want to consider in this post, however, is simply the antiquity of the New Testament Gospels in comparison with other texts that have been identified as “Gospels.” What you’ll learn is that, as far as we can tell from the surviving texts, only the New Testament Gospels were written at a time when eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus were still alive.
So how can we know that the New Testament Gospels were most likely written during the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses?
These texts weren’t written as tweets or blog posts with time-stamps embedded in them, after all! And yet, a broad range of evidence suggests that the four New Testament Gospels were received as authoritative in the first century…
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