By Charles E. Hill
Once there were many Gospels. Then there were just four. Who was it that first suggested Christians should have the four accounts of the life of Jesus attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and only these four, in their Bibles? Scholars often bestow the honor (if it may be called such) on Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul, who wrote in the 180s CE. There is certainly no mistaking Irenaeus’ stance on the subject. He claimed that just these four Gospels had been delivered to the church and he rejected all others, naming two of the imposters – the Gospel of Judas and ‘the so-called Gospel of Truth’ – by name. But in his selectivity, say many scholars today, Irenaeus was far ahead of his time. Irenaeus’ idea of a limitation on the number of Gospels did not really catch on in the church until much later, and ultimate agreement on the four would be stalled until the fourth century, when it could be backed by governmental force. This has become a familiar account of the rise of the Christian Gospels. But is it true?
As proof of Irenaeus’ isolation and the early unpopularity of his discriminating approach some cite the examples of two contemporaries who are thought to have displayed more generous attitudes towards the use of other Gospels as Christian Scripture. Clement, an accomplished teacher in the sophisticated city of Alexandria, gave rare but sometimes approving references to a few apocryphal Gospels (or Gospel-type literature). Serapion, bishop in the important city of Antioch, Syria, on one occasion gave parishioners permission to read a work known as the Gospel of Peter.
And yet, even Clement made a distinction between the Gospels he cited. He seems to indicate that the church, too, had made a distinction when he speaks of the Gospel of Mark as one of the ‘acknowledged Gospels’ and when he calls Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John specifically ‘the four Gospels that have been handed down to us’. In this he sounds just like Irenaeus, who spoke of the very same four as handed down to the church from the time of the apostles. Bishop Serapion allowed requesters to read the Gospel of Peter, yet he later took pains to point out that this book was not genuine and was not among the books which he had ‘received by tradition’. Here is the same notion of ‘handed down’ books. Unfortunately, in the scrap of his writing which is preserved by Eusebius, Serapion does not list the books which were in this ‘hand-me-down’ library, but the coincidence with both Clement and Irenaeus is no less striking. Serapion, like his two contemporaries, does not conceive of the church’s ‘received’ writings as merely the books he himself preferred, or the books somebody else in his generation had nominated, but as the books inherited from his forebears. And because one of Serapion’s forebears is known to us, we can still get a pretty good idea of which books these were. The next-to-immediate predecessor of Serapion as bishop of Antioch was a man named Theophilus. In the only one of Theophilus’ works which survives, we can see citations from the ‘inspired’ Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John. One of Theophilus’ other literary creations was a Harmony of the four Gospels.
All of this highlights one way in which Gospels, as well as other authoritative books, were distinguished from their rivals long before the fourth century. At least by the last decades of the second century the four Gospels were already like a set of family heirlooms which had been passed down from earlier generations. The really odd thing is that in places so geographically dispersed as Lyons, Alexandria, and Antioch, each ‘family’ does not appear to have had its own, peculiar set of heirlooms, but rather claimed the same ones. This tells us there must be something wrong with the prominent historical narrative which makes Irenaeus out to be such a loner. It appears he had friends and ‘family’ all over the empire.
Charles E. Hill is Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, in Orlando, Florida and author of Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy.