Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Apostolic Authority and the Selection of the Gospels

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 17, 2010

In his fine book Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy, the Protestant New Testament professor C. E. Hill debunks the widespread contemporary myth that the four gospels we know today were imposed by one or more dominant figures in the fourth century, presumably in order to vindicate their own ideas of orthodoxy. Recalling that the fourth gospel, St. John’s, was not written until the end of the first century, we can see that it is a remarkable service for Hill to successfully sift all the evidence which points to the acceptance of exactly four authoritative Christian gospels as early as the first quarter of the second century.

In general, the further we go back in time the less evidence we have, as we would expect. For this reason—and undoubtedly to make a better story—Hill starts near the end of the second century and works backwards. For example, he details all the reasons we may be certain that Irenaeus of Lyons, writing his work Against Heresies around AD 180, was already clearly aware that the Christian Church relied on four authoritative gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—to the exclusion of all others. That fact alone knocks nearly two hundred years off the worst of the conspiracy theories.

Hill is well-acquainted with a wide body of scholarly writing on this subject, and he knows the extravagant assertions of those scholars who seem to wish to make their academic reputations by undermining our faith in the authority of the gospels, eagerly arguing that gospels “multiplied like rabbits” (as one very silly scholar has put it) and that it was only very late that the Church somehow selected the Four in preference to other widely-known and equally-valid claimants. And so Hill patiently takes up the evidence from one historical figure after another, each earlier than the last, to show that in 170, no 160, no 150, no 140, no 130, no 120 and even earlier, the Four were universally regarded as exclusively authoritative.

To show that Irenaeus was not alone around the year 200, Hill introduces us to references to the gospels in widely divergent works by Hippolytus, Tertullian, Origen, Dionysius of Alexandria, Cyprian of Carthage and several others in the early third century. And then in successive chapters we encounter Clement of Alexandria, Serapion of Antioch, Theophilus, and the famous Muratorian Fragment; Justin Martyr, Trypho, Crescens, Celsus, Marcion, and Aristides; and finally Polycarp of Smyrna, Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome (the fourth pope), Bishop Papias, and John the Elder. Suddenly, almost without time for a breath, we find ourselves right alongside John the Evangelist.

But Hill does not debunk the various outlandish theories only by a close examination of early writings which mention the gospels. In the very first chapter, he challenges the myth of gospels multiplying like rabbits by looking at the known fragments of papyrus which contain texts either from the four canonical gospels or from other claimants. He finds that the papyri attest to the Four being enormously more widespread than the relatively few others, with fragments running nearly 40 to 1.

He also examines the existence of derivative gospel works, such as harmonizations (which attempt to unite all the gospels into a continuous chronological narrative) and tabular arrangements (which lay out the relevant passages from each gospel concerning any given incident in four separate columns). Such works are not only used widely today; they were attempted very early. And it turns out that all of the extant examples include Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—and no others. Hill also takes note of the difference between books which Christians read for personal interest and those which were permitted to be used in the liturgy (again, just the four, always and everywhere). And he observes that the four gospels were generally published in codex form (books), whereas apocryphal works were typically published as (inferior and cheaper) scrolls.

In all, C. E. Hill makes a compelling—almost certainly an irrefutable—case that the four gospels as we know them were simply those that were handed down from the beginning, and that Christians never regarded themselves as having a choice about “which gospels” to accept. Rather, it was partly the acceptance of the gospels which made one a Christian in the first place. On the last page of the book, he puts it this way:

In one sense, of course, the answer to the question: ‘Who chose the Gospels?’ is, everybody who has known something of that indemonstrable power and majesty and, like Aristides, Justin, Irenaeus, Clement , and countless others, has chosen to live by their telling of the story of Jesus. But second-century Christian leaders would have said that neither individuals nor churches had the authority to ‘choose’ which of the many Gospels they liked, but to receive the ones given by God and handed down by Christ through his apostles. (246)

In the end, then, Professor Hill concludes that Christians have always accepted the gospels—and indeed should still accept them—based on the testimony of the apostles themselves, that is, on Apostolic authority. It is true that he also comments on the “self-attesting” power of the gospels, and cites evidence from the early apologists that for them Scripture possessed this sort of luminous power, a conviction arising from the grace and light which characterizes the Word of God. Other writings simply lack this power. But Hill does not push this farther than it will take each individual believer or unbeliever. He notes its importance, but unlike many Protestants he does not appear to regard it as sufficient or decisive.

Rather, the early and universal acceptance of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—as well as their natural and continuous ascendancy over all rivals put forth by writers of either fiction or heresy—simply depends on Apostolic authority. This is an important validation of the gospels against modern theorists—including mere popularizers such as Dan Brown—who love to suppose a late imposition of canonicity as a brazen grab for power.

A minor weakness in the final argument is that Hill does not consider how this Apostolic authority might actually have manifested itself in the case of a serious dispute. It is very fortunate that there has never been a serious, widespread dispute among believers about the identity of the authentic Christian gospels. But in one small place the author badly handles the issue of what might have happened in the event of an actual dispute so great that a living authority would need to be found to settle it. This, of course, is the very authority issue that Protestants are incapable of addressing, since they do not fully understand how Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium fit together into a seamless whole to guarantee a proper understanding of Divine Revelation. In one place, and only one, Hill puts the question thus:

How is it that these four Gospels came to be known so widely from such an early time? There was certainly no great council of Christian churches before 150 which laid down the law on which Gospels to use. No single bishop, not even the bishop of Rome, should he ever have made such a proclamation (and there is no reason to think he did), had the clout to make it stick. (228)

Happily, Hill uses this to strengthen his undoubtedly correct argument that the gospels were accepted universally from the beginning based on Apostolic authority. But, again, this one paragraph begs the question of how the gospels would have fared if large numbers of Christians had become confused about what was demanded by Apostolic authority. In fact, exactly this problem did arise with regard to some other Scriptural books. Most notably, Jerome and Augustine argued bitterly over the canonicity of seven of them. So how was it that Augustine won? And how was it that, when the great Jerome translated the Greek text into the Vulgate, he included those books which he had formerly insisted were apocryphal?

Hill does not answer that question and, as I said, he is fortunate that his subject does not require him to do so. For this reason, I can give my strongest recommendation to this well-written, scholarly, entertaining and even feisty book on the gospels. But the question cannot be avoided forever. I intend to answer it in a sequel to this review, and the answer will shed a whole new light on the nature and exercise of the very authority which C. E. Hill rightly describes as essential to the Christian reception of the Revelation of Jesus Christ.

Previous in series: Who wrote the gospels? How do we know?
Next in series: Authority Both Apostolic and Petrine

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: trini - Dec. 18, 2010 10:21 AM ET USA

    Excellent review. See also the good review on I support Mirus's point that the book has a huge deficiency: the Protestant author Hill does not consider that it is the Church founded by Jesus Christ (which is the Roman Catholic Church) which authorized the four canonical gospels. I made the same point when praising and criticizing a 'Very Short Introduction' to the non-canonical 'gospels'. Stress Catholicism rather than 'Christianity' for Christian origins.