Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Debunking the 'gospel conspiracy' theory

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 17, 2011 | In Reviews

As Lent advances and Holy Week draws near, we can safely predict that the radical intellectuals of the “Jesus Seminar” will soon be making their annual appearance in the headlines. Each year, as devout Christians prepare to observe their most solemn holy days, these dissenters make a new effort to deconstruct the faith. Watch for it: coming soon to your local media outlets.

By now we know roughly what we should expect. The critics of Christianity have created an orthodoxy of their own. Whether their ideas are conveyed in pseudo-scholarship of Elaine Pagels or the sensationalist novels of Dan Brown, they emphasize the same basic themes. Jesus did not do and say what the Gospels record, they inform us. The real nature of Christ’s teaching, they claim, was suppressed by sinister forces in the early Church. As evidence to support their claim, they cite documents such as the “Gospel of Thomas” or the “Gospel of Judas”—documents which, they tell us, those sinister forces suppressed.

This year, fortunately, we have available a powerful antidote to the deconstructionist argument. Charles Hill, a New Testament scholar at the Reformed Theological Seminary, has written a very useful book: Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy, published by Oxford University Press. Hill thoroughly debunks the “great Gospel conspiracy,” demonstrating that the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were always recognized, from the earliest days of the Christian community, as carrying unique authority.

The other documents touted by the deconstructionists—the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas, etc.—were circulated during the early years of the Church (although some of these documents are not nearly as ancient as their supporters claim), and did have some influence, particularly with some small dissident sects. But they were never regarded as authoritative. The other documents were read and discussed in private; the four Gospels were read in church.

My colleague Jeff Mirus has already reviewed Hill’s book, and I do not intend to duplicate his work. Instead I want to focus on one particular aspect of Hill’s work.

Hill is an engaging writer, and he treats his subject like a detective story, working his way through the available clues to construct his case. He shows, with meticulous detail, how the earliest Christian writers distinguished between the Gospels and other works. He proves that from the early years of the 2nd century, shortly after the death of St. John, those four Gospels were venerated. He weighs the claims of the other “gospels” and casts them aside, easily convincing readers that they never rivaled the influence of the four Evangelists.

Then, as he wraps up his argument, Hill makes a point that reminded this reader of the great fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes: He calls attention to the dog that did not bark.

If there had been a struggle in the early Church, and some powerful forces suppressed the “other gospels,” the historical record should bear some evidence of that conflict, Hill argues. But in fact, while there were many other debates among the early Christians, there is no evidence of a debate about which writings qualified as “the Gospels.” There was no need for Church officials to settle the argument, because the argument never arose. There was, then, no “conspiracy” to silence other voices. There was no drive to advance some documents, and suppress others, for political purposes.

Or at least there was no such drive then, in the early years of Christianity. But there is just such a drive now. That effort is being made by the deconstructionists; they are doing precisely what they accuse the Church of having done: seeking to promote their own favorite “gospels,” and deny the authority of others, for political reasons.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Mar. 22, 2011 10:54 PM ET USA

    Seems this problem is deeper than many realize. While documented scholarship exists to support the truth, many in our pews privately hold the "whisper around the circle" theory. 'How do we know since it happened so long ago; we were not there...?' This is another example of the crisis in Faith. One suggestion for solution is read the book by Robert Spitzer 'Healing the Culture'. Another is pray.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 18, 2011 5:04 PM ET USA

    Funny, but the same process of investigation can be used to debunk the erroneous version of history put forward by Protestantism, that Catholic doctrines were later innovations and accretions while Protestantism was a "return" to the early Church. Regenerative baptism, ordained priesthood, apostolic succession, Rome's primacy, Mary's perpetual virginity and holiness, purgatory, etc, etc, all of these beliefs can be traced back to the earliest days of Christianity - and no barking dogs, either.