In this piece, I largely follow a presentation given by Dr. Danial Wallace*, but I add in some additional information about the early church to round out the information. Dr. Wallace underscores the fact that the early church was particularly concerned about the authorship of the writings they relied upon. They only trusted the writings of the apostles and associates of the apostles. We see this concern reflected in the writings of the earliest church fathers.
The original gospels, however, were anonymous, notes Wallce; that is they did not have internal references to who wrote them. They were only given names to distinguish them from each other externally, and this tradition went all the way back as far as we can trace them. The fact that the early church was so concerned with authorship, but universally accepted and used the four canonical gospels, suggests that the authorship of the Gospels was never in doubt.
This point will become more important below. How the Gospels and other documents that have come to comprise the New Testament became recognized as scripture and other documents did not, is the subject of this piece.
The four canonical gospels were all written and circulating in the 1st century, within the generation following Christ’s death. Scholars today believe that Mark was the first gospel written. All the evidence indicates that Mark was a close companion of Peter and got his gospel from Peter, but no one called it the gospel according to Peter. John, the last of the gospels written, was completed about 85 AD. John, himself, lived into the 2nd century. The four canonical gospels had early and wide acceptance by the time of his death. (See The Historical Literary Evidence for the Authorship of the NT Gospels)
It was not until the second century that we begin to see gospels with the names of the writers stated in them. (Thomas, Judas, Peter, etc.) Wallace believes that these later gospels included the writers purported names precisely because the early church did not embrace writings that did not have some tie to the apostles or the associates of the apostles. If the early church at the time did not think a writing was authored by an apostle or associate of an apostle, the writing was not embraced as scriptural. More on this to come.
In addition to authorship, the early gospels had an intrinsic authority to them that was recognized by the church. Other writings did not have that intrinsic authority. This also explains why, if someone was writing a book a hundred years after Jesus died, the writers would seek to add authority by ascribing them to an apostle or associate of an apostle. They were hoping to give it authority it did not intrinsically have.
The Apocryphal gospels include the gospels of Thomas, Mary, Phillip, Judas, Peter, Bartholomew, as well as the Acts of Peter, Paul’s Letter to the Laodiceans, 3rd Corinthians and others. Many of these works were “orthodox”, meaning that they were fairly harmonious with the four canonical gospels and conformed to what the church has believed from the beginning. They still were not considered scripture and did not become part of the NT canon.
The criterion of canonicity, according to Wallace, is the following:
- Antiquity – Written by an apostle or associate of an apostle;
- Orthodoxy – Conformity to what was written in the other, accepted books (what was considered orthodox, or true doctrine). the criterion of conformity went back to the words of Jesus, establishing the standard for what the early church considered true doctrine; and
- Catholicity – Acceptance by all the churches (not Roman Catholicity, but universal acceptance by the early churches that had ties to the apostles and associates of the apostles).
The early church began in Jerusalem, spread to Judea immediately following Christ’s death and expanded out from there. The Christians separated themselves from their Jewish brethren such that, when Roman armies carried out the siege against Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Christians had removed themselves to the hills and regions outside of Jerusalem and Judea.
Christianity spread rapidly through the geography of the Roman Empire, Asia Minor and Syria and extended further east into the land of the former Asseryian and Persian empires as well as into Africa and the Far East. Justin Martyr wrote about 150 AD that “the eucharist of the bread and cup… were offered by Christians in all places throughout the world…. whether among barbarians or Greeks, or by whatever name they may be called, of those who live in wagons or are called nomads or of herdsmen living in tents….” (Ch 41 of Dialogus cum Tryhone (MSG, 6:676) quoted in Biblehub)
The early church was interconnected, but not centralized at this time. According to Dr. Wallace, they did not create the canon; they “discovered the canon”. The Gospels and letters that the early church recognized as scriptural were the documents that met the recognized criteria, including authorship and not the least of which was that they conformed to the teaching and life of Jesus who people still alive at the time had known.
Note that the Roman Catholics have come to define the canon as an “authoritative list of books”; while the Protestants say it is a “list of authoritative books”. An authoritative list needs some higher authority to give the list its authority. One the other hand, a list of authoritative books is a collection of books that have been recognized as having intrinsic authority. If you look at all the early church councils, not one of them purported to list out what is scripture. None of them said “these are the books of the New Testament”.
There is a problem with the Roman Catholic definition (an authoritative list). It requires an authority higher than the scriptures. (Of course, the Roman Catholic church says it is that authority.) The authority that establishes the scriptures, however, is Jesus, Himself. “Jesus is the canon,” says Wallace. He is the standard that the New Testament conforms to. The books of the New Testament are the ones that harmonize with what Jesus said and with his life that people who followed him could recognize, but they were careful to exclude books that didn’t have the imprint of intrinsic authority.
What Jesus said in the 1st Century was known to the people who followed Him, not just the disciples, but all the followers, and all those who made up the early church who knew the followers of Jesus. The first followers of Jesus, who knew what Jesus said (because they were there when He said it) were the ones who first identified what was authoritative and authentic because they were able to compare writings to what he said and how He lived his life. They also, likely, knew exactly where the writings came from.
The writings, therefore, didn’t need a stamp of authorship. Everyone recognized them for what they were.
William Barclay, the Edinboro scholar, said that the NT books were not the sort that people could determine what belonged in the NT; they were the sort that people could not keep out. They have intrinsic authority to them, and people recognized that authority. They ring true. They bear witness to the Jesus that people knew, to what He demonstrated and to what He said.
How the ancients viewed forgeries is also instructive. If they discovered that a book was not written by the person to whom it was attributed, they always disregarded it (as Scripture), even if it conformed to accepted doctrine. The content did not trump the fact that it was wrongly attributed. The fact that it was wrongly attributed cast suspicion on it.
As an example, the Letter of Paul to the Laodiceans was a grouping of portions of four different letters that Paul wrote. It is completely orthodox. It contains quotations from four of Paul’s letters. But it was not written by Paul so it was not considered scripture. Another example is 3rd Corinthians, written by a man who loved the apostle Paul and who identified Paul as the author of it. Because Paul did not write the letter, the man was kicked out of the church (for having the audacity to put Paul’s name on it), and the letter was not considered scripture.
The Epistle of Barnabas is largely orthodox, but no one thought it was actually written by Barnabas. A 2nd Century list of scripture says that Barnabas is a good book to read, but it is not scripture “because it was written in our time.” Thus, not only did the authenticity of authorship matter, but the time period in which something was written mattered to the early church. Writings in the 2nd Century were too late to be considered Scripture.
People claim that there are many “lost gospels”, and the early church suppressed them, but that is not the case. There is a difference between 1st century documents and 2nd century documents. The 1st century documents are written by the apostles or their associates. The 2nd century documents were not.
A couple of other books were apparently orthodox but were not recognized by the early church as Scripture. We do not even have them any more. The Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, is referenced in other places, but we do not have a copy of it. Even seemingly orthodox writings were discarded by the early church if they were considered forgeries because the very fact it was forged or wrongly attributed was considered a lie.
Dr. Earl Ellis wrote about this characteristic. Whether a pseudo-gospel or letter was orthodox or heretical, it did not matter; they were regarded as forgeries. The early church did not consider any forgery or wrongly attributed writing to be benign. The claim that Peter did not write 2nd Peter or that Paul did not write Ephesians or the pastoral epistles is only a modern invention. The early church’s treatment of forgeries, even benign forgeries, and wrongly attributed documents strongly suggests that the accepted writings were considered authentic.
How these pseudo writings view Christ is also telling. For instance, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas) says:
“When a boy accidentally ran into the boy Jesus, Jesus declared, ‘You shall not go further on your way’, and the child immediately fell down and died.
“Some of the villagers complained to Joseph, asking him to take his family and leave. ‘Since you have such a child, you cannot dwell with us in the village, or else teach him to bless and not to curse, for he is slaying our children.'”
Another example is the Arabic Infancy Gospel written in the 5th or 6th Century. Mohammad seems to have read this writing and to have been influenced by it. In fact, he seems to have been more aware of the apocryphal gospels than the actual Gospels, and his understanding of the New Testament seems to have been influenced by his knowledge of the apocryphal writings, rather than the canonical writings.
The Gospel of Thomas was discovered in 1945 in Egypt along with other books. It says that it was written by Thomas Dydemus, meaning Thomas the Twin. There was a tradition that arose in the 2nd Century that Thomas was Jesus’ twin. Ascribing this gospel to Thomas, therefore, might have been thought to give it some sense of authority.
In the Gospel of Thomas, there is no narrative. Not one city or place is mentioned. The resurrection is not mentioned. There is no mention of miracles. It is a “talking head gospel”. At the end is this discussion between Peter and Mary Magdelene:
“Simone Peter said to them [the apostles], “Let Mary leave us, because women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “Look, I shall lead her so that I will make her male in order that she also may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” (114)
People who assert that the Gospel of Thomas should be part of the canon (some say replacing John) will say that this passage is not authentic. The problem with that position is that we only have one copy of the Gospel of Thomas, and this passage is in there. It clearly deviates from the New Testament canon.
The Gospel of Thomas is not technically Gnostic, contrary to popular opinion. Gnosticism is the idea that salvation comes by way of knowledge; the material world is evil; and the spirit world is good. The Gospel of Judas, on the other hand, is thoroughly Gnostic. In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus tells Judas to betray him and says that Judas will be a hero because he will set Jesus free from the shell in which he was stuck. In other words, it says that Judas would set Jesus free from the material realm.
The problems with the Apocryphal gospels is that they were late, sometimes centuries (plural) later than the NT writings. They were 2nd century documents or later. Although popular with the masses, church leaders condemned them. They usually contained docetic or Gnostic ideas about Jesus (the idea of separation of the material world from the spirit world).
The docetic idea was that Jesus only appeared to be human, but he really was only divine. One of the struggles of the 2nd Century church was not with the deity of Christ. That was assumed from the beginning. The humanity of Christ was what they wrestled with.
In the Acts of John, one text reads as follows:
“John says, ‘Sometimes when I meant to touch him [Jesus], I met with a material and solid body, but other times when I felt his substance immaterial and incorporeal as if it had not existed at all…. And I often wished as I walked with him, to see his footprint, whether it appeared on the ground (for I saw him as it were raised up from the earth), and I never saw it.”
This is not like the canonical Gospels. It is more like the Gospel of Peter that has Jesus coming out of the tomb, with his head above the clouds, with two angels walking besides him who are also hundreds of feet tall.
In the Acts of Paul, it reads as follows:
“Paul is facing down the gaping jaw of a large lion in the Ephesian amphitheater. Unshaken, Paul approached the beast, and he simply reminds the creature that he had baptized the lion (after the lion uttered his confession of faith, of course) sometime before! The lion then helps Paul to escape.”
When you read the Apocryphal gospels, you can see that they are embellished, even bizarre. When reading the New Testament, the stories are actually understated and matter-of-factual. When miracles are described, there is detail, but no embellishment with grandiose language. The canonical New Testament writings are not given to bizarre embellishments.
The canonical gospels and most of the rest of what we now have as the New Testament were accepted by the very early church. Twenty of the 27 books were accepted officially by the 2nd Century, and the other seven were accepted over time. The writings were accepted because of their apostolic connections, consistency with what Jesus taught and universal acceptance throughout the scattered church. All forgeries and wrongly attributed writings were rejected, even if they were orthodox with what Jesus taught. The ancient church’s criteria should guide the Church today.
*Dr. Wallace is the Senior Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He started the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, a non-profit, tax exempt, 501(c)(3) organization in 2002. The primary purpose of the organization is to preserve the NT documents by digitizing all handwritten manuscripts in existence. There are 2.6 million pages of 5838 known NT manuscripts. CSNTN has discovered 11 manuscripts that were previously not indexed anywhere,
As of November 2013, CSNTN had digitized over 400 manuscripts and 250,000 pages. The printed NT is based on handwritten manuscripts. If all of the printed text were completely wiped out, we could rely on the handwritten manuscripts to reproduce the NT.