Scott Kellum: What is the New Testament Canon (Part 3)?

[Editor’s Note: This post (originally appeared on Aug. 9, 2012) is part 3 of the series by L. Scott Kellum, Associate Professor of New Testament & Greek at Southeastern, on the New Testament canon. In this post he writes on the collection of the Four Gospels and their superiority to other “gospels.” He also includes some helpful resources for further reading. Check in next Monday for part 4.]

In Yesterday’s post, I presented the case for the apostolic origins of the Pauline letter collection. Today, I am going to discuss the collection of Gospels. Which is the second corpus that was affirmed as Scripture by the Church. While the Synoptic Gospels were in existence and recognized as Scripture roughly during Paul’s active life, I place the recognition of the Four as a group after Paul due to the late date of the Gospel of John. Today we will look at some of the literary evidence found in the writings that survive and at the empirical evidence found in the manuscripts.

In the same period that Paul’s letters were being written, an apostle and two of their close followers penned narratives that chronicled the words and deeds of Jesus. These began to circulate in the churches in the earliest period of the church. We have quite a few citations of these Gospels in the apostolic Fathers affirming their recognition.

Somewhere around AD 130, the Roman apologist Justin Martyr wrote of the Gospels being read in the churches alongside the prophets. The implication is that this was a standard practice for some time. That they were being read in worship with the prophets shows that they were Scripture on par with the OT. Irenaeus (c. AD 170) compared the four gospels to the four winds and referred to them as “fourformed.” Furthermore, in his critique of Marcion, Irenaeus noted that Heretics would either add to the number of Gospels (like Valentinius’ Gospel of Truth) or take away from the four (Marcion). We could bring more evidence to bear, but let’s summarize it this way: beginning in the early second-century there seems to be clearly set in the mind of the orthodox a four-Gospel canon.

What about the Gospels that didn’t make it? It is often stated that there were dozens and dozens. The truth is that in the second-century the number is about eight to twelve. Most of them were seeking to prop up false doctrine. A great many of the ones that we know validate the four canonical gospels in that they often build off what is revealed in them. For example certain Gnostic works build off the post-resurrection appearances recorded in the canonical Gospels to narrate Jesus delivering “secret knowledge” to initiated disciples. It is the knowledge of the canonical narratives that provide this setting. Some incorporate vast portions of our Gospels. Either way, they actually serve to validate the four. Thus, the literary evidence from both orthodox and heterodox sources affirms the four canonical Gospels rather early.

The manuscript evidence is equally impressive and point to the Church’s reception of the Four Gospels. The Four Gospel Codex (a single book containing these four) is undeniable. Furthermore, the evidence of a common ancestor is impressive. The titles of the Gospels are uniform: they show the same order (with a few exceptions) of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They ALL employ the abbreviation of the divine names (nomina sacra)and they are ALL codices. Someone gathered the four Gospels and published them as a canonical edition. Most Gospel manuscripts or fragments of a manuscript can easily be argued to be from this edition. The earliest Gospel fragments P90 and P52 (both of John, both dated to AD 125) show signs of the four-Gospel codex (nomina sacra and codex form). If so, this tells us that the Four Gospel codex existed before AD 125. Since these documents are from Egypt, we should assume a date well before AD 125. Not only is the collection early it is exclusive. These four Gospels are never found bound with a non-canonical Gospel.

So what is the significance? First, if what we are saying about the early date is true, then the Four Gospel Codex existed within sight of the production of the Gospel of John (AD 80 – 85). This might suggest a host of things about which we cannot be certain, but there is at least one that is quite intriguing. The Fourth Gospel marks the last opportunity to hear of Jesus from an apostle (or even the eyewitnesses of Jesus). I feel that this is linked to the production of the Four Gospel Codex in some way. It could very well be that with the last of the apostles gone, they felt it only natural to complete the set.

To combine the Four as an anthology is to sort LIKE works. So how are they alike? It is not that they were just biographies of Jesus. There were other gospels, after all. No, it is because these were the accepted or canonical Gospels. Their status pulls them together, not just their subject matter. We have only four recognized Gospels. Any other Gospel tells us far more about the people who produced them than they could about Jesus.


For further reading:

G. N. Stanton. The Gospels and Jesus, 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002.

G. N. Stanton, “The Fourfold Gospel,” New Testament Studies 43 (1997): 316–46.

L. Hurtado. The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

T. C. Skeat, “Irenaeus and the Four-Gospel Canon,” Novum Testamentum 34 (1992): 198–99.

C. H. Roberts and T. C. Skeat. The Birth of the Codex. London: British Academy, 1983.


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